The Nature of Magick
Magick is a vague term. How its practices differ from the rituals of religion or the dark corners of psychology is a matter of frequent debate. Its origins are clearly in what is usually considered to be the “superstitious” observations of early man. We witnessed coincidental events and drew a connection of cause and effect, or believed a certain root’s human-like form gives it inherently healing or harmful properties. However, how do these so-called “superstitious” observations differ from Freud’s conclusion that phallic objects hold the power to trigger neurotic behaviors in people under the right circumstances? Does this make magick psychological, or does it make psychology magickal? This extension of magical faith does not end with the mysterious workings of the human mind. As someone with an autoimmune disease, I can personally attest to the fact that while much of modern medicine is rooted in explainable science, many diagnostic methods are based on little more than educated intuition. To the patient, hearing your doctor say, “It’s not disease X or disease Y, therefore it must be disease Z, so we are going to throw this highly toxic treatment at it. We won’t know if it works, we will only know if it isn’t working and you get sicker.” is not very comforting.
Yet we don’t question the existence of psychology or medicine. We don’t doubt Wall Street analysts know what they are talking about when they predict the future of the stock market, in spite of the fact that they have proven to be so inaccurate that you would do better with random chance (Light). Why is it the western world is comfortable with these paths of magickal thinking, yet we tend think of the sorcery of the Zande as stemming from a naive and simplistic world view and the practices of the modern Neopagan (among those who do practice magick, which is common but not universal) as silly self-delusion? The reality is, all cultures throughout history have supported some form of magical thinking. We all seek to control our world through whatever means necessary, especially in times of deprivation, danger, or conflict. Magick accesses culturally accepted symbolism and puts it to work in order to alter the fabric of reality. Unlike Witchcraft, which is considered innate to the witch from birth (Vitebsky), magick is a learned discipline and can involve a lifetime of study. The correlation of natural phenomenon, colors, elements, plants, animals, celestial bodies, or enchanted objects must be learned. The moral implications of the practitioner’s actions must be weighed. If the practitioner is to provide their services publicly, they must learn to inspire awe and foster trust. These are often traditions handed down through generations, and their efficacy within their cultures are usually undisputed by those who utilize them.
Many of these beliefs and traditions date back to times and places so ancient and remote that the practitioners don’t even know their origins. In the early 20th century, the hunters of Oregon County, Missouri refused to kill a buck if it was white or showed signs of leucism (Randolph). Most likely they were not aware of the ancient Celtic belief that the white stag was an enchanted messenger from the Otherworld, in spite of the predominately English and Scots-Irish ancestry of the area’s residents. Yet the power of the symbol persisted, and in some locations persists today. Somehow, the notion of the white buck or stag as a taboo animal was handed down through time and across oceans and was kept alive in the New World.
Many magickal practices seem to be based on such arbitrary notions, but once you recognize how a belief removed from its place of origin can change the perception of that belief you can see why. Many groups of American Neopaganism practice the holidays based on the Celtic Wheel of the Year. These holidays fall on the equinoxes, solstices, and the midpoints between these days, sometimes known as the cross-quarters (Cunliffe). While not all Neopagans practice a Celtic based variety of Pagansim, they often conform to this schedule as it increases the possibility of participating in broader community events where their particular group may be underrepresented. One of the more confusing holidays for many Neopagans is early February’s Imbolc, or what is considered “the first day of Spring”. This is confusing to many Neopagans, who see Ostara in late March as being a better candidate for this designation. What is missing from this modern celebration for most Neopagans is the connection the pastoral Celts made between the beginning of February and the birthing of the year’s first lambs. This is not “the advent of sweater weather” as we have come to know Spring in the modern world, but an event that was significant to the survival the ancient people who celebrated this day. An American Neopagan living in the Arizona desert might have hard time wrapping her head around the idea of February 1st as being “the first day of Spring”, but she will practice the rituals and access the symbols of her faith in order to secure a fertile and prosperous year. The origin of the symbol is not what matters here, it is the power of the symbol and the intent of the practitioner that matters.
While magick is a universal concept, its form and implications vary greatly from place to place and at different times in history. In Western Europe and North America, our cultures have gone from revering the sorcerer as village servants, to reviling them as malignant diabolists who curdle milk and eat children, to our current associations of magick with the New Age and Neopagan movement (Russell). In the Age of Information, magick practitioners use the Internet to network and study, giving rise to new symbols, methods, and syncretisms. In spite of our perceptions of our society as being based in science, logic, and progress, we still cross our fingers, pray, play the Powerball with our children’s birthdates, keep good luck charms, make sure there are certain foods on the table for certain holidays, teach our children to not step on a crack or walk under ladders. We inject magical thinking into so many aspects of our lives that we aren’t even conscious of it. If you don’t believe me, try changing the order you do your morning ritual each day. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself feeling “out of sorts” all day, or even possibly invigorated. In concrete reality, this change should have no physical effect on your day. And yet…
Light, J. (2013, December 20). Why market forecasts are so bad. Wall Street Journal.
Russell, J. B. (1980). A history of witchcraft, sorcerers, heretics, and pagans. London: Thames and Hudson.
Jolly, K. L. (1996). Popular religion in late Saxon England: Elf charms in context. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Randolph, V. (1947). Ozark magic and folklore. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
Vitebsky, P. (2001). Shamanism. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press
Cunliffe, B. W. (1997). The ancient Celts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.