First Principles


Part One: First Principles

John Michael Greer

Up to the 1960s, when the current revival of the magical arts in the Western world got off the ground, most magicians belonged to lodges the way wolves belonged to packs or whales to pods. The lodge system was not merely the primary but very nearly the only form of organization within the then-small magical community, and the magicians themselves benefited from several centuries of collected experience in lodge work, both from magical groups and from the fraternal lodges to which many magicians belonged.

Times, obviously, have changed. The renaissance of magic which came surging out of the back closets of our culture three decades ago drew, and continues to draw, on published resources rather than the private lore of the surviving magical orders. Most magicians these days are self-taught, with books as their only instructors. At the same time, the slow decline of the fraternal orders turned into freefall in the 1960s, choking off the other major source of information on lodge technique. The outcome of these two factors is a complete reversal of the earlier situation; not only do most magicians not belong to anything that can be called a lodge, even in the loosest terms, but many of those who do belong have little access to the details of lodge structure and technique.

One of the results of this has been a lot of time spent reinventing the wheel in magical groups. This is by no means an entirely bad thing – there is always the chance that the new wheel will turn out better than the old – but there's also much to be said for examining older attempts at wheel-making as part of the process. Additionally, some of the more popular magical systems studied at present were set up entirely within a lodge context and have substantial elements which depend on standard lodge technique for their meaning and function. As I am not a member of the OTO, I can't speak to their experience, but certainly the lack of a background in lodge work has been a common (though often unrecognized) problem in groups deriving from the Golden Dawn tradition, among others.

My own background combines some years of magical practice (mostly in the Golden Dawn tradition) with an extensive involvement in one of the surviving non-magical fraternal orders, and access to ritual texts and materials of a number of others.My experience in watching these interact and illuminate oneanother suggests to me that other magicians interested in traditional esoteric systems, or in the often-vexing question of the management of magical groups, may find some of this material useful.

A few definitions will help to clarify matters. A lodge, in the present context, is a group of people who come together to prepare and perform initiations. An initiation is a formal process for bringing about specific long-term changes in human consciousness. Every lodge, magical or not, has at least one initiation to offer, and most have more than one. People outside the surviving lodges tend to think of these initiations as nothing more than an overelaborate process of being admitted to lodge membership, a kind of formalized hazing new members go through before getting access to what's really going on. In fact, the reverse is true: the initiation, centrally, is what's going on, and every other element of lodge organization and procedure is there primarily to support it.

This is true even in those fraternal orders which haven't completely decayed into social clubs or insurance companies. It is far more true, and far more critical, in a magical lodge worth the name. Magical initiation is to the new initiate what consecration is to a talisman: something inert and unformed receives energy, shape, direction. The same transformation can also be brought about by individual work – self-initiation is certainly a valid concept, and a valid path – but a ritual initiation combined with appropriate individual practice can allow enormous gains to be made in a relatively short time.

The methods of initiation differ. So, of course, do the models used to understand the process. One useful way of thinking about initiation posits two realms or worlds: one is the realm of matter, perceived by the ordinary senses; the other we may as well call the realm of meaning, perceived by that complex set of processes we usually call “the mind.” (Some traditions see one or the other of these as primary, with the remaining one derived or even imaginary; for our present purposes, though, the distinction is a moot point.)

Ordinarily these two realms exist cheek by jowl in our awareness, with a sort of uneasy mapping of one onto the other serving as the one link between them. Under certain circumstances, though, the gap between them can be bridged or even annihilated for a time: matter and meaning fuse, so that physical objects take on cognitive depth and catalyze transformations at all levels of consciousness. Extreme physical or psychological states can do this; so can the effects of some drugs; and so can the technical devices of ceremonial magic. Some combination of these methods comes into most initiatory systems worldwide; in the Western esoteric tradition, by contrast, the first two rarely appear. If this needs any justification, it's that ceremonial magic can get the same results with less risk of long-term damage to physical or mental health.

This way of looking at the initiatory process is useful here because it highlights a critical feature of the traditional lodge system. Like Janus, the two-faced god of doorways and beginnings, a lodge looks two ways at the same time. As the support system for this coalescence of the realms, it must be able to organize space, time, personnel, and the other requirements of initiation in terms of matter and meaning alike.

On the side of matter, appropriate space and time need to be arranged for the initiatory work; people need to be selected, trained in ritual practice and the details of the initiation, and rotated from one role to another to prevent burnout and provide cross-training; and whatever physical properties, costumes, and consumables the ritual happens to require have to be provided and kept on hand. Arranging for these things generally involves a certain amount of money and labor, and ways to organize these and to resolve disputes concerning them need to be arranged as well.

All these things, in turn, have their precise correlates in the realm of meaning. The space used in the ritual is organized according to a symbolic map, the time structured in a ceremonial manner; the people are not merely trained in the ritual but also brought inside the initiation's system of meaning, not least by being initiated themselves; and the details of properties and internal organization shaped to fit the symbolism of the system.

The Janus quality of the elements of the lodge system has the potential for a great deal of awkwardness, of course; arrangements which make perfect sense in the context of one realm can fail utterly to work in that of the other. As an organic structure which has evolved through something like four centuries of trial and error, though, the lodge system has had the chance to work through most of the possibilities for mischief. Most of the details of what I will be calling the “standard kit” of lodge work have been selected because they face matter and meaning with equal effectiveness.

The remaining parts of this article will cover some of the issues and more of the details involved in working magic in the context of a traditional lodge. All of these issues, though – and the great majority of the details, even the strangest, of any lodge system – can be understood well enough if the central duality of the lodge as a magical technology is kept in mind.