by Herbie Brennan for SOL, July 2002
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Even occultists, by and large, consider spirit conjuration a Mediaeval superstition…
A lot of the blame must go to dear old Dennis Wheatley, whose black magic romances chilled a generation and made him the largest-selling author in the world. Tales like The Devil Rides Out featured scenes of evocation in which terrifying demons arose outside the magic circle to cause the sort of mayhem usually only associated with an earthquake.
Non-fiction accounts of the process sound no less unlikely. One of the most detailed appears in the private papers of Benvenuto Cellini, Italy’s Renaissance master painter.
In 1533 or ’34 (the exact date is uncertain), Cellini met with a Sicilian priest versed in the art of ritual magic who agreed to show him an evocation, having first voiced a few dire warnings about the dangers.
The site chosen was the ruins of the Roman Coliseum. Cellini brought his friend Vincentio Romoli, while the priest was accompanied by a second magician from Pistoia. The equipment laid out included ceremonial robes, a wand, several grimoires, a pentacle, incense, kindling and a supply of assafœtida grass.
While the others watched, the Sicilian drew circles on the Coliseum floor and fortified them ceremonially. One of the circles was left incomplete. The magician led his companions through the gap before closing it and concluding his ritual preparations.
Cellini and Romoli were given the job of lighting a fire in the circle. When they got it going, they were instructed to burn quantities of incense. While the man from Pistoia held the pentacle, the priest began a conjuration ritual. An hour and a half later it bore fruit. According to Cellini’s own account, the Coliseum was filled with ‘several legions’ of spirits.
Cellini expressed himself satisfied with the demonstration, but the Sicilian undertook to perform the ceremony again in the hope of obtaining more spectacular results. To this end, he made a fresh stipulation: he wanted a virgin boy to attend. Cellini brought a young servant with him, a 12-year-old named Cenci.
Romoli returned to the Coliseum for the second operation, but the magician from Pistoia did not. His place was taken by another of Cellini’s friends, Agnolino Gaddi. Once again the circles were drawn and consecrated, the fire lit and the incense burned. Cellini himself held the pentacle this time as the Sicilian priest began the evocation.
It’s plain from Cellini’s account that the conjuration – spoken in a mixture of Hebrew, Greek and Latin – was directed towards demons who controlled legions of infernal spirits. Much sooner than before, the Coliseum was packed with entities. Cellini asked them to bring him a woman he fancied. The spirits replied through the mouth of the magician that Cellini and she would be together within a month.
Although all seemed well at this point, the operation quickly began to go wrong. The magician himself was the first to notice. There were, he said, too many spirits present – possibly as many as a thousand times more than he had called up. Worse, they had begun to misbehave. Twelve-year-old Cenci screamed that they were all being menaced by a million of the fiercest ‘men’ he had ever seen. Four giants, fully armed, were trying to enter the fortified circle.
The priest launched into a formula of dismissal. The little boy began to moan and buried his head between his knees, convinced they were all as good as dead. Cellini tried to reassure him but failed, possibly because he himself was shaking like a leaf. The child cried out that the Coliseum was on fire and that flames were rolling towards them. He covered his eyes with his hands in a paroxysm of terror.
The magician broke off his chanted licence to depart in favour of stronger means. He instructed Cellini to have his assistants pile assafœtida on the fire. But Cellini’s assistants were by now too paralysed with terror to comply. Cellini lost his temper and shouted at them. It had the desired effect and soon the foul-smelling grass was burning merrily. The spirits began to depart ‘in great fury.’
None of the experimenters felt like leaving the protection of their magic circle. They stayed huddled together until morning when only a few spirits remained ‘and these at a distance.’ With the sound of Matins bells ringing in their ears, the sorry group left the circle and headed home, with little Cenci clinging desperately to Cellini and the Sicilian. Two spirits accompanied them, racing over the roof tops and along the road.
All this may serve to convince you that Cellini was as imaginative as Wheatley, but there are elements of the story that suggest it should be taken seriously. One is the appearance of the ‘virgin boy’ Cenci. The other is that the spirits spoke to Cellini through the mouth of the Sicilian magician.
These factors give the clue to what was really happening here. The Cellini evocation did not produce solid, visible entities like those in the Wheatley novels. Rather it was a magical operation that made use of mediums. Virgin children often filled this role from Mediaeval times onwards and the Sicilian seems to have had some talent for mediumship himself.
That mediums were in use at the time is confirmed by the diaries of another Renaissance magician, the Court Astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I, Dr. John Dee. Dee spent the best years of his life experimenting with conjuration, but never saw a single spirit. Instead he relied on the second-hand reports of mediums he hired. Although the best-known of these was the notorious Edward Kelley, Dee, like Cellini’s Sicilian, also on occasion used a virgin child.
The involvement of mediums has been enough to convince some historians that spirit conjuration is a subjective phenomenon – essentially a question of the magician’s (or the medium’s) imagination running away with him. It’s a tempting conclusion. Clearly there was a great deal of hysteria involved in Cellini’s account as the young medium’s terror communicated itself to the others. But it’s also a conclusion that betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the human mind.
In plain terms, not everything that goes on inside your head is subjective. That’s to say, not everything in there is the result of your personal experience, thoughts or even your subconscious. While the healthy human mind is well protected from them, the totality of the psyche incorporates transpersonal elements – including the possibility of encroachment by discarnate, but wholly objective, spirits.
Such a possibility becomes a certainty when you engage in conjuration. If you call on spirits, they will come, not perhaps as full-scale Wheatley demons, but as influences on your thoughts, intrusions in your dreams, or even, disturbingly, voices in your head. In worst-case scenarios, there can be a greater or lesser degree of possession; and as Dolores and I discovered on one historic occasion, spirit manifestation can also be accompanied by dramatic physical phenomena.
Two cases, both of which fell within my personal experience, illustrate the potential dangers.
One concerned an early colleague of mine who experimented with the Abra-Melin system of magic without, however, putting in place the required safeguards. The immediate results of his efforts were gratifying – he found he was able to use the ‘magic squares’ of the system to considerable benefit. But each square, traditionally, is linked to a discarnate entity and over a period of about two years, it seems clear that he lost control of them. Certainly he fell prey to intermittent possession by something that followed him around like a black dog. Eventually his life fell apart.
The second case, although far less dramatic, is even more instructive since it illustrates a much more common situation. It concerned a young woman who sought my help to rid herself of spirit voices.
Spirit voices – voices in the head – are often seen, with some justification, as symptoms of an underlying pathology, manifestations of a mental illness that permits the eruption of unconscious contents and allows the patient to dramatise his fears. In this case, however, the root of the condition was clearly something other. The woman concerned had for years sought spiritual guidance in her life path and to that end opened herself up to a great many mediumistic practices, ranging from ouija, to pendulum work to open meditation for spirit contact.
Her efforts were successful. She seems to have been something of a natural psychic and before long she was receiving advice from a variety of Inner Plane entities. She held the pollyannaish belief – surprisingly prevalent in the New Age movement at the time – that if your intentions are pure, nothing can harm you. Consequently she neither tested the spirits nor took precautions in her contacts. The result was predictable. Over a period of time, the voices moved from benign advice to harsh criticism and developed a habit of manifesting whether she called them or not.
I taught her basic banishings, but while these brought some temporary relief, they did not solve the problem. I soon discovered why. Although the voices were now ruining her life – she’d lost her job, her flat and most of her friends because of them – she remained convinced she could not live without ‘guidance.’ So while trying to banish the voices, she continued to open herself up again via the pendulum and other methods. Predictably the spirits crept back in again. It took more than eighteen months to persuade her that you can’t close out spirits and invite them in at the same time. But once that realisation dawned, her recovery was rapid.
All this is beginning to sound as if dealing with discarnate entities is more trouble than it’s worth. But that’s not the case. SoL is, after all, a contacted school, which means there’s at least one discarnate entity passing good advice across the great divide. Experience, including the two case studies quoted, indicates that problems tend to arise from one of three causes.
The first, and most common, is misunderstanding the nature of spirits. They are, without exception, Inner Plane entities. Consequently their most common manifestation is as transpersonal elements within the human psyche. They can produce physical effects and even the appearance of materialisation in the material world, but instances are rare and magicians able set up the required conditions usually have enough experience to know what they are doing.
The second is ignoring the safeguards. God knows, magical textbooks all the way back to the Mediaeval grimoires are packed with dire warnings about those who ignore the proper procedures. These warning should be taken seriously and, if I may add another of my own, you really do need to know exactly why and how the safeguards work as well as putting them in place. There’s as much nonsense written about magic as any other subject and without a full, clear understanding of first principles, you’re in no position to judge which ‘safeguard’ will actually be effective.
The third is testing the spirits. Although I should know better by now, I continue to be astounded by how many occultists – even experienced, well-trained occultists – are prepared to act on any advice offered by an Inner Plane source without bothering to question its bona fides. Caution is always essential. If I knocked on your door in the middle of the night and began to tell you how to run your life, the very least you should do is ask to see my passport.