One of the questions that comes up for many people is about magic. This article talks about some of the different ways people view magic in the Pagan community, and also about how I use it in other articles on the site.
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).
What is magic?
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.
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. 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.
In the job example above, there’s a lot of mundane practical action there. 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 we can go about creating 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. This might be 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.
Spells and rituals
Spells come into play 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. A spell is a way to unify our idea of what we want to change, and help make it happen.
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. This example is based on my last job hunt, in 2015. It took some time, but the results were great.
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 can be extremely emotionally satisfying.
- 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.
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.)
Magic is often described as a tool, much like fire or a car. We can do many wonderful things with tools – cook food, warm our homes, create community, travel to see our friends, help a friend with errands or daily tasks. We can do destructive things with tools, too – burning ourselves, destroying property, car accidents, and so on. Magic’s just the same way.
And, just like fire and cars, the ethical issues are in the hands of the user, not the tool. I wouldn’t go make someone’s life miserable with threats or pranks or invasion of their home physically: I won’t do it magically, either. Same deal with manipulating someone else to do what I want.
On the other hand, I would help a friend with finding a job (checking their resume, helping them practice for an interview, etc.) and I’m open in some cases to helping magically as well (with things that help with confidence, clarity of communication, and putting their best foot forward.)
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.
Other views of magic
There are many other theories of how magic might work. Beside the Younger Self / Talking Self / Higher Self model I mention above, and psychological approaches, these include (but aren’t limited to):
In this model, you do the work in the prepared and specialised space of the circle, and then send it out into the physical world. (This is a technique used in derivatives of Wicca a fair amount: you create a spell, raise energy, focus it, and then channel all that energy into the goal, releasing it as the circle is opened.)
Alternately, you might do work in a special space (like an astral temple, an elemental space, etc.) and then bring the seed of the changes of that work back into the physical world when your consciousness returns to your body.
Macrocosm and microcosm
This is a lot of the theory behind astrology – the concept that really big things (like the movements of planets) can echo into much smaller things (an individual human’s life on a day to day or year to year basis).
In this approach, you can either observe the large events and take action based on them (for example, planning business launches at times when the planets are favourable for that) or adjust your behaviour (for example, being more careful about misunderstandings during a Mercury retrograde).
On the other hand, you can make small changes on a personal level, and use the macrocosm to echo them out into the large world – for example, finding times that are particularly beneficial for a specific magical working, political discussion, or service to others.
Doctrine of sympathies
This concept has a long history in magical lore, and it’s basically the idea that things that are related can affect each other magically. Sometimes it’s very direct: ‘this piece of your hair allows me to affect you’ is a very common thing in folk magic.
Sometimes it’s a step less direct. “I know your name” or “I have a photo of you” allowing someone to do magical work that affects you, or get information about you through divination or meditation that they couldn’t access otherwise.
And sometimes it’s more remote: “This plant has a very strong stalk, so it is magically good for willpower and medically good for back issues” is the kind of thing that shows up in a lot of folk texts. The first part – magical – is an inference based on the plant, the second is an approach to herbalism (though not the most effective one!)
At its more absurd, it’s been used for things like the powder of sympathy, in which it was theorised that in order to help sailing ships navigate in the open ocean, you could wound a dog with a knife, and each noon in London, the knife would be heated up. The dog would be observed closely for a sympathetic response, and that would help the ship calculate the difference between local time and London time (and thus their location.)
Appeal to particular powers
One other view of magic is the idea of calling on other beings and asking them to help, like we might ask a doctor or lawyer or friend who’s good with computers to help with a problem. (And like the doctor, lawyer, or friend, this is maybe more transactional as a process, where you offer something they like or want in exchange for their help.)
Sometimes that involves a very formal process with specific requirements. Sometimes it’s more free-form or relaxed. There’s a tremendous amount of variation here, both culture to culture, and also based on individual relationships within the culture.
Some deities and beings are very glad to help with things in the areas they care about. A lot of healing deities are like this – they pretty clearly like people being well. They’re fairly willing to help even if the way they’re asked isn’t perfect. In other cases, you may have to persuade a deity or being, or do specific things to demonstrate you’re serious.
How often I do magic varies a lot by which kind you’re talking about:
- Basic energy management practices (centering, grounding, adjusting shielding, etc.): daily or more.
- 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.
- Offerings to deities and other powers: Small ones daily, longer ones once a week on three different days.
- 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): Somewhere between twice a month and much more irregularly these days, depending on what ritual work I want to do, how I want to do it, and my overall health and energy levels.
- 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.
Last updated July 22, 2020