There’s a discussion flowing around the Pagan blogosphere about the place of Magical art in Pagan religion. This is a topic near and dear to my heart. I think it is central to the future of spiritual practice in the west. If we want to progress past the boundaries of Europe’s traditional monotheisms, then we must have a place for magic as a sacred part of spirituality.
Annoyingly, I suppose that I must define my terms. By magic I mean the conscious application of spiritual principles for personally-willed goals. By spirituality I mean the work of conforming the self with (spiritual) reality in such a way as to produce peace, freedom and happiness for the individual. Plainly these two terms might work either in harmony or at odds. I find the goal of wisdom to be to bring them into harmony. By religion I mean a system of belief and practice, often drawn from traditional magic, that intends to produce spirituality in those who work it.
A great deal is made in modern time of religions as tools of social control of the individual. Certainly that has been one of the social uses for religion, especially in eras when religion and state were united. However in my experience that use is becoming obsolete in the modern world. Social concensus and state enforcement seem no longer to require the sanction of the divine in order to be accepted by common people.
For westerners that leaves ‘a religion’ as ‘a systematic approach to spiritual practice’. This needn’t leave out a moral element – many religions begin mystical teaching with moral instruction. It does tend to focus religion on the practical – on methods that produce the experiences of spirituality, rather than on moral or social conformation. That’s what I mean, generally, by ‘a religion’ – ‘a system intended to produce a specific set of spiritual experiences’.
My inclination is to view ‘magic’ as the core principle in all the above terms. In religions the methods used to work with the divine – meditation, devotion, right action – are all directed by individual will. Any willed reach toward the divine is a magical act. The ancient Christians perceived this and were so concerned to remove human will from the equation that they imagined the divine will deciding which individuals would be able to conceive the will toward the divine. I think we can happily discard such convolution and admit our freedom to choose.
So then, to me, a religion is a specific expression of the methods of magic. A religion (I try not to speak about ‘religion’ as a general category any more than I must) is a set of mental positions, acts and goals that intends to connect the individual self with a reality that transcends the self. The Roman church adapted theurgic invocation and talismanic art in creating itself. Buddhism adapted tantra and various local sorceries. Even in Islam Sufi ways preserved older mystical methods. In my opinion it is this core of magical practice that brings the spark of real contact with the spirits, and real contact with spirit(s) is the core of working religion.
That’s why I see magic as the core business of this complex – it is willed application of spiritual principles. It is by will that we establish our relations with the gods and spirits, by will that we keep our local cult, by will that we explore the realms of spirits. From these efforts we compose the personal religion of our hearth and home-temple, and support our local village religion.
On a traditional level, we find ourselves bumping up against definitions of magic that imply impiety and disapproval. It is easy to understand magic as spell-casting and divination, both of which might be understood as efforts to raise personal will above that of the gods, and thus impiety. (Let’s leave aside for the moment whether that raising is in fact impious – I disagree with those who say that it is.)
Magic is much more than spellbinding. The longer I study the clearer it becomes to me that the old cliché – “Magic is the yoga of the west” is precisely so. In fact it is just as accurate to say that yoga is the sorcery of the east. Yoga concerns itself both with spiritual growth and gain of wisdom, and also with occult powers and abilities. Yes, I know that many teachers discount the latter, yet it is never absent from traditional yogas. Unlike the category of ‘magic’ in the west, yoga has remained part of orthodox and mainstream Hinduism. There are as many sects and kinds of yoga as of magic, certainly, but the central ideas of yogic (and tantric) esotericism are largely normative in Hindu thought.
So magic, in our Pagan models, is the technical and formal application of the principles of spiritual reality. This can be used for common good – love, wealth, family, etc. It can also be used to produce powerful personal experiences. The style of work that we inherit as ‘high magic’ began in efforts to retain personal temple rituals of Pagan times in secret. When we make a shrine in our home, put up an image, make offerings to it with invocation, etc, we are surely doing magic as well, I think, as religion. In the same way when we prepare a careful bundle of symbols, imbued with the hidden powers of herbs and stones, present them to the land-spirits and ‘charge’ them with our intent we are still participating in the religious model of our Paganism, even as we work our personal and individual will.
I suppose that is my hope for our Paganism – that occult and esoteric methods will have a normative place in our religions. Divination, trance-vision, rites intended to produce increase in bounty or happiness – these are traditionally ‘occult’ arts that make perfect sense inside Pagan religions. Of course these are largely specialist skills. We can offer them to general students of our ways, but only those with the inclination will devote the effort required to grasp them. To have them present in our mix is like yeast in the mash, I think – the power that enchants the common, and brings spirit into matter.