Baneful magic* is probably one of the most hotly debated subjects in witchcraft. Ethics and morality get mentioned a great deal, usually with all parties admitting that it is a critical aspect to determining whether or not baneful magic should be used. However, there is also usually little or no clarification about what that means, or how to evaluate the ethics of potential baneful workings.
When the subject of baneful magic comes up, common declarations range from “No one should ever hex or curse,” to “It is too dangerous to hex or curse until you have been practicing for X number of years,” to “A witch who cannot hex cannot heal,” to “Witches who do not hex are not real witches.”
Any time I see those pieces of advice, or similar statements, I cannot help but do a hard eyeroll. That is in large part because these declarations make sweeping assumptions about other peoples’ paths and rely upon universalized views of how magic works. Also, in being grossly oversimplified, they somehow simultaneously center and dismiss complex issues of ethics and morality. In these forms, they also manage to traipse into unnecessary gatekeeping and path shaming. Yes, all of them, even “A witch who cannot hex cannot heal.”
A Witch Who Cannot Hex Cannot Heal
This is a tough one, because in principle I do mostly agree with it, but it is oversimplified enough to be catchy and depressingly easy to misinterpret. That misinterpretation is obvious any time it is brought out to shame witches who don’t believe in or don’t want to do baneful magic.
The idea behind the statement is mostly sound. It basically means that if you understand how to heal something, you probably understand enough about it to also be able to cause harm. By the same token, if you understand precisely how to cause harm, you probably also understand enough about it to be able to heal. In either case, to be truly skilled, you must have enough of an understanding of the subject to be able to precisely determine where problems can happen, and why, which applies to both healing and harming.
The part that gets left out of the catchy, oversimplified statement, is that just because you know how to do something, that does not mean you must do it. I could easily study chemistry and learn how to make explosive compounds out of household chemicals, but that does not mean I would ever do it. Knowledge is not the same as action.
It also leaves out the fact that not all forms of harm or healing have bearing on the other. That is, I know that if I shot someone in the heart with a pistol, it would kill them. I do not know how to do life-saving surgery on someone who has been shot in the heart. In this case, the healing skill gives far more knowledge about how to harm. Or, put another way, knowing how to harm provides no help when you want to heal. The person who knows how to heal, though, would probably be extremely good at hurting should they be so inclined.
A better phrasing would be “A witch who can heal can hex,” but that is not entirely accurate either. Just because a witch technically knows all they need to know to be able to effectively hex, does not mean they would do it, or that they could do it well. Magic is an application of will, so if you lack confidence or have moral reservations, it is likely to turn out a mess.
The Law of Three
Unfortunately, in the current climate of witchcraft you cannot talk about hexing and cursing without talking about the “Law of Three” of “Threefold Law”. Exactly what that means varies depending upon who is interpreting it, but generally it means some variation on, “whatever you put out there will return to you threefold.” Those who believe in it often tout it as a Universal Truth which will affect anyone and everyone, regardless of whether or not they choose to Pay Attention. In fact, it gets bandied about with such aggressive insistence that it comes off as the Witchcraft version of “people who sin are doomed to Hell.”
While it can provide a framework for guiding ethical behavior, it is hardly a Universal Truth. If we all had what we put out there returned threefold, then the world would have no untouchable dictators, billionaires, crime bosses, or abusers. The world would also be full of people who prospered after acts of kindness, support, and compassion for their fellow humans.
Clearly, that is not how the world works, but if abiding by the Law of Three gives you comfort and provides the structure you need in your life, that is a wonderful thing. Follow the Law of Three if it works for you and your practice, and please refrain from shoving it down other peoples’ throats. Yes, we have heard of it, and no, we would rather not. Please stop, and I am not going to thank anyone for their “good” intentions, because impact is more important than intention.
How the Law of Three plays into baneful magic is by creating a paranoia around hexing and cursing. As it is commonly interpreted, wishing harm on another person through hexing or cursing is going to return that same hex or curse onto you, but at three times the strength with which you sent it out. By that reasoning, it is probably rarely, if ever, worth it to commit an act of baneful magic.
If you do follow the Law of Three, and you still feel the need to engage in baneful magic, there is another way to look at it. If the baneful magic is deserved, then you can deliberately engage the Law of Three to take effect on the person being hexed or cursed. That is, you seek for the harm that person caused to be returned on them three times. You are intending for them to receive just retribution for their actions, rather than making a new action of your own.
Morality is not universal. A great many things that a person considers moral behavior will be dictated by their culture, which is why the concept of moral relativism is so important. It is the understanding that there are multiple valid ways to be a moral person. It is colonialist and racist to impose your culture’s idea of moral behavior onto another culture. In other words, just because your culture thinks it is morally bad to be nude, does not mean that people from other cultures are bad or morally deficient for finding nudity acceptable.
Being morally relativistic is essential because it allows us to accept and appreciate other people, including their differences. That includes people of different cultural backgrounds, ethnicities, and traditions, like those found throughout paganism, witchcraft, and other occult paths or alternative religions. In other words, moral relativism allows us to create a mutually accepting and respectful community, regardless of our differences.
This includes accepting that different traditions and paths will have their own way to figure and account for moral action (like the Rule of Three, sinning, and various interpretations of “karma”). Those differences, whether or not you consciously think about it, are one of the reasons each of us will be drawn to or repulsed from joining particular traditions. If the moral groundwork of a tradition matches your personal moral compass, it is one of the things that can make it attractive. If that moral groundwork is at odds with your personal moral compass, it can make the tradition completely unviable, no matter how attractive other aspects of the tradition are.
And sadly, since it must be explicitly stated, I must point out that moral relativism has its limits. I draw the line at actions which are deliberately and maliciously harmful of other individuals, or which deny other people basic human rights, dignity, and respect. These are things like murder, assault, rape, pedophilia, bullying, racism, bigotry, transphobia, xenophobia, ableism, antisemitism, and other behaviors which create victims in any cultural context.
Personal Moral Compass
In addition to the moral foundations our cultures give us, we each have our own personal moral compass. These are the behaviors which we, personally, believe are important as we navigate our lives. A lot of these behaviors are of a general nature, like honesty and integrity. Most can be debated, are anything but universal, and have more to do with what provides you with a solid foundation than what works for other people.
In general society, those debatable moral issues include things like morally based dietary choices, white lies and other minor deceptions, nudity, sexual promiscuity or kinks, pacifism, self-defense and activism, any actions covered under bodily autonomy like body modification or abortion, and much more. If your personal moral compass forbids these things, you should not do them. For everyone else, moral valuation is unlikely to be a factor in decision making.
In witchcraft, pagan, occult, and alternative spiritualities, debatable moral issues also include a wide array of activities like baneful magic, binding, and summoning. Opinions range from that they are never morally acceptable, to the morality being determined by what is being done and how and why, and to it always being acceptable. If you have read very many of my articles, it will probably not surprise you that I fall into the middle category.
Your personal moral compass is what will guide you to take actions that you can live with. Exactly what that means is different for each and every one of us, so no one can tell you what that means. You must figure it out for yourself. If you do something that violates your personal moral compass, no matter how many other people insist that it is fine to do, it is likely to cause you anxiety, guilt, or even anguish.
So, if your personal moral compass tells you to never engage in any baneful magic, don’t do it! Pacifism is a valid philosophy that works extremely well for a lot of people. Just please recognize that it is not the only valid moral philosophy, and that just because it works for you, does not mean it will work for the person standing next to you. You can let people know you are a pacifist without shoving it down other peoples’ throats or trying to shame them about their personal moral compasses, just as you would rather not be shamed about yours.
If your personal moral compass tells you that it is always, under all circumstances, just fine to fling baneful magic everywhere on the slightest whim, I am going to give you some serious hairy eyeball. It is the magical equivalent of picking fights everywhere you go, and generally being an antagonistic, abusive, mean person. It is not friendly, sociable, or polite, in any context.
Impact is More Important than Intention
For most actions and behaviors, morality is contextual depending upon why the action is being taken, how it is being done, and what exactly is being done. There should also be a very strong emphasis on the fact that impact is more important than intention. As the saying goes, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. This means that no matter how pure your intentions, if your actions cause undo harm, it is the harm that will matter in the long run.
Intended and Unintended Consequences Matter Equally
One of the skills that any witch or other magic user needs to develop is the ability to predict consequences to our magical actions. That is, we need to be able to go into magical workings with a fairly good idea of the potential fallout of the spell. That includes both the consequences we intend (the purpose of the spell), and the consequences that we do not intend or did not foresee.
No matter how skilled you get with magic, there will always be unforeseen circumstances which result from our spells. This is true of just about every action we take in our lives, which are littered with unexpected results and side-effects, not all of which we ever become aware of. Most of them are minor, but they can be profound. If you cut someone off in traffic because you are running late or in a bad mood or not paying attention, the consequence for other people is probably minor and brief. However, it is possible to cause an accident or other major problem for other people.
That means that even when you engage in normal, non-baneful spellwork, there are always consequences, both good and bad, for you and other people. This is exactly the same as any mundane actions you take. No action is 100% good or 100% bad, magical or mundane, and attempting to base your magic entirely on “harm none” is a logical fallacy that leads to blinding yourself to the unintended consequences of your spellwork. “Harm none” is an excellent goal, and it is great to be as close to that as possible, but it is not achievable.
I believe the most ethical goal in spellwork should be to minimize harm while maximizing benefit, whether you are doing “normal” spells, or baneful spells. When you mess up and cause unintended harm, own it and apologize for the mistake and take all possible steps to make amends.
When doing baneful magic, just like with any other magical working, the trick in minimizing harm while maximizing benefit is to carefully answer the “what”, “why”, and “how” questions.
Reframing Baneful Magic as Warrior/Fighting Magic
If you are responsibly engaging in baneful magic, such spells are most likely going to be done in response to harm. It is the recourse of the marginalized and downtrodden. It is a way to fight back, especially when there is little to no real-world action which can be taken to stop or punish the harmful actions of other people or institutions.
Baneful magic is, as John Becket put it, the magical equivalent to punching someone in the face. It is rude to do at the drop of a hat, but there are certainly circumstances when it is fully justifiable, especially in the defense of yourself or others against aggressive antagonists who refuse to be reasoned with.
Even when faced with such circumstances, not everyone is going to know how to effectively throw a punch (even if they are a healer), and not everyone will want to. That is where the warriors come in, who can and will conduct baneful magic against unreasonable aggressors, be they individual people (like an abusive boss, ex turned stalker, or other toxic individuals), or corrupt and prejudiced institutions which inspire social justice workings.
In social justice, there are lots of ways to help. Not everyone needs to be a warrior, even among witches. We need healers, teachers, organizers, artists, writers, protesters, and so on. Some people can fill more than one role, but some people are best suited to focusing their efforts in one lane only. It is how they can be the most effective and helpful, without burning out or causing themselves undo anguish and anxiety.
Baneful magic is not inherently bad, but instead can be an effective tool for magical warriors. That tool is not friendly, but when it is needed, neither are the opponents.
A Question of Skill and Experience
It is not an inherently bad thing to advise novice witches to hold off on baneful magic until they have some experience under their belt. The problem comes in when arbitrary lengths of time are thrown around, rather than providing reasonable benchmarks.
If you just took your very first martial arts class, you would probably get yourself into a heap of trouble if you decided to challenge the school bully. It is extremely likely that your lack of skill and experience will lead to you getting beat up. However, skill is not something that develops on predictable timetables. Some people learn magic very quickly, and for other people it takes a great deal of time and effort.
And then there are also those people who are just naturally very good at it with little or no instruction. Some individuals are just natural fighters, and are quite formidable through sheer talent, without any formal instruction or practice.
Born to Hex
Some people are just born to hex. As in, there are people running around who can and do throw hexes on instinct alone, usually without even giving it conscious thought. You have probably encountered at least a few, some of whom may not even be witches or pagans. You or someone else has done something to anger them, and – POW – the evil eye gets thrown, and someone is in for some retribution.
People who do this, just do this. It is not a decision they make, but a reflexive response to bad behavior. I, for one, do not believe there is anything morally wrong with responding to bad behavior by hexing with the intent of retribution. Most bad behaviors go unpunished, so it is nice to see it happen now and again. Also, this kind of reflexive hexing does not give the option to pile on deliberately hurtful revenge, so the resulting hex is usually proportional to the harm caused by the person being hexed.
How to Evaluate Whether or not to do Baneful Magic
Each time you feel drawn to do baneful magic, it is important to do a full evaluation of the specific situation. This process should occur whether you have been doing magic for one week or one hundred years. The main difference is likely to be in how long it takes and how difficult it is to evaluate the situation, as experience will make it faster and easier for most people. The amount of time you have been practicing is of little importance to whether or not such workings should be done. The important part is that it be done with deliberate care, and a clear conscience. If you cannot do that, it is probably best not to engage in baneful magic.
What follows are some questions you can use to gauge whether or not you should be engaging in combative, baneful magic. These are guidelines only, and may or may not apply to every person or every situation. Follow your intuition, and trust your heart.
Be Prepared to Engage in Shadow Work
It is probably a good idea to do at least a little shadow work around the people and events which are prompting baneful magic, and how it is affecting you personally. This will help you to more accurately understand your motivations and any trauma you are experiencing. It will also help you proceed in a manner which will support healing and personal wellbeing, while avoiding toxic behaviors and motivations which can cause a spiral of misdeeds.
Accurate Evaluation of What you are Responding To
You need to be able to step back and impartially evaluate what you are responding to. What circumstances are prompting the baneful magic? Who has been harmed, and in what ways? Where exactly is the harm coming from? Are there non-magical ways to solve the situation? Would it be worth the effort to add magic to increase the odds of those non-magical actions being successful?
Accurate Evaluation of your Motivations
When someone engages in baneful magic simply for the purpose of harming others or self-gratification, it is exactly the kind of awful act which gives baneful magic a bad name. This is the kind of use which the average person thinks of, and it is entirely reasonable to condemn it.
When someone engages in baneful magic in response to wrongs that have been committed, on behalf of themself or other people, it becomes a valorous act. It can be selfless when the dangers are undertaken for the sake of others. It can be tremendously healing and empowering when it is done to right wrongs and reclaim personal power from abusers.
Why are you contemplating doing baneful magic? Is it for retribution, revenge, justice, ego, self-gratification, reclaiming personal power, dealing with trauma, empowering others who have been victimized or marginalized, something else, some combination of motivations? If the answer is unclear, this might be a good time to engage in some shadow work to better understand your feelings and motivations around the issues.
Accurate Evaluation of What You Want to Accomplish
What exactly do you want to make happen through your magical efforts? Are there any real-world steps you can take to make that happen? Is there added benefit to also conducting baneful magic? Are your intentions a reasonable response to what has happened or is happening?
Depending upon the circumstances, you may understand exactly what has happened and what an appropriate response would be, or you may be unsure of enough details to make these questions hard to answer. In these situations I am fond of calling upon The Fates. They know better than I do, exactly what has transpired and what an appropriate retribution would be. By calling The Fates to pay attention to the situation, They can decide what, if any retribution is warranted.
The End Terms of your Baneful Spell
I am of the opinion that all baneful magic spells should have a natural “out” or “ending”, by which the spell is dissolved. This makes the spell more resistant to being banished or undone, and reinforces the intended outcome. That is because the “out” or “ending” should be directly related to accomplishing the goal of the spell.
For example, if the spell is related to abusive behavior, it should end when the individual grows and learns, makes amends for past abuses, and resolves to stop being abusive. Most people who engage in abusive behavior will not ever stop, but if they do, they should also stop being actively punished for behaviors they regret and no longer engage in. If a person is going to be punished eternally no matter what, there is no motivation to ever stop the behavior.
If the spell is related to the dismantling of prejudiced systems or institutions, the out can be related to the complete destruction of those systems or institutions. This destruction is metaphorical and metaphysical, and happens when the prejudice is removed, even if the name of the system or institution remains the same. There is no benefit in baneful magic which continues on, and affects an institution which has genuinely changed its ways and no longer supports prejudice.
Evaluate Potential Consequences, Intended and Unintended
Look over the structure you are creating for your baneful magic, and carefully evaluate the potential consequences. Look not only at what you intend, but at what is likely to also happen which is not part of your intent. What will the collateral damage be?
If you get into a fight with a single Nazi on a street corner, most likely it will just be between the two of you, with little to no damage to anyone or anything else. If you get into it with a Nazi in someone’s boutique, there is likely to be a lot of damage to the boutique, even if you are defending the person working behind the counter. Depending upon the threat level, this may be warranted, or it may be better to do your best to get the Nazi out of the shop before punches start being thrown.
Make adjustments as needed to the spell, or organize it into multiple spells. For example, if you want to take action against an extremely abusive head of a household, and you immediately jump into punishing them, it will likely cause hardship for the entire family and potentially make it even more difficult for them to get away from the abusive person. It might work better to first do spells to get the family away from the abuser, and then cast the baneful magic to punish them for being abusive.
Also, bear in mind that there are always unintended consequences which you cannot foresee. You can minimize them through careful planning and consideration, but they always exist. You are as responsible for those consequences as any which you foresee.
Evaluate Through the Lens of Your Personal Moral Compass
Carefully look over your plan and your intent, and all the consequences you can think of. Does this action line up with your personal moral compass, or would it cause you anxiety, guilt, or anguish? Are there changes you can make to your intent or approach which would bring the working in line with your moral compass?
This is your final “Is this worth it?” question. If you are considering baneful magic, you have probably experienced trauma already. Is your working going to add to that trauma, or will it help you heal from the trauma? Is it going to cause you sleepless nights, or will you sleep better? Is it important enough to you to do, even if it might cause you personal problems or regrets?
The Importance of a Clear Conscience
If you are unsure of any part of your prospective baneful magic, go back to your shadow work. Try to find the answers to these questions, so that you can engage in your baneful magic (or decide not to do baneful magic) with a clear conscience.
If you engage in baneful magic with a clouded conscience, it will cloud your magic. It can make it misfire, or redirect back onto you. At the very least, it will make it less effective, as your reluctance and trepidation acts upon the spell to slow it down and weaken it. An unsure mind makes for unsure magic.
If you engage in baneful magic with a clear conscience, it will make your magic powerful and direct. It is far less likely to misfire, and unlikely to harm you. It is the way to make sure you hit your target, with precision, and do as little collateral damage as possible. It is the only way to responsibly conduct baneful or combative magic, and it requires that the magic you do is fully in line with your personal moral compass and code of ethics.
* I do not and will not refer to baneful magic as “black magic”, because that term is absolutely awash in racism and colonialist cultural genocide, and reinforces racist stereotypes. If you would like to better understand the connection between racism and the term “black magic”, I suggest reading Is the Term Black Magic Racist? by Brandy Williams, or The Fallacy of Black or White Magick by Laura Tempest Zakroff. For a much more thorough look at the topic, I suggest reading White Light, Black Magic: Racism in Esoteric Thought, also by Brandy Williams.