“‘Goats’ Heads or Gaia?’: Instrumental Magic and Pagan Values” by John Halstead

Our late autumn theme here at HP is “Responsibility“.  This is the second in a 3-part series, looking critically at contemporary Neo-Paganism from an earth-centered perspective. Note: The views expressed in this essay are the author’s and are not necessarily representative of HumanisticPaganism.com or any of its other contributors.

Magic is no instrument
Magic is the end

— Leonard Cohen, “God is Alive, Magic is Afoot”

Fantasy Magic

I was a fantasy geek in high school.  I loved fantasy novels, and my favorite characters were always the wizards and mages.  I probably had more of an escapist mentality than the average teenager, and my interest in fantasy magic was an expression of that.  One might expect that I would have embraced the idea of magic when I became a Pagan, but not so.  In fact, in so far as magic is understood as the supernatural control over nature, I see it as an unfortunate vestige of Neo-Paganism’s occultist legacy which has no place in a truly earth-centered Paganism.

So, how did I, a fantasy magic-loving geek, become a magic-despising Pagan?  I suspect that my transition from my Christian religion-of-origin has something to do with it.  Even before I “lost my faith”, I stopped believing in a transcendent deity that hears people’s prayers and arbitrarily grants some and refuses others.  So when I became Pagan, I was unwilling to replace what I saw as one form of wish fulfillment with another.  Intercessory prayer and magic seemed to be two sides of the same coin.  I was just as suspicious of Pagan spells to win love or money as I had been by Christian prayers for the same.

My conversion to Paganism was more than just adding a few gods to my pantheon.  It was a paradigm shift.  I no longer wanted to escape this world.  Instead, I wanted to experience it more fully.  I wanted to live more intensely, with all of my senses, to feel more alive, more vital.  Paganism helps me to do that.  As the poet Ruby Sara says, Paganism is “a religion of Right Here This Body This Planet Beautiful Beautiful Right Now, rooted in the Mama, the present, the Real”.  But magic seems to arise from the desire to escape the present and the Real, which is the opposite of the Paganism I know.

What is “Magic”?

Practical magic (or “magick” as it is frequently spelled by Pagans) is, in its simplest form, ritualized wishful thinking.  It is based on the false premise that thought or intention alone can change the material world.  For example, one popular introductory book to Wicca states, “Magick is simply the intentional use of energy.  The witch directs energy by willpower toward a goal.” (The Everything Wicca & Witchcraft Book).  Another example of this kind of popular literature states, “You DO have personal power and you CAN make things happen.  Even in quantum mechanics it’s been noted that we can affect things around us just by observing them.  All it takes for Witchcraft is a little preparation, energy, will power and concentration.” (The Truth about Wicca and Witchcraft Finding Your True Power).

The most common explanation among Pagans for how magic works is that the world is permeated by a kind of spiritual “energy”, which is not susceptible to scientific measurement, but which can effect changes in the material world nonetheless.  This energy supposedly can be manipulated by focusing one’s mind or will toward an intended goal.  Sometimes, invocations of chaos theory, quantum mechanics, or Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle are thrown in to smooth over any perceived logical gaps.  (See Esther Inglis-Arkell‘s article, “Stop Using Quantum Mechanics as Evidence for Magic”.)

In her book, Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft, Tanya Luhrmann describes Pagan magic from the perspective of a participant observer:

“[Pagan] Magicians also often speak of forces or energies which are not generally recognized by science. … Magicians also talk about other forces, powers or currents, which pervade the universe and can be generated by the knowledgeable.  These are often described as if they were electro-magnetic currents, but the analogy is loose.  The basic idea is that the forces are both part of the world, accessible by human effort, and yet somehow not like more familiar forces like gravity. … These forces are rather badly defined but they are thought to exist, and to be elicited and directed in magical rituals.  …

Modern magic holds that thought affects the world directly — even though it is patently obvious that most of the time it does not, without action.  The magical idea is that mind affects matter in very special circumstances, namely when the magician frees himself from the shackles of everyday awareness and focuses his entire being on obtaining his goal. … one must represent the goal in imagination, and focus on that image with total concentration and intense desire.  Rituals help this to happen.”

Luhrman observes that the two fundamental premises of Pagan magic:

  1. That human will power is a real force, that alone, when concentrated, can effect supernatural changes in the material world.
  2. That the universe is tied together by a system of hidden correspondences — analogous to, but distinct from, the natural laws recognized by scientists — and that by discovering the pattern of these correspondences magicians can effect supernatural changes in the material world. (King and Skinner, Techniques of High Magic: A Manual of Self-Initiation (1976)).

I will refer to this theory as the “instrumental” view of magic.

Instrumental Magic vs. the Pagan Ethos

Instrumental magic is an example of sloppy reasoning and wishful thinking, and unfortunately it is all too common among Pagans.  But the embarrassment that it causes to Naturalistic Pagans like myself is not the biggest reason for concern.  Rather, the instrumental theory of magic is problematic because it undermines one of the core values of an earth-centered Paganism: the non-instrumental view of nature, the view that nature has intrinsic (not merely instrumental) value, that nature is not a mere resource for human use.

In their review of Paganism in Religious and Spiritual Groups in Modern America, Robert Ellwood and Harry Partin explain this non-instrumental view:

“The unifying theme among the diverse Neo-Pagan traditions is the ecology of one’s relation to nature and to the various parts of one’s self. As Neo-Pagans understand it, the Judaeo-Christian tradition teaches that the human intellectual will is to have dominion over the world, and over the unruly lesser parts of the human psyche, as it, in turn, is to be subordinate to the One God and his will. The Neo-Pagans hold that, on the contrary, we must cooperate with nature and its deep forces on a basis of reverence and exchange. Of the parts of man, the imagination should be first among equals, for man’s true glory is not in what he commands, but in what he sees. What wonders he sees of nature and of himself he leaves untouched, save to glorify and celebrate them.” (emphasis added)

The instrumental theory of magic runs counter to the non-instrumental view of nature.  The magical control of nature — like any utilitarian view which treats nature as a mere resource — is in opposition to the attitude of reverence of nature and the practice of cooperation (rather than control), which are central to the Pagan ethos.

Trudy Frisk describes the conflict between instrumental magic and earth-centered Pagan values in an article entitled, “Paganism, Magic, and the Control of Nature”, published in Trumpeter: The Journal of Ecosophy.  In the first section of the article, entitled “Goats’ Heads or Gaia?”, Frisk relates a story about a friend asking her about Paganism.  Her friend was concerned that she might be expected to participate in “strange rituals” while wearing a goat’s head on a chain around her neck.  Frisk assured her that this was not the case, and that Paganism was “a feminist, nature-revering, spiritual path, totally compatible with scientific analysis and rational thought” (similar to how I would describe it).  Yet, Frisk had her own reservations, which she reflected upon later: “Why, after years as a practicing pagan, widely read in the literature, creatrix of numerous private rituals, participant in public festivals, proud celebrant of the Goddess, do I fear that paganism has the potential to misunderstand and exploit the very nature it promises to cherish and protect?” She concludes that the source of her reservation is “magic”:

“Pagan rituals and pagan knowledge should, surely, reinforce each other.  Instead, emphasis on spells and charms annoys those unwilling to set aside their scientific knowledge and critical faculties.  The infuriating insistence on confusing symbol with reality, botanical and pharmaceutical properties with social desired events, drives away many who would come to celebrate rites of passage and lunar cycles.  Those who persevere, stay, silent and scornful, mute, lest a correction of botanical error be interpreted as lack of devotion to the Goddess.”

The instrumental view of magic is a vestige of the influence of occultism on Paganism.  While earth-centered Paganism is a product of the 1960‘s Counterculture and the feminist movement, the form that it initially took was borrowed from British Wicca, which was itself a product of the Western occult tradition.  As Susan Greenwood observes, in The Nature of Magic: An Anthropology of Consciousness, “Nature religion has developed within a specific historical and cultural context of the Western Hermetic or Mystery tradition.  Consequently, there are philosophical and ideological influences that reflect attention away from the natural world and encourage focus on ‘inner’ nature and anthropomorphic deities.”

According to Frisk, the instrumental view of magic “perpetuates the utilitarian view of nature.  Expecting natural objects to fulfill human desires leads to disregard for maintaining nature in all its complexity.”  This causes Frisk to wonder how Paganism really differs from monotheistic religions which encourage human dominion over nature.

A Place for “Magic”?

Instrumental magic is not the only form that magic takes in Paganism, though.  The occultist Aleister Crowley famously defined magic(k) as “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will” — a definition which accords well with the instrumental theory of magic.  Susan Greenwood has described Crowley’s brand of magic “a very individualistic, ‘masculine’ interpretation of the magical will based on the philosopher Nietzsche’s view that the will was an inner cosmological force striving for power.”  But this is not the only definition of nature quoted by contemporary Pagans.  Dion Fortune defined magic as the “art of changing consciousness at will”.  By dropping the word “science” and adding the word “consciousness”, Fortune suggested the possibility of a different, non-instrumental view of magic.  Non-instrumental magic can be understood as a psychological technique for changing ourselves in relation to the natural world.  The Pagan author Starhawk explains that magic allow us to speak to the unconscious “in the language it understands”, that is, in the language of symbols.

To the occultist practicing instrumental magic, the careful and precise application of magical formulae can be used to control natural and supernatural forces.  The occultist imagines him- or herself to be something like a natural scientist, but one who understands (super-)natural laws which are unknown or unrecognized by the physical scientist.  But from the perspective of the non-instrumental theory of magic, control is understood to be an illusion — whether we are speaking about the control of physical nature or control of the unconscious.  Attempts to control either our “inner” nature or “outer” nature have a tendency to backfire.  Depth psychology has taught us about the dangers of psychological “control” or repression.  That which we believe we have controlled tends to find a way back into our lives.  Similarly, we are now learning that our attempts to control nature have been worse than futile; nature has returned with a vengeance.  The Powers That Be — whether they be natural powers or psychological powers — may be invoked, aroused, courted, wooed, persuaded, or seduced, but never controlled.  In contrast to the instrumental magic of the occultist, then, non-instrumental magic is less like a scientific formula, and more like poem — or better yet, more or a dance (a spiral dance?), one which nature is already engaged in and which we merely join.

Another way to think about non-instrumental magic is as a form of “re-enchantment of the world”.  In this sense, magic is a technique for producing an expanded awareness of our participation in the natural world, what Susan Greenwood “magical consciousness” and deep ecologists call “eco-consciousness”.  Non-instrumental magic, then, is a countercultural response to a reductionist and positivistic science which views nature as a mere mechanism and a capitalism which reduces nature to commodity and resource.  But while it challenges the cultural assumptions behind scientific positivism and reductionism, non-instrumental magic does not make pseudo-scientific claims.  The biggest problem with instrumental magic, as I see it, is that it tries to play on science’s turf.   It pretends to be a science and a technology, and ends up just looking silly and impotent.  Non-instrumental magic, on the other hand, is more like an art.  And rather than trying to be like science, by trying to control nature, it calls into question the assumptions which underlie the endeavor to dominate nature.

Starhawk is one of the earliest Pagan proponents of the non-instrumental theory of magic.  While she does not deny the efficacy of instrumental magic in her writing, she does tend to downplay it in favor a non-instrumental approach.  In The Spiral Dance, she warns against the dangers of instrumental magic to draw our attention away from real world connections:

“If Goddess religion [and I would include Paganism generally] is not to become mindless idiocy, we must win clear of the tendency of magic to become superstition.  Magic — and among its branches I include psychology as it purports to describe and change consciousness — is an art. … The value of magical metaphors is that through them we identify ourselves and connect with larger forces; we partake of the elements, the cosmic process, the movement of the stars.  But if we use them for glib explanations and cheap categorizations, they narrow the mind instead of expanding it and reduce experience to a set of formulas that separate us from each other and our own power.”

“Fascination with the psychic — or the psychological — can be a dangerous sidetrack on any spiritual path. When inner visions become a way of escaping contact with others, we are better off simply watching television. When ‘expanded consciousness’ does not deepen our bonds with people and with life, it is worse than useless: It is spiritual self-destruction.”

Instrumental magic alienates us from nature by purporting to make us its masters, rather than its kin.  Starhawk suggests that magic should deepen our connections with the natural world, not separate us from it.  It should be an expression, in other words, of deep ecology.  Similarly, Trudy Frisk writes that we should try to learn about the pattern nature is weaving, and attune ourselves to it, before trying to alter the pattern.  As I understand it, this attunement is precisely the purpose of earth-centered Pagan ritual: attunement with nature, attunement with our deeper selves, and attunement with one another.  In conclusion, I will leave you with these words of hope and of warning from Frisk:

“Paganism has an unparalleled opportunity to evolve spiritual ceremonies compatible with ecological knowledge; to create anew a sense of sacredness to set against destruction.  The message of humanist materialism is hollow.  People yearn for something greater. … Paganism, if it reconsiders magic, may be the faith of the future.  … The world urgently needs eco-centered, not ego-centered, religions, blending reverence for nature with knowledge of its complexity.  Paganism, if it treats magic as an expression of wonder and not a means of control, could be one of these religions.”


In the final part of this series, I will take a look at another aspect of contemporary Paganism: the Pagan taboo against proselytizing.

The Author

John Halstead

John Halstead is a former Mormon, now eclectic Neo-Pagan with an interest in ritual as an art form, Jungian psychology, ecopsychology, theopoetics, and the idea of death as an act of creation (palingenesis). He is the author of the blogs, The Allergic Pagan at Patheos and Dreaming the Myth Onward at Pagan Square. He is also the author of the website Neo-Paganism.com. John currently serves at the Managing Editor here at HumanisticPaganism.com.

See John Halstead’s other posts.

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25 Comments on ““‘Goats’ Heads or Gaia?’: Instrumental Magic and Pagan Values” by John Halstead

  1. As I read this, I tried to put myself in the mindset of someone who practices the “instrumental” kind of magic described here, and an objection kept coming up. First, if this kind of magic is “controlling”, then science is every bit as controlling, if not more. Second, acknowledging that science can denegrate nature if approached with the wrong attitude but celebrate it from the right one, it would seem that instrumental magic must be similar: approached from the right attitude, it can celebrate nature even as it uses its “tools” to influence it in a desired direction. Just as a scientist can perceive inherent value in nature at the same time as she tries to manage natural forest fires or manipulate electrical currents, so a magician must be able to revere nature at the same time as controlling it by magic spells. Thus, “instrumental” magic seems compatible with reverence toward nature, provided it is approached from the right attitude. That attitude would probably be one where the instrumental value is not the whole of the matter; some level of inherent value must also be present at the same time.

    Taking the mindset of a naturalist now, it seems to me the primary error of “instrumental” magicians is not attempting to control nature so much as refusing to listen to it when it says “you’re magic isn’t producing results – you’re just remembering the hits and forgetting the misses, so knock it off!” Empirical verification may seem cold to some, but at least it takes nature seriously and listens to it – in the “language” of observable phenomena.

    • Excellent points B. T. I’m glad you brought this up.
      I agree that science takes the instrumental approach to nature, but (and here is where you and I may disagree) I don’t think our scientific consciousness is an unmitigated good.
      The scientist’s commitment to objective consciousness enables us to subordinate nature to our command, but only by estranging ourselves from the world. As Morris Berman explains, “Scientific consciousness is alienated consciousness.” And Theodore Roszak writes that “the sciences, in their relentless pursuit of objectivity, raise alienation to its apotheosis as our only means of achieving a valid relationship to reality.” As a consequence of our wholesale adoption of the scientistic myth, our culture is dying of alienation.
      We are witnessing the effects of this alienation in runaway climate change, which I believe to be the result not of science’s failure to control the climate, but the result of the assumption that science can control the climate. As Sally Chisholm, an expert on marine microbes at MIT, writes, “the biosphere is a player (not just a responder) in whatever we do, and its trajectory cannot be predicted. It is a living breathing collection of organisms (mostly microorganisms) that are evolving every second – a ‘self-organizing, complex, adaptive system’ … . These types of systems have emergent properties that simply cannot be predicted. We all know this!”
      My point is not that science needs to stop being science, but that our religion should not try to be science. Not only does religion do a terrible job of being science, but we need religion to balance science so that our only relationship to the natural world is not one of objectification and dominion.
      So I have to disagree with you that instrumental magic (or instrumental science) is compatible with reverence toward nature. Of course the discoveries that science makes can inspire reverence. But I don’t think you can do both at the same time. As Morris Berman describes, the scientist seeks to “solve it all, destroy any vestige of wild, disorganized Other entirely, so that the Self now reigns supreme in a pure, dead, and totally predictable world.” It is ironic that Neo-Pagan magic might be contributing to this “disenchantment” of the world.
      What I think you are describing is a kind of schizophrenic reverent science, which in my opinion makes either bad science or bad religion or both. We need good science and good religion, and to recognize the limits of each.

      • I agree with pretty much everything there, or at least I thought I did till I got to your last paragraph.

        IMO you’re right that science is “not an unmitigated good.” It comes with a full set of pros as well as cons, and the effects on consciousness you describe may well be on the mark.

        Where I get confused is when you say in the last paragraph that a scientist holding both inherent value- and instrumental value-views on nature would be “schizophrenic.” If I understand you right, it sounds like you’re saying we can’t hold something both intrinsically valuable and instrumentally valuable at the same time. I don’t see why that should be the case.

        The two kinds of values may be opposed definitionally, but they are not incompatible in practice. I love my wife and consider her as inherently valuable, but it doesn’t mean I don’t also count on her for the instrumental utility of paying her half of the rent. We mix inherent and instrumental values all the time; it’s called being human. 🙂

        Let me know if I’ve misunderstood your point.

        • I think we understand each other. I agree that we human begins do both of these things. I just think we’re not good at doing them at the same time. This is why surgeons are not supposed to operate on their family members. And I think instrumental Pagan magic is an attempt to do both at the same time — effectively operate on nature while loving it.

  2. good article thank you. can you please tell me the reference page number for that quote from Starhawk … thanks

  3. I very much enjoyed reading this article. I think there are too many witches casting willy nilly with no thought to consequences. Honestly I have a set of questions that I ask myself when considering any magick and the majority of the time I talk myself out of most spells as I dig up some kind of harm or imbalance that could occur. I do not believe my pagan path is for the purpose of material gain and I question people that do. Magick is sacred to me as is Gaia and the Horned One too. If we are causing Gaia harm then we have failed indeed. I sort of disagree that all magic is harmful in some way though. I don’t think all spell work harms nature. I think our motives for our intentions set the tone often for whether the outcome will be positive or negative. Excellent points were made here and even opened my mind further to some new things too… Thanks so much for writing this John Halstead.

  4. We need some new definitions of magic. The idea percolating in my head has been: strategies for the sacred. I also like Richard Dawkins’ sense of “poetic magic” — “something that gives us goose bumps, something that makes us feel more fully alive.”

    • I like Dawkins’ discussion of “magic”, but I think it was still a little dismissive, as if these feelings were something nice to have after we’re done thinking about things, but not at all necessary. Kind of like dessert.

      • Not to quibble your quibble but I wonder what source you’re referencing. I am thinking of The Magic of Reality. Given the use of the term in the title of the book, I’m assuming it’s a central idea. However, I haven’t read the book, or any book by Dawkins actually.

        • This is from my memory of the first chapter if The Magic of Reality. The title caught me attention so I picked it up.

  5. This was a very good article. But, for “non-instrumental magic”, why use the term “magic”? If some technique works, it’s not magic – it’s science.

    • Eric, I think your question assumes more than I am willing to concede. I think it is a mistake to think of non-instrumental magics as technique that “works” or does not “work”. I wouldn’t say that about a painting or a ballet. We can talk about the aesthetics of art and how it makes us feel, but to talk about it like a technology moves us into the realm of instrumental discourse, and I think the point is to avoid this.

  6. This article is excellent food for thought, but I feel like it ignores some obvious compromise of practicing magic at both the psychic and physical level. I once read magic defined as making a conscious change in the world around you; you choose a thing you want to see made real, and then you make it happen through raising energy and through through hard work.

    Its often brought up that Pagans do not see gods as creators and humanity as the created, but rather that gods and humans are co-creators of the world. I see nothing wrong wanting to make changes in the world around us; isn’t that what it means to be a co-creator, to help shape the present, and so influence the future? We make active, conscious choices to shape our own reality; to me, that is the core responsibility of magic. It’s NOT a wish-machine, its an act of cooperation with the gods, Nature, the faeries, elements, spirits, etc, etc, etc, and with the rest of humanity.

    To be clear, I do not believe in the “supernatural”, but I do believe in magic, and in the unseen aspects of our world. Human senses and our ability to perceive the world around us is incredibly limited; the instruments we have created for ourselves tell us that there is far more going on around us than we can directly experience – and that’s just the stuff we’ve learned to measure. I believe that magic is a facet of the natural world that we do not yet (and may never) have the capacity to measure in the scientific sense. Just because we can’t catalog it doesn’t mean its not there, and doesn’t mean that it is not affecting us, or vice versa. We encounter it through experience, not analysis. Magic is not science, it is magic; it doesn’t work like an equation or an experiment with predictable results.

    My personal belief, which has amalgamated through experience, is that it IS possible to draw or direct energy through thought – prayer, magic, spell casting, divination, brainstorming, whatever – and then (usually) you must act physically on the energy you’ve directed if you wish to make a change in the physical world. Action must follow will. “As above, so below”. That statement describes a cause and effect relationship, but I tend to see it more as an instruction than an observation.

    I also feel it is dangerous to downplay the role of the psychological. Our psychology colors every aspect of our physical reality, from our perceptions to our actions. The danger is in sole reliance on the psychic or psychological – but without the psychology, there is no responsible physicality; direction of will is essential to purposeful action. Going back to an old Christian analogy “a single pair of hands hard at work is more effective than a thousand clasped in prayer” – in general, I agree. But I would say that the most effective use of all our resources is to “pray while we work”; to combine all the tools at our disposal, be they physical, social, spiritual, psychological or psychic, and to use them responsibly.

    The human capacity to consciously direct our will to purposeful change is a sacred thing, no less than any other natural process. It is also a responsibility that we must learn to use that magic wisely; in that sentiment, at least, I think we are in agreement.

    • Skyfire,

      Thank you for reading and thanks for your response.

      You defined “magic” as “as making a conscious change in the world around you; you choose a thing you want to see made real, and then you make it happen through raising energy and through through hard work.” But that seems far too general. When I get up in the morning and go to work and earn a paycheck and then go to the store and buy food for my family, that makes a conscious change in the world around me and makes real my desires through “raising energy” and hard work. According to that definition, everything is magic — and, hence, nothing is.

      I’m not sure how you’re defining “super nature”– but if it is “unseen”, cannot be perceived by out “incredibly limited” “ability to perceive the world around us”, and we do not “(and may never) have the capacity to measure in the scientific sense”, then to my mind it is, ipso facto, supernatural … or else nothing is.

      My question to you is, if “it doesn’t work like an equation or an experiment with predictable results” how can you say that your experience tells you “that it IS possible to draw or direct energy through thought”? If there is no predictability or consistency, then there must be other explanations for the changes you have observed and attributed to magic.

      To me, the statement that there must always be physical action (“hard work”) to supplement the “magic” seems to avoid the obvious fact that you can just do the physical action without the magic and get the same result.

      Thoughts?

      • I don’t think the definition “making a conscious change in the world around you” is any more or less general a definition than “causing change in conformity with Will” or “changing consciousness at will.” The important elements of the definition are “consciousness” or “will,” qualities that most humans do not begin with in abundance, but can develop. If we are living our life automatically, doing what is expected of us by society, parents, or because we don’t have any better ideas, that is not a life of conscious change or will-directed activity.

        For you, getting up and going to work every day could be a conscious choice and action of your will. For someone else, it might be a sort of living hell that they inhabit out of fear. This changes the way the person’s participation in those actions affects the world. The conscious worker is in alignment with personal will and the larger cosmic will of which they are an expression. The trapped person is not.

  7. ” It is based on the false premise that thought or intention alone can change the material world. ”
    I take issue with this false premise statement. I’m curious, how many times, and by what manner did you attempt practical magick? What did you attempt?
    In my experience, dealing with magick, or the Occult, in general is a tricky business as none of us can See the mechanism by which it works, nor the variables at play, nor does reality seem to work the same way for everyone from one moment to the next. There is no way to solidly measure the processes involved, nor can we weigh “success”. Our experiments take place in the world at large, and as such are subject to it’s whims- we have no notion of a proverbial vacuum chamber wherein the bowling ball and the feather will hit the ground at the same time. All we have is the observation of tendencies over time, and none of it is certain, as no two situations one might observe are exactly the same.
    There is Also the problem with talking about the subject. We Can’t, really. We can only even Think about magick as a system of personal symbols and metaphor- which are arbitrary to anyone but ourselves, and those in turn clash with Other people’s symbols and metaphors filtered through their own experience and mass misunderstanding ensues- most people mistake the map for the territory and nobody gets anywhere.
    It took me about a decade to begin finding the reliable leverage points in reality, and how to apply the right sort of *pressure* to them to yield relatively reliable results, and frankly I found both the general pagan and ceremonial worldviews rather unhelpful in figuring it out. Even the successful don’t Actually know what they’re doing, only what Seems to work, most of the time. The wise among us acknowledge this. Most people don’t.
    I have a method that might yield results for those who haven’t benefited from “traditional” modes of thought on the matter of magick. http://storytellerway.com/2013/02/06/just-effing-magick/ This essay, which admittedly I need to rewrite for the sake of clarity, at least lays out the path I took, and considering your background in fantasy, you may find it clicks.
    Maybe not.
    Magick’s not for everybody, and in the end, that’s ok, and there’s a lot of bullshit LARPing and confirmation bias going on- granted, but to call it false, fullstop, as if that were a universal truth… I find that to be a very wrong assumption, and potentially damaging to someone who stumbles upon one of the subtle mysteries of the world and thinks they’ve gone mad because it “doesn’t exist”, when in fact, it does.
    just my opinion.

    • Thanks for your thoughts. I don’t think I need to actually try to practice practical magic to recognize that it has no significant effects in the material world. Let’s take something simple, like opening a door. How much magical work would you have to do in order to open a door? How reliably could you open it with magic? I prefer to just get up, cross the room, and turn the knob with my hand.

      You say you’ve had “relatively reliable results”, but earlier in your comment you say that (1) it is unreliable (“nor does reality seem to work the same way for everyone from one moment to the next”), (2) that you don’t know the mechanism by which it operates “none of us can See the mechanism by which it works”), (3) there is no way to measure success (“There is no way to solidly measure the processes involved, nor can we weigh “success””), and (4) you can’t even talk about it (“There is Also the problem with talking about the subject. We Can’t, really.”) I wonder then what “relative reliability” means.

      • Let us see if I am with it enough after a day of travel for a cogent reply here-
        well first off, if you’ve never tried it, how do you actually Know?
        secondly, opening a door is a poor example- most efficient, indeed, is to walk over and open the door in most cases. Though, in the case of how much magickal work would it take for me to make that door open, without laying my hands upon it- not much. But Proving to anyone but myself would be next to impossible, as most magick is really quite subtle and tends to work within probability and usual cause and effect chains, however, someone who has figured out the trick of making magick happen, could consistently cause doors to become opened. The route of manifestation could vary wildly- but looked at from the perspective of “I want that door open” and “The door is now Open” that can consistently be made to happen without putting your actual hands on it- but it likely cannot be made to happen the same way twice. One must also consider the problem if there is someone who wants that door to remain closed- this makes things more difficult. People don’t tend to think about that angle. They’d get a lot further if they did.
        Point by point- 1) I said it’s Tricky. Because we are not operating in a controlled environment, and do not know many of the variables that affect the outcome of our works, the best that we consistently muster is Similar results, over time, of our will being done Against the grain of probability. The way this is determined (once you’ve figured out How to Magick) is by doing the Thing, and our will tends to happen, and in numerous similar situations, pointedly Not doing the Thing, and our will tends Not to happen by mere chance.
        Can I trust that every single time I throw my will upon the world that I am going to succeed 100% of the time? No. Can I trust that throwing my will upon the world increases the likelihood of reality going in my favor in accordance with my will after doing so over 60,000 times and observing the results? Yes. Due to the weird coincidental nature of improbable cause-effect chains can I prove this to the world via the scientific method? No. Can I prove it to myself through repeated testing? Yes. Can I predict how a particular spell is going to manifest? Not with assurance. Can I predict that any given situation I throw my will upon is likely to go in my favor in accordance with my intent? Yes.
        2- we can know that we threw it, and we can know that our will got done in the end. Sometimes we can see pieces of what seems to be the cause-effect chain. We cannot see our invisible Magick pushing reality around, nor how it does so, nor can we measure it. All we have are guesses as to why it seemed to work.
        3- I throw “Door open”, door winds up open, without me touching it. Maybe somebody else opened it, maybe the wind blew, maybe there was some suction thing from the other door across the room, maybe we just look up and it’s suddenly ajar with no plausible explanation- how do you measure that beyond “Yep, the door’s open” ?
        4- and on the can’t talk about it, well, you can’t *shrug* everybody tries, but all we have is our own experience and seemingly paradoxical methods and philosophies all seem to produce similar effect- If people know “how to make the Magick actually happen” and that’s the one vital thing nobody, nowhere, nohow, has ever been able to accurately express. They can give you their personal metaphors and symbols to describe their personal experience- but there’s a bit in there, the important bit that you either figure out for yourself or your don’t, that can only be kind of pointed at. It’s like trying to define the line between art and porn- it’s fuzzy, it’s subjective, it’s personal, but there IS an indefinable line in there somewhere and you know it when you experience it.

        In the end, “relative reliability” means, when I throw the magick, reality goes my way far more often than when I don’t, generally in ways best described as uncanny. When taken as a single instance they could easily be dismissed as coincidence, but the sheer volume of uncanny coincidence when I’ve thrown down that magickal impetus compared to when I didn’t or the experience of most other people that I have observed, can lead me to no other conclusion than “Magick is Real”. It can be relied upon to see you through in general, but any specific instance may or may not work, depending on your own focus, your target, how much reality had to move, willfull opposition, lust for result, what reality bubble you were standing in at the time, your own worldview, and other unknown variables.

        I don’t expect to change your mind, of course. Your path and vision are your own, but to throw down “Doesn’t Exist” at the Pagan community that overwhelmingly knows that it Does exist, without genuinely trying it to see what they’re on about.. that just seems a little off to me.
        But the overarching point of your essay is a good one, and one that I hope resonates with the people who need to hear it.

        • One other point on this that just occurred to me: the Placebo effect- this is a well documented phenomenon that we Know works, it just doesn’t work every time. We cannot fully predict when it will, or will not work, or by what mechanisms it functions- we only know that it does. There are certain variables at play which we can guess at- some of which I suspect fall on the “magick” side of the spectrum.
          There is no Reason that it should work. A man who has had his legs blown off should not have any relief from a sugar pill presented as morphine, and yet, we Know this has occurred, and we have to test medicines against this effect because it is such a widespread thing.
          The point here is that it is representative of Tendencies over time, and this effect can be and Is utilized to advantage, even though we cannot see how it operates. When there was no real problem, and it’s all purely psychology, that’s one thing, but when the problem is Real and the placebo works anyway, that’s something Else (though it could be argued that the physical manifestations of psychological distress can count as “real” for a subjective value of “real” but that’s a difficult and weird discussion)

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