This is a revised and expanded version of a previous essay.
One of the first things that one comes across when researching deities and mystical paths are various associations. What color is used for this goddess? What elements? What symbols, runes, and astrological signs represent her? Which numbers? Can she be tied into the Tree of Life?
When I first started learning the elements, some of the first questions asked were of the form
What types of rocks do you associate with air?
It can get truly baffling and in many respects is wholly ahistorical in nature from our perspective as Norse Occultists–associations were likely made, but probably not in the way they are being made today. There is a history of associations being made in this way which tracks alongside occultist groups such as the Order of the Golden Dawn, and we can see table after table of associations in the work of their members, many of which we still use today for our own work. In group practice these associations start to shine, since they can facilitate everyone drawing the exact same meaning from the symbol in a ritual setting, contributing to the power of the symbol.
Unfortunately, associations–while everywhere–have been increasingly losing their relevance and meaning to many practitioners. We run into the immediate danger of treating a Deity as merely a set of associations and abstractions: Call Freyja for your love problems! Trouble with leadership? Go see Zeus! Need victory in your upcoming business meeting? Odin’s your man! Numerous books, guides, and tables seem to feel that the best way to summarize Odin is to give him a neatly compartmentalized domain, a color, and an astrological association.
Beyond being disrespectful, this superficial trap demonstrates a lack of proper education and training in the mystical arts. This is the problem that Dion Fortune alluded to in The Mystical Qabalah when she said:
It is this lack of training which makes popular occultism so very apt to degenerate into the crudest superstition. “Your number in your name” becomes a different thing when we understand the mathematical Qabalah; fortunes in tea-cups are another matter when we understand the significance of the Magical Images and the method of their formulation and interpretation as a psychological device for penetrating the veil of the unconscious.
We see this crop up in a variety of places. Many people confuse astrology with “what’s your sign” and see divination as something one does for fun while getting wholly caught up in the Forer Effect. They either lock themselves into the pattern of magic (does it have to be a green candle?) or go to the other extreme to the point where they seem to think vague intention is sufficient by itself. To quote the Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis:
When the patient is an adult recently re-converted to the Enemy’s party, like your man, this is best done by encouraging him to remember, or to think he remembers, the parrot-like nature of his prayers in childhood. In reaction against that, he may be persuaded to aim at something entirely spontaneous, inward, informal, and unregularised; and what this will actually mean to a beginner will be an effort to produce in himself a vaguely devotional mood in which real concentration of will and intelligence have no part. […] That is exactly the sort of prayer we want; and since it bears a superficial resemblance to the prayer of silence as practised by those who are very far advanced in the Enemy’s service, clever and lazy patients can be taken in by it for quite a long time.
A deeper understanding of the Mysteries virtually requires the use of associations, for they are part of how the mind understands an abstract. By linking chains of associations, the mind can reach startling and amazing conclusions and develop a much deeper understanding of the world around us. Symbols and associations build on one another to allow us to understand one abstract concept in terms of another, and to understand on a deeper level the properties of an object. They can also be used, as The Chicken Qabalah recommends, to bend one’s perceptions until they break in order to gain deeper levels of understanding.
For a more concrete example of how this can work, let’s look at an example of an association in Northern Tradition for the Solitary Practitioner by Krasskova and Kaldera. In the appendix they talk about “Deity Altars and Offerings.” These aren’t the same kinds of
tables of associations I was referring to earlier, but beyond their Divine uses they serve a similar purpose. The book mentions that sea-green is a color for Rán and mentions things like shells and gold coins are good choices for the altar (for some reason driftwood seems like a really good idea at the moment too). Beyond the obvious divine implications, placing these on the altar helps set the mind and triggers one’s thoughts of Rán when they look at it, it sets the mood and helps shift the mind. Given our cultural and collective associations, it wouldn’t be a far leap for someone who had never heard of Rán to look at such an altar and think
goddess of the sea.
Similarly, if I put fluorite on my altar everyone in my group will immediately think
air (and not just air, but a particular form thereof) and by considering that association–why we feel that way, what does it imply, etc–we can come to understand both the metaphysical properties of
The human mind has an amazing associative ability. We can associate a key word with an emotional pattern; a scent with a time, place, or even a state of mind; or a symbol with concepts that we can scarcely begin to put into words. This is the power of associations and on why meditating regularly on those associations helps us as occultists. It is also part of why so many occult paths use associations on some level to help foster understanding, and part of what makes the writings of some occultists seem like they are speaking in code due to the multiple layers of associations they are employing to try and explain a concept. To quote The Mystical Qabalah
Each symbol, moreover, admits of interpretation upon the different planes, and through its astrological associations can be related to the gods of any pantheon, thus opening up vast new fields of implication in which the mind ranges endlessly, symbol leading on to symbol in an unbroken chain of associations; symbol confirming symbol as the many-branching threads gather themselves together into a synthetic glyph once more, and each symbol capable of interpretation in terms of whatever plane the mind may be functioning upon.
This mighty, all-embracing glyph of the soul of man and of the universe, by virtue of its logical association of symbols, evokes images in the mind; but these images are not randomly evolved, but follow along well-defined association-tracks in the Universal Mind.
This applies regardless of our foundation: be it the Tree of Life, the gods, or the Nine Worlds, by building these associations and meditating on them we can develop a deeper appreciation and understanding of the workings of the universe and our own mind. It is important, however, to keep in mind that what is important about a symbol is not that it is written down in some old book: it is a living thing that the consideration of is more important than merely following by rote.