Sunday, July 24, 2005

What is Magic?

A couple of weeks ago, I talked about ritual in three different connotations – personal/daily, religious, and magical. That brought up a question – what is magic? I had talked about magic in a ritual sense, but didn’t define it. The word “magic” means something different to everyone. You’re going to get as many answers as the number of people you ask, just like you would if you asked them about what Wicca/Paganism is.

Let’s start with a few definitions. First, from the dictionary:

1. The art of persons who claim to be able to do things by the help of supernatural creatures or by their own knowledge of nature’s secrets.
2. Something that charms; any seemingly hidden or secret power; as, the magic of voice; the magic of a great name.
3. producing effects which seem supernatural.
4. The use of means (charms or spells) believed to have supernatural power over natural forces.

(The first three were taken from a Webster dictionary printed in 1964; the last one was taken from the Merriam-Webster dictionary on my sidebar.)

And now some definitions from people involved in Paganism:

1. The Art and the Science of causing changes to occur in conformity with Will. – Aleister Crowley
2. A combination of an art and a science that is designed to enable people to make effective use of their psychic talents. – Issac Bonewits
3. Magic resides in the power of the mind itself. – Doreen Valiente

(Taken from Drawing Down the Moon by Margot Adler)

As you can see, there are many different definitions to go by. Unlike the dictionary definitions, people involved with magic don’t think of it as supernatural, but something natural within themselves.

Through my reading, I began to realize that magic was more about attuning yourself to the world around you, than being a force outside of you that had to be controlled. Through the practice of magic, you learn to be more attentive and you notice objects or what is happening around you. Many published books have exercises to help bring around this awareness.

There are typically two different types of magic, Contagious and Sympathetic. Contagious magic uses ingredients that have been in close contact to the object that is to be influenced. Sympathetic magic uses objects that a made to resemble the object that is to be influenced. I have also seen many websites on Chaos magic. From a general understanding, Chaos magic uses any means to get the desired effect. That statement probably over-generalizes this type of magic and I may go into more detail in the future.

Magic has been universal to almost all cultures in the past. I took an anthropology class years ago that talked about religion and magic. Our discussions mainly revolved around different magic systems of the world. African magic, Indian magic, Native American magic were all hot topics. Although the magic systems were not the same, they were similar, using the two types of magic mentioned above. In most cases, religion and magic were not separate, but part of the same practice.

While looking for more information about magic, I found this line at Wikipedia (search - "magic")interesting:

…the influence of Zoroastrianism, which is generally accepted by religious scholars as the source of beliefs in an evil entity engaged in a cosmic battle with God, coincided with a suppression of magical beliefs and practices in the context of monotheism.

It doesn’t go on to say how the influence of Zoroastrianism suppressed magical beliefs. I tried to look for more information regarding this statement, but couldn’t find anything more. The reason why this statement hit home is due to having wondered why the practice of magic is consided to be “bad” or “evil” by several religions. (If you are interested in learning more about Zoroastrianism, check out a post from a few days ago.)

That brings me to another thing that I have pondered. Why are “miracles” considered to be desireable, but “magic” is not? “Miracle” is used to describe many of the activities of people in the bible and is also used today a criteria to bestow stainthood to those who are looked upon favorably by the Catholic Church. “Magic” on the other hand is used to describe the supernatural workings of evil beings within religious and pop culture.

I see these two words as the opposite sides of the same coin. They have very similar meanings, but with different conotations. One can not be “good” or desireable and the other “evil” or undesireable, because of the similarities.

That brings me to a problem I often have with new age type websites and books. Most of what is published, states how magic is a natural force that is within everyone, but then try to make it sound like some great mysterious force that only few can attain. I see it more as few people are willing to spend the time to seek and attain the knowledge, but if someone wants it bad enough they will find a way to gain that knowledge.

The knowledge is out there, but is difficult to find anything beyond the “basics.” Today, it is difficult to find a website, a book, or other information that contains a serious discourse on the subject. Most of what you find is a basic ritual, some correspondence charts, and maybe a few “spells” to try to keep you interested enough to buy what they are selling. It’s more about commercialism then passing on what has been learned. Few authors go on to write more on the subject after a very basic handling of the subject.

For those that are not familiar with the practice of it, magic exsists in our culture with many negitive conotations due to politics and past religious history. It saddens me that people pass on this negitive attitude towards something that they have no clue about, just because someone, usually clergy, says that it is bad.

Now, don’t get me wrong, it is okay for something to be “bad” or “wrong,” but there has to be a reason for it and the reason should be explained in detail with supporting evidence. For hundreds of years, the common people, mostly illiterate, had only the word of the clergy to go by because they lacked both the means to learn to read and the material to read. They were raised to believe and trust in what the clergy told them to believe. It is proven that religions have changed there stances on different subjects and admited wrong doings. (Think Catholic priests in recent years, although there are many other examples that can be made.) Sometimes changing a viewpoint on a subject so that another agenda can be pushed. The dogma changes when it is viewed being adventagious to the advancement of that particular religion.

Maybe this was one of the reasons why magic has been suppressed in religions that formerly accepted its practice in the past.

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