Visible Appearance

I want to talk about invisibility mysteries.[1] Typically, when we consider “spirits” within a western context, we define them as non-physical beings compared to our physical existence. I propose that thinking along a hidden-to-visible axis is more fruitful than a non-physical-to-physical one.

As regular readers know, I’ve recently been reading Jeremy Naydler, and it was while reading his Shamanic Wisdom in the Pyramid Texts that this idea finally “landed” for me. Per Naydler, the Dwat in Egyptian cosmology is the hidden world more or less adjacent to us. He also notes that we could also refer to amentet, which he translates as hidden.

It’s that hidden I want to pull on here. That hidden realm is in whatever ways invisible to us, and even as it is the realm of the dead, who vanish from our visible human reality, amentet is also literally the source of life for our visible world. We plant seeds in the earth, where they lie hidden until (hopefully, maybe with nudging) life reveals itself, life becomes visible and enters our world. The same is also true of the womb, both the womb of mothers on earth and Nuit as the celestial mother within whom the sun becomes invisible to us until born again the next morning. So too do we uncover metals, stones, and other resources hidden in the earth.

The hidden made a lot of sense as I began considering invisibility mysteries, beyond the Dwat and ancient Egypt. Night remains a time for unusual, spiritual things to happen, perhaps because so much more is hidden to our perception, and the Sun’s great power of exorcism arises in part because of its capability to illuminate and reveal what was otherwise hidden (or to force it away if it wants to retain that advantage). Offerings work with hiddenness, as well, especially as candles burn away, water and alcohol evaporate, food is removed and “vanished” (at some point, somehow), and incense disappears into the air. That is, the offerings disappear from our visible, human world and enter into that hidden world of spirits.

The traditional enjoinders to go to crossroads after midnight and to do your business and then to walk away without looking back strike me as very pertinent in regards to invisibility mysteries, too. The folkloric rationale I’ve heard is that you “might see” the Devil, Hekate, or her hounds, or the crossroads spirits, but I have to admit that a good part of me would say, “Okay?” and want to look. But, there’s something to consider about what happens if you let them remain hidden and, in a way, to be present—or always to possibly be present.[2]

There is also a consideration of what happens when you try to game that hidden-to-visible slider (things can be more or less occulted, obscured, etc., after all). Invisibility has long associations for bringing one closer or actually into the “spirit world”: if you are invisible, then you are more like the spirits, whose nature in part is to be invisible to humans. However, just as becoming hidden can bring one closer to spirits, so too would I theorize that seeing or looking at the hidden also brings you into amentet, into their perspective.

Perspectivism and Visibility

Hiddenness and revelation, invisibility and visibility—these terms turn upon on perspectivism. Drawing on Deleuze and Guattari, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro points to visibility, even awareness of an other, as always relational in nature, that we always need an Other “as a condition of the field of perception,” and “what is invisible to [one] subsists as real by being visible to an other…An Other is thus no one (neither subject nor object) but rather a structure or relation–the absolute relation that provides concrete actants with their relative positions as subjects or objects.”[3] The hidden must be visible to others, even if the hidden remains visible to us. I may not be able to see the spirits, but others must be able to see them, even if it’s the spirits seeing each other.

In this emerging out of relations, or in emerging through how we relate to others, we’re also dealing with perspectivism. Per de Castro, perspectivism encompasses

an indigenous theory according to which the way humans perceive animals and other subjectivities that inhabit the world—gods, spirits, the dead, inhabitants of other cosmic levels, meteorological phenomena, plants, occasionally even objects and artefacts—differs profoundly from the way in which these beings see humans and see themselves.

Typically, in normal conditions, humans see humans as humans, animals as animals and spirits (if they see them) as spirits; however[,] animals (predators) and spirits see humans as animals (as prey) to the same extent that animals (as prey) see humans as spirits or as animals (predators). By the same token, animals and spirits see themselves as humans: they perceive themselves as (or become) anthropomorphic beings when they are in their own houses or villages and they experience their own habits and characteristics in the form of culture—they see their food as human food (jaguars see blood as manioc beer, vultures see the maggots in rotting meat as grilled fish, etc.), they see their bodily attributes (fur, feathers, claws, beaks etc.) as body decorations or cultural instruments, they see their social system as organized in the same way as human institutions are (with chiefs, shamans, ceremonies, exogamous moieties, etc.)….In sum, animals are people, or see themselves as persons.[4]

De Castro notes that even as “animals and spirits [may] see themselves as humans,” we should ask how these cultures are defining “human” at these points. As he notes, these other beings “see themselves as persons,” and I would argue that from our perspective, when these beings see themselves as persons, we perceive that they perceive themselves as humans because we associate personhood with humanity. [English is not designed for many of these ideas.] This personhood de Castro describes as “a common spiritual ‘essence’” hidden under “animal clothing,” with what differentiates these kinds of persons (like humans and jaguars) from each other being bodily rather than spiritual.[5] Some beings can negotiate the shift in perspectives—“certain trans-specific beings such as shamans”—who are not limited to humans.[6]

Spirit Vision

Interesting things can happen when different persons and their perspectives come together. On the one hand, two points of view can only come together through “an essentially fictional dimension…making two entirely heterogenous points of view resonate with each other”—a middle ground is imagined into being where both perspectives can interrelate in something like a shared point of view, or, perhaps, “experiencing a form of imagination” that can bridge the differences in perspectives.[7] That said, de Castro observes that several tales point to how whoever takes the lead in establishing that shared perspective can wield incredible power. The crux is who becomes the first-person I who perceives and also creates a relation to the second-person you Other:

An abnormal context wherein a subject is captured by another cosmologically dominant point of view, wherein he is the ‘you’ of a non-human perspective, Supernature is the form of the Other as Subject, implying an objectification of the human I as a ‘you’ for this Other. The typical ‘supernatural’ situation in an Amerindian world is the meeting in the forest between a man—always on his own—and a being which is seen at first merely as an animal or a person, then reveals itself as a spirit or a dead person and speaks to the man…These encounters can be lethal for the interlocutor who, overpowered by the non-human subjectivity, passes over to its side, transforming himself into a being of the same species as the speaker: dead, spirit or animal. He who responds to a ‘you’ spoken by a non-human accepts the condition of being its ‘second person’, and when assuming in his turn the position of ‘I’ does so already as a non-human. The canonical form of these supernatural encounters, then, consists in suddenly finding out that the other is ‘human’, that is, that it is the human, which automatically dehumanizes and alienates the interlocutor and transforms him into a prey object, that is, an animal. Only shamans, multinatural beings by definition and office, are always capable of transiting the various perspectives, calling and being called ‘you’ by the animal subjectivities and spirits without losing their condition as human subjects.[8] (bold emphases mine)

To see the spirits who are otherwise hidden is to then occupy a different relation to them, especially if they also (or already) see us. If we can see spirits who do not see us, then we can turn the tables. Otherwise, you should probably hope you can be tricksy enough with language to confuse the subject-object relationship if one gets caught predicated as a you by a spirit. Those who can see the otherwise hidden already occupy a middle-territory, and I think it’s important to note how jinn are called the hidden people, nor should the fae’s propensity to remain hidden be ignored either.

Eduardo Kohn’s description of “sylvan language,” which I’ve often touched upon, also strikes me as very interesting to think with in relation to these mysteries. The quality or status of being hidden—at least from human perception—may very well be one way to enter or access amentet. Indeed, dreams and the imagination—“hidden” as they are from our human peers unless we reveal/share them—make sense for also offering us access to that hidden world and its inhabitants. After all, as Kohn notes, the Runa would say that dreaming of the forest means you visit the forest.

Kohn’s description of “sylvan language” makes me wonder how much of our magical tech is our own conserved knowledge of “sylvan language” and its grammars. For example, I can see how these mysteries are conserved through the virtue of silence and avoiding publicizing one’s enchantments. I think it also makes the grimoire recommendation to conjure spirits while far away from humans—indeed, hidden away and not noticed by humans—take on fuller significance.

I find this dynamic works for conceptualizing how evoking spirits to visible appearance through the Solomonic method entails establishing (at least contingent) authority over them. Julio Cesar Ody has argued that

…evocation is a method of spirit working that attempts to bring one or more spirits into the presence of the magician and have them manifest visibly to the naked eye…so that communication can take place by speaking to them as one would speak to an incarnate person. Predictably that is a difficult thing to do, though it is simple in terms of the steps required. It is not hard to argue that the natural state of spirits of any sort is to be invisible to people devoid of an ability to perceive them.[9]

Ody goes on to argue that “Solomonic evocation is reliant on a mechanic which at its essence consists of impressing upon the evoked a need for them to obey a call to manifest, and that this is done primarily as a means to ensure compliance.”[10] Note that I am not arguing that successful Solomonic evocation works merely through the revelation of and seeing a spirit—that is, just because you get the spirit to appear doesn’t mean that you’ve absolutely mastered the spirit—but Ody has consistently warned that if you can’t get the spirit to appear, then you have not mastered the spirit at all. However, I would argue that forcing the spirit to appear where it had been hidden but presumably had been seeing you does put magician and spirit into a new relationality that the magician establishes, or at least asserts. The magician probably rescues themselves at that point from being merely a “you” to the spirit, perhaps being perceived as like Solomon, though perhaps as someone like a “shaman” and capable of relating in more advantageous terms compared to other humans.[11]

Indeed, Ody observes that “ritual transpires in unison between the initiate and the spirits.”[12] All that said, I would also hazard that when seen through the perspective of invisibility mysteries—and based on Ody’s and others’ accounts of spirit contact within a Solomonic evocatory context—the spirits of the spirit lists very much have physicality and embodiedness, but, to borrow from de Castro, their bodies are very different from ours and typically hidden from us in profoundly non-human ways. Ody’s descriptions of Gemon’s “illusions” during evocation make me think of an embodied existence that is far more than a human three-dimensional experience and one that is profoundly disorienting to most humans.[13]

Featured Image: kdsphotos | Pixabay

[1] Although I stumbled my way into this topic through my own reading and pondering, I cannot ignore the importance of Gordon White’s feedback—but also encouragement—on this thread. I also have to pinpoint helpful notions from Al Cummins and others.

[2] While being unable to see the invisible may make one less likely to be noticed by the invisible, I would caution that it may be that one more likely appears unnoteworthy—drawing on de Castro below, one probably seems just like every other human to such beings: “prey” or an undifferentiated human.

[3] Qtd. in Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, “The Relative Native,” translated by Julia Sauma and Martin Holbraad, HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3, no. 3 (2013): 478-9. I’m also citing de Castro himself here.

[4] Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, “Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian Perspectivism,” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 4, no. 3 (Sep. 1998), 470.

[5] De Castro, 472, 476.

[6] De Castro, 471.

[7] De Castro, “The Relative Native,” 483-4.

[8] De Castro, “Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian Perspectivism,” 483. Bold emphases mine. Underlined emphases are de Castro’s in the original (originally in italics).

[9] Julio Cesar Ody, Magister Officiorum: The Ceremony of Solomonic Magic (London: Bibliothèque Rouge, 2018), 1-2. Emphases are mine.

[10] Ody, 10.

[11] In his Glitch Bottle podcast appearance, Ody expresses his view that almost no spirit will believe a magician is actually Solomon or a similarly mythical figure, at least not for long. That said, as Gordon White has observed, it’s probably fruitful to think about how magicians are perceived in their regalia by those kinds of spirits. After all, de Castro notes in relation to the role “clothing” plays in transformation mysteries amongst indigenous societies that “It is not so much that the body is a clothing but rather that clothing is a body” (de Castro, 482). How does the regalia transform the magician—at least from a perspectivist model and from the spirits’ perspective?

[12] Ody, 11.

[13] I’m referring to Ody’s descriptions of his evocations of Gemon from his Glitch Bottle appearance.

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