Real Things

Originally published April 19, 2020

There are a few pieces deeply related to my personal magical work that I’ve published more than once, only to delete or otherwise remove. I’ve come to a point where I feel like I’ve laid enough of a groundwork for some of that content to make sense, and my next few posts are going to be autobiographical in nature.

One reason for my reservations is how deeply personal the experiences were, and the fear of somehow “defiling” something sacred by sharing it. Another is simply that of context—I never felt like I had properly set the right context to convey the importance of experiences that were in many ways bizarre and non-rational. I worry that I won’t be taken seriously—will people think I’m making something out of nothing, wandering in delusion, or even making this stuff up? Will people misunderstand why I’m sharing it? However, having written The Personal Myth, I think I’ve formulated a framework that the emerging picture of Hermekate fits into. It’s unavoidable in my case that knowing certain biographical details is an important part of the work and the message, because so much of it is related to time itself. The Personal Myth unfolds throughout our lives, beginning with birth (and perhaps sooner). Time is an essential part of its very fabric, and its language. The best way I can think of to illustrate it is to tell the stories from my own life that ultimately led me to the idea. It’s an idea that I lived first and formulated later. The unique nature of each Personal Myth means that it’s difficult to speak in more general terms about its manifestations and its potentials. I think a lot of this will be highly case-specific.

The first story is about how I got involved in magic in the first place.

My initiation into magic was unorthodox on many levels, and it came early. I honestly believe it could only have happened the way it did in the unique time and place in which it occurred (around 1996 in the United States—I was 13 years old), and this fact has imbued it with meaning to me. In order to understand why I approached it the way I did, a few details about my early life are in order.

I mentioned my Catholic upbringing in The Personal Myth, and the fact that my father was at one time intent on becoming a priest. To leave it at that is to leave you with half (or maybe less) of the picture. If you ask him today, he will tell you he’s an atheist or a Buddhist. His career trajectory as I’ve known it was always tied to hard sciences like physics and chemistry, and his work involved important things—the environment (think Exxon-Valdez cleanup and testing soil samples for radiation levels), pharmaceuticals (he worked for the company that developed naproxen sodium), optics and space exploration (the color-shift pigment used in printing currency, the coating on the lens for the Hubble Space Telescope). Aside from teaching me about Catholicism, he filled bookshelves in my childhood home with Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Erich von Daniken, Carlos Castaneda, Charles Bukowski, Stephen Hawking, Noam Chomsky—eclectic and not-clearly-secular interests. This is the stuff I would pull down and read when I was bored with my own books. He also had several boxes full of first-edition comics like Fantastic Four, X-Men, and Spider-Man.

My mother, on the other hand, owned a Rider-Waite tarot deck and used to give it to me to play with when I was still crawling on the floor. She was never consciously a “witch,” but I can nonetheless see her influence on my approach to spirituality and, eventually, occultism. She owned a set of fancy ornamental china plates that at one point hung on our walls, each of them depicting a sabbat (which I did not realize at the time). She was into English history, Arthurian lore, all of that. She was also the person who introduced me to the runes (she didn’t have a lot of specific information about them, but she bought me my first rune set for Christmas). We had a blast at Stonehenge and Glastonbury when I was 8 years old and touched a megalith that, it is said, confers “earth power” to those who come in contact with it. My mother worked full time in addition to taking care of me.

As you can see, although my household wasn’t as explicitly magical as some, all the ingredients for raising a kid who was open to that sort of thing were there from day one. Neither of my parents ever discouraged my emerging interests.

In 2nd grade, my class visited the school library one day, and a friend of mine ran up to me with a book called “Real Ghosts” by Daniel Cohen, which was about parapsychology. Starting on that day, I devoured everything interesting I could find in the relevant sections at the school library and several local municipalities in Colorado—ghosts, the paranormal, UFOs, cryptozoology. I read the name Blavatsky very early on since she was involved in the Spiritualist movement and that is bound to come up in a study of the paranormal. This will be relevant in later posts.

So, by the time I was 13 years old and living in the northern California college town of Davis, yeah, I’d say I was pretty ripe for the suggestion that magic is real. It came to me from a friend scarcely a year older than I myself and that is yet another reason I hesitate to be forthcoming about this. Say what you will at this point—I obviously made something out of the experience.

There’s a definite “Trickster” element to the way it happened, and the Trickster remains an archetype that is close to my heart. Many of the things my teacher did and called “magic” can be explained in other ways and some things are less clear. To this day, I couldn’t tell you where the ideas my first teacher and I discussed came from. I know where he told me they came from—literally, from an entity he referred to as a “goddess,” though her name is not one you’d find in a mythology book. For all I know, he made her up. For all I know, he had some mental health issues, or maybe was just very imaginative (I know how that goes). Knowing his circumstances (no father around, his mother was legally blind, they lived together with her caretaker, who was an abusive alcoholic), maybe it was both in a way, and he was coping with trauma. I don’t know where he got it from, I just know it changed my life. From what I’ve learned, it doesn’t matter; did The Secret Chiefs exist?

Does Golden Dawn magic work?

Two different questions.

I lived in a newly built subdivision at the time, and one afternoon, my friend and I were walking the newly built bicycle trail we called “the greenbelt” that connected my subdivision with nearby neighborhoods. We stopped at a drinking fountain next to a playground, one I knew quite well. It was a hot summer afternoon. You know how on hot days like that, you have to run the drinking fountain for a while to get to the cold water? That happened, except as I recall the event, the water stayed hot for an inordinately long time. I stood there with my finger under the stream, feeling for the water to run cold, and it just wasn’t happening.

My friend plucked a leaf from a nearby tree, held it up about a foot in front of his face in an almost “sacramental” way, gripped between his thumbs and forefingers. He closed his eyes, said something inaudible under his breath, and touched the leaf to the stream of water. It immediately went from hot to ice cold—my finger was still there. I felt the shift. It usually happens more gradually, and at that moment, it was like the snap of a finger. I looked over at my friend and asked, “How’d you do that?” His deadpan response was, “Magic.” He said it like he believed it. For whatever reason, I was inclined to at least provisionally believe him.

That afternoon, he told me that his method for the feat he’d performed was to “charge” the leaf with “energy” woven with intent. It was years before I encountered stuff like this in my studies that wasn’t too New Agey, but what he was talking about was essentially what some would call “witch fire,” or “prana” or “kundalini;” “Azoth,” “magnetic force,” “orgone energy,” “vril,” take your pick. I learned about this all firsthand from a 14 year-old, in his own terms, before ever finding it tucked away in esoteric tomes. It would be several years before I even realized there are people who practice magic who have no use whatsoever for such concepts except perhaps as symbolic constructs or psychological phenomena. Ceremonial Magic and related currents wouldn’t show up on my radar for years. This idea, and my personal experience with it, was all I had for quite a while.

In addition to the “energy” work, my friend claimed to be in contact with various spirits and said these were things that would eventually manifest in me. He once gave me a wooden “summoner,” which he fully admitted was just a random piece from discarded furniture that he had imbued with said purpose (this would prove to be one of the most important magical lessons he would ever teach me). He said I could use it to get in touch with a female protector spirit whom he said had been surrounding me. From this was born a lifetime of spirit work that has been interwoven with my magical and initiatory path, despite my interpreting the related phenomena in many different ways over the years.

That was it. There are certain things he taught me which I won’t go into. I won’t describe the ceremony in which he officially “initiated” me as a “green mage.” Too personal, not the point, etc.

One hallmark of his magic and the way he taught it was his ready incorporation of surrounding pop cultural material, which is probably the aspect that most sets it apart from what I’ve seen as common elements for other people. Yes, it’s de rigueur in chaos magic to incorporate pop culture into the practice, but it’s usually still viewed as controversial in terms of possible results and any deeper meaning to which they might point. It seems like something many occultists approach almost as a hobby or a curiosity, or perhaps even an affectation if I’m being honest—“Let’s see what this thing does, shall we?” That’s cool, and I fault nobody for that. For me, however, it was a keystone of magic as it was conveyed to me. It changed my very relationship with pop culture at a young age. I honestly don’t know if some of my ideas would work the same way for people that don’t have similar associations as part of their experience, but I will say I’ve been heartened in reading some of Don Webb’s writings in which he refers to Dungeons & Dragons and the way it has cropped up in his magical life. My teacher was a pretty good Dungeon Master himself.

[Note: Don Webb recently mentioned this D&D connection in an interview in which he also discusses the wider ways in which occult currents express themselves in fiction and popular culture. Listen here!]

The “energy” we worked with wasn’t neutral—it came in different “types” from different sources, which my teacher expressed in terms of the card colors in the game Magic: The Gathering. It was interesting how he handled this: On the one hand, there was a tacit recognition that the system he described was not absolute, but more of a model that could be worked into any symbol system. On the other hand, he also once remarked, “I think the people at Wizards of the Coast know something.” You could say this was my introduction to the concept of the four elements familiar to any student of the occult. The green magic my teacher primarily practiced and taught me was earthy in its element, and it had a strong resonance with both the witchcraft I would soon be reading about and the Paganism I would encounter later on. It was also my first framework for conceptualizing white magic and black magic; my teacher forbade the practice of [his conception of] black magic, and while he taught a mutual friend of ours white magic, he once referred to the guy in private with me as a “puny healer” (I laugh at that now, as I have learned that a true healer is also a grade-a badass and thus anything but “puny”). At any rate, that’s how I learned a great many magical concepts: Through Magic cards.

In his own spirit work, I recall my teacher once saying he’d imprisoned a malicious spirit in a LEGO minifigure-slash-“poppet” to nullify its presence in his life. That concept stuck with me. Stuff like this was commonplace with my teacher.

Final Fantasy? Sure, we’ll talk about magic, elements, energy types, and spirits as they’re represented in Final Fantasy VI (or III to we U.S. kids at the time). No problem! (Interesting side note: While we were having these conversations about Final Fantasy III and magic, my teacher would be playing the game in its original format, the Super Nintendo. Since then, the game has been re-released and re-mastered multiple times. I am playing through one of the newest versions on my phone at the time of writing this article, and I’m finding that many of the enemies have been re-named: First, a rat-like enemy is now named “Goetia,” then other enemies with names like “Glasya-Labolas” and “Marchosias.” Alrighty, then).

Marchosias in Final Fantasy VI. © Squaresoft 2020.

All of this came before any but the most cursory mention of ancient gods and goddesses, angels and demons. I’d ask my teacher about stuff like that sometimes, and he’d work it all in. Yes, to him, ghosts, angels, demons, the fae, all were real—their reality just isn’t quite the way we’re usually taught, he said. Magic: The Gathering, Dungeons & Dragons and Final Fantasy were languages they used, he said, to keep things moving in these interesting times. In this day and age, he said, people lend their creativity and suspend their disbelief to these fictions more readily than we once did to “overt” myths, so the spirits had to adapt. The spirits that once hid in the woods and manifested in our stories now hide in a largely cybernetic Otherworld of our own forging and manifest in the stories we tell therein. That’s more or less how he described it, but in the words of a 14 year-old D&D nerd. It was so long ago that I don’t remember too many specifics, I just remember his attitudes and philosophy about things.

It’s significant that this all occurred around the time I was being prepared for Confirmation at the church I still attended with my father. As one might expect, having this magical world opened up to me at a time in my life when I was grappling with theology led to some big decisions. More than any other factor, it was learning magic that led me to walk away from my religion of familiar origin. There was no room in a Catholic world for my magic, but as far as I could tell, the magical world was bigger than the Catholic world. It showed me Real Things that Catholicism simply never could; in a beautiful twist, the most Real of the Things it showed me were passed off first as fictions—or at least fit quite comfortably in the terms of fiction, so long as I would listen to them.

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