While watching the Sandman series on Netflix (which is awesome, go watch it) a trope familiar to fans of fantasy appears: the magickal grimoire. For those who don’t know, the Sandman is about Morpheus, the Endless who rules Dreams. Morpheus is trapped by an Occultist in the early twentieth century and remains trapped for decades. The Ceremonial Magician is attempting to capture death, and uses a magickal grimoire brought to him by a museum curator to cast the spell. (This isn’t spoilers, this is the first episode.)
This trope is established fun in fantasy literature. The idea of the magickal grimoire, like magickal items in fantasy in general, is that the book itself is magickal. The grimoire contains spells that can only be done using the magick book,.
Much as I love the Sandman as a work of art, the magickal grimoire trope is just that: a trope.
Being Rigid and Literal Is Never Good
I am wary of literalism in all its forms. I don’t think literalism in magick is any more useful than literalism when interpreting religious texts or law. By that I mean, the idea that the power is in this set of words and actions, using this one set of tools (the grimoire) and this set only. If powerful magick needed an ancient grimoire to work, instead of using modern devices like a printer, there would be no skilled magick users. Sidestepping the issues of translation and that ancient grimoires were written to only be understood by the elite of that culture, that just isn’t how magick works. A better metaphor is a recipe, which I feel works for ritual as well.
A recipe is step by step instructions for making a dish. If it is a dish the cook has never made before, they must follow a recipe. But there is no way the first attempt is going to end up looking like the picture, even by a skilled and talented cook.
Not Everyone Starts With the Same Skill Set
Some people are born into families that cook. They had a parent or caregiver that showed them how to cook from a young age. Other people simply have a good instinct for what tastes belong together, or were interested in cooking at a young age and made an effort to learn and practice cooking. Some were raised in houses were no one cooked, or they were never explicitly taught how to cook. So not everyone comes to cooking with the same skill or knowledge.
A Recipe is a Start
After following the recipe, you can start tearing the recipe a part to figure out what parts can be changed to suit your taste, and what parts are needed. You can decide to double the amount of chocolate chip cookies in your recipe (I mean, why not?) but if you take out flour completely you won’t end up with cookies. But when you understand the role each ingredient plays in the recipe like the sugar is sweetener, eggs bind, flour makes it cake, you can look at what substitutions you can make. What sweetener you can use beside sugar? Vegan binding agents to replace eggs? Non-gluten flour?
After you have done a few spells or rituals, it is much easier to tear them apart to understand why this step goes here and what it accomplishes. Once you understand that, you can make substitutions or tweaks that will let you get a ritual more for you that accomplishes the same thing. Or use the template to do something different.
Sometimes You Need a Template
This is more of impact for group rituals. Most traditions have some sort of standard format. ADF rituals have a particular order, Wicca ritual involves calling quarters, etc. Some traditions also have stricter rules for who is allowed to do what rituals and what roles then.
Recipes Are a Way for A Reason
You bake cookies at a temperature for an amount of time because that is when they are done. Longer and they burn. Shorter and they are still dough.
Working with the fey has an unbroken history into modern time. The old fairy tales have a lot of information about do’s and do nots of developing relationships with fairies. The stories are passed down to teach, and explain why you never break a promise to a fey for starters. Plenty of lore exists that is easy to find, and easy to understand and use. In modern Neo-paganism, gods that were not worshipped openly for centuries now have devoted followings. Rituals to that god and details like offerings to make that emerge consistently by different practitioners are referred to SPG- Shared Personal Gnosis. They are used because that particular deity has communicated that is how they want to be approached or that is what they like to multiple people.
Don’t Look to An Idealized Past
There are recipes that have been passed down for generations that are traditional dishes—either in specific culture or family. There are recipes that were made up by chefs in the last few years that are delicious dishes, although often these are modifications to older dishes.
However, things have changed in a few generations. We now have modern appliances like stoves and mixers. We also have different measurements. There are far more convenient and less time consuming ways to cook now then there were 100 years ago. There are ingredients readily available that were luxury items generations ago, and likewise there are items that have fallen out of common use and need to be substituted.
It is true that much of the knowledge our ancestors had is now lost because the vast majority of it was oral and not ultimately written down. But people have been doing work and performing experiments to make new traditions. Some neo-pagan traditions have now been continuously practiced for decades. Much of that knowledge would problem not work in a modern day, when the norm is to get our meat from the grocery store.
The technique is what has the power, not the book it comes from.
Having the Right Ingredients Does Help…
After all, not all substitutions work. Some change a fundamental part of the recipe. Others make a dish so far from what people think of then they think of the original recipe they don’t recognize it as such. Having good quality ingredients does make a difference.
Using words that have been used for the same purpose before, or herbs in the same way they have been used for a long time, does help.
But Not the End Game
As long you aren’t using expired milk, using older ingredients will still make a fine cookie. A lot of people won’t be able to tell the difference.
Yes, there are items that may have strong associations with a particular purpose/ deity/being. There are also far different laws now. But if the good stuff is unavailable or not a realistic option, use what you have. Use what works.
Screwing Up is Not the Worst Thing That Could Happen
Even if you follow a recipe, stuff can happen. Items can be burned, ingredients could not be chopped up fine enough. Most of the time, you still have an edible dish. I literally have a section in my blank book called cooking log where I take notes on dishes have cooked, and how I can improve them.
A pagan or magickal journey is no different. Flub a few lines, move on. Most likely it will be fine. Mispronouncing Latin does not summon a demon. If that happened, there would be demons populating medical schools and biology programs. A small mistake probably won’t make a difference. A large mistake and most likely nothing will happen.
Rituals and Magick Are More Than Following a Script
This is the place where the metaphor breaks down. Your can do everything right and nothing happens. Maybe you need to do more basic skills work like grounding and centering. Or whoever you are trying to reach out to doesn’t want to pick up the phone. Or maybe there is a focus on the surface level and not any intention to study deeply. This might be a place to ask for help, or have some divination done by a skilled practitioner.
The Irony of Learning Knowledge to Become Intuitive
Knowledge is not necessarily just book learning. It is experience and learning, when a skill has been practiced so often it becomes easy, or when a subject has been studied so long someone knows it on more than a conscious level. The vast majority of the time people are not born intuitively knowing complex knowledge and skills. Once those have been practiced to the point knowledge is gained, intuition becomes strong. But the work has to be gone to gain the knowledge in order to have good intuition.
To put it another way, the way to have accurate feeling in your gut to guide is to spend the time and effort learning and practicing until it becomes second nature and your gut is properly trained. If you try to trust your gut on a topic you know nothing about or have no experience with, it will most likely be wrong.
Don’t reinvent the wheel is good advice. But that means once you have learned how the wheel works and what parts are needed to make the wheel work, you can make a wheel that fits your purpose. “Because it has always been done this way” only works up to a point. Figuring out where that point is, is the tricky part.