Quick note on magic and the view of the past

Just a quick note to re-state and amplify something I have mentioned before on MOTO, and obliquely touched upon in the last post. Let’s start with David Lodge’s witty novel, Small World. In this novel set in and around academia, a young Irish PhD graduate is having a hard time getting his thesis concerning the influence of Shakespeare on the work of Eliot published. Getting drunk at a party he mistakenly switches the subjects around and declares his thesis actually concerns the influence of Eliot on Shakespeare. Suddenly he finds he has the attention of a well known publisher. Warming to his newly invented subject he declares:

We can’t avoid reading Shakespeare through the lens of T. S. Eliot’s poetry. I mean, who can read Hamlet today without thinking of ‘Prufrock’? Who can hear the speeches of Ferdinand in The Tempest without being reminded of ‘The Fire Sermon’ section of the Waste Land?

An interesting point. Similarly, we in the modern west simply cannot read and understand ancient cultures without the filter of our own culture, our own world view. The way ancient and pre-modern folk understood the world is very different to the way we understand it. It is therefore very, very easy to misunderstand the remains of ancient writings and cultures. We think they mean one thing, but we cannot know and must always be aware of our own influence.

We cannot easily escape our culture and the paradigm with live in, no matter how much we try. A clear example of this is Christianity. Even though its hold upon the intellectual and social world has lessened a lot in the last hundred years, the basics of Christianity are still infused within most people, even in secular cultures. My son has never attended church, never read Christian texts, yet he knows about God, Christ, Heaven, Hell etc. Jokes abound on popular TV shows and the internet that use this common knowledge and world view.

In the European past, when modern (i.e. post Medieval) magic developed Christianity was the filter through which all other religions and spiritual systems were viewed. It so infused the lives, language, outlook and social interactions of everyone from serf to Queen, they had little choice. So all the recently discovered texts and remnants of ancient ‘mysteries’ were viewed, consciously or unconsciously through a Christian based lens. And sometimes this was very conscious. Look at the origins of the Hermetic Qabalah, with Mirandola and others wanting to use it to prove the existence of the Trinity and supremacy of Christianity. Naughty boys. 🙂

Christianity is just one aspect of the modern cultural set we live in. Other common assumptions and aspects of our worldview abound. To understand, even intellectually, the difference between us and pre-modern, let alone ancient folk, we need a lot of careful thought. Drawing on suggestions from Gareth Knight in some of his books, I recommend careful reading of C.S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image as a starting point to ‘un-do’ our assumptions and read the past differently.

Now magicians and other modern spiritual folk generally show appalling lack of acumen in this regard, often overlaying current ideas and trends over ancient texts and artefacts. A good example of this is given in Pagan scholar Caroline Tully’s work on magical views of ancient Egypt ( from chapter 3, Ten Years of Triumph of the Moon). Discussing McGregor Mathers, co-founder of the Golden Dawn, and his work setting up ‘the Rites of Isis’ in Paris, Caroline writes:

It was this kind of not-quite-right approach to ancient Egyptian religion that characterised the Mathers’ reconstruction of the Egyptian Mysteries. Undoubtedly inspired by Herodotus’ application of the Greek term ‘mysteries’ to Egyptian religion (Histories. 2.171), Diodorus’ erroneous claim of an Egyptian origin for the Greek Mysteries of Eleusis when in fact it was the other way around (Lib. 1.29.2,4; Martin 1987: 78), Apuleius’ Metamorphoses (11.21–6), and Plutarch’s mention of Isis and Osiris initiations and mystic rites (De Iside. 2, 25, 28), the main problem with the Mathers’ attempt at creating this initiatory system was that there were no Egyptian Mysteries to begin with.

Well, this is kinda awkward considering the number of historical and modern groups and individuals who have lineage and past lives going back to these non-existent “Egyptian Mysteries”. There are plenty of people even here in Perth who are still, despite now centuries of accurate scholarship and literature, overlaying the mythic Egypt atop the historical Egypt. And in doing so they represent the ancient Egyptians having a distinctly modern and western mindset.

Egypt and its Gods are of course is very important to the Golden Dawn. Or are they? As Aaron Leitch correctly explained on Nick Farrell’s blog recently, “there are NO Egyptian Gods in the Golden Dawn.” Really there are only modern interpretations and adaptations of Graceo-Coptic Gods. And some of those adaptations were based on Mathers’ personal assumptions and mindset of what Egypt was. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. 🙂

Caroline goes on to explain some of where Mathers’ view of the mystery of Egypt originated:

While there certainly were Graeco-Roman mysteries of the Hellenised Isis, the idea that there were ancient Egyptian ‘mysteries’ originated with Greeks like Herodotus misunderstanding the Egyptian cult of Osiris at Abydos and interpreting it as ‘mysteric’ because it was carried out by specially consecrated priesthood, unlike the part-time priests of Greece (Burkert 1987: 39–40; Lefkowitz 1997: 93). While access to the inner recesses of the Egyptian temple was limited to the priesthood, festivals were open to the public, not restricted to groups of initiates (Morenz 1973: 89–90).

This Egyptian example is very appropriate, since Egypt has been and continues to be such a convenient foil for so much modern magical theory and interest. As Caroline  shows the idea of mystery teachings and schools has been back-dated to Egypt. So too has Qabalah, Tarot, Lodge work, UFOs, sex magic and many other things. I am not saying here we must follow blindly the historians and academics, just that we should try and be aware of how easy it is for us to accept and view things that are not there because our current set of knowledge and way of making sense of the world says it should be there.

Beats the pub? 🙂

Another, localised example is provided by Professor Ronald Hutton in his wonderful Triumph of the Moon. There was a perceived very old custom in some rural coastal towns of England, consisting of lightning a bonfire on or near the Winter Solstice with ‘Viking’ overtones and themes. Everyone local assumed it was a Pagan remnant from centuries ago, before the final Christianisation of England. However, some simple research revealed that the custom was started only in the late 19th century by the Temperance Union in an effort to attract men away from their bouts of Christmas drinking.

A mindset which included the concept of Pagan remnants and origins, a few pagan motifs and a nice burn up produced a ‘reality’ that had to be true. Bonfires with Viking stuff in the country at Solstice – just has to be Pagan. Right? Right. And obviously there were Egyptian Mysteries. Right?



  1. Arcad · May 17, 2012

    The thing is that in the lack of true and clear facts and traces a lot of our views on the past is build on assumptions whioch are based on assumptoins which are based on assumptions. And throughout the discourse or time, these assumptions become historical thruth without the underlaying facts having changed. I have experienced this in some books regarding “breathtaking revelations regarding historical events”. People then get very emotional about their view and understanding of these “facts” and will not accept any other view because there is no sign of proof for that other view. Of course how could it be? Just that often logic is left out of teh process. It is indeed the mystery around that ancient cults that is inspiring and lacking any other clear historical evidence you have to put together what is there and interpreat it with your modern mind. Often then the wish is the father of the thought – as we say, result oriented thinking. I am open to any view regarding the ancient “mysteries” but I am pretty convinced that so far no one really has the truth about how things really were back then. Otherwise, publish it and we will see….

  2. asariah · May 17, 2012

    An excellent post. In fact this scenario makes discussion of Initiated Kabbalah a waste of one’s breath due to the large amount of preconceived notions. Much of this stems from folks assigning Christian Theology to Judaic thought, and particularly biblical literalism, etc.

  3. kheph777 · May 18, 2012

    It is interesting that you post this now, just as I’m dealing with a similar issue in relation to the Solomonic grimoires. I often encounter “grimoire fundamentalists” who interpret the material via their own modern mindset. They say the grimoire “plainly says” X, Y or Z without stopping to think the author of the grimoire was writing in a different language than their own. Any suggestion to them that (for example) “visible appearance” meant something different to the grimoire author than it means to them is dismissed as “academic quibbling.”

    As a counter example, I bring up the Bible. Christian fundamitalists read in that text that one must “fear God.” In school, they learned the definition of “fear” is “to be afraid.” Thus, they believe they must cower down and “be afraid” of God. It is pointless, then, to try and convince them that the word “fear”, in more ancient times, actually meant “to stand in awe of.”

    As we can see, the mistake of applying our modern conceptions onto the writings of the ancients is rampant in every circle…

  4. Arthur Versluis wrote in his book “The Egyptian Mysteries” the following:
    “There can be little doubt that whatever traditional symbology and metaphysics
    remain in the West today can be traced back to ancient Egypt”.

    For his part, Walter Burkert writes at length about the Egyptian origins of important aspects of the Bacchic Mysteries in his book “Babylon, Memphis, Persepolis.” See especially the chapter title “Orpheus and Egypt”.

    The point is that scholars (surprise!) actually have a variety of differing opinions when it comes to “Egyptian Mysteries”.

  5. Pingback: Quick Note on Magic and the View of the Past « WiccanWeb

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