As I have mentioned elsewhere, I think this is a bit unfair because it relies on a “few bad apples” analysis.
In a post-digital world we are all spiritual trespassers to some extent.
It was only a couple of generations ago that merely opening a magical book and accidentally reading some of it was believed to run the risk of unleashing demons.
Now I have (mostly) instant access the majority of history’s most notorious occult books on my phone.
It is interesting to me that we can have broad agreement on magical tenets like elemental directions and the need for energy body work but very little in the way of guidelines when it comes to moving between traditions.
And I don’t care what you say. Every tradition, just like every language, is a crazy, mashed-up, Benetton mutant. You will all have been in the situation where you’ve been working on something and suddenly realised you have gone too far… Strayed someplace where you are less than welcome… In my experience, this happens most often with Voodoo and tattwas for some reason.
The sensation is unmistakable. If you have ever been scuba diving (especially night diving) and wandered away from the group beyond visibility range in the direction of a reef called “shark cafe” you’ll know what I’m talking about: You recognise you are in the wrong place and it’s very much in your best interest to return with some speed.
Given that my academic background is in cultural studies and given that I work in the most hybrid of western traditions I thought I might share with you how I approach spiritual trespassing.
Beginning with an anecdote.
The town I grew up in got its first ‘proper’ witchcraft store in the mid-nineties when I was about fifteen.
It sold the usual muggle crap like oil burners and ceramic bongs shaped like wizards that always got too hot to hold when you were using them (or so I’ve heard).
But behind the counter was a truly enormous wall of herbs in jars like in a Chinese medicine store. Thinking back on it now the proprietor had probably bought the whole lot from some other mind/body/spirit store that had gone out of business (which is always a very good clue that your business plan may be carrying too much risk).
This was the first time I had even seen High John root -let alone been able to purchase some. (It’s not exactly native to regional Australia.) It was absolute bliss. So I was in there all the time buying up ingredients in order to finally have a crack at all these spells I’d be reading about.
If you have lived your whole life in North America or Britain you will have no idea how frustrating it is to get all these great books and realise none of the ingredients are available and all the festivals are for the exact opposite time of the year. (If you want to know where my stringent opposition to fancy ingredients and rules comes from… It’s probably my magical childhood on the other side of the world.)
Anyway, I’m in there one time and the owner, a truly enormous woman, had dressed herself head to toe in white with some kind of homemade white tea towel thing on her head. She looked like a circus tent that had collapsed onto a stack of elephants.
This woman had decided that after all these years, whilst practicing what she thought was witchcraft, it turns out she was actually practicing Voodoo.
And she wanted me to call her mambo.
“A mambo? Really? Is that a fucking fact? That’s a bit of a promotion, isn’t it? And what exactly are we basing this on?”
So I stopped shopping there.
She went out of business some months later. Not that I am saying these two facts are causally related. (Although, my mother and I were absolutely her best customers.) It’s more like; if you want to run your own business, try not to be completely insane.
Learning to draw the line
I didn’t stop shopping at this woman’s store because of the Voodoo thing. I was big into my Voodoo at the time. (Well, Hoodoo combined with a voracious appetite for Voodoo history.) Still am, I suppose.
I stopped because there is a very definite boundary line in spiritual traditions and this woman crossed it: Walking into a Catholic Church doesn’t make you the Pope.
The proprietor had absolutely no right to call herself a ‘mambo’. That I was certain of. But did that mean I also had no right to respectfully play about with some very simple Afro-Caribbean low magic and charms?
I didn’t think so. But I couldn’t quite explain why.
Lines had to be drawn. I just wasn’t sure where.
Learning to walk the line
My uncertainty continued until university where I studied cross cultural film making, indigenous writing and all manner of topics that sat at the intersection between Anglo-academia and traditional cultures.
What I learnt was, essentially, non-engagement isn’t an option. You can’t just put cultural studies in the “too hard” basket for fear of being racist or insensitive. That’s ultimately more damaging because valid worldviews and modes of thought would be sidelined and forgotten.
What you needed were guidelines. Rules of engagement.
And so it must be for magic, also.
When I shot my underwater documentary in Micronesia I became aware that there were places I was allowed to go and places that I was not allowed to go without the permission of the Nanmwarki (chief).
The places I was allowed to go without permission were those places any lay person could go. Anything beyond that required a title or the permission of someone with a title. I was fine with all this because it’s a very familiar concept to us magical folk.
I was getting closer.
The golden rule of spiritual trespassing
Now, it would be hard to find a tradition in the world I knew less about than the indigenous folk practices of the tribes around Lake Titicaca. (Not ‘curing cancer’ hard, but you know what I mean.)
And yet I have no problem housing and feeding Ekeko.
Because Ekeko statues are even given as gifts. They represent a very simple form of magic that absolutely anyone within that culture has access to.
Here then, is the golden rule I had been looking for:
Do not go further into a magical practice than a layman from within that culture is allowed to go without invitation or initiation.
If non-engagement isn’t an option, if cross-cultural magical practices are unavoidable in our global society, then this seems to be the best way to manage it.
Each culture has its own boundaries between what is initiatory and what is not. Culture belongs to the world. Initiation belongs to initiates.
By abiding by this rule you can almost guarantee never to wander into cosmic areas you aren’t allowed to enter. Note that this doesn’t mean you can’t become an initiate in a system to which you are non-indigenous. Actually, it means the exact opposite: You wait respectfully on the outside until you are “called”… Just like a local.
Also, I probably don’t need to tell my brilliant readers this but by “invitation” I don’t just mean a physical invitation to join a group of humans. Spirits will pick who they pick.
Think of it like being a guest -but not in someone’s house- in someone’s entire culture. Be respectful, don’t try to claim the deed for the place and don’t sleep in the master bedroom.
Why is this an “expert’s” guide to spiritual trespassing?
Well, because I am being ironic.
You can’t be an expert in a field that prevents expertise by its very definition.
Besides, I’ll be the first to admit I’m not an expert in any of the things that I love. (Which are wine and magic.)
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is exactly my point.