Reflections On Epiphany
We have just recently entered 2019, and for many that means navigating through a gauntlet of holiday obstacles and episodics; some in high saturation of meaning and significance, and others trials and tribulations. True “new year” might be situated more appropriately to the Winter Solstice, a visible light event, and the moment the Sun ingresses into tropical Capricorn, ringing in the tidings of Saturnalia in antiquity, a bacchanal which probably got Christmas clothes hung on it at a later date. The infamous yuletide event of modern consumer culture which is over and done in a day and a half (maybe including the eponymous eve) more traditionally stretched out into the proper twelve nights, echoing both the roster of apostles as well as zodiacal domiciles; the grand finale of this sequence is Epiphany, which lands on January 6th and celebrates with a feast the adoration in the manger of the three Wise Men, foreign Kings, or Magi.
So, who were these Magi? Their names, shifting phonetically over time in typical mercurial fashion, are Jaspar, Balthazar and Melchior, and legend has it that they met on the road to Bethlehem, converging at crossroads while following a star to the site of the birth of a new divine king. This lore is absolutely loaded with significance, theological, magical, necromantic and otherwise, and a struggle to understand what these Magi were actually seeing in the sky astronomically and how they might be interpreting it astrologically (as they were essentially cognate with Chaldean astrologers and their cultural analogues, such as those you might encounter in Harran or imagine generating the Picatrix from some 200 odd other books) is another long and mystery fraught exercise. I am writing here today to lay out the length and breadth of their historiola nor conjecture what might have signaled the Wise Kings from there tripart corners to Bethlehem, or relate the biblical account itself. For this go to Dr. Al Cummins here, here, here and here, and also to Chris Brennan’s Astrology Podcast here. My purpose is instead simply to journal my experiences observing Epiphany over the past couple years.
Observing the Feast of Epiphany and the Adoration of the Magi begins like many other holidays/holy-days, with their light beginning to crest the proverbial horizon, rolling into the territory of time they begin to become current by looming in the near future, and preparations begin to be made. You become preoccupied with their approach and how the event will be hosted and experienced. What must be done, who must be invited, what ingredients are needed, what materials must be sourced, must prayers must be prepared, what will the ritual sequence be? All this slowly clicks into place and gels over time, and so it is never a single event, but one that begins weeks before and trails into the time that flows after, and as year becomes year and observance becomes tradition, the ends in time touch, and the Star is something that circulates and cycles through our lives as an unfolding epiphany that we are but a part of; circulating like the waters we see poured out into water Arcanum XVII as the light of the heavens showers down upon the earth; perpetual flow. As the Magi themselves celebrate new life and new light in the manger, a place of raw and earthly fertility, bestial territory, typically the domain of the Devil, but the babe is there born from a Virgin Mother as a seed of purity in a place roiling with life and also committed to continual corruption. We need not see this through moralistic dualism or christian dogma, but instead lay it before our imagination and contemplation as we would the Tarot card previously mentioned.
In this lead up period I happened to visit the Neapolitan presepe at the Metropolitan Museum Of Art twice, once in November when I was restricted to peeking through the blinders while it was being set up, and again in the final days of December, post Christmas when the masses flock to New York to see the ball drop. This second visit, with the “baroque Nativity” in full bloom I waded through crowds, the galleries hot with body heat and perfumed accordingly, swarming with throngs that seemed to never have visited a museum before and might never again. I sidled up to the many figures crafted expertly in Naples, for which the old city is famous, and adored the display with religious reverence, feeling like one of the peasant populous depicted in the diorama. This room only recently used as the foci of the Heavenly Bodies exhibit, having on display between antique statuary of St. Michael and St. Barbara, priceless costume pieces made for the Madonna herself, even against the direct decree of the Pope; devotees themself generate this outpouring of exquisite articulation of the divine to the best of their ability and to the extents of their funds and means. Though merely a museum, from these two exhibits located before the Spanish choir screen in the MET’s central gallery 305, I found a loci of revelation and exoneration that marks the magical geography of my life like a taper on a map.
The precepe pieces of Naples are also part of a longer pilgrimage upon who’s portal I await. In only a couple months I planned to be in southern Italy connecting with ancestors in Gaeta, visiting crypts beneath Naples, contacting Sibyls in Cumae, chasing the ghost of Francesco Viola (one of the primary characters caught with the “proto-Grimorium Verum” Key of Solomon manuscript recently published by Joseph Peterson as the Secrets of Solomon), anoint chthonic spirit pacts in Lake Avernus, and make offerings atop Mount Vesuvius; so encountering this precepe while traveling to New York was a kind of blessing which passes through Epiphany proper to my travels to Italy later on, a blessing by the Three Magi who themselves travel on pilgrimage themself with the wisdom to follow the Star to their divine destination. More on this pilgrimage to Campania later, and more on Neapolitan presepe here.
Other than picking up new nativity figures of the Magi at a local flea market (painted Papier-mâché made in Italy), consecrating them and welcoming them to our home with a night spent amongst candles and incense in a cauldron upon the hearth, the real materially manifest phase of Epiphany begins with shopping for ingredients for the King Cake, of which there are many variations over many cultures from cinnamon roll like in contemporary New Orleans to dense, dark fruit cake in Scotland, all accompanied by diverse 12th night traditions (see here for instance). We have gotten into the habit of baking the Bolo Rei, the Portuguese (my mother’s father’s side) version which is more like a sweet bread than a cake, and involves soaking dried fruit in a bottle of port (we prefer madeira) and a few waves of kneading, punching down and rising before its shaped into a circle, decorated and inserted with a trinket. More on that later, but here is a good recipe for Bolo Rei.
We bumped into some acquaintances at the store who inquired what we were making but became quickly suspicious of our christian themed objectives. If only they knew! This is a common reaction, really, and I understand. For many it takes a minute to digest the concept of operating under multiple paradigms at once. My catholic observance moves fluidly through my ancestral practice, my witchcraft and my goetic magic. For me its all one thing, and that’s majorly how I grew up, but moving into a post chaos-magick, post rationalist-materialist worldview and also into a brave new world of holographic media, we should all spend some time sitting with multiplicity and animism before our heads get spun. Anyway, it was amusing feeling like we were up to no good while making a christian cake, when really we were up to necromantic magic, wholesome as it may seem, or wholesome as it actually is; wholesome and dodgy simultaneously; something you cannot escape when engaging with things from the pre-modern world. Our modern attempts to morally quantify everything are clearly cracking; it's not so simple.
With the ingredients and other magical supplies accounted for (inks, writing utensils, chalk, vessels, etc.) we await the eve of the Magi, January 5th. This ends up being a relatively quiet night. We light up their altar and spend some time with them around the hearth (its winter and we heat with wood, so this is just what happens typically each night, with a different spirit or deity in prominence depending on season and astrology) just basking in their vibe, opening ourselves to their transmission, toasting in their honor. The previous year we left out water and hay for their camels and water and horchata-rum drinks for them to enjoy when they arrived during the wee hours. This year we just shared with them on the altar. They spent the feast set up on the regular Moon altar (as it’s in the kitchen and beside the hearth over some shelves for mason jars, all ready receptive vessels, like the suit of cups itself) which felt good even though I spent the couple days juggling the appropriateness of this placement in my mind. I settled on it being at least semi justified as relates to the geomantic figure Via, The Way, or the Road, a figure of a lunar nature that is considered to resonate with the New Moon, when the way ahead is unfixed and undecided, when there is only possibility, and the changeable and perpetually in-flux nature of the Moon is evident.
We toasted maybe a few too many times to the Kings, and drug ourselves to mass the next morning just in time for proceedings to begin. We positioned ourselves about 3/4’s of the way back as we tend to do, in the area where we can properly zone out in prayer and trance without drawing too much attention, but also be participatory in the ritual procedure. Since we work with Saints regularly, attending mass is an indispensable way to connect with them, receive visions, deliver offerings of prayer, launch spells and so on. (especially if you find a church where they have statues of a Saint you jive with or a Madonna that speaks to you, then you can partake in one on one’s after mass. There is usually a place set aside to do just this before the Madonna or by a Saint’s relics) The same is true with the dead and with our ancestors, the majority of which were catholic, so they are open and ready to receive this kind of communication, it’s perfectly pre-formatted for them, they recognize it readily. Even mild (or sometimes overwhelming) journeying experiences can take place from the pews. Then there is the significance of the purification ritual itself, which is essentially what it is; the priest is a master exorcist cleansing the clergy of all the ill energy that has accumulated over the week and obliterating their sins. This is why in catholicism there are patron saints of any kind of transgressors you can think of; the intention is to keep everyone in the community cleansed for the benefit of the spiritual hygiene of the community. Its an elaborate and traditional banishment ritual. You see this in the grimoires, where ritual purity is key to successful conjurations; it increases signal by decreasing noise; you hear the spirit you want as you’ve got a clear channel to talk on 1-1. It’s valuable to bring objects you want purified to mass in your pockets, and to collect holy water from the dispenser (usually in the back or by the confessional booths). On this occasion we filled a jar with water for Three Kings Water and approached the nativity to speak directly to them.
Our prayers in church were echoed later at home, mostly surrounding the aid the Magi are ready to give: to share their wisdom and help make us also wise, for their aid in travel and to help render journeys successful, to find new light and new life in coming times, to be our patrons in connecting with and working with dead magicians, assisting in all necromantic operations generally, for learning and mastering the art of astrology, for strengthening our work at crossroads, for road opening of all kinds, especially road closings or knowing which is the road most wise, and the finding of more righteous people along the way.
These were made after an official prayer, and repeated during subsequent toasts throughout the night. We had been long fans of the King Drinks paintings by flemish painter Jacob Jordaens, which depicts a celebration of Epiphany in Flanders style. These compositions epitomize a raucous and boisterous affair which spoke to our bacchanalian habits and tendency to toast and boast— behavior which long preceded our adoption of the Epiphany observance.
The altar lit and the Magi invoked we get to baking the cake. The dough had been prepared, let to rise and the raisins, dates and figs left to soak in madeira overnight, so now we just get it shaped appropriately and put in the oven. Somewhere within is hidden the trinket, which in New Orleans tradition (extending into Mardi Gras in Louisiana) they put in store bought plastic babies which represent the christ child, and whoever receives the baby in their slice also receives the responsibility of hosting the next King Cake party. In the old country it is common to see a large coin or a fava bean; we opt for a tumbled piece of amethyst, which also corresponds to Jupiter, thus signifying majesty, royalty, wisdom and feasting modalities. This is especially potent this year as Epiphany falls on a Sunday, so it is Jupiter’s night with Jupiter in rulership in Sagittarius; and didn’t the Bolo Rei rise (expand) spectacularly this time around!
During the period which the cake is in the oven is a particularly magical time where the other blessings and consecrations can take place. While baking is taking place we add the frankincense and myrrh to the holy water set beside the kings and pass our gold jewelry through the flames of their candles. Almost most importantly we sub-fumigate the chalk (a big enough quantity for the year to use in drawing the circle of evocation and the various god names and sigils to accompany it. This becomes especially important in necromantic rites which call upon dead magicians) and then we go chalk the door: 20+ C + M + B +19 written across the top; the initials standing for Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, notifying them to stop at our house as welcome guests and not pass us by. The same initials also stand for Christus mansionem benedicat, which means, May Christ bless this house. We also ask the kings to bless our regular preparation of anointing oil, and this is a good time to bring forth any material, tool or item you might want to connect as a relic to the Kings.
We also take down the Sator square we hang above our kitchen table and draw a new one, renewing protection and a magical conduit for the coming year. (the Sator square is a palindrome magical formula widely used in folk magic, although it appears in the grimoires and the oldest datable representation was found in the ruins of Pompeii, buried in the ash of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD). Last year’s square goes promptly in the fire in the spirit of out with the old and in with the new. Before it burned we admired how the old square was scribed more neatly where as 2019’s was rendered more fancy and flamboyant, even a bit libertine. I imagined over time it would cease to even be legible, and be more of a talismanic sigilization that was more about the body memory of traditional gesture than the letters themselves, with the sator square still as its root, it would funnel down a historical current into the future, where its magical effectiveness would be folded into the seedform and unfurl as scriptomantic designs.
With the cake parading from the oven comes the climax of the whole affair. Here the King Drinks in earnest. We wait as long as we can for it to cool and then eagerly slice in. I hit the amethyst piece as soon as the knife pierces the surface, and we know it is going to be a good year! The stone is promptly deposited into the treasure box of a spirit that is fed by luck and chance, and the house resounds with the pure possibility of what 2019 might bring.