Ceremonial magic, also known as ritual magic, is a highly disciplined form of magic in which ceremony and ritual become the central tools used in the magical operation. As described in the older grimoires, the books that detail magical operations, ceremonial magic centers upon the art of the invocation (or evocation), and control of spirits. In its more contemporary versions, ceremonial magic concerns the discipline of the self and the art of controlling and directing personal and cosmic power, which may or may not be personified as a demonic or deific form.
In its pre-twentieth-century form, ceremonial magic's rites were religious actions, and the ritual format partook largely of the nature of religious observances. It was not, as generally supposed, a reversed Christianity or Judaism, though it departed radically from orthodox Christianity; nor did it partake of the profanation of religious ritual. It was in effect an attempt to derive power from God for the successful control of evil spirits. Even in the grimoires and keys of black magic, the operator was constantly reminded that he or she must meditate continu-ally on the undertaking at hand and center every hope in the infinite goodness of the Great Adonai. The god invoked in black magic was not Satan but the Jehovah of the Jews and the Trinity of the Christians.
The foundation of practical magic was the belief in the power of divine words to compel the obedience of all spirits to those who could pronounce them. Such words and names were supposed to invoke or dismiss the denizens of the spirit world, and they, with suitable prayers, were used in all magical ceremonies. Again it was thought that it was easier to control evil spirits than to enlist the sympathies of angels.
He who would gain such power over demons was exhorted in the magical texts to observe continence and abstinence, to disrobe as seldom and sleep as little as possible during the period of preparation, to meditate continually on the magical work, and center all hopes on God. The fast should be most austere, and human society must be avoided as much as possible. The concluding days of the fast should be additionally strict— sustenance being reduced to bread (then a substantive food) and water. Daily ablutions in water, which had been previously exorcised according to the ritual, were necessary; these cleansings needed to be observed immediately before the ceremony.
Certain periods of the day and night, as found, for instance, in the book known as the Key of Solomon the King, were ruled by certain planets. The grimoires agreed that the hours of Saturn, Mars, and Venus were good for communion with spirits— the hour of Saturn for invoking souls in Hell, and the hour of Mars for invoking those who have been slain in battle. In fact these hours and seasons were ruled by the laws of astrology. In the preparation of the instruments employed, the ceremonies of purifying and consecrating were carefully observed. A brush, an aspergillum, was used to sprinkle a mixture of mint, marjoram, and rosemary. For fumigation, a chafing dish would be filled with freshly kindled coal and perfumed with aloe-wood or mace, benzoin, or storax. The experiment of holding converse with spirits, i.e., necromancy, was often made in the day and hour of Mercury, that is the first or eighth, or the fifteenth or twenty-second.
The Grand Grimoire notes that when the night of action has arrived, the operator shall take a rod, a goatskin, a blood-stone, two crowns of vervain, and two candlesticks with candles; also a new steel and two new flints, enough wood to make a fire, half a bottle of brandy, incense and camphor, and four nails from the coffin of a dead child. Either one or three persons must take part in the ceremony—one of whom only must address the spirit.
The Kabalistic circle is formed with strips of kid's skin fastened to the ground by the four nails. With the blood-stone a triangle is traced within the circle, beginning at the eastern point. The letters a e a j must be drawn in like manner, as also the name of the Savior between two crosses. The candles and vervain crowns are then set in the left and right sides of the triangle within the circle, and they with the brazier are set alight—the fire being fed with brandy and camphor. A prayer is then repeated. The operator must be careful to have no alloyed metal about him except a gold or silver coin wrapped in paper, which must be cast to the spirit when he appears outside the circle. The spirit is then conjured three times. Should the spirit fail to appear, the two ends of the magic rod must be plunged into the flames of the brazier. This ritual is known as the Rite of Lucifuge and is believed to invoke the demon Lucifuge Rofocale.
Ceremonial magic declined in the eighteenth century and most of the ritual books became buried in libraries. The surviving knowledge was collected into a single volume by Francis Barrett in The Magus (1801). However, in the mid-ninteenth century, a revival of ceremonial magic began with the career and writings of Éliphas Lévi. Lévi not only made a new collection of magical knowledge, but, by drawing upon mesmerism, reworked it into a system more compatible with the scientific spirit of the age. He integrated divinatory work with the tarot into the new system, thus suppling enough information that readers who chose could begin to practice ceremonial magic once again.
Toward the end of the century, organizations based upon the practice of ceremonial magic began to appear, the most important being the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in England. Cofounder S. L. Mathers rediscovered many of the older grimoires, which he mined for material to include in the Golden Dawn teachings, and published several of them. His effort was followed by that of Aleister Crowley, who developed a more psychologically oriented magical system based upon the exercise of the will (thelema).
Through the twentieth century, ceremonial magic has spread through the West, though it has never been the most popular of activities due to its stringent requirements. Several groups, such as the Ordo Templi Orientis, have become international organizations.
Howe, Ellic. The Magicians of the Golden Dawn. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972.
King, Francis. Ritual Magic in England. London: Neville Spearman, 1970.
Lévi, Éliphas. Transcendental Magic. London: G. Redway, 1896. Reprint, New York: Samuel Weiser, 1970.
Melton, J. Gordon, and Isotta Poggi. Magic, Witchcraft, and Paganism in America: A Bibliography. New York: Garland Publishing, 1992.
Shah, Idries. The Secret Lore of Magic. London, 1957. Re-print, New York: Citadel Press, 1957.
Waite, Arthur E. The Book of Black Magic and of Pacts. London: George Redway, 1898. Reprinted as The Book of Ceremonial Magic. London: William Rider & Sons, 1911. Reprint, New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1961. Reprint, New York: Bell Publishing, 1969.