Black magic, transformation, and power

Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare

Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, alternate version, circa 1790

This is part three of my series on the emotional dynamics of dark culture.

It explains how “black magic” can be useful in the real (non-magical) world, how it can be dangerous, and its role in Buddhism.

Black magic, monstrosity, and transformation

Francis Bacon, Screaming Pope

Francis Bacon, from the Screaming Pope series, 1953

Black magic can be liberating if you have been brought up in an excessively narrow moral code, and have internalized it: bought into it. According to a rigid morality, everything is black and white, and there is no freedom. This is the logic of eternalism: if there is single source of meaning in the world, you had better do what it says.

Fundamentalist religion does this, and black magicians often grew up in repressive Christian households. But black magic might also be a way to escape childhood indoctrination with political correctness. That is also a fundamentalist ideology, although not quite religious.

Brought up in fundamentalism, part of you becomes an internal tyrant, who punishes any deviation from the code. The tyrant views the part of you that resists as a monster. This internal war may be intensely painful and destructive.

The best way to bring peace is gradually, “eating the shadow” bite by bite. In “We are all monsters,” I described this as the strategy of incorporation: recognizing the monster and the tyrant both as aspects of yourself. In fact, they are not “parts” at all; they are ways of being, that you can enter into or drop at will.

If the tyrant is exceptionally brutal, the gradual approach might be impossible. The only way forward may be violent revolution. You identify with the monster, and murder the tyrant. I called this the strategy of inversion.

Francisco Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son

Francisco Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son, circa 1820

Inversion turns the moral code upside-down. As Satan cries in Paradise Lost, “Evil, be thou my good!” The vicious tyrant, who claims to represent goodness, is recast as the villain; so whatever the tyrant advocates must be evil, and vice versa.

Since no real-world moral code is wrong about everything—or even most things—this is crazy and dangerous. It would be very bad if you acted on a totally-inverted moral code, and went about torturing people to death. Fortunately, almost everyone is restrained by an innate ethical sense, and such extreme behavior is nearly nonexistent.1 Inverting the moral code is mostly a conceptual fantasy. Doing lesser harm is possible, though.

Piranesi, Prison

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Prison, mid–1700s

Inversion is, at best, a stepping-stone on the way to a more sophisticated ethical approach. Forcefully rejecting your ethical indoctrination may blow a hole in the prison wall, creating an opening toward something better. The difficulty is that the better alternatives may be hard to see. A responsive ethical stance looks like unrestricted license to the moral tyrant, and like preachy prudery to the monster.

Black magic and power

The fantasy of black magic is that it can give you power over others: power to harm, or to compel.

Luckily, black magic “doesn’t work,” in the sense that you cannot harm someone by sticking needles in an effigy while chanting the names of demons, or force them to have sex with you by magical means.

It does work in the sense that such rituals can change your psychology. If you persist with such intentions, you will make yourself increasingly creepy, devious, hateful, and unpleasant.

Alternatively, It can “work” as a means of reclaiming your inherent power, freedom, and intelligence. Because it “doesn’t work,” it can be a safe way of experimenting with breaking pointless social taboos. You can burn candles, invoke demons, and wave swords around all night, and nothing actually bad will happen—but if that is anathema to your childhood religion, such harmless theater can forcefully deprogram the compulsion to be a “good boy” or “good girl.”

Breaking free from ethical totalitarianism allows you

  • the power of self-knowledge: what you do and do not want
  • the power of moral clarity: what you do and do not owe to others
  • the power of independent thought: reasoning about how things are, setting aside concepts of how they should be
  • the power of creative manifestation: through vision, hard work, and charm.

Getting stuck on black magic

The positive transformation that black magic can sometimes produce should take at most a few years.

People who practice black magic seriously for longer generally become increasingly pathetic, weak, narrow, unpleasant, and miserable. (Uncle Andrew in C. S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew is an insightful portrait of this type. I expect Lewis encountered tiresome occultists, of perhaps the Thelemic persuasion, around Oxford.)

These are usually men, and they are usually pursuing kinds of power—sexual control of women and domination of other men—that are not actually available through black magic. Most people figure that out pretty quickly.

Continuing to pursue bad ends by inadequate means does not end well. You end up in a bitter hell-realm of your own making—a malevolent fantasy that impotently defies reality.

Black magic and Buddhist Tantra

Dorje Rahula

Dorje Rahula, enlightened snake-demon (Dharmapala)

The Vetali’s Gift is set in the early days of Mahayoga, a branch of Buddhist Tantra that’s partly based on black magic. Mahayoga texts include grimoires of lethal spells, demonic invocations, and systematic moral inversion. Creepy bits in my novel—details of necromancy and horror—draw on Mahayoga imagery and lore.

It’s difficult to reconcile these dark practices with mainstream Buddhism. Often, Buddhist leaders have tried to eliminate them. They have been kept secret, and secured by institutional safeguards. Even today, ngakpas who specialize in Mahayoga are respected, but sometimes feared too. There is always the possibility that they could go Sith.

Still, Buddhist black magic persists. Partly, that is because Tibetans believe you actually can raise corpses, summon demons, and kill people with magic. Partly, it is because black magic is a powerful tool for positive personal and social transformation. Either way, it is too useful to abandon.

Tantra holds that nothing in the world is so degraded that it cannot be part of your religious practice. Everything can be transformed, making it elegant and useful.

Dorje Phurba: AroTer form

Dorje Phurba: Aro gTér form, thangka circa 2000

In wrathful yidam practice, for example, you turn yourself into a horrifying demonic god, who is also a Buddha of compassion. As that deity, you transform your own greed, hate, lust, paranoia, and willful idiocy into wisdom. This process is close to moral inversion, because you honor, not reject, the darkness. Unflinchingly experiencing negativity, and mixing it with spaciousness, turns it into enlightenment.

The Vetali’s Gift is my way of dealing with my horror in discovering, after years of practicing Tantric Buddhism, that my religion is based on such nasty stuff. In the initial shock, I was tempted to abandon Buddhism altogether.

Dark culture—including vampire novels—transforms negative emotions into art. That is one aim of the The Vetali’s Gift.

  • 1. There are people who lack the innate ethical sense: psychopaths. Despite popular mythology, few if any black magicians are psychopaths. Psychopaths don’t internalize an ethical code in the first place, so they don’t need to invert; and they mostly try to appear as normal as possible. The black magicians I have known have often been confused, unhappy, and unpleasant, but no less ethical on average than Buddhists. (Admittedly, that’s not saying much.)