“Prayer is a form of magic.” “Magic is applied prayer.” One hears these saws often enough in current discourse about Pagan religion and practical magic. Neither assertion has ever rung the bell for me. I feel as if there is a significant difference between what is done when we pray, and what is done when we work a spell for a practical goal.
Refusing to resort to dictionaries, I assert: “Prayer is a verbal or internal address to a/the deity. Often it includes a request for specific aid, though it may be or include some other conversation. While traditional prayer was often scripted, traditional and uniform, prayer is also often performed ex tempore.” Beyond that description, prayer has the connotation of a request to a ‘higher power’, and the inevitable implication that the request might be refused. “All prayers are answered,” we hear from monotheist apologists, “but sometimes the answer is no.”
Magic arts, on a different hand, intend to cause effects and not merely to ask for them to be caused. Magic is a body of technique that uses spiritual skills to work the individual will of the magician. This is accomplished, in tradition, by a combination of work with the living spirits, and with impersonal spiritual forces. Allies are gathered, patterns woven, and pressure-points targeted in the clever ways that are also used in engineering or even artistic composition. One expects that once one has built skill that doing the work correctly will produce the desired result, without being dependent directly on the will of any higher power. “Magic always works – if you do it right,” is the basic aphorism here.
To do a little context, magical manuals are full of prayers and instructions to pray, and how to pray. The preparation for high-end ritual magic commonly involves periods of fasting and prayer
Philosophers have found reason to object to traditional magic because it implies an effort to coerce the gods. This is a reasonable objection – that mortal-level efforts cannot have the juice to coerce a large transpersonal power, any more than we can move a hurricane with fans. Yet traditional magical rites, and the spoken ‘prayers’ they preserve, are full of both invitations and direct commands to deities and to a variety of other spirits. Here we find the point I intend to make in this piece:
Traditional Magic does not depend on asking the gods to accomplish our goals.
I think this is the core reason I find magic and prayer to be separate.
If magic is not based on petitioning and requesting, what is its basis? As I said, it is a combination of relationship between the magician and the spirits, and the magician’s ability to employ impersonal spiritual forces. What can be missed by modern students, especially those who are inclined to apply generalized ‘religious’ principles to Paganism, is that the Gods are not the only focus of Pagan religion and sometimes not even the primary focus. I have a point to make about practical work with the gods, but first let me think about the big kindreds of non-deity spirits that play a part in magical work.
Magic of the Dead
Traditional sorcery is heavily, perhaps predominantly, powered by the Dead. The ‘hordes of spirits’ often summoned to carry out the conjuror’s will are composed of the restless dead – those spirits inadequately settled by rites or fate, whose hunger, lust and anger can be exploited by magic. In our modern lives we are lucky to be far freer from violence than our pre-Christian ancestors could have imagined. Likewise the culture of magical hexing and spellcraft for personal gain at another’s expense is greatly reduced. Many of us work to calm and cool the restless Dead, not to exploit them.
Ancestor worship is a different matter, concerned with family, affection and reverence. One no more commands ones ancestors than one’s grandparents. Rather we maintain our relationship with the Beloved Dead and they become primary protections and instructors. Spirits from our family lineages may become familiar allies or important contacts, but often they remain background counselors and support.
Folk-magic customs may seek aid from a specific spirit. Customs surrounding graveyard dirt and such tokens may call on a specific spirit in a specific grave. In some places such graves have become shrines of a sort, regularly visited by those seeking aid. Magic has always had it’s ‘saints’, and even post-Christian magic seems likely to continue the tradition.
That kind of individualizing and personifying can happen with the non-human spirits of nature as well.
Magic of the Land-Spirits
A variety of magical traditions draw on spirits present as plants and animals. To gather herbs for practical magic is to make a pact with the spirit of the herbs. Plants of special power and lore may be more individualized allies – the mandrake is an example of this kind of plant familiar.
More mobile spirits abide in wind and weather, and can be called to aid the magician, along with the shining beings of sun and moonlight. These spirits, along with the spirits of the green world and even the sea often appear in the forms of animals.
My own intuition is that such animal-formed Landwights were frequently the ‘familiar spirits’ of medieval folk-witches.
Lore is full of tales in which spirits appear as ‘chimaeras’. In Greek story the Chimaera was a Titan-spirit composed of lion, goat and serpent. Thus the ancients depicted mighty spirits in this composite way. The Satyrs and Centaurs of the Greeks, the Griffins of the east, even the Water-Horse or Nuckelavee of Celtic lore use animal forms to display the power of the Nature-Spirits.
Lacking a literate remnant of Northern Pre-Christian magic, we can find many examples of chimaera spirits in the grimoire tradition. The spirits called ‘demons’ in the medieval theological atmosphere of the grimoires can easily be understood as Landwights or ‘elementals’, appearing in animal-mixture forms proper to their natures. The medieval Christian cosmology relegated all such beings to demonic status, even the gentle ‘demons’ that teach poetry and herbcraft.
Daemons of the Gods.
It seems reasonable that even the most able mortal should not be able to ‘command’ great transpersonal spiritual forces. Ancient skeptics and modern have wondered why the planetary powers of wind or water should respond to our calls. I think a reasonable answer lies in the ancient understanding of the Daemons.
In Hellenic Paganism the relations between mortals and the gods are managed through the uncountable number of spirit servants attendant on every deity. These spirits were called ‘daemons’ (or ‘daimons, same pronunciation…) a word derived from roots meaning ‘able to act’. The daemons attended the sacrifices as regents of the deities, receiving the offerings and ‘carrying’ them to the gods, then bearing in turn the gods’ blessings back to mortal rituals. In doing this they acted (as their name implies) as the active powers of the god, and would have appeared and acted as the deity, often bearing the symbols and tools of the god. So if a traveler were visited by an apparition of a fine naked young fellow with wings on his hat, he would likely assume it to be both a daemon of Hermes, and a visitation from the god, unconcerned about the distinction of person that might be involved.
It is such daemons of the gods that magicians seek to employ in practical magic.(more here) The magic of the Greco-Egyptian Papyri often explicitly invokes gods, asks them to send a daemon (or some daemons) and then commands those agents of the god by the borrowed power of the god. In this way one is not, in fact, claiming to command the mighty power that rules the (whatever) of the cosmos, but only their agent, specially selected for and by your magic to be in tune with you and your desire.
So, I feel as if I might define ‘prayer’ as an attempt to invoke and speak directly to the cosmic principle or higher being of a deity, and to entreat it through supplication (i.e. by asking for something). Magic, in turn, is an effort to bring an active agent of the divine near to the mortal world, and arrange to have them aid your goals. In practice this can be the daemon of a God, or a Landspirit, or one or more of the Mighty Dead. Note that in basic magical theory it is spirits who are closer to the mortal world, to the world of forms, who have power to act in our realm – far more so than the Great Abstractions that might lie at the top of an imagined Platonic ladder.
Prayer can be used as a technique of magic. Often it is a preparatory technique intended to attune the magician to those Great Abstractions and thus make us more suited to speak with the related spirits. As a practical spiritual tech for getting results I can see it being useful perhaps with deities with whom one has developed a long sacrificial relationship. However I can’t see prayer as the equivalent of practical magic, or imagine that it could have magic’s (still imperfect) reliability or effectiveness.