Living Enchantment

And yet, as I reflect upon these topics, I feel like conceiving of these engagements with the Unconscious-Dreaming-Spirit World from a theatrical or aesthetic perspective misses the mark. Art is the road, or a royal on-ramp. In treating enchantment and magic as “aesthetic” enterprises, I wonder how much that keeps that which is imagined or seen on the other side of the mirror within that “artistic” ontological status.

I believe that if you’re going to do a rite—let’s say the Headless Rite—you can mangle the pronunciation of the barbarous names/voces magicae however you wish, if you “own” the performance of the rite itself. If you act as if you’re saying it correctly and with the appropriate authority that the ritual demands, then you will have better results than if you pause and kinda correct yourself or pause, squint, and say a slew of Alexandrian Greek vowels in that voice Americans do overseas when they say “DO YOU SPEAK AMURICAN?” really loudly. If you act as if you are doing the rite as you intend, then you will get better results than if you do the rite like you recited lines from Shakespeare in high school when the teacher didn’t know what to do but make everyone take turns reading some scene aloud awkwardly and badly, let alone if you feel like you’re LARPing or play-acting.

Consider several of the various grimoires that include a parchment crown with divine names amongst the regalia. Sure, you’ve got a black-handled knife. Sure, you’ve got a hazel wand. But you’ve also got a parchment—basically paper—crown you’ve written on in ink “AGLAI AGLAI AGLAAT AGLAOTH ELOI ELIM ELOA BISMO ILON PANTOKRATOR[1],” some parchment on your chest with some more names and signs, parchment shoes, and so on. If you want to pull this off, then you require a certain bald audacity, ambition, and ability to suspend disbelief in yourself. You need to play-act, theatrically-act well-enough to act as if you’re being serious.

Basically, something like this. (via USMC)

However, I’m not talking about good acting skills, but those can probably help.

Theater sometimes seems like a declined form of ritual, as if theater is ritual mediated a step removed from its reality. I want to point to an interesting alternative to this idea, though. It is a historiographic commonplace that theater and drama emerged out of ritual practice. Theater studies Professor Eli Rozik contested this truism and argued that the theory that theater arises from ritual is especially popular in histories of the theater. Rozik notes that Oscar G. Brockett acknowledged that theater and ritual “were viewed as coexisting modes in which the same elements might be used for differing functions within the same society.” Rozik, though, moves to far more compelling territory. Rozik identifies his thesis as

that ritual is a mode of action and theatre a kind of medium. I assume that ritual practices and theatre are entities on different ontological levels. They are neither necessarily opposed nor mutually exclusive. Ritual is a mode of action and theatre a cultural medium. Whereas as a mode of action ritual reflects intentions and purposes, as a medium theatre is neutral with regard to intentions and purposes and can be employed for any kind of action, including ritual. Ritual is characterized by its performative aims and medim by the texts that it can generate….If the medium of theatre was indeed used in ancient ritual, it was subordinated to the intentions and purposes of ritual action.

He classifies theater as “a specific imagistic medium (i.e., a method of representation or, rather, an instrument of thinking and communication), and as such its roots lie in the spontaneous image-making faculty of the human psyche.”[2] That is, theater and theatricality are a technology; ritual is an application of that technology. Furthermore, ritual seeks to accomplish what most of us would probably consider “magical” results, or at least transformative (if social) ones.

Consider ancient Greek drama. I know that ancient Athenian drama has often been cited as emerging from older ritual cultus. The playwright Aeschylus is often seen as the most archaic and ritualistic of the Greek playwrights. Aeschylus himself came from Eleusis, and Aristotelian sources suggest people accused Aeschylus of “revealing the secrets of these Mysteries in his plays.”[3] In the Oresteia, all three surviving tragedies feature very ritualistic exchanges, from Cassandra and the Chorus in Agamemnon to Electra and Orestes’s exchange before the tomb of Agamemnon in The Libation Bearers to Athena’s charming of the Erinyes in Eumenides. However, the Eleusinian Mysteries are not the plays of Aeschylus, though they are certainly linked.

Despite the cynicism of religion and mysticism in the West—even among the magically operant and alternatively devotional or religious—to view the Eleusinian ritual mysteries as mere theater or as only a control mechanism betrays more of our own cultural baggage than anything else. The mysteries were enacted to cause specific results, and the participants likely performed those rites accepting the reality of what they were doing. They were not play-acting. They weren’t even “faking it until they made it.”

Similarly, ancient Egyptian pharaohs probably didn’t think of themselves as “actors” pretending to be the living embodiment of the divine celestial king on Earth: they en-acted that kingship by not just pretending/theatrically-acting but by living it. Divine kings in Babylon didn’t just go have sex at the top of a ziggurat with a “sacred whore” and pretend it was just “ritual theater”: the king became a divine king and mated with the earthly incarnation of the goddess.

That said, theater has long been distrusted because, as a technology, unauthorized persons can create rituals. Sometimes by accident. There is a long history of anti-theatricalism, typically arising from conservative political authority. In the English Renaissance, most of these critics, often Puritan , framed their arguments in moral terms. In the 1599 tract Th’overthrow of Stage-Playes, the authors argued that theater taught simple-minded audiences how to engage in the “hypocriticall faining of lyes,” amongst other bad behaviors.[4] These moral arguments typically concealed political motivations. The same critics pointed to how their Roman antecedents pushed for the destruction of the theater for how theater “gainsa[id]” and mocked official authority.[5] Protestant and especially Puritan England also associated theater with the Catholic Church—popery and Catholic ritual were so much theater designed to awe and confuse congregants—and with the diabolic.

I’ve pointed to much of this anxiety about theater’s magical and heretical potential before:

[Robert] Fludd imagined early modern theaters for his models [of memory theaters/palaces], & imagined a day & night theater that he projected onto the heavens, & astrological associations point to attempts to project these microcosmic “theaters” onto the macrocosmic reality. But these microcosms (worlds) could be shared, could be spread & reproduced inside other people’s microcosms. Or, perhaps, these stages (per Frances Yates’s reading of Fludd) were productions on the ‘cosmic stages,’ one of many. But, if contemplation could act much as spirit evocation could, then actual performance had to be something more. The theater stayed with you, & you could revisit scenes, insert yourself, immerse yourself—& all sorts of things could be “learned.” Now, you also probably had synchronicity—& thus weird shit. Take a look at the anecdotal history of “accidentally” summoning real devils in Doctor Faustus.

The mundane theater was already seen as an imitative space, and that worried the anti-theatricalists. Phillip Stubbes worried the theater let audiences learn how to be a “Hipocrit” and to “learn to rebel against Princes, [and] to commit treasons.”[1] Meanwhile, Stephen Gosson explicitly linked occultism and theater. Gosson framed the theater as “the table of Idolators,” and the theaters endued images, characters, persons with imaginal significance. Just like magicians do. The physical experience of the theater also let “the deuill” seduce the unwary, with “Poetrie…wonderfully tickl[ing] the hearers[’] eares.”[2] The devil also uses “the[ir] eye[s]” to seduce audiences with “the beautie of the…Stages,” while entertainments like “maskes, vaunting, [&]…daunsing of gigges” lure audiences to “vanetie of pleasure” and ultimately becoming “carnally minded.”[3]

Protestants already saw Catholic ritual in similarly destabilizing ways, and liturgy provided ways to “spread” Catholic, papist, “superstitious” & magical stuff to others, to the faithful. Protestant (and the early medieval Church’s) iconoclasm may emerge out of a response to ritual-theater-occult context (& active imagination). Theatrical complexity (vice, eroticism, etc.) (i.e., subversion) comes in here, as well. The Protestants try to counter with sola scriptura—the book & text themselves—& thus Ramus & Ramist memory techné as counter, in which you just rote memorize passages and lines—but ultimately text proves unstable, & books (grimoires) become problematic memory stores prone to a somewhat disembodied (compared to ritual and theater) destabilization.

And as Catholic liturgy & the more theatrical aspects of Anglicanism were pushed aside, theater provided a way to access those dramatic & ritual & aesthetic desires—and de-centered content from dominant or state-sanctioned religious content & experience.

Now, using theater-as-ritual—the “fake it until you make it” approach to magic—is a good way to get into practice and to begin developing a skillset and to entangle yourself with the imaginal. It’s a way to stop worrying about whether you’re saying the words from the Necronomicon correctly and to do it in a way that has you doing the work and doing it with seeming authority that hopefully becomes actual authority.

Theater has to become ritual if you want it to work right for enchantment. And ritual takes itself seriously. Ritual treats itself as fact. At least as being real.

A pharaoh is a man of a particular bloodline. A pharaoh is the son of the previous pharaoh. A pharaoh must shit and eat and piss. And die. A pharaoh is the living celestial god incarnate in this world. A pharaoh is responsible for the kingdom thriving and prospering. A pharaoh makes the kingdom prosper or makes the kingdom falter.

However, it’s easy to continue treating theater and ritual as representation, and many people have done so through history. After all, Protestantism deployed this line of reasoning against Catholicism. The Eucharist was “symbolic,” not “actual.” The words of the Mass had “ritual” (i.e., theatrical in this context) function, not actual function.

Meanwhile, we in the west live in our divorced signifier and signified, post-Cartesian divide reality. A sign and what it points to are always deferred—to look at a picture of Christ is always to only stare at a picture of Christ. You can never (rationally) get to Christ. Or Mephistopheles. Or kingship. A picture of a king is just a picture of a king.

The Queen is always just a frumpy old woman in a costume.

Except she’s not.


“Queen Elizabeth I of England in her coronation robes” (via Wikimedia Commons)


I’ve been very guilty of this myself. I’ve pointed to Machiavelli as exposing the theatricality of the political elite. And he does. But I’ve mistaken that theatricality as the result, or, more accurately, I’ve mistaken Queen Elizabeth I’s ontological status because of her theatricality as being the same as Richard Burbage’s ontological status as Prince Hamlet of Denmark. It’s tempting to read the very theatrical quality of Elizabeth’s procession into London for her coronation as mostly “public theater” and propaganda. And it is that. But it also engages with England’s mythology and mythic images in profound and profoundly intentional and ritualistic ways. And as I think about it now, I don’t see a young woman engaging in theater. I see a young woman using that technology to en-act a ritual that reminds me of Inanna claiming her divine regalia again as she emerges from the Underworld to become Queen of Heaven once more. And as much as maintaining political power requires you to play the game of thrones and be a Machiavellian prince, to use the magic of public opinion and spectacle to shape the minds and affections of your subjects and your enemies, princes cannot afford to think of themselves as actors. They have enchanted and murdered their way into becoming princes and divine children and more.

But for us jobbing magicians and witches, we cunning folk and mystics, especially in the twenty-first century, living as we do in a post-postmodern world, in a post-classic chaos magick world, I think we make the mistake of viewing it as “just theater” when theater is the toolset we use to fashion ritual. But those rituals have to be real. The images and currents we tap into have to be real and alive. You have to treat them, live them as if they’re real.

And unless you’re just engaged in disembodied mysticism and divine visions, those rituals also have to be tethered to the world, embodied, engaged, and entangled into your life in probably messy ways. It is one thing to be at home or in your backyard and do a circle and some praise-your-devotional-being-of-choice, and it’s another thing to do a ritual in your home—but we continue to bifurcate our lived lives in the world from our enchantments.

And there’s something terrifying about not doing that, I’ve found: to go from “This is how I want my life to be” to “This is how I’m living my life now.”

The Queen has centuries of Englishness behind her and centuries of mythical imagery behind her. Pharaohs and princes would execute mockers and naysayers. Through conniving and magic and poor ethics, they also typically have astronomically more resources than I for trying to get things to work. I lack these things.

I can manage a paper crown—actually, mine’s a white elastic crown, thank you. The Queen has actual fucking crowns.

But, but—do I act and proceed as if I’m wearing the fucking Crown of Stars or not? You can’t afford to just pretend you’re wearing a crown: you have to make it your crown, even if a metaphoric crown.

And what happens if you move from a life and practice that keeps these things as symbolic, as mere affirmations, to actual enchantments that are real? Or if you start treating the spirits and gods as real and not as “immaterial” or “astral” or “inner guides”?

Or go out into the forest and call up a spirit. Immerse yourself into that imaginal reality not as if it is real. Immerse yourself into that reality. It is real.

My point here is that your enchantments have to proceed as you choose to live them. Make and live them into reality.

If there are images or scenes in the spirit world—things you have dreamt or imagined—

—your ideal day ten years from now, beginning with you visualizing or immersing yourself into a visualization of waking up in your ideal bedroom next to your ideal partner and having your ideal breakfast and your ideal day—

—your desired dream vacation—

—a new home—

—you calling a particular spirit/demon/angel/god/being into manifestation before you—

—then the first thing to do is to at least speak and write those visions and imaginings down. I’ve pointed to Jung’s active imagination and the idea of betrachtenmaking images come alive through concentrated attention—but a similar process is involved in our enchantments. If you want to cause an enchanted result in your life, then you have to make the image of that result come alive.

(You do not accomplish this through concerted and earnest grunting and pushing really hard with your imagination, though.)

For a long while, I’ve had the experience of having flashes of or flashes of memories of things I’m doing in a reality near this one, in “other attentions” to use Castaneda’s parlance. Just last night, I was meditating lightly and my mind wandered into a scene where I was standing with a burly, stout, dark-skinned man near a fire. I had focused dreamings about me doing some kind of witchy magic with others along a road running through a forest as my witchy neighbors and I came together to do something. It is tempting to treat these as just hypnogogic states or as just dreams—I was very tempted to do so with the forest road dream—but if I do so, then they will collapse under the weight of my banal little quotidian “it’s just a dream.”

But what if I go out into a forest, in the middle of nowhere, to a place where I’m confident enough to expect to be undisturbed by casual passerbys, and I build a fire and call for that man to show up?

What if I actually mention my dream of the road and witching in the woods to the person I think I saw there, and she actually says, “Wait a minute…that seems very familiar”?

(It makes me wonder why so many conjurings enjoin the magician to go into the wilderness away from strangers to call for spirits. It’s probably because you’ll be less likely to worry about being noticed by the “normals” and can engage with the reality of a fucking spirit coming and doing weird shit with you.)

Aleister Crowley very famously bought himself oysters and champagne for lunch as part of an enchantment for money—it apparently worked for him—but his action points to what I’m getting at here. He acted and lived as if his image—getting his funds—was real or actual. And his magic was good enough to do so.[6]

In my thinking at the moment, it seems to me that Crowley was doing his utmost to entangle his lived experience with the desired image of his life he had imagined and enchanted for. (It helps that he was also waiting for wired funds to arrive and hoping they arrived within a reasonable amount of time and…well, probabilities were in his favor. But he was also nudging those probabilities further towards 1:1.)

Anyway, if you want to bring those moments and things from the Otherworld, from your dreaming, closer to your lived experience in this reality, then you have to find ways to entangle those realities here. You have to find ways to bring them into this reality. And that can include arranging scenes and images and moments in this reality that mirror what happens on the other side of the mirror.

I feel I should qualify how I compare magicians and witches and our crafts to the enchantments of princes. They are children of Jupiter in very real ways—or they have become such through Martial and Jovian means, sometimes Venusian and others—and most of us are not, but we can manage to be Mercury’s Trickster children, though. If you want to be a billionaire prince (and what’s a billionaire in this age if not a kind of Machiavellian prince?), then you have to be willing to live and act in the ways a billionaire prince would.

That doesn’t interest me so much as finding my way to living as I want to live. But to do so, I have to manage to step beyond the life I know and into the life I want. I have had several Sibyl synchs of late—but on reflection, I wonder if I haven’t had “ritual bleed”[7] going back as far as the night where I first decided I wanted to be magic, to live a magical life, way back in 1993. Through my experiences and working to entangle with the spirit world, I recently had the sense that I needed to go out into the woods and do a version of the Sibyl conjuration—I have a hazel wand I got a while back mostly for this possible purpose. And I realized the other day that I knew where I could do this ritual. And I found myself both excited about this prospect but also dreading it—feeling a curious pushback from myself, from the world. It was as if probabilities were collapsing down to a moment of choice and action.

And I realized that stepping into the unknown is something I have to deal with about a great many other things, too. We all do.

But, our magic, our enchantments have to be fulfilled into this “physical” reality. Those things we imagine, we have to do something to anchor them into this world. Write them down—there’s a reason dream journals are a thing. Don’t treat your statues of your gods or spirit allies as statues—treat them as the real deal. Or try to. If you have ways you want to imagine yourself—stronger, braver, prettier, smarter, etc.—find ways to express that, en-act that into your life. Do the work in your everyday life that helps you become that person. You can’t treat it as “symbolic” or representational or “just” an image—the theater is tech you use to make the ritual happen. But the ritual has to be real.

Or else you’re just playing pretend. Or worse, LARPing.

Featured Image: kellepics | Pixabay

[1] Well, from the Hygromanteia, at least.

[2] Eli Rozik, The Roots of Theatre: Rethinking Ritual and Other Theories of Origin (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2002), ix-xi. Rozik also seems to adopt a model akin to Tim Ingold “lines” model, for Rozik argue he focuses on “a theory of roots, based on the existential sources of theatre…not to discover…the exact historical point of creation of theatre but, rather, to reveal the necessary psychocultural conditions for its inception” (x).

[3] Ian C. Storey and Arlene Allan, A Guide to Ancient Greek Drama, 2nd edition (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014), 94.

[4] John Rainoldes, William Gager, and Alberico Gentili, Th’overthrow of Stage-Playes (New York: Garland, 1974), 111-3.

[5] Rainoldes, Gager, and Gentili, 20.

[6] I have read this account, but for the life of me, I cannot find where I originally read it. But Gordon White assures me I didn’t just imagine it myself.

[7] Hat tip to Gordon White, who points to Josephine McCarthy’s Magic of the North Gate: “The initial action of focused intent is always the starting point, rather than the beginning of the ritual/visionary work.” See Josephine McCarthy, Magic of the North Gate, Kindle edition ([n.p.]: Mandrake, 2013), location 191-2.

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