Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, June 24, 2024

Summoning up nothing

Some years ago, as part of the research I did while writing my novel Sephirot, I purchased a copy of Richard Cavendish's book The Black Arts.  It's a comprehensive look at the darker side of human beliefs, quite exhaustive and well-written (it's unclear how much of it Cavendish actually believes is true; he's pretty good at keeping his own opinions of out it).  I was mostly interested in the section on the "Tree of Life" from the Kabbalah -- the Sephirot of the novel's title -- but as is typical for me, I got sidetracked and ended up reading the entire thing.

There's a whole part of the book devoted to magical rituals, summoning up evil spirits and whatnot, and what struck me all the way through was the counterpoint between (1) how deadly seriously the practitioners take it, and (2) how fundamentally silly it all is.  Here's one passage with a spell for conjuring up a demon, taken from the Lemegeton Clavicula Salomonis (The Lesser Key of Solomon), a seventeenth-century sorcerers' grimoire much used by the infamous Aleister Crowley:

I conjure thee, O Spirit N., strengthened by the power of Almighty God, and I command thee by Baralamensis, Baldachiensis, Paumachie, Apoloresedes, and the most powerful Princes Genio and Liachide, Ministers of the Seat of Tartarus and Chief Princes of the Throne of Apologia in the ninth region.

Which is pretty fucking impressive-sounding if you can get it out without laughing.  This would be the difficulty I'd face if I was a sorcerer, which is undoubtedly why even after typing all this out, no evil spirit appeared.  I guess snickering while you're typing magic words is kind of off-putting to the Infernal Host.

Anyhow, if you chant all that and nothing happens -- which, let's face it, is the likeliest outcome -- the book then takes you through an escalating series of spells, gradually ramping up in the intensity of threats for what will happen to the demon if it doesn't obey you.  Ultimately there's this one, which is pretty dire:

O spirit N., who art wicked and disobedient, because thou hast not obeyed my commands and the glorious and incomprehensible names of the true God, the Creator of all things, now by the irresistible power of these Names I curse thee into the depths of the Bottomless Pit, there to remain in unquenchable fire and brimstone until the Day of Wrath unless thou shalt forthwith appear in this triangle before this circle to do my will.  Come quickly and in peace by the Names Adonai, Zebaoth, Adonai, Amioram.  Come, come, Adonai King of Kings commands thee.

Which, apparently, is the black magic equivalent of your dad saying "Don't make me ask you again!"  The whole thing is even more effective, the book says, if the magician chants all this while masturbating, so that when he has an orgasm "the full force of his magical power gushes forth."

Kind of makes you wonder how teenage boys don't summon demons several times a day.

Crowley absolutely loved this kind of rigamarole, especially because it involved sex, which appears to have been his entire raison d'ĂȘtre.  The book tells us that he "used this ritual in 1911 to summon a spirit called Abuldiz, but the results were not very satisfactory."

Which is unsurprising.  This, in fact, has always been what is the most baffling thing to me about magical thinking; that it simply doesn't work, and yet this seems to have little effect on its adherents.  For a time during my late teens I got seriously into divination.  Tarot cards, numerology, astrology, the works.  (I hasten to state that I never tried to conjure a demon.  Even at my most credulous, that stuff exceeded my Goofiness Tolerance Quotient.)  After an embarrassed and embarrassing period when, deep down, I knew it was all nonsense but wanted desperately for it to be true because it was so cool, I gave it all up as a bad job, decided rationality was the way to go, and pretty much never looked back.  (I do still own several Tarot card decks, however, which I can appreciate both from the fact that they're beautiful and from a touch of shame-faced nostalgia.)

But it's astonishing how few people go this direction.  The combination of confirmation bias (accepting slim evidence because it supports what we already believed) and dart-thrower's bias (noticing or giving more weight to hits than misses) is a mighty powerful force in the human psyche.  Add to that the fact that for certain miserable members of humanity, hoodwinking the gullible into belief is big business, and it's sad, though no real wonder, that when I type "astro-" into a Google search, "astrology" comes up before "astronomy."

Anyhow, those are my thoughts for a Monday morning, spurred by my looking for another book and happening to notice the Cavendish book still on my bookshelf.  It resides with various other books on ghosts, vampires, UFOs, cryptids, werewolves, and the like, and several with titles like Twenty Terrifying Unsolved Mysteries.  It's still entertaining to read that stuff even if I don't believe any of it.

On the other hand, if I get visited tonight by Abuldiz or whoever-the-fuck, I guess it'll serve me right.


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