Jun 11, 2024, 06:27AM

Money, Magic and the Imagination

A magical ritual in the City of London.

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Photo: Niffy Boyask.

Six people came to the New Moon money burning ritual in the Temple of Vesta, next door to the Bank of England, on June 6th. They were: Jon Eldude, Hélène Williams, Harry Bryan, Niffy Boyask, Joe Ospalla, and myself.

For those unfamiliar with the concept: burning money may be viewed as ritual sacrifice, not dissimilar to the sacrificial rites that commonly took place in Classical antiquity, when animals would be slaughtered as a gift to the gods. This was an almost universal practice in pre-Christian Europe, and probably throughout the world. Sacrificial rites continue to this day in modern India, amongst the Samaritans of Palestine, and symbolically in the Christian Eucharist. Most ancient sacred books—the Vedas, the Old Testament, the I-Ching, the Analects of Confucius—focus on the notion of ritual sacrifice, as do more recent additions to the sacred canon, such as the New Testament.

The New Testament makes Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, as the Lamb of God, the final and definitive sacrifice (in celebration of which we eat our sacrificial lamb at Easter) but that would only apply if you were a practicing Christian. For those of us who take a less dogmatic view, that particular interpretation is incomplete. We still feel the need for ongoing sacrifice on a cellular and psychological level. Money makes the perfect offering. As a money burner you’re acting both as sacrificer and sacrificed, as priest and victim. You are sacrificing something of yourself—something that has value to you, that you worked to produce—while hurting no one but yourself. To parody the old film disclaimer: no animals were harmed in the making of this sacrifice.

The word “sacrifice” means “to make sacred.” By sacrificing you’re giving something up, letting it go, releasing your hold on something precious or valuable in the hope, perhaps, of shifting fate, of influencing the gods, of making a change in the world. It suggests the idea of an invisible realm parallel to our own where the gods reside, on the other side of the line we call consciousness, and which we can bridge by these symbolic acts. Whether you think this is true or not is up to you.

I’ve written about money burning before: here and here. I got the idea from Jon Harris, the Money Burning Guy, who got the idea from the KLF, who got it from god-knows where. You can find Jon’s blog here on Substack, and some of his longer essays here on Medium. There’s also a book, The Money Burner’s Manual, which you can find here, and a magazine, Burning Issue, which you can get here. I recommend them all.

As for the KLF: they were a hugely successful rave duo in the 1990s who suddenly, and inexplicably, got it into their heads to burn a million pounds on August 23, 1994 and who then spent the next few decades haunted by the fact. As Bill Drummond, one of the members, put it: “If I knew what I was doing, there’d be no point in doing it.” That story is brilliantly and memorably told in John Higgs’ seminal book: The KLF: Chaos Magic and the Band Who Burned a Million Pounds. I recommend the tenth anniversary edition, which contains additional footnotes, which I reviewed for Splice Today, here.

Jon Harris has continued money burning rituals around the UK, in theaters and other gatherings, for many years. He and I were also involved in a series of events in the City of London, from 2016 to 2019. I chronicled the first of those in a series of articles beginning with this one. There are links at the bottom of each piece to take you on to the next.

We called the events “Reclaim the Sacred.” The idea was to find areas in the City of London that were suitable for ritual action and, by that process, reclaim them as sacred spaces. The anarchist equivalent of this is a Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ), a concept first formulated by Hakim Bey, aka Peter Lamborn Wilson. A TAZ is a liberated area which briefly eludes the formal restrictions of conventional society, in order to make space for new thoughts. We used different sites, including the Monument to the Great Fire of London, the concourse outside the Bank of England, Temple Church, the precincts in front of St Paul’s Cathedral, and the pavement outside the Royal Courts of Justice.

You can see a brief rundown of events that day in this YouTube video.

One of the places we discovered was the Temple of Vesta, on the North West corner of the Bank of England. This is known as Tivoli Corner. It’s a copy of the Temple of Vesta in Tivoli, Rome, which was once inside the bank, before it was opened up for the public to pass through in 1936. Vesta was the goddess of the hearth, home and family in the Roman religion. She was rarely depicted in anthropomorphic form. Rather she was worshipped as a sacred fire that was tended by her priestesses, the Vestal Virgins. Why the architect of the Bank of England, John Soane, wanted to include a reference to the ancient Roman religion as part of his design is debatable, although any familiarity with the building makes it clear that the whole edifice is a temple of sorts—a Temple of Money—which makes the idea of sacrificing money at a shrine to a flame, in an attached space next door, particularly appealing.

So that’s what I decided to do: burn money on the occasion of the head of our new sovereign, King Charles III, appearing on our bank notes for the first time. This took place on June 5th. The following day, the 6th, was a New Moon, symbolic of new beginnings, which was the day I chose as the appropriate one for the sacrifice. It was only later, on the morning of the event, as I was writing down the numbers in my note book, that I realized the significance of this: 6/6/24. Add up the final two numbers and you’ll see what I’m getting at. I also did a tarot reading, shuffling the cards and cutting the pack randomly with my left hand. I use the Marseilles deck, the standard deck in early modern Europe. The three cards I picked were: the Popess (the High Priestess: major arcana II) the Empress (III) and Temperance (XIV). Any familiarity with the cards will tell you that the first two are images of powerful women, one with spiritual and the other with temporal power, while the third, Temperance, shows an angel in female form pouring water from one vessel to another. She’s representative of balance. To pick three major arcana cards out of a pack of 78 is highly unusual.

I’ll add a disclaimer. You aren’t required to believe any of this. There’s a difference between magic and religion. Religion’s a set of beliefs that are seen as sacrosanct, eternal, beyond question, while magic is playful and imaginative. Magic is experimental spirituality. You take on a belief, act upon it, and then see if it makes any difference to the world or not. That was the motivation behind our actions. We were performing them, not out of dogma, not out of certainty, but out of playful engagement with the spirit of ritual, as an experiment, to see where it might lead. The numbers 666 and the three goddesses of the Tarot merely suggested that we might be on the right track.

Another little synchronicity came when I looked up Vesta on the internet. It turned out, by accident—by the random play of chance in these mortal realms—that the 6th day of June was one day before the beginning of the festival of Vesta, the Vestalia, of ancient Rome: Vestalia Eve. As Josef Stalin once put it, “Twice is a coincidence, three times a conspiracy.” This was a threefold conspiracy by the universe to confirm the efficacy of our actions, to let us know that our intentions were correct.

A few more observations before I continue. According to Julian Vayne, magic is “the technology of the imagination.” It’s using particular techniques to focus the mind, to make a change in the world. That change may be internal, to do with our own attitudes, our hopes and aspirations, our limitations and anxieties. Or it may be external. We may use magic as a way of influencing or controlling other people.

How is this possible? In a secular world, magic no longer has any such power. But maybe that’s because we no longer call it magic. Maybe magic is still prevalent, but we call it by other names. It’s my suggestion that one of the forms that modern-day magic takes is money. Money’s magic. It’s one of the most effective, and all-pervading, “technologies of the imagination” of the last few centuries, particularly in its form as fiat money: money that’s created as legal tender by fiat, by proclamation, which is another word for enchantment, chanting something into existence as a form of words, as a government decree. This is the very definition of magic.

Unlike gold or silver, fiat money has no intrinsic value. It’s symbolic. Paper money costs virtually nothing to produce, while digital money is nothing more than electronic blips on a screen. And yet these symbolic figures can represent any value, large or small. And where does that representation take place? In the imagination. Money is a sigil, a magical sign. It signifies desire. We measure the value of things by how much we’re willing to pay for them.

Money works as an integral part of a system of control. In our world there’s little you can do without money. Those who have money are made powerful by it. They can do almost anything they want. They can shape our world to their will. They can indulge their weirdest fantasies. They can waste our collective resources on the fulfilment of their private dreams. Those who don’t have money become servile or oppressed. They’ll do anything for money. They’ll degrade themselves. They’ll sell their souls and give up their humanity. The power of money controls the world, and those who control that power, control us.

The system’s called capitalism. The word “capital” is from the Latin and means “head”: as in the head of the column, the capitol, the capital letter at the head of a sentence, or the capital city, where the head of the nation resides. A capital offense is one where life is taken away, as in “kaput.” the removal of the head. The words “cattle” and “chattel” are also derived from the same source. Both words mean property, which suggests that the notion of private ownership is at the head of our sense of propriety in the capitalist world.

Modern capitalism started in the City of London. To quote from David Graeber’s book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years: “In 1694 a consortium of English bankers made a loan of £1,200,000 to the king. In return they received a royal monopoly on the issuance of banknotes. What this meant in practice was they had the right to advance IOUs for a portion of the money the king now owed them to any inhabitant of the kingdom willing to borrow from them, or willing to deposit their own money in the bank – in effect, to circulate or ‘monetize’ the newly created royal debt. This was a great deal for the bankers (they got to charge the king 8 percent annual interest for the original loan and simultaneously charge interest on the same money to the clients who borrowed it), but it only worked as long as the original loan remained outstanding. To this day, this loan has never been paid back. It cannot be. If it were, the entire monetary system of Great Britain would cease to exist.”

It was after this that the British Empire began to spread its tendrils around the globe, using money borrowed from the monetized debt created by the Bank of England. The British Empire was built using magic. Magic and violence: the arms and navy ships which were used to back up the trading ships also paid for by the debt. And as it spread its power, the Empire also spread its ideas, its methods. Modern notions of property, as exclusive to an elite owner class, sealed by legal documents hidden in vaults—another form of magic—originates in the British Isles. Tribal people have no such concept. For tribal people property is collective. It belongs to the whole.

That’s the background to the events on June 6th, when I met my five compatriots at the Monument to the Great Fire in the City of London, at noon: or slightly later, as the Circle Line wasn’t running and nobody thought to announce it over the Tannoy at King’s Cross station where Jon Eldude and I were waiting. We only found out when we asked an attendant why there didn’t seem to be any Circle Line trains and someone else, overhearing, told us that there had been an incident. Consequently we were about half an hour late.

The other four were waiting for us. As soon as we arrived the attendant at the Monument said, “ah-ha! People are looking for you!” I was wearing my top hat with crow feathers and a caduceus on the front, and carrying my 6000-year-old bog oak staff. Slowly the others filtered into our field of view: Hélène Williams, who was dressed as Vesta in orange, yellow and white, with a headdress of flowers festooned with twinkling LED lights, carrying an LED lantern. I know Hélène from Whitstable. She’s someone I’ve performed magical rituals with in the past. The others were: Joe Ospalla, who I know from Facebook, but who I was meeting for the first time, Niffy Boyask, who was dressed as a Roman Priestess, and Harry Bryan, who arrived just after I’d started to speak. I’d never met either Niffy or Harry before. Niffy had seen a post on Facebook, while Harry received a notification in the Illuminates of Thanateros newsletter.

I read a few bits out about what our intentions were and then we walked to the Bank of England. I was gratified not to be the only person planning to burn money. Hélène, Harry and Joe had also put a stash aside ready for the flame. After marking our notes with a sigil consisting of a series of mathematical signs (more than, >, less than, < and equals, =) we took them into the Bank for the exchange. We call the sigil “the Equaliser.”

The people in the Bank were very friendly and impressed by our costumes. “Did you dress up for us?” they asked. I was pleased to see a spectacular mosaic of a giant caduceus on the floor. I’d never noticed that before. We pointed it out to the Bank of England staff and showed them the caduceus on my hat. That was my fourth confirmation of the day.

As I said, the place has the air of a Temple, with Romanesque statues everywhere, and a huge, domed roof, with a circular window to let in the light. Queuing up in this palace, in this Temple to Money, made it abundantly clear that money is magic, a modern egregore entity in its own right. After collecting our notes we circled the building to get to the Temple of Vesta. On the way Joe told me that he’d burned money a few times and that it was the only magical act that had ever made any sense to him. This was the first time that he had joined with others in the process.

We got to the Temple and, after a few introductory words, set light to our notes. They burned very satisfactorily, being made of polymer, a thin, flexible, and gratifyingly flammable plastic. They kept going for several minutes, unlike the old paper notes that used to go up in seconds.

We were burning our money to mark the accession of Charles III to the throne of England, which represents a change of epoch, from the Elizabethan, to the Carolean. The first Charles had his head lopped off in 1649. The second oversaw the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. The reign of both monarchs saw significant shifts in the constitutional arrangements of the British Isles. It wasn’t long after the death of the second Charles in 1685, that Britain set out on its imperial adventure. By burning our money at this juncture, this junction, at this time and place, as the new Carolean era dawns, we were sending our intention out into the world, using the lines of energy that emanate from the Bank of England, replacing that masculine power of domination and control with female power, as represented by Vesta. The power of hearth and home, of love and light.

Every human deserves a home. Every human needs warmth and security, a place to call our own. A garden to tend. A fire to give us comfort. A space to be who we are. That’s what Vesta represents. That’s what we were wishing for the world: a home for everyone, security for everyone, freedom from war and oppression, freedom from want, a place of warmth and comfort for the whole world.

And then it was done. We held hands. We said some prayers. I gave some thanks. Hélène read out a poem she’d composed for the occasion and Niffy read a Gorsedd prayer. We speculated a little about the meaning of all this, after which we went to the pub.

Just a couple of more observations. On the material level nothing much happened. We set light to some plastic in a precinct. Some of us were made a little poorer. People stopped and gave us skeptical looks as they passed by. But on the immaterial level, things really did happen. We created a bond between us, which will last forever. I made new friends that day. We also sealed our sense of belonging to this place, this obscure little alcove in London’s metropolitan heart. The Temple of Vesta belongs to us now: not in the legal sense, but in a more ancient way. It be-longs to us, as being and longing, as being over time. It abides in us, as a place of memory and desire. We have made it our own. We have sealed it with ritual.

As to whether our prayers will be answered: we’ll have to wait and see.

—You can watch the entire event here on YouTube.


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