This week I'm joined by the wonderful Dr. Al Cummins. We chat about his beginnings in spirit work, what led him to the saints, and we also get into his Geomancy work.
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AL: Sure, sure. Hello! Well, firstly, thank you for having me on; it's great to get to finally chat to you.
ANDREW: Yeah, my pleasure!
AL: My background is kind of one of those dual forking pincer movement things of academic training in the history of magic, which I did through the University of Leeds, and then did my doctorate at the University of Bristol and Professor Ronald Hutton about early modern British magic primarily, but some wider European influences as well. It's inevitable when you're talking about Renaissance magic that you're going to bring in, you know, the big guns of Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa and things like that, so obviously there's a Continental influence going on there.
And my other, you know, the other prong of that two-forked pincer movement, is I've been a practitioner and a diviner and a consultant sorcerer for a number of years and I love the interplay of the two, as I'm sure many of your listeners do as well. That false dichotomy that is often set up between those that just study and those that just do, and I've never met a serious magician who wasn't also someone who had made a real effort to learn about his or her field and be up on the current academic research. Likewise, in academic conferences, it's often, after a couple drinks, you know, people are a lot more … looser and willing to talk about what they've actually tried and things like that. And so, I like existing in that kind of gray place between being both a practitioner and a scholar of this stuff.
ANDREW: I think that that … I mean, it's kind of one of the … I mean, maybe it's been a plague of every era, but I feel like it's especially a plague of the modern era, or the time in which we find ourselves.
ANDREW: This sort of duality or multiplicity between things, you know?
ANDREW: I remember trying, I periodically go through these sort of journeys [static 00:02:36 through [00:02:44] when I talk about how I talk about that. A sort of bridge of divination, philosophy, psychology, you know, and magic, you know?
ANDREW: To me, they're indistinguishable from each other when we look at them as a whole. And we can draw lines in different places, and that can be functional, but to me, there's no division between doing a piece of magic and talking about somebody's psychology or thinking about somebody's psychology as it's involved. You know?
AL: They certainly don't have to be mutually exclusive. And one of the things I like to riff on when we're talking about … I was asked recently to talk … whether I subscribed more to a spirit model or a psychological model, and I kind of did that classic attack the question thing of refusing to ally with one or the other, based off the fact that, you know, psychology, psychiatry, these are both, as far as I'm aware, 15th century French terms. It is not anachronistic for us to look at the magic of the 16th and 17th centuries as being something that combined an understanding that there were spirits and there was also pyschology, and that someone who was mentally unwell in some way, or had an impairment of mental or cognitive or emotional faculties, might also attract spirits who might haunt them. Likewise, the Devil could work through, if you read these heresyographies, could work through the agency of madness, and induce it.
And so, rather than producing this very simple set of straw men of either at all in your head, or at all the actions of spirits, or energy, or however you want to frame your model of quote unquote objective magic. Big heavy scare quote fingers there! [laughs] You are inevitably bringing in an aspect of both, so one of the most famous spiritual physicians, kind of a cunning man, certainly an astrologer physician, an angel summoner, and magician, Dr. Richard Napier of the mid-17th century, who was regarded as an expert in the impairments of mental faculties, people came from a long way away to work out whether ... you know … would ask him to work out whether or not the patient was possessed, haunted, under the influence of witchcraft, or the ministrations of the Devil himself, or was physically unwell, producing brain disease symptoms, or was mentally unwell after dealing with a trauma of some kind, or any combination of those factors, right?
AL: These were not mutually exclusive things. And in fact, you know, often if you were suffering from one, you would probably start to develop the symptoms, at least, if not the underlying pathologies of the others as well. And so, one of the ways Richard Napier worked around this was divination through both astrology and geomancy, and also through summoning the Archangel Raphael, who he seems to have had a very very close relationship with, and ... [laughs] Such a close relationship! On the one hand, people like William Lily, one of the most famous astrologers of the 17th century and John Aubrey, who was a sort of Fortean of his time, helped repopularize Stonehenge and things like that—both of them visited Napier relatively frequently, apparently, or at least several times, and remarked that he would go and had an angel closet of some kind, which was not an uncommon way of these practitioners to do their thing, apparently, and would, you know, stand there and invoke angels for an hour or two, and then go and do his consultations.
But the thing I like pointing out about Napier is that such was his close relationship with the Archangel Raphael that he would call up the medicine of God to do these kind of consults for him or these referrals, and frequently disagree with the angel's diagnosis! [laughing] Which I love! This is not someone who is an iconoclast, he's not doing this to like, you know, raise a middle finger to God or anything. He was regarded as an incredibly pious practitioner, but I think that's an interesting set of relationships in terms of how to navigate a spirit and psychological model and also use spirits to investigate that and to not necessarily believe everything of the signal that you are given, right? Or everything of the noise that you are given? To be able to discern which parts of that seem more sensible than others.
ANDREW: Well, I think that, I mean there are a couple ... There's a bunch of things now that you say that are really interesting. But let's talk about the first one first, which is, I think that it's something that is unfortunate, and it doesn't seem very common these days, is this sort of capacity to differentiate or understand the distinction between what might be spirit … purely spirit ... I mean, as you say, it's a muddle, right?
ANDREW: But what parts of it, or in what ways might we be able to discern, is this a spirit-caused situation? Is this a psychiatric-caused, you know ... or all these other models that you talked about? You know? And it's one of those things where, I remember working with clients and sort of receiving instructions from the spirits that I work with about how to interpret what I see as their energy ...
ANDREW: ... in ways that point between these different pieces, right?
ANDREW: ... who have this certain kind of energy pattern ... You know, they would more often than not have these more psychiatric issues or so on ...
ANDREW: ... unless [laughs], unless, they were like super hard core meditators and really really evolved ...
ANDREW: ... at which point those patterns would kind of merge, you know, which was always very interesting to me, you know?
AL: That's fascinating.
ANDREW: There might be ways in which people had, you know, like, people talk about premature kundalini awakenings or, you know, other kinds of things, that there are these states that might be helpful later on ...
ANDREW: But which, when they emerge unbidden or they emerge alongside other kind of things just cause tremendous problems, you know?
AL: Right. And that's interesting from a perspective of a consultant and a diviner for someone, and for clients, especially, where, you know, you have identified the pattern of energies at work, it's now, often, I find, your job to find a way that that's useful, right?
AL: Which I think is ... you know … sometimes, the useful thing is to say, that would be a decision that would end in rack and ruin, it doesn't look like it's going to help you, right? Or, it's ... I mean, I read with geomancy very often for clients, so—I primarily read playing cards and geomancy these days, and there are figures that can fall that portray danger, deceit, the potential for addictive behaviors, and a variety of other overly impassioned vice kind of like problems. And it's … the figure is Rubeus, and refers to the spilling of blood. It's considered bad for all things except that which requires bloodshed. Now, that means from a medieval/early modern perspective, it was good for phlebotomy, and it could occasionally be useful for voiding ill humors through that bloodletting stuff, and there are kind of some equivalencies that you can find, like nowadays, other kinds of … it can recommend going to see your doctor, that kind of thing.
AL: But finding a way for Rubeus to do something useful in a chart ... if it's spilling something, you know, I have before now found myself having to take a bottle of red wine to a crossroads and upend that, as a means of, like, placating a spirit or working through a set of very martial energies and workings, for that to be useful. That set of virtues, that pattern was present once the divination confirmed it, and especially with the attendant spirit contact around it, it was also bringing that thing in, right? And so, finding a way that that's useful in some way, to be either the thing that is subject to it or the thing that is enacting it in the world, finding a way for that violence, in this case, to be useful in some way, to break an old pattern or to stand up to someone or any number of those other things.
ANDREW: So, when people come to you for a geomancy reading, are they people who are going about their lives and are just inclined towards divination? Or do you find that it's people who are sort of inclined towards more, I don’t know, for lack of a better word, sort of esoteric or kind of occult and philosophical kind of approaches to life already?
AL: Yeah, I wonder that myself sometimes. I think a materialist overculture, if I can, you know, briefly jump on a soapbox, produces a statistical slide towards people who are already aware of magic and, you know, think it's worth paying a professional to divine for them. So, often there's someone with some kind of practice or some kind of set of beliefs, or even just, you know, have witnessed things happened or have had experiences that lead them to suggest that there's something valid for them in this.
I get a range of people. I get some people who are, you know, some of my clients are, you know, classic people seeking divination, at a crossroads in their life. You know, recently divorced, or wanting to change career, or wanting to do something different at that crossroads? I also work with a lot of artists and event coordinators and things like that to plan events and ritual and ceremony and works of art, as well, and it's something that I like to point out to people who are, use the idea of a professional diviner or consultant being someone that would be useful to have on board a project, which is that this doesn't have to be, in much the same way that other magicians talk about magical work, doesn't have to be triage, doesn't have to be "oh god oh god oh god, emergency emergency, I need to, you know, pay my rent," or something. Those are valid things …
AL: … to get help about and to need to deal with, but so much better is prevention than cure, right?
ANDREW: Well, I, you know, not to say that we might not find ourselves in a martial sign that requires some kind of bloodletting or other kind of, you know, easing but, yeah, but if we're on top of it, on the regular ...
ANDREW: You know when the thermometer starts to rise, we can deal with it then, before it kind of gets too high, right?
AL: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. And so, you know, I find divination and consultation something that I end up doing for people who are not necessarily looking to massively change their lives as much as enrich them, right? It's not just people who are unhappy and it's certainly not just people who are desperate, which I think is also a little kind of … It's a bugbear of mine that, the idea that you would only ever consult, you know, a card reader or a professional astrologer if you were, like, desperate in some way, and I think that's a very unfair characterization of ...
AL: ... people. Most, you know, the vast majority of my clients are people who take their divination very seriously, who employ it in a very mature and responsible manner in order to have better … to … rather than abnegate responsibility, to take that responsibility on more, and that's, you know, the role of a diviner, right? Is someone that can help someone chart the hauling coherence of influences around them, and empower them further, to be able to make better decisions and live their better life, right?
ANDREW: Mmmhmm. And especially, I mean, to kind of come full circle here, if the people are dealing with a muddle of unknown problems and consequences, you know ...
ANDREW: ... from spirits to mental health to physical health to whatever ...
ANDREW: ... being able to sort that out, if the person is willing to take ownership of that and work with it, and go from there. I mean, that can be one of the most profound things ever, right? You know?
ANDREW: You actually can remove this spiritual influence, and then what you're left with, you know, while still no small thing, is then adjustable by other realms, you know, or other practices.
ANDREW: You know? It's really, it's quite wonderful, you know, and .... And sometimes even knowing just, you know, knowing that it's in fact none of those, it's like, "Hey, you know what? This is not a spiritual thing."
ANDREW: "Let's go back for this, you're good," you know? And that in itself is quite a liberation, because it gives an answer, even if it's, you know, even if then it leaves other questions, right?
AL: Yeah, exactly, yeah! And it's also, you know, one of the things about divination as diagnostic technique is that it's bespoke, right? It's for that individual, at that particular time in their lives, with these particular choices and influences and patterns of virtue around them, right? So, it's by necessity a site-specific, time-specific, person-specific thing. It deals with … there is a ritual that is going on between diviner and client there. You are locating the client as a locus about which these forces are present, right? And in naming them, we are also kind of bringing them to light in some way and apprehending them in some way ...
AL: ... and that hopefully becomes useful as well. And this is especially useful when diagnosis becomes not just prognosis but also an attempt at treatment and remediation, magically speaking, which is something that I think is very important, is not just telling someone, "this is the nature of your circumstances and conditions, good luck with that" [laughs], and signing out, so much as saying, "okay, well, you know, this is the difficulty in your career path at the moment. Let's see whether we can boost the positive influences that say that yes, there is a path for you in this career," for instance, for that kind of question, and also, "let us try and address this issue here in the tenth house with your current boss, who is clearly attempting to undermine you in some way," right? So, you can look at both the negative factors and attempt to rebalance them or address them, or secure the positive factors of the reading as well. And I think it's very easy for us to jump immediately on our, you know, cleansing baths and things like that when a reading comes up negatively, and, as well we should, but to kind of not think we need to do anything if a reading suggests that there is a good path ahead, and something I, you know, I sometimes recommend is, you know, if you get a really great reading, you should secure that in some way. Right? You should nail that thing down, and, like ...
AL: Keep that good luck in your pocket, in some way.
ANDREW: Well, it's like in cowry shell divination, and divinations within the Orisha traditions, right? They say that the Iré, the form of blessing that can arise ...
ANDREW: That it is, that it can be tremendously fleeting, right?
ANDREW: And that in fact, you know, when we see that come, when we see that there are blessings, and especially if they're sort of predicted firmly and there's nothing else to do about it … Well, the thing to do about it is still to be, like, diligent and tend it and pay attention to it …
ANDREW: … and, you know, and maybe make offerings even though they weren't specifically asked for ...
ANDREW: ... you know, to do things, to really hold that and sustain that, because, you know, it can turn to negativity so simply and so easily, and then it's very hard to get it back where it was before.
ANDREW: You know, so, this notion that success is permanent or solid is, you know, seems really kind of dubious to me at best, you know?
AL: Right. It's not this carrot that gets dangled in front of you that says if, you know, you just put in another five years at something you don't like, then eventually you will have made it and that will be the solid state, unending success of a predeath bliss, right? It's a nonsense. Yeah, we constantly have to fight for our blessings, and to secure them. And, you know, what was that beautiful ... Obviously, it was terribly sad that Ursula Le Guin passed recently, but it did mean that people were sharing a lot of her work, and her quotes, and that one about love seems particularly relevant here: "Love does not sit there like a stone; it must be remade constantly like bread." Right? The idea of constantly having to keep up the good things, the effort to enjoy the things in life and to enjoy each other.
ANDREW: Mmmhmm. Yeah. It never ends, right?
AL: [laughs] Hmm! Right, right.
ANDREW: Well, actually it ends. But then it really ends.
ANDREW: So, the other thing that you mentioned earlier when we were talking was this idea of arguing with spirits, you know ...
AL: [laughs] Right!
ANDREW: ... You know, a person who would argue with the, you know, with the angels, and so on, right? And I think that it's such an important thing for people to consider, right? You know? Like, especially, you know, I mean, whether we're talking about ancestors, or whether we're talking about angels, or you know anything else or in between or wherever other ways, you know. It’s … I think that, sort of, being open to wrestling with them about things, and you know, tussling out what is true or what's the real deal, you know ... And I don't mean, like, in the goetic way, like, "No, I'm not going to give you that, I'm only going to give you this."
AL: Mmmhmm. [laughs]
ANDREW: ... "Don't take advantage of me." ...
ANDREW: But just, you know. I know that there are times, you know, in, like, spiritual masses, or with one of my guides in particular ... Well, she'll come down with a message and I'm like, "Dude, I'm not saying that!"
ANDREW: "There's no way I'm saying it that way!" You know?
AL: Right, right.
ANDREW: And yet, people, you know, I think that, you know, there's lots of ways in which people believe that they should, you know, pass this along as like a pure testament of truth …
ANDREW: … or the unequivocal goal of the situation, right?
AL: Yeah, being, the idea that being a channel for spirit means that you don't have to worry about tact, or bedside manner, or, you know, offending people, that you are speaking a profound and unquestionable universal truth, yeah. I … I’m obviously a bit tedious at that, especially in divination. Certainly, I can share the experience of having a familiar spirit that helps me divine that says things in my ear in ways that I definitely wouldn't say to a client! Very blunt, shall we say …
AL: … if not mean, occasionally!
AL: You know, also savagely accurate, to her credit. But yes. So, that again is a job of a diviner, right? To demonstrate that tact and that clarity that allows the best way for the medicine to be administered, right? The medicine of the consultation, the medicine of the regimen that might emerge from that, the story medicine, of, like, "this is how your current situation looks, the potential medicines, so this is what you could do about it," and, again, to evangelize about geomancy, for instance, one of the things that we can do is not just look at the clients or the person asking the question, the querent in the first house, we can also look to a couple of different houses depending on the exact nature of the context of the consultation, for how the diviner, how you, are being perceived, and crucially through those two things, you can then work out one of the best ways ... You can look at how the client will take your advice. You can look at how you can phrase it, you know? And so, you can read a chart and have attendant spirit guides saying, "You're going to need to phrase this very gently, this client is not going to be able to take you, you know, speaking plainly about this thing." Likewise, sometimes it's clear that you have to be incredibly blunt, and that that's what will be most useful, and if you aren't, then the client will jump on the one detail that they wanted to hear and ignore the other ones. And that's, that is in part, it's very easy to complain about quote unquote bad clients, but that's also something that I think diviners need to take a little bit of responsibility for. It's not just your job to plunk a message down in front of someone. It's also your job to, I think, help them unpack it and make it available and useful, and something that they can actually apprehend and engage with.
ANDREW: Yeah. I also think that it's ... It can be part of the job of being a professional diviner to sort out and be clear with yourself, who do you not work well with, right?
ANDREW: You know, who do you just not, who do you not like? What situations do you not want to, you know, deal with? Right? Like, you know, where are your strengths and weaknesses, you know?
ANDREW: And not in a like, you know, a mean-spirited or even judgemental way, but like, well, are there certain kinds of situations where, for whatever reasons, I have no slack for that.
ANDREW: And if the person comes up with that, I'm, you know, I might read for them, but I'm definitely not going to get magically involved in it, because my attention and my energy doesn't flow well, in those, because of that, you know?
AL: Yeah, yeah.
ANDREW: And I think that we as diviners can take way more agency in the process than I sometimes see people taking, you know?
AL: Hmm. Yeah. I think so. Hmm.
ANDREW: So, the other thing that I wanted to ask you about, though, the thing that I was curious about that's been sort of on my mind of what we would get to when we were on the show, was, so there's this great big revival, in my, from what I see, of working with saints these days.
ANDREW: You know, and I see like lots of people, in the various spiritual and occult communities, kind of going back to working with saints and sort of having a magical relationship with them and those kinds of things. And, you know, you're definitely one of the people out there doing that work. Right?
ANDREW: Were the saints always your companions? Or some saints? Was it a thing that you rediscovered? How did that happen for you?
AL: Mmmm. Hmmm. Well. That's the great question. I did not grow up practicing Catholic. My family are Irish Catholic by birth lottery, as they would put it, and certainly in my house, my folks, these days, kind of agnostic, but certainly when I was growing up, fiercely, devoutly, socialists, atheists. But, as a result of the kind of family that I grew up in, we would be taken round an awful lot of churches and historical houses and manna houses and national trust properties and that kind of thing, partly so that my father could sit there and, or stand there and ask, you know, how many workers do you think died to build this structure? So , my early engagement with high churches and that kind of stuff was very much of a sense of like, there are a lot of dead people underlying this thing that still exists ...
AL: And that certainly still informed how I approach saint work, in terms of, or saint devotion, I should say, really, in terms of how long it's been an active part of my practice. Certainly, learning from my great grandmother, before she passed, that there was a set of Irish naming traditions in the family, that there was a particular reason why ... [laughs] "Your middle name is Joseph, Al! Because you're named after your uncle Harry, whose middle name was also Joseph," as an example of this kind of thing that was done. It's like the whole idea of first born will be called this, second born will be this, third will be this, but then we also include what happens when they aren't all male and a variety of other circumstances.
So, there were naming traditions I discovered, and, in attempting to understand my great grandmother, who was a remarkable woman, in terms of being a tiny little Irish Catholic lady. We'd no idea exactly how old she was. She ... Her father bribed the village clark to lie about her age so that she could come over to England and train as a nurse earlier. So, we're not entirely sure how old she was. But she was a devout Irish Catholic, set the table for dead relatives occasionally, certainly spoke about them like they were there, and also taught pranayama yoga for about 45, 50 years, and was a very early adopter of that in Woolhampton, in the U.K. So, she was an interesting and odd lady, and so, certainly trying to understand her through these two practices of, like, you know, rich dense energy kind of work and breathwork stuff and all the things that pranayama is, and this intense devotion. You know, she would talk about, you know, I would ask her, “how do you square these things?” And she'd say, "Well, I just don't tell the priest." [laughs] "It's not his business. I make sure I'm doing my breathing next to a pillar, so if I do pass out, then, you know, I won't cause a fuss..."
ANDREW: Uh huh. You'll wake up eventually, so it'll be all right.
AL: Yeah. Exactly. And, you know, "I see a sanctifying mass, and this opening effect of that, and I want to be as receptive as I can to that, so I open myself up as much as I can, and then I zip myself back up, and I go about my day." And so, that was very inspiring to me, and my earliest set of actually practicing things, rather than just reading Crowley or whatever else, was chaos magic. The idea of it not all having to fit into one cosmology, that you could do several things, and that that, you know, there wasn't even a negative capability of that, that you could have … you could be a Catholic who did pranayama. Obviously, you could do those things, but the idea of mixing spiritual traditions, or at least parallel practice of them, was an influence. I think the first set of things that I ended up doing more formally, in terms of what felt like magic, rather than what just felt like, you know, going to a Saint Stevens church and, you know, enjoying the peace and quiet, and taking on the aspect of seeking calm, and that kind of thing … The first sort of work that was like, all right, I have this saint in front of me, and all sorts of incenses, and I'm trying to work a spell with him, was Cyprian.
AL: Oh, right. So, the first spellwork, shall we say, I did with a saint was after I was recommended to work with Saint Cyprian of Antioch. I made a sort of pilgrimage for a birthday to California to a particularly famous hoodoo candle store and came in and was just beginning my doctorate and so asked, you know, "What would you advise?" of the owner, "What would you advise that I take on in terms of a candle or a spell?" You know, I wasn't looking for, I wasn’t shopping around for a patron. I was just wanting to work a particular thing, an academic success kind of ongoing working. And, you know, she asked, "Well, what is it that you're doing? What’s the nature of this research?" And after I'm telling her, it's about the history of magic, she says, you know, "Well, obviously you should be buying this Cyprian candle, and this is how you can work it," and fixed it front of me and showed me some of the bits and pieces and showed me a couple of other things as well. But that was the start of, yeah, a relationship that's only deepened, where, yeah, my ... And a variety of things occurred after that. Again, saint work is very tied to ancestor work for me, and certainly the dreams I had after I started working with Cyprian, of ancestors coming to me, you know, proud that I was finally working with a nice Catholic saint ...
AL: ...Despite his hideous reputation, and rightly, you know, and justifiably so, he's not necessarily someone whose earlier history or career is particularly admirable or something that you would want to repeat in terms of selling the equivalent of roofies. But, nevertheless, they were delighted that I was even engaging with this stuff at all, on a more formal level, and that for me was one of the big ... Along with the fact that, you know, when I took things to him, they worked out the way I wanted them to, or they worked out for my benefit. Along with offering me a set of challenges of things to work on, of things to work through, was how it bolstered my connection to my ancestors. And ...
ANDREW: And I find it's quite interesting how ... I mean, so there's the baseline layer of, like, "Hey, I need more money," or "Hey, I want success in my academic career," or, you know ...
AL: Uh huh!
ANDREW:... "...cause I'm hoping to have a baby..." or whatever the things are that people, you know, want and need that they go to saints for. But at the same time, I feel like you really kind of hit on something there, which is sort of the unexpected second level of that process, which is, you know, you go to them, and they're like, "Yeah, sure, give me a candle, and I'll do this thing for you, no problem," right? But if you stick around with them for a while, then they start, like, working on you, right?
ANDREW: They start tinkering with you in a way to bring out some kind of evolution or change or growth or ... you know?
ANDREW: That's certainly been my experience, right?
AL: Yeah, and I think this is especially the case when you start taking on a saint, not just as someone that helps you in a particular aspect of your life, but as a patron of your ... Either your main career, or even of all of your magic, and that's certainly ... Cyprian is one of those, for me, is someone I go to for any work I do for a client or for myself and when you allow a patron to ... When you allow yourself space in the container to allow a patron to hold space for helping you make decisions about things that aren't just, you know, "Oh, this is the saint I go to for money work," right? If you have a relationship with that saint in other aspects of your life, if you're going to them about, like, you know, asking for the clarity to be able to make a useful decision about, you know, a new relationship that's just started or something like that, you're giving them more space to be able to help you. Right? You're opening up more roads, if you want to phrase it like that, for them to, like you say, start working on you in ways.
ANDREW: Yeah, and it's ... I think it's a very ... I think it's fascinating and a powerful way to go. And I think it's really helpful. And I also notice that a lot of people are very uncomfortable with being that open with spirits.
AL: Hmm! [laughs]
ANDREW: And with having that level of dialogue about everything that's going on in their life with spirits, right?
ANDREW: You know, there's, you know, I mean, there can be, a) a very sort of transactional relationship that people have, like, "I'll give you this, you give me that."
ANDREW: But even if it's relational, there's this sort of, I don't know if it's a legacy of parenting issues in the West or whatever, but ...
ANDREW: You know, there's this sort of, "Well, you know what, but they don't get to tell me how to live my life," right?
AL: [laughs] Yeah.
ANDREW: Do they not? Is that what's going on? Like I think about that with the Orishas. Do they tell me how to live my life? Not in the way people mean it, right?
ANDREW: But certainly, in a way that most people would be relatively uncomfortable with. I'm going to hear their advice and do my best to live it all the time, because the space in the container that I have with them allows for that and allows, and makes things happen that otherwise would never happen separately, you know? If I was stuck in my head or in my sense of self too strongly.
AL: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, for sure. And being able to discern what your head is wanting and what is useful for your life path is some deep stuff, right? And is going to require a different engagement than, you know, "How do I solve this current immediate problem," right?
AL: "How do I live my best life?" is a different question, and requires a ... Yeah, my experience of being involved for a couple years in Lukumí Orisha worship is that, yeah, it's a very different ball game in terms of, you know, it's an established tradition with an actual priestcraft of actual work and learning. And that's not to say that other traditions don't also have those things, but the level of commitment, and of taking on good advice and attempting to live it every day, right? Is a really important thing, and something that other traditions when they do well, do very well as well. But that, if we're talking Orisha, that's been certainly my experience, is that that closeness is also, you know, rewarded with the calm and the coolness and the development of good character that we're attempting to achieve, to leave the marketplace of the world in a better place than it was when we got here, before we go back home to heaven.
ANDREW: Yeah. And I also think that, like, it's also interesting that, you know, again, it's sort of part of the, you know, legacy of modern thinking in some ways, you know, this sort of idea that, you know, a saint or spirit might only kind of govern one limited aspect, and, while I think that that's certainly true of some classes of spirits, that their spectrum of influence or their … from a human point of view, is limited and you might want to keep it there ...
ANDREW: You know, these sort of relationships with saints and things like that, you know, this idea that you can be open to messages that are not necessarily within their, you know, official textbook definition wheelhouse ...
ANDREW: ... is also very fascinating. You know, I started working with St. Expedite a long time ago. That's kind of part of my bridge from ceremonial stuff into African diasporic traditions, as a sort of, you know, a syncretism for other spirits. And then, when I finally sort of landed in my Orisha tradition and sort of removed all my stepping stones that had gotten me there, St. Expedite was the only one who stayed. You know?
ANDREW: And he was like, "No, no, dude, I'm not leaving, no, I'm with you now." And I was like, "Oh, okay!" I didn't quite catch that distinction as it was going on. And then … But, by way of sort of the differences, you know, he sort of, wasn't prominent, I wasn't really working with him for like 15 years, or something like that, just had my pieces tucked away amongst my relics of other times and things that I don't do much of any more. And then all of a sudden, I came across this painting I had done of him, and he was like, "Dude, I'm out, you've got to put me out now."
AL: [laughs] Hmm!
ANDREW: And when, and, the messages that I got from him were all about my art work, and not about, sort of ceremony, and spirits, or working with the dead or, you know, other things like that ...
ANDREW: And so, it was this very interesting thing where he came forward with this message, that is not entirely incongruous with his nature per se, but certainly not where I would think to start with, you know?
ANDREW: And, you know, I'm sitting here looking at him as we're talking...
ANDREW: And he's kind of like nodding his head, like "I was right, dude, that's it!"
AL: [laughs] I love that, that's beautiful, the idea of some particular aspect of your life that they would manifest their advice and their power in that isn't, that you're not going to read in some, you know, in some encyclopedia of saints or the Golden Legend or some botanic pamphlet, but that that's something that you've come to, yourself. It reminds me of the way that people sometimes talk about plant allies as well, and I think this is a wider aspect of what we mean by spirit patronage, right? That that spirit might be, you know, you might get on famously and become, you know, fast friends, and that that plant might then be willing to work in ways that, again, aren't in, you know, aren’t in the encyclopedias of herb magic or Cunningham or any of those other things ...
AL:... isn't keyworded that like, this plant that you work with every day and consider a patron of your greencraft and of your life in general, would do a thing that might be unusual, you know, might be added to a bath or a charm bag or something that wasn't typically included in that kind of thing. That's certainly a relationship I have with rosemary, where ...
AL:... beyond its noted capacity for memory, and, you know, its necromantic value and its purifying and asperging uses … I have in the past had definite spirit contact to say, "You should include me in this bath for something completely different, because I am one of your, you know, because I want to be involved in this and I can further empower it." And confirming that through divination as well, which I think is also something that gets underreported is that, again, spirit contact and nonrational ways of knowing and spirit communication can also be facilitated by computational divination, you know, you can still throw your, your sticks, your shells, your things to confirm that that is the spirit saying that thing and it's not either you or some other spirit or, you know, some other option of things. And so, in confirming that, yeah, I was putting rosemary in everything for a while. Because it was standing up and saying, like, "Yeah, I can do this too, I can do this too, I can do this too."
ANDREW: Yeah. I've had a similar experience with burdock.
ANDREW: You know, where people … Especially with sending people to work with it?
ANDREW: Because here in Toronto, it's prevalent everywhere at a certain point in the year, you know, it just takes over everything, you know, that energy will be like, "Yeah, tell them to come and collect some of this part of me, and do this thing with it and all..."
ANDREW: "Or help them in this way," or you know. I remember somebody was like, somebody had to like, somebody who was trying to let go of some childhood stuff and the plant basically came in and said, "Hey, tell them to come and find the biggest one around and dig up my whole root, and when they're done, they'll be healed." And it took them a long time! You know?
AL: Yeah, yeah yeah.
ANDREW: Because it was big and spreading. But it was profound, and it was transformative for that person by their report, so.
ANDREW: There are many reasons that can happen. But also, as you say, that verifying it, you know, whatever your divination tools for verification, or checking with a spirit that you have more concrete mechanisms with or whatever, I think that that's so important, because, you know, this sort of, free will and idea that I can just sort of intuit anything and that could be the answer, it's like, well, eh, maybe, possibly...
ANDREW: ...but, I get very twitchy about that at times, because stuff starts to come out, where it's like, "Well, yeah, but you know what, that's actually not a good idea, and these other ways are,” or, “This is kind of toxic, or kind of … you know?"
AL: Yeah, and that's where ... Exactly, exactly. And that's where using a divination technique that is definite, that is computational, that is like, "No, that card says this thing," isn't like a, you know, a fudge, isn't like a coin on its side, computational, but also that provides qualified answers, so not just flipping a coin of like, yes or no, is this what the spirit said? But, you know, a three card throw, that allows for, you know, two reds and a black, meaning yes, but...? Right? Or two blacks and a red meaning no, but ... ? Right? Which allows, not just the confirmation of the thing that you think you're receiving, but also allows the spirit to give you extra information as well. To say, "Yes, you heard me right about that stuff, but you also need to check this other thing that you haven't checked," or "No, that's not what I said, but, you are on the right track in terms of this direction." Have I cut out again?
AL: [laughs] I think I may have cut out again, briefly, there. [laughs]
ANDREW: I heard your comment about two reds and a black, or two black and a red? And then you stopped. Want to start again?
AL: All right. So, I think it's very important to have a divination system that can provide not just a yes or no response to what you think you've received from spirit contact but that you are also able to give a qualified answer of “yes, but,” or “no, but,” right?
AL: That you have some form of throwing that doesn't just give you a thumb's up or a thumb's down, but that also offers the spirit a chance to say, “Yes, that's what I meant, in that case, but you've also forgotten that you need to deal with this thing as well.” Or, “No, that's not what I meant, but you're on the right track in terms of thinking in this way,” all right? So, it's not just about a gatekeeping of which images and which contact gets in and which doesn't, but also, you are continually negotiating and allowing yourself to have more space to hear a more nuanced transmission.
ANDREW: Mmmhmm. Yeah, and I think the idea of developing nuance is just so important, right?
ANDREW: I mean, whatever divination tool you're looking at, you know, I think this idea that we could sort of have a, you know, in the exact same way as we're talking about the saints, right? You have a real relationship with your divination system; it's conveying information that goes well beyond, you know, yes or no, or even like, yeah, it's pretty good, or not good. There are so many other pieces that start to emerge from the practice and then getting to know those things that then facilitate the shaping of it, right?
AL: Mmmhmm, yeah.
AL: Yeah, I think so. And, you know, that can be a sign that you're making deeper engagement with a saint, is when they start coming out with stuff that you haven't read somewhere, right? That you haven't ... and that's not license for everyone to be, you know, "Oh, well I dress Expedite in pink, and, you know, I never offer him pound cake," that's no excuse to throw away tradition. But that is a sign where, if you're working respectfully, most traditions have a notion that, like, there's going to be idiosyncracies. There's going to be particularities and personalizations both in terms of how the spirit works with you and how you work with the spirit.
ANDREW: Mmmhmm. Yeah.
ANDREW: And variations by geography and culture.
AL: Absolutely, absolutely! Yeah.
ANDREW: Cause I grew up with nothing religiously, you know? Like nobody considered it, nobody was for it, nobody was against it, you know, people were sort of like vaguely slightly a little bit mystic at times, but there was kind of nothing, you know? So like, the first time I remember going to church was when I was like 11 and my parents had gotten... had separated, and we lived in a small town and my mom was trying to find some community. So we went to the Anglican church, but, you know, I didn't have any connection to any of those things, so, you know, and never mind if I was from like a totally different culture than sort of the Western culture of something else engaging with this.
ANDREW: It might just be like, "You know what? You don't have pound cake, but you got this other thing like cake, that looks good,” you know?
AL: Right, right. And this is especially the case when you're looking at quote unquote folk practices, you know, what people who weren't rich did, and continue to do in many parts of the world, that, you know, that San Rocco, that Saint Roch, doesn't behave like the one four villages down. You know, one of them is more about warding off plague, because he warded off a plague once, or several times, right? And the other might be more about bringing in the harvest, because that's, you know, that’s the famine that he avoided by being petitioned, right? And successfully performed a miracle.
And so, yeah, the terroir of spirit work, that sense that like, this particular place dealt with, you know, this aspect of that spirit that was called the same thing that they called it down the road, or a different spirit sharing that name, or however it ends up shaking out, you know, whatever your ontology of the situation seems to suggest. That's super important, yeah, that there isn't, you're not necessarily dealing with a wrong way of working with them, so much as a different way. But that again is not something that emerges from just wandering through, you know, reading 777 and deciding that you're going to cook up a bunch of stuff, right, over a nice cup of tea? That's the result of many hands working for a very long time, and requiring something done about an immediate danger, and certainly I'm thinking of San Rocco in southern Italy, you know.
AL: Cause if the saint don't work, it gets thrown in the sea! [laughs]
ANDREW: Yeah, sure, right?
AL: Or put in front of the volcano.
ANDREW: Yeah. yeah, and that's always an interesting thing to consider, right? We can make a, you know, a thought form, or whatever you want to call it. We can create spiritual energies to accomplish certain things, but the sort of depth and the history of energy, prayer, offering, and kind of the lineage of different places, you know, like the saint in that village versus the saint in this village.
ANDREW: You know, I mean, I think that those create something very different over time, and whether that all comes from the same source or whatever we choose to believe that that is another matter ...
AL: Right, right, right.
ANDREW: But this sort of idea that if we're going to work with somebody in a certain way, like if we want San Rocco to do this thing versus that thing, then we might want to take a bit more of that other town's approach, or, you know, see what are the differences in practices that might help call that energy out in that way.
AL: For sure. For sure.
ANDREW: Not unlike singing certain songs in the Orisha tradition or, you know, playing certain beats or making certain offerings, bring out different faces of the spirits, right?
ANDREW: You know? There are the ways in which ... the way in which we approach them, and what we give them, is also part of their process and channel of manifesting that opens up these different capacities in a different way, you know?
AL: Right, and crucially, you're dealing with diaspora as well, you're dealing with how does a tradition or a set of traditions try and remember not just its own thing, but remember the traditions of their brothers and sisters, right? Who were, you know, no longer, can sometimes no longer remember where it is they're from, right?
AL: And, and, and that's a really important thing. It isn't just, you know, oh well, you know, the ... [laughs] I don't know, fatuous example, oh the Elegua of Brooklyn doesn't receive toasted corn, he asks for like Pabst Blue Ribbon or whatever, right?
ANDREW: Uh huh.
AL: This isn't something that you can just like, decide, or, you know, think you've had an experience without confirming any of this with any of the initiated priests of that tradition, right? Likewise, the diaspora of, say, again to continue that example, cause it's one I'm more familiar with, through the work of my wife in Italian folk magic, of San Rocco in south Italy … There are different expressions of him in the New World, you know, there's a very long running procession through New York's Little Italy, that's one of the most celebratory saint festivals I've ever been to, over here. Sometimes, I'm sure, you know, you've had similar experiences that even a saint that is considered holy and happy has a kind of somberness, especially when we're celebrating their martyrdom, whereas ... Yeah, the San Rocco festival in New York is a joy. There are confetti cannons, it's delightful. And, but it's also very reverent. You know? The ... Certainly, the central confraternity do it barefoot and, you know, make a real effort that it's a community event and those kinds of things, and, that's where modifications come in as well. That's where traditions develop and grow and live and breathe and stretch, is in actually interacting with a new land, and with different communities, and kinds of people and those are where, like, "Oh, we couldn't get this kind of wine so we got this other kind of wine," those kinds of things, things like substitutions as I understand it start to come in. But it's something that occurs from within stretching out, it's not something that can be, you know, with that etic emic thing, it's not something that an outsider can then take something of, and claim anything like the same sort of lineage, and the same kind of oomph, the same kind of aché, the same kind of virtue or grace moving through that thing.
ANDREW: We can't claim substitutions because it's hard to get that thing, or whatever, right?
ANDREW: You know, and they only really take off when, you know, when it's required. But I'm going to tell you right now, and everybody else listening, if there's ever a procession for me, I would like it to have confetti cannons.
ANDREW: That definitely is a part of a cult that I would like to bounce, so, let's make that happen sometime.
AL: For sure, good to stick around and be useful!
ANDREW: Yep. So, we're kind of reaching the end of our time here, but I also wanted to touch on your new book, which is out.
ANDREW: Yes. So, The Three Magi, right? Tell me, tell people, tell me, why, what is it about them that draws you? Why did you write this book? Where did it come from?
AL: It came from … That's an amazing question. There are a couple things. One is that I have a very central part of my practice that is about working with dead magicians, and working with the attendant spirits around them. And a kind of necromancy of necromancy, if you want to put it like that. From specific techniques to a kind of lineage ancestor sense, from the fact that my doctorate was handed to me by hand shake by someone who had hands laid on them, who had hands laid on them, back to the founding of the charter and having a sense of that. The spiritual lineage of academic doctors, and in studying the dead magicians of the 17th century, for instance, and how they were interested in, say, Elias Ashmole, interested in forming this kind of lineage of English magic. That feels a little bit Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell at times, to be honest.
AL: So, I've been interested in dead magicians for a while, and had found them kind of turning up in my practice and helping me do my history of them. You know, they were very invested in how they were being portrayed, funnily enough. And the magi became a locus, a way in which I, as someone that wasn't necessarily, certainly from the outside, looking like I was living a terribly good pious early modern Christian life, could be talking to these Christian magicians. It was a way of framing ... Well, we all appreciate the magi, right? Who are both ... and that's another fascinating point, like Cyprian, you know, arguably more so than Cyprian, they're both Christian and not. They are the first Gentiles to make this pilgrimage, they’re utterly essential to the nativity narrative, they're also, you know, categorically astrologers, and probably Babylonian, and drawing on a variety of older traditions, certainly around Alexander the Great, and his invasions into various different regions mirror some of the kinds of mythic beats of their story, of the magis' story ...
AL: So there was this sense of, I was already working with dead magicians, I was interested in the role of magic in the traditions and saint devotion and things that I was already exploring, and I've always been attracted to liminal spirits and found working with them very helpful, the ones that exist on a threshold between things, the symmetry gates , the wall between two things, the border crosses, if you like. And, their unique status as a cult is also interesting as well in that, by the 14th century, certainly, they are considered saints, you know, Saint Gaspar, Saint Belchior, and Saint Balthazar. But they're also utterly important to that tradition but kind of outside of it, but also legitimizing it, and certainly this is how their cult played out from the vast popularity of their pilgrimage site in Cologne, which became one of the four major hubs of pilgrimage, which was a big deal, right, in the medieval period.
AL: Into the exploration into the so-called New World, where, again, the kings were employed by both colonizers, there was a concept of preconquest evangelization, the idea that the message, the good message of the Nazarene had extended to the quote unquote savages of the Americas, which is why the Mayans had crosses, supposedly. That they had civilization, so they must know about Christianity, because that's the only civilization that builds, you know, that's the only culture that could allow a civilization to occur. And so this frames the conquest of the New World, again the quote unquote New World, as a matter of reminding people that they were already Christian.
And one of the ways that this was done was to tell colonized people that one of the kings who came from afar was from them. And thus, their king had already acquiesced to the will of, you know, these white colonizers, or these, you know, these European colonizers. But, in doing that, they also allowed colonized and sometimes actually enslaved people a sense of, like, autonomy, that they had a magician king ancestor, that even though that was being annexed on the one hand, it was also, it also fomented political dissent. And so that notion of a powerful and politically ambiguous set of figures became really really interesting to me.
AL: It also, you know, in terms of personal anecdotes, they also became more significant when I moved to Bristol and I was touring as a performance poet and a consultant magician and diviner, and I was getting cheap transport a lot because I was also a student, and I was getting the megabus, if you're familiar with that, and it stopped just outside of one of the only chapels dedicated to the three kings in Europe, which happens to be in Bristol.
And so, I would see them every day as I was setting out on a journey, and so I started looking for them in grimoires, and finding that most of the spells that are considered under their aegis, or their patronage, are works of safe travel. Right? Are works of journeying, right? Of going, of adoring, and then returning via a different way, right?
AL: And that model has greatly inspired me, I mean, directly, in terms of the work I was doing, working with the land I had and the places I had and the opportunities I had to make quick offerings when I needed to, you know, make sure I was nursing a nasty hangover on a five hour journey, you know, going to a gig somewhere. But also, you know, getting off the bus at the end of journeys and saying thank you and gathering dirts and using that in that way. And certainly, the idea of them being patrons, not just of where you pilgrimaged to, but the patrons of pilgrims themselves, feels very powerful to me.
AL: And that sense of them, that we don't pray to them, that we pray like them, also feels to me very much like an important necromantic aspect of the ancestor cults around them, that we imitate them, that we too are on a journey, looking for the light that points to majesty, of some kind, whatever that is. That we too are on a journey in terms of passing from life to death, and maybe to return, right? To be a bit mystical. I find it very interesting that occasionally the magi, or lithographs of the magi and the star, find their ways into, or are venerated in, some houses of Haitian Vodou, right, where they refer to the Simbi, and that notion of spirits that have died and then died again and crossed over again to become spirits of some kind. And that mass of the idea of not simply working with a saint who is that thing, that you are working with the elevated soul of someone that used to wander round in a human body and is now, in theory, sat at the right hand of God, right? You're also working, or you can also work, with an attendant set of dead folk who cohere around that point of devotion, because they also worshipped like that. And that's again, that sense of like ancestral saint work for me is very important, not just who ... what icon am I staring at, but who, what spirits, what shades do I feel around me who are also facing that direction? Right? And who am I in communion with, and who am I sharing that communion with?
ANDREW: I love it. Yeah, I mean there's reason why people use the term, "spiritual court," right?
AL: Yeah, yeah.
ANDREW: Who are we all, whose court are we at and who are we all, you know, lining up with in that place and so on?
ANDREW: I love it. Well, thank you so much for making the time today, Al.
AL: Oh sure, yeah! No, it's been great!
ANDREW: You should definitely check out Al's book. We have it at the shop. It's available in other places too. And if people want to come and hang out with you on the Internets, where should they go looking for you, Al?
AL: Oh, they can find me at my website, which is http://www.alexandercummins.com. There's my blogs there, there's a bunch of free lectures, you can book my consultation services through that, jump on the mailing lists to hear about gigs I'm doing, in wherever it is I am [laughs], touring around a bit more these days, which is lovely to be on the road. Just got back from New Orleans, which was great to see godfamily there and to do some great talks I really enjoyed. So yeah, my website …
ANDREW: I also have an archive of premodern texts, scans of texts, grimoiresontape.tumblr.com, if people want to check out, you know, any of these texts from 17th century magicians that I've been kind of digging up, that's certainly something I'm encouraging people to do, is do that. I teach courses through my good friends at Wolf and Goat, Jesse and Troy, just finished a second run of the Geomancy Foundation course that I run, and I'll be setting up to do a course introducing humeral theory and approaches to the elements and that kind of embodied medical and magical kind of practice stuff, which, hopefully, you know, diviners and people like that will be interested in. One of these underlying things for a lot of Western occult philosophy and magical practice that doesn't necessarily get looked at a lot.
ANDREW: Yeah. Well, we’ll have something for us to have a further conversation about at some point, then.
AL: Oh yeah, I'd love that! Yeah, for sure!
ANDREW: Well, thanks again Al, and, yeah, I really appreciate it.
AL: Oh, great! No, no, it's been a pleasure. Thank you, Andrew.