The HPedia: Ambiguity

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This specialized term comes from Tanya Luhrmann’s anthropological study of “magicians” (more or less equates to Contemporary Pagans), Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft.  It refers to a peculiar style of language in which both literal and metaphorical meanings may be implied, without commitment to either.  “The Goddess”, for example, may operate metaphorically as a personification of the Earth, but may also refer literally to a personality capable of communication, caring, and causal agency.  Which meaning is meant at any given time is ambiguous.  Magicians are free to believe either way, and may flip back and forth depending on the situation.  This is not felt as uncomfortable, since emphasis is placed on practice more than on belief (see “Orthopraxy”).

Lurhmann suspects this ambiguity allows new practitioners of magic a long period of experimentation during which positive emotional experiences are built up before committing to literal claims of magic’s efficacy.  Many then gradually move away from mainstream Western beliefs (which deny magic’s efficacy) and toward the majority beliefs of the magical community (which affirm it).  This process is called interpretive drift.

One popular ambiguous phrase, attributed to Dion Fortune, is the definition of magic as “the art of changing consciousness at will.”  One may easily read that naturalistically as consistent with modern scientific research on altered states.  At the same time, it is equally possible to interpret it as opening consciousness to spiritual or astral planes considerably beyond current accepted science.  Such a definition allows an easy entry point into magic through naturalistic and metaphorical interpretations, while opening the door to less mainstream theories.

Another popular ambiguous phrase is “whatever works”, a maxim enjoining the use of whatever ritual means produces successful results.  On the face of it, this sounds empirical, even scientific.  Indeed it would be, if systematic care were taken to sort out precisely what would count as evidence that a given ritual has “worked.”  However, it is rare (in my experience, at least) to find any detailed attention paid to this prior to the performance of a ritual.  It is left ambiguous in many if not most cases, with the result that nearly any positive-seeming events following the ritual may be interpreted as evidence of success.  This ambiguity allows rituals to seem successful without proving anything decisively, creating further conditions for interpretive drift.

One might easily see how such an atmosphere of ambiguity may allow both hard polytheists and naturalists to emerge in the Pagan community.  Rather than drifting in one unilateral direction, practitioners may gradually congregate around different poles of belief.

See also “Naturalistic Paganism” and “Deity.”

Check out other entries in our HPedia.

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