Pagan Studies

Focusing on the Arte Magical as a practice and profession, we study various facets of magic through the lens of both classical and modern perspective. From ancient myth to urban legend to fiction and philosophy, all viewed through the eyes of a very practical magician.

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Cast the Circle in the Customary Manner

So, about a year ago I was having a conversation with my friend Christopher and a host of others, and we were talking about something very interesting he had heard about.

It's called "the wizard's game."  It's a sort of trick old Pagans and occultists play on each other.  I may have mentioned it in my previous blog posts, but here's a simple recap: a new person enters into a conversation on a subject she or he are very new to and enthusiastic about.  However, this person, we'll refer to the person as "he" for the rest of this analogy, is a bit of a showoff or a know-it-all, or is perhaps espousing some sort of shallow theory as fact.

In any case, they enter the conversation all full of verve and self-righteous "knowledge," which is nearly always designed to irritate people of all kinds, be they "in the know" or not.

It should tell us a lot about the kind of personality predominant in the pagan community of the 70's through the 90's, when we realize that rather than call out the upstart on his nonsense, various people would instead play the wizard's game with him.

It goes a little like this:

Upstart: "Oh, you can tell a LOT about someone by their moon sign.  I don't actually know why everyone is so interested in sun signs anymore, when clearly the placement of their moon tells so much about who they are."

*other astrologically savvy members of the conversation give each other subtly amused glances, then one of them turns to him*

Old Pagan: Oh, I know exactly what you mean!  And then there's the whole tradition of summoning the guardian spirits of the Lunar Manses (capital letters are audible) which involves your own moon sign and summoning the Angel of the Moon.  But of course you know all about that...

*after equally audible ellipse, Old Pagan's head turns to the left and she gazes off*

It is at this point, that the Upstart will have to do one of two things- either admit that they don't know what has just been referenced, at which point the others will "clue them in" or intimate that the new person is being teased, or perhaps if the person was particularly annoying, they will use that "ignorance" as a means of rubbing the newbie's nose in their own lack of experience.

Or, the Upstart will dig a deeper hole, saying "Well yes, of course I do."  At which point, everyone will be able to call out his priggish nonsense by asking him to explain it.

Usually, the "secret knowledge" being espoused is some piece of nonsense the Old Pagan has created, so of course, nobody actually knows anything about it.

Now, as I said- this should tell us a lot about the mindset of the community back then.  Many people were far more likely to make jokes or examples of those who waded into the realm of the occult with an attitude of entitlement and arrogance.  There is also a very strong emphasis of subtlety in this sort of thing- a desire to make a statement without saying anything directly.

When I first heard Christopher speak about the wizard's game, I was skeptical as to whether there was anything quite that organized having been practiced.  It made sense that perhaps a small group of people might have done this, but I just couldn't give any credulity to the idea that there was an organized effort to "troll teh n00bz" in the pagan community.

And then... I stopped and thought about some of the grimoires written in 1600's and such.

These old books were riddled with arcane alchemical formulae such as "marry the Green Eagle to the Red Lion while the Moon transfixes the Serpent upon the Pole of Ages."  A more trite example might be the title of this article, "Cast the circle in the customary manner," an instruction often found in old demonology and spirit-summoning books.

The idea was, these books required you to know something you probably didn't.  If you expected the book to be a "summoning Valefor for dummies" book, you would end up getting your head eaten by what you had conjured.  Or, more discouragingly common, little would happen and you would lose your enthusiasm for tampering with "forces beyond your ken."

In other words, the realm of the occult is an insular club for a select few.

For years, this used to drive me crazy.  I had been banging my head against a wall for nearly a decade before things finally started to make sense to me.  Book after book, teacher after teacher, I was voracious and impatient.  I saw no reason why I shouldn't have the knowledge I needed to get where I was going.  After all, I thought, most people in the middle ages died by the age of 35 at the latest- being in one's 40's meant one was a very old person.  They wouldn't have had to wait until they were 20 to learn this stuff.

And then one day, I drew a series of runes in the air, spoke a spell, and a plastic bag lifted off the ground and hovered by my hand.  It was the only time that spell ever worked, and it completely astonished me.  I had absolutely no idea what I had specifically done, and I had no idea how to replicate it.

I told my Old Pagan friends about it, and I noticed a curious thing-

They didn't seem to have any idea what had happened either.

That was when I realized that all that "in crowd" nonsense I was running into wasn't actually a secret circle of competent magicians.

It was a group of seasoned members of the community who had experienced weird shit just like that.  Some of them understood certain things, but nobody had the whole picture. And there was no way for them to tell me that, because many of them wanted to believe that somewhere out there, someone did 'get it.'  All of it.

A day not too long ago, I turned around and realized I was one of those people.  I realized that yes, I knew how to cast spells.  I knew how to summon money.  I knew how to bind spirits.  I knew how to bring luck and change the weather.

I knew all sorts of things, really.

And I didn't know any more than anyone else.

But one thing I did know was how to cast the circle in the freaking customary manner.  And that was simply a matter of persistence, time, and a combination of study and effort.

Nowadays, I realize why we don't tell everyone what the customary manner is. There are actually several reasons.

Perhaps, we don't know if the customary manner talked about in the book is the method we use.  If it isn't, then perhaps there's something special needed that we don't know about.

Perhaps we think you should come up with your own method, because that's probably what is needed.

Or, perhaps we don't wish to share our information with you, because we don't especially like you.

Or perhaps we're just feeling the "I don't wannas" today.

But in the end?  We don't say because we don't have to- we don't owe our secrets to anyone, and if you're persistent enough, you'll learn exactly what we know anyway, only in your own way and in your own time.

So we literally don't have to.  You'll get there.

I'm curious about your experiences with this kind of thing.  Anyone discover anything like this in a book when you were younger?  Or perhaps a passage that was deliberately falsified or altered?  Maybe an exclusive "need to know" attitude from people in your community?

And please, if you'd like to share- what's a "customary manner" you've learned?

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S. Rune Emerson has been practicing witchcraft and sorcery since the early 90's, and has been teaching since 2004. He is the founder of the Risting Tradition of American Witchcraft, which is a large title for a small local tradition based in Northern Nevada. He also heads a coven tradition called the Cabal of Nocturne, and works as a diviner at Pathways Spirit, a metaphysical shop in Reno. He likes to describe his life as "extraordinarily simple." He is fond of observing that magic as a profession is the somewhat honest alternative to those of the same mindset as criminals- smart, lazy, and prone towards thinking outside the box, often in areas of questionable morality. He believes in a strong standard of accountability in magical practice, and has very strict ethics. He's also very opinionated about nearly everything.


  • Rev. Frank Cordeiro
    Rev. Frank Cordeiro Tuesday, 06 August 2013

    I see the "customary manner" as the method used by that Tradition. If you are not part of that Tradition then you would not know the customary manner. In my Trad. after passing Novice stage the literature will just say "cast a Circle" or "cast a simple circle". Everyone in the Tradition will know what that is so there is no sense in explaining it each time.
    From my collection of Grimoires, I would guess that there were secret groups that developed their own methods and as people learned the rites the author of the texts would assume the reader knew the basics and just put down the parts they considered important.

  • S. Rune Emerson
    S. Rune Emerson Wednesday, 07 August 2013

    *nods* That is the conclusion I came to as well. I cannot be sure it is true, of course, but it's the most likely thing I can think of. :)

  • Henry Buchy
    Henry Buchy Wednesday, 07 August 2013

    I was taught in 'the customary manner'. it's also how I teach, which is the 'wizard's game'. It involves all the tricks you mention plus some, however there is a benevolent motive. You brushed with that motive with:
    "But in the end? We don't say because we don't have to- we don't owe our secrets to anyone, and if you're persistent enough, you'll learn exactly what we know anyway, only in your own way and in your own time.
    So we literally don't have to. You'll get there."
    It also has to do with the dreaded "u" in 'upg', heh, and transforming 'information'(which is what 'upg' is really, 'unverified information') into knowledge. Yeah, there's all sorts of blinds ,misdirections, riddles, and relative truths.

  • S. Rune Emerson
    S. Rune Emerson Thursday, 08 August 2013

    *nodding* That was the message I took away from the "wizard's game" too- that the magicians of the old school were benignly inclined towards mischief used to teach, rather than simply shutting someone down or shutting them out.

    I'm fond of that method myself.

  • Sophie Gale
    Sophie Gale Thursday, 08 August 2013

    You would like "Re-Thinking the Watchtowers or 13 Reasons Air Should Be In The North" by Mike Nichols.

  • S. Rune Emerson
    S. Rune Emerson Thursday, 08 August 2013

    *nods* I've read it, actually. I do like it, although I don't personally practice elemental magic in this manner. :) It's a well-written look at how "tradition" becomes conflated with "rightness" even if it's not the only right way to do something.

  • BethZamiEl Closas
    BethZamiEl Closas Friday, 09 August 2013

    Indeed we find our way in our own time, you guys are very lucky since you have all the literature and teachers you can find. At least you have an idea on what to do and when to do it, and that would be a great help in your craft.:)For us here on the other side of the world, we are really are trying to find a needle in a haystack in the dark, but indeed you are right..when the time is there for you to find what you are looking for, you will find it in your own way. (I live in the Philippines by the way) Blessed be to all

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