Review: Mastering the Art of Ritual Magick, Volume 1: Foundation
By Frater Barrabas
Megalithica Books, 2008
Review by Kim Huggens
Ritual magic is a topic that is fascinating and in places extremely complex. It is also, in places, extremely simple and founded upon common sense theories and cosmologies. It conjures up varying images in the mind of the beginner, from Cornelius Agrippa’s scholastic writings and the medieval grimoire magician waving his demon-binding sword around, to Aleister Crowley trying to get his mistress to pleasure a goat and modern people performing meditation and pranayama. Its long history has added to the differing views and images, and this has made the subject difficult to research and somewhat intimidating to get involved with. What is needed is a clear, welcoming book that sets out the basic principles of ritual magic at the beginning, moving coherently through the most useful techniques such as breathwork, visualization, yoga, and the direction of energy, and giving plenty of practical exercises to do along the way. We need a sensible guide that leads you through safely, securely, and with a solid foundation in common sense understanding of why these things are as they are.
This is everything that Mastering the Art of Ritual Magick is not. Never before have I emerged from a book on this subject so confused and alienated – even after reading Crowley! So confusing and incoherent was this text, in fact, that when I finished it I had a sudden urge to soothe my soul with Crowley’s Book Four… or beat myself over the head repeatedly with The Complete Golden Dawn (for its size as much as its complexity!)
The title of this book, by Frater Barrabas (who appears to be expounding theory and magical practices from the Order E.S.S.G. – Egregora Sancta Stella Gnostica) suggests to the casual observer that it is a beginner’s guide of some kind, or is the first in a series of books that will focus on giving the reader a solid foundation of practice, theory, and experience. However, I found this title extremely misleading as throughout the book Frater Barrabas writes about techniques and theories that he barely touches upon: they are briefly mentioned, almost like one might name-drop a famous author you know very little about but whose name sounds impressive in your work, but not discussed at any great length. Mostly this is just frustrating, as on p.178 where he says:
“While the magickal discipline of the Moon is performed at least once a month when the moon is full, it can be expanded to include many other aspects of the moon too, depending on the kind of magick performed and the nature of the seeker’s quest.”
And says so without telling the reader what this monthly magickal discipline is, what form a lunar ritual or invocation might take, or why the reader would want to perform such a discipline. P. 177 is an entire page basically saying “you do something once a month every month for the moon” without saying what! In this case the lack of elaboration is merely frustrating, but in other cases the omission of information could be downright dangerous for a beginner who doesn’t know any better – such as Frater Barrabas’ ‘advice’ on pranayama techniques on p. 69, which is given a whole half-page of space! Here, he mentions the Lotus 7-breath (a technique that employs hyperventilation in a controlled way to induce ecstatic trance) but does not tell the reader the theory behind it, where it comes from, nor how to actually do it. His description simply tells the reader that they need to hyperventilate – an extremely dangerous thing to do if done wrong, as it will do more to induce an asthma attack or actual hyperventilation which can lead to unconsciousness, than ecstatic trance.
This prevalence of quick mentions of techniques without further information and advice is found throughout the work and as I read through it, it became increasingly more like a series of short, unsatisfying Wikipedia articles than the coherent magical system it had set out to be. Of course, a reader would be free to look elsewhere for further details of the understudied topics from Mastering the Art of Ritual Magick, but given that Frater Barrabas writes at the beginning:
“There are nine topics that we seek to understand in greater detail so as to prepare us for the work of building a new personalized system of ritual. These nine topics are fully covered in this book, and they are arranged as the different sections in this work.” (p.18)
Call me a know-it-all, but I really don’t think that the information given in the various sections of this book constitutes “fully covered”.
Further, these sections that he writes about are ineptly named: their titles are extremely misleading at first sight. For instance, the chapter entitled “Ritual Performance” looked promising, and I was hoping to read a thorough examination of how to make ritual look pretty, sound effective – the theatrics of magic. Indeed, Frater Barrabas mentions it briefly at the beginning of the chapter, but the rest of it is taken up by stuff that should have been discussed earlier in the work: ecstatic dance techniques (should have accompanied the section on trance), drawing lines of force, and circumambulations (which are not satisfactorily explained at all.)
In places the author reveals a lack of knowledge that I find shocking, such as p. 50 where he states that Assumption of Godhead was first introduced to ritual magick by Aleister Crowley, and is used in many African and Caribbean religions. Firstly, Assumption of Godhead (also known Theurgy) was practised not only by the Golden Dawn, but also in a very similar manner by the magicians and redactors of the Graeco-Roman Magical Papyri, the texts which had a great influence on the development of modern ritual magick. Secondly, the African and Caribbean religious do not use Deity Assumption, but instead employ possession – the two practices are distinct and too often confused as the same by those who know little about them.
I also found Frater Barrabas’ frequent value judgements about monotheistic religions and about the influence of physical gender upon magical energy to be distracting at best and bigoted at worst. He repeatedly states that the first level of charging and empowering a ritual occurs with the joining of a female and male celebrant, and that women all experience a different form of initiation to that of men. He doesn’t imply inequality, but he does imply that one’s soul has a gender based on your physical body – a view that I find old-fashioned and not at all useful. Frater Barrabas’ theology and criticism of monotheistic religions is plainly contradictory:
“Perhaps the greatest truth and paradox is that Deity can exist in any of these [efined, distinctive, multitude] states, individually or simultaneously, and yet not exist in any of them. The definition of Deity cannot be adequately determined by the mind, so it can’t be defined by a belief or a doctrine […] Deity cannot be defined, but humans resist this limitation, so they will define the nature of a deity who is truly indefinable […] The most popular religions in the West propose a Deity that is monotheistic and outside of all material creation. However, one can see the absurdity of adhering to a doctrine of a single monotheistic concept of Deity, when human experience shows that Deity is multiform and intrinsic to all creation.” (p.176-7)
I don’t know about anybody else, but quite frankly I tire of the hypocrisy of many in the Western Mystery Tradition believing (and loudly stating) that their definition of this indefinable Deity is more correct than that of the Religions of the Book. It creates a dichotomy that shouldn’t exist between ‘Us’ and ‘Them’, and takes for granted what it believes its comrades adhere to. Well, sorry to tell you this Mr. Barrabas, but I’m a monotheist. And I’m a Pagan. Ohnoes! My human experience has not shown what Frater B. thinks his has regarding Deity.
There’s a lot of theory in this book that looks impressive (complete with diagrams) but which is not applied in any way, or explained to the reader in practical terms. For instance, the theory surrounding the various ‘Ritual Structures’ – identity, occurrence, polarity, alignment, and resonance, complete with their accompanying patterns (e.g. pyramid, spiral, double-ended wand) remains at the base level of theory. The patterns seem to me to be just a pretty illustration of the concepts that serves to confuse the issue, acting more as theoretical masturbation for the author than useful information for the reader.
Further theoretical masturbation occurs in the chapter Frater B. devotes to his mashing together of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey with the Tarot trumps. Being an avid mythologist and Tarot reader myself, I eagerly read this chapter with great expectations… Perhaps that was unwise. Whilst the linking of the two together is fun and useful for the Tarot reader, it does nothing to explain the real-term process of initiation for the ritual magician. The Tarot reader in me ended up disappointed as well, since Frater B. assigns some very strange trumps to the different stages – assignments I’d disagree with and which, upon asking others, it seems I’m not alone on. Further, the mythologist in me was disappointed as Frater B. seemed to do nothing more with this than parrot Joseph Campbell, and my earlier criticism of Frater B’s gender theories was even more valid: here, he gives the woman’s cycle of initiation, which is not entirely different but in places veers from Campbell’s Hero’s Journey substantially enough to merit comment. The cycle Frater B. gives as the woman’s journey, however, is based on our biological function as womb-bearers. It would be entirely inappropriate for a woman unable to have children, or who chooses not to.
Overall, Mastering the Art of Ritual Magick presents material that is not new (although Frater B. declares it to be in his Foreword, in which he also states that the material in the book was “too advanced” to be published ten years ago…) and presents it badly. It is just another book in a market already saturated with work on the subject – most of it much better than this text which not only fails to provide a solid foundation, but also includes a vast amount of irrelevant information (such as the Campbell-Tarot debacle above), value judgements, and misinformation. Perhaps this is how the Order E.S.S.G. performs magic or perhaps this is just Frater Barrabas’ attempt to put into written form his own personal magical system – an endeavour prone to failure by the sheer fact that it is so personal. Perhaps it is a book based in the desire of Frater B. to show off how much he knows rather than aid the lost beginner. If you want a beginner’s guide to ritual magic, don’t read this book – go read Modern Magick or Techniques of High Magick or something. Definitely don’t do what I did and read all the way through this work, ending up with a disturbing desire to either throw the book in a fire or spork your own eyes out. I’d recommend the former.
Kim Huggens is a 24 year old Pagan Tarot reader and PhD student in the Ancient History Department of Cardiff University. She is the co-creator of “Sol Invictus: The God Tarot” (recently published by Schiffer Books) and the forthcoming “Pistis Sophia: The Goddess Tarot”. She has had recent work published in “Horns of Power”, and “Priestesses, Pythonesses, and Sibyls” edited by Sorita D’Este, and is the Editor of online Pagan magazine Offerings. When not getting orgasmic about ancient voodoo dolls and Sumerian cunieform writing, she works in a vetinary clinic, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and practices Vodou.