Imaginal Materials, Ritual Dramaturgy

I recently read Alexander Cummins’s new A Book of the Magi from Revelore, but this isn’t a review of that book. However, I was reading it as I was also pondering Jeffrey Kripal’s work, Paul Weston’s work, and I have a head full of witchy, imaginal, otherworldly stuff otherwise. Anyway, as I’m reading Cummins with the rest of this in the back of my head, I come across his section of the book where he samples several grimoiric and other magical practices, rituals, and so on that involve the Kings, and Cummins offers a quick synopsis and analysis of the rituals’ structures.

In a way, this examination, this unpacking of ritual structure is something lots of folks have done, and it’s something I’ve done in the past. On the one hand, it’s a kind of ritual “dramaturgy,” which is a fancy word referring to the art surrounding theater. I think most folks constrain their use of the term to a kind of theory for writing drama, but it can also entail opening the contexts of a work so the actors, director, and, ultimately, the audience can better appreciate just what the hell they’re doing. I’ve known dramaturges provide guidance on Shakespeare adaptations—for example, whether it’s reasonable to treat a line as a joke or to help the cast access the meaning of the language so they can emote appropriately. I’ve known dramaturges provide guidance for a play about pretentious New York artists, providing context about Minimalism as an artistic movement—doing the research legwork to help cast and crew make sense of the movement and the cultural conversations surrounding it.

And Cummins does something similar in breaking down the rites and charms he includes in A Book of the Magi, providing some basic structural analysis—for example, the rite begins with this, then it does this, it uses this as its underlying logic—as well as providing access for the cultural contexts probably opaque to many folks in the West now.[1] There are two immediate reasons to provide this kind of analysis:

Firstly, for those willing to attempt the rite in its original form, it can make the logic and structure of the rite more clear. Although many rituals can and do work even if your performance is less than Oscar worthy, being able to dive into the ritual with appropriate fervor should only help.

Secondly, for those unwilling to do the rite in the original form for whatever reasons—because of ethical reasons, for lack of resources, etc.—then such analysis can help one attempt workarounds or adaptations. If you know the logic and ritual language of the original, then you can attempt to adapt it for your circumstances and aims.

Adaptation is fundamental to drama and ritual. Consider a Shakespeare play, like Hamlet. Every theater company has to make decisions about how to adapt the play—

—which text (there are three early versions, various critical editions, various theatrical editions of the script/play text) and with what cuts or substitutions—do you emphasize the count-ry matters pun or not—how do you do the Ghost—does Gertrude knowingly drink the poison cup or not (see how she dies in the Zeffirelli, Branagh, Doran, and Olivier adaptations)—how do you stage Ophelia being “crazy”—how do you cast the parts—period adaptation or some other culture or time period—costuming—set design—props—what skull do you use for Yorick—is Hamlet closer to 18 or closer to 30—how overtly seedy is Claudius—what kind of stage do you use—indoor or outdoor—what season and time of day—how goofy is Polonius—what accents do the actors use—

Quite literally, every performance run will be a unique adaptation, and so will each individual performance. Many will be “close enough” to each other. Many will be recognizably Hamlet. Others less so. How Hamlet-like does the performance have to be to still be Hamlet?

No, seriously, think about that question.

Most folks will try to make some appeal to the text as an ultimate authority, but the text is a script. It’s a theatrical script meant to be performed. It’s both an ideal—the ideal shape of the play in many ways—but it’s also always a potential play, a potential performance. And, really, the act of “just” reading the script—I favor the Arden Third Series edition of Hamlet myself—probably results in you staging an imaginal performance, an enchanted performance in your imagination. You people a set and setting with players who will enact the action in your mind’s theater. But the text is an edited thing, and trust me, even the earliest Shakespeare source texts have complicated histories. The version of Hamlet you’ve probably read in school was assembled and framed by some professor and represents that professor’s argument for how Hamlet should be. And even going back to the seventeenth century, you run into Bad Quartos, pirated texts, half-remembered reconstructions from audience memories, and more.

With other works, many folks will point to the author as some kind of authority, but, especially for performative works, adaptation is still the reality. And there’s something to consider for especially enchanted or enchantable works: what’s more important—Hamlet or what Shakespeare might say about the play? Or, Middle Earth, or what Tolkien had to say about Middle Earth?

I suspect most people would appreciate the authorial role in getting the work to us, but we kinda want them out of the way so we can dive in the work.

Now, every ritual script is an ideal and potential ritual performance. Every ritual performance will be different. The purely “mechanistic” arguments surrounding some rituals cannot get around this. Every ritualist will be different. Every person performing it will perform it in a different space. The timing will always be different.

A Friday evening performance of Hamlet will feel different, will be different, than a Sunday matinee performance. Similarly, a fourth lunar day Solomonic conjuration while the moon is in Leo will be different than a fourth lunar day working with the moon in Aquarius. Astrological timing necessitates that every ritual will be different. How the ritual accoutrements are designed, crafted, used—how the words are spoken—will change the ritual and represents the worker’s adaptation of that ritual.

Consider The Book of Oberon. We have a fair idea of what the period’s English sounded like.

Should you conjure up Birto using a Tudor era London accent? Does Received Pronunciation work the same? What about a Texas twang?

Just like we can ask at what point Hamlet stops being Hamlet, we can ask at what point does an experiment to conjure the treasure spirit Birto stop being such an experiment and become something else.

It occurs to me that one way to consider the question is to acknowledge that drama and ritual do stuff. We can provide the conditions through which, say, Hamlet happens. And we can say that Hamlet Hamlets. Hamlet-as-a-verb. Depending on our adaptation, we can consider what changes would make our performance stop Hamleting.

Of course, what Hamlet does is a question that many students and scholars have argued about, and every adaptation of Hamlet represents a particular answer to that question. In comparison, a charm “For Epilepsy” has a pretty clear purpose—it does a particular thing (or not). Magicians and workers can adapt the charm as they need to, and if it still does what it’s supposed to do, then the adaptation works. Otherwise, the magician should try something else. Similarly, if your Birto ritual doesn’t Birto, then you have to ask yourself at what point your adaptation ceased doing what you wanted it to do.

Now, some rites read as if the magician is trying to throw the whole magical kitchen sink at the problem, hoping something in there will stick—will wind up letting the spell do what it needs to do. Cummins points to one conjuration from Oberon for treasure hunting that conjures the spirit guarding the treasure

by the power and belief of the three kings that offered to Christ Jesus…by that which they offered and by the names, and by the sound of the names…and by all good and faithful men and women and by all their beliefs…by all the kings of the air, and of the earth and water and fire, and air of hell…I conjure and bind you all spirits and elves and men, beast and all dogs that none of you do away or let us [come to harm]…I charge you by the blessed Trinity…[2]

And, presumably, if the conjuration works—if it successfully conjures—then we might ask which of any of those powers was responsible, or was it all of them? Was it the mood and ambience—the set and setting—that happened when you did it, with those powers and against those potential guardians? And if you changed the conjuration—if you replaced the blessed Trinity with “the Goddess,” for example—well, is it even the same conjuration?

Would the treasure spirit respond the same way?

If your adaptation works, then fine. And what worked for a group of British treasure hunters in Britain might need adaptation for others.

Now, there’s also the question of where do these rites come from in the first place. We could also ask where, say, Hamlet came from, especially since what we know as Hamlet today is a shifting constellation of different versions, and the more adaptations of Hamlet you see, well, you keep adding to your constellated Hamlet. Most of them are very similar, but they do vary—just like the various Solomonic conjurations do. And we can talk textual transmission and source texts, and so on and so on, for the grimoires and for Shakespeare and for anything else.

But consider this working for a “Garter in Order to Travel without Tiring Oneself”:

Leave your house whilst fasting, walk on the left-hand side until you have found a merchant of ribbons. Buy an ell of white ribbon. Pay what is asked of you and leave a farthing behind in the shop and return home by the same path. The next day, do the same until you have found a merchant of feathers. Buy a quantity of them, in the same manner as you bought the ribbon. And when you are back in your dwelling, with your own blood, write the characters […] on the ribbon for the right garter….When this has been done, leave the house. On the third day, wear your ribbon and your feather, walk on the left-hand side until you find a confectioner or a baker. Buy a cake or two farthing loaf of bread. Go to the first tavern and ask for a quarter of a pint of wine, have the glass rinsed three times by the same person…[3]

I think a reasonable person might ask, where the hell did this person find/discover or even make this ritual? Such a ritual isn’t particularly unique in terms of requiring very idiosyncratic procedures. Assuming the process worked for at least one person, then I can imagine a few options that aren’t mutually non-exclusive:

  1. The worker had some existing version or tradition for similar workings—but then I’d wonder where that came from.
  2. The worker trusted their intuition and intuited out the process. I can imagine a process of, “How should or could such things be made? What do I imagine the process would look like?”
  3. The worker was shown/saw the process—in a vision, in a dream, or through spirit contact.

B and C make the most sense to me, and I would note that all three align well with many models of how folks make art in the first place. I mean, I’ve wound up having something similar. I was shown how to conjure the Devil with some chalk and particular offerings. I was given a specific name, too. The Garter ritual includes ritual offerings to Irly, Terly, and Firly who apparently reside under the tables at the tavern.

In a similar manner, Hamlet comes out of the older Danish legend about Prince Amleth, run through an early modern cultural filter and with Shakespeare deciding Hamlet needs to be skeptical of where his information comes from, and so on. Shakespeare imagined Hamlet into existence (and Hamlet also probably used Shakespeare to enter the world)—so, too, did a fellow imagine the Garter ritual into existence even as Irly, Terly, and Firly and the Garter and the Magi involved and more brought that ritual into the world

Now, were I to adapt this working, I’d have to decide if I want to keep walking left from my residential neighborhood until I can get to a ribbon merchant and leave a farthing behind in the shop. Does it have to be a farthing (not minted since 1956 in the UK), or can I use an American penny? Can I treat the whole penny as a tip? Is it the leaving a little extra at the shop that matters? Can I put it in the penny jar on the counter? Can I adapt the logic to twenty-first century urban realities and what I might take “to Travel without Tiring Oneself” to mean? Jet lag? Walking around for hours at a conference or around a city? Hiking? Biking? Road trip? Can I use the original rite as an outline and try to adapt my own version of it to do something analogous—sort of like using Romeo & Juliet to make West Side Story?

In talking about all of this, my point isn’t to argue that you shouldn’t perform an existing rite the way it’s written—but if performing it that way isn’t an option, then I think it’s helpful to think with what a ritual script actually is—a script.

But a work of art, theatrical or magical, has its own ontological reality—can perhaps even count as a person. Heidegger and Adorno point to the idea that a work of art’s physical components represent instruments allowing us access to the art itself. A painting is a physical instrument that allows us access to the art. We can use the painting to enter the art, to experience it, and to return.

We do this all the time. A book is the instrument that allows us to access, to enter the world of the art of the book—the book The Fellowship of the Ring is the instrument through which we enter the art/narrative/setting/etc. of Middle Earth (specifically Middle Earth-as-Fellowship). We go in and can come back out, and then memory allows us to journey back and explore, to do more with Middle Earth.

With drama, the script, the stage, props, actors, and so on are the instruments that allow audiences to enter/access, say, Hamlet. And we can go back to Elsinore if we want to in our memories and imaginations. We can even perform Hamlet ourselves, if we wanted to. We can change our lives, our minds, and more in and through Middle Earth or Shakespeare’s Denmark.

How is any of that substantively different from what happens when you take a ritual and adapt it? The ritual works to create or to grant us entry or access to the world-of-the-ritual (maybe the world-with-the-ritual), whether it be the reality where you and a spirit come to an arrangement so you can pay the rent or so you can inhabit a reality where this garter lets you travel without tiring. And although we might usually argue that Shakespeare created Hamlet and the reality of Hamlet, where did he find it? How did he create it? To what degree was Hamlet waiting for him or even guiding him, moving him to arrange the instruments (the script, etc.) in a way that could allow access to Hamlet and his Denmark and more?

Featured Image: SuperHerftigGeneral | Pixabay

[1] Cummins is a history nerd where I am a Shakespeare nerd, but we both seem to have a healthy arty and magic nerdery.

[2] Qtd. In Alexander Cummins, A Book of the Magi: Lore, Prayers, & Spellcraft of the Three Holy Kings (Seattle: Revelore, 2018), 81.

[3] Qtd. In Cummins, 69.

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