Human Exceptionalism and the Source of Magical Power

In medieval Europe ‘good’ and ‘bad’ magic were defined rather differently than they are today. While we may be concerned with the intent of the practitioner, our ancestors were more interested in the source of their power. Influential authorities claimed that all magic worked by the influence of demons, and was thus dangerous to the souls of those involved. A handful of intellectuals argued that at least some magic was fulfilled by the influence of planetary forces and/or the occult virtues placed inside plants, stones and animals by God or Nature. Practical manuals of magic included invocations to God, saints, angels, fairies, demons and Roman deities. There is rarely any suggestion that magical power is found within the magicians themselves. If the practitioner is able to gain some personal power, it is always acquired through an outside force.

I’m struck by the contrast between this attitude and that of modern popular magic. Most introductory books insist on the power we have as individual humans ‘inside us’ — untapped psychic potential and the ability to manipulate the universe through our will. We are told that, through training, meditation, focus and ritual, we can increase our own power over other humans and the world around us.

We’ve inherited this concept from the occult revival of the late 19th and early 20th centuries; a movement born in an imperial culture that saw personal power and dominion over the natural world as its birthright. Furthermore, the decline of religious belief and rise of atheism in the West led to an increasing deification of the human. When you place humanity just under God in the hierarchy of being – and then start to question God, it doesn’t take long for our enterprising species to assume the top rung. Influences from the emerging science of Psychology and the influx of Eastern philosophy played their part in this re-investment of magical power. All of a sudden you get suggestions that we, puny mortals – are actually gods in disguise, if only we realised our own potential. Such ideas are evident in the work of Crowley, Franz Bardon and Dion Fortune – all of whom inspired the founders of Wicca and the Neo-Pagan movement. Magical traditions may be counter-cultural, but they are still a product of their time.

The idea of personal magical power is also prevalent in the stories we tell about witches, wizards and humans with superhuman powers. In late 20th century fiction and films, magic is often depicted as a form of energy that some special humans can draw upon to gain even more power over the world around them – a neat analogy to fossil fuels perhaps. Half a century of this fiction, and the rise of the New Age movement has helped cement the idea that, if magic exists, it is inside of you. The stones, plants, words – even the Gods – are only window dressing. They help you to feel magical and access your own power. They are interchangeable and a really powerful magician can do without them altogether. This is a projection of our own desire for dominion and the belief that we, as humans, are somehow more sentient, more resourceful, more supernatural than the other beings we share our world with. It is human exceptionalism in the extreme.

As a philosophical experiment, I want to see what happens when we reject this idea completely and return to a pre-modern perspective on the source of magical power. In this world view, humans are mortal, fairly short lived and limited by their own physical and intellectual abilities. However, they inhabit a world full of spirits. Whether these spirits are conceived of as angels, demons, the dead, fairies, planetary intelligences or the animist divinities of place – it is they, and not us, who have magical power. If common plants, stones and animals have occult properties that can help you, and the most powerful being you know is not yourself, but a spirit – then how do you access this power? You ask for help.

The asking can take many forms, and I am by no means suggesting that medieval magicians were polite about it. They were as likely to command, demand and adjure as petition, but whether they asked ‘nicely’ or not – there was the inherent acceptance that other beings had power and agency beyond our own. The magician worked through contracts, pacts and allegiances, or through petitioning a saint or herb. Magic required communication with the Other. To my mind, there is nothing more beautiful than the early medieval, Anglo-Saxon herb charms, in which the spirits of the plants are addressed by name and asked for their aid:

Remember, Mugwort, what you made known,
What you arranged at the Great proclamation.
You were called Una, the oldest of herbs,
you have power against three and against thirty,
you have power against poison and against infection,
you have power against the loathsome foe roving through the land.

(The Nine Herbs Charm)

How have we come from this to ‘You can replace almost any herb with Rosemary’ ?

If the magic is not ‘inside us’ – but out there, in a world populated by non-human beings, then we cannot work alone. In fact, we cannot achieve anything more than the ordinary  humans we live with. I do not believe that magic is forcing our Will upon the world. Such an attitude, far from being empowering, is full of hubris. We have been forcing our will on the world, without magic, for the past two centuries and it has led us to the brink of ecological collapse. Perhaps we have been too focused on finding our own power to realise that it is not inside us, but all around us? It is time to step back down from our pedestal, and go humbly among the fields and hills, not shouting our demands, but open once again to their needs and wants, to working with beings older, wiser and stronger than we are. A witch or magician is only as powerful as their allies.

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