Ritual Magic in Theory & Practice


Several years ago I decided to do an evening-long introduction to ritual magic at the New York Open Center, one of the city’s best-known gathering places for mind, body, and spirit activities. Soon before it was about to start I told myself, with some surprise, “My God! I’m about to do ritual magic with a bunch of people who have walked in off the streets of New York!”

Despite my apprehensions, the evening went off well. Power was raised, channelled in a certain direction, and then the ritual was closed. The only negative result was a comment I got back on a feedback sheet from a participant, who said she was shocked that I did not begin the ritual by invoking the holy archangels of the four directions (usually given as Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and Uriel).

The person who complained was both right and wrong. In ritual magic, it is essential to create a sacred space to work in. But it is not essential to do this by invoking the four archangels specifically. In fact there are many ways to do it. Invoking the archangels is part of the Western tradition of high magic, particularly as handed down by the extremely influential Victorian occult society known as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Here is another, quite different way to create a sacred space, from the Native American medicine man Rolling Thunder (known as “RT” to his friends), as described by one of his students:

We started a fire in the fire pit and formed a circle around it, warming ourselves in the chilly weather. RT pulled out a pouch of Five Brothers Tobacco, pure tobacco with no artificial ingredients. He passed the pouch around, each of us taking a little bit of tobacco in our hands. RT then led us in a prayer, starting out with Father Sun, Mother Earth, Grandmother Moon, and All Our Relations. He would include “the East where the Sun rises, to the South where the heat comes from, to the North where the cold comes from, and to the West where the sun sets.” RT would vary the order and the wording from time to time, just to maintain our attention.1

This is somewhat simpler than a lengthy invocation and visualisation of archangels. The version I used in the ritual in New York was simpler still; at the outset I simply asked the participants to visualise a pillar of light in each corner of the room.

This anecdote illustrates two basic concepts of ritual magic: (1) it is important to create a sacred space in which to work; and (2) there are many methods for accomplishing the same purpose. While many people associate the word “ritual” with something rigid and formalised, ritual magic, practiced at its best, is neither. Rather it’s a flexible system, with enough structure to give form to one’s intention, and with enough pliability to give the practitioner a great deal of leeway in actual practice.

In my brief description of the New York ritual, I mentioned another important part about ritual magic – raising power. No one knows what power is (used in this sense), and at the same time everyone knows what it is. We cannot say whether it is a form of electromagnetic energy, the life force known as chi, or something quite different from either of these. But all of us have experienced its effects, and, moreover, all of us have raised it ourselves, usually without knowing what we are doing.

Remember the last time you entered a room in which an argument was about to break out. Although probably nothing was different about the air or the lighting or any of the physical aspects of the room, you undoubtedly noticed a feeling of tension and perhaps danger in the atmosphere. This tension becomes even more palpable if the room is silent, and the pressure that you feel to dispel it becomes extremely intense. One way of dispelling it is to express it somehow, and if the tension is not too strong, it can be broken when someone simply speaks. At other times, it erupts in an argument or even a physical fight.

Another example is the classic situation of the teenage dance. At the outset the boys are ranged at one end of the hall, the girls at the other. Everybody is too shy to begin dancing, and again an extreme amount of tension accumulates in the room. Finally one courageous couple breaks the tension and begins to dance. The energy starts to flow. It is expressed through dancing (and perhaps later on, sexually).

Most of the time this raising of power is completely unintentional and undesired. Its presence causes a great deal of discomfort, and depending upon an individual’s personality type, he may try to get rid of it by giving in, arguing, or simply leaving. The magician, by contrast, wants to raise this power. But he (or she) chooses to do it only in certain circumstances and for specific results.

The raising of power partially explains another feature we have seen in ritual magic – the creation of a sacred space of some kind. It can be done, as we have seen, by marking out the four directions; traditional magicians have also done it by drawing a geometric figure, such as a circle or a pentagram, with the point of a wand or a sword in the space around them. The actual shape does not matter as much as building an invisible sanctuary where certain forces are kept in and stray influences are kept out.

I’ve said that the magician raises power for specific intention, and in this context it’s important to note that power in this sense, like the Force in the Star Wars films, is morally neutral. It can be used for good or evil or for that matter mixed ends. Using it for good purposes – such as healing or blessing or cleansing – is known as white magic. Using it for harmful purposes, such as cursing or coercion, is black magic. These terms are well-known; a less familiar one is grey magic, which is done for mixed motives. In all likelihood few magicians probably practice grey magic intentionally, although most have probably done so without entirely realising it. I personally would characterise doing a magical ritual to find a lover as grey magic; doing a ritual to make a specific person fall in love with you would be closer to black magic, since it intentionally interferes with the free will of another person.

All these reflections lead to some questions: Does ritual magic work? If so, how? And since practicing magic for selfish ends is at best morally ambiguous, why do it at all?

The Astral Light

To look at how magic works, it’s helpful to understand a concept that has fallen into disuse in recent years but still occupies a central place in Western magic: the astral light. Esoteric texts from the Renaissance and early modern era often refer to it as the anima mundi, or “the soul of the world.”

“God is light,” the Bible tells us (1 John 1:5). Esotericism regards this image as a specific and accurate picture of reality. This light pervades the universe; there is nowhere and nothing it is not, but it is modified, its purity and intensity are filtered and diluted, as it proceeds through various levels of manifestation. Esoteric theory holds that this light reaches us on earth only after passing through the zones of the stars and planets, whose influences it absorbs; hence its name.

Astral light must not be confused with physical starlight. It is a subtle matter, imperceptible to the five senses and to the implements of science. “It is the common mirror of all thoughts and forms,” writes the nineteenth-century French magus Éliphas Lévi, “the images of all that has been are preserved therein and sketches of things to come, for which reason it is the instrument of thaumaturgy and divination.”2

To form a more or less accurate picture of this light, one need only ask, what is the substance of a thought? Neurochemical responses, a scientist may say. While that may be true up to a point, we don’t experience these images as neurochemical events; we experience them subjectively as images and forms. In this latter form, they can be said to be made up of astral light.

A more topical analogy comes from the world of computers. Hardware, software, and networks together form cyberspace, a dimension that, while in no way separate from the workings of computers, seems to obey its own laws and possess its own reality. This resemblance between the apparently outmoded world of the occult and the sophisticated ideas of cutting-edge science has not gone unnoticed: Silicon Valley is a hotbed of interest in the esoteric, and computer aficionados sometimes speak of cyberspace as a kind of bardo – a term used in The Tibetan Book of the Dead to designate the astral plane.

The fine matter of the astral light is also believed to form the subtle or “astral body” of humans, giving literal force to the words of Shakespeare’s Prospero: we are indeed “such stuff as dreams are made on.” Shakespeare probably meant these words metaphorically; he was saying that we are frail, transitory, ephemeral. But then so are dreams and mental images.

This is not to say that the astral light is itself a frail substance; occultists consider it indestructible. But this subtle matter does not hold shapes well. Dream figures constantly shift form, and even before our waking eyes mental images rise and fall like waves. For this reason some esoteric teachings figuratively refer to this substance as “water.” Under most circumstances, practically none of the thoughts or images formed in this “water” ever come into physical manifestation; there is not enough force behind them to make that happen. Hence, the central aspects of occult magic has to do with forming, holding, and energising a shape composed of astral light. If enough power and skill are used in its creation, the image will sooner or later manifest in the physical world.

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In theory the process sounds simple enough, and in a way it is, but it is not so easy to accomplish. To begin with, in order to manifest in the physical world, an image must have a steady, consistent form in the mind’s eye. In practice, however, few things are more difficult to achieve, since it is notoriously hard to hold an image in one’s mind for all but the briefest time. This may be partly due to a lack of mental discipline, but it also reflects the nature of the astral light itself. It is fluid and slippery; trying to hold it is like trying to grab water with one’s bare hands. Much of magical practice consists of moulding this elusive substance. Hence magical training emphasises, above all else, mental concentration and will.

Look at some object near you. Now close your eyes and try to visualise it. Then open your eyes again, and compare your mental picture of the object with the object itself.

If you’re like most people, you’ll find some discrepancy between the object and your picture of it. You may find that you were able to imagine some parts of it better than others, or that you could imagine it as seen from one angle but not from another. You’ll probably find not only that it’s hard to keep your mind on the same picture, but that it’s difficult to create an entirely accurate image even of an everyday object right in front of you.

One part of magical training is intended to hone the skill of visualisation. The magician may begin by taking extremely simple objects or forms – geometric shapes, for example, like triangles and circles – and attempting to visualise them. Later on, the aspirant may be able to proceed to more complicated things like three-dimensional objects. A piece of fruit, an orange, for example, is a good thing to use, since one can imagine not only its appearance, but also its taste, smell, and texture.

Visualisation and imagination form only one aspect of the discipline. The second and equally important part is the conditioning of the will. The mind is not likely to enjoy concentrated imagination at first; it will probably rebel and drift on to its ordinary worries and fantasies. The only way to train it is to constantly bring it back to the object.

Such work is often tedious, and the beginner may be able to practice for only a few minutes a day before concentration gives out. Gradually, however, these practices will achieve their end. The act of constantly bringing the mind back to the object, despite boredom or frustration, begins to form a small core around which the will can constellate. And the will is the magician’s principal tool.

So far this procedure resembles the “creative visualisation” described in many books. Creative visualisation, however, generally doesn’t go past this point. Nothing more may be needed: sometimes the greatest hurdle lies in simply formulating a clear goal. But often the enterprise requires some sacrifice: an additional investment of vital energy to literally give life to the desired image.

This brings us back to the need to raise power. For a process of ritual magic to be complete, it must have a clear and specific form in the mind of the practitioner – and enough power must be directed toward it to ensure it manifests.

This does not always happen. To cite another personal experience, about fifteen years ago I was on a retreat with a group holed up in a country house in Derbyshire, England, learning to practice magical techniques. One of the chief things taught was raising power, which was done by having the group (of about a dozen people) channel mental energy in a certain direction. Throughout most of the retreat this power was directed to an actual sink – a drain in the floor of one of the utility rooms. The reason for doing this was quite clear. We were learning to raise power, but this power could not be allowed to float around in the atmosphere. It would create enormous tension (and there was tension enough anyway); given enough momentum, it would start to cause mayhem. So for training purposes the power was directed to the ground – it was literally “earthed.”

Such was the practice for most of the retreat, but toward the end each of us was allowed to raise power and direct it toward whatever we wished. We all took turns: we sat in a room on our own while the other members of the group directed power toward us. When it came to be my turn, I decided to channel this power toward realising a particular project I had in mind at the time.

But it was no good. I could not focus the power in the direction I wanted; it felt as if it kept slipping and sliding away from me. I tried to recoup my efforts more than once, but soon the time was up. The whole experience had the depressing quality of a premature ejaculation.

Where did the failure lie? I certainly felt power being sent in my direction; that was not the problem. And the project I was developing was clear enough in purpose and intent. Rather the failure came from my own will. Although I did my best to work with the power through the exercise, there was some level at which I was not interested enough in this project to make it manifest.

It was, as a matter of fact, a book project, and it came as no surprise to me a few weeks later when I learned that all the publishers to whom my agent had submitted the project rejected it. None of this was especially tragic; all writers have projects that they come up with and never manage to materialise; in fact, these generally far outnumber the successful ones. But the whole experience taught me something about the nature of will.

Will, as I’ve said, is a chief characteristic of the ritual magician, and from my experience, I would say that the will is in many ways as subtle and elusive as the astral light itself. Where exactly is my will? In my superficial wishes and desires? In my gut? In the deep and inaccessible reaches of my heart? I would say that for the will to be truly effective, it must lie in, and encompass, all these parts of one’s being; if one is conflicted or ambivalent, the results will be nil.

All this helps to answer a question that was posed earlier: Does ritual magic work? It does work, but it is a subtle and difficult process that requires a great deal of training and mastery – and especially self-knowledge – in order to succeed.

The Importance of Ritual

Ritual magic, as practiced in the West, is an elaborate and somewhat cumbersome discipline. Fully devoted practitioners devote an enormous amount of effort to making and obtaining robes, wands, swords, cups, talismans, incense, and other appurtenances of the magician’s craft. Are these necessary? They are – nearly every ritual of any kind requires some kind of paraphernalia – but the complexity and elaborateness of these things can vary greatly. Purists among magicians tend to say that tools that the practitioner makes himself, from scratch, are the ones that have most power. And from what we’ve already seen in this article, we can understand why. Power follows attention. And something that has had a great deal of effort and attention directed toward it, even if it is crudely executed, is likely to have more power than a more polished object that has been manufactured.

Is ritual necessary in order to make one’s will manifest? After all, if it’s simply a matter of raising power and focusing it on an image, what need is there for a ritual at all? Can’t it be done by thought power alone?

In fact, it can; and that is the theory behind creative visualisation and what some portions of the New Age world call “manifesting.” In these techniques it’s enough to work exclusively through thought power – if the will is strong enough. These practices differ from prayer in that they don’t necessarily invoke the favour of God or a god in order to operate; rather it is a matter of simply using certain universal (though little-known) occult laws. They differ from ritual magic in that no physical operation is necessary.

Given all this, the reason for practicing ritual magic is twofold: in the first place, ritual magicians are drawn to this kind of activity. For them the more inward and sedentary acts of prayer and meditation may seem a little bloodless. There is a certain satisfaction to be gained from making and wielding magical implements in a way that’s perhaps not very different from the reasons people sometimes prefer to build their own bookcases or brew their own beer. This may seem fairly obvious, but it is not trivial. There is a part of the mind that will not take anything seriously that it cannot see or touch, and ritual magic is meant to address – and involve – this part of the mind.

The second reason is both grander and more abstract. Man, it is said, is a bridge between worlds. He is the only creature that we know of who is capable both of extending his mind to sublime and mystical levels of experience and of doing and acting in physical reality. Some esoteric teachings would go so far as to say that this is our function as human beings, and that many of our sufferings and discontents occur because we have forgotten it. In light of this idea, we can see how ritual magic can be valuable and effective in its own right, quite apart from whatever apparent results it might achieve. It enables the magician to serve as a conduit between the higher and lower worlds, and to assist in the work of unifying them.

There is a great deal about ritual magic that I haven’t been able to discuss in an article of this length – divination, for example, which in its many forms attempts to take a kind of reading of the patterns in the astral light in order to find out what is likely to happen in the physical world. (The Tarot and the I Ching are two common methods used by magicians today to do this.) Nor have I been able to explore the issue of raising and interacting with spirits – invisible entities that, under the right circumstances, can communicate with us and can also have an effect in the physical world. These are large and important subjects in their own right, and serve to indicate that ritual magic, practiced in the West for centuries, retains its fascination and its power.

This article was published in New Dawn Special Issue Vol 7 No 2.
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  1. Sidian Morning Star Jones and Stanley Krippner, Ph.D., The Voice of Rolling Thunder: A Medicine Man’s Wisdom for Walking the Red Road, Bear & Co., 2012, 6.
  2. Éliphas Lévi, Transcendental Magic: Its Doctrine and Ritual, trans. A.E. Waite, 1896; repr., Bracken Books, 1995, 15.

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About the Author

RICHARD SMOLEY is the author of Inner Christianity: A Guide to the Esoteric Tradition; The Dice Game of Shiva: How Consciousness Creates the Universe; Conscious Love: Insights from Mystical Christianity; The Essential Nostradamus; Forbidden Faith: The Secret History of Gnosticism; Supernatural: Writings on an Unknown History; The Deal: A Guide to Radical and Complete Forgiveness; How God Became God: What Scholars Are Really Saying about God and the Bible; and Hidden Wisdom: A Guide to the Western Inner Traditions (with Jay Kinney). A frequent contributor to New Dawn, he is editor of Quest: Journal of the Theosophical Society in America. Visit his blog at www.innerchristianity.com/blog.htm.

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