The Other Side of the Hedge: The Magnum Opus

The Other Side of the Hedge: The Magnum Opus November 1, 2015

Life is about more than just being terribly clever and easily dissatisfied primates who happen to have a penchant for television and microwaveable snacks. Our lives have purpose, and meaning. Part of being spiritually aware is coming to a deeper knowledge of ourselves.

In my last post, I talked about calling your spirit back to you. Here, I’d like you to join me in looking a little deeper. Much of spiritual training is concerned with finding and following our own sense of purpose.

a close-up image of a blue, green human eye
Eyes are the window to the soul / Polly Peterson (2009) /

Purpose isn’t something given to us; it isn’t something we find out there in the world. Instead, purpose is a matter of character; it’s a condition of our souls. What sets us apart isn’t some small choice we make to make our lives “matter” (though sometimes it can help). The work of the soul is what gives us purpose and meaning.

Perhaps one of the most important things I ever learned from the Western Occult Tradition is the “Magnum Opus” – the Great Work. This is an idea that doesn’t get nearly enough attention in Pagan circles; when we do talk about it, we treat it like a laudable mystery. We might sing the praises of the Great Work, but we never seem to discuss it in a way that is either terribly specific or useful.

Coming to know your Great Work is a matter of self-knowledge. Though it is rarely spoken of directly, it’s one of those things that we’re forever pretending we understand. And there’s this awkwardness around it, as if the Great Work was mentioned in a class we happened to skip to hang out with our friends.

It’s not easy to talk about. On the surface, your Great Work and mine are not the same. Yet they share something – a connection to the fundamental ground of reality. Bringing that fundamental power to our lives is the Great Work.


The Magnum Opus, or Great Work, has its roots in Western alchemy. Originally, the Great Work indicated the creation of the Philosopher’s Stone, purported to bring either eternal life or unending wealth. However, the Great Work I am referring to is the work of the soul.

The broader, more modern use of the term “Great Work” comes from the writings of Eliphas Levi (Alphonse Louis Constant, 1810 – 1875). Levi was one of the first of the modern ceremonial magicians. His writings strongly influenced the work of Theosophy, the Golden Dawn, and Thelema. Through all three of these strands, he also had considerable influence on Wicca and Neo paganismin general. In short, Eliphas Levi’s work was formative and important.

A five pointed star with both the word "tetragramaton" around it and other arcane symbols
Pentagram Levi black” by Nyo – Levi, Eliphas (1855) Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Of all the ideas put forth in Levi’s work, I believe that the Great Work is one of the most important and most useful. For him, it was an awakening of the spiritual force within a person – a force that could shape the world. We might call it the awakening of the soul.

For Eliphas Levi and the magicians who have come after him, the Great Work has been the study of magic. There is no reason that studying magic shouldn’t be our Great Work, but there’s also no reason that it has to be.

Stepping back and looking at the larger phenomenon, the Great Work could refer to any work that reaches the fundamental ground of reality. That being said, how do we find it?

Finding a Calling

The Great Work isn’t some unknowable occult mystery. It’s a very knowable occult mystery. Here are a couple of ideas to help you find your own:

The Great Work comes from our own souls. It is an expression of something deeper than the everyday spirit. Admittedly, I’m not convinced about most of what Western Culture has to say about the soul. What I can say, from experience, is that there is something that shines a spiritual light out into the world. It is from this place that we can draw purpose and meaning.

the sun rising in the mist
Into the world / Polly Peterson (2011) /

We can, in time, and with discipline and effort, communicate with our souls. The study of the spiritual, including the study of magic, is about more than learning a few neat things about the universe. Finding purpose and meaning in our lives is both the first step and the last step in our Great Work. The Great Work turns magic from an odd hobby into something far greater.

We are here to accomplish great things. The focus of the Great Work encourages us to face challenges with dignity. When we’re moved by our deepest selves, there’s not a lot of room for pettiness.

And if that fails, there’s always television and microwaveable snacks.

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