The Nature of the Spirits

Ron says:

neat, Oberion instantly recognizable as Oberon, King of the fairies!  Hey, not everything in the grimoires is some kind of infernal “demon.” Excited to hear more!

Oh, we’ll have more, no doubt about it.  This illustrates one of the essential ambiguities of the grimoire tradition:  the spirits that are called upon to serve a magician.

The Christian background of the grimoires carries with it a serious difficulty for the Western magical tradition.  There’s not a plethora of gods and spirits on which one can call, merely God, the angels, and the demons.  Now, commanding God to do one’s bidding is not possible in a monotheistic faith, so that leaves the subsidiary forces.   Angels are supposed to be doing the bidding of God, so calling upon them is taking on oneself the role of the Creator, which is bad.  That leaves the potential magician with the demons, with whom no person is really supposed to be dealing anyway.

The grimoires have three potential solutions to this little conundrum.  The first is to place the spirits called upon in an ambiguous standing.  For example, if we look at the Lemegeton, we find that the second book is supposed to be devoted to spirits who are partially good and partially evil in nature, and the fourth contains spirits that are supposedly good.  Even if we turn into the Goetia, supposedly dealing with strictly infernal spirits, we run into such personalities as Vassago, who is supposed to be of good nature, or Phoenix, who aspires to retain his seat in heaven.  Another way to handle this is to refer to the entities being summoned as “spirits,” instead of “angels” or “demons,” to obscure any messy spiritual implications.

Another way to handle this is to incorporate other belief systems.  That is to say, one isn’t calling upon demons, one is talking to Oberion or other fairies.  There’s actually quite a tradition of fairy magic in the magical literature, with some examples being available in Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft.  Similarly, much Middle Eastern magic involves the invocation of the djinn, spiritual beings that might be good, evil, or anywhere in the middle.  We might look at the adoption of planetary spirits, decans, Classical beings, etc., as other ways to circumvent the problem.

The third way to go about this is, apparently, to decide that one just doesn’t care about these distinctions.  For example, the very manuscript I’m working on has not only an invocation of Oberion, but one of Satan as well.  (I haven’t gotten there in my transcription yet, but I’ve seen the art.)  Unless you’re a Yazidi, there’s no real way to pretend that isn’t theologically troubling.    You can also see the opposite, with angels being explicitly called in other works.   Nonetheless, there’s rarely explicit appeal to the demons; rather, the magician usually insists on using holy prayers and names to call up these spirits.

Thus, there’s a number of interesting ways to justify the calling of holy/unholy spirits in the grimoire tradition, ranging from rationalization to blatant apathy toward Christian doctrine.

Disagree?  That’s what the comments are for.

Published in: on May 28, 2011 at 10:20 pm  Comments (8)  

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8 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Well, Dan, you mention the tradition of working with jinn. Since Islam is a monotheistic (tawhid), Abrahamic faith, there’s no wiggle room for commanding Allah, but there is for the jinn, who are created beings such as ourselves. Humans can command a whole range of other fellow creatures, why not “spirits” — i.e., beings that are not quite physical in the same manner in which we are?

  2. Granted I’m not as in-deep with these matters as I might be, but Christianity has also been known to beg, borrow, and steal from related materials – Cabala from Medieval Judaism, Ifrits and other levels of spirits below the level of angels from Islam (and ultimately Persian mythology), expanded cosmologies and theologies from Gnostic Christianity, etc. Folk beliefs may well blend in here – either in local tales and legends of saints and angels that defeat and interact with the local spirits and old gods, or efforts to fit them into the Christian world view as demoted angels, demons a la Milton, or the like.

    So it might not be weird to lump Oberon and Satan together, from a particular viewpoint, if they’re both treated as angels subject to the laws of God as applied by man, yadda yadda.

  3. I would suggest one take a gander at Agrippa’s third book of occult philosophy, particularly chapters 16 and 17, where we find two distinctly different views toward spiritual beings, that of the Neoplatonic and that of the Theologian. I persoanlly prefer the more Pagan, Neoplatonic attitude, and apply that in my own work with spirits. In my early days of conjuring, I feared the spirits due to my upbringing, and the spirits seemed to have no problem fulfilling my expectations. I changed my attitude toward them and they have generally been much more amicable and both parties seem all the happier for it. Of course, I do not deny that some spirits may be dangerous or hot headed or tricky and sly, but these qualities have been attributed to spirits across cultures in general, particularly if they are mishandled.

  4. I also find it neat that the only grimoire to mention Oberon as a spirit the magician can conjure is to be found at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Coincidence? I think not!

    • This is not true. Sloane ms 3824 has a similar conjuration, albeit without the necessary image of the spirit.

      Speaking of the image, I find it fascinating that there are two rather distinct images of Oberon in this ms. First is that of a man in what looks like scale armour, and the second is something more akin to a djinn, complete with a wispy body and a turban.

      • I was unaware!

      • I would hope Oberon has more than one change of clothes.

  5. Another way to handle this is to incorporate other belief systems.

    Whether or not the cosmological constructions on display in the grimoire tradition is from ‘other’ belief systems depends on who you believe gets to define ‘Christianity.’ For most the religion’s history, we only get a vanishingly small slice of writing on the actual practices and beliefs of people who profess to belong to it; generally only those who are either invested in a concept of rigourous orthodoxy or writing to revise or define an alternate stance. An impartial survey, were it possible, may put the clerical stance on what constitutes a demon, evil spirit or malicious force in the minority. Certainly there’s many parts of the Christian world where fortune-telling (cf. The Bicycle Thief) or unusual forms of veneration (like the Neapolitan skull cult) survive and thrive amid people who would be loath to call what they do ‘Un-Christian.’

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