Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Magic in the Grove

The Place of Magical Arts in ADF

This is a piece I was asked to write for the upcoming ADF Grove Organizer's Handbook revision. The editor felt it needed a basic position paper on 'magic' in adf. Comments welcome - this is very much a first draft.

The meaning and use of ‘magic’ (I will refrain from using the ‘k’ that some attach to the common spelling, since that has associations with specific schools of practice outside of our own) in our Druidic practice is an important issue. Throughout the Neopagan Movement the term magic is common, used with a variety of meanings. To some it refers to all the ‘occult’ methods involving spells, charms, spirits and divination. To some it refers to the intrinsic wonder and mystery of the cosmos, or to the ‘energy’ that underlies existence. Some say that magic is something you ‘are’, not something you do, while others that it is a skill as much as a talent. Some see magic and religion as nearly opposites; some see them as nearly identical. There is a simple reason why ‘magic’ has such a confusion of definitions – it has in fact no clear meaning in an Indo-European Pagan context.
In the process of building an ADF Grove you may find yourself dealing with issues surrounding ‘magic’. Your new members and guests from the broader Pagan community will bring their own assumptions and ideas, and you will need to have a Druidic answer or three ready. This article is meant both to introduce a few scholastic basics concerning magic in IE Paganism and some of the real uses of magical skills in a Druidic context.
Whence Magic?
The roots of the term ‘magic’ are in the culture of archaic Greece. The Greeks were cousins of the Persians, who’s traditional Fire-priests may have been called Magi (sing. Magu). The term is nearly lost in Persian, but occurs in Greek beginning roughly in the 500sbce. Indo-Iranian priestcraft seems to have included the performance of rites meant to provide individual clients with practical goals such as fertility, wealth or the removal of ill-luck. Whether it was wandering members of that caste or merely imitators cashing in on their mystique, by 500bce there were people known in Greek as magoi, practicing mageia or magike. These figures traded in spells, blessings, dealings with spirits and the offer of spiritual experiences through secret initiations. This complex seems to have appeared foreign to the Greeks and they came to view much of it as impious and suspect. What began (and continued) as plainly sacred practice in one Indo-European culture became a complex of marginal and suspect practice in another.
If the Greeks were suspicious of the use of spiritual arts for personal goals – that is, of magic – the Romans were more so, and that suspicion passed to the Christian empire in turn. Our modern default ideas about what categorizes magic remain based on the notions of the late classical Greeks and Romans. However when we examine other IE systems we find very different attitudes.
The basic skills of what has been called magic are identical to those that are used in Pagan religious practice. Invocation of the divine, the use of herbs and stones, signs and symbols, the consecration of objects with spiritual power, the knowledge of times and seasons, all are part and parcel of traditional Pagan ritual. While all of these skills are used in the service of the Gods and the folk they can also be readily applied to the needs and will of the individual. It is the varying attitudes of IE cultures toward the private use of spiritual arts that determines their attitude toward what we call magic.
If I were to offer a definition of magic it might be: “Specialized spiritual skills employed for personally willed goals.” The core elements of Pagan religion are those employed by magicians and priests alike, and often for the same goals. Within this basic definition we can look at a couple of important basic distinctions.
Theurgy and Thaumaturgy
One basic set of categories divides specialized spiritual arts according to intention. Theurgy (Gr. ‘divine working’) is the use of spiritual skills to produce personal and group religious or spiritual experience at will. Thaumaturgy (Gr. ‘wonder working’) is the use of spiritual skills to create specific effects in the world. Wealth, health, love, and all the common goals of ‘spells’ might result either from theurgy or thaumaturgy. Thaumaturgy would seek them directly – theurgy would offer them as a side benefit of spiritual progress.
In the ancient world theurgy was part of the work of any skilled priest. Knowledge of the symbols of and calls to the Gods, of the proper use of images and physical anchors for the spirits, of the uses of herbs and stones and the hidden powers of things, of oracles and seership were all integral with IE religion. In later classical times traditional religion was challenged by Christianity and other ‘mystery’ religions. In response the traditional skills were reformulated with a focus on solitary or small group ritual. Greek thinkers debated whether these practices belonged in the less-than-reputable category of magic, and the Christian authorities placed it firmly there.
Thaumaturgy has always had a distinctly less savory reputation, but has always been studied and practiced. While there were many honest purveyors of spells and spiritual support, marketplace fortunetellers and sellers of charms were probably more common than wise men in towers. Some IE systems seem to have allowed the priesthood to work such arts for individuals, while others forbid it. Of course when the community required thaumaturgy, such as rainmaking or the cure of blight on the cattle, the priesthood’s thaumaturgical skills would be expected to be up to snuff.
Public and Private
Another important set of categories describing spiritual arts is the distinction between public and private rites. Pagan religion was decentralized, and personal and household religion was often handled by the household members. There was, however, a suspicion of rites done in secret. Among the Romans one simple distinction between an invocation and a ‘spell’ was that one was spoken plainly aloud while the other was whispered in secret.
In some IE societies the learning of these specialized spiritual skills seems to have been fairly tightly regulated by societal norms. The Celtic Druids and Vedic Brahmins seem to have had a firm apprenticeship system in which learning was limited to those who could find a teacher to accept them. However cultures with literate records of the arts would certainly have had a degree of ‘leakage’, perhaps producing self-proclaimed wonderworkers and gurus. The limitation of higher-order spiritual skills to a trained elite probably contributed to the mythic image of the ‘wizard’. The leakage of the ‘secrets’ into less approved hands helped to produce the sense of ‘forbidden arts’, even before Christian dominance. Since these arts produce powerful effects they traveled widely in a way that tended to transcend caste and other proprieties that made them subject to the public disapproval of priests.
So we can say that in some sense magic is private spiritual practice outside the control of the social authorities. When these skills, often developed in private by priests, are brought into the public temple they are usually used quietly, while the folk sing the hymns and watch the offerings. However in our modern Pagan milieu it is much more common to involve even the casual congregation in the deeper spiritual work of the rites. Once again the distinction between magic and religions blurs almost to the vanishing point.
Magic in ADF
Most of the practice of magical arts in ADF is focused on the theurgic work of our Order of Ritual. The willed intention that we bring to our High Day rites is to create an environment where mortals and the Powers can see one another, and be seen, and we can gain the blessing of the Gods and spirits. We employ ritual, trance, symbolism and offerings – all the elements of theurgy – to draw the blessing of the spirits to our Fire.
Through this we mean to have an effect upon the participants. We bring the presence of the love and power and wisdom of the Gods closer to our mortal lives. We ask the Holy Ones to bless us with health, wealth and wisdom. Sometimes we choose to direct this blessing by our conscious will. Very often we simply rely on the proper turning of the Weave of Fate, with the power of the Gods and Spirits who wish us well, to bring us what we need. You won’t hear a lot of discussion in ADF about ‘trusting in the Gods’ but there is an element of that in our works of blessing.
So as you begin to develop your skills for ritual, remember that on one level your task is to help the folk make magic. Attend to your own practice of mental discipline, and to your own devotions to the Gods. When you approach a High Day rite, especially as one of the ritualists, consider doing preliminary offerings to the Gods at your Home Shrine. There are several instructions for the patterns of visualized Inner Work for our Order of Ritual. Practice those and make an effort to apply them when you celebrate public rites.
Thaumaturgy has gotten less attention than has theurgy in our sacrificial rites. The Order of Ritual has been variously adapted for spellbinding. One rite for group practical work (http://www.stonecreed.org/rituals/blessing.htm ) uses the standard Neopagan method of ‘power raising’. After receiving the Blessing the members present the candle or token they wish to bless, speaking their intention aloud. Chanting and drumming are then used to alter awareness and focus intention to ‘charge’ the tokens. My own work in my book “Sacred Fire, Holy Well” offers a full system of Druidic ‘spellwork’ and other magical skills. In general most of the methods in common use in traditional later-period magic grow from practices common in Indo-European cultures. Images, talismans, spoken and sung charms, the ‘conjuration’ of spirits all seem to extend far beyond the late classical world into the past.
The practical application of spiritual arts as ‘spells’ or ‘magical works’ has had a very limited role in ADF overall to this time. While all the elements of such work are available in our context our focus on receiving all good things through the Blessings of our rites has made the need for tinkering with events through spells a tertiary matter. That said, we are working to build the presence of practical magic in our work. Our Clergy and Initiate’s program requires all students to try their hand at practical work, and no doubt some of us will find a knack for one or another skill. By whatever name we seem to intend to train our Druids by giving them experience of invocation of the divine, of work with spirits, divination and spellcraft.
These skills of practical spiritual arts are inherent in ADF’s design and practice, but are just beginning to find expression. More generally, spiritual arts are applied in all well-worked rites. What western ‘occultism’ has sometimes referred to as ‘high magic’ is itself an inheritance from Pagan religion. Cleansing and purification, invocation, divination and consecration play a part in every Druidic rite of worship. These skills can also be applied in service to individual practical goals, but our work is more concerned with the Blessing of the Gods and Spirits, and the finding of harmony between the individual soul and the World Order. That is the heart of the magic of Our Druidry.


druidkirk said...

Ian, nice work!

Theurgy (Gr. ‘divine working’) is the use of spiritual skills to produce personal and group religious or spiritual experience at will.

Isn't theurgy more than this? It is all this, yes, but also, in addition to spiritual experience we can call on the spirits to aid us in accomplishing a magical goal for ourselves or others. The way this is written, it seems to imply that going for a magical (as opposed to religious) goal is only found in the realm of thaumaturgy.

IanC said...

My thinking may be influenced at the moment by the thing on Therugy I've been reading, which takes absolutely no notice of practical magical goals. It discusses theurgy as what we might call psychology, and the use of ritual as effective spiritual 'therapy, to properly connect human soul to cosmic spirit. I think it would have been exactly in any interface between theurgy and practical goal-oriented work that the disreputable taint of thaumaturgy would have begun to cling to theurgy.
In modern practice the line is fuzzy if it exists at all - but in the terms the Greeks would have used that's the kind of division I think they'd make.

romandruid said...

Nice article, Ian! Geez, I miss sitting around the fire chatting with you. There is so much I'd like to discuss about magic (and Romans' attitudes about magic) with you!

I think the reason Greeks and Romans were suspicious of private, "sneaky" magic was because they were such cosmopolitan, community-based, often urban societies. At the core of their very existence was the state (or city-state, as the case may be). I realize it's an over-simplistic analysis, but it's as if they had no problem with magic as long as it was done publicly for the benefit of the community. This is also why "cults" that offered more personal experiences with deities were regarded somewhat suspiciously and even emperor worship took a long time to catch on. Magic and worship not employed for the benefit of the whole was necessarily regarded with suspicion.

I think it's probably true of any urban society that people tend to be suspicious of those who don't "share" with everyone. I suspect in modern Western society, where society is so very splintered and compartmentalized, this is also why magic has become popular -- and to some degree even acceptable.

Ah, but this conversation requires a mug of beer, a comfy chair, and preferably some drumming and woodsmoke in the background. :)