"The Magic Circle" by John William Waterhouse

“The Magic Circle” by John William Waterhouse

Magic is no instrument
Magic is the end

— Leonard Cohen, “God Is Alive. Magic Is Afoot.” in Beau­tiful Losers (1966)

“Magic” is a word that is used to describe a wide array of cul­tural practices, from sleight of hand (legerdemain) to summon­ing demons, from healing with herbs to divination with the en­trails of animals, from calling down pagan deities to prayers to a monotheistic god for blessings. Many Neo-Pagans practice some form of magic or “magick” (as it is sometimes spelled to distin­guish it from stage magic).

The term, “magic,” is used in different ways by Pagan au­thors. “Magic” is often used to describe practices that seek to pro­ject the magician’s will on the natural world by supernatural or occult means. “Magic” is also used to describe a kind of psycho­therapy, which is virtually indistinguishable from other religious ritual. Finally, “magic” is used to describe a re-enchant­ment of the world, fostering an expanded consciousness of the radically interconnected world of which we are a part.

Magic as Control

Aleister Crowley famously defined magic as “the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with the will.” In Persua­sions of the Witch’s Craft (1989), Tanya Luhrmann describes how some Pagans believe in a kind of spiritual “energy” that per­meates the world, but is not detectable by current scientific methods. This energy supposedly can be manipulated by focus­ing one’s mind or will to cause change in the physical world with­out corresponding physical action. Some Pagans will invoke quantum physics or chaos theory to explain how this magic works. To others, including some Neo-Pagans, this is just wish­ful thinking.

Setting aside the question of its efficacy, some Neo-Pagans are suspicious of this kind of instrumental magic, which is seen as essentially just another attempt by human beings to exert their dominion over nature. It is a kind of “technology” that treats the natural world as an object and as a resource for use by humans. Spiritual feminist, Barbara Walker, explains that the real aim of instrumental magic is the same as any fantasy: “to retreat from a troublesome reality into a world of pure symbol. However difficult, uncontrollable or indifferent the external uni­verse may seem, symbolism is manipulable and so provides at least the illusion of comfort.” This kind of magic is not counter­cultural at all; it is another expression of the modern es­trangement to which Neo-Neo-Pagans believe that our relationship with nature should be characterized by reverence and participation, not control and domination. Instrumental magic is a vestige of the influence of occultism on Neo-Paganism. While Neo-Paganism is a product of the 1960s Counterculture and the feminist movement, the form that it initially took was borrowed from British Traditional Wicca, which was itself a product of the Western occult tradi­tion. As anthropologist, Susan Greenwood, observes:

“Nature religion has developed within a specific histori­cal and cultural context of the Western Hermetic or Mys­tery Tradition. Consequently, there are philosophical and ideological influences that reflect attention away from the natural world.”

Eco-feminist, Trudy Frisk, has written about the conflict between magic and other Neo-Pagan values in an article entitled, “Pagan­ism, Magic, and the Control of Nature.” According to Frisk, the instrumental view of magic “perpetuates the utilitarian view of nature. Expecting natural objects to fulfill human desires leads to disregard for maintaining nature in all its complexity.” This causes Frisk to wonder:

“How does that paganism differ from monotheistic reli­gions trumpeting their dominion over nature? … Shouldn’t we try to discover the pattern that Gaia is weav­ing before presuming to interfere? … Perhaps we should attune ourselves to the Earth before attempting to intervene.”

This attunement is precisely the purpose of many Neo-Pagan rituals: attunement to the cycles of nature, attunement to our deeper selves, and attunement with one another.

Magic as Psychology

Dion Fortune adapted Aleister Crowley’s definition of magic to mean “the art and science of changing consciousness according to the Will.” This shifts the locus of the change effected by magic from the external world to the internal one. According to Star­hawk, magic is all about change. Neo-Pagan rituals may seek to effect change in the world, but they do so by first seeking to change the practitioner themselves, so that the practitioner may then go out into the world and change it. To borrow a distinction that Starhawk has drawn, this kind of ritual is a form of “power-with” as opposed to “power over.”

According to Susan Greenwood, “Many magical practices are often initially psychotherapeutic techniques that aim to bal­ance the forces or energies within to bring the magician to an awareness of his/herself in relation to divinity.” As Jungian psychologist and Wiccan priestess, Vivianne Crowley, summa­rizes, “The most important piece of magic we will ever do is the magic we do on ourselves.”

Many Neo-Pagans draw on Jungian psychology to explain the function of magic and ritual. From this perspective, magic is indistinguishable from other religious ritual, which seeks to speak to the unconscious in a language that it understands, not for the purpose of controlling the unconscious, but for the pur­pose of integrating it into our conscious lives. In their study of Jung and the Neo-Pagan movement, David and Sharn Waldron explain that psychological development cannot be achieved through will or intention alone. People require symbols and ritu­als to express realities beyond the scope of conscious thought in order to achieve wholeness.

To the occultist, the careful and precise application of magi­cal formulae can be used to control natural and supernatural forces. The occultist imagines themselves to be something like a natural scientist, but one who understands (super-)natural laws that are unknown or unrecognized by the scientist. The Neo-Pa­gan, on the other hand, knows that, in the realm of the uncon­scious, as in the realm of external nature, control is an illusion. The forces of the unconscious may be invoked, aroused, courted, persuaded, and seduced, but never controlled. Neo-Pagan ritual, therefore, is not like a scientific formula, but rather like a poem or a dance. If a Neo-Pagan uses a ritual circle, for example, it is not to magically contain supernatural forces, but to create a psycho­logical space into which the forces of the unconscious can be invited. Those unconscious forces may manifest, or they may not, or they may manifest after the ritual is completed and when least expected.

Magic as Re-enchantment

Many Neo-Pagan authors use “magic” synonymously with “re-enchantment.” This kind of magic shifts our way of seeing the world, drawing our attention to the subtle connections between ourselves and the natural world, not for the purpose of control­ling it, but for the purpose of appreciating it, celebrating it, and attuning ourselves to it. Magic, in this sense, is a countercultural response to mainstream culture that reduces everything, includ­ing people, to objects to be manipulated, resources to be ex­ploited, and commodities to be sold. As cultural ecologist, David Abram, has written, “In the deepest sense, magic is an experience. It’s the experience of finding oneself alive within a world that is itself alive.”

Updated 2019

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