I grew up in a materialist home. I attended schools built of concrete, glass, and chicken wire, full of materialist teachers, where I read insipid materialist pablum from the glossy pages of materialist textbooks. The nation and state in which I live are governed (insincere Christian lip service notwithstanding) by materialist entertainers. And the industrial baronies and fiefdoms in which I and my countrymen labor are built on materialist foundations. All around me, my countrymen speak a toneless and dreary language - a language I myself grew up speaking, but which has always felt awkward and unnatural in my throat. They tell dull, banal stories to explain the desperately hopeless oscillations of life on their streets and highways and shipping lanes.
I may have been born and raised here, but this world of oiled gears and sterile laboratories is not my home. In the midst of a grinding, smoking citadel of stone and steel, I spent uncounted hours and days of my youth submerged in stories of the impossible - books about spaceships, spellbooks, swordfights, and summonings. Perhaps reality was as tedious as everyone around me seemed to believe, but that didn't mean I had to like it - or to spend any more time in it than absolutely necessary. Reality, I decided, was for people who couldn't handle science fiction.
On the other hand, I also spent the bulk of my childhood trying to be a good materialist. I learned how to build ethical principles on a foundation of hedonism, how to take comfort in the certainty of personal extinction, and how to appreciate the wonders of the visible and measurable world. None of this eased my revulsion and mounting frustration with the so-called "Real World." So when opportunities to escape began to present themselves, I leapt at them.
Where books left off, roleplaying games picked up. With papers and pencils and rulebooks and dice, I and my friends built imaginary universes where life wasn't safe or sterile or predictable or controlled. Certainly our universes were not as comfortable as a 20th century office building, but they were a hell of a lot more interesting.
In high school I began experimenting with psychedelic drugs and the occult. The drugs were an interesting diversion, but the highlight of my fifteenth year was when I met someone online who claimed to be a witch. Well, there was really no internet to speak of in the 90s; I met her on a BBS. (If you don't know what that is, it's a message server on an individual computer, connected to a modem. Anyone else with a computer and a modem could dial up, read the messages, leave responses, and then sign off. BBSs were pre-internet chat rooms, and were fantastic places to converse anonymously with complete strangers.) Anyway, this lady claimed to be a witch and turned me on to the world of the occult. I bought books and supplies and practiced rituals and put myself into trances.
Ultimately, occultism proved a dead end as well. No matter how exciting it sounded to be able to cast spells and conjure up spirits, the end result turned out to be no different from the goals of the dull gray world outside. A houngan may know how to call up the loas, but when he does, it's for all the same reasons a businessman sits an office all day: money, sex, health, power, influence. I was looking for excitement and adventure. I was looking (if I'd known it at the time) for meaning. And the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn could no more offer me that than the offices of The Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. Perhaps both could offer me the same pay and benefits, but I didn't want pay and benefits. I didn't want to go to college, learn a profession, work until retirement, and wait to die. I wanted... I wasn't quite sure, but that wasn't it.
I had jumped into the pool of occultism, and found it was barely deep enough to wet my socks. However, in my investigations, I did learn a thing or two about ritual magic.
Ritual magic is essentially mind control. Generally, when practiced alone it's about controlling your own mind, but the principles work just as well when applied to the minds of others. The magician creates a circle or sacred space of some sort, and invokes a spirit by means of associated signs and symbols. In the middle ages, apparently, there were grimoires full of lists of spirits, and their associated names, symbols, gestures, fragrances, sounds, and astrological affinities. On the appropriate day, at the appropriate time, wearing the appropriate ceremonial garb, making the appropriate intonations and symbols and gestures, the magician "calls up" the spirit, and the spirit gets to work creating whatever result the magician is looking for.
Now, even after years of experimenting with the occult, I couldn't really have told you whether or not magic worked as advertised. It seemed to... sometimes. On the other hand, if you worked a spell to make you sexier and got more attention from the opposite sex, how would you know whether it was the spell working, a coincidence, or perhaps the placebo effect at work making you more confident (and thus more attractive?) Hard to say. I certainly had some experiences that seemed supernatural, but keep in mind I was taking hallucinogens at the time too. So... hard to say.
So, I walked away from it all, and didn't miss it. I (just barely) graduated from high school, and set out wandering around the country. That, I think, was where I found the adventures I'd been looking for, and the next five years were the most interesting years of my life up till then.
During those wanderings, I moved to another city, got a job, and settled down for a little while. One day, I had an errand to run (I forget what) that took me to City Hall. I walked up the steps, opened the door, and right in front of me was a gigantic stone slab hanging on a wall. It was the seal of the city, and it was covered in various kinds of symbols - sheaves of wheat, gears, eagles, Greek goddesses - that attempted to call up ideas of prosperity and to tie them to the identity of the city itself.
It struck me then that this seal was exactly like the sigils of the spirits and entities that magicians had been inscribing in their grimoires for millennia. This seal was, in fact, part of a larger sorcerous working that brought the city into existence, sustained and fed it. I realized then how many phantom entities we live alongside in our modern world - entities that are not made of flesh and blood, that straddle the line between imagination and physical reality - entities that we summon up and sustain by means of our belief, attention, and thought. Governments, corporations, currencies... all these things are phantoms that are given real weight and power in our world by virtue of human attention and belief. A government in which no one believes is a government that doesn't exist. A corporation that does not have a place in the minds of the public is a corporation that's not in business. A currency that isn't valued by people is a currency with no substance - who would bother to mint it? But when we breathe life into these phantoms, they shake the foundations of the world.
I realized that an advertising executive is nothing more or less than a modern day sorcerer. He contracts with these phantom entities and makes bargains with them. In return for a share of the attention/souls of millions of TV viewers or passersby on a freeway, he creates powerful spells of invocation for that entity: incantations that are repeated in commercials until the jingle is stuck in your head; logos that are memorable and recognizable and always conjure up the spirit in your mind when you see them; associations that are crafted in your mind so that you are more likely to deal with that entity yourself - to buy its products and services. In return for these spells, the sorcerer is given wealth and influence. That's how sorcery works in business - there is a very similar process at work in government and finance and, in fact, in all areas of social life.
Sorcery has not vanished from our world - far from it. It simply wears different clothes. The shocking truth is that we swim in an ocean of sorcery... and it is every bit as dreary and banal as the stock markets and boardrooms where it is practiced.
Is it truer to say that the ancients understood these psychosocial practices imperfectly, anthropomorphizing impersonal patterns that really aren't alive and superstitiously calling them gods and spirits? Or is it that modern practitioners are blind to the true spiritual realities they're working with? I don't know that I'd say either is true. I'd say that reality far weirder and more wondrous than we think, and that neither the ancients nor the moderns really understand things as well as people are wont to think. What symbolic language you use to speak about these phenomena is more a matter of taste than accuracy.