Friday, March 13, 2009
When Does Wrong Become Right?- Musings on Spiritual Traditions and the Materia Magica
I sit here, way past my bed time, when I should be editing new items for the shop. Something has long been preying on my mind that maybe has no answer, or is at the very least, highly subjective.
I have been fortunate enough to have had ample time over the years to pour through magical texts, both ancient and modern, and even more fortunate to interact with living magical traditions for the majority of my life. That said, when a certain component is mistranslated, either purposely or in honest error, and a formula is transmitted through the generations in its uncorrected form, when does that become the correct "way" and the original wrong?
An example: Abra-Melin Oil. There are at least three major versions, four if you count the original Oil of Tanakh. The version most widely used on a regular basis is the Crowley, used regularly by Thelemites the world over. As per Crowley's instructions, it is composed of essential oils, not by the classical method of macerating the herbs in olive oil. By his own admission, this is a burning, "biting" oil. It burns the hell out of your skin, it leaves red marks, and even blisters on more sensitive skin! And he liked it that way. So that particular formula, one could argue, is correct for adherents of Thelema. There isn't a bloody chance in hell you'd get that much pure cinnamon oil near MY skin, but that is just me :P Even the cinnamon leaf oil is a bit much, though much more tolerable. I don't like galangal EO either; it goes rancid too quickly. Pain in the butt to find, too.
Certain other translations insist on galangal's inclusion in the formula, while others deny that this is so, and insist on calamus. Now, knowing what I do about the regional specifications of the oil, calamus IS perhaps more likely to have been included in the original. Calamus, of which there are many varieties, is native to India. Galangal is native to Asia and India. One can argue trade routes, and the extent to which traders would go to acquire precious spice and scent is very well postulated and documented. One can even argue about true plant origins; I've met people that insist that calamus is native to Northern Africa (it isn't). Debates rage about mistranslations found in different texts, and it all comes down to who wants their version to be the right one.
We come to another problem. The amount of oil prescribed in certain translations is not even enough to cover the herbal dry matter. Most practitioners have not found this to be a problem, and simply add more oil. Who'da thunk? Common sense, yes? But it still bugs me, and tickles at the back of my brain.
Practice magic for any length of time, and you develop ritual quirks. You use a particular incense regularly, even if it is the cheap-y sticks 10 for a buck at the local shop, and that scent triggers your ritual mindset. After years and years of spraying my ritual area with a blend or myrrh oil mixed with water (quite handy for outdoor magic, when you want to avoid fire) I still "trigger" at that particular scent. As Ac has so kindly pointed out, the sense of smell is our only known sense that bypasses the hypothalamus, and reaches us directly without filters.
Everyone has experienced that moment of, say, bread baking takes you back in time to your Grandmother's kitchen, or someone walks by, wearing the same perfume your first sweetheart wore... You can re-visit entire periods in your life from a smell catching you unawares. Magical practitioners have harnessed this, to some extent.
What I would like to touch on next are formulas found within traditional American folk magic. Hoodoo, Root work, etc.
While I have nothing but the utmost respect for those who not only preserved the traditions, but popularized them (thus keeping them from dying a slow, sad death), I take issue with some of these folks as well. Many traditional formulas are reproduced for the benefit of all that use them. I firmly believe that you do not have to practice Hoodoo to enjoy the amazing power of, say, Abre Camino, Love Drawing, or Van Van Oil. What I have a problem with is the over-standardization of these formulas. There are some Root Workers that say that you have to use jojoba oil for this kind of condition, or almond oil as a base for that condition oil. That is all well and good, but frankly, the ladies who I grew up around insisted on using olive oil for just about everything. Granted, there are many things that I was not privy to, being a young un' but I kept my eyes open and my mouth shut, and it was always the bottle of olive oil (sometimes, one or two of them used Crisco for macerating herbs, though). Maybe this was just because it was the most widely available "living " oil. Not denatured by heat and chemicals, in other words.
I still remember being allowed to come along to seal a house from... whatever was in it, and the surrounding property. I was instructed to dip my finger in the small white bowl of olive oil, and make crosses on the lintels of the doors, and any place I "saw" something. That was it. Very simple, not as product heavy as many Hoodoo spells that are in popular modern circulation. There are certain condition formulas that seem to have a great variance by region, even among modern practitioners. This is only natural, we find what works for us, and most Root Workers don't just make the stuff, but pray over it, "charge" it, and make it active for their client. It's natural that they would alter a formula slightly to their liking, as they are the one using it.
Some formulas vary drastically by region, in great part to availability of herbs, the influence of previous occupants of the land (those who practice in Pennsylvania are more likely to have been influenced by German settlers) or Native Americans. Despite what many within the "New Age" community believe, there is no such thing as a single group called " Native Americans", and believing so is delusional. I am 1/4 Cherokee, and look fairly typical in facial features to other Southern Cherokee women. Large eyes, set far apart, a nose you'd have to see to believe, strong jaw, and high cheekbones. We look different than, say, the Diné, or Mattaponi, and we have different rituals, magic, and medicine (medicinal plant and illness varying by region). Hoodoo being the natural result of African magic blending with local tribes, will have variations according to magic of origin, region, and stability of community (how much time you had to pass a formula on). But if a magical practitioner is accustomed to a particular variation above all others... Unfortunately, this is a much neglected area of study, and many practitioners are completely unaware that there are variations. Greatly in need of cataloging and description. Kinda wishing that Harry M. Hyatt was still around ;)
But magical practitioners get set in their ways, and despite the modern resurgence of the occult and the seeming erasure of geographic barriers that the Internet pretends to, we are still very much separated by our geography. Occultists and Pagans in certain towns in the Midwest have a different style of practice than those on the Coasts; the West Coast being heavily influenced by Reclaiming, Feri, aspects of the Hermetic, and Buddhism, and the other being heavily influenced by British Trad, Southern Folk Magic and Root work, etc. Not only that, we all experience different levels of in house politics. Some regions have more domineering, charismatic, or catty "leaders" or human focal points. Some have strong, stable, and supportive communities. Some actively engage in magical warfare as par-for-the-course. We are not a singular community yet, but plural communities that occasionally engage in tentative contact.
So, if you've read this far (and who reads this many bloody pages on the Internet, lol), I just want to pose the question: When does wrong become right? When does the weight of years overcome what was done long ago, and become the "right", standard way to do something? When does the personal experience of a practitioner outweigh Tradition?
Let me know your honest thoughts and opinions on any and all of these topics. Right now, it's 2AM. Currently reading "The Mote in God's Eye", by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle :)