Modern western magic is a refusal to accept the position of post- modernism that each culture is unique and owes nothing to other cultures, even when similar ideas, symbols, and rituals are involved. As a magical operator in the modern world, one has to embrace a kind of neo- universalism in which one recognizes the existence of a symbol structure representing an underlying reality behind all observed phenomena. The expert manipulation of these symbols results in changes in phenomena. The magician is thus sensitive to the power and nature of symbols— including symbolic action, symbolic sounds, smells, etc.—and can draw inferences across diverse cultures and times. Just as human biology is the same whether one is a native Tibetan or African or European, etc.; and even though there may be many superficial differences and variations in language, food, and so forth; the symbol systems of different cultures may reveal superficial differences as a result of geography, history, and even religion, but the states of consciousness represented by these symbols are identical or nearly so. There would be no syncretic religions if this were not the case, for if each religion was sui generis it would be impossible to incorporate alien gods, rites, and beliefs. Of course, this is not the case with religious dogma which fundamentally resists attempts at syncretism; but it is the case with religious praxis, which is the only form of religion that interests the magician. As noted previously, the magician is not a member of the congregation of any religion: the magician is a priest and an independent spiritual specialist whose interest solely resides in effective methods (rituals) and convenient modes of analysis (symbol systems). Thus the emphasis on cults versus religions, for a cult is a laboratory of ritual and dangerous practice. It may be a matter of opinion as to whether the ritual came before the dogma or vice versa; but it has been demonstrated in the case of religions as disparate as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and Scientology that their origins are to be found in magical—that is to say, occult—ritual. The dogmas came later.
Thus when we speak of the Yezidi religion we are struck by the fact that the emphasis seems to be on correct ritual practice rather than doctrine. There is controversy over whether or not the Yezidi have a written sacred text; their scripture seems to reside in the chants, songs, and prayers that are memorized by the faithful and by their ritual specialists. There is also an emphasis on genetic purity: a Yezidi may not marry outside the faith, and there is no possibility of an outsider converting to Yezidism. This association of the body—the blood, the flesh—with religious purity and acceptability is an echo of the occult preoccupations of many different cultures and religious affiliations. It is also a hallmark of cultic practice: the desire to cut off a group from the outside world in order to maintain the group’s physical, emotional and spiritual integrity is (among other things) a form of distrust of the “Other” but it is also a way to switch tables by making the mainstream group the “Other.”98
In the case of the Yezidi, this is taken a step further when they identify themselves with the supreme icon of the Other in the western world: the Fallen Angel, Shaitan. Their relationship to this form of the Dark Lord is complex. On the one hand, Shaitan is an emblem of bad luck that inspires fear. On the other hand, he is the Lord of the Angelic Hosts and is also known as the Lord of Power.99 This rather schizoid construct is so reminiscent of the way the Egyptians considered Set as to be virtually identical.
To Grant, the peacock symbol is particularly important for he sees in the rainbow-hued spread of feathers a reference to the kalas: the spiritual essences secreted by the female partner in Tantric rituals. While it is possible that the Yezidis have their origin in India—as has been claimed— there is no indication at the present time that anything resembling sexual rituals or Tantra is known among them. Yet, the peacock itself is a curious emblem for a Kurdish clan in northern Iraq to worship for peacocks are not native to that country while they are more common in India.
The portals that lead to the inner chambers of Yezidi shrines are usually adorned with carvings of snakes. The snake is shown as rising up from the ground and appears as a vertical decoration on the right-hand side of the entrance. The appearance of a snake in this context further led observers to believe that there was something vaguely satanic about the Yezidis, since the serpent is a symbol of evil and of the Devil in Judaeo-Christian religions. It was the serpent who tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden,
leading to the fall of humanity from paradise. In Egypt, of course, it was identified with Apophis, the evil creature intent on devouring the barque of Ra; but in Indian yoga and Tantra, the serpent represents the coiled energy at the base of the spine known as Kundalini. The fact that the Yezidi serpent is depicted vertically alongside the entrance to the sacred shrine may be further—circumstantial—evidence of a connection with Indian beliefs, as a vertical serpent would be an obvious reference to the raising of Kundalini which is the goal of Kundalini yoga as it is of some forms of Tantra. However, there is no evidence for the existence of a “Yezidi Tantra.”
One of Aleister Crowley’s associates during his sojourn in the United States in 1919 was the noted author and adventurer William Seabrook (1884-1945). Fascinated by the occult and foreign locales, Seabrook had written a number of popular books and magazine articles on his travels in Africa, the Middle East and the Caribbean, and even claimed to have eaten human flesh on at least one occasion.100 Seabrook’s works have been criticized by anthropologists who doubt his ability (or his desire) to separate reality from fantasy, but he stands at the crossroads of the topics that so fascinated Kenneth Grant: the Yezidis, witchcraft, and Vodun. In addition, as a friend of Crowley he seems to be excellently positioned as a source for the beliefs and inspirations behind Grant’s overall thesis.
When it comes to the Yezidis, Seabrook claims that these “devil worshippers” maintain a network of seven towers across the Middle East, and Central and East Asia:
Stretching across Asia, from North Manchuria, through Tibet, west through Persia, and ending in the Kurdistan, was a chain of seven towers on isolated mountaintops; and in each one of these towers sat continuously a Priest of Satan, who by “broadcasting” occult vibrations controlled the destinies of the world for evil.101
There is no further evidence for this claim other than Seabrook’s own statements, and it is possible that the towers one sees at Kalish and at other Yezidi shrines were the inspiration for this idea. Yezidi sacred architecture is unique: their shrines are in the shape of fluted cones surmounted by a golden ball that is said to represent the sun. At the base of the cone is an opening through which one can see a fire burning. The fire is an eternal
flame, tended by the Yezidis, and is thus reminiscent of Zoroastrian practice.
If the Yezidi faith truly represents a survival of Persian Zoroastrianism, then there is some truth to Seabrook’s statement that their “towers” extend through Asia, for the Zoroastrians themselves have survived in India and Pakistan where they are known as Parsis. Forced to flee Persia (Iran) rather than convert to Islam in the eighth and ninth centuries CE, the Zoroastrian community found themselves in Pakistan (near Karachi) and in India in the Gujarat region in Mumbai, the former Bombay. There are several fire temples in the Mumbai area where the Zoroastrians—now known as Parsis from the word for “Persian”—have become pillars of the Indian community, well-known for their charitable works. They also practice a form of “sky burial” known as the Towers of Silence.
Because the elements are considered sacred, the Parsis leave their dead on top of these towers as food for vultures. To bury a corpse is considered a defilement of the earth, and to burn a corpse is considered a defilement of fire (which is a sacred symbol in Zoroastrianism). In Mumbai, these towers are located on Malabar Hill in what is now an upscale neighborhood where they have become controversial due to the fact that the vulture population is declining and the presence of certain antibiotics in the dead bodies results in the corpses taking longer and longer to decay. It should be noted that “sky burial” is also a feature of Tibetan religious and cultural practice, where the dead are left in the open air as food for carrion birds.
It is possible that the unique tower architecture of the Yezidis was conflated with the Towers of Silence in Mumbai to give Seabrook the idea that there was a network of Yezidi towers stretching from Kurdistan to Tibet and Manchuria through Persia. Further, there are still Zoroastrians living in Iran, especially in the city of Yazd which boasts a fire temple whose flame has been burning steadily since the fifth century CE. (The similarity in name between Yazd and the Yezidi has been noted by several authors, but there is no consensus of opinion as to where the name Yezid or Yezidi originated or even what it actually means.) However, there is no evidence that there are “Priests of Satan” who sit atop these towers broadcasting “occult vibrations” for evil purposes.
There are, however, certain sites sacred to the Yezidis which have, for Grant, occult significance. Basing his information on Isya Joseph’s The
Devil Worshippers (but without attribution) he mentions five cult zones, one of which is Lalish (the center of the Yezidi religion already mentioned) and another which is called variously Weran Šahr or Goran Šahr:
… meaning the ‘sunken city’, which recalls the sunken city of R’lyeh where Great Cthulhu waits dreaming…. We are now in a position to appreciate Crowley’s claim to have continued, in and through Thelema, the major tenets of the Yezidic cult.102
As mentioned previously, Crowley believed his supramundane contact and Holy Guardian Angel Aiwaz to have been a god of ancient Sumer.103 The Yezidis claim a Sumerian ancestry for their people and their religion and, indeed, reverence a form of Shaitan or Set. Further, the official seal of the Yezidi clan depicts not only the peacock of Melek Ta’us,104 but also cuneiform inscriptions plus the ancient Sumerian cuneiform symbol for “god,” the eight-pointed star,105 thus showing their insistence on an ancient Mesopotamian origin for their faith. All of this data is consistent with what Grant calls the “Necronomicon gnosis.”
The only lengthy examination of the Yezidis in Grant’s works appears as a single chapter in Outer Gateways: “The Magical Significance of Yezidic Symbolism.” In that chapter, Grant associates the Yezidis with a number of other religions, cults, myths, practices, etc. with a heavy reliance upon coincidences in numerology, similar-sounding words, etc., all with a view towards demonstrating that the Yezidis are the inheritors of an ancient magical Typhonian current that erupted in the system of Thelema as preached by Crowley. Crowley himself implies as much, of course, but Grant attempts to “prove” this connection and elaborate upon it. The problem with his approach is that it is based almost entirely on the few scraps of information available on the Yezidis in a handful of outdated and unreliable sources (such as Seabrook), which are then tied into the grand design using the most tenuous of associations. Thus, for Grant, the peacock is a phallic symbol because the eyes on the peacock’s feathers represent the “meatus of the phallus, which is why the cock was typical of Yezid”106 and:
The eyes in the tail of the peacock, or the meatus in the phallus of Yezid are equally connoted, and are resumed in the glyph of the Eye in the Triangle which forms part of the emblem of the O.T.O. Kaph
signifies both the palm (of the hand), and the kaf ape, which typified among other things the open eye or the exposed meatus of the circumcised penis in a state of erection, thus denoting the ever wakeful one.107
One is tempted to say that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. However, we begin to realize that virtually everything in the cosmos can be interpreted sexually, or using sexual metaphor, and that this is a hallmark of the “twilight language” used by occultists, alchemists, and mystics as a kind of meta-language for discussing otherwise ineffable—or “unspeakable”—concepts. There is only one process in the universe, and every science, every art, every religion, every field of occult knowledge can be discussed and investigated using the language of that process. Thus, using sexual metaphor, one can describe ecstatic mystical states as well as the transmutation of lead into gold.
Crowley himself makes this point when he writes:
I have myself constructed numerous ceremonies where it is frankly admitted that religious enthusiasm is primarily sexual in character….
I have insisted that sexual excitement is merely a degraded form of divine ecstasy.108
This divine ecstasy is still only a means towards an end. Ecstasy can be chemically induced, or brought about by various other means, none of which would necessarily result in spiritual illumination, acquisition of occult powers, etc. Intensive meditation, of the type enjoyed by anchorites and hermits of various disciplines, also results in divine ecstasy, minus the overtly sexual components. The magical path represented by Crowley and by his mentors in the Golden Dawn, however, sees emotional and psychological states as reflective of spiritual qualities that may or may not be perceived as good or evil in and of themselves: these states are only levels of understanding, of types of experience that do not carry moral loads but are informational. They are interpreted within a specific cultural context such as the Kabbalistic Tree of Life or any other complete cosmological system that makes a space for all forms of human experience, including the divine and the demonic. In order for Crowley’s system to be the complete cosmology that any magical practice demands, it must make room for what Western spiritual experience would consider demonic, satanic, etc. There are, after all, two “Keys of Solomon” in the
repetoire of the Golden Dawn: the Greater Key, which is concerned with angelic and planetary magic, and the Lesser Key, or Goetia, which is wholly involved with the raising of demons. Both are necessary. And it is the peculiar characteristic of sexuality that it can be a “Greater Key,” an expression of love, respect, fidelity, a means of reproduction and the survival of the species, a symbol of union with the divine … and a “Lesser Key,” an avenue for the manifestation of the darkest desires of a human being, of sadism, masochism, and all the demons of a Krafft-Ebing grimoire: