10 Wrong Assumptions about Magic
What do you really know about magic?
Often when a client is approaching me for the first time I ask this question and I am shocked, SHOCKED, at some of the answers I receive! I know my colleagues have experienced this as well and it’s time to take magic back from uninformed opinions and bad calls!
To begin, let’s start with this quote from David Abram:
“In keeping with the popular view of shamanism as a tool for personal transcendence, the most sophisticated definition of “magic” that now circulates through the American counterculture is “the ability or power to alter one’s consciousness at will.” There is no mention made of any reason for altering one’s state of consciousness. Yet in tribal cultures that which we call “magic” takes all of its meaning from the fact that, in an indigenous and oral context, humans experience their own intelligence as simply one form of awareness among many others. The traditional magician cultivates an ability to shift out of his or her common state of consciousness precisely in order to make contact with other species on their own terms. Only by temporarily shedding the accepted perceptual logic of his or her culture can the shaman hope to enter into a rapport with the multiple nonhuman sensibilities that animate the local landscape. It is this, we might say, that defines a shaman: the ability to readily slip out of the perceptual boundaries that demarcate his or her particular culture-boundaries reinforced by social customs, taboos, and, most important, the common speech or language-in order to make contact with, and learn from, the other powers in the land. Shamanic magic is precisely this heightened receptivity to the meaningful solicitations–songs, cries, and gestures–of the larger, more-than-human field.”–David Abram, Spell of the Sensuous
1.) Only witches do Magic.
Well first off, “witch” is a loaded term in and of itself—but that’s a whole other blog post. Whether you are thinking witch as in red+white stripped stocking & a pointy hat, or witch as in Starhawk, or witch as in Gerald Gardner, the answer is the same; lots of people do magic and only a few of them would be identified (by themselves or others) as “witches.” Indeed, more often than not, those practicing magic would be greatly OFFENDED if you were to call them a witch. This is because in many cultures the word witch does not, as it does in our culture, indicate someone who works with magic; instead it refers to someone who works primarily for malevolent purposes. If you identify as a Witch or Wiccan and are working to reclaim the word and our understanding of it, I salute you. It’s also important to understand that the word has a decidedly unsavory reputation in many places and is not expressly linked to magical work.
2.) Magic is evil/wrong/sinful.
Oh Lordy, this is a big one and when I started making my services available online I got hit with it a few times.
It is important to understand where this idea comes from. Folklorists and those who document folk religion practices have distinguished between “high” and “low” forms of religious practice. Sometimes this dichotomy is also referred to as “orthodox” practices versus “domestic” or “domesticated” or “folk” religions. There are a few tenets that hold true for religious folk practices around the world: they were primarily practiced by women, they were centered around the household and household concerns–concerns such as healing, addressing envy or the “Evil Eye,” love, money, and healing. A great deal of the content in folk religious practices concerned communicating with and, in some cases, appeasing the Spirit world and creating a healthy, benevolent relationship between the Spirits and the living family. We must also understand that these religious folk practices worked with magic and they did so within the greater framework of Orthodox religious practice. Of course, sometimes folk religion stretched Orthodox traditions and beliefs to the breaking point or completely ran counter to them. In these cases and for this reason there are numerous examples of the Orthodox hierarchies denouncing folk religious practices as either wrong or sinful OR superstitious and ignorant.
Back to the claim at hand–that practicing magic is evil, wrong, or sinful. In my experience, there are two types of people who ask this question and as a result there are two different responses I give:
Type 1: Well meaning individuals who themselves are practicing Christians or come out of a Judeo-Christian framework and are also genuinely interested in magic and learning how to do magic for themselves. An appropriate response to give here is that magic is not evil, wrong, or sinful for the reasons stated above. It’s important to explain that every major religion has a strain of folk magic that has been practiced under its aegis forever. It may not be officially recognized, but typically those who are interested in magic are not interested in being officially recognized!
Type 2: These folks are looking for a fight. Who knows why? Who cares? My advice is to make like Jesus–turn the other cheek and get on with what needs getting done–life is too short to mess around.
3.) Magic is just superstition and is practiced by ignorant people who don’t know any better.
As I stated above, this is a claim made against folk religious (and by extension) magical practices by Orthodox teachers, but it is ALSO a claim we find made by non-religious humanists of all stripes. The facts are that magic is found throughout the world and is practiced by a wide variety of people–from Ph.D holding professors to poor factory workers and everyone in between. While folk religious magical practices were often practiced by women and children, those who did not traditionally possess much in the way of social power, other forms of “high” magic have been practiced by the Orthodox themselves as well as the decidedly non-religious.
To see how magic played a concrete role in one well regarded artist & intellectual’s life check out this article on W.B. Yeats.
4.) If you believe in magic then you are a Pagan, not a Christian (or Jew, Muslim, Catholic, etc, etc).
Believe it or not, Christianity has a long tradition of magic and ritual, starting with the central role of a dying God who sacrifices himself for the greater good of the community and then rises again, life restored after a ritually prescribed amount of time (to learn more about dying Gods check out Egyptian Osiris, Grecian Dionysus, and Nordic Odin). No one religion has a claim to magic, rather magical practices can be found in the folk practices of ALL religions. Both magical acts and divination rites are found in pretty much every religion. Some sects say that these acts are heretical, others focus on them. However much debated their presence is, they are present.
Also, consider the term pagan: Like “witch,” “Pagan” is a term that means many different things depending on who you ask. Originally meaning “country dweller” in Latin, Pagans, were usually those who followed a faith other than Christianity and were differentiated as such by early Christians.
5.) If you believe in it strongly enough, then your magic will work.
This is a big point of contention with many “New Age” folks (and I love New Age stuff just so you know!). Some schools of thought imply that if you simply believe in your magical work it will take effect, and that if it does not take effect it’s because you did not believe enough. A similar vein of thought indicates that if you visualize it, it will manifest. It’s important to understand that both of these ideas are relatively new. Traditional magical systems–be they Jewish, African, Catholic, Anglo-Saxon, Nordic, or you name it, usually hold that specific items, talismans, botanical and zoological curios, and such are required for your magical rite to work properly. When they are absolutely necessary substitutions must be made carefully and with great discernment.
6.) Magic works immediately.
Nope, ‘fraid not, In 99.9% of cases Magic takes time to fully manifest just like the moon. AND it is GREATLY aided by practical actions.
7.) Magic/Spirit Work should be free.
I actually do not get this very often but enough of my colleagues do that I thought it should have a special place on the top ten list. This belief primarily stems from the fact that traditional Shamans, Healers, and folk magicians are not venerated in our time and place the way that they used to be (and in many places throughout the world, still are). When we recollect that the magical worker’s primary starting point is one of intercession between the living and the Spirits, and further remind ourselves that the Spirit world can be both benevolent and malevolent we begin to understand just how valuable the services of the magical worker really are, and why they have traditionally been awarded unique, positive standing in their societies and have always been renumerated with some form of payment.
Another truth is that in every magical tradition I am familiar with sacrifice is required for magic to work. What the sacrifice is varies widely. In 21st century America usually the sacrifice involves a financial investment. “Nuff said.
8.) Magic is from Europe & the Old World.
Uh no. I mean sure, yes, the Old World has TONS of awesome and amazing magical traditions. They tend to get emphasized in America because so many of us spring from ancestral stock that has its roots in Europe. However, magic is not “from” any one place. Africa has gorgeous magical traditions, as does Mexico, Australia, the Pueblo tribes of New Mexico, the Caribbean Islands, India, and the Ancient Persian Empire-to give you just a taste of other places magic comes from.
9.) Magic is the same as religion.
It is not.
But what many of us, especially in 21st century America, fail to understand is that the VAST majority of magic is framed, informed, and colored by a person or society’s specific religious beliefs, doctrine, and traditions. As stated above, moreover, in some cases the folk religious and magical practices were in tension with hierarchical orthodox interpretations. There is magic that has been practiced and has been developed outside of any specific religious or spiritual practice. There are even forms of magic that have developed in direct response and rebellion to the accepted religious practices of the day–but these are exceptions that prove the rule, not the other way around.
10.) Magic is by definition coercive.
Often I discover people who are afraid of doing magic because they do not want to influence someone else’s will. This is corollary to the idea that the word “witch” refers to someone doing specifically malevolent magical work. Now, some magical traditions like Gardnerian Wicca make a clear point of this with the Three-Fold Law, but other traditions do recognize that magic and communication with the Spirits can be used for malevolent or coercive purposes and typically there is someone who is willing to do that kind of work…for a price. Religion also plays a role in this. The fact is that while magic is not the same thing as religion, throughout time many magical workers have also been religious and their mores and values are in part determined and influenced by their religious beliefs.
As the Magician or ritualist YOU determine for yourself what types of magic does and does not work for you-but there is plenty of worthwhile magic making that is not coercive at all.