Defining Magic

Defining magic can be problematic since it is hard to pin down concretely. In 1911, Sir James Frazer, attempted a modern definition for magic. Frazer said “Magic attempts to compel the powers of the Universe; religion supplicates them.” Bronislaw Malinowski, a noted anthropologist, refined Frazer’s definition in 1930. He wrote “Magic is a practical art consisting of acts, which are only means to a definite end.” Then Malinowski explained, “religion, in contrast, is a body of self-contained acts being themselves the fulfillment of their purpose.” This approach has become the default for many years.

This separation of magic from religion has been long embedded in Western intellectual thought. When monotheistic religions became dominant in the West, the two became separate. Christianity absorbed positive magic as being “official religion.” Rituals such as prayers for healing or Roman Catholic Mass were religious, since their results were miracles of God.

In contrast, magic, which was focused on the individual, was not about pleasing or placating God. Instead, the individual directs the various spirits to do their bidding. Therefore, magic, in having specific aims, was manipulative. In summary, magic was about achieving venial ends like receiving more money whereas religion was about noble ends such as prayers to end a plague.

The problem with the traditional definition is that it cannot be applied to non-Western cultures or to ancient ones. Noted academic of Greco-Roman magic, Richard Gordon declared that this approach was unusable. He said that people in Roman times regarded magic differently than what Frazer had thought. Gordon observed that the people conducted the rituals did so for their own purposes. These could range such as asking the Gods to look favorably on the State or to have their soldiers achieve victories. He proposed a new approach that he called “ritual power.”

There were still problems with Gordon’s approach as it still assumed that magic was done alone and in secret. Therefore, other scholars proposed a different approach. Expanding on Richard Gordon’s ideas, they said that magic was what ancient and medieval cultures regarded it to be. For example, the Greeks determined magic to be more transgressive, usually to harm other people. In contrast, Egyptians thought of magic in two ways- “heka” which ensured the harmony of the cosmos, while “akha” came from the Beings of the Underworld. Meanwhile, the Romans regarded anything done against the communal good to be magic. Again, the split between magic and religion defaulted to Frazer’s original ideas.

The third alternative to the traditional definition was first suggested by (David) Emile Durkheim, the French sociologist. Considered the “Father of Modern Sociology,” Durkheim wrote that religion was “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things… in one single moral community.” He continued that magic “was not directed towards the gods or sacred things.” Durkheim felt that each society would define what was either magic or religion. Thus, the definition of magic would be made by the culture itself and not by academics.

This approach has problems as well. What each culture decided was transgressive (i.e. magic) differed across time and cultures. What was considered to be magic in Egyptian society of the First Dynasty was changed by the time of Cleopatra. Meanwhile, how could scholars discuss magic across dissimilar cultures? If the definition kept shifting, then the study of magic would be comparing apples with acorns.

Works Used:
Bowie, Fiona, “The Anthropology of Religion: An Introduction.” 2008. PDF.
Davis, Owen, ed. “The Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft & Magic.” Oxford University Press: Oxford. 2017.
Greer, John Michael, “The Occult Book.” Sterling: NY. 2017.
Hutton, Ronald, “The Witch.” Yale University Press: New Haven. 2017.
—, “A Framework for the Study of European Magic.” Grey School of Wizardry Class Materials. Dell.Urgano, Ombra, “The Development of European Magic.”
Moro, Pamela, “Witchcraft, Sorcery, and Magic.” International Library of Anthropology.

Magic: A Timeline (part 1): 1880s – 1930s

Magic has been studied by the ancients such as Pliny and Plato. In his “Natural History,” Pliny tried to distinguish between “magic” and “religion.” Later, Church fathers (St. Augustine and St. Thomas among others) debated whether the miracles of Christ were either magical or religious. Finally, it became a subject for study by the emerging disciplines of sociology and anthropology in the late 19 Century. Western intellectuals sought to define “magic” in the light of the Scientific Revolution.

One of the first to do this was Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917, English). In “Primitive Culture (1871),” he struggled to differentiate magic from religion. The first phase of religious development, according to Tylor was “animism” (a concept he reintroduced). (Note 1) He regarded magic to be the most fundamental of all spiritual beliefs. However, Tylor thought it was a primitive belief since magic promoted pernicious delusions.

After reading Tylor, James G. Frazer (1854-1941, Scottish) decided to delve further into myth and magic. His book “The Golden Bough (1911)” presented the progression of human civilization from primitive magic to modern science. (For him, magic was a bastard science.) Frazer provided the standard rule for defining magic and religion. He said, “Magic attempts to compel the powers of the universe, religion supplicates them.”

Meanwhile, Marcel Mauss (1872-1950, French) wrote in his essay, “A General Theory of Magic (1902),” that magic, religion, and science overlapped. According to Mauss, magic used the forbidden secrets of society to meet an individual’s ends. Religion, on the other hand, was organized by society for the community.

The French sociologist, (David) Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) influenced Mauss and other anthropologists (Lucien Levy-Bruhl, Bronislaw Malinowski) in their studies of magic. Durkheim was preoccupied with how traditional societies reacted to modernity. He theorized in “The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912),” that magic and religion pertained to sacred things but that each governed their separate realms. The two differed in how humans saw their world, with magic being anti-social.

In “How Natives Think (1910),” Lucien Levy-Bruhl (1857-1939, French) introduced the concept of “the primitive mind versus the modern mind.” He believed that the primitive mind used magic to make things happen. Meanwhile the modern mind uses logic and reflection to achieve the same goals. Levy-Bruhl cautioned that even Westerners could possess the primitive mind since they too could be “pre-logical.”

After his studies in Melanesia and Australia, the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942, Polish-British) published the “Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922).” Observing the cultures of the Islanders of New Guinea and Australia, he understood that their magic served basic human needs. Expanding on that idea, Malinowski reasoned that magic was “a means to an end.” Since it was used in meeting specific goals, magic was practical.

Note 1. Tylor defined animism as “faith in the souls of all things.”

Works Used:
Bowie, Fiona, “The Anthropology of Religion: An Introduction.” 2008. PDF.
Davis, Owen, ed. “The Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft & Magic.” Oxford University Press: Oxford. 2017.
Dobler, Gregor, “Fatal Words: Restudying Jeanne-Favret-Saada.” Anthropology of This Century, Issue 13, May 2015.
Greer, John Michael, “The Occult Book.” Sterling: NY. 2017.
Hutton, Ronald, “The Witch.” Yale University Press: New Haven. 2017.
—, “A Framework for the Study of European Magic.” Grey School of Wizardry Class Materials. Dell.Urgano, Ombra, “The Development of European Magic.”
Moro, Pamela, “Witchcraft, Sorcery, and Magic.” International Library of Anthropology. .
Seligmann, Kurt, “The Mirror of Magic.” 1948. Inner Tradition: Rochester (VT)

Mythology and Moderns: Paul Wallis and “Escaping From Eden”

Originally an Archdeacon of the Anglican church in Australia, Paul Wallis now “researches the world’s mythologies for their insights on our origins as a species and potential as human beings.” He explores “our shamanic and mystical traditions, ET contact, and our place in the universe, and how we can be more conscious and more awake for a better human experience.” Wallis regards mythology to be a monomyth told through the prism of individual cultures. He says “as I joined the dots from one mythology to the next I could see that the very strangeness of the stories and the unlikely repetition of those strange motifs stand as evidence that in these mythologies lies a body of ancient collective memory.”

To Wallis, mythology is sacred storytelling. He writes that “it is the memory of us, who we are and where we have come from. Ancient stories survive for a reason because generations have connected with it. The stories tell us a recognizable truth about the world we live in.” This is the manner in which he approached reading the Bible.

As an Archdeacon, Wallis wrote extensively on Christian hermeneutics, which is the practice to find hidden meanings in texts. Biblical hermeneutics can be divided into four parts – literal, moral, allegorical, and anagogical. The literal is the physical dimension – “the thing is what it is.” The moral asks “what is the ethical intent of something.” The thing is evaluated by a set of abstract principles. Allegorical is the mirroring between the thing and what it represents. “Everything stands for something else.” Finally, there is the anagogical (metaphysical) – “What is the higher reason beyond the thing.”

Wallis grappled with the writings of Genesis, which for him held too many contradictions. Since he wanted to reconcile all of them, Wallis first looked at the names of Adam and Eve. The Adam (of the Earth) stories were about Earthlings. The Eve stories (the Living) were of the living. He could feel the current of the clarity and depth of those particular words.

Then the walls fell when Wallis tackled the word “Elohim.” This term could either mean “God,” “Gods,” or a special class of beings. If YHWH was referred to as Elohim, Wallis asked then what was being interpreted. Wallis decided that the word meant “Sky People,” (Note 1.) who were powerful but mortal beings. (In other words, they were extraterrestrials.) Reading the myths of Genesis, he became aghast at the violence against humanity as told in The Tower of Babel, the Flood, and the Fall. (Note 2.) (Note 3.) The myths of the Old Testament are therefore a history of aliens behaving badly according to Wallis.

Researching further, Wallis concluded that the world myths were describing extraterrestrials as Gods. His new understanding of the word “Elohim” made him question the nature of his reality. In “The Scars of Eden,” Wallis relates how the myths detail space aliens experimenting on humans.

Wallis claims that in organized religion, there is no such thing as an informed orthodoxy. Instead, there is a mainstream doctrine that defines and polices heterodox thought. This doctrine brushes away other interpretations. He concludes that there is a deliberate forgetting that happens in this process. Therefore, the fact that the Gods are aliens is forgotten, while the Gods as divine beings is enforced. Wallis believes that religion’s role was to have everyone toe the line.

Wallis uses the principles of the Enlightenment to apply to the interpretation of myths. The Enlightenment says that people should think for themselves, and base their beliefs on reason. Hence any beliefs derived from tradition should not displace a reasoned judgement. (What is left out is that tradition can be a source of truth.)

According to Wallis’ reasoning, the Gods were based on humanity’s contact with a technologically superior species. His personal gnosis of space aliens ruling humans is based on scientific literalism. He sought to find the literal truth of mythologies. Embracing freedom of thought, Wallis now sees alien Gods.

In my opinion, Wallis exchanged one orthodoxy for another. For many modern people, belief in aliens is possible, but not in Gods. He has embraced the new religion of UFO Gods. (Note 4) Wallis has simply displayed the biases of the modern industrial world. That world insists on a monoculture and a united theory of everything. Therefore, ancient myths are homogenized into one monomyth of human uniqueness.

Note 1. Wallis refers to “Elohim” as “Powerful Ones/ Sky People/ Engineers.”
Note 2. Wallis believes that the True God (his capitals) is the creative source of humanity with a vision of love and justice. The True God is the “harmonious source of all things.”
Note 3. According to Wallis, Jesus of the Gospels came to liberate people from hierarchies and from living in fear.
Note 4. The UFO religion has its doctrine and dogmas. The central one is that extraterrestrials have been a part of human affairs since prehistory.

Further reading:
John Michael Greer, “The UFO Chronicles.”
Diana Walsh Pasulka, “American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology.”
Paul Wallis, “Escaping from Eden.” And “The Scars of Eden.”

Explaining Monism or Are the All Gods the Same?

blue and white abstract painting

Photo by Tomáš Malík on

In his poem, “In God’s Grandeur,” Gerald Manley Hopkins declares “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” This Jesuit priest and poet eloquently describes monism. “Everything has an essence that points to God’s nature and its connection to all of creation.”

Monism is the theological view that all Gods are of one essential essence. The creator is also the creation. (Note 1) Therefore, the universe is a single closed system of unity. Christian Wolff (1677- 1754) introduced the concept of monism to counter the mind-body dichotomy of Western intellectual tradition. (Note 2) According to Wolff, the mind and the body are manifestations of the same substance. The philosopher Williams James wrote that monism is the “all-form” or the “collective-unit form,” with the whole defining the parts.

In Hinduism, Acharya Ramanuja of Vaishnavism (Note 3) said that Vishnu who created the universe is also the created universe. He taught that the Soul (Divine Self) is separate from Vishnu (Universal Soul). When the person achieves Final Liberation, their Soul merges with Vishnu. The person’s individual nature is not lost but embraced in Vishnu. This theology is known as Qualified Monism (Vishishtadvaita).

In monism, the cosmos is a monad, a single consciousness that expresses itself in many forms. No matter the form, it is still the One. Therefore the Gods would be attributes of the One. Qualified Monism allows the Divine Self to be separate.

In “A Pluralistic Universe,” William James wrote that the “Monism thinks that the all-form or the collective-unit form is the only form that is rational. The all-form allows no taking up of

or dropping of connexions, for in the all the parts are essentially and eternally co-implicated.” Disagreeing with that philosophy, James said that unity was not possible since there was always something still out there. Instead, the parts defined the whole, but the parts are not all there.

James further added, “Things are with one another in many ways but nothing includes everything or dominates over everything. Something always escapes. However much may be collected, however may report itself as present at an effective centre of consciousness or action, something else is self-governed and absent and unreduced to unity.”

I think that if you have only one entity (creator and created), how does that entity know that it exists? It takes at least two to confirm the other of what is and what is not. For example, without the shadow, how does anyone know what the light is?

Qualified Monism is a puzzle to my thinking. Vaishnavism says that the Soul becomes a companion to Vishnu. How is something apart but not apart? If the soul is separate, is it an equal to the creator? Is it the other entity? But when it becomes a part of the Creator, does not that combination become a different entity?

A river starts when a single stream merges with another stream. The quality and essence of the newly formed river is the mingling of the two streams. As more streams merge with the river, the water does not mix automatically each merger. For a distance, the separate waters can be seen as two colors or currents. Eventually they do mix, with the river being different in color or in current. As James says, something always escapes. Rivers wander over the landscape leaving behind ox-bow lakes.


Note 1. Yahweh of Monotheism is separate from his creation. This is panentheism where the God animates all of the universe but transcends it.

Note 2.  The “mind-body problem” is the relationship between consciousness and the brain. It was addressed by Rene Descartes as Cartesian dualism.

Note 3. In Vaishnavism, Brahma, Krishna, and Shiva are attributes of Vishnu.

In Polytheism, There Are No Good Or Evil Gods

“We are Polytheistic fish swimming in a monotheistic ocean.” (Note 1) This aptly describes the modern propensity to divide Gods into the categories of Good and Evil. Christianity, the dominant Monotheistic religion in the West, separates the world into those two poles. Thus, it becomes a matter of habit for modern Pagans to do the same.

During the time of the Christian assimilation, Polytheistic Gods were demoted to being Servants of Satan, God’s Adversary. An example of this is Nergal of the Babylonian Underworld. He became associated with Christian Hell as the “Chief of Hell’s Secret Police.” However, popular Gods like Brigit of the Irish (Note 2) became assimilated as saints, who possess their attributes.

The Gods who are Chaos Bringers are usually shunned by many modern Pagans. Loki of Norse mythology is a prime example. Since the Norse Sagas were written by a Christian, centuries after the Norse conversion, they have Christian sensibilities embedded in them. This presents problems for many Norse Polytheists, who converted from American Protestant religions. They tend to regard the sagas (i.e. the Lore) as the “Final Authority.” This habit is left over from various Protestant sects, which directed people to rely only on the Scriptures. According to the Sagas, Loki brings about Raganok. Therefore, many of these Polytheists shun Loki as an evil God who is out to destroy the world. However, Loki is more complex and complicated than that simple interpretation.

Even the Monotheistic God Yahweh cannot be simplified. The belief that Yahweh is (only) All-Good and All-Powerful presents many problems. Theologians grapple with the question of “where does evil come from.” Some say that He has a counterpart in Satan but this contradicts Yahweh being All-Powerful. Some say that evil is a part of God’s plan. This contradicts Him being All-Good. The cost of eliminating many of Yahweh’s undesirable attributes have caused many believers to engage in mental gymnastics to explain evil.

Modern Pagans also do mental gymnastics concerning their Gods. Rather than recognize that the Gods are complex Beings, they have separated Them into polar groups. However, a human may encounter different aspects of the same God. Apollo, who is the God of Light and Logic, has a dark side of raping women.

An example of a God with many conflicting facets is Enlil of Mesopotamia. Called Lord Air, He is the power of the storm. Enlil can bring rain to soften the hard earth or winds to topple the date trees. He is the “Great Mountain” who holds the Tablets of Destiny, and sits at the Head of the Assembly of Gods.

The “Hymn of Enlil” explains the Sumerians’ attitude towards this God. As each human understands each God differently, what emerges is a consensus of who the God may be. For me, the Sumerians demonstrate the best way to regard the Gods.

“Enlil in the E-kur (Enlil A)”
“Enlil’s commands are by far the loftiest, his words are holy, his utterances are immutable! The fate he decides is everlasting…

Without the Great Mountain Enlil, no city would be built, no settlement would be founded; Without the Great Mountain, Enlil, Nintud would not kill, she would not strike dead; no cow would drop its calf in the cattle-pen…

Enlil, your ingenuity takes one’s breath away! By its nature it is like entangled threads which cannot be unraveled, crossed threads which the eye cannot follow. Your divinity can be relied on. You are your own counsellor and adviser, you are a lord on your own. Who can comprehend your actions?” (Note 3) (Note 4)

Note 1. Edward Butler, Polytheist Philosopher
Note 2. St. Brigid of Kildare
Note 3. The translation source is
Note 4. Many of Enlil’s attributes were transferred to Yahweh.