Transcript of Episode #105 of the OEITH podcast, The Word of the Magus, exploring the role of the magus, their relationship to their word, the meaning and importance of this, and its practical and ethical implications.
The problem is, we’re standing here at the 21st century, stuck with individuality because we believed in it so much. It seems so important that we should all be distinct. What happens if we stop being distinct, and what happens if we think about individuality as something that was actually just scaffolding for where we are now?Grant Morrison
The speaker there was Grant Morrison, part of his famous appearance at the Disinformation Conference in the year 2000. Over the past few days, I’ve noticed a few people mentioning Morrison’s talk as the thing that switched them onto magick, and I certainly remember myself being inspired by it around the time that I first started practising, but, hopefully, whilst the sense of what Morrison said is still ringing in your mind, the words now of another speaker.
And then we come back to this question of self, and re-enchanting the self. And say included in that is seeing, sensing, knowing, feeling the divinity of the self. Your self. How does it feel right now if you consider the possibility of seeing your divinity? How does that strike you to know that you are divine?Rob Burbea
The speaker there was Rob Burbea, a Buddhist teacher who sadly passed away about just over a year ago, and who also had a big impact on me when I was starting out in my practice. Burbea developed a body of work that’s known today as Soul-Making Dharma.
Just to give you a sense of the approach of Soul-Making Dharma, here’s a description from a website of an organisation where it’s being taught: “Our Buddhist practice”, it says, “reveals to us that perception is empty and shapable. We see that we inevitably participate in making the world through the ways we sense and see.”
Now, I regard both Grant Morrison and Rob Burbea as magicians, and hopefully that description of Rob Burbea’ s body of work makes clear why that’s the case. So, Grant Morrison, Rob Burbea, both may be pointing towards similar ideas about transcending individuality and the possible benefits and the possible truths in that. But my focus today is not going to be the commonalities between them but actually the differences and the importance and relevance of those differences.
All magicians in their practice challenge the consensus reality, and their work is focused upon arriving at certain experiences of truth, although of course that can embrace all sorts of different notions and varieties of truth. Both of these magicians had an impact on me through their teachings, through their words, and what I’m going to explore a bit in this episode is the concept of the word of the magus. And, I have to say, that this wasn’t something that I’d planned long in advance to talk about, and I’m not sure where the idea came from but, perhaps appropriate to the topic itself, the idea of talking about it just kept coming back even though I found it difficult to persuade myself that anyone would really be that interested in it as a topic. But anyway, here it is, and let’s see where it leads.
As far as I can gather this whole idea of a magician having a word comes from Crowley and I’m not suggesting that there’s anything true about it in any absolute sense, but simply exploring what the implications of it are and what the use of it might be. One of the so-called holy books of Thelema, Liber 1, in fact, has the title Liber B vel Magi, and it’s in this text, which is very short, that Crowley sets out this idea of what a magus is.
Now, on the one hand the magus is a magician. Any magician. A person who practises magic. But on the other hand, that term also has the meaning of a specific grade, a grade being a specific level of
magical development. Now, of course, I don’t know what you yourself might make of grade systems. Possibly not very much, understandably. But the angle I’m coming at this from is if we practise magick then we will presumably over time get better at doing magick, and in that sense we all develop and progress. So, this concept of magus as a particular point of development on that continuum is presumably something that we all have the potential to confront at some point as we continue in our development as magicians.
So, what the hell is a magus? Crowley writes:
One is the Magus; twain His forces; four His weapons. These are the Seven Spirits of Unrighteousness; seven vultures of evil. Thus is the art and craft of the Magus but glamour. How shall He destroy Himself?
So, “One is the Magus”: in other words, a magus is an individual, an actual human being. “Twain his forces”: presumably, like every human being, the magus has the capacity to create and destroy: the two forces of love and hate; solve et coagula. “Four His weapons”: as Crowley puts it a little later on in the text:
With the Wand createth He. With the Cup preserveth He. With the Dagger destroyeth He. With the Coin redeemeth He.
The magus, the forces, the four weapons – one plus two plus four – these Crowley describes as the “Seven Spirits of Unrighteousness”. “The art and craft of the Magus” – of the magician, is – “but glamour”, he suggests.
“In the beginning”, writes Crowley, “doth the Magus speak Truth, and send forth Illusion and Falsehood to enslave the soul. Yet therein is the Mystery of Redemption. By His Wisdom made He the Worlds; the Word that is God is none other than He.”
And it’s pretty apparent here that Crowley is echoing the opening words of the Gospel of Saint John:
In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.
A lot of people seem to confuse those words with the opening of the Bible, with the first lines of Genesis. But that’s not right, of course, and we’re in the New Testament here, which is less focused on God, perhaps, in his Old Testament manifestation and more focused upon Christ. And indeed, a few verses on into the Gospel of Saint John there’s those passages that read: “and the word was made flesh and dwelt among us”, and that word made flesh, of course, is Christ: God in human form.
In the beginning the word is with God, but the word is made flesh, given the human form of Christ and sent into the world. But what Crowley is doing here he’s suggesting that there’s a parallel and a difference between the word being made flesh into the form of Christ, and the way the magus practices his art and craft: “by his wisdom made he the world”, says Crowley. “The word that is God is none other than He”.
So, like Christ, Crowley is suggesting that the magus is the word, the word that is God. So, what kind of sense does it make to say that a person is the word of God? That we as individual beings are the word of God? Bear with me, because I think there is something important here, something useful. First of all, it’s important to consider that the word that gets translated as “word” in the New Testament Greek is logos, and this is difficult to translate into English because as well as the sense of “word”, it also has the sense of reason or plan or order or meaning, so when in the Gospel of Saint John it says “in the beginning was the word”, there’s also a connotation to that of something like “in the beginning was meaning”, “in the beginning was order”, “in the beginning was the implicit idea that things make sense”. Now, let’s contrast that with contemporary scientific materialism, which you’ll often hear expressing the sentiment that things don’t make sense; that we live in an essentially meaningless universe; that experience, that existence doesn’t have some sort of pre-ordained plan to it but it’s just the outcome of interactions between matter, different particles. Well, if you want to look at it that way then fair enough, but that kind of a conception of the universe is not a human one; that’s not a description of an experience that a human being can have. We, as human beings, simply do not do “meaninglessness”. And to illustrate that you often come across people who may be depressed and may be talking about their lives feeling meaningless, or pointless, or not having any sense to them. But, of course, what you’re hearing there is someone precisely making meaning of their experience by describing it as meaningless. As human beings we simply don’t have access to a dimension of experience that we could accurately describe in those terms. That’s not a human being.
This is what I think Crowley is getting at in this text when he says: “the word that is God is none other than He”, he being the magus, the magician, any of us. “The Word that is God is none other than He. How then shall He end His speech with Silence? For He is Speech”.
And I think what Crowley is getting at there is precisely this idea that the human experience is an experience of meaning, of the word, and we didn’t make that word: we are born into a reality in which meaning, sense, reason is an inherent property. And even if you’re going to go down the full scientific, materialist, paradigm, at the very least you have to admit that even if it were the case that you conceived of meaning as merely some sort of emergent property of the complexity of the human brain, you are still obliged to admit that we live in a universe which through the blind interaction of matter and the blind forces of evolution has produced a human brain in which the experience of meaning resides. In other words, we live in a universe that produces brains that have an experience of meaning. Meaning is an inherent property of the universe, and you just can’t get away from it. There is no alternative to it. “How then shall He end His speech with Silence? For He is Speech”. It’s impossible for a human being to be silent in the sense of not to make meaning, because in everything we do we’re making meaning. We can’t not do that.
So, these issues are part of the universal experience of being human. But I think what Crowley is getting at here is these are issues that magicians in particular must wrestle with, and wrestle with in a particular way, because the practice of magick is all about making meaning, producing certain experiences at will, experiencing certain kinds of truth. The very aim of magick is to turn a chosen meaning into a material manifestation. Magick is the making of the word into flesh, as it were.
How then shall He end His speech with Silence? For He is Speech.
Well, if the magician is speech, then to become silence the magician will have to become what they are not. They will have to attain to something beyond the human and, as Crowley hints in this text, that’s the attainment that belongs to the grade above the magus, the ipsissimus. But we’re not going to go there today.
The magus goes beyond magus by finding the way to silence, but while he or she remains a magus then it’s a different set of issues that confront him or her. The magus has themselves and their two forces and their four weapons, but they find that everything they send out into the world is illusion and falsehood and enslaves the soul and the art and craft – everything they do – is glamour, fake, a façade. That’s what the magus has to deal with. But even though the magician may realize this, Crowley says:
Let Him beware of abstinence from action. For the curse of His grade is that He must speak Truth, that the Falsehood thereof may enslave the souls of men. Let him then utter that without Fear, that the Law may be fulfilled.
What he’s saying there, I think, is that as magicians we are makers of reality. We bend reality according to our will, according to our vision, and we are but limited human beings so the reality, the truth, that we make through our magick is just a reflection of our personalities. It is “but glamour”. Perish the thought that anyone should take us seriously. Imagine that. Imagine if someone listened to these podcasts and took these as some sort of canonical pronouncement on how magick is supposed to be practised and upon what reality and truth are. That would be awful. That would be illusion and enslavement, because it’s merely my take on these things. The truth I’m presenting here, my word, is necessarily distorted by my personality. But the magus is someone who’s fully aware that there’s no way out of this dilemma: “Let Him beware of abstinence from action,” Crowley says, and that’s related to that idea we considered earlier about how there is no such thing within human experience of an exit from meaning. So, if you abstain from action then you’re putting that forwards as your word, as what you consider to be a valid approach to making meaning from life.
Really? Doing nothing?
But actually, that wouldn’t be doing nothing. It’s impossible for a human being, like we were saying, to do nothing, to not make any meaning whatsoever. What that would actually be is not nothing but a refusal of something. This is the curse of the grade. This is the curse of being a magician. Knowing that you can make meanings, you can bend reality, and knowing also that inevitably what you convey, what you manifest, is limited, distorted, by the prism of your own personality. At the same time, you know that this is perhaps preferable to being subject to somebody else’s notion of reality, but yours is inevitably going to be as false and as partial as theirs, and that there’s no way out from this dilemma. This is the curse. If you’re not enslaved by your own magick then you’re enslaved by someone else’s. There’s no getting off the ride – or there is, but that’s not one that’s possible within human experience. It comes from realizing how to transcend that.
This whole idea of the magus having a relationship to the word seems to come from just Crowley, as far as I can tell, and as such we might say, well, that was an issue for Crowley. Why does this have relevance to anybody else? But I think it does have relevance and I think it is important because all of us, I think, have a relationship to the word, to meaning, whether we’re aware of it or not. As magicians we make meanings. We forge realities. But do we ask ourselves the question: what is our relationship to meaning?
The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan had this idea of there being three registers that structure human experience: the real, the imaginary, and the symbolic. The only one of those I’m going to highlight here is the symbolic, which I think really approximates to the idea of the logos, perhaps, whereas the real is about what reality actually is in some sense, which is generally not accessible to human perception, and the imaginary tends to be about what we would like or wish or fantasize reality as being.
The symbolic is that register that embraces most of our daily experience in the everyday world. It’s the domain of human culture and all the signs and symbols and conventions through which that constitutes itself. It’s that shared domain where we find all the ideas and concepts by which we make sense of the world together, and the western magical tradition of course is part of this too. It has its conventions, traditions, its signs and its symbols, and a lot of the magical work that we do as magicians might be about manipulating these. Sigil magick, for instance, is basically us making a sign or symbol that represents something that we choose it to represent. The signs and symbols of a particular culture determine the way that the persons within that culture experience the world. What we’re doing in sigil magick, in a way, is making our own culture. We’re saying: “I’m deciding that this sign is going to influence my experience in this particular way”, whereas usually in the everyday world we’re having signs imposed upon us. From this perspective we have a relationship with the word, with meaning, all of the time. It’s part of being human. But that relationship can change, as the example of sigil magick shows.
Now, as often seems to happen when producing these podcasts, I stumbled across a book that I picked up at random from the bookshelf, by a Lacanian psychoanalyst called Darian Leader, a book called Strictly Bipolar, which is an exploration of manic depression and bipolar disorder. And I stumbled across some passages that seemed really relevant to this idea of us having a relationship to the word, to meaning, and how that can change, and how different sorts of relationships seem to be possible that could shape our magical identity.
In bipolar disorder, as it’s typically represented, people experience deep lows of depression that alternate with periods of highs, periods of so-called “mania”. One of the things that commonly happens during manic highs is that people can find themselves entering into inappropriate relationships or becoming sexually promiscuous, and Leader quotes the example of a woman who in a manic episode seduced her best friend’s boyfriend. And at the time she had this sense that something was wrong, but she couldn’t quite work out what it was. She couldn’t quite remember what it was that she wasn’t supposed to do in this situation. As she put it, he was gorgeous, I was available, why not? What Leader suggests in this book is that in bipolar disorder, manic depression, what we’re seeing is an oscillation in a person’s relationship to the symbolic. So usually for the woman in the example, the person who she slept with appears to her as her best friend’s boyfriend. That’s who he is ordinarily. That’s the sign that she recognizes him under. That’s his meaning to her: he’s her best friend’s boyfriend, and under the rules of our culture you don’t sleep with your best friend’s boyfriend. But in the manic episode there was a sense that he no longer meant that to her, that there was some kind of shift in her understanding of the position he occupied in her life, a symbolic position, such that that sign under which she recognized him no longer seemed to apply.
Now, Darian Leader remarks that one of the difficulties working in therapy with people with manic depression is that it often seems as if having insights into themselves doesn’t seem to register. The sort of insights that with other clients give them access to important meanings about their lives just don’t seem to carry the same weight for people who might have a diagnosis of manic depression. And Leader makes some interesting suggestions on why this might be the case. He writes:
Manic depressive subjects may arrive at key connections in therapy which have little or zero effect, as if the insight had no real value. Perhaps what has made some clinicians despair of working with manic depression here is, in fact, a clue as to its very logic. When manic the signifiers that determine one’s life are just words among other words, as if their full weight has not been registered. They can be cast as mere jokes or flippant comments. The depression is then the return of their weight, the massive impact of which is absent in times of mania.Darian Leader
So, what he’s pointing to there, perhaps, is how our relationship to meaning, to the key signifiers in our lives, the signs, the symbols that give our lives meaning – how our relationship to that can change and, perhaps, in manic depression or bipolar disorder we might see that in a particularly vivid way. But these are possibilities, of course, available to any human being and maybe all of us to some extent are expressing different relationships to meaning at different times and changing our relationship to meaning, perhaps, over the course of our lives. Sometimes this can be a relationship that has a kind of depressive edge to it where meanings are so heavy, so important, that we kind of feel crushed beneath them. And then at other times the opposite, perhaps, where we kind of fly, rise up above meanings, and we’re looking down at them and laughing at them and feeling as if we’re on the outside and that we’re free and can do, can do anything in that space and meaning doesn’t really matter, it doesn’t hold us at all.
In terms of magical practice, maybe we see different kinds of magical practice arising from different kinds of relationship between the magician and the word. Someone who has a tendency towards that more depressive side of the continuum, as we described it, where meanings are heavy and taken seriously, this might produce the kind of magical practice where tradition is very important, where it feels right that texts are followed to the letter and attempts are made to arrive at some kind of authenticity in our magical practice, using authentic ingredients, performing rituals at a ceremonially appropriate time, cultivating relationships with certain spirits and taking these very seriously. This is the sort of practice where a lot of respect is given to the signs and symbols that are part of it. And at the other end of the continuum, maybe, the opposite: here, nothing is true, everything is permitted. Everything’s much more ad hoc and meaning is held very lightly. And this might sound very chaos magicky, but I don’t think it’s limited to that. At this end of the spectrum ecstasy is important. Any approach to magic that’s oriented towards transgressing or “going beyond”: sex magick, psychedelics, inducing trance states, meditating for hours on end – all of those kinds of things are on this side of the continuum. So, it’s not just about the contrast between traditionalists and non-traditionalists.
For example, there’s a lot of talk around at the moment about “closed practices”: the idea that certain types of magical practice should only be undertaken by those from a certain cultural background. A lot of people advocating this approach seem to be based on TikTok and are often younger practitioners, but I think what’s being expressed there is an approach to practice that’s more at that depressive end of the continuum. Closed practices seem to be about anchoring practice in authenticity, which is presumed to be rooted in the practitioner’s cultural background. It seems in essence to be an attempt to ensure that the signs and symbols of magical practice are anchored, deeply rooted, taken seriously, not detached from the proper context in which they’re supposed to be. And, linking this back for a moment to those two excerpts that we heard at the beginning from Grant Morrison and Rob Burbea, and how maybe we could really hear there this distinction that we’re talking about. Morrison and Burbea may be pointing to similar things, pointing to an experience of the transpersonal. But Morrison is all about soaring up beyond individuality whereas Burbea is about relaxing down into the divine.
Morrison, when he’s giving that talk, famously, he’s quite literally coming up on acid. His word as a magus shatters convention and breaks through the everyday and points a way beyond that. And Burbea, what he’s doing there it’s like he’s easing us gently, calmly, into a sense of the divine that’s already here, already inside, close at hand, and he’s inviting us to nestle down into it, to make ourselves at home in it. And as I said, at the beginning, I regard them both as magicians. They both had a huge impact on me, on my practice, but both have a radically different approach to magic and a radically different approach to meaning, to the word.
This also brings in questions of ethics. Where our relationship to the word is concerned, it might look at first as if attaching to the word is ethical and detaching from it is not. But I think either can constitute an attempt to act for the best, depending on the circumstances. Sometimes it’s important and for the best to take things very seriously and pay respect to certain symbols, but then of course it’s easy to think of circumstances in which the opposite approach is for the best: disrespecting, detaching, taking things lightly as a way of diminishing their power and importance.
Attaching to and detaching from the word aren’t ethical or unethical in themselves, they’re just strategies that we can adopt in specific contexts. Like Crowley said: “One is the Magus; two are his forces”, and those forces are, I think, this detaching or attaching, making new meanings or destroying existing meanings. So, Crowley and his idea of the magus represents magick as a process of coming into relationship with the word, with meaning. We gradually become adept at making meanings and turning them into realities. But becoming a magus, seen as a particular stage of magical development, according to Crowley, that’s about recognizing how to an extent all the meanings and realities that we create in our magic are false to some degree, and the magus is somebody who has kind of come to terms with that by uncovering, recognizing what their word, their meaning actually is, albeit false.
And then, Crowley suggests, there’s a way out. There’s an exit, a way to get off the ride, which is the grade above, the ipsissimus, which is the practitioner who has realized how to be silent. But this is not something that is possible to manifest in the realm of human experience. This is the level of truth that lies beyond the word, beyond meaning. Looking at magick from the perspective of its being about the magician’s relationship to meaning, to the word, can help us bring into focus questions about ethics, which are really difficult to grapple with, I think.
If magick is about our relationship to the word, to truth, then what about our relationship to the good, which is where ethics resides, perhaps? I think this is one of the realities about spiritual practice, magical practice, that people really struggle with, which is our ethics is something that we have to bring to the practice ourselves. Our practice doesn’t create that for us. It doesn’t come with an ethical framework at all.
Magic, spirituality, is the practice of bringing ourselves in relationship to truth, whereas ethics is the practice of bringing ourselves into relationship with the good. They are two different sets of practices, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t bring them into relationship with each other. But I think it’s a fact that developing a relationship to truth won’t reveal to us necessarily how we develop a relationship to the good.
I think I was really lucky in that the first encounter I had with a guru was Andrew Cohen. This was around the mid-2000s and at that time he had a reputation for being highly awakened and being able to transmit experiences of his awakening to other people. And Alan Chapman and myself at the time, we went to one of his talks, just to see what he was about, and we didn’t take the claims that he could transmit his enlightenment to people too seriously, but both of us were both really taken by surprise when after going to the talk we both started to have really vivid, intense awakening experiences, apparently as a consequence of just being in his proximity. And if that sounds a bit incredible and too much to believe, then that was exactly how it seemed to us as well at the time!
But what was also apparent to us was that although Andrew Cohen seemed highly awakened and was able to transmit that to other people, there was definitely something “off” about him. He wasn’t giving off a vibe of being essentially a nice person to be around. And that was clear to myself and Alan, at least. And indeed, a few years later all these revelations came out from students of Andrew Cohen talking about how they’ve been abused in various ways, and all of this can be found written about on the internet. And Andrew Cohen himself admitted to this and withdrew from his role as a guru.
As I was saying, I just think I was incredibly lucky to have early on an experience of somebody who was evidently deeply in relationship with the truth, someone for whom the proximity of the non-dual was so intense that it kind of spilled out of him onto other people, but at the same time it was evident that, as a human being, he wasn’t someone who I would want to have as a friend, or even as a colleague.
It’s pretty clear to me that a magician’s relationship to the word, to truth, doesn’t necessarily reflect at all on their relationship to the good, to goodness. We tend to assume that spiritual practices by necessity are in themselves good – ethically good – and that they lead to the development in us of goodness. But they don’t. That’s the reason why the Buddha taught that the first practice and the last practice is morality. You practice morality at the beginning, whilst you’re doing the spiritual stuff, becoming awakened, and you practice morality at the end of that also, after that process has reached some sort of development.
As magicians we have to bring with us the ethical framework in which we perform the practices. The practices don’t do that for us. That’s our responsibility. Our ethics is a reflection of who we are, not a reflection of the practices that we happen to be doing, and I think confusion around this issue gets played out in what today is called “cancel culture”. The assumption here is that if someone’s relationship to goodness is not all that it could be, then their relationship to the word won’t be either. And I’m thinking of debates at the moment around Crowley. His ethical conduct, at times, was certainly not all it could have been, and the ethical framework of his era that he was operating in feels these days somewhat distant from where we would like to be now, I think. And there has been debate about whether a form of Thelema – Crowley’s magical system – would be preferable that somehow didn’t have Crowley, the man, front and centre.
And then there’s a figure such as Julius Evola, who quite openly espoused fascism, although he tried to wriggle out of that to some extent, and who was quite openly racist and sexist and whose ideas have more recently been taken up by magical practitioners of the alt-right. I think it’s understandable if people don’t want to touch with a barge pole an intellectual pedigree like that. But at the same time his books on Buddhism, on Tantra, and his earlier writings on magick, produced with a group of cohorts, known as the UR Group – these demonstrate that he knew what magick is, how it works, and had a highly developed relationship to truth. But, taking his book on Buddhism as an example, look at what he did with that. That book sets out really clearly, vividly, what awakening is and how it’s attained, but for Evola, awakening is about giving yourself an edge over everybody, about using it to your advantage and being able to dominate other people through it and proving your superiority over them.
So, I think Evola had a really good grip on truth, on how things are, but he approached that from and put it into a perspective that was totally horrendous, totally twisted, and cruel and irresponsible. There are plenty of decent writers on magick, so you don’t have to read Evola, but at the same time, if you do, there are ideas of real value there. He can be read profitably for his relationship to the truth, but I wouldn’t bother reading him for his relationship to the good. Because he doesn’t have much of a relationship to the good.
A person’s ethics reflect on them, but what reflects on their relationship to the truth is their word. It’s the word of the magus that’s the valuable bit when we approach their teachings. Their relationship to goodness, on the other hand, may or may not be useful to us. Crowley, Evola, Jesus, the Buddha: they all had quite different relationships to goodness and to truth. Their word can help us awaken to truth, but none of them can make us a good person or a bad person. That’s up to us. That’s our responsibility. They might have laid down some rules that we might decide to follow, but following rules isn’t what makes someone an ethical person. Anyone can follow rules. Nazis were very good at following rules. Our relationship to goodness is a separate practice from our magical practice.
The word of the Buddha was anatta, “no self”; and the word of Jesus Christ was agape, “love”; and the word of Crowley was thelema, “will”; and the word of Evola, I think, was arya, which means “nobility”. All of these words point us towards the truth in different ways, but none of them necessarily makes us a better person. We saw what Evola did with the word of the Buddha, anatta, “no self”. We saw where he decided to take that.
In 2008 a word presented itself to me in a dream, which I’ve taken as my word as a magus, and over the years I’ve tried to use that word as a way of thinking about what kind of lies and falsehoods I’m telling myself and other people through the way that I approach magick. I wrote about the experience of finding the word in A Desert of Roses, but what I’ll say about it here is that the word is elephairo, a Greek word which means, basically, “to deceive”. But this word, elephairo, has a particular set of connotations. It appears in Homer’s Odyssey in a passage towards the end.
So, Odysseus has been wandering around for – I can’t remember how many years – trying to find his way home to his wife, Penelope. And she’s waiting for him patiently at home and the house is full of suitors, who are just trying to get off with Penelope in the absence of Odysseus. And one day she takes in a stranger into the house, gives him shelter. She doesn’t know it, but it’s Odysseus, her husband. He’s come back. She doesn’t recognize him, and they get into conversation together and Penelope says to him:
Stranger, dreams verily are baffling and unclear of meaning and in no wise do they find fulfilment in all things for men. For two are the gates of shadowy dreams and one is fashioned of horn, and one of ivory. Those dreams that pass through the gate of sawn ivory deceive men, bringing words that find no fulfilment. But those that come forth through the gate of polished horn bring true issues to pass when any mortal sees them. But in my case, it was not from thence methinks that my strange dream came.Homer, The Odyssey
Now, that strange dream to which she refers was what she’d dreamt the night before: that her husband Odysseus had returned home. So, she’s saying that she thinks this dream was false: it’s not going to come true, and it came to her through this so-called gate of ivory rather than through the gate of horn through which true dreams that actually come to pass are sent. And what’s at work here is some totally untranslatable pun in Greek. So, the word in Greek for “ivory” is elephas, which is where we get our word “elephant” from, and this sounds like the Greek word for “to deceive”, elephairo. Hence this idea of a gate of ivory through which deceptive dreams come, dreams that aren’t true. And the gate of horn comes from the fact that the Greek word for “horn” sounds like the Greek word for “to fulfil”, so dreams that fulfil themselves come through the gate of horn. Totally untranslatable, but the upshot of it being this image that dreams come through one of two gates: either the gate of ivory, eliphas, elephairo, which deceive, or the gate of horn, which means they fulfil themselves, they’re true.
And Virgil uses this same image in the Aeneid, when Aeneas returns from his visit to the underworld back to the waking world. Virgil states that Aeneas came back to the waking world through the gate of ivory – in other words the visions that he’d had down there in the underworld come into the waking world via the gate of ivory, the gate through which deceptive dreams pass. And for centuries scholars have puzzled about this. Why it was that Aeneas’s visions of the underworld are said by Virgil to come into waking consciousness through the gate of ivory that brings deception?
So, bound up in this word that I received in a dream – and I had no conception of what it meant when it arrived – but bound up with it are all these notions of truth and falsity, and dreams and reality, and all sorts of paradoxes because where that word appeared in The Odyssey, we have Penelope talking to a stranger, telling the stranger that her dream of her husband coming back to her from the night before was a false dream – is in fact true, because the stranger standing before her is her husband in disguise. And then the paradox here of what is actually false is not the dream, but the reality, the disguise that’s the false bit, not the dream. The dream is true. And also in The Aeneid, Aeneas’s encounters in the underworld, which are life-changing, powerfully affecting visions that shape his destiny – these come into the waking world supposedly through the gate of ivory, deception.
The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges offered an interpretation of why Virgil had Aeneas return through the gate of ivory. He suggested that, similar to the situation that we talked about in The Odyssey, that Aeneas passes through the gates of ivory because he’s actually entering the world of dreams at that point – i.e., returning back to reality. Virgil was suggesting, Borges hints, that what we call the waking world, everyday reality, is actually the false bit, the deceiving bit. So, again, it’s not the visions that are false, it’s the world that they’re brought back into which is the illusion.
So, this word also appeared to me in a dream, and I’ve taken it as my word as a magus, and I use it to meditate on the type of misconceptions and falsehoods that I bring into the world through my word and my practice. And this happened before I’d even read Crowley’s paper on the magus and the word of the magus, but my word, I think, is elephairo, “to deceive”, and it’s related to this idea of the gate of ivory through which false dreams pass and often, I think, dreams do feel to me more important than reality, more real than reality. And I love to get lost in dreams and images and I try to use these as a means of navigating my way to truth, but I love the qualities of dreams and images in and for themselves also.
So, my word as a magus is elephairo, and the aperture through which I speak is the gate of ivory, and maybe this podcast is my ivory tower. But I hope it’s been of some interest and value to you, and I hope that we speak again soon. Take care.