The Threefold Path in the First Triad of the Tree of Life

Mapping the Great Circle – My Threefold Way of Western Esotericism

In the work of Dion Fortune (and her excellent commentator and fellow Christian esotericist, Gareth Knight), one encounters a meta-structure for the Western Mystery Tradition, which classifies the three major strands of the tradition according to the three paths of the Tree of Life that depart from Malkuth, using the color symbolism of the Sephiroth in the Queen Scale of colors: “the Green of Netzach at the base of the Pillar of Energy, the Orange of Hod at the base of the Pillar of Form, and the Purple of Yesod on the Middle Pillar of Aspiration.”

As adumbrated by Gareth Knight,

The Green Ray consists of the nature contacts in the broadest sense, and encapsulates most mythopoeic formulations relating to nature and to the Earth, including Elemental and Faery traditions. The Orange Ray describes the study of symbolism and its manipulation in ceremonial or visualized forms, frequently in terms of the Tree of Life of the Qabalah. The Purple Ray denotes religious mysticism, a direct approach to the spirit, and the devotional way usually expressed in the West in Christian terms. (Gareth Knight, “Dion Fortune and the Three-fold Way“)

Or, as schematized by Peregrin Wildoak in his great blog post on the subject:

  • Hermetic Mysteries (pillar of severity, orange ray) – the path of ceremonial magic, Qabalistic analysis and exegesis, intellectual contemplation. Here a spiritual force or being is approached by symbolism in its broadest context.
  • Devotional Mysticism (pillar of mildness, purple ray) – the path of Christian and other religious worship, adoration and mysticism. Here a spiritual force or being is approached by devotion in its broadest contexts.
  • Nature Contacts (pillar of mercy, green ray) – the nature path, working with nature beings, the fey, the land spirits, Goddesses and Gods of the natural order. Here a spiritual force or being is approached by empathy in its broadest contexts.”
Gareth Knight's great collection of essays, Dion Fortune and the Three Fold Way.
Dion Fortune and the Three Fold Way, by Gareth Knight.

As Wildoak mentions, much contemporary occult practice includes the Hermetic Mysteries (orange ray) and Nature Contacts (green ray), such as a practitioner who is both a member of a Golden Dawn temple and a practicing Pagan. Or one might be a Christian Hermeticist or Neoplatonist while also an active member of an exoteric Christian denomination. These folks might incorporate the third pillar or ray in some small way in their practice. But the fullness of the Western Tradition, through the integration of the three paths and their complete expression, is often elusive in contemporary practice.

Tensions in the Threefold Way

Part of the problem, to use those two examples of hypothetical esoteric practitioners, is the frequent perception of tension or hostility between the rays — the Pagan who is hostile to the frequently (in the West) Christian expression of the purple ray, or the Christian who is unsure about the appropriateness of his working with nature contacts in the green ray. Or we might have a Pagan who is devoted to the Goddess in a mystical way, while also practicing Wiccan elemental work — but is terribly skeptical about ceremonial magic and all its bits and bobbles.

I wrote a bit about this from the Christian perspective in a previous post on the Letter to the Galatians and elemental spirits, which someone on Facebook correctly identified as resembling Dion Fortune’s conception of the green ray — which was especially interesting, as, when I originally wrote the first form of those notes some years ago, I had never even heard of Fortune’s threefold way! Instead, I wrote those notes trying to reconcile, for myself as a Christian, my yearning to also revere and work with the spirits of nature and other elemental contacts. It is clear that the tension we see, as modern people, between these paths (which are really three roots of one Tree), can be problematic for healthy spiritual lives and practices.

For my own part, I fall into the category of the practicing Catholic Christian (purple ray) who is quite comfortable with ceremonial magic, Hermeticism, and Qabalah (orange ray), but is often unsure of the role of nature contacts in my own life and practice (green ray). Even doing the aforesaid work to reconcile my Christianity with my interest in the elemental contacts is only intellectual speculation on its own — keeping me quite ensconced in the comfortable light of the orange ray!

The Green Ray in Practice

One issue, for me personally, is that the major public expressions of the threefold way have often been by British or Anglophone occultists. This means that, while their examples of work in the orange and purple rays are quite accessible to me — Hermetic magic and Christian devotion — their examples of the green way are frequently (and necessarily) related to their land and its spirits — Celtic mythopoeia or Faery traditions. As a half Italian, half Chinese New Yorker whose grandparents immigrated from Italy and China before assimilating into American culture, a certain amount of alienation from the nature path is quite obviously built into my cultural background and family memory. While the Celtic and Fey traditions are quite powerful, they hold very little for me in the way of personal spirituality.

However, I do strongly relate to my Italian-American side in terms of my religious practice, and thus the part of my spiritual makeup that I think relates best to the green ray of the threefold path is in fact my work with the saints, spirits, and folk magic of my Italian ancestry, as filtered through the world of the Italian immigrant community in New York. This can be somewhat complicated on its own, however, considering the close alliance between such material and Roman Catholicism — which, strictly speaking (not that the threefold way should be interpreted strictly!) would fall under the purple ray of mystical devotion.

And the Italian-American magical community itself is a complicated and contentious environment — you have the practitioners of Benedicaria on the one hand, who claim to practice devout Catholic folk magic without the “taint” of Paganism, and the practitioners of Stregoneria on the other hand, who are happy to pull from both Catholic and Pagan traditions in their natural magic and folk practices. Then you have Stregheria, which, without wanting to pick a fight with any sympathetic readers, is really an Italian folk-flavored version of Wicca created in large part by the author Raven Grimassi and his followers. Do I want to wade even further into all of that (and don’t the ceremonial magic and theological communities have enough internal conflicts for me to jump into)?

Well, the answer is no — I don’t want to wade into any internet conflicts over magical traditions or religious tensions. But I do want to honor my heritage and family traditions as an Italian-American, and express my full spiritual self in terms of the powerful truth and majesty of the Western threefold way. I think that one of the better possibilities of adhering to the threefold understanding of spirituality is that it prevents us from having to obsess over solid boundaries — in fact, whether you are drawn more to one or another “ray,” you are still working within the One great Mystery and Truth. So it isn’t necessary to worry, as in Benedicaria, about sullying one’s traditional Catholicism with Paganism, or, as in Stregheria, about cleansing one’s Italian Paganism of those Catholic trappings. In this way, I suppose my own understanding of my ethnicity’s folk traditions is closer to Stregoneria, but I would prefer not to put too much into one or another label.

St. Michael Altar
A small altar to St. Michael the Archangel, from his feast day a few years ago.

So when I work with, say, St. Michael the Archangel, I could be confused about whether such a being is connected with my practice of the orange ray, the purple ray, or the green ray. Or I could recognize, through a figure like Michael, that the integralization of the three paths is actually necessary (and, on a higher level, inevitable). When I practice the Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram on a daily basis, I am invoking Michael, the Archangel of Fire, in the context of the Hermetic Mysteries. When I pray to St. Michael or meditate on the angel’s role in the Catholic economy of salvation, it is in the context of Devotional Mysticism. And when I give a physical offering to St. Michael on his feast day it is in the context of Michael’s role as patron of Italian-Americans and their folk traditions. Meanwhile, a devotional practice like St. Michael’s Chaplet might take in aspects of all three rays, something I hope to talk about more in the future.

Hybrid Ancestry and the Green Ray

Then there’s also the fact that I am half Chinese, and a New Yorker. My mixed and hybrid background has taught me the valuable lesson of the dangers of making strident claims about the purity of a family lineage, racial heritage, or geographic privilege in interpreting the folk practices of any particular tradition.

A few years ago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art here in New York held an exhibit about the orientalist tradition in Western high fashion, exhibiting ancient Chinese artifacts and artworks alongside examples of twentieth century crafts and textiles. While the beauty of the show was undeniable, some might decry the Orientalism in the way Western designers appropriated — and, frequently, misunderstood — motifs from ancient China. But because of my personal background, the curious blending of Eastern and Western in the context of Western art made more sense to me personally than any “pure” form of art or culture. This is also why (beyond my general interest in Victoriana) I really enjoy the late Victorian Aesthetic and Decadent appropriations of Eastern aesthetics, while still recognizing the political and social dangers of colonialist cultural appropriation.

Fu Manchu by Sax Rohmer
Fu Manchu, threatening the British Empire everywhere.

So when I think about the green ray, a larger than life urban pulp character like Sax Rohmer’s Sin Sin Wa or Fu Manchu (who, as Asian American scholars have shown, was actually mixed race, not fully Chinese) comes to mind as easily as St. Michael the Archangel, and much more easily than a Celtic goddess or English fairy character, who have little to do with my family background or urban location. Although he has often been lambasted by more traditional occultists, it’s for this reason that I appreciate Kenneth Grant’s use of fictional and pulp characters like Sin Sin Wa (especially in his The Ninth Arch) to explicate esoteric concepts drawn from more traditional sources like the Qabalah.

One might question whether such pulp archetypes, even if appropriate to be used in magical practice, have anything to do with the green ray of “mythopoeic formulations relating to nature and to the Earth” — after all, they are fictional concepts, and the examples I’ve given are mostly characters from gritty urban pulp fiction. I think the mythopoeic nature of these archetypes is obvious, but in terms of nature and the Earth, I would want to expand the understanding of the green ray to encapsulate psychogeography and culture understood more broadly than just elemental nature and Earth traditions — especially for those of us who are rooted in modern cities and in the history of colonialism and immigration.

In my personal case, to work with the elemental spirits of the natural landscape would mean working with the spirits of the Lenape Native Americans (the indigenous inhabitants of New York) — which would require both a great deal of reconstruction and cultural appropriation. Instead, the “mythopoeic formulations” of my land must reflect both the folk traditions of my people (Italian-American and Chinese-American) and the contours of my urban environment and hybrid cultural context — its stories, architecture, and aesthetic imaginaries.

Bringing it All Together – The Great Circle

Finally, as I have alluded to in some of my previous writings, I am also a student of the Universal Brotherhood, a secret society formed during the early twentieth century and led for a time by Frater Achad (Charles Stansfeld Jones). The U.B., as I have suggested before, espouses a unique form of Pansophy — the quest to unite all forms of human knowledge and all the spiritual traditions of humanity, organized and unorganized. Only by doing so might we truly approach the Integral Truth, which is held in the mind of God as the One Idea meant to be Providentially realized within the Macrocosm.

In some ways, the U.B. articulates another form of meta-structure for Western Esotericism, or even for human knowledge in its totality. In other ways, the U.B. is clearly influenced by Hermeticism, Neoplatonism, and Christian Esotericism (as well as Hindu philosophy and early comparative religion). I would consider the integral teaching of the U.B. to be a Great Circle (suggested by its other name, the Mahacakra) encompassing my practice of the Western Threefold Way.

So, finally, in the interest of illustrating these concepts (and mapping out my own personal integralized spiritual practice), here is a graphic depiction of my Threefold Way within the Great Circle:

Nicholas Laccetti's Threefold Way

I hope this way of understanding one’s spiritual and esoteric commitments, drawn from the work of Dion Fortune, Gareth Knight, Peregrin Wildoak, and others, might be helpful for you, too, to better understand the integral relationship between all of the aspects of your own spiritual path.

1 thought on “Mapping the Great Circle – My Threefold Way of Western Esotericism”

  1. Tom Hutcheson

    One lovely group working both the Orange and Green rays is the White Eagle Lodge; and both Christian and nature oriented. The US branch is at (note the spelling). They have an Inner Order, naturally, but I know nothing of it; I’m simply an associate member of the larger group as it’s just a tiny bit different from my own Order, which I find stimulating.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: