The Study of Magic – Plato, Meet Frazer
In my last column, I suggested that the western magical tradition can be seen as a response to Plato’s theory of Ideas. If we imagine that magic interacts with a world of more primary forms than our physical senses can detect, we are Neoplatonic. If we argue the opposite, that there is no such Ideal world, we are Aristotelian and, usually, materialists who do not do magic at all. However, even if we are Chaos Mages who suggest that magic is mostly a matter of internal belief, and that there is no world of Ideas external the mind of individual magicians, we’re still responding to Plato.
If Plato is right, and there is an essential world of Ideas, for magic to be real would mean that it must appeal to that essential world. If such an essential world exists, its essential truths must be universal. Perhaps the shape of those truths would be different, but any culture of any time that perceives that truth, will perceive the same.
For example, every culture that looks into the geometry of a circle will discover that the diameter of the circle encircles the circumference of the circle 3.14 times. If they have sufficient mathematical sophistication, they will even recognize that this number is irrational and continues an infinite number of nonrepeating digits after the decimal point. It doesn’t matter if we call this number pi, or Liu Hui’s constant, or the Archimedes Constant. It remains true, regardless of our ideas about it. We cannot legislate pi.
Even though we cannot know pi in its totality, we do not propose that there is not, for example, a ten billionth digit of pi. In fact, we know there is, and we know that it is one of ten numerals, although we may not know which one. And since there is no perfect circle in the physical world, we also know that it does not rely on any physical object whatsoever to calculate.
Similarly, if magic is real and we believe in the Platonic ideal, then we know that there should be some things about magic that are essential, and some that are incidental or contingent. Those contingent things will change, from society to society or even from practitioner to practitioner. But the essential things, for real magic, for magic that works, will remain the same. Of course, some people may do magic that doesn’t work, just as someone might try to calculate the area of a large circle using the approximation that pi = 3, and find themselves receiving an incorrect answer. At the same time, we cannot suggest that the essentials of magic boil down to a popularity contest. If a million people think that pi = 3, they will be wrong, no matter how persuasive they are. It doesn’t matter how many votes it gets: pi is not a popularity contest.
Yet we can say, with some certainty, that diverse cultural practices operating on the same principles may be pointing to an underlying essential truth to magic. Of course, they could also point, as a skeptic would argue, to an underlying flaw in the capabilities of human reason.
For my purpose I am content to point out a few of the similarities across cultures as possible pointers toward an essential truth about magic. I am not pretending to be exhaustive, and certainly there is room for argument.
Fortunately, my work is done for me by Sir James George Frazer, whose The Golden Bough (1922) was one of the most influential books of the twentieth century. Frazer pointed out several similarities between the magical practices of diverse peoples. He did not suggest, as I do, that these may point to some underlying truth about magic, but he did suppose that it represented an underlying structure of culture.
Frazer identifies two principles of the practice of sympathetic magic: the law of similarity and the law of contagion. The law of similarity says that any two items that appear the same are, in some sense, the same. This recalls Iamblichus’s practice of using symbols of divine forces to direct those forces. A hawk is Horus, because the two are similar. Similarly, gold is the sun, because they partake of similar signatures. In non-western magic, we see the same thing: a plant with a human-shaped root might stand for a person, or a mantra might be regarded as the God it invokes. Contagion suggests that any two objects in contact remain in contact. We see this practice in the Christian mass: the bread that Jesus broke is still in contact with all other bread, which is itself in contact with the flesh of Christ, and therefore is the flesh of Christ. In nonwestern practices, it’s common enough to require hair or other leavings of someone for or against whom one wishes to work magic. Frazer regards both of these ways of thinking as “mistakes,” of course, but really they represent the very basis of fundamental symbolic thought.
Symbolic thought is that ability of abstraction that allows us to say “this word ‘water’ represents this substance.” Moreover, it allows us to say “this substance in this cup is the same as the substance in the ocean; I can abstract them with the same symbol.” We find, then, that one of the roots of magical practice, the world over, is symbolic thought. Magic cannot work unless the world is abstracted into ideas.
It’s worth noting that it is the process of abstraction, not the result of the abstraction, that matters. In other words, it doesn’t matter what collection of sounds you choose to use to represent the concept of water: “water” or “agua” or “mayim.” What matters is that you do the abstraction and that you share that abstraction with others. Of course, if you say “mayim” and no one around you speaks Hebrew, you’ll be in trouble. But “agua” isn’t an inherently better word than “mayim.”
Looking back, I find it interesting that I ended up using language as my metaphor. Of course, it makes sense: what are words but symbols? And what are symbols for, if not to communicate? The importance of communication brings me to the next universal of magic: magic operates on the principle that we are communicating with something or someone outside of our physical perception. Ancient Greeks threw tablets down wells to communicate with the chthonic gods, while medieval European magicians conjured angels. Yoruba magicians make offerings to gods. Tantrikas invoke protector deities. Even our etymologies betray the magical importance of communication: evoke and invoke both contain the root “vocare,” meaning “to call,” and “enchant” means “to sing into.”
We also, in looking at magical practices the world over, find the notion of separation nearly everywhere. The Shaman is separated from society, the medieval wizard draws a circle, and the “hedgewitch” lives on the border (the hedge) of the village. This separation amounts to a cutting off not just of society but of the physical world; there is a turning inward which is in its final analysis a turning outward into the world of ideas, a mental world no less real than the physical. Physical objects are merely means to that end, symbols that are meant to stir something in the mind.
Few magical practices fail to emphasize the importance of mental preparation. Even medieval magic focused on mental preparation, although the grimoires we have seem more concerned with the proper furniture and clothes in the temple. If one looks farther, at the works of — for example — Giordano Bruno, one quickly finds that there’s an emphasis on mental training. That mental training is not simply trance work, either, although that is certainly present. There’s also training of memory and philosophical training.
It’s easy to imagine that our culture’s practices are, in essence, absolute. But obviously we must have some ways of thinking of things that are curtains on the window, and not the light itself. We must have decorative notions that are not essential to magic. It’s worth while, in looking at the commonalities, to look at what is not common to all cultures as well.
The first thing that sticks out for me is “energy.” Few cultures recognize the concept of energy as essential to magic. Certainly, Chinese magic has qi and Polynesian magic has mana, but neither of these are energy. Qi literlly means “breath,” and could probably better be translated “life force.” Force is not a synonym of energy, as any basic physics student could tell you. Similarly, mana means something a lot more like “embodied authority” than “energy.” And if you doubt that our ancient predecessors lacked a term for energy, do try to translate the term into Latin. You may find yourself stymied: the closest similarities to the word in even its mundane sense fall short of what we mean by it. The ancients did not have the concept of energy divorced from work or power (which are, again, distinct concepts).
So why do so many magicians in modern America talk about “magical energy?” It’s not ignorance and it’s not laziness. Just as the word “agua” means “water” in Spanish, the word “energy” represents, in a magical context, one of the essential characteristics of magic. It’s not some mystical energy that any physicist will ever discover in any lab, be her instruments ever so advanced. But “energy” in western magic fulfills a simple role, easy to determine if you read this signifier in context. Every time a book on magic mentions “energy,” it hastens to point out that this energy responds to intention. It’s not like electricity, or light, or heat, or kinetic energy, or anything else, because unlike those kinds of real literal energies, it pays attention to what we want. In fact, it represents a quality essential to magic: willful action.
Magic, always and everywhere, is not an accident; it is a willful action. Of course, there are accidental powers that we would classify as magical, and seem to share some similarities. For example, in Timor some people believe in a malignant power which comes out of an unsuspecting woman and does harm to the community. And of course there are spirits or other entities who might act according to their own wills. But, like fire, while it may get out of hand and do damage, magic is a technology that we use, like all technologies, deliberately.
Energy is a symbol of that intentionality. Other cultures provide other symbols. Ainu shamans sit under cold waterfalls, for example, as a sign of their willingness to suffer to heal others and speak for the dead. And we can see that mana and qi are, then, similar to the symbol of energy in that they represent, in culturally specific and different ways, the intentionality of magic.
Obviously, there may be more essential shared characteristics; it would take a book to examine them all. But we can sum it up in a simple definition: magic is an intentional and symbolic act of communication with a nonphysical reality.
If magic were only the wishful thinking of deluded people, we would not expect it to share any similarities across culture. And we can expect the trappings to differ, as long as the essence remains the same, just as we can expect the name of “pi” to change from culture to culture, while its value remains the same. At the same time, one could argue that magic is delusion, but that delusion has some essential quality, and so shares similarities from culture to culture. This possibility, while perhaps appealing to skeptics, would be hardly any less amazing than magic itself. Both possibilities point toward some essential quality of the human mind, or perhaps of consciousness itself.
©2009 by Patrick Dunn.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.
Patrick Dunn has written two books on the occult, Postmodern Magic: The Art of Magic in the Information Age and Magic Power Language Symbol: A Magician’s Exploration of Linguistics. He lives near Chicago, where he teaches and writes. You can find his blog here.