Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Magick: Not the Gathering

The idea of using a game as a magical tool is not new. In the late 1800’s, when Wynn Westcott and MacGregor Mathers updated the Enochian system of magic for use with the magical system practiced by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, they added a four handed game of chess as a tool for both divination, and connecting to the Enochian current of magic. Inherent in Enochian Chess is the idea that by dancing or playing chess pieces across an Enochian Tablet, one could cause those pieces to come into sympathy with higher forces, making for a handy divinatory tool, or for those properly inclined, a way to surreptitiously change subtle reality. There is also the Chinese game, Ma Jong, a three or four handed game whose three cardinal tiles serve as reminders of the three cardinal Confucian virtues of Benevolence, Sincerity and Filial Piety.

Games access a primitive part of our minds, that childlike part that takes pleasure in hard and fast rules of the sort that seldom ever work in real life, that same part that enjoys play for the sake of play, and enjoys as well forays into the world of imagination. In our youth, games of imagination have very simple rules. “Don’t touch the floor; it’s lava.” In later years, the games of imagination are far more complex, “On Saturday, don’t touch the cellphone, it’s a weekday tool, God will be upset” for Jews, or “Kneel and then cross yourself, and God will hear you,” for the Catholics, or “don’t cross the invisible line or our magics will escape” for the Wiccan.

This is not to say, by any means, that these religious taboos are untrue. Rather, I bring it up to point out a commonality between games and religion that make both strangely suited to the pursuit of the sacred.

Spirituality and imagination go hand and hand, and both come easily to children. As we grow older, we require more and more permission to indulge in these pursuits as the world of “reason” encroaches. As human beings, we require ritual to reduce stress when confronted with the unusual. Any major change such as birth, death, marriage, coming of age, or the completion of a long course of study, present a positive stressor, which we surround with rules, because rules help us cope. “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue,” or “bad luck to see the bride before the wedding,” are taboos or rules that humans add to life changing events in order to bring a sense of control over those things which makes us feel most powerless: love, and the passage of time.

When confronted with the impossible truth that a human being contains the infinite power of creation, that we have ultimate freedom of action, and that absolutely nothing is holding a motivated human back from mass murder, suicide, or inciting full scale revolution, most people, rather understandably, freak out. Confronted with limitless possibilities, we paradoxically retreat back into our shells, and look for guidance. There religion is, with open arms, there to tell us what to think and how to behave. We find the alternative more terrifying than death, and indeed, we fight and die for religion, its unproven assertions and its rules.

But religion is powerful in another way, too.

Let us take, as an example, Voodoo. If the level of fear it generates in the uninitiated is any indication, then it is possibly one of the most effective magical systems on the planet. Practitioners of Voodoo experience powerful possession to such a degree that they can pierce their flesh and feel no pain. They can talk animals dead. They can curse people from great distances without their knowledge, but not, interestingly enough, if those people do not believe in Voodoo. You can do amazing and horrendous things with Voodoo, and as well, have them done to you, but only if you are playing their game.

Where many are gathered, believing the same thing, something curious happens. Lightning seems to follow the wrath of the gods, and good fortune seems to unreasonably shine on their devout. Or, if the deity in question is of a different persuasion, miracles can be performed in the name of martyrs. People from different regions of the world experience faith-confirming events that point to the veracity of wildly contradictory cosmologies, leaving the world-weary magician to wonder, is there any truth at all?

A simple answer is this: the games we play are always true. It is the fact that we agree upon them that gives them their power. The more people, the more consistency, the more collective faith, the more powerful the game.

Opt in. Have have faith. Play the game.