Part II

Magical Correspondences
& Their Conceptual Foundations

by Simon Jester (copyright 2007)

In Part I of this study, we examined two theories that offer explanations of what magical correspondences are and how they work. Magical materialism imitates the physical sciences and tries to interpret the actions and effects of magic in terms of rarified substances, such as highly attenuated "etheric fluids" or "subtle vibrations" that are too refined for all but the most gifted and sensitive of mortals to detect. Magical idealism rejects materiality altogether, preferring to conceive of things as thoughts, ideas, words, letters and numbers in the Mind of a Divine Thinker, and formulates correspondences between diverse entities through a mystically inspired type of linguistic analysis. Both theories have limitations and, in practice, rarely appear in isolation. Occult literature dating from the past 150 years typically presents a tangled web of these two theoretical approaches, and critical analysis of such awkward conceptual hybrids finds them to be lacking in logical consistency.

As noted in my last entry, this lack of rational elegance fails to alarm magicians, who realize that magic itself transcends the limits of Reason. But this doesn't mean that we should stop trying to explain magic or magical correspondences. The way in which we explain things invariably influences the practical approach we take to them. If you think something is a nail, then you're going to try interacting with it by using a hammer. This method of approach works as long as the "something" you're hammering is sufficiently nail-like to respond in a fashion that enables you to realize your intent. But if a method of conceptualizing leads only to the frustration of your motives, then it's time to re-examine some fundamental concepts!

There is a way of looking at magical correspondences that manages to ignore both materialism and idealism. I say "ignore" rather than "avoid" because the premises of both these grand old philosophies are woven so tightly into the fabric of our language that it is impossible to completely abstract them from discourse and still manage to say anything meaningful. By "ignore" I mean simply that there is a way of talking about correspondences and their employment in magical operations that does not emphasize either materialistic or idealistic notions. While implicitly "stretched out" upon a framework of such ideas, the particular explanatory canvas I am now describing places its emphasis on artistic and aesthetic considerations.

Materialism presupposes that the universe is a machine that can be explained entirely in terms of empirical observation and quantifiable physical laws. Idealism assumes that the cosmos is a system of mathematical and semantic theorems that can be deduced via a process of conceptual analysis. But aesthetics views the world of lived experience as a work of art that employs categories of organization that are dramatic and poetic rather than mechanical, statistical, or strictly logical.

This aesthetic theory views the various items in a list of magical correspondences as though they are elements in a play or words and phrases in a poem. They are like harmonious notes in a musical score, or colors, textures, and shapes in a well-composed painting. When designing a ritual, the skilled magician arranges these items, along with dialogue and choreographed actions, into a kind of script or screenplay for a dramatic presentation that aims at expression, communication, and affective impact.

At this point, an analogy with traditional drama will be helpful. Such an analogy is historically valid because the roots of stage drama and acting, as well as of poetry, music, and the graphic/plastic arts, reach deeply into prehistory where they mingle and blend with religion and ritual magic. This analogy will also illustrate the kind of thinking that comes into play when magicians work with correspondences.

Let us say that you are presenting a stage play based on the life of Edgar Allen Poe. You have numerous thematic choices to make that, at the very outset, will condition every aspect of the play. First of all, a biographical enactment of the life of Poe, as distinct from one about the life of Andy Warhol or Fidel Castro, must necessarily be consistent with the ambience the man himself projected, i.e. it must mirror that special essence of Poe that enables us to distinguish him from all other characters. In Poe's case, this automatically mandates that the various elements of the play must combine together to create a dark, oppressive, and morbid atmosphere set in an appropriate historical milieu. You will select actors known to specialize in the portrayal of depressed, morose, haunted characters. You will choose historically accurate costumes, and compose dialogue that is suitable to both the time period and the bleak mood associated with its central figure. Further thematic specifications necessitate additional refinements. Your play could take the form of a tragic drama or of a dark comedy. This choice will determine whether or not your actors play their roles seriously or go completely over-the-top. It will establish whether the incidents you choose to present are grimly realistic or ridiculous and improbable. It will further determine the nature of the settings and props and help to establish whether they are stark and minimalist or overdone and comically exaggerated. A thousand other details will be incorporated into the play, each one designed to express the very essence of the dark genius of Edgar Allen Poe.

Already, as you are reading this example, your mind is probably beginning to engage in the same kind of imaginative thinking magicians use when selecting correspondences for their rituals. You are imagining things that "correspond" with your ideas about Edgar Allen Poe's life. You're probably thinking of actors like Boris Karloff or Vincent Price (if you're my age) or Johnny Depp, and seeing props like stuffed black ravens; human skulls dimly visible in the flickering light of candles; large, ornate wine decanters beside feather quill pens on immense paneled writing desks; gloomy velvet draperies framing windows that peer out onto stormy, midnight landscapes; pale, consumptive young women sitting in funereal drawing rooms, holding blood-speckled handkerchiefs while listening wide-eyed to an inebriated Poe recite lugubrious eulogies for the lost Lenore…

The way in which all these things come together in your mind to augment and refine your idea of a play about Edgar Allen Poe is the same way that various correspondences combine and function in magical rituals. There is a special method of selection operating here, one that is not rational in the sense that none of the elements in the drama of Poe or in a magical ritual can be logically deduced from each other in the same way that the concept "three-sided" can be logically deduced from the concept "triangle." Nor is the dramatic dénouement of their assemblage on stage or in the magic circle one that physics can quantify, measure, and predict. One does not anticipate the climax of a theatrical drama or ritual procedure by calculating the mass of the performers and factoring in the trajectories and velocities of their physical movements! Strictly conceptual and materialistic approaches to works of art and magic completely miss the point. And yet there is an undeniable way in which all the elements used in the play described above "hang together" to create a product that is distinctly and undoubtedly Poesque, just as there is a way that all the elements of a skillfully constructed and well-enacted ritual combine to create an effect that is distinctly magical.

To the extent that the staged enactment of the life of Edgar Allen Poe succeeds in increasingly refining its expression of the poet's character, the audience will have gained a new insight into the man himself. They will have attained a kind of enhanced connection with him and his works, a connection they did not have before seeing the play, and his poetry and prose will now communicate its meaning more effectively to them. And so it is with a magical ritual. The magician selects the time and place of an operation, the symbolism to be used, the kinds of Names and invocations to be recited, and the correspondences to employ by using a kind of intuitive aesthetic process guided by poetic principles. He aspires to saturate himself and his environment with symbolism and imagery that is in harmony with the force being invoked. By multiplying the number of correspondences he uses, the magician will increasingly refine, focus, and intensify the results of the operation. And the results at which he aims are identical to that of the artist: the magician strives to create conditions in which a given force may find expression; to communicate in some fashion with that force, or communicate it effectively to others; to attain an enhanced connection with this force and a deeper insight into its nature.

All of these aspirations are the chief aims of the artist: to express and communicate something in order to enrich the understanding and increase insight into the nature of the subject of his works. Some magicians, however, take offense at the suggestion that their complex magical operations are actually works of art. That art can be magical is seldom disputed, but to say that magic is an art form is sometimes viewed as dismissive. This reaction occurs only because we live in a culture that devalues art. Our society views art as merely decorative fluff and entertainment, and consigns the artist to the status of the aesthetic "Art for Art's Sake" dilettante. But this was not always the case.

One of the most profound works of magic written in the 20'th century, one that has sadly become neglected by students of the esoteric today, was penned by the poet Robert Graves—an inspired seer with no connections to the Golden Dawn, the O.T.O., the Rosicrucians, Thelema, or any other "traditionalist" 19'th-20'th century occult order. In this work, entitled The White Goddess, he presents the rudiments of a "poetic grammar" in which the details of an ancient magical tradition emerge from millennia of historical forgetfulness. Graves describes how ancient cultures equated poets with magicians, sorcerers, and wizards, and wrote of the great respect (and even fear) that they inspired due to a belief in the invocatory powers of their ballads.

Graves wrote primarily about Greek mythology and the medieval bardic traditions of Ireland and Wales, but his work inspired other scholars to explore the ways in which art grew directly from the rich soil of magic. Research reveals distant transitional periods, on the far horizons of historical memory, during which spells and incantations merged into poetry, chanting transformed into song, ritual mutated into stage drama, and the technique of imitative sympathy (which is called "the Assumption of God Forms" in the Golden Dawn tradition) metamorphosed into acting. Even the graphic arts began as a form of sympathetic magic. The prehistoric representations of bison and other animals painted on the walls of cave dwellings by our remote ancestors were often gouged and poked by spears in an effort to magically slay the creatures they represented, and thus supernaturally ensure a successful hunt.

It is often amusing to see how writers on esotericism disparage the view that magic is an outmoded forerunner of science, and then go on to explain magic in terms of antiquated scientific concepts like the ether! It also produces a smile to note the similarity between the undisciplined excesses of gematria and the kind thinking that is symptomatic of schizophrenia, both being processes capable of trapping a person within an isolating prison of the mind. True, materialistic considerations and idealistic analysis both play parts in magic, but their roles are subsidiary to the central plot of the magical drama, which can only be adequately described and explained in terms of Art.

In the final analysis, magical symbolism itself provides its own best explanation. Many (if not most) of the magicians of the past century, out of reverence to Abramelin the Mage, define the Great Magical Work as the Attainment of Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel, a being often viewed as the Higher Spiritual Self. In the Qabalah, this Higher Self is identified with the Sephira Tiphereth, and the name "Tiphereth" is variously translated as "Beauty," "Harmony," or "Balance." These characteristics or qualities are all primary aesthetic categories and clearly point to the essentially artistic nature of magic itself.