Ceremonial (or ritual) magic is a contemporary system built upon ancient and fairly recent traditions. It is based on Sumerian, Egyptian, Indian, and Semitic magic, with influences of Arabic, and later, Christian thought. Freemasonry also contributed to its present structure, as did the secret societies that were popular in Great Britain and throughout Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Contrary to popular opinion, ceremonial magicians aren't concerned with conjuring up demons and stealing magical rings from monstrous, fly-headed spirits. They don't own flying carpets or take up residence in caves, and they certainly don't merrily plunge swords into unwilling victims or have imps as companions. Most importantly, they don't have any connections with Witchcraft, save in the minds of outsiders.
The ritual structures, terminology, and goals of ceremonial magic are usually-but not always-centered upon union with the divine, with perfection, and the expansion of consciousness. Or, as it is commonly described, "knowledge of and conversation with the magician's holy guardian angel."
That's a lofty spiritual goal, isn't it? This points out one of the key differences between ceremonial magic and folk magic. Unlike the latter, ritual magicians aren't usually concerned with the aims of folk magic: love, healing, money, happiness, and protection. When these needs are addressed through ceremonial magic (such as the creation of a talisman), it is usually as a means to an end-the attainment of the union mentioned above. In contrast, folk magicians solve problems in their lives with rituals, and rarely look further.
Some ceremonial magicians are organized into groups called lodges or orders (such as the famous Golden Dawn), and draw upon ancient Egyptian religion when devising their magical workings. Many of the rituals used by a splinter group of this magical of the late 1800s have been published in The Golden Dawn by Israel Regardie, one of the most influential magical books ever printed.
Other magicians attune themselves with more orthodox religions. The classical grimoires, or magical workbooks, of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance include invocations to Jehovah, Adonai, and God, and they utilize extensive Judeo-Christian terminology. This isn't hearsay or mockery, but the product of a different interpretation of the Christian myths. This is obviously far removed from folk magic, in which the power is sent forth without invocation to Deity.
Ceremonial magicians tend to be quite individualistic. Many practice their arts alone, spending long nights reading ancient texts, preparing their "tools of the art," and learning Latin and Greek to better preform their rituals.
Ceremonial magicians study the works of Aleister Crowley, along with those of William Gray, John Dee, Franz Bardon, Agrippa, Dion Fortune, and several other authors. Some delve into alchemy, geomancy, Enochian magic, and other subjects as sidelines or as the main course of their studies.
Ceremonial magicians are simply human beings who are not only working with energy (i.e., performing magic), but are searching for something greater that they have been unable to find in orthodox religions. They have a long, colorful history behind them filled with fantastic stories and exotic rites.
But they aren't Witches.
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