Monday, 13 February 2017

My Years of Magical Thinking, by Lionel Snell

Lionel Snell is without doubt one of the great magical thinkers of the last half-century. This book is somewhat different to his other books, because he is offering his arguments to the wider public beyond the magical ghetto. It is a concerted defence of magical thinking - but as one of four basic types of thinking, four basic human ways of apprehending our worlds.

This four-directions model is not new - Snell's first book, SSOTBME, from 1974, laid out this model of human apprehension, but I must confess I never got that it was supposed to be a normal mode of thinking; somehow I assumed he was smuggling it in to complete his picture, and that it was still a fringe thing. Thinking back, I am puzzled at how I misread that idea, but it no doubt has to do with the fact that my own approach to magical thinking has often emphasized the fringe-y, even freakish nature of such thinking - the freakiness of which I am quite comfortable with.

Snell is careful to explain that this is not a map of 4 quadrants, into which all thinking can be neatly stuffed, but a compass of 4 directions, tendencies. These tendencies do have at their core some ideal kind of thinking which is of course always referred to, often emulated but never achieved in a pure form. He points out that this model is in itself an example of magical thinking, and is aware of the price we pay for making systems:
'No theory can claim maturity until it has been accused of being "a gross over-simplification".'

So what are the characteristics of the 4 types of thinking?

Magical thinking is based on a combination of feeling and sensation - we gather evidence directly via sensation and then decide how to act by what 'feels right.'
This is a fast mode of processing, much faster than Scientific thinking's combination of sensation and thinking. So it is much more useful in a pinch. I was reminded of the words of one of my favourite songwriters, Arthur Lee, when he sings: 'I believe in magic / Why? Because it is so quick / I don't need power when I'm hypnotized...'

Here is an elegant indicator of Religious thinking:
'...a notion has no religious meaning unless it is capable of being disbelieved (for otherwise there would be no non-believers from which the believers could differentiate themselves).'

Magical thinking is characterized by an inclusiveness of thought:
'In magical culture, a belief in any one system does not compel disbelief in another system that contradicts it, and this sets magical thinking apart from religious or scientific use of the word "belief`".'

For example:
'...I clearly accept the theory of evolution as a myth. I accept the myth that consciousness is generated within my brain, because that too works well for me - but it does not stop me also accepting the myth that I have an immortal soul that has incarnated in this body because that also works well in other contexts. I can at the same time accept the myth that light is a wave as well as the myth that light is made of particles, as both those myths work for me in their own way.'

Magical thinking also involves a game-like approach to life, not taking belief in what you are doing too seriously. The edges of magic, perhaps on the Science side of the compass, show up where:
'You do find magicians apparently so serious about a particular set of symbols that they appear to have accepted it as "absolutely true". Does that mean they are no longer playing a game?'

In contrast, the attitude of the official game-playing world of sport is much more serious, and Lionel puts it under Religious thinking, in which we have to believe in one thing and exclude all others, belong to one in-group and relegate all other people to the out-group.

The edges of Scientific thinking are interesting. Snell shows how theoretical physics is Platonism, of a peculiar kind:
'For example, any experiment as experienced subjectively by a scientist must be assumed to have a one-to-one relationship with an experiment taking place in the higher Platonic reality of a physical universe that is assumed to "really exist" and whose shadow or image makes up the experimenter's subjective experience.'

Plato, as I read him, is talking about subjectivity, and therefore the ideal states he talks about are subjective ones, and our discrimination around them is what leads us to spiritual awakening. But in our post-Cartesian world, spirit and even consciousness is rejected as being too difficult to understand, so theoreticians like Dennett and Dawkins pretend it doesn't exist (the most ridiculous philosophical position imaginable, since consciousness is the only prime datum we have). So instead physicists have projected an ideal out onto the external world, of an objective existence behind what we experience but which we can never reach.

The final section addresses some issue in the modern world. Snell tells us we are living in a culture where magical thinking is once again rising to prominence. This is of course not all good - it is the sort of era when some pundit in all seriousness can coin the phrase 'post-truth', a world in which prominent figures are not even shamed when their lies are revealed.

I have not, in this brief review, done justice to the layered and thorough arguments in this book, and I know I haven't plumbed its depths either. That will take another reading and then some. I recommend it unreservedly for anyone who wants to go on a journey of thinking about what magic means and what culture does with it.

Monday, 26 December 2016

Grenoside Sword Dance 2016

I've been going to this for years. It gets better every time, as I let the forms of this old dance sink under my skin.

This year the wind is bitter cold, and Death turns up and helps stop the traffic (an important part of the preparation for the dance). I've never seen Death at this event before, so I suspect he's a freelance.

Today my camera is not working well, so check out this old blog post with some decent film of the dances:

The Sword Dancers’ sequence involves two songs. In the first, the dancers hold each end of the ‘swords’ in a circle, then move round and through the circle in loops, stepping over the paired swords then raising them, until the hexagram form of the unconquered sun is produced and held up.

This seems like a cheerful form of the rhythms of work and frith, endless cycles under the calendar of the sun, the tune having a steady solid cheerful pace. With the second dance, the rhythm speeds up and swords clash – this is war. In the end, the resolution is the meeting of swords upright in the centre.

The weaving together of the dancers and thereby the swords forms a moving version of Germanic knotwork, the eternally-recurring forms of humans and animals woven together on the poles of life and death, the sacrifice of the king / the fox recalling ancient midwinter layers.

Sunday, 25 December 2016

Chaos Streams - real live chaos magic!

A book about the magical life done by IOT members. Also contains my History of Chaos Magic as an intro.
Go here and buy one, for the astonishing price of £8. Or an e-version for almost nothing.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

North, the Rise and Fall of the Polar Cosmos by Gyrus

What would it be like if culture was completely different, if we had taken any of a number of different routes in our cultural past? Not many authors dig as deep as Gyrus has done in 'North', dismantling deeply-embedded cultural assumptions.

Sure, there are other books, and this is indeed a hopeful trend in culture; instead of tinkering or trying to patch up the mess we have at the moment, let's look at its very roots and see if we can detect the basic flaws in our worldviews. Morris Berman did it with his 1989 book 'Coming To Our Senses', in which he shows how cultural shifts rely on some kind of collective gnosis, some new and ecstatic apprehension of reality, and that this cultural shift is not always a benign one. More recently and coming from a slightly different direction we have Nikki Wyrd's essay in which she suggests we abandon the primacy of 'higher' in her blog piece Dionysus' Doorway ( ).

On the cover of 'North' is a vortex, and the main text is sandwiched between two halves of an Extraordinary State of Consciousness at a Glastonbury festival. The core of the book takes us to where we can begin to see the underpinnings of our cultural assumptions; starting with Fire, where the rising sparks of a blaze point us to Sky and we encounter the first binary, earth and heaven. Once we have that vertical, we can divide up the surface of the earth, and we get North. The vertical binary is then applied to the body, and we get Head. Then the development of Copernican astronomy gives us Revolution. After that, Ice and the mysterious icy poles and finally, Space and its relevance to our current myths.

This is a very dense book, stuffed full of references to things you're unlikely to have read. But that is probably inevitable when a writer casts his net so wide in trying to catch the very biggest ideas. By and large, Gyrus succeeds in this ambitious quest; his dismantling of culture is a superb corrective to the Golden Age Aeonic narratives - such as those of Julius Evola - that are trotted out under the banner of Tradition. North is a toolkit, and part of a growing trend of rejecting the bases of the cultural forces that have got us to the state we are in today.

The link at the top is for buying the book (which I definitely recommend if you are interested in cultural transformation) but is also a whole website and blog devoted to the ideas in this book. Check it out. We have not heard the last of these ideas.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Pranayama by Andre van Lysebeth

(I was going to plug the business I bought it off, M and J Books, but they have no detectable web presence at all. I encountered them via the Amazon UK portal. So this link won't take you there: )

I only found out about the existence of this book recently, even though it was first published in 1979, via a footnote in another book I was reading. My reference treated it as a classic, and I can see why. That's why I'm reviewing it.

'Pranayama' held a number of surprises for me. At first I was put off by some curious attempts to demonstrate scientifically the existence of 'prana'. As I show in my forthcoming book 'Life Force: Sensed Energy in Breathwork, Psychedelia and Chaos Magic' we do not need the blessing of science to work with energy sensations and further, that concepts like 'prana' and 'qi' do not map smoothly onto concepts from physical science.

But then it got better and better. It covers everything, really: useful basic advice omitted by many texts on pranayama, from the control of abdominal muscles and the use of nostril-flaring to get the sensed-energy feeling through every kind of pranayama you'll have heard of and a couple you might not. It is written by a Westerner, but from a traditional perspective, making it valuable in terms of preserving Indian teachings which sometimes get lost in Western interpretations.

If breathing work interests you then this book is a must.

Friday, 2 December 2016

New edition of The Nine Doors of Midgard, by Edred Thorsson

From Wordery at

I first read this book in 1996, when I joined the Rune-Gild. It is the training manual for that organization, and presents a scheme of self-initiation via a lengthy and thorough programme of work. At that time I bought the Llewellyn edition, one of those books where they use vanishing glue on the spine and so it eventually becomes loose leaf. Then for some time it was only available as a Gild internal document, so the new edition brings this extraordinary work to the wider world in a form which does not fall apart.

The scheme is very thorough, and amounts to a daily practice that you build up from a progressive menu of workings, new ones introduced in each of the 9 sections or 'Doors'. The work includes daily rituals, rune contemplation, magical diary (PAD or personal analysis diary), Germanic soul lore, breath and sound exercises that lead up to operative rune-galdor, the carving of runes leading up to the creation of runic talismans or spells, how to do rune-readings, energy circulation using runes and working with wights, both the lesser ones such as dwarves and the gods of Asgard. This scheme of magical work leads via the construction of a magical self (the Wode-Self), the composition of your own Rune-Poem and a brief introduction to seith, including utiseta ('sitting out' to discover your fylgia-animal) to the writing of your Master Work.

There is also a very useful reading list for each Door. The whole thing will take you at least three years and is designed to take you to Mastery, which is where your mentoring Rune-Gild Master and other Masters of the Gild declare that you have reached a stage where you are expected to teach. Thus the Gild maintains a high standard of transmission of magical learning.

If you are at all serious about working in the Northern tradition of magic, then you need to read this book.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Review of The High King's Vengeance by Steven Poore

The High King's Vengeance by Steven Poore

This is the sequel to Heir to the North,, both being parts of Malessar's Curse. (I review HTTN here).

The tale opens in a tavern where we learn some important news via a couple of the less pleasant characters. As in HTTN, we hear of places that not everyone believes in the existence of - in this world, there are many lost layers of history, and few people know the whole story. As it happens, Norrow, Cassia's vile father, knows a good deal, and his knowledge is knowledge of coming war.

At the end of HTTN (no spoilers!) Cassia and her allies perform a kind of magical fix on the blasted northern land of Caenthell, but the fix will not hold. We meet her again, in the ruins of the magical battle that ended the first volume, picking up the shattered pieces of her life and the ruined lives of her companions.

It's hard to describe much of the action of this volume without giving spoilers about what happens in HTTN. Suffice it to say that Cassia is driven, often against her own desires and better judgement, to a terrible and final confrontation with the forces that shaped the land aeons ago and are now arising again with terrible, sorcerous power.

The gradual revelation of the High King's nature is a suitably chilling dimension to the whole story and there seems little hope most of the time of Cassia's prevailing or even surviving; she is up against forces which few in the world even know about, let alone understand. However, she gathers her companions for the march North, and deals from day to day with their lack of faith, their treachery and their desperate fear.

We see the growth in Cassia, the way she deals with her doubts - she is ill-prepared for the having the whole future of the North thrust upon her, and she has no taste at all for becoming Royalty.

We meet again some of the characters from HTTN and some new ones are introduced, particularly the Galliarcan prince Rais, who proves an excellent foil for Cassia's doubts and confusion. The plot is pacy and well-maintained - I found it unputdownable, and there is a big enough share of mysteries left for the final confrontation.

As for what happens to Cassia in the end, I won't be telling, but it fits extraordinarily well with everything that has gone so far.

Like epic fantasy? I suspect you will love this. But do read Heir to the North first. If you enjoyed HTTN, then you will enjoy this, the second and final part, even more. HTTN is a very satisfying read, from the level of plot, but this volume completed and rounds it out. Steven Poore has done it again!