Let the Ceremonies BEGIN

Until revealed, all knowledge is hidden. To discover the concealed is what drives us to evolve and improve. The blinding blur of technologies we create is rivaled only by our impatience to develop them even faster. This same speed has influenced our beliefs, albeit in a less-hurried pace. Wisdom, traditions and religions survive and evolve due to devotion, comfort and, to a large degree, conquest.

Western religion offers a binary, dualistic world and, as the sparks fly upward, we’re told to choose a side.

But there’s another thread that’s run parallel to accepted faiths, a counter-world of covert sects and beliefs that, over millennia, have withstood suspicion, persecution and annihilation. They are the shadow religions of arcane rites, gods once thought extinct and newer animistic philosophies entirely void of gods.

This is the tandem spiritual realm of the occult. From Heku, the magic of Egypt’s high priests to The Eleusinian Mysteries of 1500 BC and Medieval Alchemy and the 19th-century Spiritualist movement, followed by the current New Age revival of Wicca and Ancient Earth worship, we have sought contact with something that exists solely between the cracks of parochial dogma and fixed doctrine. Some succeed in achieving communication with forces within as well as with the spirits.

Occult is controversial and misunderstood, demonized and trivialized. Within the sphere is a multifaceted tree of mystical, magickal, even blasphemous practices whose complexities and myriad offshoots rival those of dominant religions. Over the course of history, those considered magicians, witches, sorcerers, necromancers and any other like-minded, heretical believers have been vilified, banished, tortured — even killed.

But the practices survive.

Pop culture softens some of the fear; child wizard Harry Potter waves a wand over a generation. Gandalf battles Saruman in a death match of good-versus-evil magick. Fantasy novels, comic books, role-playing and video games draw inspiration from deranged and heroic deities, angelic spirits and demonic forces.

Many other non-Western faiths, and even pagan beliefs, have enjoyed tolerance, if not acceptability. The image of a burning pentagram and cloaked figures circled around it in the moonlight, however, is as terrifying now as it was centuries ago.

Based on characteristics that define the occult, some believe Jesus Christ was, in fact, a teacher of the occult. This may be controversial, but the King of Kings behaved in a way strikingly similar to the clandestine. He imparted to his apostles one knowledge and taught the masses another. When asked by the apostles why he spoke to the multitudes in parables, Christ admonished them: “Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but unto them it is not given” (Matthew 13:11). That is, by definition and example, an esoteric, or interior, teaching. The gathered crowds received a more softened, clear-cut teaching; the outer exoteric. Throughout the Gospels, Christ teaches his apostles to perform miracles, like teaching Peter how to walk on water (Mark 14:28-31). That lesson, in the context of recurring spiritual motifs, suggests Christ was really showing Peter the rite of walking on water.

Even today, the idea that Christ was an occultist-turned-magician might be deemed heresy, if not blasphemy. Yet in an earlier folklore, miracles — healing the sick, raising the dead, driving out demons — would simply be called magick.

These mysteries and rituals, which run counter to accepted, indoctrinated beliefs, appeal to few.

The greatest impediment to telling this story was finding people who did not want to be found, who feared being misunderstood as devil-worshippers, cackling witches and black magicians who perform unspeakable rites. After a yearlong search, and with assurances of total anonymity, they invited Folio Weekly into their homes. All names are pseudonyms and residences are obscured; two are given gender-non-specific pronouns for even greater anonymity.

Sunlight streams in the windows of amodest home on the outskirts of Avondale. His son laughs; when Eliphas reaches down, the two-year-old points at his father’s tattooed right hand. The interior is bathed in white light, winter morning sun streams through drawn blinds, warming the interior. The white walls and luminous atmosphere are fitting — Eliphas is aligned with Gnostic Luciferianism beliefs, a rather sweeping term for a complex system of beliefs and practices; the principle force of his faith is Lucifer. Myth tells that Lucifer, the fallen angel of Judeo-Christianity, was God’s right-hand man, cast from the heavens for his defiance, along with other rogue angels. Yet in a parallel series of mythologies, Lucifer (“The Light-Bearer” in Hebrew; the “Morning Star” in the Latin Vulgate) exists to spark the fires of creativity, defiance and evolution. The light that this Lucifer brings is enlightenment, knowledge and awareness.

As Lucifer is also considered to be the scriptural Satan, it’s fitting that Eliphas’ spiritual journey began in the church.

Born and raised on the Westside, Eliphas describes his childhood as “very Pentecostal;” his mother was utterly devout, his father a homespun deist who considered the woods his church. “From the age of eight, I saw stuff wrong with it. It never seemed right,” he says. Unquestioned obedience, hell and original sin pushed him further away. “I never understood why there was supposed to be something wrong with me from birth.”

Pentecostal rituals, such as “80-year-old women doing cartwheels and in swaying in trances,” first showed Eliphas how to “tap in” to a higher power. “Even though I didn’t associate with their god, there was something happening there. I’m confident that’s the first place were I got my initial touch of shamanic trance.”

Eliphas escorts us to the ritual room where he does what he calls “the work.”

Incense permeates the air inside a third bedroom, where an altar some seven feet high and six feet across stands against the north wall. The Byzantine structure is fascinating and unsettling, adorned with animal bones, feathers and beads, skulls, flowers and Spanish moss. It seems delicately assembled — each element has an equal place in the balance. At the foot of the altar is a dense, red hardback book with a talisman on its cover, which Eliphas does not allow to be photographed. It’s the core text of his practice, as he invokes beings whose names he requests not be featured in print.

Eliphas’ description of being awakened to his spirituality seems to be, rather than a case of his seeking something, of him being sought.

“When I was 17, I was heading for California but I decided to go to New Orleans, since everybody kept talking about it,” he explains. “When I got there, I was walking down Bourbon Street and I looked out and it was like the crowd parted. Directly in front of me … across the street, was a guy wearing an all-red robe and a red mask, next to a guy wearing all black with a black mask. The guy in red was playing with tarot cards. He looked dead at me and signaled [to] me. We walked toward each other, met in the middle and the crowd just parted.”

The man in red held the cards out. Baffled, Eliphas pulled one. It was the Magician. The cloaked figure whispered to the man in black, who then turned to Eliphas. “You need to go back home,” he said. “Your real journey is about to start.”

Jarred by the bizarre meeting, on his 18th birthday Eliphas decided to devote his life to the magickal path.

Eliphas performed his first ritual that year. He feels that something was communicating to him. “I was in school and heard the distinct sound of a school desk slowly scraping across the floor outside the door. I opened the hallway door and there was just this desktop on the ground, and no desk.” Eliphas had been trying hard to be an atheist, but he took the desktop home and performed a ritual with his girlfriend, who took on the position of altar.

“I went to pierce a parchment and barely pricked my finger and began to bleed everywhere. I went into trance unintentionally and ended up having sex with my girlfriend,” he says. “In mid-sex, a candle blew up inside its glass container and shot three feet up in the air. When that happened, my girlfriend sat up and said, ‘We’re done. You’re going somewhere I don’t want to go.’”

Eventually, Eliphas was led to Gnostic Luciferianism and The Sabbatic Craft. “It’s going back into the witches’ Sabbath. It is the dream we all share the one vision.” Eliphas is simultaneously specific and vague about the practices, sketching out what he does without revealing the results.

“When you’re dealing with more traditional witchcraft and Left-Hand Path practices, you’re dealing with possession and trance,” explains Eliphas. “You cross that line of giving up ‘you,’ because there is no more ‘you’ anymore.”

The Left-Hand Path that Eliphas describes differs from Right-Hand Path spirituality, in that the former is more about toppling taboos and creating a personalized mysticism; the latter is driven by moral codes and possible karmic retribution. Eliphas also notes his beliefs could be considered Crooked-Path, as they fuse both sides as needed.

Rites include observances, meditations and other methods leading to various outcomes. “Gnostic Luciferianism is the connection with the overriding force that is there to bring forth the new,” says Eliphas. “It could be through a trail of blood, a trail of fire or a trail of flowers. The goal is to tap into that force either as long or short as possible to pull things back.

Eliphas knows that many of his acts and beliefs transgress what society deems allowable, if not hallowed. The practices range from ritual sex to blood drawing to have conjured spirits pull darker forces out of the body. “Like performing these rites in a graveyard, it’s putting yourself in a harsh environment to be able to perform this holier work,” he says. “It’s seen as a demon, but it can be one of the holiest things in life.”

For all his intensity, Eliphas’ demeanor is subdued; his knowledge of occultic beliefs and comparative religions is broad. He doesn’t feel his practices are inherently comforting, though.

“It’s really not comforting at all. It’s surely the most uncomforting thing, because it’s the true expedition of knowing thyself. In the process of knowing yourself, the whole world unlocks and becomes a mirror.”

Eliphas has met few sincere followers in Jacksonville, in part because his beliefs and practices are based on exhausting research and exhaustive ritual.

“There are a lot of people interested,” he says of local seekers. “But there’s such a sense of entitlement just because you own the book. You can read a book 100 times but unless you practice it physically … it’s knowledge versus wisdom. This is work.

If you’re part of the Northeast Florida creative community, you’ve encountered Cyril. Cyril’s Westside home is filled with artwork, books and various musical instruments; the faces of Krishna, Christ and Vedantic gurus of the Paramahansa Yogananda lineage peer from a corner. An image of Archangel Raphael hangs near the ceiling; he’s a being Cyril acknowledges through a simple ritual each day. “You just ask. I ask him to protect me and those around me and home,” says Cyril, adding with a laugh, “As well as my car.” A longtime yoga practitioner, the local creative believes in the Ascended Masters and uses tarot cards daily. “I use it to orient my mind rather than any divination.”

For the last 17 years, Cyril has followed the teachings of Aleister Crowley. Specifically, Cyril is an adherent of the Thelema religion.

Some have devoted their lives to study Crowley; to explain his life could take a novel, but a short overview may explain the man’s complexity, wandering journey and at-times daunting system of magick. Born in Britain in 1875 in a wealthy Plymouth Brethren family, Crowley was a precocious child. In 1886, Crowley’s father died. This was his life’s turning point, when he began to resent Christianity; it seemed to him that his pious father, whom Crowley idolized, was smited by the very god that father and son had worshipped. With his inheritance, Crowley traveled Europe, America and Asia in an ongoing mystical quest. Crowley was one of the first Western mystics to write about Yoga and Buddhist meditation with authority; it was Crowley who added the “k” to the word “magic” to ensure the term wouldn’t be confused with stage magic and entertainment. An avowed libertine, Crowley was openly bisexual and his love of the occult was matched by his debilitating love of narcotics. All of these colors of his life paled in comparison to the connection he made with the Other.

In 1904, Thelema (Greek for “Will”) was revealed to Crowley in Egypt when his then-wife entered a trance and began dictating from a cryptic intelligence revealing itself as “Aiwass,” which Crowley came to believe was his Holy Guardian Angel. Crowley transcribed the message, which became known as The Book of the Law. The Thelema “law” is simple: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. Love is the law, love under will.”

Crowley devoted the rest of his life to study and practice that core tenet.

“You have to separate Thelema from Crowley,” says Cyril. “Because anything we would consider alternative or New Age was begun by him.”

An early self-promoter, Crowley believed any publicity was good. By the early 20th century, Crowley declared he was “The Great Beast 666.” The press took the bait, with headlines warning of “The Wickedest Man in the World.” When he died in 1947 at age 72, Crowley left a magickal system both impressive and a bit inscrutable, plus more than 60 published works on everything from the Qabbalah and Tarot to poems and plays. Notable Crowley followers have included pioneering underground filmmaker Kenneth Anger and Led Zeppelin’s guitarist/leader Jimmy Page, rumored to have the world’s largest collection of Crowley memorabilia. “I tell most people that Crowley was the fifth member of Led Zeppelin,” laughs Cyril.

Crowley believed we share one purpose: to find Knowledge of the Holy Guardian Angel and align ourselves with our True Will. Thelema’s command has been repeatedly misunderstood as: “Do what you want.” That was not Crowley’s intent. The Law was for mankind to connect with their own Holy Guardian Angel and align with that force to travel an orbit of wellness and joy, if not destiny. When we’re in conflict with our True Will, we experience aimlessness, dissatisfaction, even mediocrity. “’Do what thou wilt’ is to bid the stars to shine, the vine to bear grapes, water to find its level. Man is the only being in nature who has striven to set himself at odds with himself,” wrote Crowley (from The Magical Diaries of Aleister Crowley: Tunisia 1923.)

“I came across Thelema when I thought about reconnecting to the Catholicism of my youth,” Cyril explains. “Then I came to the realization that I was just in love with the ritual. I don’t want to be a Catholic anymore.”

One Thelemic ritual Cyril has used is The Gnostic Mass, a group protocol structured on the Mass of the Eastern Orthodox Church. “Performing that was the great turning point for me,” Cyril says. “I found the whole thing to be extremely uplifting and positive. It had power to it. It was the model of what Thelema could do.”

Crowley described magick as “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will.” Cyril was seeking to change. Thelema offered a way for inner transformation.

“Growing up, I realized everyone made up my mind for me. I surrendered too much to everyone else’s influences of how things should be. I didn’t know if it was efficiency and need or if these people happened to be stronger or if I was just a plain, dim bulb,” Cyril says. “It was probably a combination of the three. It seemed like whenever I wanted to assert myself, or get into an interest of something that was mine, it would be shot down as being irrelevant, damaging and disagreeing with what they wanted to do.”

It’s a surprising admission. Cyril appears confident, assured, with an affable demeanor and prodigious creative output. While they demur that Thelema has directly affected their art, they seem certain Crowley’s teachings have strengthened their personality.

“Thelema is centered on the self, which most people will tell you is egotistical, or bad, or damaging or selfish to them, if you’re in a relationship or marriage. But the self is important. And Thelema is based on pure joy of the self. Now, that being said, it doesn’t give you free rein to do whatever you want. But you do approach with the sense that if everybody had this belief, no one would interfere with everybody else’s thing.”

Decades of creative and spiritual exploration have given Cyril a strong sense of faith and skepticism. They unhesitatingly knock Crowley’s upper-class airs and childish, redundant blasphemies. Yet Cyril gives credit to the 20th-century occultist who offered mankind a new, radical religion.

“Crowley was very specific: ‘Don’t follow me.’ I think that intimidates many people because if you take away the leader — they don’t know what to do.”

A stone’s throw from Orange Park, in a solidly blue-collar neighborhood, lives Don Amon, a decades-long, avowed Satanist whose belief system is based on unrepressed individualism and utter defiance of the Christian faith. From the outset, Amon is the most deep-cover subject of this story, initially contacting FW through cautious, semi-cryptic Facebook messages. Only under conditions of complete privacy and anonymity would Amon agree to speak.

Amon sits on a tan leather couch in their living room; spouse and child are nowhere to be seen.

Within Amon’s home, a false wall opens to reveal a darkened room with a few low-wattage lamps. Adjusting to the dimness, eyes make out an altar adorned with a few carefully positioned items. In the center is a ceremonial dagger, flanked by two books by the undisputed father of modern Satanism, Anton LaVey. On one wall hangs a pentagram with the goat-headed symbol of Baphomet. It’s a trippy ambience of eeriness and, oddly, coziness.

“Anton LaVey defined an archetype of human nature, a type of person,” says Amon. “Because he was that type of person.”

Born in Chicago in 1930, LaVey may not have had the Mark of the Beast, but he was a savvy visionary, pleasure head, an astute student of human nature and societal hypocrisy, plus a healthy dose of good-ol’ American bullshit. Fond of sporting a cape and horns, LaVey, who founded the Church of Satan in San Francisco in 1966, became an eerie counterculture celebrity. The Church of Satan offered a macabre alternative to starry-eyed hippiedom of the Age of Aquarius.

In 1969, LaVey published The Satanic Bible, which laid out his system of principles for a liberated life. In the book (more than one million copies in print), LaVey noted, “Satan has been the best friend the Church has ever had, as He has kept it in business all these years!”

More books — The Satanic Rituals (1972) and The Satanic Witch (1989) — followed, plus appearances on The Tonight Show and Donahue. Naturally charismatic, LaVey was often featured in publications including Newsweek, TIME, Rolling Stone and countless underground and countercultural publications.

When LaVey died in 1997, he left a legacy of specific-albeit-sardonic instructions for Satanists, certain that future generations would continue his campaign to challenge the world’s religions. The hoax/rumor claiming LaVey made a desperate, tearful conversion to Christianity on his deathbed probably would’ve pleased the diabolical trickster.

“Satanism is atheistic. We don’t believe in gods or a devil. Satan, to us, is symbolic of our natural instincts for lust, anger, pride and envy. The very things that every other ‘white light religion’ in the world has taught us to abstain [from],” says Amon. “They’ve taught that if you deny these things in life and torture yourself as you’re denying your natural instincts, you’ll receive all these gifts in heaven once you die.”

Amon stresses that, though a Satanist, they do not speak on behalf of the church. This insistence is not some legal disclaimer; it’s to stress Satanism’s importance on an individual’s growth rather than the herd’s expansion. “Outside Satanism’s core beliefs … things like our core political beliefs are individualistic. What works for me might not work for you.”

LaVeyan Satanists believe strongly in science and the material. They also believe man needs dogma and ritual for psychodrama and emotional release. The rituals are theater. The only thing being conjured is emotions. “The trick is letting go of your rational mind, since you know these devils don’t exist,” says Amon. “It’s all purely symbolic.”

This letting-go is performed through three main types of ritual: Compassion (toward oneself and others), Lust (to release sexual urges) and Destruction (to eradicate anger toward someone who’s done you wrong). The rituals are enacted only for the performer, but some LaVeyan Satanists believe these concentrated, emotional theatrics bear fruit in the outer world.

“We don’t believe in the supernatural, but we have respect for the energies we give out in the ritual chamber.” For example, Amon refuses to perform a ritual of destruction on someone unless they don’t care what befalls the targeted recipient. This discernment was the result of a successful ritual. A coworker owed Amon money. After chasing the person for weeks, Amon performed the ritual of destruction on them. “The very next day, he was caught in all kinds of dirty deals at work and he was fired.” At the time, Amon needed a vehicle. After the coworker got the axe, Amon was given their company car, all within 24 hours of casting the spell. “LaVey said if you encounter success, don’t deny it.”

Amon discovered The Satanic Bible at age 12. Though raised in a Christian South Carolina household, Amon says it wasn’t oppressive. “My mother lost her kidneys when I was born,” Amon says. “She was on dialysis for 24 years and was the person on dialysis for the longest time in the history of South Carolina.” Amon’s mother believed God kept her alive so long. Other than her one awkward effort to “save” her child during a church “intervention,” they shared an uneasy peace. “During the last years of her life, I just lied,” Amon says. “I denied being a Satanist because I wanted her to be happy.”

By its name alone, Satanism attracts outcasts. It’s a society of people suspicious of society. If there is a point to Satanism according to Anton LaVey, it’s to “celebrate thyself.”

“Satanists believe we are born, not made,” says Amon. “It’s an identity … a philosophy and freedom from all religion.”

Eliphas, Cyril and Don Amon share someroots and traits. All three are Southern, solidly middle-class; all are artists, and all are equally thoughtful, erudite and sincere in their beliefs. They don’t give the sense of trying to impress, intimidate or “convert” others to their beliefs, perhaps because their initial enthusiasms have long been surpassed by the experiences of living by these suppressed beliefs. All three local occultists (for lack of a better word) have enjoyed tangible, tactile experiences one could deem “miracles” by way of synchronicity and phenomenon. The occultists have somewhat divergent beliefs, but each seems to know the power of what Eliphas describes as “flipping the altar” to see where it lands. “Much of this,” says Eliphas, “is simply faith and perception acquired by experiences.”

We’re in an interesting spiritual climate. According to the Washington Post, a record 81 percent of white Evangelical Christians voted for Donald Trump. Some have been puzzled that millions of Christians knowingly voted for a candidate whose actions do not resemble the Gospels. Christ never built walls. He did destroy the moneychangers’ temple. But millions of Christians did not vote for Trump, so the temptation to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water is equally biased.

Locally, the struggle to pass the HRO bill through the resistance of some city councilmembers and citizens is fueled by select scriptural passages that justify rights of the “chosen” — while denying those same rights to the marginalized.

Today 1.6 billion Muslims are vilified by a small faction of zealots, who have kinship with Christians seemingly more obsessed with abortions than the suffering of the living. Judeo-Christianity reigns supreme, yet secular humanism and an expanding walk toward Eastern faiths attract many.

Are more stepping off the well-worn paths? The hard refrain of Western religion’s “Your God is my Devil” is countered by another, quieter voice. Whether held in a spired church or a bedroom temple, ceremony serves the same purpose: to commune with something greater than ourselves, and maybe even ourselves. If we remove what’s forbidden, possibilities for hidden connections magnify. One god wears a crown, the other horns. If a soul finds answers, peace and fulfillment, does it matter if it’s in an Anglican vestment or a Luciferian cloak? Our belief’s only inhibitor is what we’re willing to believe. For adherents to the occultic path, an inner light exists within the outer darkness — they walk there alone, as it should be.