I’ve been through what is quite an awesome journey since last Winter, in terms of personal unfoldment, and accepting aspects of my own path and nature. None of this would have been possible without my husband, who is so much the better half of my world that he really is my path. In some sense we always journey together, and his acceptance of me is all the validation I need. Whereas I measure and process and craft and test (and think too much), he seems to just go straight to it and be there already. I’ve learnt to listen to him and his way of being. I used to think I was listening already, but I wasn’t aware of how much of me didn’t, so I’ve learnt to listen more consciously.
I guess I’ve been working on something in myself, back and forth, since the Summer of 2009, when I had a resurgence of appreciation of Thelema and Crowley. Phil was right there, encouraging me, and liking The Beast for his own direct reasons, in his own way. I love Phil, not just ’cause he’s my husband and my life partner, but because I feel so proud of everything he is. He doesn’t care what people think, and he does what he wants, and he knows he’s as good as anyone. I have to learn that lesson, but I’ve really been working on it. The kind of Pagan Phil is, it’s the perfect antidote to all the “court mentality” of some of our imaginary kings and queens and priestesses and politicians. No big deal (kinda the point really), but it’s really good to be free.
Last October something did come home when I wrote this entry to my blog, looking back on the episode of Maat magick which had preceded my breakdown and break through spiritually in 1990. It isn’t quite done to admit any kind of mental instability in magic, and indeed you need to be pretty strong and resilient to go through some processes, but at the same time there is an undoubted kinship between the two areas which may leave some people very uncomfortable. While you do not want people to suffer the awful losses of mental illness (and any responsible person will guard against this for both themselves and others), it remains that there are areas of both which can only be distinguished from each other by where they are going, rather than what they are. “Facing the shadow”, or encountering the “dark night of the soul” are experiences of failure as profound as anyone could subjectively imagine. They are not symbolic dress rehearsals but, as spiritual experiences, the manifest beneficence which underlies them makes of them a healing and refashioning which defies description. It’s appropriate in some ways that I wrote that blog post after I had completed the elemental reflections that I was engaged with last Summer, ending with fire, as the crisis can be compared to the crowning of elemental existence with spirit (even if the process felt like you were going off the rails and dying!).
The first magical operation I did after my breakthrough (as far as I remember) was a little Hoodoo ritual of Michael Bertiaux’s, which was quite trippy and opened me up dramatically at a certain level, but I had to say a friendly goodbye to the spirits involved after about three nights of strange sleep, crystal clear inner visuals, and the sight of astral black fire which to this day remains one of the most bizarre things I’ve seen, due to its dense blackness and fluid flame motion. Second chakra felt kinda sore by then. It felt entirely benevolent but apparently wasn’t right for me. An intentional and affectionate goodbye, and the spirits were gone on their way.
Both Nema’s Maat Current and Michael Bertiaux had turned up in Kenneth Grant’s “Cults of the Shadow”, a book I had come across while working in a warehouse in Limehouse in 1979 (literally, I was packing the books for mail order). Kenneth Grant had been a deep but mystifying inspiration to me throughout a good deal of my twenties. His exposition of Crowley’s work in “The Magical Revival” was an epiphany for me, and his introduction of Austin Osman Spare through his “Oracles and Images” book was immensely liberating. He also introduced an illuminating exposition of what he termed “the left hand path”¹, a term which was often used elsewhere in a condemnatory sense (an esoteric cross between degenerate, pervert and criminal) but which Grant validated and took back to its Indian tantric roots.
The main reason I bring up Grant is because, along with a renewed affection for the person I was in my early and late twenties, I’ve come to remember how important a vision of the Left Hand Path was for me, and how much it has shaped me spiritually. I had not followed a conventional path by anybody’s criteria, the central part being art with magical intention or inspiration, a very personal practice that sought to both explore the self and its inward worlds, and open doors to other places. Spare was my biggest inspiration, but I also felt a great kinship with the Australian artist Rosaleen Norton. That was buttressed by Crowley and more conventional material from the likes of Israel Regardie.
I was in a position though where I needed to explore conventional (“right hand path”) material to gain psychological strengths that I lacked (to “grow up” basically), but “the way” was clearly left hand path to my view and sensibility. This was further complicated by the fact that, as a gay man, conventional right hand path material could not help me reach psychological strength and maturity, as it did not accept my valid existence. Grant’s presentation of the left hand path, for that matter, seemed to skirt my existence also in his overwhelming focus on heterosexuality and an objectified vision of the magickal power of “woman”. How dated that use of the term “woman” seems now (and it was irksome then), but I believe it can actually be seen to underly quite a few physical gender obsessions within neopaganism, like we never got past 1960 or something. I believe in “Cults of the Shadow” at one point Grant also puts forth a theory to explain homosexual oral and anal acts in terms of chakra imbalances. There was so much fascinating material and inspiration, but nowhere to stand. One of the reasons I felt so close to Spare was that with the ecstatic content of his work, there was no judgement. Also, with both Crowley and Spare the individual was sovereign, and there at least there was sanctuary, and an exultant one.
Of all the gods I saw mentioned in my readings of Thelema, the one that stands out is the Egyptian Set. You couldn’t find a more demonized figure to western esotericism really, as the later myths that came down cast him as a cosmic Cain, and what he does to Osiris there is a kinda Sweeny Todd study in mythological forensics. But the ambiguous, complex figure of Set is much older than that story, and he was indeed worshipped and accorded great honour in his time. He could never be quite kicked out anyway, as he remains on the solar barque at the crucial moment when Ra is threatened by the serpent monster Apep, and there Set is, the only one capable of defeating the monster and letting the Sun go on to rise again. It looks like later ages couldn’t live with him, but they couldn’t quite live without him either.
My feelings for Set have proved to be deep and abiding, sleeping at the back of my being like the peaceful, low hum of bees at rest, waiting for over twenty years for me to turn around and notice. Words do fail me here, but I can add that this is another place where Phil has just understood immediately and without question. There is a beautiful and tantalising exposition of the nature of Set in Katon Shual’s “Sexual Magick“, as a god of ambiguity and confusion, sexuality (especially non-procreative sexuality) and sexual magick, and the many formed reality (and unreality) of gender, as well as being a god of foreigners and frontiers. This book has some wonderful treasures within it, such as the account of Moses Long’s experiments as a 17th century conjuror in the field of sexual magick in “the conjuration of Angels”. There were things in this, the latest, revised edition of “Sexual Magick” that had me laughing with recognition, and the author treats the subject with great kindness and humanity. I recommend this book very highly.
The chapter dealing with “The Mysteries of Seth” features a section which takes on the form of a communication from the god in response to questions, and I was really struck by how much this reminded me of some of my old inspiration Richard Gardner’s writing in books like “The Tarot Speaks” and “Evolution Through the Tarot”, where he tried to let the images of the cards speak through him. Richard, like Katon Shual, rated Wilhelm Reich, and though the time he was coming from had a strong sense of the gender binary, he would have been the first to throw off anything that he saw as closing people’s minds to the realities of sex, sexuality, love and consciousness. Richard had enough of the benign trickster to him to be a little god of confusion himself, but reading that section of Katon’s book, I almost felt like I was hearing the same voice at times.
Inevitably, if you follow the path of magick, you follow a road to a place which has been culturally outlawed for a very long time. We sometimes persuade ourselves that we have come a long way since the Victorian era, but our collective life still cherishes ignorance and a repression of love and sex under so many of its polished, professional or sentimental surfaces. But still people have the courage to follow that other call. It can be done, and anyone who has the heart and soul for it should follow their heart.
Some of the things I remember from Kenneth Grant’s exposition of the 93 current² and its aquarian implications were the shift in the formula of magic from ritual (Virgo-Pisces) to direct astral magic, and especially the use of sexuality and the sexual current (Leo-Aquarius). The other was the sovereignty of the individual. Grant could sound rather daunting and clinical at times, rather unfeeling, but I’ve come to understand that the actual work is anything but that. I am neither the thelemic hero nor the scarlet woman, and the stereotypes don’t really speak to me or my experience. I am exactly the post-punk hippie tree hugger that I am, with a husband that means the whole world to me, living happily in our home in East London. But I actually now recognise that, as the person I am, I have largely followed this path, through an emerging predisposition rather than conscious design. With my husband, and in completely idiosyncratic ways, I have left behind ritual of all but the simplest form, and focussed on sexuality and eroticism, natural trance states arising from the body and emotions, and congress with our beloved deities and spirits. And that is a very loving, practical, authentic and nourishing experience.
Of course terms like “left hand path” and “right hand path” are categories in our heads, but I’m happy to acknowledge the strange, beautiful and liberating garden I once found under the left hand sign. Though the path has been a long one, I realize I still live in that garden, and you can live in that garden with love.
¹ a reasonable jumping off point discussion of the terms “right” and “left hand path” can be found here.
² ie of Thelema