Defining Magic

Throughout the coming year, I will be posting a series on European magic, as I know it.

My conception of Magic (Note 1)

Magic is many things to different people. I see it as a method to participate in the Cosmos with the forces of the Holy Powers. I do this through my rituals, prayers, and devotions. My magic shapes my experiences with the non-human beings of the cosmos. I see that we are all a part of the ecology of the Universe.

My first working definition of magic was based on Gordon White’s ideas. Writing in “The Chaos Protocols,” he explains that magic is exploiting the reality that the magician finds themselves in. The magician works to change the probabilities for having something else to occur. Since reality has a question mark after it, the magician can work within the cracks, and change it to be more to their liking.

My favorite definition of magic is by Kurt Seligmann in his “The Mirror of Magic.” He writes “Magic operation is the application of the practical use of wisdom…acquired in contemplation of the inner self and of nature. Magic endeavors to explain every phenomenon in life, in nature, in the invisible… unity of the universe with its endless entirety.” This matches my Roman sensibilities of piety and my modern sensibilities of changing probabilities. John Michael Greer at his blog adds that magic is participating in the spiritual forces of the cosmos. This is how I see magic.

I am a Roman Polytheist. For me, magic is a part of my religion. Ritual, prayers, and devotions at my altar are magic that show deep piety towards the Gods. For Romans, rituals need to be done correctly to ensure the blessings of the Gods. However, Romans do practice all forms of magic including curse tablets (tabulae defixiones).

After I researched the various discussions of magic from magicians and non-magicians, I realized that magic is undefinable. Each author had their own concepts about magic, and did not agree with any of the others. According to Peter Maxwell-Stuart writing in the “Oxford Illustrated History Witchcraft and Magic,” the desire for a specific and separate definition for magic came in the nineteenth century. At that time, Western European intellectuals wanted a precise difference between the rational versus the irrational. As science became the way of relating to the world, the line of demarcation between that and magic became important. Maxwell-Stuart, himself, noted that the categories of magic, religion, and science remain fluid.

Official Roman ideas about magic is that if it benefits the community, it should be encouraged. Magic that benefits the individual is discouraged. The legacy from the ancient Romans led people to split magic into black and white in the Middle Ages. Black magic was working with demons or conjuring up the infernal powers and holding them in servitude to the magician.

Towards the end of the Middle Ages, the association of magic to mean “black” (i.e., bad) became common. “White” (i.e., good) was absorbed into the Monotheistic religions, and not regarded as magic. “Magic” was then defined as the control of or gaining power over the universe. Magic was regarded as bending reality to the will of the spellcaster.

How my concept of magic differs from a wizard of the Renaissance is nuanced. On one hand, Alchemists and Hermetics regarded their magic as a part of the cosmos. They saw it as “All is contained in All,” and that “All is One.” On the other hand, they sought through their works to unite with the Divine. These magicians surfed the great currents of wisdom that flowed into the Divine. I do not want to unite with my Gods, since I do not see myself as being Divine.

Note 1. I do not add a “k” in my discussion of magic since there is no difference to me between “magic” and “magick.” In the writings of various books on magic, none of the magicians refer to “magick,” except in reference to Aleister Crowley.

Works Used:
Davis, Owen, ed. “The Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft & Magic.” Oxford University Press: Oxford. 2017.
Greer, John Michael, “The Occult Book.” Sterling: NY. 2017.
“The Way of Participation: A Response to Paul Kingsnorth,” Web. 29 September, 2021.
Hutton, Ronald, “The Witch.” Yale University Press: New Haven. 2017.
Seligmann, Kurt, “The Mirror of Magic.” 1948. Inner Tradition: Rochester (VT).
White, Gordon, “The Chaos Protocols.” Llewellyn: Woodbury (MN). 2016.

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