Magical Efficacy, Selfhood and the Imaginal in Golden Dawn Ceremonial Magick

By Mark Shekoyan, Ph.d. (Fr. Y.Y.H.B)

A Paper Presented for the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness Annual Meeting
University of Nevada, Las Vegas – April 4, 2003


Within the tradition of Ceremonial Magic as practiced within the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (HOGD), magical efficacy in ritual is seen keenly tied to the creative and focused use of the will and the imagination. An effective magical ritual is viewed as intimately interwoven with the ability to harness imaginative “God Forms,” to visualize geometric shapes including pentagrams, hexagrams, and sigils, and the ability to “see” various angelic divinities located on the “astral” plane. A “powerful” ritual is one in which the participants “feel” on some fundamental level, a change wrought by the act of participation. Magical efficacy, or power is experienced as a felt and lived reality translatable into change.

The locus of this change is a subject of anthropological curiosity. Malinowski felt magic’s key contribution was to change the emotional state of its practitioners to one of confidence which provided psychological security in the face of uncertainty. This paper will explore a different track. Drawing from the Imaginal Psychology of James Hillman, Henri Corbin, and Carl Jung, we will explore how ritual magic’s tapping of the “Imaginal Realm” opens doorways for human consciousness and transformation, and self definition that portends a very different explanation of ritual power and “efficacy.”

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
Albert Einstein
“Belief is a technique.”
Peter Carroll

“Reality is what you can get away with.”
R.A. Wilson

“Come with me, and you’ll be, in a land of pure imagination.”
Willy Wonka



Since March of 2001 I have been working with a group of 20 other individuals at a home in the Richmond Hills in the San Francisco Bay Area in the collaborative effort to help co create a magical lodge in the tradition of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Calling itself the “Open Source” order of the Golden Dawn, the group eschews its late 19th century Victorian predecessors penchant for secrecy, dogmatism, and formalistic hierarchy in favor of a loosely democratic, and openly accessible community of practice. To quote the lodge manifesto:

Inspired by the Open Source Software movement, we build our Order on the sources of knowledge that are accessible to anyone. Ours is the Information Age, and we embrace it fully. We have no “secrets” to conceal, in particular those that have already been revealed… As Western Civilization enters a new Aeon, so must its esoteric traditions. Our solution is not to destroy the old traditions, but to make them new again…

Our order claims heirship from the Hermeticists, Alchemists and Magi of the Renaissance and of the Classical world. With access to knowledge and material the original Golden Dawn did not possess, the current group draws upon the experience of its diverse membership including in its ontological bricolage knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism, Whitheadian philosophy, Chaos Magick, and Thelema.

Thelema, Greek for the Word Will in the higher sense of divine inspiration, is a central conceptual anchor for the lodge’s activities. To quote the manifesto again:

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that every man and every woman is a Star, and has a ‘True’ Will in life, one that can be discovered by the invocation of the Higher Genius found in us all. Once having discovered one’s ‘True’ Will, then one has no right but to do that Will. That Love is the Law, and Love under ‘True’ Will is Perfect Love.

The group began after a public ritual held by the lodge’s founder and Hierophant, a local IT project manager and Neopagan Ritual specialist with a Masters Degree in Divinity from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. This ritual was held at Pantheacon, an annual Bay Area convention for Neopagans in San Jose, Ca, which was followed by an open invitation to attendees who were interested in collaboratively working the system with him. For over two years the group has been engaged in an eclectic attempt at grass roots production of esoteric culture and ritual community.


By deliberatly engaging in experientially oriented intersubjective research through the medium of practice (Jackson 1998), I have been exploring the ways in which local meanings are “built up” in the intentional process of collective symbolic sharing, culled from the corpus of Western Esoteric thought. With this as a foundation, I have been further exploring the ways in which these meanings interface with people’s lived experience and impact the formation of self-agency in the matrix of an esoteric life world.

Believing, as anthropologist Michael Jackson says in his book Minima Ethnographica that, “Consciousness is the natural state of human existence… But the notions of subject and object, ego and altar, are not given, but made…’And’ can be unshaped and remade,” (Jackson 1998:6) I am interested in the ways in which the practice of Ceremonial Magick within a magical lodge influences self-agency, while at the same time weaving individuals selfhood into a rarified culture of symbols, meanings, practices, and social relationships held at the fringes of Western society.

In doing this, I have come to understand that the notion of efficacy within this Golden Dawn Lodge is intimately tied to the ability to engage in performative acts of self expression through well orchestrated, and enthusiastically performed collectively acts of active imagination in the context of ritual. This is done with great attention to “line up” symbolic correspondences and access visionary states associated with various deities and god forms, oriented towards specific goals such initiation, healing, and the consecration of prosperity talismans.
This understanding of efficacy shines important light on the dynamics of selfhood in relationship to culture, and the ways in which self-becoming occurs in dialogical and dialectical relationships to the life world via the medium of the active imagination.


For over a decade, Psychological Anthropology has focused its efforts on understanding how selfhood is defined
within culture, and how cultural categories come to shape the scope, limits, and possibilities of such selves. (Carrithers, Collins, and Lukes 1985; Kim and Berry 1993; Marsella 1985; Morris 1994)

This study of the “Categories of Self” has focused on ways in which different social milieus shape and mold individuals emotional, cognitive, and identity patterns within cultural worlds. Most of this work has tended to emphasis pattern over process, and substance over self-transformation. Concerns with the fixed nature of such discussions have given way more recently to dialogical approaches that address individual choice, decision, and agency in relationship to cultural patterns. Here, As Dorothy Holland writes in Identity and Agency in Cultural Worlds, selfhood is seen to be developing at an interface, within the interplay between the social and embodied sources of the self, in what might be called the self-in-practice or, . . . the authoring self. [Cain, Holland, Lachicotte, and Skinner1998: 32]

In this domain people are seen as agents within constructively figured worlds that undertake the process of self-authoring in dialectical relationship to the given context of the life world. Though this perspective is informative, it doesn’t necessarily access the medium by which such self-authoring may occur. Anthropology’s general lack of focus on interiority can fall short in attempting to understand the inner dynamics by which such self-agency is fostered.

This gap in anthropological theorizing, can be bridged, I believe, by drawing upon the concept of the Imaginal as put forward by Islamic scholar Henri Corbin, and refined by later post Jungian writers such as James Hillman. The concept of the Imaginal lends an added dimension to the social scientific analysis of the meaning of ritual efficacy within a domain such as the Golden Dawn, and speaks to an understanding of self-processes outside reductionist explanations of magical practice and experience.


The original Golden Dawn arose in late 19th century Victorian England when the British Freemasons Wynn Wescott and Macgregor Mathers, claiming authority from a German Rosicrucian Anna Sprengel, began to formulate a new magical fraternity with the intention of revitalizing the Western Mysteries. Somewhat in competition with Madame Blatavasky’s Theosophical movement that drew heavily on Indian philosophy, the Golden Dawn drew upon western traditions by synthesizing diverse elements of the Kabbalah, Alchemy, Tarot, Astrology, and Enochian Magick, within a ritual lodge structure tied to the initiatory system of Rosicrucianism.
At its height, the Golden Dawn held some of the most dynamic literary and artistic personalities of its time. Members included the Irish Poet W.B. Yeats, English actress and early feminist Florence Farr, Freudian Therapist, and Author Dionne Fortune, and the infamous, and often misunderstood Aleister Crowley.

The Golden Dawn’s legacy has fed the spring of the popular imagination in the Western magical revival, and much of its symbolism and practices have laid the groundwork for modern neopaganism. Noted for its early innovation, after 15 productive years it succumbed to internal conflict, power struggles, and schisms resulting in its eventual dissolution. This dissolution gave birth to a number of offshoots that have continued forward to this day, and lay the groundwork for the group I am currently working with.


Figure 1: Kabbalistic Tree of Life

The Golden Dawn curriculum is a complex corpus of study and ritual practice associated with the memorization of symbolic correspondences mapped onto the Kabbalaistic Tree of Life. For those unfamiliar with the Kabbalah, its study is vast, and complex, and outside the scope of this 20 minute presentation.

For the sake of simplicity, the Kabbalist believes that the divine emanates down from a state of union through a series of Spheres, or Sephiroth that represent specialized qualitative differences of divine potential as it involutes from nondualistic unity into the multiplicity of the material realm.

These energies are divided between 10 different foci, or Sephira and four different dimensions, or worlds, which embody specific differentiations of energy and information, and are thought to be ruled by particular archangelic, angelic, and planetary influences.

With this as a very basic understanding, the framework of the Golden Dawn organizes itself around this Tree with students seeking to ascend back up through the tree along various paths associated with different states of magical attainment, or adepthood. These “Grades” are named after a series of initiations drawn from the Rosicrucian tradition, and point to various stages of consciousness the aspiring magician and aspirant must experience on the “path of return” towards the divine.

Students and devotees begin as “Neophytes” and progress through these grades by taking tests associated with five key knowledge lectures that consist of material drawn from Western Esoteric thought, as well as demonstrating knowledge of ceremonial rituals such as the lesser banishing ritual of the pentagram.

At the beginning, neophytes are required to learn the letters of the Hebrew Alphabet and their corresponding meanings, and eventually must master the complex symbolism of the Kabbalah as drawn form one of its key texts, the Sephir Yetzirah, along with knowledge of astrology, tarot, and other symbolism

In essence, members are taught to learn numerous esoteric languages and “build up” a symbolic vocabulary that allows them to focus their minds along lines of correspondences thought to benefit the channeling of creative acts of intentful change. The local name for this process is “magick.”


Like the Shaman’s cosmology, this rich matrix of meaning and symbol is brought to bare concretely by practitioners in embodied acts of ritual performance aimed at bringing about effective change in life experience.
For example, in this system, the Sephirah Chesed (Mercy), is associated with the astrological planetary influence of Jupiter, and divine energies associated with abundance, royalty, and expression. In addition, Jupiter is associated with the number 4, the color blue, and the idea of prosperity and abundance.
During a ritual of prosperity, one might thus take a clay object, known as the material basis, as a Talisman. This Talisman could then be painted blue, and inscribed with the Astrological symbol of Jupiter along with the Hebrew letters for Chesed, the Archangelic principles associated with that sphere, and other meaningful symbols.
This Talisman would then be a fitting receptacle for a “Charging” in which members would try to invoke the proper energy via focused breathing, projective body postures, circumambulations, and visualizations done at the correct planetary hour, and phase of the moon corresponding to prosperity and abundance.


Figure 2: Hexagram and Pentagram

In addition to this mastery of symbolic correspondences, members are taught to visualize geometric shapes for Hexagram and Pentagram rituals thought to call upon elemental and planetary influences that can be invoked or banished depending upon the desired change of state. Such states involve qualitative elemental variations of Earth, Air, Fire, Water, along with the planetary influences of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn, Jupiter, The Sun and Moon.

Figure 3: Godform of Horus

Alongside this, members learn to visualize god forms drawn from the Egyptian, and Greek, pantheons, along with Kabalistic Angelogy. These Images are vividly held in the imagination when calling upon the force and power associated with their divine archetypes. The vibration of mantra like god names is thought to then charge these images in the minds of practitioners during ritual.

One Member explains the process of “putting on a God form”, stating:

In it we imagine the form of our bodies transformed into that of the Deity. With this transformation one assumes the character and attributes of the Deity. When I practice my trade of typography I often put on the god form of Thoth or Hermes. It makes my work faster and of higher quality.

In addition this individual felt that putting on such god forms help enrich and expand his personal agency and efficacy in daily life, saying:

Through taking on the god form of RHK in the mode of the Father Tantras I regularly deal with the stress and uncertainty of life. With His form on I perceive the world through His viewpoint and share in His appreciation of all of the senses. This deepens my appreciation of the moment and strengthens my confidence in the face of anxiety
This person engaged in intentful acts of active imagination in order to effect change in his personally felt sense of efficacy in work and life. Variations on this practice are as numerous as the symbolic correspondences concerned.

For example, a Ceremonial Magician seeking to develop assertiveness might visualize himself as the Greek God Ares, god of war, while vibrating and intoning the sound “Elohim Gibor” associated with the sphere Geveruh, or severity. By aligning oneself with both the visual and sonic dimensions of the symbolic correspondences, the practicing magicians seeks to embody the archetype thought associated with his desired intent.

The statement “By names and images are all powers awoken and reawaken” is a key statement in Golden Dawn ritual liturgy, and speaks to the idea that magical efficacy resides in the ability to visualize images, and empower these images through resonant vibrating of “words of power” focused through acts of willed intent during ritual.
To quote the lodges leader and Hierophant again:

Names and images’ are essences of those powers we wish present in magick. By entertaining them in our psyches, and since those essences are symbols that participate in the power that they symbolize, those powers are also felt and thus become present. Will without imagination is aimless, Imagination without will is anemic. Imagination is the lens through which will is directed.

In these examples, the magician’s intentful visualization draws upon specifically defined symbol sets in the attempt to enrich personal agency and efficacy via the medium of the active imagination. It is clear in the examples above that the magician engages the imagination with intentful acts of personal definition through visualization in the practice of ceremonial magick.


Figure 4: Hall of the Neophyte

All of these elements are collectively brought together in the group process of the various “Grade Rituals.” Each grade has its own ritual structure, with members assigned officer positions, and taught to hold various god forms drawn from the Egyptian Pantheon.

The foundational ritual for the Golden Dawn is known as Neophyte ceremony and is the anchor of the order. This ritual is also the one used most commonly in acts of practical magic.

In this ritual, lodge members take various roles, or offices for six months, chosen biannually at the spring and Fall Equinox. Officers attempt to memorize the scripts, and master embodiment of the various god forms as they take their various stations in the hall.

A key element of the ritual involves the rich visual declaration of the officers. They announce themselves with expressive authority to the lodge while holding their self-defined images internally. For example at the beginning of the neophyte ceremony the Hegemon announces herself with rich visual definition:

My station is between the Two Pillars of Hermes and Solomon and my face is towards the cubical Altar of the Universe. My duty is to watch over the Gateway of the Hidden Knowledge for I am the reconciler between Light and Darkness. I watch over the preparation of the Aspirant and assist in his reception, and I lead him in the Path that conducts from Darkness to Light. The White Color of my Robe is the color of Purity, my ensign of office is a Feather-crowned scepter to symbolize balance which guides and regulates life, and my Office symbolizes those higher aspirations of the soul which should guide its action.

The Hiereus offers a darker image, representing the powers of contraction, and the setting of the sun:

My station is on the Throne of the West and is a symbol of the increase of Darkness and the decrease of Light and I am the Master of Darkness. I keep the Gateway of the West and watch over the reception of the Aspirant and over the Supporting Officers in the doing of their work. My black Robe is an image of the Darkness that was upon the Face of the Waters. I carry the Sword of Judgment and the Banner of the Evening Twilight, which is the Banner of the West, and I am called Fortitude.

Along with the other officers, the hall itself is a rich visual, auditory, and olfactory sensorium. With the black and white pillars, the cubicle altar with the rose, salt, bread, and flame, the banners of east and west, and the smell of incense, a sacred liminal space is created for this play of the active imagination. In this space, the dais and temple officers in their multicolored robes baring ornate, colorful scepters and wearing symbolic lamens exist in a sacred sanctum. The lodge hall is a microcosm of the universe wherein individuals, adorned, and imagining themselves as gods, play out a sacred drama via the active imagination.


This February this ritual was performed at Pantheocon in a special ceremony for the Neopagan community. Using the ritual of the neophyte, the lodge consecrated and “charged” 200 silver dollar coins as Talismans, and distributed them freely to community members to support them in times of economic Hardship. The ritual was well attended by over 100 Persons, and was well appreciated judging by comments following the performance.
Though we have not tracked people’s success or failures with their prosperity talismans, one member shared an amusing anecdote stating that she used her one-dollar talisman to buy a lottery ticket that won her $20 dollars. Not a bad rate of return…

This anecdote aside, members ascribe a sense of felt personal efficacy and meaning in the practices of the Golden Dawn, and gain a sense of value and authenticity from it in their daily lives.


So whence does the sense of personal efficacy members ascribe to the practice of ceremonial magick derive? Numerous folk theories abound. Some lodge members conversant in consciousness studies speak of ritual entrainment and visualization practices helping to induce synchronicities that change the conditions of their lives.
Some look to Neurolinguistic programming’s notions of anchors, and frames as way to discuss how magickal ritual and symbolism helps magicians redefine their relationship to reality. Others pull from Rupert Sheldrake’s notion of Morphogenic Fields, believing that magickal practice helps bend and morph the habit-laden nature of information in space-time. Still, others draw from lay understandings of Quantum Physics, particular the work of Herbert Walker, who in his Paper, the Complete Quantum Mechanical Anthropologist, gives a legitimization to esoteric practices by drawing on Bells Theorem, and the notion that focused ritual helps reduced the Signal to Noise ratio of the minds influence on reality.

Though these theories attempt to explain magick’s impact on the external world, or perception of the world, they say little about the felt sense of personal efficacy and agency as experienced by the magician in the practice of ceremonial magick.

One ceremonial magician had this to say about his practice:

I think a lot of what magicians do is train themselves to accept certain symbolic languages and then root around for answers in the various strata of their psyches (and, therefore, of the universe itself) and interpret what transpires through those symbols.  We send and receive semaphore with other planes of being, while, say—the shaman–actually sends his spirit-self there.

Though this contrast of the mediating power of visual symbols in magic, with the assumed more “direct” path of shamanism, belies a misunderstanding of how heavily mediated shamanic practice is, the statement nonetheless points to the intentful use of the active imagination via symbolism as a key element in magick’s stated goal: “Bringing about change in conformity with will.”


From Freud’s use of active fantasy, to Jung’s emphasis on the active imagination, depth psychology has looked upon the usage of the imagination as key element in psychodynamic processes and the development of psychic wholeness.

Post Jungian Psychologist James Hillman expresses the importance of the imagination in this regard writing,

Man is created as an image, and by means of his image.
Therefore, he appears first of all to the imagination so that
Perception of personality is first of all an imaginative act…
Since imagination forms us into our images, to perceive
A person, in essence we must look into his imagination
And see what fantasy is creating his reality (Hillman, 1989: 168).

For Hillman, the imagination is the means by which self-identity is built up and maintained over time. The images we hold of ourselves shape and frame the totality of our personhood.

To limit this understanding of the imagination to the intraphysic and intrapersonal would be to reduce the meaning of the imagination in this context however. Islamic Scholar of Sufism Henri, Corbin, who coined the term imaginal, felt that the realm of the imagination served as an intermediary interface, or bridge between the human world and the world of divine archetypes.

Following his Sufis mentors, he reified this realm as a domain of importance on par, if not greater then physical “day world” of everyday waking reality. For Corbin, this “Mundus Imaginalis” or world of the Imaginal was an ontologically real domain of central importance to the human condition. (Corbin 1971; Corbin, Bloom, and Manheim 1998)

Outside of the entertainment industry’s more recent attempts to actively colonize the imagination, Western thought has largely denigrated the imagination since the Enlightenment, and pushed it to the periphery in the face of the specter of nomothetic positivism and the disembodied descartian error (Tarnas 1993).

Anthropology has unfortunately followed suite. Aside from discussions of the Imagination’s role in political elite’s attempt to shape national identity consciousness (Anderson 1991), mainstream anthropology has largely ignored the central aspect of the imagination in culture, and its role in people’s selfhood.

For Corbin, the impact of the Imaginal in our development is directly related to the importance we placed on it in reality. He writes,

Everything will depend on the degree of the reality we impute to this imagined universe and by that same token, on the real power we impute to the Imagination that imagines it; both terms depend in turn on the idea that we form of creation and the creative at (Corbin 1972: 180)

We might be wise to consider our own attitudes towards the imagination, and the degree to which the values of our overly rationalistic culture make us devalue this domain as “just the imagination.”


It would seem, then, that a close relationship might exist between acts of active imagination in ritual magick, and the practice of lucid dreaming. Carlos Castaneda’s creative imagining of the Yacqui Sorcerer Don Juan’s teaching on lucid dream is a great example of fictive power’s ability to produce change via tapping the power of the imaginal (Noel 1997). Numerous people have looked to the Castaneda books as guidelines for their own processes of self-development, and this is a tribute to Castaneda’s sorcerer like ability to induce change in others through the power of his own imagination.

In the recently released movie Waking Life, lucid dreaming takes on an almost magical quality directly tied to personal evolution. Though this notion is directly understood in facets of Tibetan Buddhism (Tenzin Wangyal 1998), many ceremonial magicians present their own personal spin on it:

There is clearly a connection between some states of consciousness that have heretofore been called magickal and lucid dreaming.  In fact, it is now believed by some brain scientists that so-called “astral-projection” is a state of lucid dreaming in which the dreamer is aware not only of his dreaming but of the entire contents of his waking life, just as they would be if awake.  That doesn’t explain the information gathering aspect, however.  I think it points to the fact that the brain channels consciousness but does not in any way produce it.  With effort (or injury, organicity, drugs, illness) the brain can channel consciousness differently–perhaps Huxley’s “cerebral reducing valve” can be opened for a wider flow . . .

Through path workings, astral projection, and other methods, ceremonial magicians seek to actively master this domain of their own consciousness.

Process psychologist Arnold Mindell’s notion of the dream body provides an interesting parallel here to the concept of the Imaginal.

The dreambody is a term for total, multi-channeld personality…
If you amplify a dream symbol, the process that results is the
Real you…The dreambody is the part of you that is trying
To grow and develop in this life.” (Mindell 1993:46)

By mastering this dreambody, the ceremonial magician is tapping the full spectrum of possibilities inherit in their multifaceted personhood by intentfully manipulating symbols in the twilight space of their ritualized lucid dream like state of consciousness.

Like the Shaman, the Ceremonial Magician seeks to tap and master the realm of the Imaginal, or the Dream body, in order to intentfully cultivate a sense of selfhood and agency outside the frames of everyday consensus, or mundane reality, and ultimately to master that relationship in a way that fully expresses the magician’s felt sense of personal purpose and expressive possibility. Efficacy in ceremonial magick is the mastery of the dreamlike space of the imaginal realm through the active and intentful use of the imagination.


Anthropology, heir to the enlightenment’s overemphasis on instrumental reason and cognitive literalism, has been as guilty as the other social sciences in its contempt for the imagination. To correct this we might do the world at large a service in our ethnographic work by heading the statement:

Whatever the reasons we adopt a belief or a set of beliefs; they implant an operational framework of mental energies within the mind. Every belief is stored as a guideline according to which you relate to all of reality.” (Vance 1990:114)

Among other things, the current state of the world, speaks to a dearth of Imaginative alternatives. War and its blockheaded literalism is a death of the imaginal and its play of possibilities. The imaginal is the mythopoetic realm of fantasy textured with the richness of metaphor. In the face of the War machine’s blockheaded modernist rationality, what Allen Ginsburg called Moloch in his Poem Howl, some choose to march in protest with placards, and others vision alternatives with their dream journals. These need not be mutually exclusive. Remember the voice on the edge of twilight, for she speaks of the mystery, and the possibility of another world.


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