All I need is a little bit of magic

At her blog, Onion Work, Ruby Sara has recently posted about the beginnings of her spiritual journey and the fascination that magic played.  She denies that this fascination with magic was escapism:

And it was for magic specifically that I ached. To some, this yearning may seem the antithesis of my views regarding the need for a religion of Right Here This Body This Planet Beautiful Beautiful Right Now, rooted in the Mama, the present, the Real, with a wicked aversion to technology and anything that escapes the senses or the body [… my longing for magic] could be seen as a desire to escape this-world, to transcend or trick the mundane laws of real life…because real life isn’t beautiful or mysterious or good enough.

In my case, that’s exactly what it was.  Like Ruby Sara, I was a fantasy geek in high school.  My favorite books were the Dragonlance series by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman.  And my favorite character was Raistlin, the physically weak, but magically powerful mage.

Raistlin from Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s Dragonlance series

Whenever I played roleplaying games, I always played the wizard.  And it was actually my interest in magic that led me to pick up Frazer’s The Golden Bough the first time (although Frazer, as it turns out, is not sympathetic to magic — pun intended).  I fantasized about a world where the power of mind could compete with the power of muscle on the physical level.  As I was a skinny and physically uncoordinated teen, no doubt my fantasy had something to do with my fear of (mostly imaginary) bullies.  I even had a kind of mental tick which would cause me to compulsively repeat the phrase, “All I need is a little bit of magic”, when I was feeling overwhelmed.  My interest in magic was definitely escapist.

One might expect, then, that I would have embraced magic as a Pagan.  But nothing could be farther from the truth.  In fact, I am repulsed by the very notion of magic and resent its association with Neopaganism.  Magic, by which I mean, ritualized wishful thinking, which is based on the false premise that thought or intention alone can change the material world.

The most common explanation among Pagans for how magic works is that the world is permeated by a kind of spiritual energy, which is not susceptible to scientific measurement, but which can effect changes in the material world.  This energy supposedly can be manipulated by focusing one’s mind or will toward an intended goal.  Sometimes, invocations of “chaos theory” or Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle are thrown in to smooth over any perceived logical gaps.  I’m not going to go into why all this is nonsense to me.  If you believe in it, I’m not going to convince you otherwise.  And if you don’t, then I don’t need to convince you.

What I do want to discuss is why what I call “instrumental magic” is antithetical to the Neopagan ethos.  First, what is this Neopagan ethos?  Robert Ellwood and Harry Partin describe this in their book Religious and Spiritual Groups in Modern America:

“The unifying theme among the diverse Neo-Pagan traditions is the ecology of one’s relation to nature and to the various parts of one’s self.  As Neo-Pagans understand it, the Judaeo-Christian tradition teaches that the human intellectual will is to have dominion over the world, and over the unruly lesser parts of the human psyche, as it, in turn, is to be subordinate to the One God and his will.  The Neo-Pagans hold that, on the contrary, we must cooperate with nature and its deep forces on a basis of reverence and exchange. Of the parts of man, the imagination should be first among equals, for man’s true glory is not in what he commands, but in what he sees.  What wonders he sees of nature and of himself he leaves untouched, save to glorify and celebrate them.”

Instrumental magic runs counter to this unifying theme of Neopaganism.  The magical control of nature is in opposition to the more “religious” attitude of reverence of nature and the practice of cooperation with, rather than control over, nature which are central to the Neopagan ethos.  Instrumental magic is a vestige of Neopaganism’s origin in the occult tradition.  While Neopaganism is a product of the 1960‘s counterculture and the feminist movement, the form that it initially took was borrowed from British Wicca, which was a product of the Western occult Hermetic tradition.

Michael York, in his book Pagan Theology also distinguishes magic from paganism. York defines paganism (small “p”) as the “fundamental and atavistic human urge to express honor and homage.”  He states:

“Worship at this nonreflective and almost spontaneous stage of human growth, stripped of its theological overlay or baggage ad expressive of the root level of religion, is what I am identifying as pagan.”

Against this definition, York contrasts magic.  According to York, pagan (or what he also calls “cultic”) behavior “is unconscious, automatic, or reflexive” and “is natural and becomes part of the consequences that spring from any fundamental human need to worship or express veneration.”  The pagan religious form “seeks nothing beyond its desire to express some form of adoration to the divine”.

In contrast, magic is undertaken with a deliberate aim in mind and its rituals are “intentional” and “consciously performed”.  Says York, “Magic is the product of extreme will.”  Religious ritual, York reiterates, is “natural” and works “with the organic flow and not in violation of it.”  Whether magical practice can legitimately be described as violating natural law from the perspective of the magician is dubious.  However, York has a point that magic seeks to change things, whereas pagan religious practice does not.   According to York, in magic, sacrifice represents a payment, whereas in pagan religion, a sacrifice is a gift.  Similarly, while magical rituals are attempts to coerce, York calls religious rituals “presentations”.

In 1997, Trudy Frisk published an article in Trumpeter: The Journal of Ecosophy, entitled “Paganism, Magic, and the Control of Nature”, which highlighted the conflict between magic and other Neopagan values.  According to Frisk, the instrumental view of magic “perpetuates the utilitarian view of nature.  Expecting natural objects to fulfill human desires leads to disregard for maintaining nature in all its complexity.”  This causes Frisk to wonder:

“How does that paganism differ from monotheistic religions trumpeting their dominion over nature? …  Shouldn’t we try to discover the pattern that Gaia is weaving before presuming to interfere? … Perhaps we should attune ourselves to the Earth before attempting to intervene.”

This attunement is precisely the purpose of many “non-magical” Neopagan rituals: attunement to the cycles of nature, attunement to our deeper selves, and attunement with one another.  I believe that the purpose of Neopagan rituals should not be “power-over” (to borrow Starhawk’s terms) the natural world, but “power-from-within” and “power-with”.

So, how did I, a fantasy-loving geek, become a magic-hating Neopagan?  Well, I suspect that Christian religion had something to do with it.  When I “lost my faith” in a transcendent deity that hears people’s prayers and arbitrarily grants some and refuses others, I began to see intercessory prayer as a form of magic.  Why, I thought, would I then replace one form of wish fulfillment with another?  I am equally disturbed by Neopagan witchcraft spells to win love or money as I am by Christian prayers for the same.

My conversion to Paganism was more than just adding a few gods to my pantheon.  It was a true paradigm shift.  I no longer wanted to escape this world; I wanted to experience it more fully.  I realized that it was not less of this life that I wanted; it was more.  I wanted to live more intensely, with all of my senses, to feel more alive, more vital.  And magic, which seemed escapist to me, had no place in this new consciousness.

But magic does have another meaning.  Magic is the experience  of that which makes like meaningful.  Ruby Sara writes:

There’s “real life,” and then there’s Real Life, and they’re really really really NOT the same thing. Believing in and longing for magic [...] is, to me, the same as the human hunger for god and the human delight in and search for true beauty…a longing for Real Life [...] Magic is Beauty is Mystery is Possibility is Imagination is Amazement is Storytelling is Poetry is Enchantment is Mama is God.

To me, this “Real Life” that Ruby Sara describes is what one of the character’s in the film American Beauty calls the “life behind things”.  It is what C. S. Lewis calls “that other, larger, stronger, quieter life”, and what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls “the beyond in the midst of life”.  This is the “magic” we experience when we see a sunset or a child laughing and we are compelled to say: “It’s magical.”  It is not trivial, and it is not merely a poetic expression; it is an expression of one of the most meaningful human experiences, and it stands at the center of what I call Neopagansim.

This is magic that I can get down with: magic which has nothing to do with control or wish-fulfillment, magic which is about being open to life, rather than trying to mold it to our will.  It is the kind of magic that is experienced through simple rituals, rituals which are rooted in the land, rituals which seek attunement with nature, rituals which celebrate of the cycles of life.

As Leonard Cohen wrote in his poem, “God is Afoot, Magic is Alive”:

Magic is no instrument
Magic is the end

The Draft Pagan Community Statement on the Environment is available for public comment
Intercessory Prayer and Cruel Miracles
Church is no substitute for religion, Part 2: The Spirituality Gap
We are the Earth … aren’t we? (The power of the preposition)
  • Ruby Sara

    This is a really interested post, John. Thank you for it. I can’t argue with it and I won’t, as I myself have had similar thoughts and have been and will be attempting to square them…probably for the rest of my life. I *do* think that instrumental magic serves a purpose, and a good one at that, *and* that it is compatible with a Mama-loving and non-hegemonic worldview, but it would take a longer post to explain why I think so. I’ll have to get to that at some point. :) Maybe it’s that I can see that there are certain kinds of instrumental magic, or approaches to magic (certainly there are *many* different approaches/methods/kinds) that are more compatible that others. May types of ceremonial magic, to me, being a strictly hierarchical system based often in emanational theologies (top-down structures) and emphasizing the role of the practitioner as an indiviual manipulating the world to suit individual will, and sometimes even trapping or tricking entities into doing one’s bidding, can be that way…(ceremonialists may argue with me if they like…I’m not one, so I admit I may have a skewed perspective), but I personally have found some of the folk traditions of the Americas to be compatible, relying as some of them do on authentic relationship, often with plants, animals and other spirits, and serving the immediate needs of the people where they are, on the ground (work, love, etc). It’s a big conversation and one that could take hours and hours!! But I’m very glad for your input – I think it’s a very necessary converasation, especially in light of the ongoing debate about what comprises Neopaganism and what doesn’t, etc.


    • Ruby Sara

      Actually, I should have said “I can’t really and thoroughly argue with it” I suppose…since I kind of did. ;)

    • John Halstead

      Thanks Ruby, and don’t worry about the typos. I’ve been there recently myself.

      I am very interested in the idea of a form of magic which requires what you call an “authentic relationship” with one’s immediate environment. I had a similar exchange over at Pantheon @ Patheos recently, and Alison Leigh Lilly raised the same issue that magic can be “an exercise in engagement and relationship” like artistic creation. I hope you do blog about this sometime in the future.

      I agree with what you wrote about ceremonial magic, which seems to me to be another big head trip. I do know of one ceremonial magician who blogs at *Magic of the Ordinary* who does emphasize working with the land. Check out his post on “Working with the Land” and another on Australian Pagan traditions. But I don’t know how representative he is among ceremony magicians, since a lot of what he writes is reactionary. In fact, he seems to be the exception that proves the rule.

      But it is not just ceremonial magic that is the issue. I take issue with all so-called “energy work” which seems pervasive in Neopaganism. I see energy work as being “technological” in Heidegger’s sense of the term. I can’t do Heidegger justice here, but he contrasted two different ways of “disclosing” the world, one technological and one poetic. In Heidegger’s thought, the technological mode turns of the whole universe of beings into an undifferentiated “standing reserve”, available for any use to which humans choose to put it. Everything that cannot be reduced to a “standing reserve” is rendered invisible or unreal. In contrast, a poetic mode of disclosing the world “lets beings be” what they are.

      The theory behind Neopagan “energy work” is that there were this neutral “stuff” filling the air, always already available to us for any use, and having no particular connection to our person or the place in which we are, which seems a lot like Heidegger’s “standing reserve”. I would rather see a kind of magic that is poetic in Heidegger’s sense. I would rather see a kind of magic that requires creating an I-Thou relationship with our immediate environment — really listening rather than trying to project our will onto the environment. I suspect that the folk magic you referred to may be like this.

      • Ruby Sara


        I think this is a really rich criticism of “energy” magic. Johnny Rapture and I have chatted often about the term “energy” as a problematic term due to its nebulous nature and the universalizing way it’s been used in Neopaganism, and I feel your argument, while different, is similar in some ways. Perhaps that it erases character (color, complexity, sensate existence, Realness…and therefore the potential for authentic relationship between Beings) in a way to reduce the world to a “standing reserve,” which smacks also of the notion of the world’s Being (its energy/force) existing in order to be manipulated towards human whim (when the whim is rooted in consumer-driven desire for wealth, hierarchical power, domination, etc). I am not a philosopher, and Heidegger’s work is not very familiar to me, but given your explanation, I too can resonate much more with a poetic mode versus technological. I’ll have to think some more about how this conversation might truly relate to folk practice, but it’s really been my experience so far (colored, naturally, by my pre-existing biases towards the theological necessity of engaging in authentic relationship) that folk magic tends towards the “poetic” in this case – roots and herbs and spirits, gods or saints have their own natures and we as practitioners engage with them – they exist independently of me and my needs, and when I engage with them for magical purposes, it is, to me, akin to poetic or musical composition…or, to be far more practical, to cooking. Cooking while praying. i.e. When we cook, we have to understand and respect the natures of the foods we use – some go together and some do not…not to mention the ethics attached to eating in a planet-loving way – and the natures of the people being fed – allergies, preferences – and that all requires being in relationship…one cannot feed oneself by calling everything around themselves food and then proceeding to chew on it. That may be a terrible metaphor. Hmm. Well – it’s what I’ve got. As I said, this is a huge conversation, but a really good one. I’m really enjoying your thoughts on it, and will definitely post a bit on it here in the future.


  • Ruby Sara

    Also, for the many typos, please forgive. I have a cold and it feels like my brain is on stand-by.

  • VikingRunner

    “One cannot feed oneself by calling everything around themselves food and then proceeding to chew on it.”

    I think that sounds like a FANTASTIC metaphor. I don’t know if it works the way you wanted it to, because I’m not sure I’m following all of the discussion (I’m sort of skimming on my lunch break right now), but it is definitely an excellent sentence. It should be a metaphor for *something*! It’s just too much fun not to be.