Of ‘Gatekeeper’ Spirits and the Western Esotericism

Liminal Gatekeeper Spirits

I have a thing for liminal gods and spirits. Not in some weird ‘sexy times’ kind of way, but gatekeeper spirits - hermanubis statuethere’s definitely a draw there for me. The same goes for places too. I love those liminal in-between places in which the Other almost feels close enough to reach out and touch. The kind of places where you wouldn’t be all that surprised if it reached out and gave you a quick grope either.

So as you might imagine, the concept of ‘gatekeepers’ (or beings connected to boundaries in general) holds a high level of fascination; after all, you don’t get much more liminal than a gatekeeper.

But whenever we talk of gatekeepers, especially within the context of Indo-European Paganisms, there is this sense that they’re a borrowing from outside and don’t belong.

It all started with a book review…

Recently though, I came across a blog post that discusses the role of the gatekeeper spirit within the Western Occult Tradition and its possible uses and origins. Well ok, the post wasn’t *really* about that, it was a book review of Jake Stratton-Kent’s Encyclopedia Goetica. The post is a very concise and well-done review of a series of five books examining the origins of the magical tech and spirits of the Grimoires, and even though the combined cost of all the books together would be around $140, I have a mighty need to buy them like you wouldn’t believe.

I’m a big believer in figuring out the origins and meanings of things, in deconstructing things like old charms in order to figure out the underlying mechanisms. I’m not a fan of simply copying and taking the (arguably) easier route of having a tradition handed to me. I like to do the work, and then take that work and try it out ‘in the field’ so to speak. So it goes without saying that I find all of this work being done within the occult community to dig for the meanings and underlying mechanisms very, very exciting.

Of Pagan Origins and Christian Veneers

From what I understand from the review, Mr Stratton-Kent’s general argument is that the grimoires represent a survival of ancient Pagan religious and occult practices. But you know, with this covering of Christian and Qabalistic stuffs. The main of Stratton-Kent’s work in his Encyclopedia then, is in stripping away that covering, and revealing those ancient practices as much as possible. At the root of it all, Stratton-Kent argues, are the Greek goetes, those wandering magicians of the pre-classical period from whom we derive the word goetia. Which, if Stratton-Kent is right, has massive implications for not only Western esotericism, but for any magically inclined Pagans in general. (Again, I haven’t read these books yet so I’m being cautious with my language here. Like I said, I have a mighty need.)

Scrying and Survivals

Gatekeeper Spirits - Lady scrying with bowl of waterIn the first book of the Encyclopedia, The True Grimoire, Stratton-Kent examines the use of a gatekeeper spirit as intermediary between the other spirits and us. More specifically he focuses on the ‘Armadel’ method, a method of scrying in which spirits are called into the surface of the water. It is this method of scrying that Stratton-Kent argues (at least as I understand it from reading the review), is our tie back to the scrying methodology of the Greek Magical Papyri and the Pagan world. For Stratton-Kent, the ‘Armadel’ method reflected in the Greek Magical Papyri of calling a spirit into the surface of whatever you’re scrying with, is a piece of magical tech reflective of the decline of the Pagan period. It was a particularly clever work-around for the problem of how to interact with the old gods without all of the traditional Pagan religious apparatus. The magician or seer would call an intermediary spirit into the surface of the scrying medium. This intermediary spirit is then tasked with setting up a ritual scene in preparation for the arrival of the bigger spirits. The reviewer Kadmus, points out that often the request is focused on setting up the right number of chairs for a kind of banquet for the spirits. This is reminiscent of some of the earliest methods of religious ritual among the Indo-Europeans. After this feast, the magician or seer is then at liberty to ask for a boon; do ut des and all that. By shifting the celebration of a Pagan rite to the Other that lies beyond water, the practitioner can fulfill the exigencies of ritual in a far more discreet and less dangerous manner than if he or she were to set up such a ritual scene in the physical world.

Papyri and Lines

When dealing with the Greek Magical Papyri (or PGM), there is always the question of Gatekeeper spirits - PGMwhat comes from which tradition. The PGM date from between 200 B.C.E and 500 C.E, and are the product of intense cross-cultural interaction and blending in the Mediterranean. Kadmus sums this up best when he writes in his review that the PGM are “just as much Egyptian Magical Papyri as Greek ones”.

This is where things become complicated and where we must not only ask ourselves which part of that PGM heritage the use of a spirit intermediary or gatekeeper draws from, but also where we draw the line when it comes to consideration of which sources are ‘ours’.  If Stratton-Kent is correct in his assertion that the grimoire tradition has its roots in these origins and that there is a high degree of conservation when you scrape away that Judeo-Christian veneer, then the level of complication is compounded. Perhaps more so for groups who have an expressed IE focus like ADF, for then there is the added task of teasing out the IE influences from non IE – and as we have seen with the Armadel method, that is not always so clear (especially when it comes to magic, Greece, and Egypt).

Continuities and Threads

We all tend to gather in our respective boxes and behind our respective labels, we like to think of cultural traditions as being handed down relatively unchanged for millennia –  after all, the world is easier to think of that way. But even without the benefit of reading the Encylopedia, I think that if there’s one thing the grimoires teach us, it’s that the world was Gatekeeper Spirits - Norwegian Cyprianusnever so simple. Cultures interacted, people traveled, aspects of the ‘not us’ found their way in to the ‘us’, and the world marched ever on. Traditions grew, metamorphosed, and sometimes even died. The Armadel method was transmitted, spirit lists persisted (reportedly showing a high degree of conservation), and a newly controversial saint from Antioch found his way into Scandinavian grimoires where he was cited as the author of numerous black books of magic. Going back to those gatekeepers, maybe they *don’t* belong in the strictest sense of the word, but their usefulness can hardly be denied within these settings.

In many ways, magic is like those fleeting shadow figures that disappear when you focus upon them – those liminal figures that are often spied out of the corner of your eyes. This butterfly seems to defy attempts to systematize and classify it, but it makes little sense to ignore what we do have because some parts of it may look a little ‘moth-like’. Because as has been demonstrated time and time again, you can often learn a lot about the bits of something you do like, by looking at those you don’t.

Gatekeeper Spirits -Gynandromorph Butterfly

Local Spirits and Witchcraft

Have you ever wondered why witches are always so bloody minded? Why we fight so often with each other and get into all kinds of crazy adventures?

I mean, let’s face it, we’re kind of like magnets for weird things and not just weird things that are decidedly other either. No, over the years, I’ve attracted everything from very, very short people with guitars, to that Aryan Brotherhood guy who did pull ups on the grab bars of a moving bus while trying to talk to me. Terrifying. I often use the analogy that I’m like a pile of turd attracting flies. A super sexy pile of turd, obviously…well, as these things go at least.

Being the proverbial pile of turd can complicate life somewhat in that no matter where you go, you will always encounter what is there. That shit will pop right up and introduce itself to you on moving-in day/walking through the park/doing whatever it is that you’re doing that isn’t even remotely magical. Like that one time when I was volunteering to help clean gravestones in my then-town and I felt something very bony tap me on the shoulder to see what I was doing. Or that other time when I was standing in another town with a friend and kept getting shoulder taps and “psst”. Or then there was that time we…never mind, you get the idea. In other words, if you’ve been dealt in by the ‘cosmic croupier’ I referred to in my last post, you will always have to interact with your landscape (both Seen and Unseen). There will always be this process of you getting their attention and them getting yours for various reasons.

This is why more traditional currents of witchcraft hold that it’s entirely natural for witchcraft (like Heathenry) to vary from place to place.  After all, if you are working with the liminal, local spirits of the land where you live, then your witchcraft cannot help but be localized in some way.

When you see your local land, what do you see? If you haven’t already experienced the Unseen in your location, how do you imagine it to be? Now think about the history of where you live: the various peoples that came through there (if any) and the circumstances of their migrations. What about the religious movements that the area is known for? And lastly, can you point to any occult traditions that you know to have operated in your area? Because these are the kinds of things that affect not only the kinds of spirits that you might come across, but the most effective ways of dealing with them should you need to.

If you live anywhere like where I live, your land – even just by imagining – is a veritable ‘onion’. Or in other words, layer upon layer upon layer of peoples with different beliefs and practices interacting with local spirits and bringing their own spirits and practices with them.

In these kind of environments, a certain kind of adaptability is needed, and those of us who live in these onion-like environs need to attain a certain degree of fluency in multiple magical traditions.

Local Spirits - John Dee and Edward Kelly

“Did it work, Ed?”
“Nah. I was trying to get my grandma, I don’t know who the fuck this is!”

Because witches, as bloody-minded as we typically are, are usually the type of people to get the things done that we need to by hook or by crook. We tend to take a pragmatic approach (if we’re not the kind of people to pretend that we fart magical success of course).

But when it comes to that success – location and the Unseen we encounter in a place are huge factors. Because for as much as we see this whole image of the all-powerful witch on TV, we’re only really as powerful as the relationships we build with the Unseen (like our local spirits) and our Dead. Sure, we can do some things without them, we do have our own intrinsic dynamistic power, but it’s with the animistic powers – best remembered as ‘the things we can make offerings to or interact with’ – where the greatest power (and our greatest potential) lies.

But there’s always some resistance to this idea of gaining fluency in different magical traditions – at least from what I’ve found. Especially when it comes to people who consider witchcraft as a path or even a religion.

Both descriptors are problematic. A path is restrictive in that you can only be on one at a time, and while calling something a ‘religion’ grants some kind of legitimacy to a group, there’s a whole lot of baggage that comes with that word. You see, we have very definite ideas of what kinds of things a religion involves, and even if we put it into a Pagan context (erasing words like ‘worship’, ‘prayer’, and anything people feel is a little too Christian), we do still end up in the same behavioral patterns.

We start to think of things like the ‘right’ way of doing something and what can be considered a part of that religion or not. Well, I would say that outside of religious observance, it’s the ‘right’ way if it works, and you absolutely want to be doing it the ‘right’ way if you’re being religious.

But historically, witchcraft was always a different kind of beast, and in spite of ideas of ‘the

Local Spirits - Devil and witches

“Oh, babies! I love babies!! Great job, ladies. Now best be off to bed, you’ve all got to be up early for church tomorrow!”

old religion’ surviving in witchcraft throughout the ages, the likelihood is that the witches back then considered themselves some kind of Christian. Like the old ladies of Norfolk, who up until relatively recently, still knew and used charms in order to keep the elves from spoiling their butter.

The problem with bringing that kind of religious baggage to witchcraft, is that you always run the risk of becoming a purist. I know that’s a trap I’ve fallen into in the past, because it’s so very easy to think you’re on to some amazing ‘explanation of all the things’ and that you’ve figured out an accompanying system. (For why this is foolish, I refer you to the discussion above on the effects of location) Before you know it, you’re no longer looking at what is actually there and instead trying to slot it all into this ‘perfect’ explanation like some kind of mad historian trying to slot the gods of various cultures into the Graeco-Roman pantheon model. It’s also all too easy to get dogmatic about what sources you use too (again, not particularly good for interacting with what is actually around you).

Take the grimoires for example, while not as numerous as you might think, they are a veritable gold mine for magical practitioners. I mean, how many of us have wished at some point to find some book of great antiquity that shows us how witches back in the day got down? Well we have some books just like that, and yet they seem to be largely ignored by modern Pagan and Heathen magic workers.

Is it because of this dogmatism, because these grimoires are often filled with talk of demons and angels and lengthy invocations using the various names of Yahweh? I think that’s throwing all the proverbial babies out with all of the bathwater.

Local spirits Pachyderm

“BOO-YA! Did ya miss me?”

But this is a topic I’ve discussed before, in my last post even, when I talked about the proverbial (Christian) elephant in the room and the necessity of either dominating it or making peace with it. Because if you’re dealing with spirits who come from the kind of paradigm reflected by the grimoires, it’s going to be far more effective to engage full stubborn, suck up whatever issue you have with the punchy Jesus pachyderm, and crack out those grimoires.

Ask yourself, what do you really have when you strip away labels like ‘demon’ or ‘angel’, what is it that you’re left with at the end of the day?

An answer of ‘nothing’ is too facile. Sure, it may make the respondent feel better (because “we don’t believe in that kind of thing, yo”), but there are reasons why these books and the various spirit lists they contain are as long-lived as they are (some of them have threads that go *way* back), and there are reasons for the notoriety surrounding these books.

I mean, could you imagine most modern witchcraft books becoming even remotely notorious in the future? I mean, aside from Paul Huson’s book (a book which pulls from the grimoire tradition and contains that ‘repugnant’ reverse recitation of the Lord’s Prayer).Could you imagine any of them even enduring long enough to gain the weight of tradition that some of the grimoires have?

Of course not, because there’s little to no threat in the average witchcraft 101 book. Every effort seems to be taken to look as benign as possible, and to avoid any suggestion of the Judeo-Christian elephant. After all, we don’t want to give the impression that we are what they always said we are – that we truck with demons and kiss the devil’s arse after liberally rubbing ourselves with entheogens – we’re a religion after all, right?

And it’s here where my points begin to collide.

There’s a whole lot going on in this post: from the importance of localism in witchcraft, to labels and how they affect identity (and some of the respectability politics involved).

But so what if we sometimes do the things that those faceless ‘they’ say we do? So what if we dance with the devil and dally with demons? According to a book I’m currently reading, a thoroughly Heathen god that I worship was progressively portrayed as the devil by Christians, and my beloved Ælfe presented as demons (scandalous, sexy demons even). How many of the demons from the spirit lists have their origins in pagan deities – Astaroth, anyone? And to those who would judge us, none of that matters anyway; for whether we call the powers we truck with ‘gods’ or ‘daemons’, or ‘(insert sanitized term here)’, they will never *not* see those powers as the legion forces of evil. It’s really pointless to try with people like that. I’ll be giving that osculum infame business a miss though.

Local Spirits - Osculum Infame

“Lick it! Lick it real good!”

And so what if some of us take entheogens in order to trip our balls (metaphorical balls in my case) into deeper interactions with the Unseen? We humans have been doing that kind of thing for rather a long time. In fact we probably made beer a long time before we made bread, and it wasn’t as though those early brews adhered to some kind of Reinheitsgebot either – archaeologists have found all kinds of mind-altering additions to ancient beers. It’s only relatively recently that we humans have had any kind of issue with entheogen use, or associated it with slovenly and antisocial behavior. I think there’s even a good argument to be made that the removal of mind-altering substances from sacred context has contributed to the abuse and harm of these substances!

For various reasons, time and again, I see us removing ourselves from some of our best tools for getting to know and interact with the Unseen, for putting down roots in our lands, and becoming a part of it all. And I just find it an utter shame. We live in a time in which the other is so much closer; the church bells no longer sound to keep it away. We just need to learn more than one dance.

Local Spirits - dancing

“You step LEFT now, Beryl! LEFT!”