Death is an intrinsic part of human life, and as such, it is an issue in all religions and spiritualities. Death in combination with resurrection is a common feature in many religions. In Christianity the death and resurrection of Christ is symbolically represented in the communion. The Sumerian New Year celebrations ritually reenacted the resurrection of the fertility god Dumuzi and thus the rebirth of nature is ensured. A belief in reincarnation is a regular feature in ‘New Age’ spiritualities.
Alternative spiritualities in particular view life and death as coupled, and have various ways of dealing with it. In dividing spiritualities into two major categories, the Right Hand Path and the Left Hand Path, I will try to point to differences in the view of death and the symbolic language revolving around the issue. My main focus of analysis is on the magic order Dragon Rouge, which is a so called Left Hand Path oriented order. I will compare the ways Dragon Rouge deals with death on a symbolic level to the view on death and life in neopaganism and ‘New Age’ spiritualities, and also provide a brief analysis on what may lie behind the differences.
Dragon Rouge was founded in Stockholm, Sweden in 1990. The magic the order practices, is called dark in the meaning of dealing with the hidden aspects of existence and with the forces of chaos, in contrast to the dealing with ordered structures as light or white magic is viewed. The goal of the Dragon Rouge dark magician is to become a creator, a god. The order is arranged in lodges and ritual groups, and has an initiatory structure modeled on the 11 spheres of Qliphoth the shadow-side of the Sephiroth, or Tree of Life, of Qabalah. (see Granholm 2005).
The terms Left and Right Hand Path derive from Tantrism (see Harvey 1997: 97; Feuerstein 1998). In dividing spiritualities into the Left and Right Hand Path a distinction is made in way one relates to the divine sphere. Typically Right Hand Path oriented spirituality makes a division into the divine and the non-divine, whereas Left Hand Path spiritualities tend to view everything as aspects of the divine. Left Hand Path oriented spiritualities normally use practices which are in traditional religion viewed as obstacles to spiritual progress as ways of accessing the divine and as tools for spiritual progress. (see Sohlberg 2001: 213; Granholm 2005).
A “death-ritual” described in low-degree Dragon Rouge material, involves the magician experiencing the day as if it was his/her very last one, trying to do and experience all the things he/she associates with life. Right before midnight the magician meditates and then wraps him-/herself in cloth, lies immobile on the floor and experiences the death and rotting of his/her old life. When done, the magician experiences a rebirth to life with a more conscious approach to how he/she wants to live this new life. In this way the magician symbolically experiences death and is reborn reinvigorated and re-energized. The death in the ritual is in specific the death of the magician’s old self, his/her limiting inhibitions and his/her non-magic person. The rebirth is the rebirth of him/her as a magician. (see Dragon Rouge 1996/3: 11).
Dragon Rouge incorporates mythology from various different traditions, and among these elements are stories about descent and ascent from the underworld. In Dragon Rouge material the magician, not the god, descends into the underworld and then resurfaces as a god or creator. For example, it is said that on the Qlipha of Samael the magician “dies a magic death, undergoes a rite de passage, and is reborn in subsequent Qliphoth” (Dragon Rouge 2001a/6: 4-5). The Qliphoth are interpreted as the underworlds of various mythologies. The magician’s underworld-journey is likened to the acts of divinities such as Odin and Khepera, where the magician sacrifices himself, to himself, and in order to win, or gain, his true self his magic personality (Eriksson 2001: 127; Karlsson 2004: 88).
The symbolic death of the magician is described in seemingly quite violent terms. The voluntarily entered death is not calm and peaceful. In initiatory terms the magician “feels the effects of the poison of God” after having been initiated into degree 3 Samael (Eriksson 2001: 16). The poison of Samael gives a symbolic death through which the True Will of the magician is given birth. (Karlsson 2004: 97).
In the Dragon Rouge view death is intimately coupled with life, and as sexuality is seen as a manifestation of life or the life-force, there are connections between sexuality and death as well. The life-force, talked of as the Red Dragon or the Kundalini-energy/force, has a counterpart in the death-force, the Black Dragon or the Black Kundalini, and these forces are intertwined. The life-force gains strength from the death-force, creating an eternal cycle. (Dragon Rouge 2001b/6: 1, 12-13).
The more explicit sexual references are made when discussing magic vampirism. Dragon Rouge say that in the archetype of the vampire Eros and Thanatos are combined. Sexuality represents the creative forces, whereas death represents the destructive, and it is also said that in the union of these “the seed to divinity is created” (Dragon Rouge 2001a/6: 4, 7). The vampire takes life through a sexual act, and re-channels the taken life-force into life for himself. In the same breath, blood is described as “the death that gives life and resurrection” [in the meaning that while blood symbolically represents life when flowing inside the body and death while outside and in a sense of it providing nourishment for some beings when spilled from others] (Dragon Rouge 2001a/6: 4). Furthermore, menstruation is said to represent fertility and life, as well as their constant relation to death (Karlsson 2004: 94).
´New Age´ spiritualities are commonly more focused on life itself, disregarding or downplaying the death-aspect. The focus is on life in the here-and-now (see Heelas 1996). When considering death, the view is on physical rebirth, not on dying in itself. Reincarnation is a central concept in ‘New Age’ (see Frisk 1998: 82). When the individual dies, this is to prepare for a new rebirth. What happens at death, or in between incarnations, is not particularly elaborated. To paraphrase J. Gordon Melton from a paper presented at the 2005 CESNUR conference: “Reincarnation in new religions is more about life before birth than about life after death.
Neopaganism presents the clearest similarities to the approach to death and life of Dragon Rouge. The Seasonal Celebrations regularly celebrate the death and impending rebirth of nature on a symbolic level. At Samhain the coming winter season, the death of nature, is celebrated, and on Beltane the nature and the god who died at Samhain is reborn (see Aarnio 2001: 199). Beltane is also the celebration of fertility and sexuality. Still, the death and rebirth of neopaganism does not in specific deal with initiatory and symbolic death of the individual.
Dragon Rouge does, in a similar fashion to neopagan movements, operate with pre-Christian divinities. In both, the gods and goddesses of the underworld are not something evil and unwanted, but rather necessary parts of existence. In Dragon Rouge material it is said that “Hel presides over death and therefore also over life” (Dragon Rouge 2001a/1: 1). In neopaganism the underworld journey is a metaphor for seasonal cycles, whereas it in Dragon Rouge stands as a model for the dark magician’s journey of progress. It is said that “The Dark magician steps into the underworld in order to claim his price of knowledge of the divine” (Dragon Rouge 2001a/1: 8).
What could the reasons to the quite significant differences in the view of death be due to? I briefly discussed the Right Hand Path contra the Left Hand Path in the beginning, and I will return to this issue, as I believe that some answers can be found here.
The fundamental differences between the two modes of spirituality are to be found in the views on both bodily and spiritual purity. The Right Hand Path operates with rules and restrictions for its practitioners, such as dietary rules (for example vegetarian diet in many forms of Hinduism, and the Kosher laws of Judaism), moral codes (such as the Ten Commandments of Christianity, and, in some ways, the Law of Karma in Indian religion) and rules strictly defining religious duties (such as the five pillars of Islam), etc.
The Left Hand Path always exists in relation to the dominant tradition of its origin, and thus the rules inherent in the dominant traditions are noted in the Left Hand Path as well. In fact, the rules of the dominant tradition are very important for the specific practices and ideologies of specific Left Hand Path spiritualities.
Antinomianism is a key concept in Left Hand Path spirituality. Basically it involves breaking the rules and taboos of the dominant religious and cultural traditions, not in order to overthrow these traditions or simply for the sake of doing so, but in order to transcend human limitations. To return to the earlier examples of religious rules and taboos, Indian Left Hand Path Tantrism includes rituals in which the Vedic rules of traditional Hinduism are inverted. The practitioners in the ritual eat meat and fish, drink alcohol, take aphrodisiacs and have sex in a ritual setting. The point is, not to mock the dominant tradition, but to transcend the limitations set by it. Normally the limitations are not considered to be undue, but it is felt that the individual brave and capable enough may reach enlightenment through these methods and often faster and more completely. In an antinomian stance the rhetoric surrounding death, which is something of a taboo in our culture, takes on the qualities shown. When death is something feared and avoided, death in a Left Hand Path oriented order becomes a key notion with the purpose of releasing the practitioner from restricting fear of death.
In my doctoral thesis I treat six major discourses inherent in Dragon Rouge practice (see Granholm 2005: 257-297). These discourses are on a more direct level closely connected to the rhetoric encircling the Dragon Rouge approach to death and rebirth.
The discourse of magic as all-encompassing treats the dark magic practice of Dragon Rouge as something which deeply influences and involves every part of the magician’s existence. The control over one’s own destiny is pivotal for the magician, and the truly all-encompassive character of dark magic is seen as the road through which this control can be achieved. As life and death are interwoven, the dark magician needs to confront his/her own impending death, as well as the forces of death and destruction, as opposed to only dealing with life. In Dragon Rouge material dealing with necromancy, the magician is to make a pact with his own death, thus learning about death - and consequently about life as well (Dragon Rouge 2001b/6: 13). This initiatory process is supposed to take the magician nearer a appreciation of existence in its totality, and the magician is supposed to go beyond the fear of death as he/she comes into intimate contact with his/her own death. The idea is also for the magician to gain a truer and freer love for life in the process. In the Dragon Rouge view this confronting one’s own death is a prerequisite for true magic progress on an elevated level (see Karlsson 2004: 101-102). Without taking this step the magician can progress no further.
The Dragon Rouge approach to death-and-rebirth is closely linked to the imperative of self-evolvement, and not on a simple worldly level. In going through a symbolic death and rebirth the magician evolves into a higher being. It is stated that the magician dies on the Qliphothic level of Samael or A’arab-Zaraq, thus shedding his/her human limitations, and is reborn on the next Qliphothic level (see Dragon Rouge 2001a/6: 4-6; Karlsson 2004: 97-98). The magician is said to give birth to him-/herself as a god (see Eriksson 2001: 13; Karlsson 2004: 99).
The discourse of magic as demanding is fundamental in understanding the quite grim rhetoric encircling death in Dragon Rouge. In the discourse the practice of dark magic is presented as extremely demanding of the practitioner. In Qliphothic initiations the magic adept undergoes a metaphysical death and rebirth. This is not said to be something easy, instead the rhetoric encircling this includes words and concepts such as “the Poison of Samael” (which makes the magician die symbolically) and sacrifice of oneself (in the manner of Odin and Kephera, and in order to be reborn as a god). The rhetoric of Dragon Rouge may seem violent and morbid, but the purpose of the rhetoric is to highlight the great demands and dangers the practice of dark magic places on the adept.
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