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Magical Thinking

For a boy with little exposure to religion, the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons led to a spiritual awakening—that the supernatural may not be the same as the divine

Peter Bebergal
October 27, 2011
(Dave Mathis/Flickr)

For my family, being Jewish didn’t have anything to do with God at all. What I knew of Judaism consisted of Passover meals, my mother lighting Friday night candles, and delicatessens. The mystery of existence, if it was talked about at all, was for adults at funerals. Even then, God was left there to finish piling the dirt on the grave while the mourners went home. Somehow, though, the slight rituals of the Judaism I knew penetrated and I thought about God in my own way.

The only thing that resonated as spiritual was magic. The wizards of fantasy novels appeared to have more direct access to some spiritual reality than my rabbi did. They didn’t wear prayer shawls, but they did commune with higher powers. The supernatural monsters that populated those Saturday morning B movies, however overtly fake in their rubber masks and makeup, could still induce chills and feelings of dread because they drew from real legends and myths. Vampires, werewolves, and mummies—even when incarnated by Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr., and Boris Karloff—led directly into old, maybe even ancient, locks in our unconscious. When Colin Clive playing Victor Frankenstein, in the 1931 Universal Pictures version, imbues his monster with alchemical life and he cries out, “It’s alive!” his eyes reflect a mad ecstasy, a revelation that there are powers and realities beyond the known phenomenal world.

The colorful fantasies of comic books lent a heroic dimension to the implausible, and none treaded in the far-fetched more than those cosmic adventures Marvel Comics published. I bypassed Spider-Man and the Hulk for the enormous, galaxy-spanning adventures of the Fantastic Four, in which the team of misfits met anthropomorphized forces of nature, like the world-eater Galactus, Ego the living planet, and the Celestials, ancient giants whose vast technology secretly altered Earth’s history by creating the wondrous Eternals. In the other team comic, The Avengers, there were characters like the all-powerful alien Korvac, who wrestled with his godlike powers, a time-traveling despot known as Kang the Conqueror, and the Kree, a race of military scientists forever battling the shape-shifting Skrulls.

These stories’ majesty and vigor cooled the anxiety that was becoming a little heated wire under my skin. In these strange environs, I felt cozy. With the Marvel Universe one could create a massive family tree, an elaborate cosmic drama involving gods, mutants, androids, and heroes. Encyclopedias and atlases mapped out every detail of Tolkien’s Middle-earth, and even the music of progressive rock bands like Styx, Rush, and ELO that slid down the record player’s spindle one after the other seemed crafted out of intricate stories and mythologies. It wasn’t just about getting lost in these otherworldly chronicles; my anxiety was soothed by the vastness of worlds beyond my home. Whether or not they were fiction was irrelevant. Their details made them real. And if they could be real, maybe my own imagination had the power to become actualized.

By the time I was 14, Dungeons & Dragons campaigns began to take on a different quality, a more profound sense that what we were playing had ramifications for our own lives outside the game. If I was the one to defeat the dragon, my luck would change at school. The jock who intimidated me every day and sneered with a face full of fury would recognize something powerful in me and know, without understanding why, to leave me alone.

Then, like a cliché right out of a parents’ handbook on the dangers of Dungeons & Dragons, I started to collect books on magic and witchcraft and imagined what it would be like to have real sorcerous powers. I didn’t desire the power to make girls love me or know the future so much as I yearned for magical knowledge. I wanted to know if the astral plane was real, if spirits inhabited rocks and trees and could be communicated with, if behind the veil angelic and demonic beings were engaged in a celestial war. I wanted to know if God was real. This search for spiritual awareness by occult methods was not unique. I was a stowaway on a boat that, by the time it made it to the American suburbs, had undergone such a battering from the winds and storms of time and culture that all I had left was a sliver of wood and a paddle.

Those days were a gold mine for the weird and the uncanny—by the late ’60s and early ’70s, the commingling of all these various spiritual ideas manifested into an impenetrable mixture of correspondences. Go into any New Age bookstore to see the result. Everything is permitted, nothing is discerned. Zen sits side by side with The Satanic Bible; Rosicrucians snuggle up against accounts of UFOs and ancient astronauts; tarot cards, rune stones, astrology, and water divining are just to the left of JFK assassination conspiracy theories and exposés on the truth of the Knights Templar.

This pockmarked, bumpy, and often treacherous spiritual highway wound its way right into the suburbs north of Boston, where I could be found sitting on the floor, rolling dice and reading the eternal statistics tables in the D&D manual, wishing that the magic within the confines of the game was not merely drawn from fantasy novels and mythology, but offered a shadow of something genuine. If magic was real, then maybe these suburbs were also a shadow of some greater reality. Even though the townhouse we lived in was built in the 1970s, maybe the spirits of Native Americans that could have hunted on the very spot where my parents parked their car were still haunting this once hallowed ground. The pulp horror author H. P. Lovecraft wrote about ancient alien gods worshipped in the small towns of New England. Could a similarly strange cult have performed their arcane rituals where the mall now sat, and might their terrible deities be waiting for a neophyte to unlock their secrets? But beyond even these questions was another greater mystery: What, if anything, did the God my rabbi spoke of have to do with any of this, with any of these feelings, these imaginings?

Bus number 455 picked me up right in front of the townhouse association and went straight into Salem, which, I assumed, was the best place to learn about magic. It was here, after all, where real witches lived; at least, that was what the whole city wanted you to believe. The history of the city, whether real or imagined, has attracted self-identified Wiccans and neopagans for decades, and so there really is no better place for a 13-year-old dungeon master to get a book on real arcane knowledge. So, I took a bus alone for the first time, in search of a primer on witchcraft. I chanced upon The Key of Solomon the King, a medieval grimoire (magical text) made popular in the late 19th century during what is called the Occult Revival.

I had never seen another book like it. This was very different from what I had imagined magic was, as described by the fictional worlds I spent so much time inhabiting. In the early editions of Dungeons & Dragons, magic was something you collected in the form of spells and objects. There was no ritual, practice, or discipline. Spells worked immediately and either hit their intended target or missed, depending on the laws of chance generated by the dice. Magic was not mysterious or dangerous. It involved no sacrifice. You simply learned new spells as you went along. In fantasy novels, magic could be deadly to wizards, but it was usually because they were inexperienced or evil and deserving of their fate. But mostly wizards were drawn as if their power were innate, not anything that required much more than studying a few books, maybe cooking up a potion or two.

The Key of Solomon explained how, through an intensely detailed preparation and ritual, one could conjure demons and bend them to the magician’s will, as well as perform other magical feats, like invisibility and flight (with the aid of some magic garters, no less). The rituals involved the construction of magic circles and the use of implements, such as seals, swords, and particular clothing, all of which had to be prepared in almost impossible ways. A spell for invisibility involved writing a certain phrase on the skin of a toad and suspending it from a hair in a cave at midnight. The text was filled with strange sigils, magical seals, and long incantations. While I had read about spells and tarot cards, Ouija boards, and spirit knockings, I had never before read something so old and, well, religious. All of the spells in The Key of Solomon included prayers to God, and much of the text used Hebrew. This was magic that required great preparation of mind and body, a devout belief in God, and the willingness to risk one’s soul. There was almost no practical way in which I was capable of attempting any of the spells or conjurations, but just owning the book was like having access to a source of great power. It was the manifestation of what I wanted to be true about the world, while at the same time being too complex for me to really use. I could barely get away with lighting a candle without instantly alerting my mother’s sixth sense of anything on fire. My innate skepticism was held at bay by the impossibility of it all. Nevertheless, the Key was an actual key, one that could unlock the secrets of the world.

Having no control over my surroundings, I thought magic seemed like the perfect organizing principle, except that for every stone unturned, another, even stranger one appeared in its place. When all I had to soothe my anxiousness were video games and role-playing, the kind of magic found in The Key of Solomon offered some small hope that there was a secret order and meaning to the universe, that all things on Earth were a mere reflection of some greater divine truth. That hope, however, led to an even greater confusion. I wasn’t sure I knew what I would do if I really did turn invisible or fly. Would I sneak into the girls’ locker room or take Fantastic Four #1 and Amazing Fantasy #15 from the wall behind the clerk’s counter at the comics shop?

These weren’t the things I wanted magic to attain for me. Even when I played D&D, I was loath to use magic as an offensive weapon. It felt like cheating to cast infinite magic missiles at the hopeless horde of orcs. But I studied the book and felt that smoldering around the edges of the words was something not unlike those forbidden experiences I gleaned from the pamphlets on illegal drugs, and very much like the Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath albums in my brother’s stack of records.

While I wanted to understand something about magic, my instincts told me that God and magic were somehow incompatible, or at least that magic might not be the right tool if what I was looking for was spiritual in nature. So I had to ask myself what I was after: Was it mysticism or magic, communion with God, or power over his angels?

Excerpted from Too Much to Dream: A Psychedelic American Boyhood by Peter Bebergal. Copyright © 2011 by Peter Bebergal. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Soft Skull Press.

Peter Bebergal is the co-author of The Faith Between Us. He blogs at mysterytheater.blogspot.com.

Peter Bebergal is the co-author of The Faith Between Us. He blogs at mysterytheater.blogspot.com.