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On Rites and Rivers

by Murtagh A. an Doile

Nel mezzo del cammin di mostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
che la diritta via era smarrita.

(When I had journeyed half of our life's way
I found myself within a shadowed wood
For I had lost the path that does not stray.)

Like Dante Alighieri at the beginning of The Divine Comedy, I had found myself lost amidst a darkling wood in the so-called middle of my life. Since childhood, I have always felt like a character in an H.P. Lovecraft novella -- always seeking the Other, the alien, the outré, outcast parts of nature and society -- roaming, even in the Republican '50s and the Camelotian '60s, far afield for the Goddess, the Dark, Magick, and Eden. From the time I consciously took up wand and rattle, athame and mirror in 1968, my involvement in the esoteric and occult arts had convinced me that magick is more than just a psychological state or pretty dramatics in the forest.

People around me have done myriad rituals, spoken a thousand tongues, channeled dusty entities, and clung to scholarly tomes as the word of gods. But to what end? Rarely have we seen cosmic illumination or higher spiritual cause -- just humans jumping through the hoops, indulging our desires with excuses of greater purpose, playing games of one-up-manship and mind-fuck. How many times have we heard of some grandiose rite which is nothing more than an excuse for two people to have sex? Why do we couch our needs in ritual terms and not direct ones?

When I was first indoctrinated into the "Mystical Community" at the edge of the '60s, most ritual patterns were set in stone, ossified, coprolitic. Some of the "if-it-feels-good-do-it" mentality of the era was countered with stern warnings from antique grimoires. We all knew someone who had gotten hurt when they "broke the rules." In the last decade or so, the Pagan/Magical movement has changed, and not always for the better. Magician William Gray has commented that "general ritual practice throughout individual and collective occultism in the western world of modern times has little to admire or consider praiseworthy. It lacks synthesis, cohesion and even practicality." (2) In the early '80s, the movement had the potential for group communion with the gods -- major manifestation akin to the magick and possession within the rites of Haitian Voudoun.

But, we in the Magickal community have lost control. We have also gone the way of the Great Traditions, creating our mini-monolithic structures and organizations, charismatic leaders and eager followers. We argue more for our lifestyle than our craft. We ostracize the same people who at one time made us strong, our friends. We lack a cohesion of past and future. We refute the "rules of the game" laid down by those who came before, and then don't understand why the magick or ritual doesn't work. I look across the widening gulf of circle space and see the stupid grins of people who don't know why they are there, reveling in their inner landscape, lost in their fantasies, separate. No energy, no focus. I cannot go into a circle to help fix the same problems (money, health, et cetera) that the individual will not take responsibility for or try to fix themselves.

I will concede the fact that there has been more interchange and intercourse of ideas and techniques. We have seen some bright lights, which flickered and died all too quickly. We have also seen watered-down, catch-all systems of magick and ritual; sloppy definitions (the word shaman has been so overused that its true definition is practically unknown) and mixed metaphor (to call oneself a Pagan does not automatically denote agreement in certain life-styles, politics, or theologies). People seem more concerned with strutting their stripes, feeding their egos, and seeing how much money or support they can get for their old age.

I sometimes feel that the magick has gone away. Oh, magick has left on occasion to give rest, to help me refocus, to slow down the acid trip called life. But this time it has moved far afield. Most ritual seems dead. Like the death-of-god movement, has ritual become a New Age psychological interior landscape only, head-tripping, psychodrama, dead? Or, is it still a living, dynamic system that puts humankind into communion with the Numinous?


"In its broadest sense ritual may include all behavior from 'How are you?' and the etiquette of daily greetings to the solemnities of the High Mass, from magical spells uttered in a Triobriand garden to the studied dignities of the Zuni Shalako Ceremony."(3) Life and ritual are inseparable. Religio-magical rituals obviously elicit the greatest emotion and impact upon us because of their inherent mystery and potent energy, playing upon and dredging the subconscious, hidden parts of ourselves. As Gray states, "Many souls are drawn to ritual practice because of a deep spiritual need nothing else fulfills." (4) The anthropological literature reveals no clear consensus as to the exact meaning of ritual. The magickal and occult literature is little better. Donald Tyson, in Ritual Magic, simply writes that, "Ritual is the medium through which the art of magic is practiced." (5) Anthropologist Clifford Geertz perceives ritual as "consecrated behavior." (6) For French sociologist/anthropologist Emile Durkheim (7), ritual is distinguished from other practices and is defined by "the special nature of its object," the sacred. Ritual is our way of relating to the sacred, as opposed to the profane, the commonplace.

The sacred and the profane are necessary dichotomies. We need the polarities, the opposites, so that we can strive for union. This struggle is a spiritual evolution for all of us. The walls and boundaries between, places between, thresholds and spaces between are absolutely required. So too are the so-called "Rules." Without the separateness, the space, the gulf between, we would have no magick, no need for ritual, no abyss to cross. We need the dualities, triplicities, et cetera. These opposites create dynamic tension, an ebb and flow, a Yin and Yang, a self and other-than-self. When we do ritual, work magick, we dance at the edge, walk along the rim, betwixt and between. Without the two, we have no magick, no striving toward balance. We may be climbing to a union with Godhead, to enter the Sea again, a drop in the vast and vague bucket. But isn't the process, walking the walk, the dance, the experience, Life, what existence is really about?

It is true, at least from some esoteric standpoints, that we live in a holistic system, and that everything is One. Magick works, to some extent, because we are part of the All, and, therefore, touch every other thing. The theory of Correspondences and views of sympathetic and contagious magick operate because of these principles. But, the effort, the process to be in Union, to be part of the Whole, that is the enchanter's ultimate end, the Grail, the goal. Process is advancement along the Path, is growth. Growth is change. Ritual is not just the medium of magick, it is the process of magick.

MURTAGH A. AN DOILE is a drui in the Tuatha De Danan, an Irish Celtic Mystery Tradition located in southern New England. Formerly of Rhode Island, he now resides in Los Angeles. He has been working in the realm of Eonistic Shamanism, proto-Celtic Irish Mythos and the "Betwixt & Between." He lives in a world of sheman and souldivers, sibyls and sirens.


1. Alighieri, Dante, trans. Allen Mandelbaum, Inferno, Canto I, Stanzas 1, 2 and 3, (New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1982). Back
2. Gray, William G., Magical Ritual Methods, (New York, NY: Samuel Weiser, 1969), p. 9 Back
3. Lessa, William A., and Evon Z. Vogt, Editors, Reader in Comparative Religion: An Anthropological Approach, (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1965), p. 323. Back
4. Gray, 1969, p. 9. Back
5. Tyson, Donald, Ritual Magic, (St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 1992), p. 17. Back
6. Lessa, p. 167-178. Back
7. Durkheim, Emile, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1954). Back