What is magic and how does it work?

Circe Invidiosa by John William Waterhouse

Circe Invidiosa by John William Waterhouse

A friend on Facebook asked, how does magic work? My immediate response to this was, it depends what you mean by magic.

The art of causing change in consciousness in accordance with Will

Most modern magical writers from Aleister Crowley onwards have affirmed that the primary purpose of magic is to change the practitioner, rather than the external world. It’s also possible that having worked on the inner self, change will also be effected in the surrounding reality, either directly, or as a result of the change in consciousness of the practitioner, who is now empowered to go out and make the world a better place.

Will is a tricky concept — it can mean the individual will, or the divine will, or aligning the individual will with the divine will, depending on the perspective of the practitioner, and whether they are more left hand path or right hand path.

The right hand path has been defined as becoming one with the Divine (dissolving the ego), whereas the left hand path has been defined as turning oneself into a deity (achieving apotheosis). I like these two definitions, as they go a long way to explaining what makes Paganism different from other religions.

Magic and ritual certainly work to transform the psyche of the practitioner; tried and tested techniques of initiation, meditation, visualisation, and working with archetypes do seem to have a beneficial effect.

Does magic have an effect on the external world?

Everybody has an anecdote where they did a healing and the recipient felt better; or they did a working for a job and got the job; but these are anecdotal evidence, and there’s no way to prove that the ill person wouldn’t have got better anyway, or the job seeker wouldn’t have got the job anyway. However, even if these workings have no effect on external events, they make the participants in the healing or the spell feel better because they have done something to help. Incidentally, an ethical job spell should always include the proviso that if someone else needs the job even more, they should get it.

I went to a workshop on talismans once where the workshop leader pointed out that magic always follows the path of least resistance. So if you make a talisman for pregnancy but you’re not actually having sex, then don’t be too surprised if someone close to you gets pregnant instead. This suggests that caution is necessary in the preparation of talismans, in order to avoid “leakage” into someone else’s life.

The gods help those who help themselves

In order for magic to work, you also need to be putting in effort on the mundane level. If you do a job spell but don’t actually apply for any jobs, you won’t get a job, no matter how good the spell was. Maybe the spell only works to give you extra confidence at the interview, but that is a good thing in itself. There’s a Jewish story about a man who prays every day to God that he might win the lottery. Eventually an exasperated voice booms out from on high, “Meet me half-way already — buy a lottery ticket!”

Another important aspect of magic is not refusing to acknowledge results because they don’t look quite like what you were expecting. I have seen people do spells and then turn down the results because they weren’t quite right — even though they were better than their existing circumstances. There’s a story about a man in the middle of a flood, who prays to God to save him. A boat comes by and offers him a lift, but he turns it down, saying, “No, God will put forth His hand to save me.” Then two more boats come by, and he says the same. Finally a helicopter hovers overhead, but again he refuses help. Eventually he drowns. When he gets to heaven, he asks God, “Why didn’t you save me?” And God replies, “I sent you three boats and a helicopter – what more did you want?”

How does magic work?

So if magic does effect change in external reality, how does it do that? This is usually the point at which people get a bit hand-wavy and start talking about quantum mechanics and “energies”.

We exist within the Earth’s electromagnetic field. Some people and animals are sensitive to fluctuations in this field. So it can affect us; and maybe we can affect it, or interact with it. Magical energy is presumably transmitted either via some hitherto unknown interaction between consciousness and the Earth’s magnetic field; or via one of the seven dimensions that are enfolded within the usual four of space-time. Either way, science has so far mostly failed to verify extra-sensory perception and other psychic powers, so maybe there are no external effects when we do magic.

I was discussing this with a Buddhist friend, and he said that the problem is, the more people try to use science to justify their belief in faeries and energies and the like, the more ridiculous it sounds. Most of the time, it’s just a misuse of the scientific terms (especially if it involves the word quantum). As my Buddhist friend said, it’s one thing to say you saw a faery at the bottom of the garden, and quite another to claim that you have built a device for detecting faeries.

If magic works at all, it should be verifiable by science (though not necessarily by contemporary science, which focuses almost exclusively on the material aspects of reality). However, there are so many variables at play that it would be difficult to envisage a sufficiently objective experiment. Investigations into whether petitionary prayer (asking for stuff) works have pretty much concluded that it doesn’t, so I don’t hold out much hope for scientific confirmation of results magic.

However, whether or not magic affects external reality, magic, meditation, and prayer can work to transform the psyche, and are therefore still worthwhile practices to engage in. Other scientific experiments have shown that engaging in meditation and contemplative prayer changes the brainwave patterns of the practitioner and makes them calmer.

About Yvonne Aburrow

Yvonne Aburrow has been a Pagan since 1985 and a Wiccan since 1991. She has an MA in Contemporary Religions and Spiritualities from Bath Spa University, and lives and works in Oxford, UK. She has written four books on the mythology and folklore of trees, birds, and animals, and two anthologies of poetry. She is the editor of the Theologies of Immanence wiki, a collaborative project for creating grass-roots Pagan theology.

  • B-Lar

    It’s kinda like the placebo effect… Although an interesting aspect of the placebo effect is that if you know that you are taking a placebo then the effect is diminished, sometimes even negated. See also its counterpart, the nocebo effect.

    It seems to me that it would take a herculean effort of ignoring cognitive dissonance to have your cake and eat it in this context, but I like to think that humans are capable of doing nearly anything with the mind.

    • http://yaburrow.googlepages.com yvonne

      The cognitive dissonance aspect is dealt with by contextual cues.

      Outside of a circle, I’m a skeptic when it comes to magic actually producing tangible results. Inside of a circle, in the context of the ritual and the magical working, I believe that the magical working produces energy that I can send.

      In both contexts, I believe that practising magic is psychologically beneficial.

      • B-Lar

        I think that I would have trouble with that, because I would have the same mind whether inside or outside of the circle. I do grok your meaning though, and I am already starting to think of ways that contextual clues change my intellectual receptiveness, so the mechanism can surely be expanded to the emotional sphere where these benefits would manifest themselves.

        Very interesting. I will chew it with my brain teeth until it can be swallowed safely.

        • http://yaburrow.googlepages.com yvonne

          I still have the same mind (which is ambivalent about whether magic works or not, except in the sense of being beneficial to the psyche) it’s just that I let one point of view drift to the fore in one context, and another in the other context.

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