The Role of History in Practical Occultism

John Opsopaus

I would like to address the issue of history in Occultism from my own perspective, as a practicing Occultist, by which I mean someone whose interests in Occultism go beyond the purely intellectual to the practical. Although I'm sympathetic to the "if it works, use it" approach (see below), I think accurate historical information can be very useful for the Thoroughly Modern Occultist. The reason is that Magical Practices have evolved over millenia, and while it is, of course, not true that "if it's older, it must be better," I think we shouldn't ignore the generations of experience embodied in traditional thought. Thus my interest in tracing back sources as far as possible and getting to their root (e.g. the association of the Pentagram and the Elements, the Chakras, the Lesser Banishing Ritual).

The need for accurate historical information is one reason I prefer to work in the Graeco-Roman tradition, with its large corpus of surviving texts and enormous body of scholarship, rather than in others, such as the Druid or Wiccan, which have been reconstructed on a few shards of evidence or undocumentable oral tradition. (But don't misunderstand me: I really do like some of these reconstructions, and actively work in them too.) With the Graeco-Roman tradition, I feel like I have a better chance of understanding archaic thought, so that I can make an informed decision about what I accept or reject. With many of the others it's nearly impossible to distinguish a practice tested through hundreds of generations from one cooked up by someone who had just read The Golden Bough (or The White Goddess).

Such is the value of conventional historical research to the practicing modern Occultist. That said, I will now defend the value of unconventional, creative, even crackpot history. I am enough of a post-modernist to believe that there is no such thing as objective history; all historical texts are stories told in a cultural context, with associated biases, axes to grind etc. That does not bother me in the slightest. I expect we all acknowledge the value of myth, which embodies profound truth, in spite of its being literally false by the standards of "objective" history or science. Similarly, I think the contemporary myth of a pre-patriarchal, Goddess-worshipping civilization is beautiful and can do much to heal our culture, regardless of whether it is "true" by the conventional standards of archaeology etc. Indeed I'm even in favor of constructing "objectively false" histories to achieve desirable ends, whether by reinterpreting existing data, or by stitching together fragments that more conservative historians would be afraid to use, or by creating history ex nihilo. (Certainly, this creativity can be turned to undesirable ends, as the Nazis did with their Aryan Myth, but we will be more sceptical about such "objective science" in the future if we recognize that all science is value-laden and creative since underdetermined by the data.)

So it really doesn't bother me if someone thinks that they're practicing like the Druids did in Julius Caesar's time, or that their Tarot cards originated in ancient Egypt, or that they've been initiated into a Wiccan Tradition stretching back unbroken into the paleolithic. Such ties with the past, whether "true" or not, have many beneficial effects: feelings of community and continuity, respect for time-tested tradition, etc.

Certainly, a modern Mystic may construct a ritual that is more authentic than any handed down in corrupt and debased form from antiquity. And a speculative historian might take a speck of evidence and hit upon historical "truth" through his or her greater intuition and insight into ancient times, though the result is unprovable by conventional means and unacceptable to establishment historians. Unscholarly, yes, but perhaps very valuable.

I encourage everyone to invent history. You can't trace your genealogy back more than a few generations? Or you can - and you discover you're a direct decendant of the Marquis de Sade or Attila the Hun? Who cares? Do like I'm doing, and construct a genealogy for yourself that defines you as you want to be. Become the author of your own history. If you think it would be better if you were a direct descendant of Merlin or Christian Rosenkreuze, make it so. Of course there's no reason to restrict your descent to biology; reincarnation and other factors can also play a role. (I've always been amused by the fact that I was conceived in New Jersey about the time Aleister Crowley's ashes were scattered there: his literal nigredo in preparation for the next alchemical transformation!)

I suggest only one limitation to this rampant historical fabrication: be explicit about the rules by which you're playing. Say which parts of your history are factual by the standards of contemporary scholarship, and which have a different warrant. To avoid confusion about the conventions under which we're operating, I suggest we precede our stories by phrases such as the following:

"History/archaeology tells us that...."
Or: "According to our myth/mythology,...."
Or: "This authentic history was channeled by our spiritual master X in the 1890s."
In this way we can allow our creativity free rein, yet not confuse recent, perhaps untried, innovations with ancient practices, which we're foolish to discard thoughtlessly.
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Last updated: Sat Dec 27 21:29:52 EST 1997