Saturday, September 19, 2015

Religion, Magic, and the Nature of Modern Wicca

A Wiccan

How Certain Wiccans Might Regard the Calling of the Quarters and Circle Casting

by Race MoChridhe

The calling of the quarters is perhaps the most contested, and most variable, element of Wiccan ritual practice. Though it forms a vital part of British Traditional workings from the very earliest written Wiccan rituals of the 1940s, an increasing number of contemporary Wiccans seem to find something incongruous about it. A survey of modern rituals readily finds that it is this step of the whole circle-casting process that is likeliest to be altered, amended, or simply left out.

Many Wiccan authors, such as Kat MacMorgan, have objected to the quarter calls because of their ostensibly Christian origin. The practice in its modern form originated in the work of Queen Elizabeth’s court astrologer, John Dee, who involved the quarters in a special form of ceremonial magic of his own devising, designed to probe the secrets of the universe by discourse with the angels. Within this system, Dee found it prudent to acknowledge the four quarters at which, medieval legend held, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were restrained until the end of history. For MacMorgan, and others who share her concern, they thus bring an incompatible energy to a rite that does not otherwise involve Christianity.

There is a stronger sense in which they do not seem to fit, however--one that is revealed not by John Dee’s system of magic, but by the later system of the Golden Dawn, which drew on the same classical sources. Victorian magicians called the quarters even as Dee had done, but they were a farther step removed from the lore of the middle ages, and a step closer to the rediscovery of classical learning in the Renaissance. Hence, they were motivated not by legends of the Horsemen, but by the Hermetic texts of late antiquity, which drew on Greek traditions of the elements as essential building blocks of the fabric of reality. Though the practice was similar, the rationale was different--the magician sought not to acknowledge the mercy of God in restraining the forces of chaos, but to attract the very chaotic elemental forces of which reality is composed, in order to restrain them in ways of his or her own devising.

The distinction strikes to the heart of two radically different views of the universe. In his seminal work, The Golden Bough, Sir James Frazer sought to illuminate the underlying distinction between magic and religion. “The magician,” he wrote:
"does not doubt that the same causes will always produce the same effects, that the performance of the proper ceremony, accompanied by the appropriate spell, will inevitably be attended by the desired result... [H]e strictly conforms to the rules of his art, or to what may be called the laws of nature as conceived by him. ... Thus the analogy between the magical and the scientific conceptions of the world is close. ... Both of them open up a seemingly boundless vista of possibilities to him who knows the causes of things and can touch the secret springs that set in motion the vast and intricate mechanism of the world. (Chapter 4)"

Hence, for the Golden Dawn and other magicians of that age who were influenced by the magical treatises of ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt, the quarter call was an exceedingly precise and almost scientific affair. Israel Regardie, one of the leading lights of that age, gives in his manuals precise instructions not simply for the drawing of the pentagram at each of the quarters, as is done today by most Wiccans, but for the drawing of specific pentagrams for each of the elements, and each accompanied by a correspondingly unique banishing form. The movements are elaborated down to the smallest details. Great emphasis is placed on the need to command, as the practitioner is warned that elementals are not intelligent spirits, and that one does not reason with or supplicate them. Reminders appear frequently that the protective circle should always be complete and triply strengthened before invoking elemental powers, which might otherwise destroy the unwary magician.

Modern Wiccans, however, tend to view the quarter calls as a part of the construction of the circle itself, to the point that the calls sometimes actually precede the physical layout of the circle. They also tend to use the same invoking and banishing forms for all elements, the distinctions between them having been lost. What accounts for this change? It is precisely that, for all Wicca plays up magic as a part of its public image, the truth is that it isn’t really very magical; it’s underlying worldview has much more in common with religion, as Frazer would define it:
"...[R]eligion involves, first, a belief in superhuman beings who rule the world, and, second, an attempt to win their favour, it clearly assumes that the course of nature is to some extent elastic or variable, and that we can persuade or induce the mighty beings who control it to deflect, for our benefit, the current of events from the channel in which they would otherwise flow. Now this implied elasticity or variability of nature is directly opposed to the principles of magic as well as of science, both of which assume that the processes of nature are rigid and invariable in their operation, and that they can as little be turned from their course by persuasion and entreaty as by threats and intimidation. (Ibid.)"

If ceremonial magic as exemplified by Regardie and the Golden Dawn, filled with long tables of forms of the Divine Name in Hebrew appropriate to the binding of spirits, represents an awkward transposition of religious elements to the realm of magic, modern Wicca, with its supplicative appeals to the favor of the Lord and Lady and its belief in the importance of qualities such as trust and gratitude to cultivating an effective magical will, represents a less awkward transposition of magical elements into the realm of religion.

But not all of them quite fit, and the quarter call in its original form, with its meticulous clinical craft and its cajoling, commanding disposition, continues to strike a discordant tone for many. It is a perpetual reminder of far more ancient magics that had so much in common with the modern scientific worldview’s haughty objectification of nature--the very same detached, manipulative spirit that modern Witchcraft exists, in part, to cure.

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