Exploring the intersection of magic, culture, spirituality, and humanity

Author: Nicholas Chapel (Page 1 of 3)

A Working with the Archangel Michael

Introduction

I haven’t done any evocation or other spirit work since 2020. Between the start of the pandemic and the George Floyd riots here in Minneapolis, I suffered a mental health breakdown of epic proportions that year, and in the wake of it I put all of my magical work on hold save for grounding and some basic talismanic workings. These were comfortable and safe. Although I’ve been feeling the call to do spirit work again of late, particular aspects of the trauma I suffered as a result of my breakdown have made it feel distinctly unsafe and have forced me to call into question a great deal of what I once thought I knew. Consequently, I’ve taken a hands-off approach when it comes to my prior spirit working. Until now.

In the end, I had to be called to it. It was on a day in which I was diving deep into some of my childhood traumas and core fears. One of the things that became apparent to me as a result of this trauma work was that I grew up from a very small age feeling terrified of being alone. This fear has carried into my adult life in a number of ways, though they’re far more subtle and low-key than they once were. This becomes salient later in the story.

As I went down to my basement office this past Sunday, I could feel a strange and heavy energy in the air. My attention was drawn to my Lotus Wand when I first stepped in the door–an implement which I seldom devote attention to unless I’m using it in ritual. It was then pulled to the black scrying mirror I had made a few months ago but not yet used, as well as the protective circle upon which it rests. I knew that something was calling, but I didn’t know what–until I was overcome with a strong urge to check the planetary hour. It was the exact minute that began the hour of the Sun. At this point I recognized it was Michael who had come calling, and had a message for me.

I’ve worked with Michael before, and have multiple talismans devoted to him, so a spontaneous contact from him was not out of the ordinary–though it’s the first such spirit contact I’ve had in more than a year. Knowing that this working was significant, I began an audio recording. I narrated the process throughout, and captured both my words and Michael’s responses in the audio. What follows is a transcription of that working.

I don’t normally write up my workings. But Michael insisted that this must be shared. The message wasn’t just for me: it was one he wanted everyone else to hear as well. I was instructed to record the working and to pass it along to others, and I serve at the pleasure of Michael who is one of my patron spirits. So be it. Let this be a testament and a witness to the glory of Michael, the Archangel of the Sun.

The Visitation of Michael

The office is hot and dry. My scrying mirror rests upon the seal. Michael directs me to set up the mirror, being very careful not to look into it as I do so. He instructs me to orient the names of the four Archangels on the seal in accordance with the cardinal directions to which they are attributed. I was then directed to take up my Lotus Wand. I hold the wand in my hands by the white band, the end of the shaft touching the floor, maintaining contact with the earth. I bow the crown of my forehead to the lotus which crowns the wand. I instinctively go to look into the mirror, and hear “NOT YET.” I am reminded that there is still a protocol here to follow–something I normally observe fastidiously, but the headiness of the moment has me feeling discombobulated and I am already entering into an altered state of consciousness.

Rather than performing a standard opening, an extemporaneous prayer suffices.

Archangel Michael, I invoke thee in humility and in awe. I invite thee to appear, to come forth and speak with me, as I have been invited to your holy throne. Sancte Michael Archangele, protect me in these rites. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.1

My chin rests upon the Lotus Wand, the end of the shaft still resting upon the earth. I look into the mirror. I see myself. There is a small circle in the middle, around the area of my chin, like a small swirling vortex. I let it become my not-focus, gazing into it to the point that it feels as though I am looking through it. Eyes steady. Not moving.

I see wings. The figure of a person between them. I see a dragon. Michael is present.

Why have you called me here, Michael? What have you to teach me?

The archangel responds:

YOU ARE NOT ALONE. YOU ARE NOT ALONE. YOU ARE NOT ALONE.

At this point I break down sobbing, a healing release unlike any I have ever felt before. I am overcome.

Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god… Thank you…

I can do little other than cry uncontrollably for the following two minutes. I feel partially pulled out of the trance by this, and utterly overcome and overwhelmed.

I can’t–I can’t go on. Not right now.

YOU MUST. LOOK INTO THE MIRROR. SEE YOURSELF. YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL. LOVED. SACRED. HOLY. EACH OF YOU. REMEMBER THAT. REMEMBER IT.

I see the figure of a man. He appears to be walking, revolving around and around. It fades from view. I feel the energy lift, the air clearing, and sense that Michael has departed.

Chin on my Lotus Wand. Lotus Wand touching the ground. I perform the Qabalistic Cross and close the circle.

Here ends the working.

  1. I am not a Christian, and do not generally invoke the Trinity in my prayers; but Michael is a Christian archangel, and the wording was to his pleasure.

What is the Worth of the LBRP?

It seems at times like you can’t throw a rock on the occult Internet without hitting a post about the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram. Everybody has an opinion, and you know what they say about opinions. So why am I offering mine? Recently on the Hermetic Agora Discord server, someone opined that the LBRP is worthless once a person begins doing more advanced magic. This was a hot take from their mentor, whom they claimed had a great deal of experience in the Golden Dawn tradition. I found this difficult to believe for multiple reasons, not least of which because the LBRP is the foundational ritual of Golden Dawn magic. The idea that anyone who has a long history of experience with the tradition would make such a claim leaves me near apoplexy. And since “nerd rage” is responsible for a significant amount of my writing output, here we are. If you will, allow me to take you on a journey through my own understanding of the LBRP and its value to modern occultism, both within and outside of Golden Dawn magic.

We could begin by talking about how the LBRP is the only ritual officially given to any magician in the Outer Order–and given that “Golden Dawn” only refers technically to the Outer Order, this one ritual is the essence of “Golden Dawn magic”–but that’s been repeated ad nauseam already and doesn’t really address the question of utility, so I won’t bother to dive down that rabbit hole here. Instead, I’m going to approach it from a bit of a different lens.

I recently began studying kung fu, the first martial art I’ve trained in since childhood. As with any martial art, much of the learning involves rote motions called forms (or kata in Japanese martial arts). As anyone who has studied a martial art knows, these forms won’t exactly help you in a street fight. But that’s not their purpose. Their purpose is to instill the foundational movements, to train the muscle memory until the point that they become automatic. It’s once the forms become internalized that they become useful. As the student evolves and grows in their training, they take these foundational building blocks and can piece them together in a graceful dance of blocking and striking. In time, these motions become part of a repertoire of action, a palette of colors that the advanced student can draw on individually and put together in creative ways that are equally martial as they are artistic.

The exact same is true of the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram. In the Outer Order, students are taught this foundation ritual as a means of introducing them to the motions, sounds, and most importantly the headspace of ritual magic. While this is by no means the only use for the LBRP, this approach should be the primary focus of any Golden Dawn magician until reaching Adept level. The training spent on this one ritual prepares the student for more advanced work as they take on officer roles in a temple, and prepares them even more directly for the ritual work of the practicing Adept.

It must be borne in mind that the Lesser Banishing Ritual is not the only ritual of the pentagram in the Golden Dawn tradition: the “Lesser” is in the name for a reason. The other pentagram rituals, such as the Supreme Invoking Ritual of the Pentagram, build in much more complex and layered ways on top of the LBRP. They are an advanced kata that the student will be prepared for through continual training and repetition of the LBRP. The Opening by Watchtower is an even more advanced kata that builds upon both of these. The same ritual actions and training that prepare the student for the SIRP and other pentagram rituals also translates to the performance of the hexagram rituals and the Rose Cross Ritual, as well as other forms that one traditionally learns as an Adept.

But the LBRP is not all about training and preparation, any more than learning basic knife skills is only about the training and preparation of a professional chef. Can you imagine a classically-trained chef turning out Michelin-quality dishes who can’t dice or julienne properly? I won’t say it’s not possible, but it would be a rare anomaly indeed. And in the same way that knife skills support culinary ventures whether one is a student or a chef, the LBRP supports magicians whether one is a Neophyte or an Adept. Neither the ritual itself nor the skills it trains ever go out the window. They are an evergreen source of utility.

That said, I do believe the LBRP has been over-emphasized within discourse around the Golden Dawn tradition; and further, that the range of its utility is likely not as broad as some may claim. The frequent consensus seems to be that the LBRP is a sort of Swiss Army knife as a ritual tool: it can be applied to any number of uses. Aleister Crowley went so far as to claim that “properly understood,” the LBRP “is the Medicine of Metals and the Stone of the Wise” (The Collected Works of Aleister Crowley, Vol. 1, 1905). But as River Enodian observes in their wonderfully-titled article “Who Really Gives a Crap about the LBRP, Anyway?“, the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram has “frequently been overused from anything to house cleansings to exorcisms,” despite Israel Regardie’s note that the “Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram is only of use in general and unimportant invokations” (The Golden Dawn, 6th ed., 1998, p. 281). And indeed, one must use the correct tool for the job. A Swiss Army knife may have a multiplicity of functions; but even so, it performs many of these functions less efficiently and effectively than standalone tools built to a specific task, and we may fairly call the tasks that can be realistically achieved with a Swiss Army knife modest in scale in comparison with such tools.

So what are the proper uses of the LBRP? It turns out that this is a difficult question to answer, in part because–like every component of the Golden Dawn system–it is interwoven with the system at so many touch points and in so many layers that it can be difficult to extricate them. There are the stated applications of the ritual itself; but then there are also the pedagogical intentions behind the ritual, the manner in which the ritual works within the greater context of Golden Dawn magic, and the ways in which it gets adapted by magicians in new and surprising directions. I’m going to omit the latter consideration, as it is here where things seem to go a bit off the rails. Instead I’ll focus on the applications of the LBRP within the traditional Golden Dawn teachings and their contextual setting.

When it comes to the applications of the LBRP that are provided to the Neophyte, Regardie mentions only three: as a form of morning/evening prayer, as a protection against “impure magnetism” (by which he means “obsessing or disturbing thoughts”), and as an exercise in concentration (GD, p. 54). In the Adept materials it is related that the LBRP is also given to Neophytes so that they “may have protection against opposing forces, and also that they may form some idea of how to attract and to come into communication with spiritual and invisible things” (GD, pp. 281-282). These are the stated use cases for the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram. A review of contemporary literature by authoritative voices within the tradition confirms that these are the only use cases generally given to the student apart from the use of the LBRP as a preliminary and concluding rite for other ritual magic workings. Anything beyond this is either a tacit application of the LBRP or a later addition.

Just as the novice student of a martial art may not be given the reasons or rationales behind memorizing a kata, however, there are indeed tacit applications of the LBRP from a pedagogical standpoint. Regardie is clear on this in his advice to the beginning student, even though he does not spell it out in quite this way. In his introduction to the second edition of The Golden Dawn, Regardie advises the student to first work on the physical forms of the LBRP until one is expert in them, then to move on and practice the imaginal aspects of the ritual to the same degree of fluency (GD, p. 3). These are the two halves of the kata of the LBRP. Regardie admonishes students to practice the LBRP without using a magical weapon–as with a martial art, weapons come later after the student has learned to work with an empty hand. And like a kata, the intention is that the actions (and visualizations in this case) become automatic enough that the student can be in the moment and allow the will behind the mere actions to shine through and connect solidly with the intended target.

Regardie states that the Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram together with the Qabalistic Cross “are the epitomes of the whole of [the Magic of Light],” in the same way that the Neophyte Ceremony “contains the essential symbolism of the Great Work” (GD, p. 39). But Regardie does not mean that the LBRP is usable for every application of the Magic of Light, any more than he means that the Neophyte Ceremony is the be-all and end-all of the symbolism thereof. Instead, he casts the LBRP as the foundational kata of Golden Dawn magic, which “should precede every phase of magical work, elementary as well as advanced” (ibid.).

The way it was taught to me, and the way it was practiced in my Temple, the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram is used to “shake the Cosmic Etch A Sketch” in order to create a blank canvas to paint on. If you’re looking for a bug bomb, try the Supreme Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram instead. Or try something else. But let’s stop claiming of the LBRP more than it was intended to do. In the end, overreaching claims only serve to devalue and discredit what is otherwise a foundational ritual with highly beneficial applications well outside of the Golden Dawn tradition itself, and puts individuals into precarious situations where they believe they have the appropriate tool for a job without recognizing that there are much more effective tools that are built to purpose.

On Christ and Hermeticism

Crucifixion scene from Alan Moore’s “Promethea” (issue #17, p. 20), illustrated by JH Williams

Within contemporary occulture, one often runs into people who are uncomfortable with the pervasiveness of the Abrahamic god in grimoiric and other magic, and especially with the person of Jesus Christ. Given the familial religious abuse that many of us have grown up with, this is no surprise. (Please, Lord, save us from your followers!) Many people have successfully substituted non-Abrahamic deities and spirits for the Christian variety; but like it or loathe it, the presence of Christian names and thought in Western magic must ultimately be dealt with in one fashion or another.

While I escaped the familial religious trauma so many have experienced, I too have my own ambivalence regarding Christianity and the person of Jesus in the magic that I work. What follows is a bit about my own background, and how I personally reconcile my own religious sensibilities and magical work with the Christian view of God and the person of Jesus.

My Background

I grew up in a liberal family in college-town Oklahoma. My parents were non-observant Christians; I don’t recall ever going to church during my youth. After my first religious experience at age 12, I became very involved in the Episcopal Church, and at one point wanted to enter the clergy and become a priest. After several years, however, I started to feel a growing discomfort around reciting the Nicene Creed without being able to fully assent to what it was I was saying. I came to realize that I had very little idea who (or what) this Jesus person was; and given that the concept of animal sacrifice has always violently clashed with my sensibilities, the central idea of Christianity, with its sacrificial death for the remission of sin, has never really worked for me. At age 16, I quietly left the church to pursue my own path.

While I never went through any familial religious abuse, I was still a liberal kid growing up in Oklahoma, which has a large population of fundamentalist Christians. Between school and my extracurricular life, I still had plenty of abuse directed at me. I’ve met Christians who are true to the spiritual journey and model the true values espoused in the Gospels, but they have been fairly few and far between. So despite my relative privilege with respect to abuse trauma while growing up, I still was not left unscathed.

Over time, I came to a different understanding of Christianity that largely works for me, even though I don’t identify as a Christian (instead considering myself a religious adherent of Hermeticism). While I still have few if any answers to the questions that bothered me so much in my teens, in hindsight those new understandings made a lot of the discomfort and cognitive dissonance I had with respect to Christianity dissipate. Nonetheless, I never returned to the church: I had found my own road to travel instead.

It’s not often that explicitly Christian prayers or verbiage enters my magical practice, though I do draw from a variety of Christian sources between the grimoires and my work with the planetary archangels. The archangels in my experience have been pretty neutral with respect to bringing in that Christian lens, though it does happen from time to time–and it’s always jarring to me when it does, because Christianity is neither the lens that I see through nor is it one that I find to be of especial personal significance to me these days. It was observing my own cognitive dissonance in these circumstances, and a desire to engage with it, that inspired this post.

Jesus and the Christ

As mentioned above, a big sticking point for me in my latter teen years with respect to the Nicene Creed was my agnosis regarding who the historical person of Jesus was, and what if any relationship that person had to the mythos that later developed around him.

What do we know about Jesus? There were many apocalyptic movements emerging around messiah figures during the time he lived, in Roman-occupied Galilee and Judea. This is not especially surprising: when an occupier wields absolute power over a marginalized group, the only hope for deliverance comes from religious eschatology. Jesus was likely a revolutionary, and was executed when he gained enough popularity that both the Romans and the Jews who represented the established mainstream began to view him as a threat. Regardless of whether Jesus was indeed the unique incarnation of God on earth, he embraced the symbolism of animal sacrifice to represent himself–the scapegoat of the hegemony–as the sacrifice to end all sacrifices.

But how do we connect the idea of Jesus as a person to Jesus as the Christ? My solution has been to regard them as two separate figures entirely. On the one hand there’s the human Jesus–the historical person, much of whose life has been lost to the sands of time. On the other hand there is the mythic Christ, a cosmic entity only loosely tied to the historical personage, who shares more in common with the other gods than with humanity. When I look at the issue through that lens, it sidesteps a lot of my own discomfort.

Nor is it clear to me that the person of Jesus as the Christ was ever intended to represent the one and only true son of God. The word generally translated from the Greek as “only-begotten” (μονογενής, monogenês) refers to the only member of a kind or kin, but a better translation would be “unique”. And we are all unique children of the Divine, are we not? Consequently, I tend to regard μονογενής as meaning something more like “uniquely special”–just as every human being is.

Additionally, we must look at the words χριστός (christos) and  מָשִׁיחַ‎ (moshiach or messiah), in context. Both words simply mean “anointed”, and again it is not at all clear that this was intended to be a singular designation. Anointing in the biblical context was primarily done as a part of the coronation of a new king of Israel, and was itself viewed as the magico-religious act by which a selected individual became king. After the Assyrian invasion and conquest of Israel, there were no more kings to be anointed. The Jewish concept of the messiah then became an eschatological one, the future anointed king of the new kingdom of Israel. Part of the subversive theology of early Christianity was the idea that this new king named Jesus was not a temporal ruler, but rather a ruler in the heavenly realms and in the world to come. Either way, we must bear in mind that Christ is properly speaking a title, and not the surname of Jesus.

Reconciling the Conflicts

Explicitly Christian verbiage very rarely comes up in my own practice and extemporaneous invocation/prayer, but it always weirds me out when it does. That said, I also do my primary spirit work at this point with the planetary archangels, who are a bit more keen on Christianity than the gods or other spirits. So it does come up at times, and it’s a bit jarring. I’ve had to compartmentalize the historical Jesus and the mythic Christ into entirely separate concepts in order to reconcile my own differences.

I still have only the barest idea who and what the historical Jesus was. I’ve largely set aside that question for the last 15 years or so as not especially relevant to my interests. In my case, I found a lot of my own reconciliation through a study of the historical context of Christianity as a religion, and through seeing the mythos of Christianity as one “true” sacred story among many other true sacred stories. When viewed from the perspective of the infinite rather than the human and finite, there is no reason why Christ should be incompatible with any other mythos in that regard.

I confess, Jesus still doesn’t do it for me, and neither does Christ. I resonate a lot more with the Graeco-Egyptian gods. But I’ll form relationships and work with both, and continue to lean into my discomfort and cognitive dissonance with an aim to sort it out and unpack my baggage. As an apocryphal story goes, when a Christian missionary once proselytized to a Native American tribe, the chief listened to the story with interest. At the end, he said, “That is a good story. We will tell that one too.”

Here’s to good stories, and the divine truths they conceal within.

On Ritual Purity

Whenever I hear magicians talking about spirit evocation, particularly from a grimoiric standpoint, there is inevitably a discussion of ritual purity.  I always find myself a bit surprised by the degree of ritual purity a number of other magicians observe, because I have had positive and effective results while doing very little in that regard:  my purity routine for ritual generally involves little more than bathing/showering while saying the Asperges Me.  I have my own take on ritual purity as a result, which seems to differ from that of a number of other practitioners.

I’ve often heard magicians express the viewpoint that ritual bathing is necessary because our natural smell is offensive to the spirits.  I find that this notion ignores a key bit of history.  While bathing was much more common in medieval Europe than popular culture leads us to believe (bathhouses were plentiful and often frequented), the general hygiene of the populace was still less well-maintained than it is in our present day of private showers.  As late as 1558, deodorant was still considered the realm of magic, as we can see from della Porta’s Magia Naturalis where he gives a method “to correct the ill scent of the Arm-pits” (Book 9, Ch. XXVIII).  I strongly doubt that many of us in the industrialized world today smell offensive compared to the average medieval European, so from a logical standpoint the argument that ritual bathing is necessary to avoid offending the spirits with our human stench holds little water for me when applied to the modern day.

The other two big elements of ritual purity I generally hear about are fasting and sexual abstinence.  Early on in my practice, one might say that I observed fasting fastidiously.  But I found it more distracting than I did helpful, so I ultimately abandoned the practice.  My focus and concentration during ritual, and therefore the quality and efficacy of my magic, increased as a result.  Asceticism in general has never resonated with me, and I’ve never personally found much value in it.

Similarly, I find that a lot of the prescriptions for sexual abstinence derive from an Augustinian, sex-negative cultural lens that equates abstinence with saintliness.  Sexual abstinence may also have been related to the aforementioned hygiene considerations.  It also appears to operate on the tacit principle that the continence of sexual energy can be channelled into the efficacy of one’s magic, which may be true for some but has always felt like an entirely separate and unrelated energy for me.  Again, that sort of asceticism may do it for some, but it doesn’t do it for me.  I find it unnecessary at best, and counterproductive to my practice at worst.  I’ve never experienced my conjuring work to be ineffective as a result.

I also don’t much hold to the idea of following grimoires to the letter.  While the rubrics have long histories in some cases, we must keep in mind that the grimoires were originally the working journals of magicians.  They may have been using recipes passed down to them, or they may have been creating their own, but I find inherent in the idea of magic itself is the act of creation and creativity.  As a result, I look at the rubric from a functional standpoint rather than one of orthopraxy, and I substitute and adapt to fit what resonates best with me.

Generally speaking, rather than drawing a circle I’ll perform the LBRP, and follow it up with asperging the quarters with water and censing them with incense after the Golden Dawn style.  Occasionally I’ll use my sword to trace a physical circle, but I tend to find it unnecessary.  And that’s all the preamble I generally use before the starting invocation.  I use a standard license to depart.  I’ve never particularly seen the need for more than that.

One caveat here is that thus far I’ve only communicated with deities and with the planetary spirits and archangels.  I can’t speak to other classes of spirits and their own preferences, and if I find myself impaired in my work at some point I may ultimately experiment with ritual purity after I rule out other factors.  But thus far, freeing myself of the shackles of prescriptive asceticism has been nothing but positive to my own practice.

Bottom line: If it works, use it.  If you don’t need more than that, why overcomplicate things?  If the grimoiric prescriptions for ritual purity work for you, I wish you well and encourage you to keep doing what you’re doing.  But if they don’t resonate with you, if you find them more of an impediment than an enhancement to your practice, I encourage you to start scaling back and experimenting with whether those elements are truly necessary or whether they prove a hindrance to you like they did to me.

Communication with the Spirits: A Guide for the Perplexed

In the world of magic, there are fewer things more divisive it seems than the ideas around invocation/evocation of spirits and what it means to interact with them.  This isn’t a matter of any small or trivial difficulty, even for those who have experienced such phenomena themselves.  The difficulty is even greater for those who have not achieved such communication, and who are often left wondering what exactly they should expect or how things are supposed to work.  As with many things in magic, nothing is going to look exactly the same from one practitioner to the next, and our current subject is no different.  While I can only provide my own perspective on the issue, I am doing so in the hopes that it can clear a bit of the confusion around the topic and bring practitioners (and aspiring practitioners!) together with some more productive dialogue.
Much of the perplexity seems to surround exactly what should be expected in terms of the encounter with the spirits.  Joseph Lisiewski famously put forward the idea that evoked spirits must be conjured to physical manifestation, which has probably done more to provoke doubt and contribute to imposter syndrome among magicians who work with such spirits than any other statement in the past century.
The simple fact is, the vast majority of people who work with spirits, no matter how intimately, do not experience them as physical manifestations.  Much like the person who looks into magic expecting to figure out how to teleport and hurl fireballs, one who begins working with spirits anticipating that they will appear in a grandiose poof! of smoke and celestial light will very quickly find themselves disappointed.
And this, dear reader, is why I am writing today:  to help dispel some of those faulty beliefs and expectations that we all inherit over the course of our lives, and to encourage you to live the magical life you want to be living.

My Backstory

For a long time I thought that I was a “squib”, incapable of scrying with any meaningful success.  Like John Dee, I could be the magical operator in such a working, but felt that in order to make any progress with spirit work I would need to find a talented scryer to work with if I were to see any results from it.  Then I had some encounters that were too intense to ignore–and it not only gave me a new understanding of what it meant to converse with spirits, but also showed me that many of my previous assumptions about the nature of that conversation were utterly incorrect.  Moreover, I came to recognize that I had already been experiencing the spirits, but had failed to recognize it at the time because of my self-imposed conceptual blinders.
The greatest irony of all is that it was precisely such an experience, back when I was 12 years old, that ultimately led me to the path I walk today.  The way that I have described the experience ever since is that it was like being hit upside the head with a brick wrapped in velvet.  I experienced a thought in my head that not only was not my own, but came into my head all at once, fully formed, rather than word by word as my own thoughts are generally produced.  To quote Philip K. Dick, speaking of his own life-changing experience, it was as if “my mind was invaded by a transcendentally rational mind”.  The message brought peace and clarity in a moment when I felt in crisis.  Not only was the thought not my own; but whatever its source, it seemed to be benevolent and caring.  At the time I believed it was the voice of God that I was hearing.  My desire to understand what happened to me, and even more so my desire to achieve that communication again, led me to make a lifelong study of religion and mysticism, and to tread down the magical path as soon as I discovered that it existed.
You might think that having had that encounter once I would experience it again in short order, but I didn’t.  Not until twenty-seven years had passed, more than 25 of which were spent in the pursuit of magic.  But I don’t claim that my results are typical.  I had to spend a long time wandering in the dark before I realized that a lot of my benightedness was self-inflicted.  And that didn’t happen for me until I had another encounter–one that felt less like a velvet-wrapped brick and more like a nuclear warhead.
I never said that I was the most perceptive person, and apparently it takes rather a lot to get my attention.  Oops.
Over the past several years, I’ve had a number of very successful scrying sessions, as well as some more spontaneous contacts with the gods and spirits–which leads me to believe that my previous issues were less to do with my own innate capabilities (or lack thereof), and more to do with faulty beliefs and expectations leading me not to try my hand at actually doing the thing and being persistent at it.  
It was only after my nuclear wake-up call (and an embarrassingly long amount of time after that, I might add) that I started to realize I did have spirit contact before that.  I just didn’t recognize it, because I didn’t understand that those interactions generally happen inside your own head and can sometimes feel more like a part of you than something external.  Of course, at the time I was still working within the confines of the Golden Dawn system, which intrinsically puts the magical contact on rails in order to make it safer by confining it to a specific form in order to introduce budding magicians more gradually to the things they will experience once they step out on their own as Adepts and begin to do more advanced workings solo.  But I did notice that, especially after my Adeptus Minor initiation, things started to feel different.  When I was assuming the godform of a temple office, I would connect with it emotively in ways that felt new and curious to me.  I allowed the feelings to guide my voice, informing the tones and facial expressions and other mannerisms that I adopted in speaking my ritual parts.  It just felt right.  And while I heard no voices and saw no visions during those times, I’ve come to recognize since that those connections I had with the godforms were real contacts.  I simply didn’t realize it at the time, because I’m so used to verbal communication that it didn’t occur to me that spirit communication can also be emotive and nonverbal.  And the middle of a scripted ceremony isn’t an especially inviting context in which to have a two-way conversation.  Gotta read those lines, after all, and the ritual isn’t any more conducive to communication between a magician and a spirit than it is to side-chatter between the various ritual participants.
So while much is made of visions and voices, there’s more to it than just that.  Communication can very easily (perhaps more easily) be emotive or otherwise nonverbal as well.  But what of the visions and the voices?

Spirit Communication:  How It Works for Me

As I’ve already recounted, one way that spirits can communicate is emotively:  via emotional impressions directly upon the psyche.  We can call this clairsentience, or the ability to feel that communication on an emotive or affective level.
Generally speaking, however, I experience the spirits in visions and/or voices.  As with emotive communication, one of the greatest points of confusion is that those who have written about such experiences have not been especially detailed about what this experience is actually like.  Consequently, people who are new to spirit conjure may assume that a spirit will appear to the physical apparatus of their eyes, like a concrete object.  Or they may assume that the voice of a spirit will sound much like the voice of another person in the room with them.  This may happen in some instances for some people, but it has not been my experience; nor have I encountered any other spirit workers describing it as theirs to the best of my recollection.
We may term the seeing of visions clairvoyance if we so choose.  The distinction between a daydream and a vision is a fine one when describing the difference in how the two work; but when I experience a vision, I generally find that I am not the one in the driver’s seat.  Instead I’m viewing a tableau unfolding in my head, consistent with the nature of the spirit that I am conjuring.  Sometimes it is a static image, sometimes it is a moving one; but when the image moves, it does so of its own accord–not mine.  I am cognizant of what I am seeing, I can shift my focus from one portion of the image to another, but the way it unfolds is much like a (non-lucid) dream in that I appear to have little conscious agency in the process.
Similarly for voices.  When I hear the voice of a spirit, it takes place entirely within my head.  We can call this clairaudience.  Studies have shown that there are some people who don’t have internal monologues, but I am not one of them.  My internal monologue is constant.  As a result, I have a pretty good handle on what “my” internal voice sounds like, in the same way that other people can recognize me by the sound of my voice.  When I have the voice of a spirit inside my head, however, it is not that same voice.  It “sounds” different, for lack of a better word.  Additionally, those messages generally tend to enter my head fully-formed, whereas my internal monologue is created word by word as I think to myself in phrases and sentences.  To borrow a term from computer science, my internal monologue is processed in serial, one word or piece of data after another; whereas the voices of the spirits almost always come to me in a manner that feels more parallel, in which the various words are transmitted all at once and are received at the same time.
When I have had two-way communication with spirits, they also seem to be able to receive my thoughts telepathically in the same way that they transmit their own.  In one notable encounter with the archangel Cassiel, he answered a question that I had barely begun to formulate in my head, much less “voiced” to him.  Some spirit workers insist that spirits only respond to verbal communication, believing that it draws firmer boundaries if one chooses to speak messages aloud rather than doing so in one’s head.  There is certainly something disconcerting about having another entity inside your head; but whereas the explanation I heard for this choice was that spoken communication doesn’t allow for a spirit to “get inside your head”, I for one am unconvinced that it makes any practical difference whether one chooses to communicate verbally or telepathically with the spirits.  In any case, if you are working with an entity you do not wish to communicate as intimately with, you should have all of the requisite protections of a circle and a magical weapon and names of power at your disposal:  this should provide sufficient protection for the operator regardless of how the operator chooses to communicate from their own end, and will generally make little difference as to how the communication from the spirit itself comes across.
One thing I have noticed about both visions and voices in spirit communication is that if you poke at the message (whether the vision you are seeing or the message that the voice has spoken), it will demonstrate resiliency.  That is to say, when I am engaging in my own internal monologue, I can choose to derail that monologue in any number of different directions whenever I want.  When I receive a vision or a message, however, and look askance at it in my head and start questioning it, I will feel a push back in my direction, reasserting the original content.  This is much like pushing at a flexible membrane, feeling the equal and opposite pressure against your finger, and seeing the membrane spring back to its original form when you withdraw.  This usually feels very gentle, but definite.  During one encounter I was receiving a message which I understood was to be delivered to another person.  I recall being surprised by the wording of the message, and thought to myself, “maybe I should soften that a bit.”  To my surprise, the spirit gently poked me in the forehead with her finger as if to say “nope!” and I felt the words come again the same as before.  While the pushback isn’t generally quite that tactile in my experience, it is nonetheless a commonality.
These properties of spirit communication are very jarring at first, but I quickly grew accustomed to them–and to recognizing them as signs of a potential spirit contact, as opposed to a mere misfire of the brain.
Finally, you’ll notice I didn’t title this section “Spirit Communication: How It Works”.  I’ve spoken with enough other spirit conjurers, read enough works by them, and have listened to enough interviews with them, that I believe my experience of spirit communication is fairly typical.  That doesn’t mean others don’t experience them differently, or that my experience is somehow normative.  Moreover, atypical is not synonymous with incorrect.  Polyphanes has written before about his experiences coming predominately in taste and smell (clairgustance and clairalience, respectively) whereas he experiences little in the way of vision.  It may not be the most common method of experiencing, but it’s pretty damn cool nonetheless, and I don’t doubt his results as a magician.

A Final Note

If you haven’t yet read Polyphanes’ post “Beginner’s Practices” (also linked above), I strongly suggest you hasten to read it.  He echoes much of what I have said here, while providing some truly sage advice for people starting out–especially those who are trying to work with spirits.
Additionally, please note that just because an entity is discarnate and capable of communicating with you telepathically, that does not mean you should implicitly trust any information or advice that you may be given.  Always verify any information given, and always test the spirits.  By their fruits ye shall know them.

(This post was prompted by a conversation I had with my friend “linceoui” whom I know from the Hermetic Agora Discord server–which you should check out if you haven’t already!  Shout-out to you, and thanks for always giving me good conversations and a lot to think about.)

A Method for Cryptographic Sigil Creation

 Image found at https://vasnetworks.wordpress.com/our-history/

Inspired by my recent conversations with Erik Arneson, Tres Henry, and Taylor Bell, I’ve been thinking a lot of late about the potential uses for cryptographic hashes in the creation of magical sigils.  After playing around with the ideas a bit and making a few false starts, I’ve developed a proof of concept to share with the wider community.

Background:  What’s a Cryptographic Hash?

In the world of cryptography, a hash function is a one-way encryption operation.  This means that source data (plaintext) can be encrypted with a hash function, but once encrypted it cannot be decrypted.  This doesn’t sound especially useful at first glance, but in truth these hash functions play a vital role in the world of information security.  Because the same input will always give the same hashed output, the hash of a file or other piece of data serves as a unique signature of that input.  This has many uses in file integrity checking, authentication, and other arenas, but from a magical perspective it gives us an output which is very much like a sigil or seal, in that it provides a uniquely identifying signature which also serves as a representation in miniature of the spirit whose sigil it is.  Because the output of a cryptographic hash function uniquely represents the essence of the input (i.e. if even one bit of data in the input is changed, the resulting hash will be drastically different), we can treat a hash value as a true symbol for the underlying data and interact with it semantically at that level.
While the above may all sound good on a theoretical level, it doesn’t give you much of a feel for what a hash actually is.  Although it may sound complex, from an operator perspective taking the hash of a piece of data is very easy.  To illustrate, let’s generate an MD5 hash.  Mac and Linux users have it easy here, with the built-in md5 and md5sum commands, respectively; Windows users can make use of the certutil command or use a third-party program to perform the same function.
So let’s say we’ve created a large file named data.fil, and now we want to compute the hash.  From the command line, we’ll do the following:
Mac:  md5 data.fil
Linux:  md5sum data.fil
Windows:  certutil -hashfile data.fil MD5
The output of an MD5 hash function will always be a 128-bit value, given in 32 hexadecimal characters, similar to the following:
d0dcbadbba85a2e1ca7cf53d64bd7728
Easy enough, right?  Now that you know what this looks like in practice, let’s talk about how we can leverage this output in a magical operation.

Proof of Concept:  Steps and Missteps

Having recognized the relationship between a hash value and a sigil, my first inclination was simply to sigillize the hash value itself.  While the hexadecimal value itself may indeed be the signature of the data it represents, I don’t find long strings of hex especially compelling from a magical-aesthetic standpoint.  Magic relies on the affective dimension of experience to connect with our non-rational minds, and visual representations of sigils are far more effective in my experience at doing this.
Fortunately, turning the hex output into a visual sigil seemed to be an easy mater.  Given that hexadecimal values use 16 characters, there appeared to be a relatively clean mapping onto the 4×4 magic square traditionally ascribed to Jupiter.  I wrote out a petition and saved it to a text file, then took the MD5 hash of the file.  When I began to draw out the sigil, however, two significant problems presented themselves.
The first problem is that while the 4×4 magic square represents a 16-value symbol set, it does so using the numerals from 1 to 16.  Hexadecimal, on the other hand, uses the values 0 to 15.  This meant that the math on the magic square that works in decimal fundamentally does not work for hex.  I considered working around the problem by reassigning 16 to 0, but ultimately this was an unsatisfying solution.  Some preliminary googling turned up no results on any prior work done to create a hexadecimal magic square, so in the interests of developing a proof of concept I set this issue aside for the time being.
As it turns out, the second problem was much more of a showstopper.  Namely, when you try to create a sigil with 32 nodes, especially in a 4×4 magic square, it turns out ugly.  There simply seems to be no way to cram in that much data visually without it turning into a jumbled mess.
That escalated quickly…
The crux of the issue here wasn’t the fundamental approach, however, but rather the sheer length of the hash value to be sigillized.  There are common hash algorithms other than MD5, but these have outputs that are even longer–I needed to go in the other direction.
My inspiration came in the form of one-time pads.  If you’ve ever used Google Authenticator for two-factor authentication, or used 2FA recovery codes, you’re already familiar with them.  The TOTP and HOTP algorithms, respectively, specify a method of generating unique codes based on two parameter values.  One of these parameters is always the “seed”, which is a hashed message.  The other parameter is either an incrementing counter in the case of HOTP, or a time value in the case of TOTP.  Most valuable for my purposes, however, was the fact that both algorithms have a default output of six decimal numbers.  This means that all of the “signature” value of the hash function is maintained (as hashing is an integral part of both OTP algorithms), while giving us a far more manageable output to work with.
While I considered using HOTP for these purposes, ultimately I decided to go with TOTP instead.  Although the intended use of both OTP algorithms is to generate multiple unique codes, for the purposes of creating a magical sigil we only need one.  This means that HOTP adds no real value to the equation, because its counter parameter is entirely superfluous to our needs.  TOTP, however, allows us the additional benefit of incorporating magical timing as an integral part of the sigil itself–which is a significant advantage, as it gives us an additional layer of meaning to incorporate into the “payload” of the final result.

Creating the Sigil

For my proof of concept I wrote out a petition to Michael and Raphael as the archangels of Tiphereth/Sol.  The text contains an invocation with the relevant divine names and with specific requests.
Next it was time to hash the text file containing the petition.  Though I had used the MD5 hashing algorithm previously because it generates the shortest commonly-used output, this time I elected to use SHA-1 as this algorithm is also utilized by the TOTP protocol and it felt more important to maintain symmetry given that the size of the hash value would not have any bearing on the size of the final OTP value.
While not a part of the TOTP protocol, when hash algorithms are used for password authentication it is common to “salt” the hash by prepending the individual’s username to the plaintext password before hashing the two together as a single unit.  This is done to mitigate against certain types of password cracking attacks, and serves to uniquely tie a password (which may be used independently by any number of people) to a specific username.  It felt meaningful to me to “salt” the hash of my petition with my magical name, which I did before taking the SHA-1 hash of the combined name and petition.  Now that I had the hex value of my hash output, I entered this as the seed value (or “shared secret”) in the TOKEN2 Paper TOTP Token Generator and was given a list of time-based OTP values.  Looking at the first entry in the list gave me the six-digit OTP for the present time, in the day and hour of the Sun:  975844.  This was a significantly more manageable output to deal with.
It turns out that in resolving my second problem, I had also eliminated the first:  while the 4×4 magic square is not natively suitable for hexadecimal, the 3×3 magic square traditionally attributed to Saturn fits the character space of the OTP output perfectly.  Note that while this square corresponds to Saturn (and I have my own reasons for finding value in this correspondence with respect to this methodology), the Saturnian connotation is not a necessary part of the method itself.  The key point is that we are utilizing a magic square which is consonant with the format of our output; any other semantic shadings are merely a potential bonus.
All that was left at this point was to draw out the sigil.  This time, I was much more satisfied with the results.
Now this is a sigil I can use.
While I primarily intended this operation as a proof of concept, rather than as a magical operation with full force of intent, I have already observed several synchronicities around the working.  Combined with the results of a divinatory reading, my preliminary expectation is that this method will prove effective.  As with anything in magic, time will tell.

Walkthrough:  Creating Your Own Cryptographic Sigil

For those of you who might want to follow this process to create your own cryptographic sigil, here’s a step by step guide.
First, create your “payload”.  This can be a written petition, as in my case; or it can be an image file, a .zip of multiple files together, or anything else you like.
Next, hash the payload.  If you wish to salt the hash with your magical name or motto, as I did, you can do so easily on Mac or Linux platforms.  If you are a Windows user, this is more difficult.  If you have a plain text file, you can simply type in the name/motto at the beginning of the text file and save it (do not insert a space between the name/motto and the beginning of the text in the file).  Otherwise, I recommend skipping this step and simply hashing the file as-is.  To salt and hash the file at the same time, you can do the following:
  • Mac:  cat “MAGICAL_NAME” data.fil | shasum
  • Linux:  cat “MAGICAL NAME” data.fil | sha1sum
If you do not wish to salt the hash with your magical name/motto and want to merely hash the file itself, or if you are on Windows, use these commands:
  • Mac:  shasum data.fil
  • Linux:  sha1sum data.fil
  • Windows:  certutil -hashfile data.fil SHA1
Once you have the hash value, paste it as the “Seed” on the aforementioned TOTP generator website (be sure to click the button to change the seed format from Base32 to hex).  Provide your time zone, and generate the six-digit TOTP value.  As you will only be using a single OTP code, the step increment value does not matter for these purposes.

From there, draw out the sigil on the 3×3 magic square to complete the work.

Why I Love the Golden Dawn Tradition

 A little while ago, I wrote a post about some of the problems that I see in the present-day Golden Dawn tradition.  As I said at the time, I still hold the tradition dear to my heart even though I have issues with the temporal institutions that currently embody it.  To read my previous post, however, one might think I had nothing but criticism to offer.

This post is the other side of that coin.

For me, there is nothing else like the Golden Dawn.  Having spent about a decade doing magic in a temple setting, working through the grades and experiencing their energies and their impact in my life, it’s still difficult to imagine not working magic that way–even though I haven’t been in a working temple environment for a few years now.  While the A.’.A.’. is similar in structure, I’ve never been a fan of Crowley–though I have more empathy for him these days than I once did.  And there are various Masonic and para-masonic organizations which also share a lodge setting in common, but my journey is first and foremost a magical one.

But there is nothing that can take the place of working magic with a group of people who speak the same magical language.  Especially on an initiatory journey.  And even more so when those people become your chosen family, your brothers and sisters (and non-binary siblings!).

I love the Golden Dawn system because there is immense beauty in its complexity.  I only saw unnecessary overcomplication before I was first drawn to it, but as I learned to speak the language I began to uncover the many nested layers of symbolism in the ceremonies, like peeling away layers of an onion.  And as a system, while far from perfect, it is remarkably coherent and cohesive in its multifariousness.  To mesh layers of symbolic meaning together in harmonious and aesthetically pleasing ways is an art, and as a creator of such art I appreciate the skill and intelligence it takes to pull off such a work of creation.

It also works.  Having started down the path of self-initiation, and then an initiate of two orders, I’ve experienced the initiatory energies of the grades–in some cases multiple times.  And I can testify that the system does what it says on the tin.  It will absolutely throw your life out of balance in specifically directed ways, in order for you to overcome the challenges associated with those energies and grow as a magician and a human being by surmounting them.  Then the energies are re-balanced in the Portal Ceremony, having been equilibrated according to the formula of solve et coagula, whereupon the process starts all over again at a different valence with Adeptus Minor.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  This is the endless climb up the mountain of initiation, the journey that continues at least as long as this human life shall last.

And man, those energies will fuck your shit up.  But generally my experience is that it’s fucked my shit up in the best possible ways, at least when viewed over the long run.

Pedagogically I feel like the system is a bit of a dumpster fire by today’s educational standards, but the overall principle is still solid:  take people who want to do magic but don’t know how; give them a language and a set of tools to work with and some basic instruction; and then continue to provide guidance, peer support, and continuing education while those fledgling magicians take wing and learn to soar on their own.

On a personal note, I’m the kind of person who finds beauty in complexity.  I prefer cathedrals over natural environments.  I spent my teenage years in the Episcopal Church, so I learned to appreciate ritual and ceremony.  I conceptualize my belief system as a sort of experientially-based holographic model of reality, modelled at least in part after Thomas Kuhn’s idea of a scientific paradigm, for god’s sake.  If you’re the kind of person who prefers modern industrial aesthetics and IKEA furniture to the Victorian, or who is drawn to paths which emphasize the beauty and tranquility of simplicity, you may not find what you’re looking for here.  But if you’re like me, there’s a lot to appreciate.

Perhaps it’s just that as a person with ADHD, I need to be overwhelmed a bit by my sensory experience in order to get my rational-critical mind to shut up and let me do magic.  Like background music, it serves as a carrier wave for my focus and enables me to get in the right headspace.  And as much as I wish it weren’t the case, working in a temple environment with others helps me to be motivated, to be focused, and to be accountable–all things I frequently struggle with.

For me, at least, the Golden Dawn system is my home.  And I’m tired of being an unhomed magician.

To that end, I’m starting a Golden Dawn Minneapolis Working Group.  If you’re local to the area and want to study and/or work in the Golden Dawn system together, or if you’d like to follow the antics from afar, I look forward to seeing you there.

LVX, my siblings.  Let’s make some magic together.

Toward a Methodology for Reality Hacking

“Superstition is the tribute paid by ignorance to knowledge of which it recognises the value but does not understand the significance.”

Dion Fortune, Sane Occultism


If you have read my previous post on magic as hacking, you may find yourself persuaded by the similarities between the two activities, but asking yourself where exactly that leaves you as far as putting the information into action.  A set of techniques or processes gets us only so far as the use cases they were developed for:  continuing to slavishly rely on them in circumstances they were not intended to address seems superstitious at best (using Dion Fortune’s definition above), and potentially ineffectual or counterproductive at worst.  Nor does it help to understand what the tactics are unless you can also have some insight into where (and why) these can and should be applied.  With that in mind, I’ve been spending my time lately considering what a methodology would look like if we are to approach magic together in this way.

Why methodology?  Because without it, you’re sunk.  As a fledgling hacker, you don’t have the real-world experience to know what the paths of least resistance are likely to be, to know what techniques are likely to work, or what threads are worth pulling on and which are more trouble than they’re worth and likely to bear little in the way of fruit.  That wisdom is gained only with time and experience, and no matter how experienced one becomes there’s always more to learn.  There’s also more to forget, which is why methodologies help experienced professionals just as much as they do inexperienced novices.  It isn’t sufficient to bang blindly on the door when the person behind the door is expecting a password and a secret handshake.  You need a method, or what you’re left with is just madness.  Techniques and procedures give you tools to open the door, but in order to know how to open that door effectively you need a way of determining which tool to use in a given situation.  You need a methodology.

In order to apply that methodology, however, it all begins with intent.  This is step zero.  In the real world, criminal hackers don’t just break into systems for the thrill of it:  they have motivations and operational goals.  And while a computer’s attack surface may be finite, when you’re talking about an infinite playing field the arena is equally unbounded.  Like a threat actor, you need to be clear about what your goals are when it comes to doing a particular magical working.  While the playing field may be infinite, our human time and energy and attention is not; so this clarity of intention is necessary to provide the focus you need to start scoping out the problem you’re attempting to solve–even if that problem is messing around with some variable (e.g. astrological timing) simply for the sake of determining what you can get away with.

After you’re clear on your goals and intentions, the first phase of the work is recon.  In order to leverage a particular attack path, hackers will generally look at what tools or techniques are out there in order to achieve the goals they have in mind.  The first part of this process is surveying the field to find preexisting tools and to better understand the problem at hand.  Research may or may not be your favorite thing, but proper research can greatly enhance your understanding and thereby the efficacy of your practice.  With this in mind, research your topic.  How have others historically approached this or similar problems?  Gather together your sources of data and compare them.  What commonalities stand out?  If different people across different periods of time, and especially across diverse cultures, have used similar methods this can generally be used as a heuristic to infer that the methods have proven effective.  That said, today’s world is very different from that in previous centuries, and we cannot take this assumption for granted.

The second phase of the methodology is reverse engineering.  Assuming you have found relevant tools and techniques in your research, dive into them to better understand what makes them work.  Examine the methods and approaches, looking less at the particular forms (which are like the raw source code of a program) and instead paying attention to how they are intended to function in order to achieve the desired results.  This part of the process is what transforms the raw data of history into information, and finally into insight.  But don’t mistake this insight for understanding:  insight can be had in the realm of theory, but understanding can only come from experience.

The third phase is execution.  Now that you possess some insight into the subject matter, and have a menu of techniques to choose from, take one of those procedures and try it.  Alternatively, adapt pieces of different procedures to assemble a set of functional “code blocks” which work together in a cohesive manner to serve the intention you have in mind.

Fourth comes debrief.  Observe the results of your working.  Did you get results?  Did you find anything about the outcome surprising?  By examining your outcomes, especially with respect to anything unexpected that comes up, you can begin to identify assumptions that may be worth testing and identify threads to pull on in the future.

Finally, experiment.  Adjust your methods and/or your hypotheses, and try again.  There’s no substitute for experience, and practice makes perfect.  Consider your failures as valuable as your successes, because they provide you with opportunities for learning and growth.  Challenge your assumptions.  If your workings get results, see how far you can bend the procedures and methods without breaking the efficacy of the working itself.  Be persistent and keep trying, until you can determine with some degree of confidence that you’ve found something which works for you, or until you’ve determined that the approach you’re trying is simply not viable enough to bear further experiment.

Just like an exploit program, you can’t necessarily guarantee that everything will run smoothly the first time, even if you do everything right.  You may be looking for results, but you’re also looking for data.  And should all else fail, you still have a data point.  Again, be persistent in trying to obtain results.

Finally, this should go without saying–but once you do find something that works, let it work.  That doesn’t mean you stop experimenting, but turn your focus to a different problem.  Relegate the solved problems to the realm of play, where you can continue to make discoveries but are spending the majority of your attention on the areas that are going to gain you the most beneficial experience.

Reality Hacking Methodology

    0.  Clarify Goals & Intentions
    1.  Reconnaisance
    2.  Reverse Engineering
    3.  Execution
    4.  Debrief
    5.  Experimentation

On Magic and Hacking

We look hard
We look through
We look hard to see for real

Sisters of Mercy, “Lucretia My Reflection”

Inspired by my recent conversation with the delightful Erik Arneson, I decided to take some time and write up a more cohesive set of my thoughts on the interrelationship of magic and computer hacking.

Prefatory note:  “Hacking” is a very broad term, which covers not only intrusion into computer systems, but also their defense, engineering, and an entirely vast array of non-computer-related tinkering, making, and puzzling.  Here, however, I’m talking specifically about the offensive side of hacking:  the approach to breaking into computers and networks.

In my day job, I’m a professional computer hacker.  I work on an internal red team, which means that I’m paid by my employer to break into our own systems before criminal threat actors can do so, and serve as a sparring partner for our network defenders.  In recent years I’ve seen a great many parallels between hacking and magic, and ways in which the former can inform the latter.  In doing so, I’ve also found myself viewing magic through the lens of a hacker more and more frequently.

By and large, my experience is that most people who become magicians are drawn to it by a common set of motivations.  We are people who are drawn to understand why and how reality works, and who have glimpsed beyond the common assumptions to know that there are secrets waiting to be discovered.  Those secrets captivate us, and we want to uncover them.  We see a closed door, and we want to know what’s behind it.  When the door is closed to us, we can choose to walk away–or we can start learning how the lock works and figure out how to pick it or otherwise bypass it so we can see what’s on the other side of that door ourselves.

Hacking is no different from magic in this regard.  In both cases, we want to dig beneath the assumptions to see how things actually work, regardless of how we think they’re supposed to work.  We find threads to pull on, we explore, we investigate, we play with the puzzles.  And with a certain amount of skill and luck, we can leverage our findings to give us the ability to do things we would ordinarily be unable to do otherwise.

Hacking and magic are, at their core, both systems of control.  They are both pursuits which involve approaching a system that appears to have a consistent set of rules and behaviors, and then trying to break those rules (or otherwise circumvent them) in ways that serve to our advantage.  And in both cases, the systems that we are exploring have seemingly denied us access.  When hacking computers, these can be access controls (like not having a valid password, or not having the right permissions to get at the data we want); or they can be technical limitations, such as having to figure out how an unknown program communicates over the network so we can learn how to speak with it.  In the case of magic, we are trying to achieve goals and accomplish effects that appear to be otherwise impossible given what we understand of the world around us and how it works.  Through magic, we attempt to exert some agency and gain leverage in order to achieve our desired effects.  Similarly, hacking is also fundamentally about control.  In both cases, the universe appears to tell us “no”, and we aren’t prepared to accept that answer.  So instead we go digging, we research, we experiment, and–like the velociraptors in Jurassic Park–we test those controls which appear to lock us in place.

The key in both cases is experimentation.  You can research and study works of magic all you like, but that isn’t the same as actually doing magic.  You can read as much as you want about the offensive uses of PowerShell or Python, or how to exploit a vulnerability in a piece of software, but doing so doesn’t make you a hacker.  For both the magician and the hacker, it’s putting that knowledge into action that defines the pursuit.

Magic, like hacking, is fundamentally both an art and an experimental science.  It should be noted that when I refer to magic as a “science”, I’m using the term in the earlier sense of scientia:  a body of knowledge, experience, and expertise.  In this sense I am speaking more to the pre-20th century meaning of the word, before the influences of Karl Popper and logical positivism crept in, and before we became ensconced in an epistemology of scientific materialism.  Instead, when I use the word I’m referring the pursuit of knowledge itself.  Because the terrain in both cases is so vast, however (infinite, in the case of magic), and because magic—like hacking—isn’t merely a domain of knowledge but rather the skill of putting knowledge into action in ways that achieve a desired result, the necessity for experimentation and experiential learning is unavoidable.
Like hackers, we as magicians must make room for what Aidan Wachter refers to as “serious play”.  We must cultivate our curiosity and follow it down the rabbit hole.  Rather than being content with established methods, we should be seeking to get at the root of what makes those methods work, and see how far we can stretch and bend them until they break–teaching us in the process what our palette of options is, what shortcuts we may safely take, and ever expanding our repertoire and our experience.  This is what makes someone a true hacker, and it is equally what makes a person a true magician.
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