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 :)



Greymentality said...

As someone who didn't come from a tradition but made her own way as she went along, I have a different view on the subject of which fork in the road to take when it comes down to tradition or individuality.

I am reminded of the story of a household of women who taught each other, generation after generation how to cook a roast. You season it, cut the top off it, and stick it in the oven. The youngest in the family asked "Why do we cut off the top?" Her mother said "Because it's how it's always been done." No one could figure out why it has always been so. So they asked the great great grandmother why they always cut off the top of the roast. She said "Because it wouldn't fit in my oven."

Now, is that a story about a silly misunderstanding of how the meaning behind a tradition gets lost? Or is it a story about true character and just another quirk in a long-standing family tradition that brings them together? I think it's both.

Here an individual quirk turned into a traditional thing. It was celebrated, like magical traditions are. They have a starting point. I think that if a tradition's essence remains pure, then that is the bending point. If you think you are being honorable, trust that. You were taught by those who uphold the tradition by which you belong.

It's quite late, and I hope that made sense. :)

Lodestone and Ladys Mantle said...

What a beautiful story :)
I don't think that any magical Tradition is "pure", as it is necessary for it to be shaped and molded by the living.
A standardized Tradition is a dead one, like a butterfly pinned to the glass. Possible to admire it, but never to interact with it.I am continually fascinated by the evolution of magical disciplines over the years; for example, I think that if half the Gardnerians actually abided by the Ardanes, that Tradition would be defunct.
Ah, well, bless the brains we've been given to know better ;)


Greymentality said...

Change is necessary with growth. Adapt or die.

And about the Ardanes, yep, that's true there. I think one should cast off what is no longer needed or that is holding back a tradition from thriving and still hold true to itself.

Two Strands Soap Works said...

I've actually been thinking a good deal about this lately, esp. as there is so little out there on ancient Egyptian magic - the drawing pulse of my own heart as you know.

I've been reading what I can find, but some of it isn't about magic per se, meaning rituals/spells/chamr/etc; rather, the material that seems to be conveying the best messages are those that discuss the Egyptian view of life, death, the cosmos, the Neter, etc. How they lived - what they did with their time on earth and how they viewed the sacred and divine.

Naturally the rarity of most ingredients used in ancient spellwork makes doing so in this day and age challenging, if not impossible; however, what is wrong with modifying something to fit your abilities/means or your impulses?

I've been using a lot of impulse in my magic. If it feels intensely true that burning finely ground rose petals for Isis would please Her, then so be it. It feels almost as if some deeper part of me knows what to do - I just need to be quiet and listen!

I think that at the core of our being, the soul whose path has been long and rich with the knowledge of ages now burned into our genetics, there lies the truth of the ways of magic and worship. We just have to be still and listen, wait for that light to illuminate us.

There is no one way or right in my mind; rather, there is the way forward towards illumination if we choose to follow it and let it lead us on. The great spirits are here to guide us, if only we'll just sit still and listen. The heart knows the way for us to serve best. I believe that.

My 45 cents 'cause it definitely wasn't 2!

And I'm not espousing a complete divorce from the written word, for there are many valuable folks out there publishing their life's work for us; however, there is something to be said for granting yourself permission to experiment, feel and explore on the divine impulse that is within you. Being informed is always wise and you can take what suits you to heart and leave the crap behind. :o)

Is it common sense? I say it's connection. Connection with the source of all life and light, the cosmos, the sacred and divine. And what if the answers we need, the guidance and instruction, is there, but only just obscured by ignorance or the refusal to see what's before us?

:o) ~ M

I hope that made sense!

Celestite said...

As a practitioner who does not make her own oils, I am more concerned with finding oils that will be the same all the time and anything else I leave up to intent.
If I was making the oils, as you do, I think I would be much more interested and concerned about making them according to tradition and thoroughly researching the history and tradition.
I think maybe there is a disconnect between practitioners like me, who can purchase what they want, and people like you, who have the ability to actually make the oils.
I think this is more a function of our modern society and a consumer mindset, rather than a disregard of tradition.
I would like someday to be able to grow my own herbs and make my own oil.
An in between step would probably to become better educated, which your post reminds I should do.

Greymentality - love the story.

Lodestone and Ladys Mantle said...

There is always an older source or a dissenting source :)Harry Middleton Hyatt is largely considered the most complete, but many people argue with the influence he had on modern Hoodoo, making it singly-sourced. However, he was unique for his time, in that he interviewed real practitioners and wrote everything down in their own words, but many believe that his informants gave false information to him, in part to protect their practice (Hoodoo practitioners are notorious for not giving up recipes).

On some level, you just can't please everyone, but I try to find the oldest source possible, and from there, test everything in magic and ritual and note it's effectiveness. I really believe that the proof is in the pudding ;)

Lily Wyte said...

Perhaps all the various ways and trads work because the practitioner wants them to. Perhaps we are the real source of the magic.