Kadmus Herschel on Ceremonial Magic, Goetia and the Blurring of Spirit Realms


Many thanks to Kadmus Herschel for participating in this interview and sharing so much amazing information with us. He has spent years blending ceremonial magic, Goetic rites, necromancy, and animism into his own integrative approach. He recounts his personal journey – from early magical texts that opened new worlds, to understanding the entities and ethics of Goetia, comparing ancient and modern necromancy, and arriving at an animistic perspective that dissolves rigid boundaries. He draws connections between branches of magic and occultism that are often separated. Please enjoy…


Kadmus Herschel on Ceremonial Magic, Goetia and the Blurring of Spirit Realms


PAA: What initially led you to explore and practice ceremonial magic? Was there a particular experience or influence that sparked your interest in this specific tradition?

I am a professor of philosophy for my mundane job. I mention this because I first began pursuing magic and mysticism for the same reason I began studying philosophy. I wanted to know what Reality was and was like, I wanted to get at Truth, and I was deeply dissatisfied with the standard answers (both the Catholicism of my upbringing and the materialist scientism of the dominant culture) that I was being provided with. From a very young age I always had an instinct that existence was richer and stranger than we generally thought. This is not, by the way, to imply that I have found either ultimate Reality or Truth. If anything, it has become clearer to me that the enigmas, questions, and a committed investigation of them, is the most important thing and that final answers or ultimate experiences are not possible or, really, desirable.

Unlike many other occult practitioners I talk to, I didn’t first have unusual – perhaps supernatural – experiences which provoked my interest in the occult. Instead, I became deeply interested in the magical/mystical/miraculous first and later (though not much later) had strange experiences. I was a seeker first and then I began to find stuff. For example, I had repeated encounters with a ghostly black dog that would appear and disappear at will in grade-school. This same figure appeared to me once several years later in high school. But the key, for me, is that I was already committed to being an explorer of the strange and so-called supernatural before I had any experiences that confirmed the fruitfulness of my search for it. But since then, there have been many confirming experiences to be sure.

PAA: Could you elaborate on your training and studies within ceremonial magic? Are there specific rituals, texts, or mentors that have greatly influenced your practice?

I’ve always been a solitary practitioner, even when practicing with close friends or my husband as I have frequently had the opportunity to do. But I should be very clear that I have never been an initiated member of any standard society or coven. 

My first steps in magic started very early. I self-initiated into Wicca in grade-school and shifted to other forms of witchcraft and then neo-paganism shortly after. By high-school I was reading Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy along with Regardie’s publication of the foundational texts of the Golden Dawn and every bit and piece of Aleister Crowley I could find along with a collection of grimoires. By the end of high-school I was committed to a heavily Golden Dawn and Thelemic influenced ceremonial magic along with a consistent meditative practice. In high-school a group of friends and myself had established a ceremonial stone circle in some woods near where I grew up and we were engaged in rituals out there throughout high-school and college. It was there that I performed a series of evocations of the spirits and intelligences of each of the seven traditional planets and it was also there where a group of us performed our first evocation of one of the 72 spirits or demons from the Lesser Key of Solomon with all the “burnt fingers” you would expect and the necessity of further rituals later to unravel the messes we had made. It was a very educational experience with, thankfully, little permanent collateral damage.

By the time I entered college I was committed to achieving the Knowledge and Conversation of my Holy Guardian Angel as well as beginning an exploration of the Enochian system of magic which continued for many years with the man who would eventually become my husband. My explorations and experimentations remained largely along the lines of standard Ceremonial Magic and the Victorian magical revival until graduate school where I began an exploration of the so-called Tunnels of Set and Qliphoth along with also becoming actively involved in some of the surviving fragments of the Temple of Psychic Youth (the only magical organization I have ever been technically a member of).

Throughout all these years, no matter how I might identify my practice or occult orientation, I maintained an ongoing relationship with a host of pagan divinities some of whom I would consider patrons, teachers, and very good friends to this day. Following graduate school however my interests shifted in several important ways. First, my commitment to paganism deepened and became much more overt. It seemed clearer and clearer to me that polytheism was the closest I had yet come to what seemed an accurate and affective understanding of the nature of the cosmos. Second, I returned to grimoire work and work with the spirits of the dead and began moving largely away from things such as Qabalah and Enochian magic. Finally, I eventually discovered the work of Jake Stratton-Kent especially his Encyclopedia Goetica, which lined up to an amazing extent with the views I had developed on polytheism and the nature of reality and which I was developing into a book that would soon by published as True to the Earth: Pagan Political Theology by Gods and Radicals Press.

There is a bit of story behind my discovering Jake Stratton-Kent’s work and meeting him soon after. I had been working with a few spirits from the Lesser Key of Solomon and developed something like a patron relationship with one of them. In working with this spirit I requested assistance in becoming a better magician and the next day I discovered the work of Jake Stratton-Kent. Shortly after that I also found myself falling in with a collection of amazing occult practitioners in New York City. I can’t help but think that becoming connected with Jake’s work and involved with a group of folks we came to call the “Diviners Club” in NYC was the outcome of my request to become a better magician. It has certainly had that effect. In general, the recent trend in my practice has been away from highly developed symbolic systems and towards more chthonic and materia based practices with closer resemblances to folk magic and ancient polytheism and goetia.

If reality likes to grow and diversify, if it is made up of pluralistic forces of creation, then various fundamental forces would all be engaged in the work of crafting vast systems from their own nature – whether or not those systems are destined to actually achieve completeness or could ever actually do so

Kadmus Herschel

PAA: How do you perceive the relationship between ceremonial magic and spirituality or personal growth? Has practicing magic impacted your beliefs or worldview in any significant way?

At the risk of sounding a bit too scientific or philosophical, let’s take “spirituality” to mean something like our theories about the nature of reality (metaphysical and religious theories we could say) and the active practices we engage in because of these theories. With that in mind, I would think of ceremonial magic as experiments in which our theories are tested through engagement with the world. If I think there are certain spirits, or powers, etc. I can test these ideas by attempting to encounter, experience, or apply these powers. These experiments, i.e. magical practice, should ideally then provoke changes in our spiritual views based upon the outcome and related experiences.

Similarly, ceremonial practices serve to provoke various changes (for good or bad) that contribute to personal growth (or decay, depending). For example, working with what we might call goetic spirits and certain classes of the dead can come along with specific challenges – greater propensity for depression for one as well as tendencies towards arrogance and rage for another. Addressing and finding balance in response to these challenges can involve a lot of growth. This is similar to the old piece of wisdom that as one aspires to contact the transcendent one similarly stirs up more and more resistance from below. I don’t agree with this dualist and transcendental perspective, but it does nicely capture the idea that growth goes along with challenge and magical practice does not serve primarily to make things easy but rather to clarify our strengths and weaknesses in such a way that we can better face them and grow. As my previous comments should suggest, magical practice has absolutely influenced my beliefs and worldview. For the first ten to fifteen years (or so) of my magical explorations my interest was in highly developed, complex, and abstract theoretical systems and correspondences (Western Hermeticism as found in the Golden Dawn and Thelema, Enochian magic, and so on).

Anyone who has investigated and/or experienced what we could call “high strangeness” however, has likely noticed something striking. Specifically, the realities we interact with in magical practice love to present the appearance of highly organized hierarchical systems but generally these systems fail to maintain consistency and coherence when pursued far enough and fail to fully pay off in practical terms along the way. There is sort of a running joke about this amongst those who pursue Enochian Magic where- inevitably – the “angels” like to go on lengthy diatribes and explain extensive exalted theological and metaphysical teachings along with claims that the practitioner is destined to do something world-historically important (write the next volume of the Book of the Law, reveal the new gospel of the Bible, establish the only true system of angelic magic, become the new Messiah, bring about the end of the world and so on). When talking with someone having this experience it is pretty common to respond with “Oh, yeah, the angels tell everyone that.” This aspect of magical experience is, I feel, important because it can be coherently interpreted in terms of the nature of reality. If reality likes to grow and diversify, if it is made up of pluralistic forces of creation, then various fundamental forces would all be engaged in the work of crafting vast systems from their own nature – whether or not those systems are destined to actually achieve completeness or could ever actually do so. Imagine, for example, a tree explaining its nature to you in terms of vast branches that encompass the whole heaven and embrace the totality of the stars. It is understandable why the tree might think this is its ultimate nature, but in fact it is rather limited and could never achieve this infinite totalizing perfection – and in fact the nature of the tree is such that it really never would want to achieve this total domination as it would contradict the larger realities it is a part of. It was this experience of the inadequacy of the metaphysical revelations offered by the entities we interact with in magic as well as the failure of these revelations and systems to reach completeness that led me to a greater appreciation of the pluralistic and non-completeness of reality. We could perhaps best look at reality as a trickster – it likes to weave stories but there are always more, new, and different stories to tell plus there are several trickster story-tellers all telling them at the same time.

None of this is to say that magic doesn’t work or isn’t real – it does and it is – but rather that the systems we use to understand and explain it fall utterly short of the complex, chaotic, creative, and inconsistent realities.


PAA: Ethical Considerations and Responsibility: When working with entities from the Goetia, what principles or ethical considerations guide your interactions? How do you navigate the responsibility of working with these entities while ensuring ethical boundaries and personal growth?

I tend to find distinctions like good and evil inadequate for dealing with reality and use, instead, nature metaphors much more often. So, when thinking about types of spiritual entities, for example, I would think of them in terms of being safe or dangerous, more tame or more wild, and so on. And, just as when talking about animals or plants, these characteristics will not be absolute but will instead differ based on the context and the people involved. Peanuts, for example, aren’t the least bit dangerous to me but are very dangerous to some other people.

Similarly, a dog that is friendly to you may find something about me upsetting and so make it dangerous. There are certainly spirits out there best compared to sharks – not inherently evil but certainly inherently dangerous to the types of being we are. Goetic magic tends to involve more wild and/or dangerous spirits than most other types of magic – though there are many exceptions to this rule (I’ve seen angelic magic that has destroyed the sanity of a practitioner and I know some truly dangerous gods and goddesses while some of the spirits commonly engaged with through goetia are very supportive and protective in my experience).

So, to appeal to some basic (if often inadequate) distinctions goetic spirits tend to be hot and dark (Martial and Saturnian could also be helpful concepts here). Such spirits tend to be dangerous and poisonous, but not in every regard and not in ever circumstance. But there is something of a system of contagion here. We become like our friends and loved ones – for better or worse – and the same goes for our spiritual friends and allies. We can become like them as they can become like us. If I use a murderous spirit to commit murder I become more like it – its overt influence makes the corruptive force of what I have done even stronger than it might otherwise have been.

On the other hand, and at the risk of sounding trite, if I use a murderous spirit to protect others from harm I make that spirit better than it might otherwise have been. There is a risk that its wild nature will undermine what I am trying to do, for sure, and I need to take that into account. But, to reference Aristotle, virtue comes from repeated actions which become habits which eventually become character. This is true for spirits as much as it is for us.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that there is nothing inherently wrong about working with restless spirits, or demons, or so on. There are things that are inherently dangerous about them, but they can also be beneficial. The same plant which can poison us can also heal us, when properly used. This is a practical concern, but there is also an ethical aspect to this. The work we do does not simply change us, and the world, but rather also changes the spirits we work with. Ideally, our friendship with the spirits should make both them and us better – but this is only the case if we are careful that the spirits we work with don’t make our worst aspects worse and that in turn we don’t make their worst aspects worse. And, like friends with low morals, many of these spirits will be quick to agree and encourage our worst tendencies rather than our better. Again, this is not because these spirits are out to get us or corrupt our souls, but rather because they see the world through the lens of their own skills and inclinations as indeed do we all. To a murder spirit every situation looks like it can best be solved through murder.

PAA: Integration of Goetic Practices: How do you integrate Goetic magic into your broader spiritual or magical framework? Do you see connections or intersections between Goetic practices and other systems or traditions, and how do these connections enrich your overall magical practice?

Over time I have come to understand all entities in very similar ways. Demons, angels, elementals, the fey, the dead, and the divinities can all be understood in terms of being more or less dangerous, more or less wild, and so on. Ultimately, goetia is more about a general approach and less about a specific class of entities or powers. I don’t engage in worship, though there are divinities with whom I have very close relationships, and I don’t fully trust anyone though there are spirits who have been great teachers and protectors for many years. I take one major lesson of goetia to be that spirits – whether divine, demonic or otherwise – can be very usefully thought of in terms of the other relationships that fill our lives, especially those with other humans and animals.

A good friend and priest of an African Diasporic Religion once provided me with this advice when pursuing relationships with certain dark and hot spirits within his tradition: as long as you are developing relationships with these perhaps dangerous and untrustworthy spirits be sure you have others you can rely upon and fall back to – spirits you know want the best for you. This has been deeply beneficial for me. I have certain divinities I know wish me well and seek my well-being, and I can always appeal to them to balance the influence of more wild energies, even as I have deep relationships with the spirits of ancestors of mine who I know are active and seek what is best for me. This has led to an integration of many of the spirits I have relationships with. I work with goetic spirits along-side divinities happy to help me with it and provide support should things go wrong.


PAA: In considering the evolution of necromantic practices, how do the foundational principles of ancient rituals differ from the modern methodologies employed today? Are there specific advantages or limitations attributed to each era’s approach?

This is a very interesting and challenging question. “Ancient” covers a lot of territory, even within a given culture, but let’s set that aside for now. If we look at much of the culture of Ancient Greece and Rome, including the Hellenistic period between them, I take one of the most striking principles to be the ubiquity and threat of the dead. Within the ancient world the dead were ever present and could very easily be interacted with – often in terms of them becoming a great danger. Much of the religious activities of the ancient world revolved around keeping the dead happy or keeping them at bay. So, there was no real challenge to contacting the dead – the challenge was to do so in a safe and practically useful manner. With the rise of dualist transcendental views of reality, however, the dead become more and more distant from the living (with some rather striking exceptions that can be understood as hold-overs from the ancient world – such as cults of saints). Once one believes in a Hell, Heaven, and/or Purgatory that is literally a different world from ours made out of different substances and divided by unthinkable metaphysical gaps the idea that there can be any interaction between the living and the dead becomes very hard to understand.

Of course hauntings were still experienced, and isolated interactions such as saint cults remained, but by and large these were seen as rare exceptions and/or miraculous occurrences. Many Protestant approaches to hauntings directly claim that there can be absolutely no interaction between the living and the dead and so any seeming interaction takes place via the deceptions of demons. I have recently learned that many Islamic perspectives share a view similar to this, in which interaction with the dead is impossible so any seeming such interaction is instead with the djinn. So, the key distinction here is that the ancient world had no problem understanding and anticipating interaction between the living and the dead while how to overcame the gap between the worlds – or how to part the so-called “veil” between the worlds – becomes the major challenge for many later practices. As a side note, this is one reason why Spiritualism and Spiritism had the major influence they did, they offered a type of return to the thoroughly “haunted” views found in the ancient world. For them, the world was constantly populated with spirits of all sorts – the only question was whether one had the talents or developed the skills to communicate with them. This is much closer to the views found, for example, in The Greek Magical Papyri than to the more recent religious views of the time. This Spiritualist revolution was appealing in particular when the United States was reeling from the huge death-tolls of the Civil War and later when Europe was similarly suffering the costs of World War One. It takes particularly unique moments in history for people to be comforted by the thought that the dead are all around us rather than distressed by this thought.

A similar point to the one just made can be offered about the boundaries between the official abode of the living and dead. In the ancient world, the land of the dead was not a world different from our own. It was something like a foreign country, to be sure, but it still could be entered through caves, deep lakes, and so on. The boundaries between the underworld and our own were changeable and permeable, though they were also patrolled by fierce and dangerous guardians. Again, the challenge wasn’t in getting to the underworld it was in getting there and back safely. On the other hand, for a medieval or modern practitioner to propose to take a jaunt to Hell or, more likely, Purgatory was a rather extreme and mind-boggling endeavor (people did it, from time to time, but only via vision and some sort of spirit travel – one could not bodily travel to Purgatory the way one was understood to be able to physically travel to Hades in the ancient world).

PAA: Considering the ethical frameworks of ancient necromancy compared to contemporary standards, how have moral perspectives evolved? Do advancements in ethical considerations influence the methodologies and intentions behind necromantic practices?

I think two of the key elements to consider here is the question of whether the living and dead can assist one another in various ways and what the dead want. Within the ancient world the dead were understood to have extensive influence over the world of the living. Cultures and time periods differ in terms of how much power they understood the dead to have – the Roman Manes for example were understood to be essential to the health or doom of the entire nation.

Similarly, the prayers, sacrifices, and ritual attention paid to the dead could serve to benefit them in the afterlife. Most ancient hauntings, leading all the way up to plague and loss in war, could be connected to the spirits of improperly buried dead or unjustly killed people and so on. A proper burial and funeral ceremonies as well as sacrifices to the dead often cleared up the problem and these things were understood to benefit the dead extensively. So the simple answer is that within the ancient world the living and dead are understood to hold vast potential for benefitting, or alternatively harming, each other.

As time goes by, however, the power of the dead is greatly diminished with certain already mentioned exceptions such as the cults of the saints. Eventually, with the rise of Protestantism, the dead were understood to be powerless, but even where this view didn’t hold sway the power of the dead was largely limited to hauntings or the providing of information. Eventually Eliphas Levi, who performed his own very famous act of necromancy, became convinced that necromancy couldn’t even contact the actual dead but rather only memories of them recorded in the astral light. The living maintain some power to aid the dead, especially where and when a belief in purgatory was strong, because then the living could have prayers said for the dead or perform acts of charity in the name of the dead, which potentially brought them nearer to heaven. But generally, as the power of the dead diminished so too did the power of the living to benefit them.

If we ask what the dead want, it is clear that when the dead were understood in the ancient world to maintain personality – which wasn’t always, much of the Mycenean Greek and Dark Age dead seem deprived of any memory or will – their concerns seem largely to be for their fame and legacy amongst the living and therefore they cared about their ancestors, cities, nations and so on. The concerns of the dead were not wildly different from the concerns of the living, they had selfish desires such as sacrifices and comfort, and like the living they also cared for those things they were identified with in life. Again, the concept of purgatory preserves some of these aspects though to a greatly weakened extent. Perhaps the blessed dead are understood, as time goes by, to pray for their families on earth and wish them well but the connection between these different worlds has grown so tenuous that it is hard to imagine to what extent it might matter. The dead in hell, on the other hand, have rather larger problems than the well-being of their progeny or former home.

Now, praying to the dead or offering sacrifice and so on is not exactly the same as necromancy but it is clear that there is ethical overlap between what we can do via more mundane ritual and what we can do via necromancy. Much necromantic practice in the ancient world was focused on practical outcomes – The Greek Magical Papyri for example are full of love spells effectuated via the dead or curses with a similar mechanic. Early modern and later necromancy, on the other hand, leans more in the direction of seeking knowledge we might only derive from the dead. This was certainly one approach in the ancient world but it was far from the only or primary use – even Odysseus who speaks with the dead seeking advice also understood his necromancy to involve the dead metaphysically assisting him beyond simply providing advice and knowledge. By the time of Eliphas Levi, and the later Victorian occult revival, necromancy is primarily about knowledge. Levi’s own famous summoning of the shade of Apollonius of Tyana was aimed explicitly at gaining a few pieces of knowledge and nothing else.

Within a contemporary or near contemporary context, the ethical concerns raised about necromancy frequently revolve around the state and destiny of the dead. This is the explanation given by Aleister Crowley and his student Israel Regardie for rejecting necromancy, specifically that it interferes with the destiny of the souls of the departed, interrupting what Regardie calls their process of reintegration on a higher plane. This was not a concern in the ancient world when the dead were understood to be all around and to be both intensely concerned with this world and also potentially benefited by what happened here. By working with the dead, from this perspective, we have the chance to improve their situation, provide them with more power and influence amongst the things they care about, and generally benefit them as much as they benefit us. This, of course, is not to say that all the dead will be open to working with us, or wish us well – far from it. But when we end up with true necromantic allies and friends both ourselves and they stand to benefit from the relationship.

Magical Papyri and Spirits

PAA: What role might magical papyri and ritual incantations have played in interacting with spirits in the ancient pagan worldview? How might the use of divine epithets in magical texts reveal an animistic perspective on the nature of spirits?

I’m going to answer these two questions together since they overlap fairly extensively for me. When we look at the rituals of The Greek Magical Papyri a key aspect of them seem to be sets of sacred names, epithets, and images – sometimes including animal identifications or even animalistic noises such as hissings and poppings. The so-called Mithras Liturgy in the 4th magical papyri is a particularly fascinating example as it involves detailed descriptions of visions one should have as one completes the ritual. These images – or better yet imaginings – are themselves types of passwords and names in a manner very similar to what one might undergo while passing through an initiation ritual for a magical society. The key to these various names, images, passwords, epithets, and so on is that they place the practitioner in a tradition and flow of stories. We are showing ourselves to be part of a collection of symbols and meanings that are meaningful to the spirits. We are entering into a community with them and forming a relationship.

A similar thing happens, and I discuss this whole point extensively in my chapter in Conjure Codex 5 called “Every Nekuomanteia is a Katabasis: Ancient Insights for Contemporary Goetic Practice”, when we wear the lionskin belt as described in the grimoires. Modern interpretations focus on correspondence whereby the lion corresponds to the sun and similar such considerations while the ancient perspective would more identify the lionskin belt with other uses of lionskin in a magical context – most specifically the fact that Heracles wore a lionskin cloak and entered the underworld with it. When we wear lionskin we take our place in the story of Heracles – granting us familiarity to the spirits and the authority and right to enter the underworld ourselves. This isn’t a question of deception, we aren’t fooling the spirits, but rather we are taking our place in an ongoing living story and set of living meanings – taking our place in a community and tradition.

When it comes to the role of epithet in an animistic worldview we encounter the challenging way in which identity was conceptualized in an oral worldview. I have argued in my book True to the Earth: Pagan Political Theology that the oral societies from which a polytheist worldview arises saw the cosmos as made up of ongoing living events – they had an event ontology and this formed the basis of their animism and pluralism. Everything that is, is woven into a collection of living events which we might think of as living stories. You and I, for example, are collections and weaves of various stories.

Some stories are just our own, hidden within ourselves, but much more commonly our stories overlap with others and we are ourselves part of much larger stories – the stories of communities and traditions, the stories of countries and species, the stories that are this living planet, and so on. Insofar as what we ARE, what anything really IS, is made up of these flowing changing interweaving stories we are always multiple. I am a son, a husband, a teacher, a writer, a neighbor, a friend, an enemy, and each of these things in several different ways often to several different people. Epithet serves to capture and awaken different parts of ourselves, our roles in different stories, and so to awaken different aspects, powers, and personality traits also.

This applies as well when we are activating or awakening the aspects of materia. We can remind the stone or herb etc. what it is (i.e. what aspect of its story we seek to enliven and use) and what we want it to do. We do the same thing with spirits and gods – when we reach out to Zeus of the underworld, Zeus Chthonios, we are engaging with a very different thing than when we reach out to Zeus the protector of strangers, Zeus Xenios. This is the same as when a friend who has come to me for divination asks me advice. I sometimes have to stop and make it explicit “Are you asking me this as your friend or as your diviner?” Each epithet will provoke a different response in the same way that it is different for me to speak as a professor or to speak as a husband and so on. The gods and all the spirits are no different.

Notice that this also points to some very practical considerations, both on an occult plane and an everyday one. You can change a person (or god, or spirit) based on what you call them and how you address them. Sometimes, when dealing with a friend who has been through a hard time and who feels lost or unimportant it can be very powerful to remind them who they have been, what stories they have been part of. “Wait, aren’t you the person who did this? Who overcame that? Who achieved this goal? Who saved me when I was in so and so a situation? Where is that person right now?” The same can happen with spirits and gods if we find they are being disruptive, or unhelpful, or so on. We can remind them who we are and who they are, we can recite their stories, we can awaken a different side of them. And, as my mention of stones and herbs should suggest, the same goes for magica materia. From Gods to stars to soil, all can be enlivened in different ways depending on how they are addressed.


PAA: How does animism differ from a more modern, disenchanted perspective on the material world?

I have already touched on some of this in my previous answer – specifically that ancient animism is based in an event ontology in which the truly “real” things are ongoing living events. However, I think I should take a moment to build an important point from that basic principle. We are very familiar today with a criticism of materialism that would put it in contrast with something like a “spiritual” view. We might say that for materialism, the only things that are real are material objects. This is usually connected with a scientism – i.e. a commitment that science is a privileged source of knowledge and our single best source of answers for any questions that can be meaningfully asked. If a question can’t be answered by science then it isn’t a meaningful or serious question, this position assumes. This materialism goes hand-in-hand with a rejection of any types of causality or interaction that can’t be explained through physical means. There are plenty of materialist occults out there who assume that magic uses physical causal mechanics that we just do not fully understand yet but which eventually will be integrated with physics, chemistry, and so on. The spiritual view, however, asserts that there is something other than just material objects, something like soul or spirit, and that there are other planes of existence – heaven, the otherworld, the astral, call it what you will – which are not material planes of existence. This distinction, between the material and the “spiritual” is derived mainly from Platonism.

There is also room in this contrast to talk about Idealism but there are variations in Idealism that aren’t nearly as pervasive and influential today as what I am calling spiritualism. Both Materialism and Spiritualism share a similar philosophical foundation that I think the position I have developed from ancient oral polytheism avoids. This philosophical foundation is substance ontology. For both Materialism and Spiritualism everything is made-out-of-something – either matter or spirit or an energy which is somehow supposed to inform both or so on. Both views remained focused, to put it simply, on stuff. Everything is what it is because of the stuff it is made of. My car is made out of metal and plastic stuff, my soul out of non-physical soul stuff, and so on. But the oldest forms of animism and polytheism understand the base-level of reality to be events and meaning not stuff (i.e. substance). A thing is what it does. The doing comes before the doer.

My argument would be that modern materialism AND modern spiritualism are both disenchanted. While physics seeks a system of prediction and control for physical things, spiritualism seeks the laws and mechanics necessary for prediction and control of spiritual things. Both take as their ultimate essence stability – what a thing is when not active, when not changing, when not doing. Event ontology, on the other hand, takes as the ultimate thing change, action, eventing, and so on. For everything to be living in an animist sense is for everything to be doing, changing, growing, and so on. It means that truth and reality are always in flux. Any form of substance ontology is going to fail to grasp this deepest sense of animism be it materialist or spiritualist.

PAA: What implications might an animistic metaphysics have for concepts like magic, spirits, and encounters with deities or supernatural entities?

One of the most important things that animism does for us is dismiss the illusion that spirits, magic, and gods are far away from us, distinct from us, or hard to contact. Within an animist framework, the world around us is alive and within a polytheist animist view the world around us isn’t just alive but is alive as the literal body of a god or gods. I just mentioned this to my students yesterday, but when you are digging in your garden you are literally working in the flesh of Gaia, the goddess who is the earth, from the Ancient Greek perspective. Similarly, mountains, rivers, and so on all are understood to be living divinities – not to have some sort of spirit representative (i.e. the god of this mountain) but rather to be a god (the god that is this mountain). The same goes for smaller things, the living things that are the books I handle daily, or the roads I walk, or that one rock I pass on my way to work, and so on. There is no challenge to seeing and dealing with spirits and gods – for we are always surrounded by them and part of them. The basic idea is that if we begin to pay attention, if we begin to listen, our every day is full of spirit interaction and contact – and each of these interactions is a space in which magic might occur. Ultimately, then, within an animist context divine and spiritual interaction is mundane in the best of possible ways – the world is thoroughly haunted and enchanted.

Fluidity of Gods, Humans, Nature

PAA: What role might shapeshifting between human, animal, and divine forms play within a magical/shamanic pagan tradition? How might the fluid intermingling of gods, humans, and nature enable a perspective congruent with practicing magic? What magical capabilities might manifest from erasing strict divides between mortal, immortal, natural, and supernatural realms?

I always try to stress that the polytheistic world is one of nestling, interweaving, and interpenetrating realities. I am part of living entities that are much bigger than myself (in every possible meaning of that word) and there are living things that are part of me. There are also entities I become part of and later separate from and so on. This kaleidoscopic dance of coming together and drawing apart, of building greater wholes and birthing unexpected new pieces, is the reality of growth and change we find ourselves in. And it isn’t a dance that is always made up of harmony – the multiplicity of realities and truths in the cosmos is often contradictory and in conflict. This is part of the reason that gods themselves are so often depicted as in conflict with each other – and the rule of change means that in a truly polytheistic worldview there is no one ultimate force, truth, or rule(r). Even Zeus will be dethroned someday etc.

These facts are precisely what gives us access to magical power. First, we are never just ourselves but are rather also always part of larger forces and we can choose to join up with various larger forces as well. The part of myself that is also part of a god has capabilities that I don’t usually realize. Similarly, when I enter into an ongoing story by, for example, identifying myself with the actions of Orpheus or Solomon or Saint Cyprian, I join an ongoing larger whole and gain access to the doors it has been able to open and the paths it has already walked. Second, the diversity and inconsistency of powers and forces in the cosmos means that there are always openings, if we are clever and careful, for negotiation and maneuvering. Sure, when facing off against a god there is little I can accomplish as simply the self I might take myself to be during my day-job. However, that god has enemies and allies, has contracts and grudges, and any number of these provide avenues whereby I can gain leverage. This is one of the oldest forms of magic we find in both Homer and the Greek Magicial Papyri. The magical herb moly which Odysseus is able to use to protect himself from the magic of the goddess Circe derives its own power from having grown from the blood of the gods. The herb has power because the gods fought and injured one another. Their blood falling to the ground gave rise to stones and herbs of power. This power, born of divine conflict, can be usurped. And, as so often happens in the Greek Magical Papyri if Zeus, for example, isn’t listening to me I can always threaten to go to Cronos or even actually do so.

The key point here, however, is that we are always already part of larger forces and we always have the option to either use those larger forces as best we might or find different stories in which to involve ourselves. None of this is without risk, indeed one of the tragic and yet liberating messages of the pagan view is that there are no reassurances or absolutely dependable sources of safety. But insofar as this is the case, insofar as there are no absolute distinctions that can’t be overcome and no absolute forces that can’t be diverted anything is possible and no domination is inescapable.

Final Word

I’ve really enjoyed answering these questions and hope that my answers have been useful and interesting for people. I do want to take a moment to note a few places where people can find my work. First, there is my book True to the Earth: Pagan Political Theology that can be purchased through Gods and Radicals Press. I also frequently teach classes or give talks at both the Salem Witchcraft and Folklore Festival and the Astro Magia Astrological Magic conference. I have a class on Ancient Tomb Cults for the Salem Witchcraft and Folklore Festival’s Spring Agora coming up that I encourage anyone to attend. I’ve also mentioned my chapter in Conjure Codex 5 “Every Nekuomanteia is a Katabasis: Ancient Insights for Contemporary Goetic Practice”. Finally, I have a new book coming out from Hadean Press in the near future likely entitled Learning from Legendary Practitioners. It deals with several important magical practitioners throughout history, what we know of them from literature, myth, history, archeology and so on, and finally how I went about contacting them through necromancy and what I learned from them. It can serve as something like a full lesson and foundation in the practice of Necromancy at least as I approach it.

I encourage anyone to reach out to me with questions or thoughts. I can be contacted at starandsystem@gmail.com and can be found on Facebook as Kadmus Herschel, Twitter as @starandsystem and on Threads and Instagram as kadmus_truetotheearth.

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