One of the questions that comes up for many people is about magic, and I wanted to expand on what I said over in the “What is Paganism?” post. Here’s the thing: there are a number of different ways to view magic. Some of them are obvious deliberate actions (like working a spell for a particular purpose) but some of them are a lot more about knowing yourself, and using specific techniques to create the changes you want to have happen.
The way I look at magic is partly psychology, and partly a technology in a classic sense (the art, craft, or skill of making things happen).
One common definition of magic is the act of bringing change in accordance with your will. In other words:
- You want to make something happen
- You figure out a way to create that change
- Change happens
- [We hope] Desired result
Now, we do lots of things in our lives – every day – that follow this basic pattern. We are hungry, and we want to not be hungry, so we get food from somewhere, maybe cook it, and we eat it. Bingo, less hunger.
We want something other than our current job, for whatever reason, so we brush up our resume and send it out, and do our best at interviews, and eventually, we hope, get hired for something spiffy and new.
So what’s different about magic?
The way I see it, there are essentially three categories of magic:
- Magic to change ourselves or our immediate environment
- Magic to more broadly affect the world around us
- Magic that intersects with other magic
Arguably, the first one is theurgy (magic that brings us closer to a divine power or our true self), and the second and third are variations on thaumaturgy, but I’ve broken them out this way because there are differences in how we use them.
There’s also one essential point: I think we need to be choosing to do these things with intention, and with an intention of affecting more than the direct physical world in some way. Cooking a meal isn’t necessarily magic, but making a soup designed to help focus healing energy for someone who’s sick is. Sending out a resume for a job isn’t automatically magic, but meditation and reflection to make that application the best possible (not just the usual editing) might be. Listening to music isn’t always an act of magic – but picking a particular playlist to help focus your intention toward a goal can be a great magical act.
Creating change in ourselves is almost always the most effective, reliable, and often most powerful option we have. After all, we:
- have lots of information about our own selves and our own history
- have a fair bit of control over our own choices
- have information and feedback to help us adapt on the fly if something either isn’t working, or is working really well.
That doesn’t mean that this kind of change is *easy* – it can be far more work than it looks like. To have information about ourselves that’s actually useful, we need to develop and maintain a high level of self-awareness and understanding. We have to be willing to poke the bits of our psyche that we’re not comfortable with, and find out why those things are there.
For example, in the job example above, there’s a lot of mundane practical action there. But what if we do some divination work to help us figure out what it is that’s really the cause of our discomfort in our current job? What if we visualise what our ideal job would look like? Or magic to help us become aware of possibilities and opportunities that we might not have thought of? And once we start looking at specific positions, what if we do things to help present ourselves in the best possible way – magical work to help us communicate clearly, present ourselves as well as possible, and so on.
That’s one aspect of magic: changing ourselves and our interaction with the world. It’s also the most reliable in terms of results. We don’t have nearly that kind of information about or control over other people, so there are more places we might misinterpret something, or focus on the wrong thing.
There are lots of ways to go about creating this change – especially when we’re changing ourselves. They might include:
- Practices around self-awareness (meditation, journalling, but also things like professional counseling)
- Learning more about a particular situation and ways to approach it (reading, classes, coaching, etc.)
- Getting away from the situation for a little, and letting our subconscious work on the issue.
- Figuring out a way to build a habit or set of actions that we want to continue.
- Putting ourselves in a situation that encourages that change and supports us in doing it (getting a friend to help us keep on track with a goal, tracking what we’re doing, etc.)
All of those are potentially magic by my definition above – but most people might not think of them that way.
How do spells and other magical practices come into this?
The part where the spells come in is when we’re using specific techniques to get parts of our brain and our identity on board that might not otherwise be so crazy about the idea.
Brief pause for explanation here: you may have seen the theory of the Younger Self, Talking Self, and Higher Self out there. (It’s a variation of terms on something from the Anderson Feri tradition, and it’s been widely publicised by Starhawk and other writers and teachers in Reclaiming, but it’s also got strong ties to various psychology theories.) Basically, anything we do where we get all three selves going the same direction, the easier it’s going to be.
The Younger Self tends to respond to emotions – and to toys, and color, and interesting things to explore, and stuff that’s just a bit out of the ordinary. Our Talking Self is our rational self, the logical and practical one, who has lots of lists and things that should get done (but who can also get a bit boring and tedious.) Our Higher Self is that idea of what our soul, or core, really wants.
Let’s look at an example: job hunting. (Since writing this, I have found a job that met every one of my hopes for a new position, and then some. It wasn’t instant, but the end results are awesome.)
My Higher Self has some specific stuff I want in a job – what I want to be doing, the overall kind of environment I want to be in, other philosophical and longer-term choices. I’ve got a pretty good idea what my ideal is in all of those things, and how I can shape myself to be a better fit for that ideal.
My Talking Self is the one who gets to write up resumes and send them out, and craft the best cover letter I can, and network, and all that other stuff. Very important, very necessary – but it’s also sort of soul-draining to do it over and over again, and not be sure what’s going to come of it. My Talking Self is also the part of me that makes sure the practical details of the job are at least an okay fit for me.
And then it’s about getting the Younger Self emotionally interested, and engaged, and thinking that the progress towards the goal is really interesting and fun to play with. Not only do I get better results, long-term – but the whole process is a lot less of a drag.
So, while I’m doing all the necessary ‘act in accordance’ stuff, I’m also taking time to do stuff that makes the Younger Self happy.
- Ritual and magic to get any unwanted stuff about the old job situation out of my system, so it’s not affecting the new stuff I want. Banishing stuff can be extremely satisfying, emotionally.
- Ritual and magic to help me be sure that what I’m looking for now is not simply a reaction to other things in my life, but actually my desired long-term goal.
- Ritual and magic towards my goal. Visualising the fun things I can do if I get that job, or the things I’d really enjoy in the job. Using candles, bright colors, art, music, or other things that engage all of me to get every bit of me behind that goal.
And so on and so forth. You notice that only some of these look like spellwork.
Affecting the world around us:
Affecting the world around us is complicated: there are a lot of factors and things going on that we partly know, and partly don’t know.
In general, I tend to prefer changing me, or affecting a very specific situation, to very broadly working for a large change. That means that I mostly don’t do workings for, say, global peace, as much as I think that’d be a nice thing. I’d rather do specific work (magical and non-magical) in various ways to help create a world immediately around me which takes a step in those directions, or in supporting organisations that can do more than I can do on my own.
On the other hand, there are times when this kind of magic in a larger setting can be appropriate. An example might be to illuminate an injustice, or to encourage a situation where justice can happen. (Illuminating a serial rapist in a particular area so that they get caught, for example: that’s a fairly specific working with a very tight focus.)
The question of healing:
One common place where the question of magic to change a situation comes up is the question of healing others. My own take is that I want to know what’s really going to be helpful, and generally, the best way to get that is to talk directly to the person in question. This not because of some vague ethical statement – but because I want to work with the best information I can get.
Part of the reason I’m careful about this is that I’ve known plenty of situations where adding more energy to the situation isn’t actually helpful: someone who’s dealing with an autoimmune disorder, with cancer, or a number of other conditions may not actually want more energy flowing into their body. People who don’t feel comfortable with magical practice for their own reasons might not want to be the recipient of even well-intentioned spellwork. I want to honestly be helpful, not do something that might make me feel a bit better, but that actually makes the person I say I’m helping feel worse.
(There are certainly ways to modify this, and people certainly can and do give blanket permission for people they trust to do what they feel is needed – I do too. But I’m cautious in situations where that isn’t the case, and ask first.)
Magic that intersects other magic:
This is the category I use for things like casting a circle. It’s definitely a magical act, by my definition: you’re making specific actions to create a specific change in the world around you (and in you), but it’s not an act that has a direct physical effect in the same way, as say, closing a door or opening a window.
Some Pagan religions do this kind of magic regularly – any path that involves casting a circle, for example. Others might do it very infrequently – dedicating a temple space or consecrating a tool. Some paths feel that the magic comes from the individual (who may get it from the world around them, or from other sources): religious witchcraft, generally thinks this. Some paths think that the energetic act (consecration, blessing, etc.) is an act of the Gods, and the human actions are sort of a side effect.
The other thing in this category are magical acts designed to deal with things that we can’t otherwise directly see or touch or change without some different non-physical help: centering, grounding, and shielding our energy, for example, or cleansing a space or blessing it (or an object) with a specific energy.
How often I do magic varies a lot by which kind you’re talking about:
- Basic energy management practices (centering, grounding, adjusting shielding, etc.): pretty much daily
- Attention to my altar and to other regular practices that keep my magical life rolling smoothly: somewhere between daily and a couple of times a week, depending on circumstances.
- Cleansing unwanted energy from my home: weekly, fairly lightly, with deeper ‘spring cleaning’ when I.. erm, spring clean. (And fall clean: usually twice a year.)
- Casting a circle (and the related magical acts): at least twice a month (Esbats, Sabbats), often more frequently (other work I want to do in a circle, teaching, etc.)
- Meditation focused on achieving a spell-like goal (rather than, say, self-awareness or simple exploration): 4-8 times a year.
- Actual spellcraft of the candle, poppet, knot, or other types? A couple of times a year, maybe.
Your ranges may well vary – but I wanted to list these to point out that there’s a lot of variation for some people, and that spellcraft is certainly not the dominant magical mode in my life (or in the lives of a number of other Pagans I know.) Likewise, just because someone isn’t doing a particular kind of magic doesn’t automatically mean that they’re not doing any.
For some examples of different practices, these pages have more:
- Energy and you
- Energetic self-care (cleansing and shielding)
- Home, sacred home
- Daily practices
- Visualisation and meditation
- An example of planning a ritual
[last edited October 28, 2011]