Why you should study the history of magic and where to begin

One of the many issues that face newcomers to the occult, paganism and witchcraft is that of authenticity.  It is the eternal bugbear of modern witchcraft, which has a rather messy relationship with its own history (or lack thereof). Looking back on my own journey, I can see how important authenticity once was to me. I spent years tunnelling further down the rabbit hole, looking for ‘real witchcraft’ – the further down I went, the more I began to doubt that such a thing existed. Thankfully, I now have a more relaxed relationship with the witch archetype but in the process of searching I became fascinated with the history of magic itself.

The quest for validity is often ignited by a disillusionment with the poor history of some occult and pagan authors. If what you’ve been fed is largely fiction masquerading as historical fact then the desire to know the ‘truth’ is completely natural. There are entire systems, like reconstructionist polytheism, born out of the desire to be historically authentic. In occultism, there has been a hunger for ‘ancient’ knowledge since at least the early modern Renaissance. Magicians placed great value on the writings of the sage Hermes Trismegistus, a supposedly pre-biblical figure who, among other things, invented astrology and predicted the birth of Christ. However, in 1614 Casaubon dated the hermetic corpus to no earlier than the 3rd or 4th century AD, damaging the image of Trismegistus as idol of prisca theologia. The occult and pagan communities would suffer similar ‘revelations’ in the 20th century, leading to disillusionment with the historical claims of their authors.

In the 1970s and 80s, a couple of English magicians decided to look at the problem from a different angle. They came up with a system that values results over tradition – chaos magic. Most magical systems are eclectic and syncretic, but chaos magic is openly so. Its practitioners may use the Greek Magical Papyri one day and the Simonomicon the next. Both are considered valid – as long as they work. In this instance, authenticity is provided by results and experience, not historical precedence. After all, what is the point of calling the Gods with ancient hymns if they don’t answer? Why write your curse in Latin if English will suffice?

I agree with the chaos magicians that results matter, but I’m also a historian by training and I recognise that chaos magic, like all occult systems, is a product of its time and takes on many elements of the late 20th century world view (while apparently rejecting others.) Historically sourced magic may not be more authentic purely because of its antiquity, yet there is a great deal of benefit to be gained from a thorough study of the subject.

The most obvious reason for taking up the study of the history of magic is that it will make you more discerning. You are less likely to buy into a system, idea or author on the basis of a false history if you can spot such claims the minute you open a book. This background knowledge will also allow you to pick apart syncretic systems like the Golden Dawn, Wicca, Thelema or ‘Traditional Witchcraft’ and discern their influences.

Crucially, an awareness of the history of magic will liberate you from the search for the ‘one true’ or valid path. There have been many effective systems of magic developed over the centuries and all have been eclectic and syncretic rather than pure streams of ancient magic. It highlights that modern magic, of any variety, is part of a non-linear tradition of adaptation and innovation, valuing the old but reworking it alongside new ideas and a changing world view.

The history of magic is also worth studying as a resource, a treasure trove of old charms, incantations, herb lore, spirit names and amulets. It’s juicy stuff and relevant to the needs and wants of modern practitioners. People in Hellenic Alexandria or 18th century France used magic for many of the same needs and desires we have today. Modern popular magic has retained some historical elements, but many methods have been forgotten and may be worthy of re-examination and incorporation into your practice. At the same time, the claims of historical magicians for the miraculous properties of certain stones or the abilities of certain spirits to influence the physical world might inspire healthy scepticism about the verity of all ancient magic.

However, the reason I am passionate about the history of magic, and the wider history of ideas, is that it allows us to try out different world views. If we want to understand how a Renaissance magus or a 19th century cunning woman practiced their magic, we need to come to terms with how they saw the world. Essentially, we are made to rearrange our mental furniture from the default set-up of our disenchanted culture to one in which magic is far more widely accepted as a part of reality. By studying the history of magic, you will encounter a diverse range of practices and a wide variety of ideas about how and why those practices work. The study of history requires as much imagination as it does fact checking, although this is an imaginative exercise inspired by evidence rather than in spite of it!

The difficulty, I openly acknowledge, is in knowing where to start. Unless you have studied history at a tertiary level, it can be daunting to the face the mass of scholarship available, even though the field we call the ‘History of Western Esotericism’ is comparatively small. At the end of this essay, I’ll list a few resources I’ve found invaluable, although none of them are definitive. However, there are some basic academic concepts that are good to familiarise yourself with before you begin. Perhaps the most important is the difference between primary and secondary sources:

  • Primary sources are documents or other objects created in the period of history being studied. A 15th century manuscript or a Roman lead curse tablet is a primary source.
  • Secondary sources are documents from a later period, attempting to interpret primary sources. A book by a modern scholar or a podcast on medieval magic is a secondary source. 

Any claim made by a historian in a secondary source should be backed up by evidence in a primary source. Sometimes, in entry level books or overviews of a subject, these claims will be backed up by other secondary sources – but these will be referenced. You should always be able to follow a statement back to the primary source(s), that is good history. Secondary sources are full of interpretations, theories and opinions about the primary sources. They’re helpful to our understanding, but don’t take them as verified fact.

The second concept to keep in mind is the difference between the history of magic and the history of witchcraft. If you attended an academic conference on witchcraft hoping to learn about historical magic, you might be a little disappointed. That’s because the study of the European witch trials is not primarily the study of people who were actually practicing magic, but of the strange cocktail of religious, social and political factors that led to the torture and death of ordinary women and men as ‘witches’. That’s not to say there is no overlap between the two, fairy beliefs and the medieval grimoire tradition certainly influenced the idea of witchcraft in the minds of persecutors. However, the focus of this field of study is very different and less concerned with the practice of magic than popular beliefs about witches. Likewise, the history of magic is not exclusively, or even predominately, a ‘pagan’ or polytheist history, it spans religions and cultures, transforming and adjusting to the dominant world view and religious structures of each place and time.

So, where does one start chronologically? The obvious answer would be the beginning. As far back in time as we have written or archaeological records. However, I would explicitly caution against doing this. The truth is that it’s much easier to start in a later period and work backwards as you build up a familiarity with concepts, authors and even the language needed to grasp primary sources. Our modern, western world view is perhaps more similar to that of the 19th century CE than the third, and thus more recent history may be more approachable. To that end, the reading list below has been arranged, roughly, from modern to ancient. Of course, if you have a particular interest in one period over another, by all means begin there.

You may notice that I’ve only included academic studies of magic, and not those produced by occult publishers. This century has seen a resurgence of evidence-based history in occult publishing, a trend we should applaud. However, there is also another sort of history – let’s call it ‘mythic history.’ All religions and many esoteric traditions have a mythic history alongside the history of their foundation and development as supported by the sources. Mythic history serves a vital purpose, inspiring practitioners through the power of story, filling in gaps with potent symbolism and linking the physical with the immaterial. I do not wish to dismiss mythic history, or those who write in this vein, but simply to differentiate the two.

A very short History of Magic reading list

This list is not meant to be exhaustive but hopefully provides a good starting point for the history of magic in Western Europe. If it is weighted towards the middle ages, this betrays my own research interests. I have chosen to include books I have actually read, rather than trying to cover periods I am less familiar with. I have opted for more general and approachable studies over edited collections and those that feature specific texts or individuals and, in doing so, have no doubt left out some classics of the field. Further reading may be found by perusing the bibliographies of these works or searching within the period of interest.

  • Ronald Hutton, The Triumph of the Moon: a history of modern pagan witchcraft.
  • Alex Owen, The Place of Enchantment: British occultism and the culture of the modern
  • Owen Davies, Popular magic : cunning folk in English history and Grimoires : a history of magic books
  • Stephen Wilson, The Magical Universe: Everyday Ritual and Magic in Pre-Modern Europe
  • Frances Yates, The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age and Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition*
  • Anne Lawrence-Mathers and Carolina Escobar-Vargas, Magic and Medieval Society
  • Richard Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages
  • Catherine Rider, Magic and Religion in Medieval England
  • Bill Griffiths, Aspects of Anglo Saxon Magic
  • Matthew Dickie, Magic and Magicians in the Greco-Roman World

*Yates was a pioneer in this field and her books are engaging and well worth reading, however, some of her theories have since been discredited.

While some of these books are available as affordable paperbacks online, or from your favourite occult bookshop, others can be difficult or expensive to acquire. I suggest looking into your local university library and their access options. You may be able to take out a membership, or get a reading card to peruse their shelves without being an enrolled student.

Academic journals in this field include:

Additionally, there is an exceptionally good podcast, SHWEP (The Secret History of Western Esotericism Podcast) which aims to trace the evolution of esoteric ideas in the west. I cannot recommend it highly enough for those seeking an in-depth education in the history of magic.

I hope this will inspire practitioners not already immersed in the history of magic to begin to explore it. We’re living in an exciting time, where this field of study is expanding and becoming more accessible through exhibitions, popular and academic books, podcasts, video lectures and conferences. Whether you are searching for authenticity, ancient incantations and recipes or simply a better understanding of where modern systems of magic come from, you will find many rewards for your exploration of this fascinating subject. I must warn you however, that the history of magic is a thoroughly addictive pursuit.

Magic and Women

On the 1st of June, I attended the Magickal Women conference in London, organised by Sue Terry and Erzebet Barthold. The mission of the conference was to highlight the contributions of women, past and present, to the spheres of mysticism, esotericism and the occult. Only people who identified as women were invited to speak, although those of all genders were welcome to attend and indeed the audience was encouragingly diverse. The speakers came from a range of backgrounds; independent researchers, practitioners of alchemy, ceremonial magic and neo-pagan traditions, artists, musicians and dancers.

Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki opened the event with an amusing and community-focused discussion on the survival of magical beliefs. Christina Oakley-Harrington of Treadwells gave a keynote speech on the role women have played in regards to owning, leasing or controlling the space in which ritual orders have practised over the past two centuries. I was impressed by her sensitivity to the challenges young people face now in acquiring spaces of their own in which to practise, an issue that is changing the shape of magic in this century.

I enjoyed many of the papers, particularly those on female surrealists and lesser known 19th century figures. Inevitably, I found others frustrating in their historical inaccuracy and adherence to narratives (eg. ‘the burning times’, Frazerian comparative religion, the ‘dark ages’) that have been thoroughly debunked for decades. However, the most inspiring and encouraging feature of the conference was hearing from women in fields that are publicly dominated by men, including ceremonial magic and alchemy.

High magic requires a great clarity of thought, you see, and women’s talents do not lie in that direction. Their brains tend to overheat.

Equal Rites, Terry Pratchett

What is the reason behind the gender divide in magic and occultism? The common perception is that, since at least the middle ages, men have practised learned, ceremonial, ‘high’ magic – geomancy, traditional astrology, grimoire magic, image magic etc. Meanwhile, women have instead focused on intuitive, folk or ‘low’ magic involving herbs, charms, amulets and ‘fortune telling.’ The simplistic explanation usually given for this is women’s lack of education and general illiteracy until the late modern period and the persecution of so-called ‘women’s magic.’

However, the sources we have on magical practice show a far more varied and complex picture of gendered magic. In the personal account of a medieval monk, that of John of Morigny, we find that, not only did he teach his sister Gurgeta to read, but that she learned via the Ars Notoria, the most popular magical text of the middle ages (an unusual case perhaps, but one that highlights that women could get access to these books). Cunning folk were as likely to be male as female. Even educated male physicians compiled books full of charms, palm reading and remedies involving dead birds and frogs. After the arrival of print, access to grimoires broadened not only to the working classes, but to women, who were increasingly literate. In the early modern period, women were occasionally persecuted for owning and reading the same texts as their male counterparts. Meanwhile, male priests were persecuted for practising love magic with hair and menstrual blood.

The Golden Dawn, the most influential British magical organisation of the 19th century, featured female magicians in key roles as leaders, temple owners, artists, teachers and creators of a ritual corpus. The Golden Dawn in particular, stressed the equality of the sexes in their order and in the study of the occult arts. In the 20th century, Dion Fortune wrote some of the most influential and intellectual texts of occult philosophy that had an equal, if not greater influence, than those of her male contemporary, Aleister Crowley.

If not from historical precedent, where does the gender divide in magic come from? Why is it still apparent in a world where women are doctors and astro-physicists? Where are the books on alchemy, solomonic, goetic and astral magic written by women? Why are our prominent occult women in this century, frequently Wiccan priestesses and witches, tarot readers and herbalists? There is an unaccountable divide that seems to mirror that found in universities, with men dominating the STEM subjects and women filling classrooms in the Humanities.

My suspicion is that this is partially the result of viewing the wider history of magic through the narrow lens of the witch trials. I also suspect the feminist witchcraft of the late 20th century played its part in this divide. With its focus on goddesses and priestesses, it took the narrative of the witch trials as a key point in the history of misogyny. In that sense, it is correct, far more women then men were persecuted for “witchcraft”. Yet these women weren’t witches, they were victims of a paranoia about an imagined cult. By reclaiming the witch archetype for feminism, we seem to have lost sight of both male witches and female magicians. While I applaud the intention behind this movement, I think that is perhaps time to accept that there is more than one archetype of the ‘magical woman.’

I value the tarot as highly as geomancy, but I want to see women doing both. I want to live in a world where women can be not only witches and priestesses, but also ceremonial magicians, traditional astrologers, lab alchemists and hermeticists. There are plenty of women in academia studying and publishing on the history of these arts, yet female practitioners are not represented nearly so well in the occult press, podcasts or conference circuit. I recognise that I too am at fault here – and will make an effort to better represent my gender in these fields. I encourage other women reading this to do the same, to take up one of these arts that interest them so that the next generation will have role models and mentors in the fields currently dominated by men. I look forward to the next Magickal Women event and hope to see an even broader scope of occult traditions represented.

As above, so they grow: Herbs and the Stars 


tacuinumsanitatiscabbage

Note: this essay is written from the perspective of traditional astrology, not modern astronomy, therefore ‘planets’ refers to the five planets visible to the naked eye (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn) plus the luminaries (the Sun and the Moon), and ‘stars’ refers to all celestial bodies, including the planets and luminaries. 

Any herbalist who has picked up a copy of Culpeper will be familiar with the connection between herbs and astrology. Indeed, astrological herbalism is deeply imbedded in the history of magic and medicine. The roots of this science lie in antiquity, evident most explicitly in Thessalos of Tralles text on the Powers of Herbs (1st century CE), which he claimed as a revelation from the god Asclepius. Thessalos asks the god why the herbal recipes he has taken from an ancient book did not work for him, Asclepius replies:

King Nechepso, a man of most sound mind and all honourable forms of excellence, did not obtain from an utterance of the gods what you are seeking to learn. Since he had a good natural ability, he observed the sympathy of stones and plants with the stars, but he did not know the correct times and places one must pick the plants. For the produce of every season grows and withers under the influence of the stars. That divine spirit, which is most refined, pervades throughout all substance and most of all throughout those places where the influences of the stars are produced upon the cosmic foundation. ¹

This passage describes the theory of celestial influence. It is further developed in al-Kindi’s De radiis stellarum (9th cent. CE) – a hugely influential text of medieval science, which describes the cosmos as a divine harmony between the celestial and terrestrial worlds, with the stars regulating events on earth through celestial ‘rays’.
This concept contributed to astrological medicine, which attributes each organ and section of the body to one of the twelve signs and governs appropriate times for treatment as well as informing diagnosis. Agrippa explains in the first book Of Occult Philosophy (1531 CE), the relationship between the celestial bodies, the human body and herbs. According to Agrippa, the planets have dominion over plants, animals and stones, which are known as ‘lunary,’ ‘solary,’ ‘saturnine’ etc.

Agrippa explains how we might understand which planet a herb falls under:

Now it is very hard to know, what Star, or Signe every thing is under: yet it is known through the imitation of their rayes, or motion, or figure of the superiours. Also some of them are known by their colours and odours, also some by the effects of their operations, answering to some Stars.²
To clarify – we can determine the astrological influences on plants by their colours and scents and by the effects they have on our bodies. Furthermore, some respond directly to the planets, such as those flowers which turn to face the sun (the true meaning of ‘heliotrope’) or open by the light of the moon. In their shapes and motions plants may ‘imitate’ the physical appearance of the stars themselves, such as the moonwort fern, or in their properties reflect the powers astrologically associated with the celestial bodies.

Agrippa goes on to list many examples of herbs, stones and animals associated with each of the seven classical planets, the twelve signs and fixed stars. The observant student may notice that these categories are not mutually exclusive. Beryl, for example, is placed under the Moon, Jupiter, Venus and the Dog-star. Indeed, Agrippa writes: ‘Moreover this we must know, that every stone, or Plant, or Animall, or any other thing, is not governed by one Star alone, but many of them receive influence, not separated, but conjoyned, from many Stars.’

This is an important point often missed in modern esoteric herbals and I feel it is worth expanding upon. In traditional astrology the human species is not governed by one particular star. The organs and parts of the body are assigned to each of the signs and planets. Furthermore, individual humans have their own particular influences from the stars dependant on the time and place of their birth. To treat another living organism as if it has any less complexity than a human being is anthropocentric. To state for example, that nettle is a martial herb is not inaccurate, but surely an oversimplification.

If humans have in them the influences of all the celestial bodies, to varying degrees, then so must other species. Likewise, individuals of a species differ in virtue and character, while retaining similar abilities and features, as do humans from one another. You could, in fact, calculate the natal chart of a seedling, if you could determine the correct moment to do so, though the human science of astrology is perhaps not best equipped to interpret it.

How useful then, is this system of associating plants with particular celestial bodies and signs? How can we best practice astrological herbalism or herbal magic while respecting the nuanced nature of individual plants? As this has not been revealed to me by Asclepius himself, I can only offer a few suggestions.

The first is observation. Textual tradition³ is an excellent starting point, but we must observe and work closely with plants to uncover the stars’ influence on their species and individual character. As Agrippa suggests, this involves considering their colours, odours, motion and medicinal effects. We can go further by examining location, the timing of major events in their life cycle, such as emerging from the ground and flowering, and the geometric and numerical structure of their leaves, fruit and flowers. The herbalist may find that different parts of a plant demonstrate different astral associations, or that the planets exert stronger influences upon them at certain times of the year. By their choice of location, timing and physical characteristics they may demonstrate individual differences. To return to our example of nettle, it is almost always classed as a martial herb, yet we find it has other features. Nettle is highly nutritious – a jupiterian characteristic, it loves to grow in moist soil and will not tolerate drought – suggesting a watery quality at odds with fiery Mars. Nettle is used to treat the kidneys (Venus) and as a galactagogue (Moon). The picture of this species quickly becomes far more complex and, I feel, more interesting once you look beyond the surface and give up the system of attributing herbs to one planet only. It also means you need not stress over guessing the ‘wrong’ ruling planet or sign for a herb.

The second suggestion comes back to Asclepius’ insistence on the correct times and places one must pick the plants. This is truthfully the cornerstone of astrological herbalism. The moment of collection has all the significance of the calculation of a horary chart or of the creation of a talisman in astrological magic. It is often accompanied by ritual actions and prayers. Many prescriptions to pick herbs at, or just before, dawn no doubt relate to the fact that this is always the hour of the planet on whose day it falls (ie: dawn on Wednesday is the hour of Mercury on the day of Mercury.) In theory you would pick a herb of Venus on the day and hour of Venus, or at a time when that planet was in a strong position. However, this does not work if our herb is not allocated to a single planet, but shows characteristics of several. How then do we know when to pick it? The answer is simple: we concern ourselves not with forcing the plant into a single rulership, but by looking at which property of the plant we are seeking to draw out. If we are working for love, then the hour of Venus may be suitable. If we are picking the same herb to help inspire dreams and visions, then the hour of the Moon would be better. After all, plants have many virtues and can assist us in various ways. Medical herbalists may prescribe a herb for one condition, while recognising its ability to support and assist others. Likewise no herb is exclusively for protection, success or wisdom – although these may be among its virtues.

Finally, if we are coming from an animistic position and respecting both the plants and stars as spirits, we can speak directly with them. When planting, watering or gathering herbs we may offer prayers and praise to the plant itself and the stars under which it flourishes. Better yet, we can listen and ask for knowledge and understanding. Like Thessalos, we are in danger of arrogance and failure if we practice only what is written in books and may find instead that the greatest revelations come when we admit our own ignorance to the spirits.

The study of astrology and astral magic can deepen our relationship to plants and offer a useful system for coming to understand their virtues. By recognising the complexity and agency of the herbs we work with, we can hope to learn from them directly, both in observation and by requesting information which may be revealed in dreams, trance or visions. Tradition and intuition can work hand in hand in this art.

1. Thessalos of Tralles’ full text is not available in English translation, however you can read the preface here http://www.philipharland.com/travel/Thessalos.htm
3. Culpeper’s planetary rulerships: http://www.medievalastrologyguide.com/table-of-herbs.html
Some of Agrippa’s suggested rulerships can be found on the second page of Joseph Peterson’s online edition linked above

 

Image from the Tacuinum Sanitatis

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.

Re-enchantment and the role of the Magician

universe-and-man-larger

In the early 20th century Max Weber, a German Sociologist, proposed that the modern world had been ‘disenchanted.’ He described the Western world view as having de-mystified nature, instead relying on a rational, materialistic outlook embodied in science, bureaucracy and the law. Weber attributed this change to the introduction of Protestant forms of Christianity and the scientific revolution. Although later scholars have argued that this process has been incomplete, there is still a great deal of evidence for a decline in magical belief at all levels of Western society over the last three centuries.

The magician (under which term I include all practitioners of magic) cannot escape disenchantment. Although they may personally espouse a world view that denies scientific materialism as a dominant ideology, they remain part of a society which widely considers magic to be fictional. This has affected a change in the status and role of the magician and increasingly marginalized their skills and work. Although magicians have for centuries been ‘outsiders’, there was once a place for licit magic whether in the form of priesthood, divination, healing or protection. Other forms of magic, including necromancy and maleficia, were historically perceived as genuine threats and legislated against. Although we now have, (at least in the UK), more freedom under the legal system – this too is a symptom of disenchantment. We do not legislate against things we consider ‘imaginary.’

The way magicians respond to disenchantment varies. Some find explanation for their experiences and practice in the hard and soft sciences; psychology, quantum physics etc., thereby conforming their magical world view to loosely fit the more widely accepted scientific one. Others simply ignore disenchantment, embracing their place outside of the shared world view and seeing no need to justify or explain their beliefs. A few, myself included, study historical world views in an effort to better understand why the modern world rejects magic. By replacing our mental furniture with that belonging to an older culture, we attempt to experience the world as it was pre-disenchantment – through the eyes of an ancient Greek, a medieval Christian or a Renaissance philosopher.

I feel that all of these methods of dealing with disenchantment are valid. Yet while they allow us to come to terms with the fact that we believe in magic in a society that does not, they rarely do much more. I’m interested in findings ways that magicians can actively influence the shared world view of their cultures, in favour of re-enchantment.

Re-enchantment is a challenge. Many of us have struggled to overcome skepticism, prejudice and even fear-for-our-own-sanity in becoming involved with magic. We know that this process is not easy. However, I also believe our society is ready for re-enchantment. We have come through the industrial era and seen the damage that is done to our world and ourselves by a quantitative, materialist world view. An increasing interest in magic-as-fiction reflects a desire for magic-as-reality. Even within the occult community there is a push away from seeing magic as a glorified self-help tool, towards re-engagement with the spirit world and learning from other cultures who have maintained an enchanted perspective.

Magicians – as individuals who have succeeded in re-enchanting their own reality, are perhaps the best placed to encourage re-enchantment in our cultures. I feel the heart of this mission lies in engagement. Making connections with others in our communities who suffer from disenchantment and helping them re-connect to magic, whether through history, nature, story, music or art. I am greatly inspired by magicians who do not simply ‘preach to the choir,’ but actively share their experience and knowledge beyond the occult and pagan communities. This does not necessarily mean becoming a public magician, outing one-self as a witch/druid/mage etc. As empowering as that may be for the individual, I’m not sure it does much to convince a dis-enchanted public who view such titles are belonging to pure fantasy.

I do not have the solution to dis-enchantment, but I am very interested in finding new ways to overcome it. I believe this must be done by putting aside the ego – the desire to be seen as magical ourselves. I feel our methods must be subtle, but powerful; stories and rituals and healing shared. If we are to re-enchant the world for others, it is not enough to tell them about magic, they must be allowed to experience it in some undeniable way, for themselves.