- For other uses of the term or name "Magic", see Magic (disambiguation). For other uses of the term or name "Sorcerer", see sorcerer (disambiguation).
Magic (from the Magi: Old Persian Magupati, Persian Mobed, Greek Μάγοι) or sorcery (from the French sorcierie) are terms referring to the influence of events and physical phenomenon through supernatural, mystical, or paranormal means. The term magic in its various translations has been used in a number of ways. From the point of view of an established religion, it has often been used as a pejorative term for the pagan rituals of competing ethnic groups, as belonging to a inferior (hence blasphemous or idolatrous) culture. The magic and religion article deals largely with this aspect.
Among occultists, magic is a fairly neutral term which has some varied connotations, such as white magic and black magic. The famous occultist Aleister Crowley chose the spelling magick to distinguish "the true science of the Magi from all its "counterfeits," such as stage magic. Today many use that spelling in the same or otherwise similar way, often to connote a pagan or wiccan system of belief rituals, that endow individuals with superphysical abilities.
As with all paranormal claims, magic has yet failed to be supported by credible controlled scientific experimentation, and can only be studied seriously for its influence in cultural or religious matters. This article provides an overview of specific magical traditions and practices. It also discusses the use of magic as a plot device in various kinds of fiction. For a list of historical figures associated with paranormal magic, see: List of occultists.
Religion, paganism, and alchemy
The conceptual relationship between religion and magic is similar to the relationship "religion" and paganism, wheras "religion" refers to a system of established beliefs, and "magic" and "pagan" are terms used within these religions to refer to extracultural beliefs and customs, or particular aspects of those beliefs which are conflicting.
From the point of view of any established religion, the terms "magic", and "wizardry" connote beliefs which are held to be inferior to true belief, and hence are considered "false belief" or heresy. In this sense, the term magic is typically outdated, although in the direct quotation of religious scripture may see some limited use. The terms "heathen" or "infidel" are common replacements, depending on the context, leaving little ambiguity as to their pejorative meaning.
Originally referring to the older Zoroastrian Magi (i.e. sages, priests), the term "magic" became a pejorative, which among the followers of the Israelite religion was recorded into Western history with its denegrating meaning. All decendants of the younger Abrahamic faith and its traditional culture of belief, inherited this use of the term and "magic," in times of antiquity, was typically applied to other religions — including the emerging Israelite decendants Christianity and Islam.
In the middle ages, what we now call "the sciences " began to develop, under what we now call alchemy. Alchemy attempted to codify specific methodolgy for the mechanical achievement of tasks which most considered to be important, such as the healing of illnesses and the making of wealth (gold etc). Wheras religion advocated a faith-based deference to matters of spirit, alchemy was the foundation of human curiosity about the natural world. It is from alchemy that our modern concept of wizardy and magic come from; as a kind of melding of spirituality and methodical and professional investigation into the mysterious or "arcane."
History of Western European magic
Magical beliefs in Western Europe
Belief in various magical practices has waxed and waned in European and Western history, under pressure from either organised monotheistic religions or from scepticism about the reality of magic, and the ascendancy of scientism.
In the world of classical antiquity, much as in the present time, magic was thought to be somewhat exotic. Egypt, home of hermeticism, and Mesopotamia and Persia, original home of the Magi, were lands where expertise in magic was thought to be prevalent. In Egypt, a large number of magical papyri, in Greek, Coptic, and demotic Egyptian, have been recovered. These sources contain early instances of much of the magical lore that later became part of Western cultural expectations about the practice of magic, especially ceremonial magic. They contain early instances of:
- the use of "magic words" said to have the power to command spirits;
- the use of wands and other ritual tools;
- the use of a magic circle to defend the magician against the spirits he is invoking; and
- the use of mysterious symbols or sigils thought useful to invoke spirits.
The use of spirit mediums is also documented in these texts; many of the spells call for a child to be brought to the magic circle to act as a conduit for messages from the spirits. The time of the Emperor Julian of Rome, marked by a reaction against the influence of Christianity, saw a revival of magical practices associated with neo-Platonism under the guise of theurgy.
In the Middle Ages
Mediæval authors, under the control of the Church, confined their magic to compilations of wonderlore and collections of spells. Albertus Magnus was credited, rightly or wrongly, with a number of such compilations. Specifically Christianised varieties of magic were devised at this period. During the early Middle Ages, the cult of relics as objects not only of veneration but also of supernatural power arose. Miraculous tales were told of the power of relics of the saints to work miracles, not only to heal the sick, but for purposes like swaying the outcome of a battle. The relics had become amulets, and various churches strove to purchase scarce or valuable examples, hoping to become places of pilgrimage. As in any other economic endeavour, demand gave rise to supply. Tales of the miracle-working relics of the saints were compiled later into quite popular collections like the Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine or the Dialogus miraculorum of Caesar of Heisterbach.
There were other, officially proscribed varieties of Christianised magic. The demonology and angelology contained in the earliest grimoires assume a life surrounded by Christian implements and sacred rituals. The underlying theology in these works of Christian demonology encourages the magician to fortify himself with fasting, prayers, and sacraments, so that by using garbled versions of the holy names of God in foreign languages, he can use divine power to coerce demons into appearing and serving his usually lustful or avaricious magical goals. Not surprisingly, the church disapproved of these rites; they are nonetheless Christianised for all that, and assume a theology of mechanical sacramentalism.
Magic in the Renaissance
Renaissance humanism saw a resurgence in hermeticism and other Neo-Platonic varieties of ceremonial magic. The Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution, on the other hand, saw the rise of scientism, in such forms as the substitution of chemistry for alchemy, the dethronement of the Ptolemaic theory of the universe assumed by astrology, the development of the germ theory of disease, that restricted the scope of applied magic and threatened the belief systems it relied on. Tensions roused by the Protestant Reformation led to an upswing in witch-hunting, especially in Germany, England, and Scotland; but ultimately, the new theology of Protestantism proved a worse foe to magic by undermining belief in the sort of ritualism that allowed religious rites to be re-purposed towards earthly, magical ends. Scientism, more than religion, proved to be magic's deadliest foe.
Alongside the ceremonial magic followed by the better educated were the everyday activities of folk practitioners of magic across Europe, typified by the cunning folk found in Great Britain. In their magical practices astrology, folklore, and distorted versions of Christian ritual magic worked alongside each other to answer customer demand.
Magic and Romanticism
More recent periods of renewed interest in magic occurred around the end of the nineteenth century, where Symbolism and other offshoots of Romanticism cultivated a renewed interest in exotic spiritualities. European colonialism, which put Westerners in contact with India and Egypt, re-introduced exotic beliefs to Europeans at this time. Hindu and Egyptian mythology frequently feature in nineteenth century magical texts. The late 19th century spawned a large number of magical organizations, including the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the Theosophical Society, and specifically magical variants on Freemasonry. The Golden Dawn represented perhaps the peak of this wave of magic, attracting cultural celebrities like William Butler Yeats, Algernon Blackwood, and Arthur Machen to its banner.
Magic in the twentieth century
A further revival of interest in magic was heralded by the repeal, in England, of the last Witchcraft Act in 1951. This was the cue for Gerald Gardner, now recognised as the founder of Wicca, to publish his first non-fiction book Witchcraft Today, in which he claimed to reveal the existence of a witch-cult that dated back to pre-Christian Europe. Gardner's religion combined magic and religion in a way that was later to cause people to question the Enlightenment's boundaries between the two subjects.
Gardner's newly publicized religion, and many others, took off in the atmosphere of the 1960s and 1970s, when the counterculture of the hippies also spawned another period of renewed interest in magic, divination, and other occult practices. The various branches of neo-paganism and other earth religions that have been publicized since Gardner's publication tend to follow a pattern in combining the practice of magic and religion. The trend was continued by some heirs to the counterculture; feminists led the way when some launched an independent revival of goddess worship. This brought them into contact with the Gardnerian tradition of magical religion, and deeply influenced that tradition in return.
Modern believers in magic
Many people in the West claim to believe in or practise various forms of magic. The forms of magic they adhere to have been reconstructed from secondary or tertiary sources. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Aleister Crowley, and their followers are most often credited with the resurgence of magical tradition in the English speaking world of the 20th century, but in their eagerness to reconstruct the lost traditions of the past, they often included elements of questionable authenticity, or manufactured them from whole cloth. Other, similar movements took place at roughly the same time, centred in France and Germany. Thus, any current tradition which acknowledges the natural elements, the seasons, and the practitioner's relationship with the Earth, Gaia, or the Goddess may be correctly regarded as Neopagan, and few such traditions can be sensibly labelled more authentic than any others.
Aleister Crowley preferred the spelling magick, defining it as "the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with the will." By this, he included "mundane" acts of will as well as ritual magic. In Magick in Theory and Practice, Chapter XIV, Crowley says:
- What is a Magical Operation? It may be defined as any event in nature which is brought to pass by Will. We must not exclude potato-growing or banking from our definition. Let us take a very simple example of a Magical Act: that of a man blowing his nose.
Although some current practitioners of magic prefer the term pagan, Neopaganism is more precise for scholarly reference to current rituals and traditions (though both are technically correct, as neopaganism is but a particular subset of paganism). Wicca is a more codified form of modern magic than Neopaganism, again owing much to Crowley and his ilk. Wicca and Neopaganism are very different things from Satanism, which owes its structure and memes primarily to inversions of monotheistic texts.
Wiccans and other followers of modern religious Witchcraft use magic extensively. However, they do not all ascribe to Aleister Crowley's defintion of what that is, nor use it for the same purposes. Ruickbie (2004:193-209) shows that Wiccans and Witches define magic in many different ways and use it for a number of different purposes, but despite that diversity of opinion finds that the general result upon the practitioner is a positive one.
Suppression of magical beliefs
Examples of the suppression of magical belief and practice range from the eradication of neighboring polytheistic tribes by the early Hebrews, to the attempted suppression and eventual appropriation of pagan holidays by the Catholic Church, to the mingled motives of the Conquistadors, to the Salem witch trials of the Puritans. During such periods, the tendency of magic is to become more obscure and esoteric, with a certain element in society always managing to preserve lore and tradition, often in disguised or metaphorical terms. This pattern gave rise to the term occult.
The motivation of much scientific enquiry is similar to the motivation of magic; that it is possible to discover the underlying reality behind mundane reality, and that that reality may have laws and principles which may be discovered and controlled. Unlike the practice of magic, science has the scientific method to correct its errors. As the scientific method took hold, astronomy evolved from astrology, and chemistry from alchemy.
Theories of magic
In an age where the existence of magical forces is no longer taken for granted, believers in magic are likely to be asked, "How does magic work?"
Its power comes mainly by suggestion and the focusing of attention. It can be characterized as assertion of the will. Working of magic is often dependent upon being part of a social group which supports the belief. A survey of writings by believers in magic shows that adherents believe that it may work by one or more of these basic principles:
Natural forces that cannot be detected by science at present, and in fact may not be detectable at all. These magical forces are said to exist in addition to and alongside the four known forces of nature: gravity, electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force.
Intervention of spirits similar to these hypothetical natural forces, but with their own consciousness and intelligence. Believers in spirits will often see a whole cosmos of beings of many different kinds, sometimes organized into a hierarchy.
- A mystical power, such as mana, that exists in all things. This power is often said to be dangerous to people.
- A mysterious interconnection in the cosmos that connects and binds all things, above and beyond the natural forces.
Manipulation of symbols. Adherents of magical thinking believe that symbols can be used for more than representation: they can magically take on a physical quality of the phenomenon or object that they represent. By manipulating symbols (as well as sigils), one is said to be able to manipulate the reality that this symbol represents.
- The principles of sympathetic magic of Sir James George Frazer, explicated in his The Golden Bough (third edition, 1911-1915). These principles include the "law of similarity" and the "law of contact" or "contagion." These are systematized versions of the manipulation of symbols. Frazer defined them this way:
If we analyse the principles of thought on which magic is based, they will probably be found to resolve themselves into two: first, that like produces like, or that an effect resembles its cause; and, second, that things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed. The former principle may be called the Law of Similarity, the latter the Law of Contact or Contagion. From the first of these principles, namely the Law of Similarity, the magician infers that he can produce any effect he desires merely by imitating it: from the second he infers that whatever he does to a material object will affect equally the person with whom the object was once in contact, whether it formed part of his body or not. 
- Concentration or meditation. A certain amount of restricting the mind to some imagined object (or will), according to Aleister Crowley, produces mystical attainment or "an occurrence in the brain characterized essentially by the uniting of subject and object." (Book Four, Part 1: Mysticism) Magick, as defined previously, seeks to aid concentration by constantly recalling the attention to the chosen object (or Will), thereby producing said attainment. For example, if one wishes to concentrate on a God, one might memorize a system of correspondences (perhaps chosen arbitrarily, as this would not affect its usefulness for mystical purposes) and then make every object that one sees "correspond" to said God.
Aleister Crowley wrote that ". . . the exaltation of the mind by means of magical practices leads (as one may say, in spite of itself) to the same results as occur in straightforward Yoga." Crowley's magick thus becomes a form of mental, mystical, or spiritual discipline, designed to train the mind to achieve greater concentration. Crowley also made claims for the paranormal effects of magick, suggesting a connection with the first principle in this list. However, he defined any attempt to use this power for a purpose other than aiding mental or mystical attainment as "black magic".
The magical power of the subconscious mind. To believers who think they need to convince their subconscious mind to make the changes they want, all spirits and energies are projections and symbols that make sense to the subconscious. A variant of this belief is that the subconscious is capable of contacting spirits, who in turn can work magic.
Many more theories exist. Practitioners will often mix these concepts, and sometimes even invent some themselves. In the contemporary current of chaos magic in particular, it is not unusual to believe any concept of magic works.
Religious ritual and magical thinking
Viewed from a non-theistic perspective, many religious rituals and beliefs seem similar to, or identical to, magical thinking.
Related to both magic and prayer is religious supplication. This involves a prayer, or even a sacrifice to a supernatural being or god. This god or being is then asked to intervene on behalf of the person offering the prayer.
The difference, in theory, is that prayer requires the assent of a deity with an independent will, who can deny the request. Magic, by contrast is thought to be effective:
- by virtue of the operation itself;
- or by the strength of the magician's will;
- or because the magician believes he can command the spiritual beings addressed by his spells.
In practice, when prayer doesn't work, it means that the god has chosen not to hear nor grant it; when magic fails, it is because of some defect in the casting of the spell itself. It is no wonder that magic tends to be more formulaic and less extempore than prayer. Ritual is the magician's failsafe, the key to any hope for success, and the explanation for failure.
Magical practices and spells
The basic mechanism of magical practices is the spell, a spoken or written ritualistic formula that might be used in conjunction with a particular set of ingredients. If a spell is properly executed and fails to work, then the spell is likely a fraud. However, in most instances, the failure of a spell to bring about the desired effect can be attributed to the failure of the person executing the spell to follow the magic formula exactly.
Generally speaking, there are two types of magic: contagious magic and sympathetic magic. Contagious magic involves the use of physical ingredients which were once in contact with the object or objects one hopes to influence with a spell. Sympathetic magic involves the use of physical objects which resemble the object or objects one hopes to influence; the Voodoo dolls of "New Orleans Voodoo" are an example of this.
Varieties of magical practice
There are several historical varieties of magical practice. Generally, magical intentions can be divided into two general areas. The first is divination, which seeks to reveal information. Varieties of divination include:
Necromancy involves the summoning of and conversation with spirits. This can be done either to gain information from the spirits; or it can be done with the intention of commanding those spirits, in which it falls under the second general area of magic; that of casting spells. Included in this broad category are a number of specific magical intentions, such as the weather magic of the rain dance, the physical magic of alchemy, or the making of potions and philtres.
Another method of classifying magic is by "traditions," which in this context typically refer to complexes of magical belief and practice associated with various cultural groups and lineages of transmission. These traditions can compass both divination and spells. Examples of these traditions include:
Some of these traditions are highly specific and culturally circumscribed. Others are more eclectic and syncretistic. When dealing with magic as a tradition, the line often becomes blurry between magic and folk religion.
Magic in fiction
In considering magic as tradition, a related category concerns magic in fiction, where it serves as a plot device, the source of magical artifacts and their quests. Magic has long been a subject of fictional tales, especially in fantasy fiction, where it has been a mainstay from the days of Homer and Apuleius, down through the tales of the Holy Grail, Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, and to contemporary authors from J. R. R. Tolkien to Mercedes Lackey and J. K. Rowling (see Magic (Harry Potter)).
Magic has been portrayed in numerous games, in which magic is a characteristic available to players in certain circumstances or to certain types of player characters. Magic in such games, especially in the latter variety of games, is usually classified according to some system (for example, elemental magic, nature magic, or "red magic").
There may be a well-developed system in fictional magic, or not. It is by no means impossible, moreover, for fictional magic to leap from the pages of fantasy to actual magical practice; such was the fate of the Necronomicon, invented as fiction by H. P. Lovecraft, who sold it so well that there have been several attempts to produce this fabled and dangerous grimoire.
Many mythological, legendary or historical magicians have appeared in fictional accounts as well.
Changing attitudes towards magic
Appearing from aboriginal tribes in Australia and New Zealand to rainforest tribes in South America, bush tribes in Africa and pagan tribal groups in Western Europe and the British Isles, some form of shamanic contact with the spirit world seems to be nearly universal in the early development of human communities. The ancient cave paintings in France are widely speculated to be early magical formulations, intended to produce successful hunts. Much of the Babylonian and Egyptian pictorial writing characters appear derived from the same sources.
Although indigenous magical traditions persist to this day, very early on some communities transitioned from nomadic to agricultural civilizations, and with this shift, the development of spiritual life mirrored that of civic life. Just as tribal elders were consolidated and transformed into kings and bureaucrats, so too were shamans and adepts devolved into priests and a priestly caste.
This shift is by no means in nomenclature alone. While the shaman's task was to negotiate between the tribe and the spirit world, on behalf of the tribe, as directed by the collective will of the tribe, the priest's role was to transfer instructions from the deities to the city-state, on behalf of the deities, as directed by the will of those deities. This shift represents the first major usurpation of power by distancing magic from those participating in that magic. It is at this stage of development that highly codified and elaborate rituals, setting the stage for formal religions, began to emerge, such as the funeral rites of the Egyptians and the sacrifice rituals of the Babylonians, Persians, Aztecs and Mayans.
Magic and the Magi
Magical beliefs and practices are common in many cultures and religions. The word magic comes from the beliefs and practices of the Magi (singular, Magus), Persian priests and scholars, followers of Zoroaster, who were credited by the classical world with mastery of astrology and other arcane arts.
In Judaism and Christianity
Officially, Judaism, Christianity and Islam characterize magic as witchcraft, but some forms of magical thinking have existed within these religions throughout some of their history. When these religions' views of magic were later applied to the beliefs of other religions, this had the effect of vilifying tribal shamans and other practitioners of magic.
Muslims, followers of the religion of Islam, believe in magic, but forbid practice of Siher. Siher translates as sorcery or black magic. Muslims believe that two Angels taught sorcery to mankind in order to test their obedience.
And they follow that which the devils falsely related against the kingdom of Solomon. Solomon disbelieved not; but the devils disbelieved, teaching mankind sorcery and that which was revealed to the two angels in Babel, Harut and Marut. Nor did they (the two angels) teach it to anyone till they had said: We are only a temptation, therefore disbelieve not (in the guidance of Allah). And from these two (angels) people learn that by which they cause division between man and wife; but they injure thereby no-one save by Allah's leave. And they learn that which harmeth them and profiteth them not. And surely they do know that he who trafficketh therein will have no (happy) portion in the Hereafter; and surely evil is the price for which they sell their souls, if they but knew. (al-Qur'an 2:102)
However, whereas performing miracles in Islam is reserved for a prophet ("Nabi"), some schools of thought within Islam believe in a form of metaphysical training in which the seeker can obtain the power to perform miracle-like events (called "keramat"), not unlike the Persian Magi before Islam. During the golden age of Islam, there was an influx of Hermetic and Chaldean thought due to the translation of many texts into Arabic. Magic based on angels, properties of the 99-Names of Allah, verses from the Quran, and the power of the Arabic letters became accepeted as an alternate to sorcery between the ninth and thirteenth centuries. One of the most famous books of this era was the Shamsu al-Ma'aref al-Kubra, by Ahmed al-Buni. This book was later banned by orthodox Muslims as heresy, but continues to be read and studied widely. This kind of magic was called, instead of Siher (Sorcery), Ilm al-Hikmah (Knowledge of the Wise), Ilm Shem Yah (Study of the Divine Name), and Rouhaniat (Spirituality). For example, in Islamic tradition, as well as in Judaism, King solomon, the wisest of all men, could communicate with the animal kingdom. That is believed to be God given, a miracle. But then we read of a mysterious person in the circle of people around Solomon by the name of Asef ben berkhia, who is said to have been able to outperform the angels with his knowledge of the Divine Names. Magical power through Divine blessings ("keramat" e.g.) is therefore attainable by man; it is iktisabi, to put it properly.
Many muslims, especially during the middle ages, believed in these esoteric sciences such as Alchemy and Astrology, where a student under the proper master (pir) could obtain this knowledge. The Persian scientist Biruni, for example, is said to have been famed for his knowledge of using Astrology to foretell the near future with astrolabes.
Suffice to say that although Islam frowns on "magic", yet it approves of the practice within the mold of religion. Whereas the Persian magi were believed to use Agate stones to influence the weather, the contemporary muslim is encouraged to wear the Agate ring for protection and longevity, among other benefits. And whereas weavers of flying carpets are written to have been persecuted in medieval Persia , the presence and even ability to communicate with genies ("jinn" in the Qur'an) is openly acknowledged.
See also the book of Necronomicon.
- de Givry, Grillot, Witchcraft, Magic, and Alchemy (J. Courtney Locke, trans.) (Frederick, 1954)
Hutton, Ronald, The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft (Oxford, 2001) ISBN 0192854496
- Hutton, Ronald, Witches, Druids, and King Arthur (Hambledon, 2003) ISBN 1852853972
Last updated: 05-10-2005 12:52:56