Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Spirits and Energies

Lately I find myself hearing folks who want to describe the gods and spirits as ‘energies’. More and more, this bothers me. Obviously, people will have what opinions they will. However I think there are real problems in an ‘energy’ model of magic and spirit from a Pagan perspective.

We all know what we mean. Ever since the mid-20th century, latest, occultism has attempted to reshape its metaphors to fit with modern science. Crystal broadcasting and receiving, telepathy-as-mental-radio, artificial spirits, ‘vortexes’; these are all metaphors of spirit that imitate material science as it has evolved in the 20th c. Previous technological metaphors in magic include magnetism, the prediction of astronomical events and, well, fire. It is normal for magical methods to imitate scientific advances.

The modern mechanistic wave of this began, perhaps, with Mesmer who proposed that ‘magnetic’ energies could be manipulated both using actual magnets and by ‘passes’ of the hands. His successful trance inductions helped pave the way for modern hypnosis, in which the ‘magnetism’ metaphor has been discarded with no loss of efficacy. However the idea of ‘subtle transfer of energy’ (subtle meaning undetectable by instruments) became ingrained in modern occultism.

By the time I was learning invocation it was entirely normative to envision the target deity ‘shining’ or even ‘transmitting’ their power into or onto the ritual. In the same way we envisioned ‘beams’ or ‘waves’ of our intent, ‘conditioned’ by our words, chants and symbols. The whole body of technique around ‘power-raising’ grows from this model.

However, this is almost certainly not what an ancient magician, one operating in the days of European polytheism, would have visualized himself doing. The descriptions found in the PGM, as well as folkloric magic, suggests rather that the magician saw herself directing crowds of spirits. In traditional conurations for love, business success, gambling wins, etc the Gods are specifically asked to ‘send their daemons’ forth to do the mage’s bidding. The vision might have been of a rushing stream of un-named servants of the God hauling-tails away to bring that whatsis or whatever.

In ancient days if one desired a cooling breeze on a hot day one had to find a servant to command. Whatever relationship and deal one had with the servant allowed you to require them to fan you. In our time we build a mechanical device and plug it into an impersonal and commercial source of power. We can then generate a breeze at will or, as we say, ‘like magic’.

Magic has imitated that technical reality for some decades. The part that starts to bother me is when folks start to describe the spirits as ‘energies’ but not persons! To paraphrase; “The gods and spirits are not people living in some spiritual landscape, they are energies that we tap into in order to work our will. We do not worship them so much as respectfully use them.”

The problem I see with that model is the loss of relationship. Simply put, impersonal forces are understood by modern people as slaves. They are used at will, without a please or thank-you, as we go about our business. Now, this is not to say that living people weren’t treated that way back when slavery was one of the kinds of “relationship” that got you that fan-worker. However for me slavery is not an ancient custom that we wish to revive, and certainly not with those beings who join with us in worship.

Rather, I think, a modern Pagan sensibility seeks relationship with spirit(s) as persons, as beings with wills of their own. The work is then to remain in friendly relationship with those powers, through the traditional round of rites and customs. Certainly we do not approach the gods as equals, any more than we approach a river as equals. Each brings their special power and character to the relationship; mortals participate on a mortal level, spirits on a spiritual level. The point, to me, is that humans must maintain our part of the bargain in order to expect the cooperation of the divine.

It seems to me that the danger in imitating technology by thinking of the spirits as ‘energies’ is that we will imitate those things in western culture that we dislike – mechanization, impersonalization and loss of story. It seems to me a capitulation both to reductionism and to rationalism. There are those who dislike anthropomorphism; I’m not one of them. The spirits who like to work with humans like to appear as humans – makes perfect sense to me. Who am I to ask them to appear in some imagined “true” form. How well did that work for Semele?

So I’m just unwilling to agree that the gods and spirits are “really” energies, any more than my wife is “really” just a pattern of electrons in motion. I am in relationship with the spirits as persons, not plugging in to some cosmic generator. 


Taliesin Govannon said...

This impersonal "energy" metaphor for the Gods has led to what I call the "Santa Claus Syndrome" (SCS) in spellwork. People view Divine beings as slightly-more powerful shopping mall Santas, to be ignored except for when they want something from them. Thus, why bother wasting time in fellowship rites?

SCS is further encouraged by cookbook Pagan resources that find it more profitable to list "aspects" of the Divine instead of using valuable page space to talk about rites of fellowship and bonding. And then today's pop culture Pagan takes to internet message boards to complain about a lack of depth in their practice (upon which someone almost always suggests Gods or Goddesses that they should "use" for a rite to solve their problems)...

Chris Will said...

Viewing Deity as a big, ever-present but unknowable energy isn't just for Pagans. it's rampant in Christianity as evidenced by the all too common belief that all you have to do is believe & ask for what you want & it'll be provided. prayers not answered? Everything happens for a reason. I prefer to interact with entities from other realms as friends & neighbours, starting on an equal basis & getting to know them before asking for favours. If I don't see them for a while (as with human friends), we need to (at least briefly) catch up (proprieties must be observed) before asking for a favour.

Eric C said...

Yep Brother Corrigan, yer preachin to the choir over here: I've been complaining about the misuse of the term "energy". ( see: )
My main point, other than that it's basically an incorrect usage of a scientific term, is that it robs magic of its potential... "Energy", by definition, “plays by the rules” and to describe or model magical influence upon the nature of energy significantly places implications of qualities (including limits) upon magical influence which may not be appropriate, since “magical influence”, by definition, does not “play by the rules” !

Although it remains an important part of our world and one that many of us are striving to understand better, Magic may not be anything like a "force" at all. I really do feel that this is one more way we are "selling magic short" by treating it as if it was limited to the rules of ordinary reality. I don't mean to imply that magic is not part of our reality, our world, but it seems quite clear to me that we get less close to understanding its operations by using imagery which forces it into a box of the wrong shape, color and volume." - Earrach

IanC said...

I would plainly agree that 'magic' is not 'a force'. Magic is a skill-set. I do not conceive of some power called 'magic' that one 'gathers' in order to work one's will. Magic is like carpentry, or painting - a skill-set that, well used, allows the production of wonders.

Matt said...

Well, yes, the gods are energies, but at a subatomic level, that's what people are too. Just because I'm composed of energy, that doesn't mean I'm to be "respectfully used." All of which is my way of saying I agree with you, Ian.

Laine DeLaney said...

"So I’m just unwilling to agree that the gods and spirits are “really” energies, any more than my wife is “really” just a pattern of electrons in motion."

One of my favorite mantras is "Nothing is *just* anything." It has saved me when the zeitgeist's seductive reductivism has come calling.

I also get cranky about the "just energies" or "just thoughtforms" attitude. If you're willing to accept levels of spiritual power and reality, why insist that human beings are the be-all-end-all of it? Why is it too much of a stretch to imagine that other forces, uncreated by us, hold sway and power and their own identities? The standard Chaos Magick view that deities are all made up in our heads and powered by some ill-defined "energy" smacks of some serious anthrocentric blindness, in my opinion. I have no idea why it is so prevalent.