“Magic is a way of unifying the self on all its levels and directing it towards a single end”. – John Michael Greer, Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth.
What is magic?
I know what it isn’t. Magic is not waving a wand, saying some badly-phrased Latin and shooting firebolts at someone, or flying through the sky on a broomstick. I love the flashy fictional magic of the movies, and let’s face it, who among us hasn’t wished that it was real?
But that’s fiction. Sometimes Pagans get a bad rap for talking about magic, as if we can’t tell the difference between fiction and reality. Of course we can.
Magic in the Pagan sense isn’t stage magic either, sleight of hand, illusion, trickery; although it may contain an element of performance or theatrics.
So that’s what magic isn’t, but what it is seems harder to pin down. Perhaps that’s fitting, that magic should be elusive, ethereal, ever-shifting. When you think you’ve got it, it slips through your fingers like mist.
I’ll be honest, for a long time I was really resistant to the idea of magic. Coming first from the Catholic religion which said that magic was the work of evil (EeeeeeeeeeEEEEeeeevil!), then to a hard-boiled rationalist atheism that said magic was silly superstition for less enlightened people (usually poor people, people of colour and women…yep there is a whole lot of toxicity there), I was hestitant, even repulsed by the idea of magic as part of my Druidry.
But looking at magic more closely, in a Pagan framework, it takes on a different glow.
Perhaps the most well known and still most useful definition of magic comes from Aleister Crowley, who defined it as “the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with will”.
Unpicking this, we see that magic can be seen as a “science”, not in the modern sense of the scientific method with rigorous control, replicable experimental protocols and data, but in the older sense of scientia, “knowledge”, and an art, a craft, a thing-that-is-done.
Combining knowledge and craft, magic causes change, in conformity with will. Remember that Crowley’s “will” is not the same as “whim”, fleeting desire, but its about your True Will, your life’s work in the world.
Dion Fortune expanded on Crowley and formed a new definition of magic that is, perhaps, more limited but also more precise: “the art of causing changes to take place in consciousness in accordance with will”.
Here we see that the changes magic creates are primarily changes in consciousness, not in the physical world. Magic can change your awareness, your state of mind, but not defy the laws of nature and turn a person into a frog.
Magic in this sense, then, is not supernatural. It does not work by breaking physics. It works on the consciousness of the practicioner. There then needs be no conflict between magic and science.
I’d like, if I may be so bold, to propose another definition, one that I feel is simple enough yet broad enough to capture what magic is for me:
Magic is directed intention.
All of the tools and trappings of Pagan magic, the candles in different colours, the wands and athames, the circles and chants, are there to help focus and direct intention, or thought. By doing so, they change consciousness so that you can then go and make changes that have real effects in the world.
A basic example: you want a new job. You think about the job you want, but thinking alone won’t get you the job, and your thoughts are fleeting, distracted, and can stray into dwelling on what you don’t like about your current job, or what you’d do with more money, rather than your initial motivation.
So you work some magic. You light a green or gold candle for wealth, you bless an amulet that you’ll wear while job-hunting, you say a spell to draw opportunity your way.
Again, that alone won’t get you the job, but what it can do is change the way you think and approach things: making you more confident, more determined, more focused, more open to new opportunities you may have missed before.
Then you go and send out some job applications, because you always have to follow magic with action. Magic alone won’t make a thing happen or fall into place – it will direct your intention, but you have to put in the work.
And it is, like so many things that aim at self-development, work. John Michael Greer (2012) writes:
“The crucial point that must be grasped here is that magic is work – very often hard work. Even on the plane of the mind, where magic normally has its strongest and most direct effects, a single magical working may not be enough to make even a relatively simple change in consciousness. To overcome an unhepful attitide or a self-defeating habit that is deeply entrenched in the mind can take daily practice for months at a time”.
There is another dimension of magic that is important to a Pagan path, I feel, and that goes beyond the idea of magic as spellwork or self-help, and that is the magic of reality.
Pagans often speak about re-enchanting the world, learning to see the world as magical, as enchanted, as alive and wonderful. The dominant lenses of our culture either see the world as sinful, as in Christianity, or as raw matter to be exploited, as in materialism.
Re-enchanting the world means learning to see without these filters, to see the beating heart of life and beauty connecting all things. To see the magic in a sunrise, a plant growing from seed, a raindrop falling from the sky to the earth, a stone that is billions of years old.
“To see a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wild flower” – William Blake, Auguries of Innocence.
Like the “operative”, or “worked” magic above, learning to see this magic takes work. It takes going out into the natural world, even a park or garden, and being still. Seeing what is truly there, not imposing our own rules and limits and categories onto things. Simply sitting and breathing in the presence of the all, listening to the Oran Mor, the song of the world.
This magic is not something we create; it is all around us. But it can be so hard to see it sometimes. This magic, like all magic, is not supernatural – for how can there be anything above nature, when nature is the All?
This is the Old Magic. Before tools and words, before humans, this magic flowed through the land. It still flows today and will flow long after we are gone. This is the magic of life itself.
“The tapestry of chemistry, there’s a writing in the garden, leading us to the Mother of All” – Nightwish, The Greatest Show on Earth.
Is this magic also directed intention? Maybe. For it is the accumulation of the intention of billions of living creatures, each one part of a greater ecosystem that is so much more than the sum of its parts.
And we are part of that too. So when we direct our intention, we affect this great web of life, for good or ill. If we intend to be selfish, destructive, greedy, we direct that outwards and make the world more selfish, more destructive, more greedy. If we intend to be loving, compassionate, kind, we make the world more loving, more compassionate, more kind.
We are doing magic every day without even knowing it. Isn’t it therefore worthwhile doing it consciously, thoughtfully, intentionally?
How does magic fit into your Paganism? Let me know in the comments!
Blake, W. ‘Auguries of Innocence’. Accessed from Wikipedia, 6 April 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Auguries_of_Innocence&oldid=889948677.
Greer, J. M. Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth: An Introduction to Spiritual Ecology. Weiser, 2012.
Nightwish ‘Endless Forms Most Beautiful’. Accessed from Nightwish – The Official Website, 6 April 2019. http://nightwish.com/en/lyrics/endless-forms-most-beautiful/the-greatest-show-on-earth