In the ongoing series of long answers to frequent questions. Pardon my formatting difficulties, please:
The word ‘spell’ travels with a lot of baggage, and is used with very little technical consideration. It has been redefined especially by fantasy writers in so many ways that sorting nonsense from tradition, and determining a useful technical definition for our modern magic art is a project worth doing.
Linguistically the word means 'a spoken charm or incantation', and so we could limit its meaning to 'the spoken component of a magical rite'. That isn't what people mean, these days, though.
Allow me to begin at the end, and attempt a definition of a spell – we’ll see whether it’s the same at the end.:
“A spell is magical or spiritual work with a specific intended effect and usually a specific target”
In traditional magical literature ‘spells’ are most often small ritual patterns, involving a combination of natural objects, spoken words, proper timing, ‘occult’ symbols and often the aid of specific gods or spirits. Folk magic tends to quietly bury these elements in traditional rules, that often don’t accompany the transmission of spoken charms – one is supposed to know the rules. More formal ritual magic instructions may make a spell seem like a complex working of its own, by listing the work in detail and sequence. Both of these approaches can be practical and correct. I tend toward the latter.
The whole business of using magic to obtain a specific goal may involve multiple smaller sub-rituals, offerings etc. All these ‘spells’ together are often described as a ‘working’.
In our post-European, post-Christian USA there is that tendency to want products neatly packaged and labelled with instructions. So many who ask for ‘spells’ in internet forums seem to want the proverbial ‘magic words’, that make things change in the blink of an eye. This is, in fact no more likely in magic than in medicine, and spellcraft can involve multiple ‘appointments’ to accomplish a goal.
Here it may be useful to quote and discuss my favorite definition of ‘magic’. It comes from the Greater Key of Solomon
“Magic is the Highest, most Absolute, and most Divine Knowledge of Natural Philosophy, advanced in its works and wonderful operations by a right understanding of the inward and occult virtue of things; so that true Agents being applied to proper Patients, strange and admirable effects will thereby be produced. Whence magicians are profound and diligent searchers into Nature; they, because of their skill, know how to anticipate an effort, the which to the vulgar shall seem to be a miracle.”
Allow me to paraphrase:
“Magic is the study of the secret and spiritual forces of nature, their character and powers, so that by applying proper force at the proper place and time effects can be produced which have been called ‘magical’. So magicians learn to predict effects by knowing cause, which makes them seem to be wizards.”
Can I tighten it up?:
“magic is the knowledge of the hidden (occult) powers of things, and of the spirits, and the application of those powers to produce effects.”
So spells are a specific application of this principle – the application of the occult powers of natural and spiritual things to work personal will.
Spellcraft Inside Polytheist Religions
In many world traditions of polytheism and animism the use of religious symbols, rituals and skills for the immediate personal gain of worshipers and their families is a normal part of the work. These traditions teach rites for prosperity, health, fertility and inspiration, much the same as the desires of modern magic-users.
|A symbolic arrangement for a sadhana|
The Sanskrit term ‘sadhana’ can be translated as ‘a specific practice or form’. In dharmic religions the term is used both for the prescribed spiritual practice a teacher might set for their student, and also for specific sets of practices intended to produce results. The latter are patterns that may include proper herbs, proper colors and numbers of candles, proper offerings of incenses, flowers, etc and of course a proper spoken incantation (i.e. ‘mantra’ in Sanskrit). These patterns are often transmitted through what amount to spellbooks, and are an orthodox part of Hindu and some Buddhist religion
|Offering array for an Ebbo|
In the post-African religions of the New World ‘Ebbo’ is a word meaning offering or sacrifice. It can be applied generally to religious offerings to the spirits, but it also refers to specific patterns of practice intended to produce specific outcome – i.e. spells. The forms of some such ritual offering are determined by the spirits themselves, but there are also specific traditional forms, including arrangements of specific numbers, types of fruits, colors of candles, etc., arranged in the proper way, place and time, with the proper invocations. Again, by the terms of western magic, this amounts to a ‘spell’.
Late Classical Paganism
Remnants of traditional Euro-middle-eastern polytheism and spiritism were preserved in the important proto-grimoire called the Picatrix. This ritual manual focuses primarily on the Planetary powers, themselves remnants or reflections of Olympian Gods. The rites usually center around an image or idol of the spirit, and then use number, color, type, etc, to determine a proper set of offerings. This style of offering-ritual, preserved for us in text over the past 2,000 years or so, bears a remarkable resemblance to other forms of spirit-based devotional spellcraft.
|A planetary rite of offering|
This style of devotional, offering-based ritual seems ready to introduce into our modern polytheist efforts. Drawing on lore, tradition and the inspiration of the spirits rites of this style could be devised in nearly any ethnic system. Of course ethnicities will each have their distinct customs, which can add to the depth of such designs.
Folkloric and Popular Spellcraft
Offering-based spells that draw on the spiritual power of core cultural gods and spirits are one side of the coin of traditional spellcraft. The other is the vast body of lore that employs the ‘occult' (i.e. hidden or little-known) powers of natural things’, along with the basic principles of mechanistic spellcraft.
The latter were defined by Frasier as “sympathy” –like affects like; and “contagion” – that which has been in contact continues to influence the contact. These are not so much the actions of spirits but natural principles, which operate regardless of the spiritual environment in which they are used. These techniques, plainly called ‘tricks’ in some traditions, become dressed in the mythology of whatever culture takes them up.
For instance, the ‘packet talisman’ – a small bag or wrapped packet containing herbs, stones, seals etc. can be identified in the 16th century scholastic occultism of Agrippa, yet it also arrives in the New World through Congo ethnic custom, producing the ‘gris-gris’ or mojo-bag of the hoodoo tradition. Such a charm-bag employs sympathy by using herbs and stones of the proper resonance, and employs contagion by the wearing of such a charm next to the user’s skin. Charm-bags are made with prayers to saints, invocations of the polytheistic gods, or even animistic address to the aggregated spirit of the charm itself. This is icing on the basic mix that makes the spell.
Colored candles or lights, proper incenses and perfumes, traditional or discovered magical sigils and seals, all of these are part of this category of spellcraft. Image-magic, the old hair-and-fingernails gag, the use of photographs, drawings or even the written name of a target, all of these use sympathy and contagion to ‘transmit’ the intention of a practical spiritual work. Often these methods are employed along with offering and invocation to direct the power of whatever spirit is offered to.
So, then, a spell is a ritual or set of rituals intended to employ spiritual or occult power for a specific practical goal. This sort of practice may exist as part and parcel of a religion or spiritual tradition. If it doesn’t it almost certainly exists just outside of it, relegated to some category like ‘witchcraft’. In my opinion our Neopagan religions, as we construct them, can benefit from making such techniques integral to our spiritual work.