How Do You Know Your Magic Worked?

I’ve seen a ton of comments on the large group working to bind Donald Trump – some positive, some negative, and some clueless. I saw one comment last Monday morning that said “well obviously it didn’t work.” Never mind the fact that the working was intended to be done monthly for as long as it takes, two days later Trump was still behaving like Trump, so the magic was assumed to be ineffective.

Those of us with the least bit of experience in magic see this comment for the overly skeptical dismissiveness it is. But it points toward a valid question not enough of us ask: how do we know when our magic works?

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Fictional magic can be entertaining and even inspiring, but it sets impossible expectations for real magic. The young witches and wizards of Hogwarts struggled with Wingardium Leviosa, but either the feather levitated or it didn’t – they knew right away if their magic worked or not.

Real magic is rarely that straightforward.

On one level it’s simple: did you get what you enchanted for? Occasionally that can be answered yes or no. More often we see a bit of improvement here or there but not earth-shattering results. Remember that in most cases, magic doesn’t actually cause anything to happen. Rather, magic makes it more likely that something will happen. So you may do a great spell that would bring the result you want 99 times out of 100, but this was the 1 time it didn’t work.

Further complicating things is the fact that most of us cast vague spells. In the oft-repeated words of Isaac Bonewits, “fuzzy targets yield fuzzy results.” A long time ago as an engineering student, I took a class called Contracts and Specifications – basically contract law for engineers. All I remember from that class was one day when the professor blared out “you don’t get what you want – you get what you write in the specs!”

Anyone who’s written specifications for programmers knows what I’m talking about. You go over what you want, the programmer comes back with something for you to test, and you scream “that wasn’t what I wanted!” And then the programmer points to the specifications and says “but that’s what you asked for.” The program met the specs, so the programmer thinks it works.

Figuring out if your magic worked is a process of comparing what you got against what you were trying to get.

What were you working for? Look at your spell. Pay great attention to your words – exactly what did you ask for? One of my criticisms of the binding of Donald Trump was that it asked that he “fail utterly.” As I explained in my post, I don’t want everything the President does to fail. I just want the bad policies to fail. I want that for any President, not just Trump.

How might someone who doesn’t live in your head interpret your words? You don’t get what you want, you get what you write in the specs.

If you got what you asked for and worked for, then your magic worked. If that’s not what you really wanted, the problem isn’t your magic. It’s your target selection.

What did you really want? Did you ask for “money” when you needed $523.17? Did you enchant for “love” when you really wanted sex with some really attractive person… or when you really wanted someone to cover your perceived shortcomings? Did you cast a spell for a better job when you really wanted a deeper spiritual life?

If figuring out how to word a spell is hard, figuring out what you really want is three times harder. We all carry expectations that aren’t our own, from family, friends, and the wider society. There’s a whole industry dedicated to convincing us that we desperately need what they’re selling. Figuring out what you want – and accepting that it’s different from what you’ve always been told you were supposed to want – is hard. It’s been hard since long before the ancient Greeks carved “Know Thyself” above the doors of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi.

If you got what you enchanted for and the spell still feels like a failure, maybe you didn’t enchant for what you really wanted.

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How do you define success? Some spells are simple: “bring me $1000 by the end of this month so I can pay my rent.” If you get the money, you know the spell worked. If you don’t, it didn’t.

How would you know if the “binding Trump” spell worked? Would he suddenly have the demeanor of Barack Obama and the policies of Bernie Sanders? I think the odds on that happening are about the same as the odds on using magic to turn the Sahara Desert into farmland.

Would he resign or be impeached? Would Congress suddenly decide to start working together for the good of the country and reject his inane proposals? Would career federal employees and various government agencies refuse to implement his policies?

There’s something to be said for concentrating on the what and not worrying about the how. But if you can’t describe the what, then you don’t know what success looks like and you’ll never know whether your magic worked or not.

If you can’t define success, your spell is probably too vague to be useful. So pick something smaller and more specific.

We all want to be healthy, but what does “healthy” mean? Attaining a certain waist size? Avoiding heart disease and cancer? Never getting the flu? Being able to run marathons when you’re 70? Being able to travel when you’re 80?

Some of these examples are realistic and some are not, but they’re all different things. If you’ve never cared about being an athlete, being able to run or play tennis into your old age may not be important to you. If you’ve been a runner all your life, you may feel differently. “Healthy” means different things to different people.

If your magical working is too vague, pick something smaller and more specific. Then after you achieve that, see what you want to do next.

If people show any interest in this post, I may do a future one on progressive spell casting… not “progressive” as in politically liberal, but as in a one-step-leads-to-another process.

Keep records. Keep a magical diary – anything from a hand-bound book of parchment to a spiral notebook to my favorite, a computer text file. Different magical traditions have different protocols for record keeping: some want detailed records that would be at home in a science lab, while sigil magic says “fire it and forget it.” At a minimum, write down what you worked for and when you should check up on it.

Obsessing over your spells and constantly checking for progress is a good way to kill the magic. There are various theories as to why that is – all I know is that it’s true. The Witches Pyramid is to know, to will, to dare, and to keep silence – the “keep silence” part applies to yourself as well as others.

But do keep records – don’t count on remembering everything you did and how you did it.

Never expect to convince your materialist friends. There is only one reason to keep records and review your results: so you can learn from both your successes and your failures and become a better magician. No amount of even well-documented success will change the mind of someone who is totally convinced there is no such thing as magic.

That’s OK. Witches, Druids, and other magicians don’t work magic to prove it can be done. We don’t do it because it’s easy. Mundane methods – no matter how laborious – are almost always easier and more certain than magical methods.

We work magic because we have a great need and no other way to fulfill it.

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About John Beckett

I grew up in Tennessee with the woods right outside my back door. Wandering through them gave me a sense of connection to Nature and to a certain Forest God. I’m a Druid graduate of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the Coordinating Officer of the Denton Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans and a former Vice President of CUUPS Continental. I’ve been writing, speaking, teaching, and leading public rituals for the past eleven years. I live in the Dallas – Fort Worth area and I earn my keep as an engineer.