The Myth of Magic

The Myth of Magic January 31, 2013

There are many views on magic in the Big Tent of Paganism.  For some, magic isn’t very important – their focus is on their gods and ancestors.  For others, magic is all about transforming themselves and aligning their will with the Divine.  Still others see magic as a hands-on tool and use spells and charms throughout their everyday lives.

Our larger culture doesn’t think much of magic… or at least, they like to pretend they don’t.  Over on the Patheos “Religion on Science” blog, Nicholas DiDonato asks “Do you believe in magic? Seriously.”  He summarizes an academic study (that’s sadly locked behind a journal pay wall) that ran a series of experiments which demonstrated

When personally at risk, many openly admitted their fear of magic, and thus their belief in magic. From such studies, Subbotsky concluded that in the industrialized world, people’s belief in magic migrates to their subconscious by the time they enter adulthood.

It appears that the difference between the industrialized world and unindustrialized world in terms of scientific reasoning and belief is not so big after all. Those in the industrialized world are just better at creating the illusion that their belief in magic has disappeared.

Many of the origins of modern Paganism – which includes the practice of magic – lie in responses to the excesses of the industrial world:  a disconnection from the land and the destruction of wild places, the need of both men and women for a feminine expression of the Divine, and the canonization of literal, material truth as the only worthwhile way of knowing.  This overemphasis on logos affects our understanding of magic.

I have to admit the logos of magic intrigues me.  Very early in my Pagan exploration I came to a three-fold understanding of magic I still find helpful (I know, Druids do everything in threes!).  I see magic as one part psychological programming, one part intercessory prayer, and one part manipulation of unseen forces.  The best magic makes use of all three, and when it works you’re left wondering how much was your spells and charms, how much was the mundane action your magic caused you to take, and how much was the help of your gods, ancestors and spirits.

If you got what you needed does it really matter?

The how and why of magic is interesting, but it’s not the only way to understand magic.  The myth of magic is at least as important.

By “myth” I mean the stories that tell us who we are, whose we are, what’s important and where we’re going.  Myths communicate purpose and values.  They speak to the heart and soul as much as to the mind.  We need mythos as much as we need logos.

The myth of magic reminds us of the truth behind the words of evolutionary biologist J. B. S. Haldane:  “the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”  The modern West likes to pretend we have everything figured out, that while we don’t have all the details yet, it’s just a matter of time until we do.  Yet the deeper we go into subatomic physics or the further back we go toward the Big Bang, the stranger things get.  We’re a 100,000 year old species with maybe 10,000 years of civilization living on a planet that’s been around for 4 billion years in a universe that’s 14 billion years old.  The idea that we have the framework of the universe completely mapped out is at best a grand case of hubris.

Be careful not to assume science is telling you something it’s not – bad science makes bad religionMythos is just as valid and just as helpful as logos , but use the right method for the right subject.

The myth of magic reminds us to align all our parts – things work best when our magical work, our mundane work, and our Divine work are working together.  Early in my “dabbling with witchcraft” period I got some amazing results from magic. I also created some amazing problems for myself.  I was working magic for trivial matters and working magic with no regard for unintended consequences.  When the focus of my practice shifted from “what cool stuff can I do?” to “how can I learn and grow and serve my gods and my community?” I stopped creating so many problems for myself and my results were far more beneficial.

Think of your life as a wagon pulled by three ropes.  If the ropes are being pulled in different directions, the wagon will move roughly if at all.  More effort won’t help – the harder the pullers pull, the rougher the ride.  But if all three ropes are pulled in the same direction, the wagon will move as smoothly as the road will allow.

The myth of magic reminds us that while we can control nothing, we can influence everything.  We are incredibly complex creatures living in an incredibly complex universe.  While this complexity is a source of wonder and beauty, it is also a source of anxiety as we live with the uncertainty and apparent randomness of life.  Our ancestors spoke of the Fates and the Norns who controlled our lives.

But with magic, we can reprogram our lives, apply force at a distance, and request Divine assistance.  We can take action to deal with the difficulties of life – sometimes to change our circumstances and sometimes to change the way we relate to those circumstances.  This also reminds us that life is easier when we go with the flow of Nature and not against it.  A hurricane is bigger and stronger than you are.  If one is coming, work protective magic… and then evacuate.

The myth of magic reminds us of the importance of diligent practice, of sticking with something long enough for it to bear fruit.  In the Tale of Gwion Bach, young Gwion tends Cerridwen’s cauldron every night for a year and a day before receiving the Awen, the elixir of wisdom.  Our popular culture likes to present magic as a shortcut, a way to get what you want without work – that’s one of its many misconceptions.   If you want to be an accomplished magician, it takes every bit as much work as becoming an accomplished athlete or musician or artist, every bit as much study as becoming a doctor or lawyer or engineer.

As the study referenced on the “Religion on Science” blog shows, most of us really do believe in magic, even those who like to pretend they don’t.  The myth of magic is very much alive.  By understanding what this myth is telling us, we can learn helpful lessons about how to live our lives and what action we can take to make things better for ourselves, our community and our world.

The Tale of Gwion Bach, told by some Druid in Texas

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