Book Spotlight


BJ Swain

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Living Spirits:
TWPT Talks with BJ Swain

TWPT:  How about we start off with an introduction of yourself for the readers of TWPT as to how you define your current path you are on, whether you view it as a magical path or a spiritual path or little bit of both and how it was that you discovered it or how it made itself known to you. 

BJS:  I suppose I foremost consider myself a magician. In some regard I would say this answer describes me almost occupationally, magic is the skill set and knowledge system to which I have devoted my time. That said it has also been a part of my life since the start so itís something I think of as intrinsic to my experience as well. While I donít think of magic as religion or as spirituality per se they overlap and relate to one another and all are both informed by as well as informants of oneís philosophy and worldview. They all kind of interweave together as far as an outlook or path, or more a structure for being. In that sense I am fairly ecumenical. I am a Gnostic Catholic Priest and a Thelemite, but I also am very tied to traditional Catholicism. I hold Pagan beliefs and am very influenced by Neo-Platonism. Practically speaking my approach to magic is informed and influenced by these things, but my practice of magic is its own thing, itself drawing on many disciplines, and my experience of magic and the mystical helps build my pluralistic experience of religion and spirituality.  

TWPT:  You have a book out entitled Living Spirits: A Guide to Magic in a World of Spirits and I was wondering if you could give me an overview of the book and what it was that you wanted to accomplish by writing it. 

BJS:  The book is an invitation to a broader view of the living magical world around us. My goal was to invite people to reach in and viscerally experience this world and in doing so deepen their experience of magic and therefore the power of the results they get from it. 

The book specifically begins with exploring the ideas of conjuration and spirit magic. It explores the history of these ideas and practices in the Near Eastern and Western cultures which have had the most readily acknowledged impact on the spiritual culture of Europe and North America. It then moves to define Solomonic magic by exploring its history and explains that a lot of spirit magic, while often lumped into the realm of Solomonic magic is much more diverse than that, and invites the reader to explore that diversity. We do so by exploring ancestor worship, nature and elemental spirits, faeries, the dead, various types of angels and demons, and major intermediary spirits such as Hekate, the Four Kings, and the Holy Guardian Angel. The book is kind of a field guide to the spirit world interspersed with examples of rituals and techniques. The last section of the book is a series of practical sections covering the construction of pentacles, spell work based on grimoires, Hoodoo in the context of spirit magic, and a very thorough analysis of ritual practices.  

TWPT:  Magic goes back into the dim past of the human race and I have to wonder if the 21st century level of technology and a general disconnect from the natural world has made it harder for us as a race to connect with the forces that surrounds us? 

BJS:  I think the world began to look towards a materialistic view quite a while ago but has never really succeeded in doing so because humans are a sort of spirit, although embodied, and so we canít ever fully separate from the experience of the spirit world. People like to assert a view of a dead material world, but a surprising number of people still hold some openness towards or interest in something beyond what we can see and taste and touch. I think it helps when we can begin to recognize nature existing within our own spaces and we can find spiritual interaction even in places that donít seem compelling spiritual spaces. But there is definitely a barrier to it in our society. I think the issue is less the technology itself and more the amount of knowledge which seeks our attention. In a simpler world we donít have so many bells and whistles to understand and remember, we donít have to put our children in a race towards being the most perfect STEM student around. In a simpler world we have time for folk lore, for observing nature, for customs that echo the world around us. Kids are taught computers and maths in kindergarten now instead of folk stories and legends. I think we can have space for both, we just need to learn to navigate modernity with an eye to the roots weíve grown from. 

TWPT:  Has the church made it difficult for people in general to accept the idea that a spirit world exists around us other than what has been written about in theological books and preached from the pulpits of this country? 

BJS:  I think this is an American problem to a degree, particularly a USA problem. Weíre a Protestant country, and primarily English Protestantism has shaped us. In more Catholic countries there are often rich relationships with the spirit world, and folk Catholicism replaces religious pluralism by incorporating spirit traditions that were there before and recognizing that if they existed and had meaning that they must be part of the truth of a Catholic world. English Protestantism brought with it the first anti-witchcraft laws in the British Isles and the accounts of British witchcraft are largely accounts of magical Catholicism. In a sufficiently spiritual context folk religion and folk spirits find a way. But Protestantism actively sought to destroy this mode of understanding and experiencing the world which it felt was superstitious. The way that these Protestant movements grew in America ironically gave us Evangelicalism and Biblical literalism with its intensely spirit driven apocalyptic worldview, the New Thought Movement and the ideas of visualization and positive thinking which have shaped a lot of the magic of the early American NeoPagan Movement, and your run of the mill form and function Christianity that helps deaden awareness of anything spiritual. 

TWPT:  Do you feel that the access to massive amounts of information on the internet at younger ages helps to stop the societal conditioning that happens in regards to religion and spirituality and allows the younger seekers to have minds and hearts open to other possibilities sooner than previous generations? 

BJS:  I think it definitely helps in a lot of ways. I guess for me this is a weird question. I grew up with a father who had an interest in magic and psychism, and my mother was a Biblical literalist, but she was abused as a child based on the accusation of being a witch, and she experienced psychic phenomena. So when my sister and I had similar experiences as a kid they were kind of cultivated. I was told not to do magic by my mom, but was told to listen to knowledge gained from psychic experience. I was given magic books by my dad. For me the world was always magical, it was always a possibility for there to be magic. The spirit world was always right there. So I donít know if the internet makes us more open. I coach a college sports team, so Iíve met a lot of people younger than me who had no idea magic existed until they met me, but theyíve all been open and receptive and respectful about it. I think the benefit of the internet and the information age is that we get access to better information sooner. New discoveries get disseminated faster, and so the improvement in what information is available is exponential. Instead of joining any random group and getting photocopies of incomplete information that may or may not pertain to our paths Ė like people older than me apparently experienced; I got to spend my teen years downloading and reading magical material until the wee hours of the morning night after night. Now instead of hoping the local bookstore has some ok magic books, we have Amazon providing us with every new release, and we have academia finally studying magic and releasing amazing books that anyone can get delivered within two days. We can all talk with occult experts and get their feedback on new books that are out, or even on our personal work and ideas. So I think technology removes the barriers to excellence, and lowers the difficulty of entry, but itís still up to people to have an open mind and heart. 

TWPT:  Even though many adults are heavily indoctrinated with concepts they have spent their wholes lives absorbing do you see them as having more insights and acceptance of the spirit world that surrounds them and even accepting that occult ideas have validity for them even here in the midst of the 21st century? 

BJS:  I think most people believe in something oriented to the spirit world. I think we just donít have a healthy language for engaging it and for cultivating those beliefs into something holistic and useful which benefits both us and the spirits. My Christian coworkers often talk about ghosts and the devil and they believe in the power of magic. But itís at the edge of their experience and itís in the realm of the forbidden and frightening. I think we can see this issue when we look at folklore, and I talk about this some in Living Spirits: A Guide to Magic in a World of Spirits. When cultures have good relationships with the spirit-world they tell stories of nature spirits who protect them and nurture them and provide for them. When that relationship breaks down fairy tales become warnings to avoid the dangerous and angry spirits which lurk in nature waiting to harm us because of their general anger towards humanity. I think the spirit world is ready for us to return to a better relationship and I think humanity is seeking the sort of interconnected and engaged experience of the depth of the world around us that will allow us to heal that relationship. In New Zealand they have begun giving statuses of personhood and legal rights to the spirits of rivers and mountains and to the animals, Maori religious sites are being rebuilt and empowered. In the Northern reaches of North America there are stories of tribes experiencing communication with the whale spirits and returning to an understanding of the positive relationships they once had with these nature spirits. Weíre seeing articles in the West about having healthier relationships with our dead as people begin exploring their ancestry more fully, and we had an Oscar nominated cartoon that swept the country and reminded us that the dead survive as long as we remember them and they are an intrinsic part of our lives just as we are of theirs. I think weíre at a point where weíre recognizing that in order to heal and move forward and survive as a species we canít isolate ourselves from the life around us. We just donít have the vocabulary to understand this shift yet. This kind of exploration of spirit ecologies and how they impact our social awareness both of our interactions with the spirit world and our interactions with our fellow living humans and our environment is a central theme of Living Spirits: A Guide to Magic in a World of Spirits.   

TWPT:  Do you think of magic as a science that has not yet been fully grasped that will eventually be "explained" or is it something beyond a scientific explanation? 

BJS:  No. Not really. I like to think of ďscienceĒ in its original meaning of knowledge. Pure science is a way of gaining knowledge. Religion, when it isnít corrupted, does this and produces theology and explains elements of our cosmology and ontology, magic applies these things like a form of technology. But I think that the areas of being we are addressing through religion, spirituality, and magic are a separate hypostatic nature than those which are addressed through material science. As a result material science has different expectations for how it obtains knowledge and how it can apply that knowledge. I think we can help our understanding of magic if we approach it with a certain kind of rationalism like we would science, but I think we lose something when we expect magic to be science. I think we start undercutting the miraculous and limit ourselves as we begin to misunderstand them as being one and the same. Magic shouldnít have to operate as science, but it should be reasonable. 

TWPT:  What's the difference between working magic that accepts the concept of spirits that exists around the practitioner and a practitioner who has no concept of the idea that we are surrounded by living spirits? How does that impact the results of what they are seeking to do? 

BJS:  I think magic based on work with spirits and magic without spirits can often serve different ends. Some things are easy enough to manipulate by connecting with them in the right way and changing the flow of energy or of experience. For the most part though I think most people can get bigger more powerful effects by engaging the spirit world correctly. Spirits can be powerful allies in magic and a healthy relationship with them can often help manage your world before you need to do specific magic for things. When you do need to ask for help, often a simple offering and a request can gain pretty marvelous results. In Living Spirits: A Guide for Magic in the World of Spirits, I talk about developing a spiritous sorcery, in which the practitioner comes to live and breathe in a world filled with magic, and thus simple easy approaches to living magically become the norm. Spirit magic does not need to be complicated and can be integrated into all sorts of magic, or it can be big and grandiose. It depends somewhat on you, somewhat on the spirits, and somewhat on your situation and the desired outcome. In my book I talk about how to do things simply and how to go big, but most importantly we look at how to engage the spirit world as a whole, and how to establish a relationship with your most ready group of allies, so that a cycle of respect and kinship helps build a world around you that supports and grows you. 

TWPT:  Was there a turning point that you see when people started to significantly shift their thinking away from the restricted ideas allowed by the church into an exploration of the occult ideas that have always been around us but suppressed and repressed? 

BJS:  I think we can kind of see through history that even as movements occurred to suppress magic movements arose to express it. Within Catholicism we have a rich system of mysticism and magic, and the chief of all Catholic Theologians, St. Thomas Aquinas based his eucharistic theology on the Aristotelean ideals at the center of alchemy. With the Protestant Reformation we have the birth of Rosicrucianism as a Protestant friendly form of magic that swept Europe and helped give rise to developments in medicine and political revolution. We have angels dictating the plan for building the British empire to John Dee as England is experiencing its brief experiment in witch prosecution. A generation later Reginald Scot writes about the superstitions that supposed witches engage in and inadvertently creates a revival of grimoire practice with subsequent editions of his book being expanded to include more useful magical material. As we reach the Enlightenment and the dawn of materialistic thinking we have an explosion in the publishing of magical books in France and the development of important manuscripts in England. Not long after this we get the early lodge magic movements beginning on the Continent and the Fin de Siecle diablerie of France both of which directly lead to the development of the British occult revival and the NeoPagan movement. Maybe magic is such a human expression that it always finds a way. 

TWPT:  Do you see Crowley, Regardie, Fortune and then Gardner, Buckland and Sanders as a wave of spiritual energy opening up to information that was suddenly being brought out into the light and handed out to anyone who was seeking more than they had been given up to that point? 

BJS:  No, not especially. I think Crowley tried to take something that was often trapped in confusing obfuscations, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries and tried to make it available for everyone. I think Regardie and Fortune tried to sanitize magic into psychology, which made things open for people but also stunted our understanding of magic for a long time. I think Gardner took the spiritual zeitgeist that Crowley was understanding and turned it into something that could actually be palatable to the Masses, and Buckland and others like him opened it up. The ideas to find who you really are, to seek the mysteries in yourself, to do the thing and live the life that is truly you, to experience life as an expression of love Ė these things arenít so much magic but theyíre a good basis for a spiritual philosophy. Building a tech for unfolding and actualizing these ideas was probably the biggest positive contribution of these writers in my opinion. But I think those ideas were percolating in the counter culture movements that were stirring contemporaneously with those authors and which exploded in the next generation. I think by the time we get to the Millenial generation these ideas are just sort of native without needing to dress them in magic and religion. In this way I think Idris Shah was right about the potential for Wicca to become the religion of the Masses, but in terms of the concepts at the core rather than the actual spiritual practices.  I think now weíre at a point where we can go beyond those ideas about self, and begin exploring the depths of reality around us, and renewing our experience of magic as a mode of power and of enriching our world. This is in many ways the goal of Living Spirits: A Guide to Magic in a World of Spirits. Iíve tried to build a truly post-magical revival approach, in which we look at the forgotten magic of South and Central America and the folk magic of North America and the Traditional Magic of Europe and return to a magic which isnít just about changing our hearts, but rather one which changes how we engage the world and in doing so gives us the tools to truly change the world, not just ourselves. Along the way though, learning to live with spirits helps make us better people all the same. Honestly, I think being better people rather than being better magicians is largely what the early 20th century magical revival could have been about, but some of its stewards missed the mark.  

TWPT:  As you wrote Living Spirits what was your goal or your intent in terms of what you wanted your readers to take away from your book out into their lives? 

BJS:  A growing number of magicians today talk about the reenchantment of the world. I think this mostly stems from Gordon White and his Rune Soup podcast. The idea seems to be that we need to reawaken manís connection to the spirit world and live more holistically with it. We need to wake up from the error of a pure materialism and actually look at the world around us until we stop seeing it with blinders. Itís like the idea of permaculture extended to the world of spirits instead of just adapting us to live alongside plants and animals in a less damaging way. Obviously I think the world has remained more enchanted than we give it credit for. People try to keep their eyes closed but still sense and sometimes see that the world is bigger than we realize. My goal in Living Spirits: A Guide to Magic in a World of Spirits is largely to help people understand the spirit world and invite them to engage in it, to develop a vocabulary to understand it, and to improve how they approach life and magic based on understanding our place in a broader living whole. Iím also really intense about magic. Even before the recent revival of the spirit model Ė and I really think we are at a point where the models of magic are unnecessary; but before the growing ubiquity of approaches to magic built on engaging real spirits, I was always bothered by the whitewashing of magic into catching a case of the feels. So a big part of Living Spirits is reminding people that magic is something real and visceral, something to grab onto the reins of life with, something beautiful and powerful but also in a way awe inspiring and dangerous. Magic is real. Letís make magic real again. Letís make magic bad ass again. When we recognize that spirits are real persons like usÖbut different, then we begin to deal with a world where magic isnít just intent, where the things we do, and say and the tools we use might have meaning, and where intelligent choices about how to holistically engage allow us to experience real and powerful impact in our lives and in the lives of those we care for. Living Spirits gives you the knowledge and tools to begin exploring that approach and with it that power, and it invites you to a world in which youíre allowed and even encouraged to actually explore that approach and to utilize that power.  

TWPT:  Will this flood of information and awakening be the new normal or will there eventually be a backlash from those who don't want to know these hidden truths and would prefer to stay locked safely in their bunkers and hide from the insights that are slowly permeating the thinking of those who are seeking enlightenment? 

BJS:  I think itís hard to answer that. I try to avoid echo-chamber internet life, but the vast majority of my social media is magical social media. So it often looks like the world has a ton of people interested in magic and alternative spirituality and religion. Statistics seem to say that people are abandoning religion in general though. At the same time we see traditional religion being one of the areas of religious participation which is growing. In fact, to take that further, traditional religion, like more traditional modes of Catholicism, has seen growth as opposed to mainstream Catholicism. Along with that, traditional religion in the sense of African Diaspora Religions are gaining huge increases. In the magical community the Golden Dawn and the OTO are picking up less attention than ethnic living traditions of magic and European Traditional Magic, and American Folk Magic. Traditional forms of witchcraft are seeing a rise. The world is probably getting more ambivalent to religion, the apocalyptic Biblical literalists see this and are fighting with new fervor because of this. But people who do want religion want something with meat and so theyíre turning to options which engage real spiritual powers. I think as people become ambivalent to religion the lack of a formal idea about what is or what isnít, or the lack of an institutional element to such ideas, might make people more open to experiencing that hidden reality because theyíll have no reason not to. 

TWPT:  What did you learn by writing Living Spirits and how has that changed your own perception of the spirit world that surrounds you? 

BJS:  This is a really interesting question. I see a lot of people jump onto forums and ask really basic questions and then explain that theyíre asking because they want to write a book on the subject. My thinking is always that if youíre going to write a book on a subject you should know it well enough to know the answers or where to find them. Otherwise though I tend to be all about answering peopleís basic questions. With that in mind, I think even when we really know a subject in and out we still learn stuff as we unfold, massage, challenge, and expand our ideas about that subject. For me, Living Spirits started as a blog series that was more focused on the act of conjuration specifically, or magic that involved binding a spirit. When that blog series was finished, I was out at a bar with a fellow magician, and we were on the phone with Rufus Opus  (author of Seven Spheres) and Harper Feist (a scientist who teaches scrying and has a cool blog). Rufus asked me how the ideas in the blog all come together in my practice. I had hinted at some of the more holistic spirit practices without really talking about integrating them or comparing them to methods of conjuration, or looking at when to use one or another. Living Spirits helped me flesh out a lot of my ideas, a lot of things people were discussing in forums, a lot of pieces of practices and theories about practices, and turn them into a sketch of a whole system instead of just distinct pieces. I say a sketch because it goes through so much information to introduce you to an entire living world and so it does not step by step hold your hand into a mode of practice. It gives examples for each idea, and then provides ways that the ideas fit together. It gives examples of methods for working to incorporate all of these ideas. It gives a lot of these examples. But it largely leaves space for you to explore and to put things together as you want. Again, itís an invitation for you to find your magic. So writing it helped me take a lot of pieces I was working with and understand them more fully as a whole. But there is still more to do. Iím currently working on a text which expands dramatically on the material in Living Spirits related to the Holy Guardian Angel. Iíve also started a direct sequel which does present a step by step practical system for truly living the magic described in Living Spirits: A Guide to Magic in a World of Spirits.  

TWPT:  Thanks so very much for taking the time out to answer questions about your book. We wish you much success now and in the future.