At first glance, the notorious magus and self-styled ‘Great Beast 666’ Aleister Crowley might seem an unlikely candidate for the Ouija Board. Whatever else can be said of him, Crowley was a fearless and tireless explorer in realms of the spirit, although generally contemptuous of simple-minded – and largely Christian-inflected – popularist movements such as Spiritualism, which experienced several waves of popularity during his lifetime, with its coming-and-going fads of automatism, ectoplasm, mediums, Ouija Boards, and séances. He summed up his attitude to what he called “Spiritism” with the single exclamation “Faugh!” and made his distaste for what he considered the parlour games of the uninitiated quite clear when he wrote for the New York-based paper, The International, in October 1917:
“Suppose a perfect stranger came into your office and proceeded to give orders to your staff. Suppose a strange woman walked into your drawing room and insisted on being hostess. You would be troubled by this. Yet, people sit down and offer the use of their brains and hands (which are, after all, more important than offices and drawing rooms) to any stray intelligence that may be wandering about. People use the Ouija Board without taking the slightest precautions.”
The Ouija Board was at that time still a relatively recent arrival – introduced as little more than a parlour game by an American entrepreneur in 1890, it wasn’t until the turn of the century it even acquired “Ouija” as a name. Trying to cash in on the vogue for all-things-Egyptian, it was suggested that it was an Ancient word meaning “good luck,” but then it was later revealed to simply come from the French and German for “yes” being put together: “oui” and “ja.” It wasn’t until it was taken up by Spiritualist Pearl Curran, around the First World War, that it took on more ‘otherworldly’ connotations. I’m sure everybody knows the basic idea: a board with the letters of the alphabet, also numbers 0 to 9 and words ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ for good measure – and even if you haven’t dabbled yourself, we’re all familiar with the basic premise, plot device of many lurid horror movie and spooky story – getting together around the board, with an upside down shot glass, or, if you want to be more authentic, a planchette, to launch an inevitably ill-advised séance with the careless words: “Is there anybody there?”
The aforementioned planchette is where the connection with Spiritualism really starts to come in. The marketing suggested it was the invention of one “Monsieur Planchette” but it is more likely that the word simply derives from the French for “little plank.” It was designed initially as a device to facilitate Automatic Writing, which was all the rage with psychic explorers of the late 19th Century – the roughly triangular (or occasionally heart-shaped) device was mounted on small ball-bearing wheels and adapted to hold a pen or pencil that would enable the spirits to write messages while the medium or mediums simply rested their hand or hands upon it, and watched it glide across the page. A similar process was instrumental in the Automatic Writing sessions of psycho-archaeologist Frederick Bligh Bond (1864-1945) during his excavations at Glastonbury Abbey and claimed as the source of the insights prompting his surprisingly successful excavations. It was inevitable that somebody would combine the two, Ouija Board and planchette, sooner or later, with seemingly spectacular results.
Sinister or silly as this may seem, there are more serious precedents for the Talking Board, despite its somewhat banal and commercial origins. The idea of devices of some kind that enable contact with spirits – whether disembodied elementals or ghosts of the dead – is, in fact, an old one. Long before the birth of Confucius, the Chinese made use of a method of planchette-style automatism called fuji to communicate with the spirits of their ancestors. Similar methods were and still are used in temples in Taiwan, where mediums known as chi shengs work either alone or in pairs, sitting before a large tray of white sand, holding in their hands a v-shaped writing tool. After appropriate prayers, their hands begin to shake and the implement allegedly starts writing out messages in the sand. In Greece, circa 540 B.C., the philosopher Pythagoras was said to use a special ‘talking table’ on wheels. With hands placed upon the table, it would move toward different signs and symbols, and Pythagoras or his pupil Philolaus would then interpret the message to the waiting audience as being divine revelations, supposedly from an unseen world. There are references to similar practices in Ancient Rome: the Emperor Valens had a trio of men executed who had been trying to determine the name of his successor by use of a pendulum hung over a dish with the letters of the alphabet around the rim – and even some tribes of Native American Indians used a spirit board which they called a squdilatc to help locate missing people and objects, or receive messages from the spirit-world.
What is not so well known is that in private Crowley, in fact, advocated the use of the Ouija Board, at least by trained adepts, conveying quite a different attitude to followers such as Jane Wolfe, and especially Charles Stansfeld Jones.
Jane Wolfe (1875-1958), a Hollywood actress in the days of the silent screen, went to Cefalu from 1920 to 1923 after she and Crowley had pursued each other long distance via a two-year correspondence, from which apparently she was half expecting a spiritual master and half expecting a lover. Thelemic scholar J. Edward Cornelius, to whose work I was introduced by the late Gerald Suster (of whom more later), wrote a detailed examination of Aleister Crowley and the Ouija Board in his short book of the same name, to which I am greatly indebted. Cornelius writes that Jane Wolfe regularly used the Ouija Board, and that “She credits some of her greatest spiritual communications to use of this implement” – but I have to admit, my researches have turned up little of any use. I’m sure that Mr. Cornelius has had the benefit of access to unpublished papers, but all that I have been able to find is a reference in her Cefalu diaries to having “opened battle” via the Ouija Board and Automatic Writing to defend herself from ‘psychic attack’ of a decidedly sexual nature. She would wake from unwelcome wet dreams with the lingering feeling of penetration, usually occurring in the aftermath of her monthly period. Wolfe was eventually able to first identify the oppressing entity as one “John Myers,” then presumably fend off his unwelcome astral advances, which apparently left her facing the stark choice of a sanitarium or marriage – at least according to the doctor that she consulted!
(Vintage Ouija Boards)
As for C. S. Jones (1886-1950), better known by his magickal name of Frater Achad, he was an English accountant who had joined the Argenteum Astrum after first reading The Equinox in 1909. His career later took him to British Columbia, where he became Crowley’s A.’.A.’. and O.T.O. rep for Canada. Among other things he is remembered for esoteric writings about Qabala, the Holy Grail, the Egyptian revival, and his work anticipating the controversial Future Aeon of Maat. His magickal record, A Master of the Temple, impressed Crowley enough that he published it in The Equinox, and for quite a while The Great Beast considered Achad his magickal Son & Heir. Most of all, it was felt that his actions in taking the Oath of the Abyss had enabled Crowley to advance to the grade of Magus. What we are concerned with here, however, is the discussion that Jones & Crowley had about the subject of the Ouija, which is frequently mentioned in their unpublished letters, also in passing Jones’s 1923 work, Crystal Vision through Crystal Gazing, in which he notes that in relationship to scrying “the case of the Ouija Board applies equally to the Crystal.” Jones also made the significant comparison of the roughly triangular-shaped planchette used for Automatic Writing, or in conjunction with the Ouija Board, with the traditional Triangle of the Art used in Solomonic magic for the containment of Spirits that have been conjured by the magician from the safety of his magic circle. As Crowley had observed in Magick In Theory and Practice:
“You invoke a God into a Circle. You evoke a Spirit into the Triangle.”
In 1917, Achad experimented with the board as a means of summoning, rather than the usual Spirits of the Dead, the Angels of the famed Enochian system of Dr. John Dee and Edward Kelley. Crowley himself had first encountered this system during his time in the Golden Dawn and had worked it extensively with his lover and disciple, the poet Victor Neuburg, scrying the Aethyrs as they traversed the desert of Algeria (as recorded in The Vision and the Voice.) Jones shared his discoveries with his guru, of course, and Crowley replied:
“Your Ouija Board experiment is rather fun. You see how very satisfactory it is, but I believe things improve greatly with practice. I think you should keep to one angel, and make the magical preparations more elaborate.”
Over the years, both became so fascinated by the board that they even talked about marketing their own design. Their discussions came to a head in a letter, dated February 21, 1919, in which Crowley, ever the hustler, told Jones:
“Re: Ouija Board. I offer you the basis of ten percent of my net profit. You are if you accept this, responsible for the legal protection of the ideas, and the marketing of the copyright designs. I trust that this may be satisfactory to you. I hope to let you have the material in the course of a week.”
In March, Crowley wrote to Achad to inform him “I’ll think up another name for Ouija.” But their business venture never came to fruition and Crowley’s design, along with his new name for the board, is sadly lost to posterity.
What has come down to us, however, is The Master Therion’s instructions for what he saw as the correct use of the Ouija Board as an instrument of magickal inquiry. In the same year that Frater Achad began his experiments, Crowley penned a short article, The Ouija Board – A Note, for the aforementioned German-owned paper The International, which he was writing for in New York, in which he sets out his position clearly and simply:
“There is, however, a good way of using this instrument to get what you want, and that is to perform the whole operation in a consecrated circle so that undesirable aliens cannot interfere with it. You should then employ the proper magical invocation in order to get into your circle just the one spirit you want. It is comparatively easy to do this. A few simple instructions are all that is necessary, and I shall be pleased to give these, free of charge, to anyone who cares to apply.”
The basic message is that if you consider the planchette as analogous to the Triangle of Art that traditionally accompanies the magic circle as a locus for the evocation of Spirits, you place the Ouija Board and its planchette at the centre of a circle of protection, perform an appropriate cleansing – such as the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram, or one of Crowley’s Thelemic variants – then proceed to invoke specific named entities. These entities can then be tested by questioning and examination, constrained to answer via the medium of the planchette and board. If one wanted to follow in Achad and Crowley’s footsteps and use the Ouija as a means of engaging the Enochian Angels, I would suggest also warding your ritual working space with the Elemental Watchtowers at each of the four quarters – then proceeding with the appropriate Calls or Keys, as correspond to the level of being you wish to communicate with, obviously starting with Earth of Earth – and then working your way up, as it were.
This, at least, is the version that was outlined to me by Gerald Suster in London in the late 1980s, based on his discussions with Israel Regardie and examination of the Crowley-Achad correspondence, and that I understood to be the basis of his own practise in this area. This article is offered in Gerald’s memory : Thelemite, Teacher, Scholar, Gentleman & Friend.
References/Images: Vintage Ouija borden
Matthew Levi Stevens was born shortly before Midnight on the 31st of October 1966. He is a writer, researcher, rare book dealer, and occasional poet, speaker and story-teller, with a background in music and performance art.
An early awareness of the Occult and a range of ‘chance encounters’ with artist-practitioners while still only a schoolboy of 15 determined his path at a young age. He has been exploring the Magical Universe and matters sacred and profane for the past three decades. His essay The Magical Universe of William S. Burroughs has now been published. See photo, taken on April 1, 2016, at the launch of the book at Treadwells, London. (Morgana)
With his partner Emma Doeve he is also working on a Grimoire inspired by the Graeco-Egyptian Magical Papyri.