Magic, Religion, and Reality Part 2 – What is Magic?


See Magic, Religion, and Reality Part 1 – The ‘Big’ Questions for context to the following essay. If you decide to skip it, however, please still take a moment to jot down your own answer to the following: What is magic?

Witches Be Tricky

After Rev. Erik asked his listeners of Arnomancy to ‘define magic’, I jotted down the following:

Magic is the pursuit of conversation with the ineffable in order to improve conversational pursuits with the ineffable.

Wren Robin, 2022

Sure, it’s a little bit tongue in cheek. But as old Gerald once wrote, “witches are consummate leg pullers.”[1]

Yet this works pretty well to define my (often bootstrap) magical practice which is largely a hodge-podge of theurgy and thaumaturgy, of ‘folk magic’ and ‘ceremonial magic’. This distinction between ‘low’ and ‘high’ magic is impractical at the end of the day and mostly functions as (flawed) shorthand for communicating with other magical practitioners. 

But this is the part of the challenge of defining magic: Magic is a highly plural practice, a global one, historically vast, and any definition addresses not only magic but the practitioner as well.

That is, if magic spontaneously happens in the woods, and nobody’s around to hear it, does it still make fairy-dust sounds? 

So, most definitions of magic (mine included) are defining the practitioner as much as the practice. In fact, many definitions published within the canon of Western Esotericism frame magic entirely around the practitioner.  But the very existence of this ‘canon’ presents challenges to the honest pursuit of defining magic. It’s helpful to remember these implicit historical biases before proceeding.

Witchcraft and folk magic charms
Witchcraft and folklore artefacts – From private collection owned by Malcolm Lidbury

Racism, Sexism, Classism, and Regionalism in 19th and 20th Century Occult Publishing

Most definitions of magic appear to repeat definitions published by a half dozen other writers. (These are fuzzy numbers, by the way, since I haven’t done a proper lit study.  But after reviewing a few PhD dissertations on the history of Western Esotericism, this appears to be the case.) This isn’t terrible in and of itself. But Western Esotericism is just one of many global branches of magico-religious practices and has never existed in a cultural vacuum.

Both religion and magic demonstrate remixing (or ‘bricolage’, which I’ll tackle in my next essay). When the printing press was the dominant method of dispersing ideas, the curation was subject to the biases of both the publishers and the authors.  But hyper-democratic and many-to-many digital communications should, in theory, reveal long-standing biases.  Yet practitioners of Western Esotericism are still, by and large, addicted to the hardcover. (Myself included, I admit.)

So how can we assure we’re engaging with the ideas of historically unpublished practitioners?

For one, magic is a global phenomenon. It spans the world and recorded history, and surely predates recorded history.  The very idea of magic is global, but its nuanced definition and workings are culturally anchored.  If I were to meet a ‘service magician’ (my language) from another country or another time, would their definition of magic be similar to mine or not? Would they even be comfortable with the word ‘magic’, as I use it? When is one person’s ‘spirit work’, another person’s ‘magic’, and how do we honor these culturally nuanced distinctions? That is, how would this service magician position the magician within their own framework of magic, or would that even be a consideration?  Can you have a definition of magic without the practitioner?

I truly believe it’s important for Western Esotericists to learn about other traditions that practice magic, as well as traditions that appear to practice magic from our frame of reference. My bookshelf is certainly full of the same Western canon as many other Wiccans and magicians. But I’m also building my library of sociological, anthropological, and religious studies texts. For example, I don’t have a singular text that gives me a definition of magic for a practitioner of, say, Quimbanda. But I have enough religious studies knowledge to know that I cannot assume this practitioner shares my definition of magic or my thoughts about it. (Or, perhaps we do! Definitions can also be individual, of course – not every culture or practice is a monolith, just because we have a name for it.)

The important thing is that the line between magic and religion can get very thin and that these distinctions must be dictated by the practitioner – not the observer. A practice might look like magic to a non-initiate, and they may even use language and definitions that sound a lot like magic to a Western Esotericist,  but calling it magic might miss a critical nuance or even be offensive.  So that practitioner’s definition of magic would have to take precedence over my own when discussing their practice.  This is why trying to achieve a singular definition of magic is so challenging. If a definition is to be ‘universal’, it must nevertheless respect cultural and individual differences.

This isn’t a reason not to define magic from the vantage of a Western Mystery Tradition like Wicca, however. But it’s important to remember that a singular definition of the word simply isn’t possible once you step outside of your own cultural framework. And that’s a beautiful thing!

A graver problem with the Western canon (broadly speaking since this isn’t just a problem in Western Esotericism) is the absence of female and nonbinary voices, the voices of People of Color, Southern Hemisphere voices, and the voices of those who are social and economically marginalized. Western Esoteric communities are no different than any other historically white-dominated community in this regard. We may be seeking our True Wills and/or listening to the gods – but we’re still just a bunch of sloppy humans with individual bigotries and biases.  As with many disciplines (looking at you, academic publishing), it’s not that non-white and non-male voices haven’t been offering their own definitions of magic for hundreds of years – but they’ve been literally marginalized. They haven’t been published, or if they were published, they haven’t been reviewed.

In writing this essay, I realized digital technologies offer a unique way of fixing this historical bias. Unearthing marginalized voices in the history of Western Esotericism will take time and effort. But academics like Liana Saif, Egil Asprem, Mariano Villalba, Justine Bakker, Amy Hale, and others are actively doing this important work. [2] 

And finding contemporary writing about historically marginalized groups within contemporary Western Esotericism has never been easier. For Wiccans, I strongly recommend reading the works and collected essays of Crystal Blanton who’s done important work considering racism and bias in Pagan and Wiccan spaces. And authors such as Yvonne Aburrow, Mischa Magdalene, Benebelle Wen, and vlogger Chaweon Koo have contributed a great deal to both contemporary thoughts on Western Esotericism. Wen and Koo also addressed magical remixing within contemporary Western Esotericism, and all four have addressed alienating and bigoted ideas within Wicca and other Western magical practices. There are many others, as well – just look!

Ithell Colquhoun painting
Cover to Ithell Colquhoun: Genius of The Fern Loved Gully by Amy Hale

Historical Definitions of Magic within Western Esotericism

Tracking the origins of existing ideas is useful, so let’s go ahead and explore some of the canon, keeping in mind our own, personal definitions of magic. The Lesser Key of Solomon (aka Lemegeton Clavicula Salomonis) is a 17th-century collection of texts, much of which was copied from older sources. [3] It begins by defining magic as 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.

Lemegeton Clavicula Salomonis [4]

The author helpfully defines magicians as well. They are described as:

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.

Lemegeton Clavicula Salomonis [4]

One thing I find interesting about this definition is how, well, defensive it is of both magic and the practitioner. This makes historic sense, of course. It wasn’t the safest thing in the world to be openly mucking about with magic in early modern Europe.

Look back at your own definition of magic for a moment. Ask yourself for whom are you defining magic? And by defining it, what task or need are you accomplishing?

In my case, I’m supposed to be defining it for a hypothetical newb-to-magic. I’m basically failing at that (sorry, newb!) because my definition is 1) too busy trying to be clever and 2) it’s focused on a relationship between theurgy and thaumaturgy – between magic to speak with and hear from the gods, and magic used to affect the material world.  But the Lesser Key’s definition does something important – it defines the magician, who is both the operator of the magic and the key observer of it.

Next, let’s jump into Cornelius Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy, in which he states:

Magic is a faculty of wonderful virtue, full of most high mysteries, containing the most profound contemplation of most secret things, together with their nature, power, quality, substance and virtues thereof, as also the knowledge of whole nature, and it doth instruct us concerning the differing, and agreement of things amongst themselves, whence it produces its wonderful effects, by uniting the virtue of things through the application of them one to the other, and to their inferior suitable subjects, joining and knitting them together thoroughly by the powers, and virtues of the supernatural bodies.

Three Books of Occult Philosophy [5]

Inhales deeply.

Agrippa actually goes on to flesh this out further, such that his definition of magic is equally an overview of the Three Books of Occult Philosophy.  The historical and cultural context is once again illuminating. For Agrippa and his contemporaries, magic was part of plural scientific pursuits – magic was a science (and we’ll come back to this idea). Many modern scientific disciplines (chemistry perhaps most famously) emerged from these early pursuits in magic.

Once again, look back at your own, hand-crafted definition of magic. What does it say (if anything) about your view of the material and rational world? By avoiding this almost entirely in my own definition, I’m actually drawing a line between them. I’m not crazy about that, actually, but I’ll keep fiddling with it.

Page from the three books of occult philosophy
Occulta Philosophia Libri Tres (from Library of Congress PDF)

Problems with New Thought

Let’s jump ahead in time for just a second to Real Magic by Isaac Bonewits, in which he offers:

The science and art of magic deals with a body of knowledge that, for one reason or another, has not yet been fully investigated or confirmed by the other arts and sciences.

Real Magic [6]

Much of this book looks at magic as a scientific pursuit and is similar to Three Books of Occult Philosophy in that way. But Real Magic was written post-enlightenment, and that hard line between esoteric and scientific study was deeply engraved in American society by the time it was written. In many ways, Bonewits was trying to fold magic back into the sciences. 

This brings up an important topic when considering occult ideas in the United States (and Europe) from the 19th century onwards: the impact of New Thought.

I’m even less an expert on New Thought than I am on the history of Western magic, but everything from New Age to Scientology owes their existence, in part or in whole, to New Thought. Although it is considered a highly American phenomenon, its origins lie in practices like Swedenborgianism, Mesmerism, and Spiritualism. And when Hermeticists get upset about The Kybalion, it’s New Thought that’s the core of the text’s worst offenses.

New Thought was (or rather, is) a highly plural phenomenon. Some of the core ideas are so deeply interwoven with contemporary ideas about the world and reality, it infiltrates our thinking about magic, ethics, and the divine almost imperceptibly. New Thought, viewed from a distance, is just another philosophy/religion within the rich tapestry of human philosophies and religions.

But on both a practical and magical level, I often feel like I’m constantly untangling the impacts of New Thought on my practices and my life. Hugely problematic ideas like, “If you’re sick, it’s because you have unhealthy thoughts” or “If you’re poor, it’s your own fault” are anchored in New Thought. This is a huge topic, so I’ll just refer you to other resources for now.

Mitch Horowitz’s Occult America offers a good over of New Thought for the casual reader, while Catherine Albanese’s A Republic of Mind and Spirit (2007) is one of the go-to academic texts on New Thought. The following two essays, while not comprehensive, office useful insights into this multifaceted phenomenon, including why it can be really challenging and, well, sometimes kind of awful:

What you should know about the New Thought Movement. Christopher Evans 

Tuning in and turning off with the New Thought Movement: a review of “Each Mind a Kingdom: American Women, Sexual Purity, and the New Thought Movement, 1875-1920 “by Beryl Satter. Hans Johnson

Anyway, talking about magic in the same breath as science (either in opposition to science; trying to cajole science into accepting magic back into the fold; or defensively as a science) has been personally unhelpful. But it’s a perspective that’s been useful for others, so you’ll come across this in many 20th and 21st century texts. Still, there are a lot of challenges in trying to view magic and science in the same box, and it’s also caused some real problems. I don’t want to knock New Age, but some of the more socially problematic parts of it are a function of this need to view magic as ‘legitimate because it’s a science’. (Thanks again, New Thought.) 

Magazine cover showing rabbits saying "believe in yourself!"
Cover to March 1908 edition of New Thought: An Organ of Optimism.
From the International Association for the Preservation of Spirittualist and Occult Periodicals.

The Historical Canon Continued

Okay, getting back to our literary time travel, let’s jump to The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage’s 1900 introduction by S. L. MacGregor Mathers:

In Magic, that is to say, the Science of the Control of the Secret Forces of Nature, there have always been two great schools, the one great in Good, the other in Evil the former the Magic of Light, the latter that of Darkness the former usually depending on the knowledge and invocation of the Angelic natures, the latter on the method of evocation of the Demonic races.

The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage (Mathers Translation) [7]

Mathers refers to magic as a science as well, but that’s not the only binary presented: he also gets into the whole ‘good’ versus ‘evil’ thing.  This strikes me as a very New Thought-ish kind of thing, which is funny because I just don’t think of Mathers as a New Thought person.  But maybe I should? Anyway, it likely demonstrates that the key ideas within New Thought have much older origins within 19th century European esotericism.

But back to good and evil. Take another look at your definition of magic.  The ‘good versus evil’ thing is something I have a lot of thoughts on (and I’ll spare you for now) but my own definition is deliberately void of that kind of valuation. But what about yours?

Next, let’s compare Mathers with his younger contemporary who defined magic 20 years later:

Magick is the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will.

Magick: Liber ABA: Book Four Parts I-IV [8]

If you’ve heard this before, that’s because it’s from Aleister Crowley, of course. Note again the inclusion of science in the definition. Yet Crowley’s definition – the heart of which is the causing-change-through-will part – has stuck pretty firmly in the majority of definitions published after him, right up until today.  You can see the heart of this definition in writers ranging from Israel Gardie to Starhawk. A more recent trend has been nuancing Crowley’s definition by adding references to ‘changes in consciousness’ (Donald Michael Kraig, for one) or to “non-human forces” (Frances King, for another). Both are attempts at briefly explaining the internal and/or external mechanics of magic as integral to its definition.

Others, such as Dion Fortune, focused on the mystical – indeed, religious – aspects of magic, enriching the ‘non-human forces’ aspect of later definitions. (By the way, there’s some interesting quotes of Dion Fortunes adaptations of Crowley’s definition, but I’ve yet to find a primary source for those – I’ll follow up.)

Fortune’s own definitions also flexed and changed, both over time, and from one text to another. Depending on the context, her definitions would shift to best suit both the audience and the context. Here’s just a few:

It is the aim of that branch of esoteric science which is popularly called Magic, to obtain control of conditions upon one plane by acting upon the forces of the plane immediately above it, which acts as causal plane to the lower one

The Esoteric Philosophy of Love and Marriage (1924)

Magic may be defined as the use of some form of ceremonial, ranging from the simple mantram or spell to elaborate rituals of which the Mass of the Church and the ceremonies of the Freemason are examples . . . The whole idea of ritual magic is about the contacting of a being on the Inner Planes who will assist in the operation by concentrating a cosmic force of a particular type.

The Training & Work of an Initiate (1930)

[Magic is] a highly developed, highly stylized, form of mystical religion, with an elaborate philosophical basis.

“The Broken Tryst”, Occult Review 56 (1932), 23. [9]

[Magic is] the practical application of a knowledge of the little-understood powers of the human mind.

The Winged Bull (1935)  
Winged bull statue
Reproduction of Lamassu at the Lourvre. Often depicted on the cover of Fortune’s The Winged Bull.

Moving Beyond Crowley?

Crowley’s definition has been re-used by many occultists for good reason: it’s simple and basically accurate in the context of Western Esotericism. However, it centers the magician so much that it fails to define how magic does these things, and, really, what magic is (if it exists at all) outside of the magician. 

So a working definition of magic might need three poles: the magician, the magic worked, and the thing(s) that are worked upon. In my own understanding and experience of magic, there is a beautiful triquetra-like flow between these three points.  Visualizing how magic works isn’t the same as defining it, but it can be helpful. And asking yourself who you’re defining magic for is also helpful. It’s a fourth point, or maybe even the center of the triquetra.

My own definition is just for me. The joke reflects a key aspect of my practice. (It’s not exactly the cosmic clownery — I wish! — but it’s aspirational.)  And it’s just one aspect of my practice as the best jokes hold rich truths. My definition also gives me a starting point to understand my practice more deeply and reflexively. 

If my goal were to define magic for this hypothetical newb, I’d probably just recycle Crowley’s “Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will”, despite my reservations. The brevity of it is a limitation, but it also empowers the reader to build on it in their own ways. I’d want to make sure the newb is aware of their own power to forge their own definition.

Next up: What is Religion?  

Illustration of sprite.
From Brayhard; the strange adventures of one ass and seven champions (1890)

[1] Gardner, Gerald Brosseau. Witchcraft Today / Introd. by Margaret Murray. Secaucus, N.J: Citadel Press, 1954.

[2] Asprem, Egil, and Julian Strube, editors. New Approaches to the Study of Esotericism, Brill, 2021, p. I–IV, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1163/j.ctv1sr6jm4.1. Accessed 24 Apr. 2022. Note: This collection of essays is very expensive. However, many of the authors’ other works can be found as PDFs online. And some, such as Liana Saif, have spoken about their research on podcasts as well.

[3] Peterson, H. Joseph. Lemegeton Clavicula Salomonis: The Lesser Key of Solomon, Detailing the Ceremonial Art of Commanding Spirits Both Good and Evil; ed. Joseph H. Peterson; Weiser Books Main, 2001.

[4]  Mathers, MacGregor S.L., Crowley, A. The Lesser Key of Solomon, 1904 translation as cited on https://www.sacred-texts.com/grim/lks/index.htm

[5] Agrippa von Nettesheim, Heinrich Cornelius, Donald Tyson, and James Freake. Three Books of Occult Philosophy. St. Paul, MN, U.S.A.: Llewellyn, 1993. Book 1, Chapter 2.

[6] Bonewits, Isaac. Real Magic : an introductory treatise on the basic principles of yellow magic. York Beach, ME, 1989.

[7] von Worms, Abraham. Trans. Mathers, S. L. MacGregor. The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage. London: John M. Watkins, 1900.

[8] Aleister Crowley, Magick: Liber ABA: Book Four Parts I-IV . Weirser, 1997. Part III of Book 4, Definitions and Theorems in Magick. Cited from https://www.sacred-texts.com/oto/aba/defs.htm

[9] Citation found in Ronald Hutton’s Triumph of the Moon.


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