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”
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 “Stop Using Quantum Mechanics as Evidence for Magic”.)‘s article,
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:
- That human will power is a real force, that alone, when concentrated, can effect supernatural changes in the material world.
- 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.
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.