by Oraia Helene
Where do you begin when approaching the subject of magick? The further you go, the more rabbit holes you can go down, so what I’m going to start with definitions of magick, and some of the theories of how magick works. As usual, I’m not looking to find a “final” answer or give dogmatic proclamations of the truth, just to take a look at some of the ways in which people have approached the subject and weigh in with my two cents.
As it turns out, I don’t really have a solid definition of magic that I’m completely wedded to. I’m actually fairly happy with that state of affairs; it keeps me curious. So I’m just going to ramble a bit about some of the things I’ve found interesting, and we’ll see where we end up.
And right off the bat, we run into the problem of how to spell the word! I can never make up my mind whether to spell it with a k on the end or just a c, so you may see me use both throughout this site. (In the past, I just counted myself lucky that I was writing for a podcast, so you couldn’t tell how I was spelling it. But now I suppose I can’t dodge the issue anymore.
So let me digress for a minute to talk about those spelling issues. While “magic” without a k at the end is the standard English spelling for the word, whether you’re talking about stage magic or sleight-of-hand, Aleister Crowley popularized the use of the archaic spelling “magick.” He did this to distinguish occult magick from stage magic, but also for numerological reasons of his own. Adding up the number values of the letters came to a more meaningful sum with the k than without it, and that kind of thing was a big deal to him. Thelemites and others who value Crowley’s writings tend to use his spelling with a k, while others don’t – and some people seem to have very strong feelings on the matter. Yet other people have adopted alternative spellings like majik, and even wilder variations. I don’t really care one way or the other, though I tend to stick with either magic or magick rather than throwing j’s or extra vowels in there. And I usually find myself using the k on the end when I’m specifically referring to Qabalistic magick rather than, say, folk magic.
But spelling aside, what am I talking about? Aleister Crowley famously defined magick as “the Science and Art of causing change to occur in conformity with will,” and went on to say that “every intentional (or willed) act is a magickal act” and that “We must not exclude potato-growing or banking from our definition.”
I find a certain appeal in this definition, especially in the way that it points out how so few of our actions are truly willed as opposed to being done out of habit. And if the goal of magick is to discover one’s true will and to live in alignment with it, then this definition seems even more appropriate. But I personally find this definition a bit overly broad in most contexts.
Dion Fortune, another member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, tweaked Crowley’s definition a bit, to become “the art of changing consciousness at will.” At first glance, this seems to severely restrict the scope of magickal operations to the sphere of the individual’s own internal landscape. And many people in modern times have looked at magick in purely psychological terms, as tricks and props to alter one’s perception or state of awareness.
But I don’t think that’s all that Fortune was going for with her definition. I think it points to the role of consciousness in the universe, which seems to be larger than is commonly thought. So a change in consciousness ripples outward to cause change in the material world as well.
As Lon Milo DuQuette, wrote in The Chicken Qabalah of Rabbi Lamed ben Clifford, “It’s all in your head – you just have no idea how big your head is.”
Perhaps the most common idea at the heart of definitions of magick is that magick involves the study and manipulation of hidden forces of nature that science doesn’t recognize. Doreen Valiente, for example, emphasized that magic was not supernatural, but entirely natural. “All is part of nature,” she wrote, “but much of the realm of nature is ‘occult,’ that is, hidden.”
Starhawk, in The Spiral Dance, defines magick as “the art of sensing and shaping the subtle, unseen forces that flow through the world, of awakening deeper levels of consciousness beyond the rational.” Later, she goes on to say that magic is not supernatural, but rather allows us to change the way we see and interact with the world by changing our state of consciousness. She relates this to seeing by starlight rather than by the narrow beam of a flashlight in the dark.
I like this concept quite a bit, the idea that magick is not supernatural, but occult, or hidden, knowledge. And we can also start to see the convergence of the idea that magick involves changing consciousness with the idea of causing change through the use of secret or hidden parts of nature. To delve further into that we’ll have to take a look at some of the various theories about how magick works. I’ll group these theories under four headings: spirits, symbol, energy and unity. Some systems and individual practitioners rely on one of these explanations, while others mix two or more together. But for now I’ll treat them as separate so you have an idea of what I mean. This is just my way of grouping them, based on similarities that I’ve seen in these different approaches.
So, let’s start with theories based on spirits. In this worldview, magick is accomplished by the intervention of spirits that are appealed to or commanded by the magician. These may be elemental spirits, spirits of a particular place, angels, demons, or deities. I’ll put off discussion of the interaction between magic and religion for the time being, but I’ll just say now that I would consider some kinds of working with spirits to be magick while others are religious in nature. Speaking very generally, when you have spirits conjured, summoned, or created in order to follow the commands of the practitioner I would classify it as magick – whereas when you have spirits or deities appealed or prayed to for intervention, I would consider it a religious action.
Symbol theories of magick suggest that symbols and magickal words contain their own inherent power, and that natural objects contain power related to their symbolic connections. By this I mean things like sympathetic magick, including the law of similarity, which holds that like affects like; or contagious magick, which holds that an object once in contact with another will retain that connection and can be used to affect it. These symbols and/or symbolic connections can be used to affect the things they’re connected to.
Energy theories of magick posit a form of energy or power that exists in all things, like chi, mana, or prana. This energy can be tapped into and directed by the magician, including the energy of the magician’s own body. For some, this underlying energy is divided into elemental energies, or by some other scheme.
And lastly, unity theories of magick rest on the notion that everything is connected, or in fact is all one non-dual essence, which allows for thinking of magick as a way of causing change through the fact of one’s own participation in that unity. Often the key to accessing this underlying unity is seen as resting in hidden powers of the mind, which allows for the honing of one’s concentration and will to be used to affect change. The subconscious or unconscious mind is another possible link, with the use of symbol and ritual seen as ways of directing and focusing the unconscious mind which is in contact with the unity of all things.
Like I said, these concepts don’t always exist in complete isolation from each other. I tend to fall into that last camp when pressed, though I use elements of the others as well. I think that ultimately all that exists forms a unity in which we participate, and a big part of magick is getting past our perception that everything is separate. This involves bypassing our conditioned ways of thinking and getting down into our deep mind, to those states beyond the rational. Symbols and ritual can help in doing this. Plus, working with spirits and energies that are also part of the overall unity can come into play.
Jack Parsons wrote about magick as a general field theory, with each individual represented by a network or field of forces in direct relation with the cosmic field representing the universe. Entities like spirits, angels, and deities are also groupings or fields of forces, and so can anything else I could name. Everything exists in an interconnected network of relationships, and this is the basis for the actual practice of magick. (At least, this is my understanding of his fragmentary writings on the subject.)
The thing that appeals to me about this approach is that it recognizes these different entities we call spirits, or deities, or people, as real and unique, but also as part of a larger whole. You might call it thinking in terms of an holistic ecology, where instead of seeing the world as a set of external objects to manipulate either physically or energetically, we see ourselves as part of a relationship with the world, part of the overall system we are looking to change. Magick isn’t only about changing the world, nor is it only about changing ourselves, but a way of changing the unified interwoven system that includes both.
Here I’m getting into metaphysical speculation about the nature of reality, which is just another rabbit hole I could easily fall down into. But it’s relevant, because our understanding of how magick works is necessarily bound up in how we think the world works. And I’m sorry if it sounds like I’m being vague; I just shy away from simplistic pronouncements about “the way things really are.” I think it’s complicated.
And speaking of complicated, a lot of people these days like to link magick with quantum physics, and there may well be a connection there. But it’s important to realize that quantum physics is a large and complex subject that isn’t very well understood even by the people who have devoted their lives to it, though they’ve made great strides in demonstrating many very strange elements of it that were previously only theoretical. So it’s best to be wary of oversimplified – and overconfident – explanations of it.
There’s a great quote that’s attributed to physicist John Wheeler, that goes, “If you are not completely confused by quantum mechanics, you do not understand it.” Now, there are certainly scientists who have grasped the mathematics of quantum mechanics, to the point of being able to create quantum computers and entangled photons – but even they don’t claim to know what it means. So the people who blithely say they know what it all means? Uh-uh. I don’t buy it.
On the other hand, I really do think there’s a lot of promise in quantum physics to explain things that classical, mechanistic physics simply can’t, including the role of consciousness and things like magick and psychic activity. But at this point, when we’re still just scratching the surface of this weird new world, it’s foolish to latch on to a particular interpretation of what it means. I prefer to take such things as metaphors for now, as parallels that hint at what might really be going on. I’d love to write an article on some of this stuff, but it’s just a bit too huge to get into right now.
So after all that, what have we got? Well, when it comes down to it, I think that we don’t know how magick works, anymore than we know for certain how our minds work, or our bodies, or anything else in the universe. With magick as much as with science, I find it’s best to continually take in new information and never consider anything to be final and settled Truth with a capital T. Some theories undoubtedly come closer than others, but at heart magick isn’t about theorizing. It’s not just about studying the hidden or occult knowledge of nature, but using it. After all, a major ingredient in all these definitions we’ve looked at is the idea of causing change.
Whether it involves a formal ritual or elaborate spell, or just a simple incantation whispered over the food you prepare, magick is something you do. Detailed theories to explain how or why it works don’t matter nearly as much as whether it works. That doesn’t mean it’s worthless to try to investigate the how and why – just that it isn’t necessary to have a fixed definition or theory in your mind. In fact, I think such fixed ideas create unnecessary and artificial limits on what magick can do.
Magick is an art and a science. There’s a living, dynamic tension inherent in that. Science observes, analyzes, and evolves based on empirical results. Art synthesizes subjective experience, emotion, and intellect to create something new. Analysis and synthesis. Solve et coagula.
So I like to play with the definitions and theories out there, to ponder them and try them on for size. Heck, I just like to think about stuff. But in the end, if I may paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart’s famous definition of obscenity, magick may be hard to define, but I know it when I do it.
This article was adapted from the Main segment of Media Astra Ac Terra Episode #13.