Theurgic binding: or, “S#!t just got real”
EDITED TO ADD: The post below has generated quite a bit of discussion and several responses on other blogs: John Beckett, Dver, Rhyd Wildermuth, Ember, and Asa West. In response to the latter post, I just wanted to add a couple thoughts.
Dear readers, I do not think you are easily frightened children, nor is this post an effort to scare anyone. The point of this post is to share real and useful guidance on how to do this work rightly and well, rather than rashly and poorly – but the point of this post is not to tell you that you can’t. You can, and I hope I make that clear.
I also think most of the people reading my blog are thinking adults who can handle theological and magical discourse that goes beyond a comforting pat on the head and empty assurances that you can’t make mistakes, and that there are no risks or consequences in magic and religion. I write from the understanding that magic and religion are operating in the realm of reality, and I seek to arm people with real and useful knowledge for that. I think you, readers, can handle that.
I also believe that if there were no risks in this work, we wouldn’t be bothering with it, because it would be without impact or consequence. I am GLAD to be living in a world in which the Gods and holy powers are animated by more than just the power we might imbue them with. I am GLAD to be living in a world in which magic entails risk, opportunity and consequence. That world is far more interesting to me – and far less lonely – than one in which all of this is dismissed as harmless storytelling or archetype.
I’ve been asked a few times recently about what it means to dedicate oneself to a God, and in particular to the Morrígan, the Goddess I’m dedicated to. I get questions like these:
“Is there a difference between a devotional and a dedicated relationship?”
“At what stage in a relationship with Deity (the Morrígan specifically) can I consider dedication through ritual?”
“Everybody keeps telling me: don’t rush into it and be 100% sure. As things are right now, I really, really WANT to. So then… Why wait?”
In lieu of trying to explain this on a theoretical level, I’m going to get personal.
When the most recent question came in I was in the doctor’s waiting room, to review an MRI scan of my damaged ankle. You see, three months ago while fighting in armor, I got knocked down by a pile of big shieldmen and sprained my left ankle ligaments severely. I was given crutches and told to stay off it for a month while the sprain healed. My friends, knowing I’ve been under orders from the Morrígan to write about Her, started joking with me: “Somebody really wants you to sit down and write that book!”
I laughed. She didn’t have to break my ankle to get me to write the book – I had already committed to it. I committed to it last March when She laid the nóinden on me to finish it by the end of the year, and I committed to it again when I signed a publishing contract that says I’ll deliver my manuscript by December 31st.
That recovery month stretched into two, while I spent most of my days sitting at home, foot elevated, writing. My doctor sent me to a specialist. “Ligament injuries take time.” September, I was supposed to be able to start walking in a protective boot, but I couldn’t. “Well, let’s get you an MRI. Better stay off it until we see what’s going on in there.” Another month on crutches. Around the first of October I passed 60,000 words on the manuscript. Today, I saw the specialist who looked at my MRI. I think what they said is “localized osteochodral damage to the talus”. Which translates to: “When you sprained your ankle, your leg bone also took a chunk out of the cartilage on top of your ankle bone and that’s why you still can’t walk. Oh, and you’ll need surgery.”
So it’s another month to wait for my surgery in late October, and then eight more weeks recovery after, until I will be able to walk. And would you look at that? That brings us to the end of December. So what appeared to be a minor combat injury that should have had me on my feet in four to six weeks has now extended to keep me immobilized in my house until the time my book is due to Herself as well as to my publisher. Neat and tidy.
My friends are still teasing me: “Boy, She’s not kidding about getting you to finish that book on time!” I still laugh, but I will admit to you that my laughter has a little touch of grim today. I will admit to feeling a little exposed. The realization that the Goddess you’ve dedicated yourself to has chosen to break your body to ensure the results She wants… is a weighty one. This is not a surprise to me. I knew what I was doing when I dedicated myself to Her fully and gave her guardianship of my destiny and my death. I just didn’t know specifically when or how She might collect on that commitment, and it’s a pretty profound thing to be experiencing. I don’t in the least bit regret it. I’m just telling you this story because it’s a good example of shit just got real around here.
So when people are asking me why they shouldn’t dedicate themselves to Her early in a devotional relationship, this is what I want to say.
Magic is deadly real. And, um, theurgic binding magic? With a war Goddess? Really-deadly-not-fucking-around-seriously real.
I feel like I should maybe say that again. The Gods are not fucking around. When you hand yourself over to Them, They can break your bones, end your life or alter it completely, send you down pathways that foreclose other avenues of choice and ability, and perhaps what should be most sobering of all, transform and sculpt you from the person you were into the person They feel would be most useful to Them. In particular, speaking of the Morrígan, She’s apt to size you up for what sort of weapon you’ll make, and start turning you into that. And, well, here’s the thing: weapons face damage. It’s what they’re made for.
Do you have sovereignty and agency in all of this? Can you control how much of your destiny and being you give Them? Yes, you absolutely can, AND YOU SHOULD. Could you dedicate yourself to Her, but with different terms than I did? Yes. Can there be different degrees and kinds of dedication with different levels of safety and risk? Yes!
BUT: You have to be equipped to enter that negotiation effectively, remaining in full possession of your awareness and discernment of what you are giving, under what terms you are committing to Them, what They want your dedication for (and what, therefore, you may be transformed into in service of that), what you are receiving from Them, what manner of binding you are undertaking in that relationship, and for how long that binding will be in effect. I say “equipped” because this isn’t just about how you feel about that divinity – this is about having the spiritual and magical training to be able to discern, understand and negotiate these things. And perhaps most importantly, it is completely dependent on the clarity, depth, and skill with which you are able to communicate with that divinity, so you can even figure out what They are asking you to undertake and what risks you are accepting.
And that is why I suggest that people give a devotional relationship a LOT of time to develop before considering undertaking dedication to that divinity. That gives you the time to get all those magical, divinatory, theurgic, and psychic skills under your belt. And it gives you the time to get to know that divinity. See what They are up to, what Their agendas are, what sort of service They like to put people to. Maybe hang out with a few other of their devotees for a few years and see what impacts other people experience when they undertake different kinds of initiations, dedications and devotional contracts.
I also encourage people considering this to ask yourself “Why?” Why do you feel pulled to undertake ritual dedication to this God? Can you articulate clearly why it is necessary for you, who you think will benefit and how? If the answer is something like “I just feel strongly called to”, then you probably haven’t examined it closely enough. If the answer to “Why?” is about your feelings, you may be doing this for the wrong reasons. Devotional dedication isn’t like having sex. We don’t decide to do it because “it feels good” and “I really really want to” and “this person/God enthralls me”. It is a binding magical contract. It’s a lot more like marriage than sex, and maybe more like indentured servitude than marriage (depending on the terms). Dedicating yourself to a divinity before you have both studied and deeply experiential knowledge of Them as well as the skills to actually communicate and negotiate a magical contract with a powerful discarnate being, is something like a person who can’t read signing their name in blood on a document because the person who handed it to them smelled good. Maybe something bad… maybe something good! Maybe it’s a one-month lease for use of premises. Maybe it’s a lifelong marriage contract with a clause excluding divorce. Maybe you just gave them a claim on everyone in your bloodline for nine generations, plus what happens to you in your next nine incarnations. We don’t know, it just felt right!
All right – I’ll simmer down. I don’t mean to mock anyone. I’m just sitting here facing down another three months of disability and I’m trying to convey how real and consequential these choices are. Each of us, when we come to a decision like this, has to make an assessment of where we stand with regard to skill, knowledge, and readiness. If you’ve thought this through, you know what you’re getting into, and you know it’s worth it to you, then go forward without regrets. I’ll be sending you moral support from where I sit with my smashed ankle elevated, writing this book.