Magic Has Always Been A Thief


We had to talk about this eventually. I wasn’t exactly avoiding it, but I wasn’t chomping at the metaphorical bit to get to this place either, but here we are. A few things synced up that made this post necessary today as opposed to sometime in the future. 

The first was Dia de los Muertos. I posted something on my personal facebook, which is filled with wonderful occult leaning people that I’ve never actually met. I posted an article talking about why you should not appropriate the traditions of the holiday is you weren’t a part of a cultural tradition that celebrates it.

This post, which was just a repost, I offered no commentary on it, mostly generated positive echo-chamber comments. There were a couple, however, that while innocent, reasoned, and drawn from the posters own perspective, I summarily deleted because they didn’t align with the sentiments of the article. These posts were from what I viewed as a pagan perspective and, in short, argued that they too, with their pagan traditions, weren’t being appropriative by honoring their ancestors.

There were a couple of things wrong with these responses, first of all, I could tell they hadn’t read the article and were reacting to the title, not unusual for occult facebook, but it is behavior that says more than what their opinions in the comment did. The act of not reading, not reasoning or trying to understand the perspective of an ‘Other’ (‘Other’ in the sense that it was written from a cultural perspective outside there), is by my definition an appropriative stance. Let me restate that, reacting with your own perspective before, or during, of even shortly after you are presented with an other’s cultural perspective is an act of appropriation, and act of asserting privilege, of not recognizing the validity of the ‘Other’ over your own. Those pagans that state that they have their own cultural right to honoring their ancestors on All Saints Day without recognizing or even listening to the perspective of a writer arguing that the particular living traditions of Dia de los Muertos did not belong to them acting in a singularly appropriative way.

Don’t mistake me, I am not saying that these pagans do not have this right to honor their ancestors. I am saying that by not stopping to listen, to understand, to observe, they relinquish that right for themselves. They take the stance of the colonist, not the historicist. This is no different than the imbrication of Catholic traditions over indigenous ones, of building churches on ancient burial grounds.

Right, so I was going to just let it go, it is occult facebook after all, you can’t get be obsessed with comments, even from well meaning people. But then, in moving through Lovecraft’s oeuvre I hit on the tale of Sarnath and its doom. This is a tale of colonization and appropriation, of imperialism and genocide. Then, when drawing cards, the Five of Cups came up, which so perfectly aligned with the message of this tale, well, at that point was compelled to write a post about appropriation and magical tech.

I have a fairly deep perspective on cultural appropriation, which stems from the years that I was mentored by a Bad River Ojibwe elder as a student of Ojibwe language and culture. I went into that relationship with a very specific perspective and the will to maintain that perspective. Now, this might be a bone in the throat for a lot of magicians and ammunition for those that would argue against my perspective on appropriation, but I went into my relationship with the urban American Indian community of Milwaukee and with my mentor with the intent of maintaining a strict anthropological frame to my experience and my interactions. In particular, I consciously assumed the role of participant observer in my interactions with my mentor and his community.

Why did I purposefully keep myself outside of a community and culture that was welcoming me in?

I assumed and maintained the role of participant observer specifically to avoid any conscious or unconscious appropriation of American Indian culture during my studies and interactions with the community. I did this because I understood that there was no true way that I would be able to understand American Indian culture at the level that the community members did. I assumed this role so that it was always apparent, to me primarily and to others secondarily, that I knew what my own culture was and that I was not in any way attempting to incorporate their own culture into my own, no matter how in depth my experiences with the community got, which turned out to be very deep. In the role of participant observer, I would always be the  Raised-On-A-Dairy-Farm-Straigh-White-Male that was grateful to be included and learning and participating in their community.

This is the same approach that I am attempting to take  now, during my personal Occult Renaissance.

Let’s take a look at the why and how of participant observation and then try and connect this to interactions with the spirit ecology around us. 

The first bit we should look at is acculturation. Let’s look at the anthropologist, Napolean A. Changnon and his work ‘Yanomamo - The Last Days of Eden’. In this work he as the following to say about acculturation:

“In the Americas, acculturation — the process of change that occurs when two cultures impinge on each other — has gone pretty much in one direction. Ever since the times of Columbus, native tribal societies have been ‘contacted’ (as anthropologists say) by representatives of the European cultural tradition — explorers, missionaries, homesteaders, prospectors, and so on. These early contacts have set in motion changes that have drastically altered the tribal societies, and have often caused their extinction as cultural entities.”

In the modern Western Magical Tradition, I see acculturation trending in the reverse direction. Pagans, would-be White Shamans, and yes especially Chaos Magicians, are very often purposefully seeking out to be acculturated by indigenous cultures and initiatory traditions. The Western Magical Diaspora has steadily and consciously pulled in ideas and tech from other traditions, this is the origin of the phrase, ‘magic has always been a thief’. There are instances of magical acculturation in the other direction, for instance, I read a really interesting paper a few years ago that described an appropriation of the Kabalah into traditional Santeria practices in the Dominican Republic, but for the most part, the flow has been in the other direction. The problem with WMD’s being willingly acculturated is there is often an underlying assertion that the magic they are immersing themselves in is more effective because it is somehow closer to the source, closer to a living tradition. This behavior makes a lot of sense as the WMD does not have a living tradition (and I know this is the fault of anthropologists) a living tradition is seen as 100% more legitimate than a reconstructed cultural practice. This assumption, however, is a very short jump from the inherent bias that nineteenth and twentieth century anthropologists have of indigenous cultures. Again from Changnon:

“For better or worse, there is a definite bias in cultural anthropology favoring descriptions of tribal peoples that characterize them as hapless, hopeless, harmless, homeless, and helpless.”

Those five H’s are encoded in the word ‘traditional magic’ or ‘living tradition’ when viewed from the perspective of someone (like me) that lives and has been raised outside the culture. This, like male white privilege, is true even if we consciously tell ourselves that it is not.

My fix to this is to constantly reassert both overtly and covertly that I understand and recognize my place in the magical world as someone with no living tradition. Through the conscious act of participant observation of other living magical traditions I make the statement that I recognize, very much, the ‘living’ part of that description. That these traditions are not older or closer to some mythical magic Aleph at the beginning of time, but have been and continue to evolve in a natural and wholistic way, reacting to the non-magical and the magical world on a daily basis.

If this approach resonates with you, and I recognize that it absolutely will not for many practitioners, but if it does, there is a simple exercise you can incorporate into your practice that can help you continually recognize your place as a member of the WMD, outside of initiatory or living magical traditions. That exercise, again taking from the anthropologist’s handbook, is the act of taking field notes. 

You might already keep a magical journal, one where you right down your sigils and spells and journeying experiences. Field Notes fit right in with this part of your practice, but are focused specifically on your interactions and research into other living traditions of magic. Let’s take a look at how fieldnotes are a specific type of activity. From the work 'Fieldnotes: The Makings of Anthropology' edited by Roger Sanjek, in the essay entitled A Vocabulary of Fieldnotes written by the editor, we see that there are three specific stages to the fieldnotes process, the first being scratch notes or if you’d like a fancier term, inscription:

"For many antrhopologists, a first step from field perception to paper is handwritten ‘scratch notes’… Scratch Notes are sometimes produced in the view of informants, while observing or talking with them, and sometimes out of sight.

Scratch note production is what James Clifford calls inscription ‘A participant-observer jots down a mnemonic word or phrase to fix an observation or to recall what someone has just said… inscribing scratch notes, usually on a small pad contemporaneous with or soon after the events observed or words heard, is anthropological fieldwork…”

For me, scratch notes can be made after observing a ritual, seeing someone’s altar, hearing someone that is from an intiatory tradition speak on their practice, etc. They don’t have to be done right then, but soon after, when you are alone and contemplating what you saw / heard / felt in the presence of a living tradition. The second part of the process is called ‘description’, again from Sanjek:

"The second stage of fieldnote production is… description… the making of a more or less coherent representation of an observed cultural reality… for later writing and interpretation… the scratch notes to descriptive fieldnotes writing act must be timely, before the scratch notes get ‘cold’…"

Description is crucial because in the act of reflecting on and deepening your personal understanding of what you experienced as a participant observer you systematically reassert your own position as being outside of and unable to truly experience the tradition or the ritual that was witnessed or heard about. Yeah, this one might hurt, especially the reiteration of your position inside the WMD, that is, outside of the tradition that fascinates or otherwise ‘calls’ to you. The third stage in this process is the actual fieldnote itself, from Sanjek:

“the heart of… fieldnotes… is this body of description, acquired and recorded in chronological sequence, that I shall term ‘fieldnotes proper’”

After inscription and then description, the act of deepening the descriptions through connecting it to the research of others results in the completed fieldnotes. The key to the whole thing is that he act of engaging in the fieldnotes process places the necessary distance between you and the other magico-cultural tradition that is required to avoid appropriation of that culture or magical technology. 

Going back to our original examples, I think it is safe to assume that those individuals that chimed in on my Dia de los Meurtos article repost would have had a vastly different perspective if they had gone through the above process first, observing and inscribing individuals that were part of that living tradition, returning home and diving deeper into their memories and perceptions of the rituals, laughter, and speech of those individuals, and finally diving into their library, sinking into their armchair, and writing a proper fieldnote on the experience that included their place and their perspective.


For this week’s imbrications, I’d like to post up a few podcasts that came through the feed over the All Hallow’s Eve / All Saint’s Day season.

The first, is the most excellent and irreverent independently crawling hand of McSweeney’s Books, The Organist. In particular their offering from June of this year entitled Ravening for Delight. This episode of the Organist actually creates a meta-imbrication as it dives down into how so much of our popular dark culture is layered on top of Lovecraft’s work.

The second imbrication is from way back in December 8th, 2015, the inaugural episode of Rune Soup with Peter Gray of Scarlet Imprint. Rune Soup recently dropped their 100th episode where Gordon White talks with ‘the Scarlets’ and after listening I was inspired to hop in my Tardis and relisten to Grey taking the pulse of the Wester Magical Diaspora’s traditions in the beginning. After their discussions on the primary subject of the podcast, Grey’s book Lucifer: Princeps [], he and Gordon touch on appropriation and rooting one’s own tradition ‘in place’. If you haven’t heard it, def check it out. If you have, give it another listen:

The third and final imbrication comes from one of my all time favorite podcasters, Benjamin Walker. On November 3rd he reissued (Gods Bless Him) a podcast he had done back in 2010, that I had never heard, where he actually pays Providence, RI a visit, talks to some locals, and tries to find a secret convention dedicated to Cthulhu and Lovecraft. Don’t miss this one:


This week’s Lovecraft tale is ‘The Doom That Came To Sarnath’. I really love these early stories from Lovecraft because they contain so much of the Cthulhu Mythos that was not picked up by the inheritors of the HPL’s work. I feel like I am digging in an ancient burial ground, uncovering strangely heavy idols of unknown metal in the dirt.

For instance, the Gibbous Moon, that period between half and full on either the waxing or waning cycle, is mapped to a great sea-lizard God by the name of Bokrug in the tale. The reminds me of the islands of Gibraltar or other areas where unlikely animals have inexplicably appeared, prospered, and evolved to something strange and alien among their own species. Perhaps the Bokrug Moon is a time where the Western Magical Diaspora can themselves reflect on their own place, their own magical evolution, and their own uniqueness against a Sea of the Mundane.

The worshipers of Bokrug are, in fitting with our theme this week, the magical giants on whose shoulders the white men of Sarnath stand, as is described in the tale:

“Not far from the grey city of Ib did the wandering tribes lay the first stones of Sarnath, and at the beings of Ib they marvelled greatly. But with their marvelling was mixed hate, for they thought it not meet that beings of such aspect should walk about the world of men at duck. Nor did they like the strange sculptures upon the grey monoliths of Ib, for those sculptures were terrible with great antiquity.”

Here we see the beginnings of the xenophobia theme so common in Lovecraft’s stories, but from another perspective. This Dunsanyian fantasy reveals a lot about the silver cord of xenophobia that stretches through all of Lovecraft's work. Take note, the men in this tale are the evil ones, the abhorrent ones. The victims are the 'Others'. Men from Sarnath march on the ancient city of Ib, which can easily be treated as a metaphor for acculturation, for colonization. Then Lovecraft offers us a window into a literal stealing of magical tech from the men of Sarnath. After wiping out the indigenous population and shoving their bodies into the algae covered crater lake between their city and the city of men, we witness the stealing of the idol of Bokrug.

We are then taken on a journey through aeons and watch as this simple piece of tech from a living tradition is incorporated, compounded, and expanded on by the men of Sarnath, to such an extent that the entire city becomes a shining jewel of success magic. The Doom That Came To Sarnath is a clear warning against appropriation of tech from the ‘Others’, as in in the end, one thousand years after the genocide, a vast extraterrestrial wrath descends as a black cloud of alien ghosts on the city Sarnath. This is a literal death foretold earlier in the tale when it is revealed, directly after installing the stolen idol, our metaphor for appropriation, the priest responsible for the temple that incorporates the idol of Bokrug meets his fate:

“Thus of the very ancient city of Ib was nothing spared save the sea-green stone idol chiselled in the likeness of Bokrug, the water-lizard. This the young warriors took back with them to Sarnath as a symbol of conquest over the old gods and beings of Ib… on the night after it was set up in the temple a terrible thing… happened, for weird lights were seen over the lake, and in the the morning the people found the idol gone, and the high priest… lying dead…”

The trope of alien worlds as an escape to the xenophobia of the planet of men is also early on in the Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff. 

The hero of the tale, an African-American living in Jim Crow era America, finds himself with a flat tire in not quite hostile Kentucky but less than friendly Indiana. After a few trials, he manages to contact a black-owned garage and arrange for help, at which point he returns to his car:

“In the trunk beside the useless spare was a cardboard box filled with battered paperbacks. Atticus selected a copy of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. He sat in the Cadillac and read about the ‘rocket summer’ of 1999, when winter’s snow were melted by the exhaust from a Mars-bound spacecraft. He imagined himself aboard, rising into the sky on a jet of fire, leaving North and South behind forever.”

Space, in Lovecraft, is a place without racism, elitism, imperialism. A place of ritual and magic and spirit beings, the escape from the material and all of its, truly evil, trappings.

We see hints of this in Levenda’s Dark Lord as well, in his concluding remarks on Set:

“Set comes from the stars… He is an Alien, in every sense of that word. And that means his natural consort is the alien woman, the Strange Woman of the Bible: The Scarlet WOman, the Red-Headed Goddess of the Red Lotus throne… Set is the reptilian brain. The serpent brain. That ancient legacy from the Great Old Ones, from five hundred million years ago… in the post-World War II era, in the age of atomic weapons, the Cold War, the space race, and UFO sightings… The idea of contact with entities other than human took on different meanings and implications.”

Returning to our warning against magics-cultural appropriation, we are given this description in Lovecraft’s tale:

"it was the high-priest Gnai-Kah who first saw the shadows that descended from the gibbous moon into the lake, and the damnable green mists that arose from the lake to meet the moon and to shroud in a sinister haze the towers and the domes of fated Sarnath…"

There is something here, of descending into a place, that connects aliens and the spirit world. Descending and Voicelessness are the two archetypes here. An ‘Other’ with no voice that, when the stars were right 1000 years later, rose up and were victorious against the children’s children’s children of their murderers. The inherent Voicelessness of the Other in dominant culture and the inevitable destruction of the dominant culture that was built on an indigenous is the warning and lesson of the Sea-Lizard God Bokrug and the Gibbous Moon.

Mapping this tale to the tarot, as was mentioned in the beginning, the Five of Cups is the closest place on these two maps that overlap. Etteilla’s keyword for the Five of Cups in the reversed position is ‘Parents. We can trace this world back to the Old French meaning of ‘Ancestors’. We can take this card in a variety of ways, depending on the context. In the context of our discussion this week however, the Five of Cups can serve as our warning. Living traditions and indigenous cultures have very clear lineages to their ancestry. The WMD does not, even with genetic testing and haplotype mapping (which is also being used as a rationalization and tool for appropriation of culture and magical tech), we are jealous and fearful of those individuals with such solid live current connections to their ancestors. The Five of Cups is on the path of Temperance and speaks those truths as well. If we are to apply a Lovecraftian magical aesthetic to this card, that is what it is telling us — to temper our lust for a living tradition, to soften our approach, to add method and a process to remind ourselves of our place and our inherited place in the Guild of Thieves.