Now That’s Magic! Or Is It?

Diotima Sophia

Someone asked me not long ago, “Do you use magic yourself?”

An interesting question, but understandable, perhaps in the circumstances in which it was asked.

My answer was probably entirely unhelpful: “You tell me what magic is, and I’ll (probably, possibly) tell you if I use it”.

Unhelpful, perhaps, but I think valid, in terms of an answer. Because, when you come right down to it, what is magic?

It’s not that there isn’t a definition out there – it’s that there are too many of them; a great many definitions and very little agreement. This gives yet more support to the often heard phrase, “Ask four Pagans and get five answers” – but even the scholars, on the “outside” can rarely agree about what magic (or magick) either is, or is though to be.

Many, perhaps most scholars in the field walk a fine line, not actually saying that magic is anything but rather speaking of belief about magic; hence my repeated call for Pagan sociologists and anthropologists, who can work within the field, and can speak meaningfully of not only the experience of others but of their own, grounded experience1.

This highlights a division in definitions already, from with in and without, as it were. In general, the definitions from without come from two sources: historians and anthropologists2. The historians have a slightly easier job in terms of defining magic – they need only (only?) find and report what was said, written and done in the past on any give subject. Therefore, Kors and Peters, for instance, need only provide us with the documentary evidence of how magic was defined at a particular time .

Of course, this vastly underestimates the work of the historian, who must also situate what she reports, in time as well as in context: contextualisation is what makes history, particularly that which relates to a society which is not our own (or is no longer our own) understandable.

Anthropologists have a wider remit: they must not only report what was said, done and if possible believed,3 but also what such beliefs meant for those who held them: what function (for some brands of anthropologists anyway) did those beliefs perform for those who held them? How did those beliefs integrate into the given society, how did they form it and how did society form the beliefs?

Walking between the two camps are the social historians – they tell us not only what happened but (at least attempt to tell us) why. The advent of social history has, for example, caused a marked change in the way scholars deal with the time of the witchcraft trials: compare Michelet, for example with Ankerloo.

The social historians tell us that defining magic should be left to those whose definition mattered at the time under investigation: they no longer seem to engage in the search for a “meta theory” or overarching definition of magic. Rather, they let earlier peoples speak for themselves.

The difficulty with this approach, of course, is that earlier ages speak with anything but a united voice: there was no more agreement in the past about what magic was4 than there is today. Those searching for a comfortable, easily understood definition of magic based on historical precedent are bound to be disappointed.

Anthropologists (or early sociologists, before the fields become delineated) fare no better in the search for a definition. Early on, based on the views of the Zande people, a division was made between two concepts of magic: sorcery and witchcraft. Witchcraft, according to this view, is an almost inherent capability for some people: one is born a witch, one does not become so (even in consciousness of this state is not always present). Sorcery, on the other hand, is open to all: its efficacious use relies not on any inbred ability but rather on a mechanistic process: the magic will work not because of who performs it but because of how it is performed 5.

But what of the definitions from within?6 There is no more agreement among practitioners than there is among observers.

Using a very broad brush, one might begin to categorize practitioner definitions into those which deal with the inner or the outer effect of magic.

Those which deal with the inner effects, such as Fortune’s “Magic is the art of causing changes in consciousness in conformity with the will” , through to Hine’s definition of magic as techniques which extend the limits of “Achievable Reality” – based on our beliefs , Spare’s insistence that magic unifies desire and belief , might be said to concentrate on the effect of magic on the magician – Fortune in particular deals with changes of consciousness – which is an internal process7.

These definitions have a definite psychological ring to them: they are concerned as much as anything with the effect of magic and its use on the magician. This is not to deny that magic has effects beyond the magician8 herself, but it is to see the main effect of magic as interior, rather than exterior. The situation may be analogous to that of the alchemist who seeks to affect transmutation primarily of the soul but would certainly not be adverse to changing base metals into gold in the exterior realm. But then again, it may not ….

Others, however, concentrate on the effect of magic outside the practitioner. Perhaps the best known of such definitions is Crowley’s, “Magick is the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will”. There are others along these lines, including Hine’s “A magical act may be defined as causing reality to conform to will.9” . For better or worse, however, Crowley’s definition has gained wide acceptance.

Yet it has always seemed to me to be a flawed, or at least inadequate definition – one which stops just short of complete usefulness. I wrote this article with a pen and paper – it is by force of my will that my hand manipulates the pen to form the words on the page, my will informs the movement of my arm so that the words are not all written on top of each other, my will in involved in the choice of what words will be written, and so on.

What seems to be lacking in Crowley’s definition is a simple word: “alone”. “Magick is the change in reality affected by ill alone” is a very different definition. It may also be too restrictive. What of the work of the ceremonial magicians – is it “will alone” if the process also requires incense, robes, specific incantations, etc.?

The practitioners, then, show no more unity on the definition of magic than the scholars10.

And perhaps this is inevitable. From the perspective of both out and inside, magic would appear to be a highly individual and indeed individualistic experience. A meta definition, on which covered all those experiences, would have to be so broad and so general as to be ultimately useless.

But why should we expect a definition, in the first place? One thing on which the practitioners at least seem to be agreed on is that magic is a dynamic, vital process- it is anything but static. Definitions work by reference points, just as map directions do. But magic has not static references points, other than perhaps the magician herself – and people are rarely static. Magic – like friendship and love – defies precise definitions because it is ultimately not a thing (that chair, this computer), but a process. As such, it defies accurate and absolute definition.

Which is, of course, a part of both its allure and its mystery.


1 These are beginning to emerge, see, for instance, …..

2 There is, of course, a third group, comprising both the sensationalist media and sensationalist religious groups, mainly “far-right” Christian groups. Their definitions of magic are almost always wholly negative, poorly researched and generally self-referential.

3 Sometimes a function of historians as well – cf Russell’s levels of scepticism about witchcraft beliefs .

4 Compare, for example, the view of the Canon Episcopi – that magic does not exist – with Demonologia – that magic is alive and well and out to get you .

5 This may well mean, of course, that in spite of the names, from this point of view many modern groups are made up of sorcerers, rather than witches….

6 Lurhman’s definition, of course, is not from within. Although she actively participated in magical groups during her research, it was always under the heading of research rather than belief, see …..

7 This side steps, of course, the argument that all we know is the internal – that we live within the consciousness of our own reality, and so that to change our consciousness is to change our world….

8 I am using the term, “magician” here rather than the more widely accepted term, “witch” in spite of the possibility of confusion of the former with the antics of David Copperfield and Paul Daniels. This article is specifically about magic, rather than the arguably wider field of witchcraft. Those who are interested may construct various syllogisms of Venn diagrams trying to cone to terms with the relationship between the two – cf. all magicians are witches or all witches are magicians of the negative of either or both – but that way for me madness lies.

9 That a chaos magician should have definitions which fall into both camps seems strangely appropriate.

10 This division is not meant to imply that practitioners are not scholars, merely that they attempt their definitions from within rather than from without the practice of what is being defined.


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