The Price of Magic

The Price of Magic December 11, 2012
USS Chesapeake, launched 1799, via Wikimedia Commons

In witchcraft lore, in magical fiction, and in conversations with magical practitioners we occasionally come across the concept that magic comes with a price. Is this true? And if so, what kind of a price does magic carry?

My basic model of magic has three parts: the manipulation of energy, the intercession of spiritual beings, and psychological programming. Most Pagan magic is a combination of all three: we raise and direct energy, we perform symbolic and sympathetic actions, and we ask our gods and ancestors to assist us.

For the intercession of deities, there isn’t a price so much as the creation of an obligation. Pray to a god and he may do something for you, but he may ask for something in return. Read the stories of our Celtic ancestors – if you place yourself in debt you may be required to do something far out of proportion to what you received. The other side is that if you conduct yourself honorably it’s likely to work out well in the end.

This type of magic is best done within a relationship of mutual respect and reciprocity. If someone asks you for something day after day after day, you may not be too happy to see them coming. If someone is your friend, talks to you regularly, and occasionally does things for you, then you’re much more likely to respond favorably when they ask something of you.

Christians are taught to ask their god for everything. As Pagans, we need to ask ourselves if what we need really requires the assistance of a deity, or if it’s something we should to take care of ourselves. I can’t speak for every god and goddess in every tradition, but the deities I’ve worked with aren’t interested in sheep. They want women and men who can take care of themselves and who can contribute to their Great Work.

Bargaining is for demons – gods and goddesses will have what they want. Divine assistance is priceless, but it’s not free.

Psychological programming and energy manipulation are different. There is no reciprocity here – either you can do it or you can’t. The wind doesn’t require payment – it just requires that you put up a sail, and that you can manipulate the sail and the rudder to get to where you want to go.

As with prayer, this kind of magic has no price, but it’s not free. You have to do the work to harness and direct the energy. The wind will carry you across the seas, but first you have to have a ship and a sail and a rudder. You also have to have the skills to make it all work together. Do you think you could read two books, attend a couple regattas, and then compete in the America’s Cup?

And what happens when you sail your ship onto the rocks or into a storm? Is the resulting destruction the “price” of sailing? No, it’s what happens when humans play with forces that are far bigger, more powerful, and more random than we are without being very good and very careful.

Does that mean magic is too dangerous? No, it means it’s dangerous. Whether it’s too dangerous is a matter of judgment. Sailing is inherently dangerous – that’s why there are so many old Celtic songs about sailors lost at sea. But if our ancestors had declared it too dangerous all of us except the Native Americans would still be clinging to the shore somewhere in the Eastern hemisphere.

The water doesn’t require payment – it just requires that you put a turbine in its flow and it will generate electricity. There is no price, but there is a cost – reduced water flow, increased temperatures, dead fish, lack of water at downstream locations. Our society is obsessed with price and ignores cost.

Magical costs are side effects and unintended consequences. It’s working a spell for money and getting an inheritance because your mother dies. It’s working a love spell and seeing your target in misery because she’s obsessed with you and isn’t with who she really loves. It’s using entheogens in your practice and then becoming violently ill. It’s engaging in deep spiritual practice and discovering that you’ve spent your whole life chasing the wrong things.

Are the benefits worth the costs? Maybe they are – there are hedgewitches who swear by their flying ointments even though they know the results will be painful and can be fatal. Unless Cernunnos comes to me and says “here, eat this” I’ll stick to non-chemical means of changing consciousness. On the other hand, I know some very accomplished Pagans who won’t do Drawing Down rituals – I find them challenging but extremely rewarding. And I’d rather change direction late in life than continue one more day on a path that isn’t fulfilling.

Nothing in life is risk-free. This is something our ancestors understood clearly and our insurance and lawyer dominated society has forgotten. Do what you need to do and what you’re called to do, but do it with your eyes wide open and do it as skillfully as possible.

The power of magic carries no price but it’s not free. It requires work to harness and direct its energy, and skill to manipulate it safely and effectively.

The favor of the gods carries no price but it’s not free. It obligates us to return a gift for a gift, and what we give will not be of our own choosing.

Both require the wisdom to discern what you need, the courage to pursue it, and the diligence to stay with it until it is complete.

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