Magic and Religion

Magic and Religion May 18, 2015

What does the term ‘magic’ mean in context of modern Pagan spiritual endeavor? I find myself trying to answer this question over and over. I find the topic discussed over and over in Pagan writing. What makes this word so difficult, so confusing, so likely to produce conflicting definitions in different minds?

A set-up for an operation of Pagan magic.

It seems to me that the word sits fairly comfortably on those working the various spiritual techniques developed in the renaissance and modern times. Grimoiric magic, Hermetic ritual magic and the various methods that are referred to as theurgy or thaumaturgy seem to be able to define themselves as ‘magic’ in a way that is almost, or overtly, in opposition to ‘religion’. In the context of Christian orthodoxy these techniques were plainly proscribed, or at best barely tolerated, and that required a vocabulary for the plain distinction between ‘religious’ ritual and spiritual techniques and ‘other’ ritual and spiritual techniques. Following the custom of Greek and Roman literature, Europe came to use the term ‘magic’ to refer to these other methods.

When we go outside of the Euro-Christian model, the whole matter becomes less dichotomous, and so less simple. In most pre-Christian systems (and many modern non-Christian ones) the techniques that we know as magic – self-empowerment and energy work, theurgic invocation, spirit-art, empowerment of talismans and images, leveraging events through hidden influence, divination, etc – are often entirely integrated into the category of ‘religion’. There might be specific vocabulary terms for each, but there is no need for an overarching term like ‘magic’ to distinguish them from regular practice.

This leaves the would-be Traditional Pagan in a funny place in relation to modern usages of the term ‘magic’. In many ways our religious practice is based on principles and practices that have been taught in the west as magic. Correspondence, consecration of images, trance and meditation are all core practices of a working Pagan spirituality. It is entirely reasonable to say that ancient religion was ‘based on magic’ as long as we recall that the ancients themselves would never have said such a thing. A statement like that is true only in a modern usage in which magic means ‘technical application of spiritual arts for the production of specific willed effects’.

The key words there, for me, are ‘technical application’ and ‘willed effects’. In my opinion magic is primarily a body of human skill, applied to the spiritual (and secondarily the material) realm in order to produce desired outcomes. This brings me to the reason I took up this topic.

I keep reading people saying things like ‘magic isn’t something you do, it’s something you are’. These folks tend to use ‘Magic’ to refer to some (to me) ambiguous ‘magicness’ in the universe, perhaps to the sense of wonder and spiritual awe that accompanies some spiritual effects. They seem to want to promote magic to a station even higher than I would place it – to keep it in the realm of the ‘unknowable’ or of ‘mystery’. I guess I understand this – but for me the ‘unknowable’ only exists so that I can figure it out – I don’t really perceive value in the existence of that which cannot be understood. There’s lots of value in things which we *don’t* understand, and in things which any one of us may never understand in a lifetime, but not so much in the existence of things that are not meant to be understood, at least sufficiently to put them to use.

(Now, I’ve often stated that I’m an agnostic of sorts, in that I don’t think the human senses and mind are capable of directly perceiving (especially spiritual) reality or of ever being certain that we know what’s “really” going on. Nevertheless our senses and comprehension are pretty good. They allow us to build material objects that last for thousands of years and construct spiritual methods that produce results over centuries. So I’m generally willing to accept the approximate Truth we can arrive at by our will and skill as Good Enough to Get Started.)

Nikki healing 9-28-14
An arrangement for a healing rite.

So I vastly prefer to use the term ‘magic’ to refer to a body of skills that humans use to shape and direct spiritual forces, rather than use it to refer to the forces themselves. That is I don’t think there’s ‘magic all around us’ in a literal sense. There are spirits, and powers, and relationships all around us, but ‘magic’ is the body of talents and skills – ritual, vision, knowledge of natural powers, etc – that allow us to speak with the spirits, experience the Otherworlds and build relationships with the Gods. So, when we say that there is “magic all around us”, as the old ritual song says, we might mean that we are surrounded by the wonders we have made, by the relationships we have built.

Sometimes I think people perceive the above approach as reductionism – it turns magic from a cosmic wonder into a tool-bag and a set of methods. I’m afraid that, to a certain extent, it may be so. But I think the ‘magic-as-cosmic-principle’ feeling also devalues our divine human powers of shaping and making. In my own Pagan world-view the divine lives in us (among many other places…), in the souls and talents and skills of humans. Our ability to shape wood or make music or bargain with spirits is of the same kind as the ability of Gods to shape mountains – just in smaller supply. This is certainly, in itself, a wonder. We might say that this approach to magic moves the object of wonder from the strange and hidden in the outside world to the skill and power of the divine in the self.

On another level I think I detect a sort of ‘faith not works’ feel to the idea of magic as a sort of ‘thing’ that exists of itself in the cosmos. There is a certain sort of spiritual model – both Christianity and Buddhism have versions of it – in which human effort doesn’t really count in the business of achieving gnosis, or wisdom, or whatever we might call ‘enlightenment’ or ‘adeptship’. In such systems all that a student can do is prepare themselves, and hope that the result occurs. It seems to me that in these models gnosis isn’t something you do; it’s something that happens to you. I suppose this has value for those who want to weaken the grip of the social mask-ego on the broader psyche. It reminds the student that the ‘them’ they usually perceive isn’t the do-er of the deeds, or even the primary target. But again I feel like this is throwing out the baby with the bath – discarding the reality of human spiritual power in favor of ‘surrender’ to a divinity, or a magic, outside of the perceived ‘self’.

Alright, that’s taken us down a road a bit from the starting point of the meaning of ‘magic’. I continue to like a definition such as ‘spiritual skills applied for personally willed goals’. I suppose that, for the sake of our modern understanding, we might contrast that with ‘religion’, by which I might mean ‘spiritual skills applied for customary or community goals’. Is this a distinction the ancients would have made? Hard to say.

Romans made a distinction between public rites and private rites, with the former well-regulated and the latter mainly left alone. For the Greeks and Romans ‘magic’ had the connotation of ‘foreign’, referring to the wandering Persian ritualists who claimed to be able to command the Gods and spirits by their rites. Nevertheless Hellenic religion was full of trance-oracles, bribing of Gods for gain, consecrated images and talismans and the things we might now call ‘magical’. It seems to me that among cultures with a more ‘professional’ priestly class, such as Vedic, Persian and Celtic, there is greater chance of a specialist discourse developing in which technical methods of invocation, trance, etc are discussed. Celtic sources leave little to judge from, but we do have classical descriptions of their devotion to religion, divination and sacrifice, with direct comparisons to the Magi. Persians and Bharati cultures had ‘magical’ practices integrated into their religion – astrology and planetary spirit-art, for instance, are gospel-orthodox in those traditions. We don’t see much of that in Roman religion – I know of no Roman instruction to sacrificers on how to properly involve the mind in sacrifice. We do see it plainly in post-Vedic material, and perhaps by inference in the hymns themselves. Vedic culture simply calls such things ‘knowledge’, though they have technical vocabulary for the various rituals and practices.

In some Paganisms we also see some or most of this knowledge preserved as esoteric – it is for the few, for those trained and accepted into the priestly work. This sense of esotericism contributes greatly, I think, to the later notion of ‘magic’. Once again we see this much more clearly in some cultures than others, and it seems to me that Celtic cultures fall on the side of esotericism, with its specialist priestly-poetic class.

As a modern practitioner of both public priestly ritual and more arcane skills such as divination and conjury I continue to find a use for the English word ‘magic’ as distinct from other types of spiritual practice. I suppose I’ll continue to argue for its use to mean ‘body of human spiritual skill’ rather than ‘intrinsic wonder/power of the cosmos’. Of course one can simply use ethnic terms when we want to be specific – seidr and galdr, briocht and pishog – and that’s probably a good plan, but doesn’t make modern theoretical thought about these things any easier. Using good English descriptive vocabulary is also a good plan – talk about invocation in a technical sense, develop (steal, co-opt, etc) terms for states of awareness and trance, have terms for various practical-magic goals, that allow us to talk technically about willed use of spiritual skills without deferring too often to that broad and difficult category of ‘magic’.

Browse Our Archives