The practice of capital punishment has long been controversial, as it is an ultimate expression of collective power over the individual as well as an irreparable harm if carried out in error. Those who oppose the death penalty may view it as a human rights violation, as unnecessarily cruel and degrading. They may cite the state’s incompetence in actually carrying out executions, the suffering of the condemned person’s family, the decades that many prisoners spend on death row, and the refusal to attempt rehabilitation of the criminal. Those who support it may believe that the worst crimes constitute a forfeiture of one’s human rights. They may argue that keeping someone alive in prison for life is more cruel and costly than a swift execution. Additional arguments in favor include retribution, deterrence, and certainty that the offender will victimize no one else.
In contemporary terms, the above arguments against capital punishment would be considered liberal, while the above arguments for it would be considered conservative. But both sets come from a distinctly modern worldview that is primarily concerned with the condemned individual. From a reactionary perspective, conservatives and liberals frequently appear to be two sides of the same coin, and their views of capital punishment are no exception. Modernism also manifests in the false dilemma between current capital punishment practices and complete abolition. A reactionary approach is more concerned with societal effects, and will broaden the consideration of practices to include pre-modern forms of execution which might be restored in a neo-traditional society. We will take the novel approach of explaining the effects of capital punishment on a social order through the lens of ritual magick.
A Brief History of Capital Punishment
Nearly all societies have put criminals to death, with the practice going back before the beginning of recorded history. While restitution and ostracism were frequently sufficient for punishing criminals, executions occasionally occurred in order to insure incapacitation of the worst criminals and demonstrate to other tribes that a society would defend itself by necessary means. The person executed was not necessarily the person responsible for a crime, as early systems of tribal arbitration were based on collective responsibility. What mattered was that someone pay blood for blood in order to prevent a blood feud from spiraling out of control. As tribes became nations, they expanded and conquered neighboring tribes and nations. Various classes of people emerged in these empires, and arbitration systems became codified and formalized in legal systems. Examples of this include the Code of Hammurabi, Draco’s laws, and the Pentateuch.
Ancient execution methods were deliberately painful in nature, and some were designed to include the community in the killing of the condemned. Most executions took place in public to make an example of the criminals, demonstrate the power of rulers, and provide a spectacle. The Roman crucifixion is the best known of these methods due to its role in the founding of Christianity, but there were many torturous methods of ending a life, such as loosing wild animals upon a person, cooking someone alive, lapidation, and scaphism.
In medieval and early modern times, the death penalty was used for many offenses. For instance, historians estimate that 72,000 people were executed under Henry VIII of England (r. 1509–1547). In his reign, the Buggery Act 1533 made sodomy a capital crime, and it remained so until 1835. A moral panic concerning witchcraft beginning in the 15th century led to many unjust executions. Common methods included the breaking wheel, burning at the stake, and being hanged, drawn, and quartered. Meanwhile, blood feuds continued to occur but were more regulated, as in the Norse althings. Over time, dueling became a refined version of feuding and trial by combat survived as a remnant of the ancient ways.
The number of capital offenses under English law increased to 220 by 1800, and included many types of property crimes which are treated rather leniently in current law, such as cutting down a cherry tree in an orchard, petty theft, shoplifting.[4,5,6] Jurors responded with jury nullification, while judges would value property below the statutory level for capital punishment in order to spare people.
As the modern nation-state took shape, standing police forces and state-run penitentiaries became common, as did the association of justice with theories of rights. Though opposition to the death penalty can be traced at least as far back as the 12th century Jewish legal scholar Moses Maimonides, this view became more common in the Enlightenment era. Cesare Beccaria analyzed capital punishment and called for its abolition in his treatise On Crimes and Punishments (1764). Jeremy Bentham also called for abolition on utilitarian grounds.
The overall trend in the West since the 18th century, and especially since the 20th century, has been toward executions which are less painful for the condemned and less public. This was the reason for the development of the guillotine in France, the abolition of drawing and quartering in Britain, the introduction of gassing and electrocution in the United States, and the replacement of slow suffocation hanging with drop hanging that breaks the spinal cord. American executions would later be performed mostly by lethal injection. Beginning in the 20th century, death in general moved out of public view in the West. While other deaths increasingly occurred inside of hospitals, executions took place inside prisons. The last formal public executions occurred in 1868 in Britain, in 1936 in the US, and in 1939 in France, though small numbers of witnesses are still allowed to voluntarily attend.[10,11]
Many death sentences were carried out in the 20th century for political and martial purposes, such as suppressing dissidents and discouraging lapses in military discipline. For example, during the Great Terror of 1937–38, Joseph Stalin’s regime had more than one million Soviet citizens killed, most by shooting. The number of capital punishments carried out for light or even invented charges bolstered the abolitionist cause.
Since World War II, there has been a trend toward eliminating the death penalty. 102 countries have done so, six only execute under special circumstances, and 32 have not carried out a death sentence in the past decade. As of 2018, the United States is the only Western country to retain the death penalty, with the military, federal government, and 31 states having death penalty statutes.
A Brief History of Witchcraft
Belief in magick is a cultural universal that has been present since prehistory. Modern anthropology postulates a complete continuity between magick and religion, especially before the development of monotheism. However, there are several important differences. First, magick is used to achieve clear, immediate goals, whereas religion has a long-term or even eternal outlook. Second, magick is a spiritual form of direct action, while religion asks for favor from a deity. Third, magick is practiced by skilled and learned professionals, whereas religion is observed by the masses. Fourth, magick is usually intended for personal gain counter to eucivic goods, while religion usually has positive functions for society as a whole.
In Europe, the practice of witchcraft dates at least to classical antiquity and has continued through the Middle Ages, Renaissance, Enlightenment, and into the present day. Practitioners were frequently persecuted from ancient times until the 18th century. In ancient Greece, Theoris of Lemnos was put to death along with her family for using harmful drugs and casting spells. In the 3rd century AD, Roman law provided for burning at the stake as a punishment for witches who caused another person’s death, and was contemptuous of all witchcraft in general. The Salic Law of the Franks fined those who practiced magic, while the Visigoths essentially continued the prohibitions in Roman law.
The spread of Christianity caused witchcraft to be seen as superstition. St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430) taught that witchcraft does not exist and that believing in it is heretical for Christians. In 789, Charlemagne proclaimed to the people of Saxony that anyone who burned someone as a witch would be executed. This changed in the 9th century, as Louis the Pious in France and Cináed mac Ailpin in Scotland took strong measures against witches.
In the Middle Ages, the Church focused on maintaining unity by suppressing heresy, leaving folk magicians relatively unmolested. During that time, magic was conflated with the healing arts as practiced at monasteries. There were also Christianized versions of pagan rituals performed for purposes such as enriching infertile crop fields, which substituted Biblical passages for heathen ones. What few cases of witchcraft were tried were brought before ecclesiastical courts, which were noted for their leniency relative to secular justice systems.
The trials against heretics in the Middle Ages provided the accusations of secret meetings, orgies, necromancy, demon worship, infanticide, and cannibalism that would later be used against witches during the Renaissance. Fear of witches grew through the 14th and 15th centuries into a craze. By the 16th century, Protestants and Catholics alike were trying and killing witches. Henry VIII of England’s Witchcraft Act 1542 penalized its practice, and James I’s Witchcraft Act 1604 was much harsher. In 1692–3, a moral panic known as the Salem Witch Trials occurred in the Massachusetts Colony in which twenty people were killed.
In the 18th century, Enlightenment attitudes mocked belief in witches and magic. Laws were changed to penalize practitioners not as dangerous subversives worthy of death, but as fraudsters making false claims of supernatural powers. This was done in England by the Witchcraft Act 1735.
A Brief History of Western Esotericism
Despite periods of intense persecution as described above, a Western tradition of esotericism and occult practice has persisted since ancient times. The earliest reference to a magical operation is found in the Book X of The Odyssey, written by Homer in the 8th century BC. Circe, taking the form of a beautiful woman, uses a magic wand against Odysseus and his men to turn them into swine. Odysseus defends himself with an herb called moly revealed to him by Hermes.[24,25] These five elements, a temptress, a magical weapon, an act that defies the natural order, a rare magickal herb, and a divine revelator, would be present in most examples of magick from that point forward. Magick was viewed less negatively later in Classical Greece; Orpheus, Pythagoras, and Empedocles all had broad special powers attributed to them, but were associated with good deeds.[26,27,28] After this time, individuals said to be magickally inclined might have one or two specialties, but not a wide range of supernatural gifts.
In the Greco-Roman world, curse tablets (tabellae defixionum) meant to deliver people to the powers of Hades were common, as were amulets to protect against such curses. Magickal tools in general were probably just as important as the various spells and incantations used in rituals.[30,31] These rituals can be grouped into two major categories: theurgy and goetia. Theurgy connoted exalted, high-class magick practiced by philosophers and other professionals. Theurgical rites attempted to either send the theurgist to heaven or bring divinity to earth to visit the theurgist. Goetia was a derogatory term for lower-class practitioners, and meant both magick and the power to sexually attract.
In the milieu of various traditions from Babylon, Egypt, Greece, the Levant, and Persia, the beliefs of modern occult practices began to take shape. One contributor was the Egyptian Hellenistic school of thought called Hermetism, after Hermes Trismegistus. Several texts appeared in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD that were attributed to him. These discuss the transcendence of rational thought and secular desires in order to find salvation and spiritual rebirth. Another tradition of esoteric thought was Neoplatonism, based on the ideas of Plato. This school held that humanity had fallen from divinity but could return there by progressing through several hierarchical levels of being. Later Neoplatonists are known to have performed theurgical rites. A third tradition was Gnosticism, which said that a malevolent entity called the Demiurge and the Archons, its demonic assistants, had imprisoned the divine light within the material world. Humans, who carry this light, should therefore seek to escape the material world and rejoin the divine.
From the fall of Rome until the Middle Ages, little new development of Western esotericism occurred. In the 12th century, cultural contact with Jews and Muslims led to the development of the Jewish Kabbalah and the publication of grimoires. During the Renaissance, several European thinkers synthesized various non-Christian philosophies from Arabic translations with Christianity and Kabbalah. The Byzantine philosopher Gemistus Pletho (1355/60–1452/4) argued that the Chaldean Oracles were a text of superior religion passed down by the Neoplatonists. Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499) translated the works of Plato and his followers into Latin, arguing that they were compatible with Christianity. This was in dispute, as Pope Innocent VIII condemned combinations of Christianity with paganism and Judaism. Johannes Hartlieb wrote in 1456 that Catholic law banned the practice of seven forms of magick: nigromancy (black magick), geomancy (earth divination), hydromancy (water divination), aeromancy (air/weather/celestial divination), pyromancy (fire divination), chiromancy (palm reading), and scapulimancy (bone divination). Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463–1494) developed a Christian version of Kabbalah, which was built on by Johannes Reuchlin (1455–1522) and Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (1486–1535/6) in De Arte Cabbalistica and De occulta philosophia libri tres, respectively. Agrippa’s work in particular revolutionized magickal procedure and theory. He had misgivings about astrology, alchemy, and natural sciences, but accepted them as “the highest peak of natural philosophy”. He denounced theurgy, goetia, and practices like the above seven forms as impiety. The cosmological theories of Copernicus were adapted into esotericism by Giordano Bruno (1548–1600), who was executed by the Church for heresy for his trouble.[40,41] Bourgeoisie and nobility alike were fascinated by the occult in the 15th and 16th centuries, as people believed that magick could answer questions that science of the time could not.
Naturphilosophie developed in Germany in the early 16th century, which accepted only the Bible and the natural world as authoritative sources. Paracelsus (1493/4–1541) was the primary advocate of this approach, though he was also inspired by traditions from Late Antiquity, Kabbalah, alchemy, and folk magick. He urged doctors to reject ancient theories of medicine and instead learn through observation. This movement was a precursor to more modern empiricist thought. A few decades later, the emergence of initiatory brotherhoods with esoteric knowledge occurred in the form of the Freemasons and Rosicrucians.
The Enlightenment era saw the embrace of reason and science, but this did not eliminate occult studies. Instead, a modernist esotericism emerged that incorporated new ideas to varying degrees. John Dee (1527–1608/9), a student of Ficino’s Neoplatonism, worked in both the mainstream disciplines of mathematics and astronomy as well as the occult studies of astrology, divination, and theurgy. He and Sir Edward Kelley (1555–1597) claimed that angels revealed to them the system of Enochian magick, which focuses on the invocation and command of spirits. Dee also introduced the word thaumaturgy to mean an “art mathematical…which giveth certain order to make strange works, of the sense to be perceived and of men greatly to be wondered at”. Around this time, goetia came to be known as ceremonial magick.
Swedish naturalist Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) taught that the visible material world parallels an invisible spiritual world and tried to reconcile religion with science. The Swedenborgian New Church was founded upon his teachings, which also influenced many other esoteric schools of thought. German physician Franz Anton Mesmer (1734–1814) claimed that a universal life force permeated everything and that it must flow freely and undisturbed for a living being to be in good health. He developed techniques which were said to remove blockages in this flow. These ideas became known as Mesmerism. The Marquis de Puységur (1751–1825), a Mesmerist, found a way to induce a sleepwalking trance in which people claimed to communicate with spirits. The New Thought movement of Phineas P. Quimby (1802–1866), another Mesmerist, taught that the power of belief could cure disease. This would lead to the esoteric religion of Spiritualism in the 19th century, which was based on the concept of communication with spirits of the deceased during séances. Andrew Jackson Davis (1826–1910) and Allan Kardec (1804–1869) presented full theologies of Spiritualism, but most practitioners lacked such theoretical depth. Spiritualism influenced the early developments in parapsychology, psychology, and psychiatry, but the latter two became non-esoteric in the 20th century.
European occultism emerged from two groups with different motivations. Libertines in English-speaking countries sought wisdom from pre-Christian pagan sources, while continental Europeans tried to syncretize Christianity, science, and previous esoteric traditions. Spiritualists began to examine pre-Swedenborgian thought. Helena Blavatsky (1831–1891) called for a revival of ancient occultism of both Eastern and Western origin, co-founded the Theosophical Society in 1875, and wrote the influential works Isis Unveiled (1877) and The Secret Doctrine (1888). The Anthroposophical Society was founded by Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925) as a breakaway from the former group. Meanwhile, an occult school called Traditionalism was developed in France by Éliphas Lévi (1810–1875), Papus (1865–1916), and René Guénon (1886–1951). This tradition was rooted in Catholicism and promoted the idea of an original, universal tradition. Lévi wrote several treatises on magick that influenced the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and solidified the place of Tarot cards in magick paraphernalia.
The modern esoteric understanding of magick was developed in the late 19th century. Paschal Beverly Randolph (1825–1875) advocated for what would later be called sex magick, as well as the use of psychoactive drugs for magickal purposes. Three Freemasons, William Robert Woodman (1828–1891), William Wynn Westcott (1848–1925), and Samuel Liddell Mathers (1854–1918), founded the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in 1887. Golden Dawn was based on Kabbalah and practiced various forms of occultism and magick. Though it only lasted until 1903 and had perhaps a hundred members, it had strong influence over the practices and beliefs of later magickal orders. Many of its teachings and procedures were utilized by Aleister Crowley (1875–1947), the founder of Thelema who founded A∴A∴ and became a prominent member of Ordo Templi Orientis. He introduced much of the terminology that practitioners of magick still use, including the archaic terminal-k spelling, meant to differentiate “the true science of the Magi from all its counterfeits.” He also renamed theurgy as “high magick” and thaumaturgy as “low magick”. These ideas became increasingly popular in the 20th century, despite suppression under Nazi rule. Even there, the Fraternitas Saturni survived despite being prohibited in 1936.
In postwar Britain, Gerald Gardner drew upon Rosicrucianism, druidism, and Golden Dawn teachings to develop the religion now known as Wicca. Wicca influenced the revival of old Celtic practices, as well as oppositional movements that claim older traditional roots. In the 1960s and 70s, the counter-culture movement became associated with various forms of esotericism. This became known as the New Age movement by the 1980s. Less commercialized forms of the time include the techno-shamanism of Terence McKenna (1946–2000), the Satanism of Anton LaVey (1930–1997), and the chaos magick of the Illuminates of Thanateros.[57,58,59]
Sovereign as Magician
Now that we have explored the relevant historical developments of capital punishment and magickal practices, we can compare and contrast the actions of the sovereign with the actions of the magician in order to explain why witches were persecuted throughout history and why modern capital punishment is less effective than pre-modern forms.
First, let us understand the persecution of magicians. The state is a group of people who exercise a monopoly on force within a geographical area. Before modern times, this was understood not only in a physical, material sense, but also in a spiritual, immaterial sense. The head of state was traditionally responsible not only for his people’s secular defense and prosperity, but also for their religious protection and salvation. A sorcerer who could (or was believed to be able to) work magick against other people posed a direct challenge to the power of the sovereign. Such power could both threaten the sovereign’s health and provide an alternative source of authority that could fuel a secessionist movement, support an antiking, or set up the magician himself as an antiking and/or antipope. This challenge could not go unanswered, and there were only two possible answers. The challenger could be subjugated to the sovereign’s service as an official priest or court magician. Failing this, the magician had to be eliminated through exile or execution.
As previously noted, there is a continuity between magick and religion, and it is in the institution of the sovereign that this bridge exists. This is a major reason why pre-modern societies had no separation of church and state; to separate the two would deprive the sovereign of an important aspect of his purpose. Furthermore, without this continuity, magick loses the low time preference, professional expertise, and eucivic focus provided by religion.
With the sovereign’s monopoly on force secure, let us proceed to its use relative to the prescriptions of Crowley for ceremonial magick in Thelema. The first element is the magick circle, which Crowley describes thus:
“…a Circle is drawn upon the floor for the limitation of [the Magician’s] working. This circle is protected by divine names, the influences on which he relies to keep out hostile thoughts.”
Likewise, when a civilization is founded, statesmen have a city wall, national border, or other analogous structure erected to define the limits of their working. The sovereign cannot settle for divine names to defend his walls, however; he must have guardsmen upon whom he relies to keep out hostile people. Crowley continues:
“…The Circle announces the Nature of the Great Work.”
A border wall announces that a sovereign has claimed the territory inside of it, and while it may not precisely announce the nature of his work, an outsider approaching it will get a general sense that a great work of some kind took place to build the wall and is now taking place inside.
“Though the Magician has been limited in his choice of room, he is more or less able to choose what part of the room he will work in. He will consider convenience and possibility. His circle should not be too small and cramp his movements; it should not be so large that he has long distances to traverse. Once the circle is made and consecrated, the Magician must not leave it, or even lean outside, lest he be destroyed by the hostile forces that are without.”
The statesman cannot operate just anywhere; he is limited by his resources, the strength of supply lines, the presence of trade routes, the terrain, and the locations of hostile forces. But he does have choices within these constraints as to where he will set his borders. In other words, he may choose what part of the region he will work in and will consider convenience and possibility. If he sets his borders too small, he will be cramped. If he sets them too large, he will have logistical problems. The difference is that a competent statesman can lean outside or even leave for a time if he has established proper structures of authority beneath him with loyal underlings managing affairs in his absence. Even so, the border wall “affirms the limitation implied by his devotion” and “he no longer wanders about aimlessly in the world.”
The second element is the altar, “the foundation of all”. Crowley says of it,
“The Altar represents the solid basis of the work, the fixed Will of the Magician; and the law under which he works. Within this altar everything is kept, since everything is subject to law. Except the lamp.
…For this Altar must embody the Magician’s knowledge of the laws of Nature, which are the laws through which he works.”
The great work of the statesman is civilization itself; if he is a virtuous statesman, then to create and sustain civilization is his fixed will. As such, like the magician, he must know the laws of nature, for as Francis Bacon noted, “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” Everything is kept within civilization, except that whatever gods are worshiped by that civilization are considered to be above it, symbolized by Crowley with the lamp. Taken together, this makes sense of the famous quote by Joseph de Maistre, “Wherever an altar is found, there civilization exists.”
The symbolism of the scourge, dagger, chain, holy oil, wand, cup, pantacle, bell, and lamen may help the sovereign gain self-knowledge, but they do not explain his work. Let us turn next to the sword and the crown. Of the sword, Crowley writes:
“…It is only in the lower forms of Magick, the purely human forms, that the Sword has become so important a weapon. A dagger should be sufficient.
The Sword, necessary as it is to the Beginner, is but a crude weapon. Its function is to keep off the enemy or to force a passage through them — and though it must be wielded to gain admission to the palace, it cannot be worn at the marriage feast.
The Sword, too, is that weapon with which one strikes terror into the demons and dominates them.
…If the Sword is raised towards the Crown, it is no longer really a sword. The Crown cannot be divided.
…The Magician cannot wield the Sword unless the Crown is on his head.
Those Magicians, who have attempted to make the Sword the sole or even the principal weapon, have only destroyed themselves, not by the destruction of combination, but by the destruction of division.”
The word ‘magick’ must be understood in Crowley’s terms; it is “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will”, “the Science of understanding oneself and one’s conditions”, and “the Art of applying that understanding in action”. As such, “Every intentional act is a Magickal act”. By “the lower forms of Magick”, Crowley means the mundane, secular acts that fit his definition but would not be considered magickal by the average person, such as an emperor gaining territory by the sword. In the occult practices Crowley calls ‘high magick’, one does not need a sword of the size that one might use on the battlefield. Just as the magician uses the sword to “strike terror into the demons and dominate them” and “to keep off the enemy or force a passage through them”, the sovereign uses the sword for a similar purpose as he governs in the material realm.
Next, he considers the relationship of force and power. For a magician to raise his sword toward his crown sets his own force against himself and contradicts his nature. Likewise, a sovereign should not stand in his own way, and raising the sword against the crown is a treasonous assault upon civilization so long as the ruler is just. For the magician to wield the sword without wearing his crown is also improper, as it symbolizes the exercise of power either outside of official capacity or by the unworthy. So too should those who lack sovereignty in the material world not act as though they have it, but rather strive to become worthy before accepting power and ruling. Finally, Crowley cautions that violence is not the answer to every problem; a ruler who tries to “make the Sword the sole or even the principal weapon” will only destroy himself and his civilizational project through division. The sword is, after all, “a crude weapon”. Crowley says little of the Crown itself that is useful here; only that “The Crown of the Magician represents the Attainment of his Work.” Likewise, the crown of the sovereign represents the attainment of a civilization that he is charged with maintaining as his work. Just as the magician is a spiritual king, a sovereign is a material king.
The clothing of the magician, the robe, also has parallels with the sovereign. Crowley writes:
“The Robe of the Magician may be varied according to his grade and the nature of his working.
…The Robe is that which conceals, and which protects the Magician from the elements; it is the silence and secrecy with which he works, the hiding of himself in the occult life of Magick and Meditation. This is the “going away into the wilderness” which we find in the lives of all men of the highest types of greatness. And it is also the withdrawing of one’s self from life as such.”
He who would rule in the material world must dress the part in order to be taken seriously. A sovereign’s formal dress will also vary depending on the size of his kingdom, the resources therein, the traditions of his people, and the nature of his rule. While a sovereign need not hide himself, he does require intense study of subjects relevant to his role. Both his study and his work will withdraw him from ordinary life to some extent.
The magician’s grimoire is next for consideration. Crowley says of this book:
“The Book of Spells or of Conjurations is the Record of every thought, word, and deed of the Magician; for everything that he has willed is willed to a purpose. It is the same as if he had taken an oath to perform some achievement.”
This book is analogous to the court records and legal codes of a sovereign. The sovereign’s conjurations and spells are his laws, and if he rules properly, all of his laws will serve a purpose. His oath is taken to his people to perform the achievement of maintaining a stable social order. Crowley continues:
“…Let him then be careful to write nothing therein that is inharmonious or untrue. Nor can he avoid this writing, for this is a Magick Book. If you abandon even for an hour the one purpose of your life, you will find a number of meaningless scratches and scrawls on the white vellum; and these cannot be erased. In such a case, when you come to conjure a demon by the power of the Book, he will mock you; he will point to all this foolish writing, more like his own than yours. In vain will you continue with the subsequent spells; you have broken by your own foolishness the chain which would have bound him.”
A sovereign cannot perform his function without enacting and enforcing laws, and he should be careful that his laws do not stand athwart nature and truth. Discipline in legislation is essential, for even a momentary lapse of judgment by the sovereign may cause irreparable harm to a civilization. Though only a degenerate sovereign would dare to conjure a demon, he must still deal with their material equivalents in the form of domestic criminals, usurpers, and foreign invaders. Just as a demon may mock a errant magician, the criminal element of a society will mock a foolish ruler. Indeed, a sovereign’s foolishness invites crime and rebellion where none would exist otherwise.
Crowley then contemplates the long view:
“…And yet there is no page of this Book on which [the word “failure”] is not written; but so long as it is immediately followed by a new affirmation, all is not lost; and as in this Book the word “failure” is thus made of little account, so also must the word “success” never be employed, for its is the last word that may be written therein, and it is followed by a full stop.
This full stop may never be written anywhere else; for the writing of the Book goes on eternally; there is no way of closing the record until the goal of all has been attained.”
Civilization is not a thing, but a process by which humanity’s baser instincts are partly suppressed and partly channeled toward productive endeavors. No sovereign is perfect; it is guaranteed that some of his policies will fail. When this happens, it is important to correct one’s mistakes and move on with “a new affirmation”. Though perfection is unattainable, improvement is ongoing; while a sovereign is never perfectly successful, each may be better than the last if all follow the proper procedures. Through such successive iterations, case law and common law theoretically improve over time. It is important to note here that while reactionaries oppose progressives, they do not oppose progress in this sense.
The final symbolic object Crowley speaks of is the thurible:
“Into the Magick Fire all things are cast. It symbolizes the final burning up of all things… It is the absolute destruction alike of the Magician and the Universe.
…This fire is blown upon by the Magician; this blaze of destruction has been kindled by his word and by his will.”
Every person eventually dies, every society eventually collapses, and if modern cosmology is correct, even the Universe itself will not last forever. Indeed, every action contributes to the ultimate heat death of the Universe. But with the right actions, at least the former two can be forestalled, and pushing the date of societal collapse well beyond his tenure is the duty of the sovereign.
Capital Punishment as Ritual Magick
At long last, we have established the context for considering the practice of capital punishment in terms of ritual magick. The closest magickal equivalent of a judicial execution is the banishing ritual. Crowley says of these:
“That first task of the Magician in every ceremony is therefore to render his Circle absolutely impregnable.”
Magicians perform banishing rituals of varying complexity and purpose in order to purify a room or magick circle before performing more elaborate ceremonies. The idea is to remove from the magickal workspace all elements that might interfere with the magician’s work so that the area may be consecrated to a purpose and only the relevant elements for an operation may be invoked. For example, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn used the Lesser and Greater Banishing Rituals of the Pentagram and Hexagram. Crowley innovated the Star Ruby and Star Sapphire from the Pentagram and Hexagram rituals, respectively. Banishings may also be done as standalone practices.
It is the task of the sovereign to do the same with his civilization. A stable social order cannot exist if criminal and invasive elements are allowed to run amok. Thus, it is necessary to banish them. Like the magician, the sovereign also has lesser and greater banishing rituals available for dealing with various types of undesirables. For a lesser banishing, he may exile them temporarily. Permanently exiling a criminal and declaring him to be an outlaw is a more severe form of this. Capital punishment is the greater banishing ritual against the criminal. The death penalty may be carried out humanely or brutally, privately or publicly, by agents of the sovereign or by private citizens. Whatever the precise form, the goal is the same: remove from the physical workspace all elements that interfere with the sovereign’s work so that the geographical area occupied by the nation may be consecrated to the purpose of creating and maintaining civilization.
In considering capital punishment, it is necessary to avoid the dilemma of abolition versus the sanitized, delayed, and shuttered executions of today. Brutal, humiliating executions in full view of the community, such as being hanged, drawn, and quartered, provide a deterrence against the worst crimes that lethal injections behind prison walls simply cannot. The end result of making such an example, if done properly, is that cruel punishments will only be necessary on rare occasions. Having such options available also provides the sovereign the ability to offer plea deals that still result in capital punishment instead of costing the crown the expense of keeping someone as a prisoner for life.
It is also important to consider the advantages of community participation, in which many people strike blows against the condemned until death occurs. Lapidation (stoning) is the best known method, though other methods such as lingchi (slow slicing) have been used. The obvious benefit is that no individual can have the feelings of guilt associated with being sure of striking the deathblow, an advantage preserved in more modern firing squad executions. But there are other benefits as well, such as the bonding experience for the community as it puts evil away from itself, the identification of the community with the sovereign as administrators of justice, and the ability for aggrieved family members to gain retribution. Though these events may serve as a spectacle for plebeians, the point is neither to provide grotesque entertainment nor to stimulate blood-lust. Measures should be taken to ensure that this does not happen, such as only letting surviving family and friends of a murder victim stone the murderer, removing spectators who do not show proper discipline for the proceedings, and suppressing any societal currents that would bring about moral panics such as the witch hunts discussed earlier.
It will not do to leave unexplored the aspect of sacrifice. From a certain point of view, capital punishment is a human sacrifice of those who have committed some offense that merits loss of personhood. This sacrifice of humans not fit for civilization is a potent example of what Georges Bataille called the principle of loss: that the greater the material sacrifice, the greater the immaterial gain. He believed that this was necessary for “the production of sacred things”. To make sacred is to consecrate, which plays an important part in the practice of magick. Following a banishing ritual, in which unwanted influences are removed, a magician may consecrate a space as holy or dedicate an object to a particular work or goal. As Crowley writes,
“Consecration is the active dedication of a thing to a single purpose. Banishing prevents its use for any other purpose, but it remains inert until consecrated.”
The negative of banishing and the positive of consecration work harmoniously to establish and maintain the magician’s purpose, and so it is for the sovereign’s purpose of creating and maintaining a social order within his borders, the place made sacred.
What Modernists Get Wrong
To conclude, let us consider the mistakes of modernists as they consider the issue of capital punishment. The modernist tends to be more concerned with effects on the individual who dies than the collective that survives. While this does have a role in making sure that necessary precautions are in place to prevent the execution of people who are not guilty of capital crimes, it should not be overemphasized, nor should it lead to minimization of the societal effects discussed above. Unfortunately, this is par for the course for the modernist mind, if not bogey.
The modernist obsession with materialism and economic utility leads them to focus on the potential of rehabilitating criminals into productive members of society, even when no such potential exists. The notion of sacrificing criminals for the production of immaterial gains that sustain civilization completely escapes them; they interpret this only as a simple waste of human resources. Furthermore, while modern sociologists are fond of pointing out that any standards that define an in-group also define an out-group, they view this as a negative. That discrimination and exclusion are necessary in order to have standards and maintain social cohesion is lost to the modernist.
Modernity wishes to push unpleasantness out of sight and out of mind. They have forgotten the wisdom in choosing function over form, in dealing with ugliness and brutality for the building of character. Like a child covering her eyes and believing that her inability to see other people keeps them from seeing her, the modernist has a vain hope that the worst aspects of life can be made to disappear if they can be put behind the walls of one building or another. This is quite interesting given that modernists not only disbelieve in magick but ridicule the very concept, even as they attempt to practice a crude form of it in pursuit of their misguided will. It is thus no surprise that they cast spells incorrectly, when they even bother to do so at all.
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