The Study of Magic: The Universality of Platonism: Two Universal Laws
All magical practices, western or eastern, from tribal incantations to dudes drawing magic circles in their mom’s basement, every jot, tittle, and trickle of magic boils down finally to two fundamental laws: similarity and contagion. Cognitive scientists now regard these as “faulty thinking,” and from a strictly materialist perspective they are. But seen through our lens of Neoplatonism, we can see just how rational these two ways of viewing the world can be.
The first law of magic, the law of similarity, says that any two objects that share characteristics are, in some sense, connected. One of the implications of the law of similarity is the doctrine of signatures, which says in short that any object announces its inner nature by its outward appearance. Crudely, and rather ineffectively, we can imagine that ugly people are immoral. But it’s really much more subtle than that.
From a Neoplatonic perspective, an object’s outward characteristics are symbolic of the ideal form from which it springs. These characteristics include shape, color, taste, smell, and feel. In other words, an object announces to our physical senses its nonphysical characteristics. A ruby therefore, being red, takes on characteristics of all those things we regard metaphorically as “red.” A thorn, being sharp, represents all acts of penetration and aggression. Asafoetida, being smelly, represents repulsion and banishing and Indian food.
Actions, too, can be categorized by the law of similarity. If I walk around clockwise in a circle, I become the sun which also seems to “walk” clockwise around the earth. If I eat a piece of the body of Christ, I become his disciple because I share in the same last supper. In fact, all ritual actions evoke a metaphoric (but not unreal) similarity to archetypal or Ideal events. Knocking in a pattern of ! !! !!! !!!! doesn’t just make noise: it creates the universe. On the world of physical interaction, it’s noise, soundwaves, with no meaning (because, after all, on the purely physical world nothing can mean anything: you need a mind to mean). But in the world of Ideals, I have climbed the ladder a bit and reenacted the tetractys, a symbolic description of how the four elements produce all of creation.
We can sum up similarity in two phrases: like proceeds from like, and as above, so below. These statements are both two ways of saying the same thing. Imagine that we have an Ideal Form existing in the world of forms. Call it A. From it are produced two like things: a, and alpha. We can see the relationship of a to alpha, and so we can say that both of them must be connected, having both proceeded from the same like thing. Therefore, we can say, that the A in the world of forms is “like” the a and the alpha in the world of matter. This “like” is the hinge of a simile, and the principle of metaphor governs the relationship of objects to their ideal forms.
Similarly, we can have an idea — “solar,” let’s say. From this ideal Form proceeds a number of material things: the body we call the sun, certain round and golden flowers, emotions in our bodies that make us feel warm and powerful, and a shining golden-red stone. By similarity, I can use one thing to affect all others. If I want success, that event that causes a warm and powerful feeling, perhaps I could carry that particular stone, make a tisane of that flower. Or I use various mathematical relationships and abstract images regarded as solar, and inscribe a hexagon on paper or in my mind. Or I could mix the approaches, and use both the worlds of matter and the world of mind to climb the ladder back to the original Form, and from it to descend again into reality. If I wish to go from a to alpha, I can climb back up to A and then back down again.
The law of contagion, simply put, says that once together, always together. A hair from my head is me, no matter how far it is removed. In the world of Forms distance doesn’t matter, nor do the boundaries we draw around ourselves. We are now what we have ever been, and anything touched by me is, in some sense, me. Dirt from my footprint, for example, contains my identity: it is where I have trod, where I have been, and therefore where I am.
So to affect me, one needs some part of me. It could be as simple as my name, but it could also be some physical object I have touched. Ideally, it is some combination of physical things and abstract ideas.
Frazer, who first codified these laws (see my December column), does not speak highly of magic. He regards it, with a fervor only a late 19th century rational man could, as abominable superstition and failed science. But leaving aside his vitriolic assessment, these laws have been found to be nearly universal. No matter where you go, among which people, they will regard objects once together as always together. A somewhat famous experiment involved gathering a group of subjects, unwrapping a brand new flyswatter, sterilizing it before the group, then stirring a pot of tea with it. No one would drink the tea, not because it was physically contaminated but because it was emotionally contaminated. A similar experiment involved used clothing, some of which was announced to have belonged to a murderer. Despite the clothing being identical in all other regards, no one wished to wear a murderer’s shirt.
Perhaps these laws are universal because, as some suggest, all people are inherently irrational. Or perhaps they are universal because they are, in fact, laws governing reality. Will those who drink from the tea stirred with a sterilized flyswatter become ill? No, probably not. But they will become contaminated, and they will know it, in the world of Forms.
We can see how these laws play out in two diverse systems of magic, which reveal themselves to be stems of the same root. You can’t get much more diverse than the traditional Renaissance ceremonial magician and the Hoodoo root doctor. The ceremonial magician creates a careful working table inscribed with the appropriate symbols. The Hoodoo doctor rubs some oil on a John the Conqueror root and puts it in a red flannel bag. The ceremonial magician offers a prayer to Venus while wearing green robes; the Hoodoo doctor adds a pair of natural magnets, carefully selected to lock together, into the bag. The renaissance magician draws an image on a piece of paper consistent with the planetary positions, and carries it with her; the Hoodoo doctor “dresses” his bag with special oil, with an evocative and catchpenny name like “Come to Me” or “Bend Over” (or, my personal all-time favorite, “Follow Me Boy,” although this particular imaginary Hoodoo doctor don’t swing that way).
It seems they’re both doing very different things. But in reality, although their outward actions are the same, in the world of Forms what they do is identical, and will, all things being equal, have identical effects.
Now, keeping in mind that I’m no Hoodoo root doctor, let me start by analyzing the easier of the two for me: the Renaissance magician. The table is the universe: the symbols inscribed thereon share, through similarity, the qualities of the elements and planets. Thus, when the Renaissance magician sets something on this table, she sets it in the world of manifestation. For her, green, the color of new plant life in the Spring, is the color of Venus, the planet of fecund fertility. Again, the two things are united by similarity. Finally, the seal itself borrows a traditional image that shares, in metaphoric images, the qualities of the particular stellar configuration. In an elegant bit of contagion, the planetary configuration at the time of the working is deemed to be “fixed” by the talisman. By making such a thing during a time symbolically propitious for love, the Renaissance magician has created a sort of astrological bubble of contagion that will always be “together” with that stellar configuration.
With some help from Catherine Yrenwode’s website, Lucky Mojo, let’s look at our Hoodoo doctor. First, John the Conqueror is a brown, bulbous root from the plant Ipomoea jalapa. When dried, it very much resembles a testicle. By similarity, therefore, it represents sexual passion. It also gains some of its power through contagion. John the Conqueror was, according to legend, an African prince who, captured into slavery, maintained his inner freedom and spirit by tricking his masters. When he returned to Africa, he left the root behind so that other oppressed people could call upon his wit and cleverness in his absence. The root, therefore, shares by contagion with overcoming and conquering through wits rather than main strength. The lodestones or natural magnets, obviously, sport a signature of attraction. And the oils used for anointing are derived from more or less traditional recipes, all of which can be similarly analyzed.
But wait: one magician uses green to attract love, while another uses red. That should surely betray an underlying inconsistency in magical practices that must point out a crack in the whole edifice. After all, if science worked this way, we’d be unable to build a bridge. If e were 2.7 to one group of people, and 1.8 to another, we’d soon see nature collapse in confusion.
But what we find here is not an inconsistency. It’s important to remember that the signature of physical things is a reflection of the perfect form. Some forms reflect very clearly: e is 2.718 in Spain and in France and in New York City. But other forms reflect faintly, and are seen through human eyes. In Cabalistic magic, red is anger and energy and violence; in Hoodoo, red is love and sex. In Cabalistic magic, green is love and nature and growth; in Hoodoo, green is money. How can we account for these differences and still claim that both systems work, and are in fact ultimately the same Form of magic?
First, remember that Hoodoo is American magic. It began under a certain social situation — and let’s not be coy. It began because of slavery. European Americans took people from Africa, brought them to a continent with different flora and fauna, and took away their languages, their traditions, and their families. I think it’s difficult for a lot of people to understand the underlying trauma of this: not just a trauma to individuals but a trauma to culture itself. And not just Black American culture. Americans of every race find themselves in a culture shaped, sometimes for evil and sometimes, strangely, for good, by this trauma. While I loathe racism, I wouldn’t want to give up rock and roll, for example. And my ancestors were still digging potatoes in Ireland when slavery ended, yet I am shaped by this history because I am an American.
The spiritual technicians of various groups and subgroups might find themselves mixed together in conditions as traumatic as these. Africa is linguistically rich; even if you speak a relatively common language like Hausa, there’s no guarantee that the slave you share your quarters with speaks the same language. You must learn to communicate in the same creole you use to talk to the white people who claim to own you. Furthermore, your spiritual technologies were based largely on the power of ancestors, but you were in a land where the very soil was different. Moreover, the cult objects of your people were all gone, and while you remembered the songs and chants you couldn’t teach them to others because they didn’t have the language.
What you did, then, was simple: you made do. You found herbs and fauna and reanalyzed their signatures. You took the spiritual system imposed on you and used it to replace your cult objects, your store of ancestors. And you looked again at your traditional color symbolism. Since you lived in an agricultural environment, you knew that the fecundity of the land remained the source of prosperity. But in this new place, they traded the green of the land for green paper, a ritual that you recognized. It was simple symbolism: and so green could remain prosperity.
Seen in this light, the green = money equation of Hoodoo isn’t terribly different from the green = love symbolism of Renaissance magic. Both begin with contagion: the green of nature becomes green in general. For the Renaissance magician, this fecund green is love; but for the Hoodoo doctor, it’s money. But it’s still, ultimately, derived from the same contagion.
Similarly, red symbolizes love in Hoodoo. But consider what love was in this place. Even if you found love, and your master let you love, you could lose your love in a moment. To love was an act of reckless courage, and it ended in blood: either the blood of childbirth or the blood of death and separation. To the Renaissance magician, blood was the result of violence. Even the blood of childbirth occurred behind a door, in the presence of midwives, and not on the dirt floor of a hut. But to both, the redness of the blood, by contagion, became red itself.
Both systems, then, grow out of the same set of laws, and even borrow the meaning of their colors, often, from the same things. Of course, slavery did not last forever. Once free, Black Americans found themselves on another kind of precipice. Again, clinging with fingertips over the abyss of poverty, in a land of prosperity, magic changed in reaction to the circumstances. But the underlying principles of all true magic remain the same.
How many Renaissance magicians knew about Neoplatonism? All of them, presumably. But among Hoodoo doctors, or English cunning folk, or Pennsylvanian hexmeisters, or Native American medicine men, how many knew of the philosophy of Plotinus and Iamblichus? The answer almost certainly is “a few.” Black American magicians, for example, were voracious for reading material, once literacy became legal among them (and probably before). But not all. Yet they discovered, by trial and error, the same principles that govern all other systems of magic. We find, when we probe the surface of nature, that under her robes lies the shining light of Forms, no matter our color, our language, or the outward forms of our practices.
©2010 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.