“Magick in Theory” is a peer review, online journal exploring historical and theoretical magic. We approach magic from an emic perspective, which is to say that we may or may not practice magic, but we respect the worldviews of those who do and try to see the practice from their perspective. Our mission is to support the academic and intellectual study of magic, and to carve out a place for reason, rationality, as well as inspiration and experience, in the study of magic. Ultimately, “Magick in Theory” strives to apply the best features of the peer review process to the study of magic, in order to encourage, promote, and advance research in the magical arts. Submit papers to email@example.com.
“Magick in Theory” is designed as an academic journal, but has no affiliation with any academic institution, nor should any personal or professional affiliation on the part of any member of the volunteer editorial board be construed as representing an endorsement of “Magick in Theory” by any particular institution.
Submission Guideline and Stylesheet for “Magick in Theory”
“Magick in Theory” is looking for articles and essays about the study and theory of magic. Acceptable topics include:
- The application of socio-cultural theory to magical practice;
- Historical analysis and research;
- Translations and explanations of previously untranslated magical texts;
- Magical experiments and operations;
- Interdisciplinary essays on magic and its relationship to other academic or cultural areas;
- Personal essays with a critical (in the academic sense) bent.
We are not looking for:
- Spells, how-to, or rituals that do not have a historical context or significance (submit these to “Magick in Practice” instead);
- Made-up, fantasized, or channeled texts (unless accompanied with a heavy dose of critical analysis or historical significance);
- Rants, screeds, diatribes.
All submissions must adhere to the following guidelines:
- All texts in Word format. No PDFs or unusual file formats. They will be deleted unread.
- There is no firm limits on size, but suitable articles will tend to fall between 2500 and 7500 words.
- Include a header that includes your name, your pseudonym (if relevant) in parentheses after your real name, and any academic affiliation you want mentioned.
- Your name or other identifying information should not appear elsewhere in the text.
- All submissions must adhere to the Chicago Manual of Style. Use in-text citations — not footnotes or endnotes — and a properly formatted references page.
- Do not quote more than 100 words from any individual source.
- Any quotation or use of an idea not your own must be cited properly in Chicago Manual of Style format.
- If you use any images, also submit proof that you own the right to use that image or have secured that right from the owner.
- If you are submitting a translation, identify the source of the original text and, if applicable, provide proof that you have the legal right to do the translation.
- Edit, proofread, and polish your writing before submitting.
The procedure for selection is as follows:
- Your name will be stripped off and two copies will be sent to anonymous reviewers.
- They will write a 100-200 word response, identifying strengths and weaknesses, and offering a recommendation.
- If the reviewers agree that the essay should be published, it may be returned to you for edits or proofreading.
- Whether published or not, the reviewers’ comments will be forwarded to you.
- You will not receive monetary compensation for the publication of your article.
Submission email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
©2014 by Patrick Dunn.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.
The Theban Oracle
By Greg Jenkins, Ph.D.
Weiser Books, May 1, 2014
Reviewer: Patrick Dunn
This book is set on an intriguing foundation: take the symbols of the Theban alphabet, assign each to a famous occult figure, and use them for divination. This idea is so rich and interesting, it’s easy to imagine productively pondering the biography of some famous occultist, and trying to weave his or her life into your own in a relevant and meaningful way.
I wish I could say The Theban Oracle lives up to that very rich premise. But it just doesn’t. Worse, it pollutes the whole concept.
Greg Jenkins has plagiarized portions of The Theban Oracle. For example, in the entry on Paracelsus, we read
“At the age of sixteen, Paracelsus began his formal education at the university of Basel, where he studied alchemy, surgery, and medicine. . . . By adulthood, he had become known as the precursor of modern chemical pharmacology and therapeutics, and as the most original medical thinker of the century.” (134)
Alchemylab.com’s page on Paracelsus has this to say: “At the age of sixteen, Paracelsus entered the University at Basle [sic] where he applied himself to the study of alchemy, surgery, and medicine” and “Manly Hall called him ‘the precursor of chemical pharmacology and therapeutics and the most original medical thinker of the sixteenth century.'”
If you have a Ph.D., and if you choose to advertise that fact on the cover of your book, and if you make a statement in the introduction about being “engaged in the task of scholarly research” (XI), then you do not get to copy people’s exact words and claim them as your own, whether those words come from the internet or a published book. And changing a few words around does not make it your own words. College sophomores know this. High-school freshmen know this, for goodness’s sake!
Sometimes the plagiarism is a little better disguised, such as here:
“By the late 16th century, when the plague gripped London Simon Forman remained to help the sick, while the doctors who condemned him fled for personal safety. This act of bravery, along with saving many lives, including his own as a result of his alternative medicines, would forever place his image in the light of god, in spite of the many insults he endured from his detractors” (116)
Compare with the Mysterious Britain website:
“When the plague gripped London in 1592 and 1594, Dr. Forman remained in the city whilst a great many members of the medical profession left. This act of courage (although other circumstances may have been behind his stay) aided his reputation, and during those days he saved many lives, including his own; After contracting the plague, Dr. Forman cured himself with his own medicinal waters, quite a feat and one that raised his profile in the eyes of the London people.”
That’s more subtle, certainly, but the ideas come in a particular order, and even the sentence-structure is similar. Rearranging the words of a sentence is not a valid paraphrase, and taking other people’s ideas without citation is, indeed, plagiarism.
Other times, it’s clear that the author has used the thesaurus to disguise the plagiarism, but of course as many a student learns, this is not the same as having your own thought, and can sometimes lead to some ridiculous prose:
From Alchemy Lab, again:
“This high-handed behavior, coupled with his very original ideas, made him countless enemies. The fact that the cures he performed with his mineral medicines justified his teachings merely served further to antagonize the medical faculty, infuriated at their authority and prestige being undermined by the teachings of such a “heretic” and “usurper.””
and from The Theban Oracle:
“By denouncing the revered works of Galen and the standard practice of medicine as a whole, as well as the teachings of his own university, he become [sic] so unalterable in nature that school officials and other authorities would come to consider him a heretic and a despot” (134).
“Despot” and “usurper” are, of course, synonyms — but that doesn’t mean they mean the same thing. Paracelsus might indeed have been seen has trying to usurp Galen’s place. I doubt anyone mistook him for an absolute ruler, which is what a despot is. It’s also likely that “unalterable” is a thesaurus substitution for the word “intractable,” which actually would make sense there. I suspect there are other sources, probably print sources, that I have not found.
When the author is writing his own prose, it is often turgid, sometimes bizarre. Take this example from early in the book: “In what appears to be a simple cipherlike code, and having no bearing in any known language, nor able to form the necessary elements to create verbiage as we might understand it, the alphabet has no other purpose other than to code common words” (21). I read that four times (five, as I copied it here), and I still have no idea what it might mean. A “cipherlike code” — well, a cipher is a kind of code, so does that just mean “cipher”? How does something have “no bearing in . . . “? Don’t things usually have a bearing on, rather than a bearing in, and moreover, what does that mean? Does that mean we can’t link it to a known language? But of course we can! It’s clearly meant to write Latin; it is essentially the Latin alphabet (with one highly impractical and unlikely punctuation mark). It certainly has the “necessary elements” to “create verbiage as we might understand it,” but I’m not sure that this author does.
This example of prose is representative of the whole. It’s not that the style isn’t very good — it’s not, being far too adjective-heavy, but I give that a pass. It’s that the style is nearly opaque to meaning. Words take on meanings they never have had before, and are put together in sentences that defy the laws of syntax. But I’d give all that a pass, with the exception of the plagiarism, which is unforgivable.
The real question is, how does it work? And the answer is — not terribly well. The biographical descriptions are oddly brief and lack detail: we’re told pretty much everyone was loved and honored, until murdered by someone or other, in a rather cavalier fashion, and then some pieties about how wonderful they were, unless they weren’t. There’s a general narrative thread of a liberal, proto-New-Age, gentle soul being savaged by poor, ignorant, usually Christian, fools. Historical facts are glossed over. It matters why the church killed Giordano Bruno, and it had little to do with his magical work. Sometimes minor facts are also changed. I always thought it was a snowstorm, not a thunderstorm, that sent Trithemius back to the monastery. If, of course, the author had cited his sources, I could perhaps find out that my memory is faulty. Similarly, the author makes it sound as if Pietro De Abano was forced to deny the existence of spirits by the inquisition, when of course he was actually charged with heresy for denying the existence of spirits and angels, which according to standard Catholic doctrine at the time, existed.
Every figure’s life is reduced to a few ideas or concepts, a kind of reductionism that might be a bit simplistic. Hypatia is, for example, “The Sovereign Female Spirit, Inward Wisdom, Search for Enlightenment.” The first one is obvious: she’s one of only three women in the whole alphabet. One other, Joan of Arc, is apparently “The Journey Ahead, Change, a New Development.” The third is Bethany (Bethany who? A citation would be more than handy here, since Googling reveals nothing). But why is Hypatia “Inward Wisdom”? Why not “Math”? And who in this list, with the possible exception of some of the frauds (whose fraudulent behavior is often glossed over), isn’t seeking Enlightenment of some kind? Moreover, why isn’t Joan of Arc something like “purpose” or “divine mission” or “absolutely insane”?
The author admits that there are just far too many “luminaries” to include, which is fair. But those sensitive to diversity at all will be disappointed by the inclusion of only three women and few people of color. This dead-white-man list might be due, in large part, to the time-period he has selected from which to draw the names of important figures; but since this time period stretches back to Hypatia, perhaps there could be room for one or two other important women, here or there. There’s also no clear rhyme or reason why certain figures are assigned to certain letters.
These last points — the lack of diversity, the inadequate biographies, the lack of citations, the impenetrable prose — are quibbles in the face of the plagiarism. It is possible for an author to be confused, to forget that a set of notes were copied verbatim rather than original, or just lose track of citations between drafts. This kind of carelessness is forgivable. However, when an author puts Ph.D. after his or her name, it’s a promise of a certain kind of intellectual training and carefulness. Even a Ph.D. may make an accidental slip. But a Ph.D. should know that you cannot use another author’s unique words or ideas without quotation marks and a citation, and you cannot use another author’s ideas without indicating their origin. Basic integrity demands that you do not make use of the work of another without giving them credit. Writing is hard work, and the products of that work deserve respect.
Review ©2014 by Patrick Dunn
Finishing Line Press
PO Box 1626
Georgetown, KY 40324
Finishing Line Press is proud to announce the release of Second Person, a collection of poems by Patrick Dunn. Patrick says, “If you have any interest in the book, it helps me out if you preorder, and you also get a modest discount, I believe, on shipping. Books are arranged alphabetically by author’s name. Mine is on the left-hand side, about a third of the way down the page.” They’ll be taking preorders until August 10.
Patrick Dunn’s lines, so delicate and lyrical, flow naturally from a tender and sensitive heart.
— William Marr, author of Between Heaven and Earth
Second Person, a collection of poems by Patrick Dunn, is an exploration of life as engagement with others, or with the Other. At turns mystical, sensual, and humorous, Second Person explores everyday life as a relationship with an always-shifting “you.” Patrick Dunn’s meticulous craftsmanship shows in every word, and fresh images and startling juxtapositions shine on every page. Second Person exhibits a fresh new voice in poetry.
Patrick Dunn is a professor of literature at Aurora University, in Aurora, Illinois, where he has lived now for five years. He has published two books on esoteric spirituality, as well as poetry in diverse journals, such as Edgz, DuPage Valley Review, and Empty Spaces. His books have been translated into three languages, and his translated poetry has been published in several Chinese-language journals. He has also won the Marilyn Houghton Kayton Founders Prize in Poetry, and is an active member of the Chicago area writing community. He teaches composition, creative writing, literature, and linguistics, and when not teaching, writing, grading, and planning courses, pursues his hobbies of hiking, creating artificial languages, playing the piano with all the skill of an enthusiastic but untalented amateur. News about readings and other events, as well as musings about creative writing, can be found at Second Person Poetry.
Leah Maines, Editor
Finishing Line Press
PO Box 1626
Georgetown, KY 40324
Neoplatonic philosophy, as already explained, is pervasive in the study of magic. But much of it came in through the back door: either through the Qabala or through its philosophical spinoffs. The third century CE was a fertile time in mystical philosophy. Christianity, the suddenly popular mystery religion, had begun to displace the classical mysteries of Greece and Rome and fulfill the role these mysteries had previously played: as an avenue of personal religious experience amid a rather sterile state religion.
Two other new religious movements also gained footholds during late antiquity: Gnosticism and Hermeticism. Even though they were not in themselves inherently Christian, both of them interacted with Christianity in a syncretic and eclectic way, borrowing and modifying without necessarily understanding the system from which they were borrowing.
A full account of gnosticism would be difficult to cover in so few pages, and to be honest I’m not even remotely qualified. Essentially, however, what all gnostic sects had in common, even those who were not particularly Christian, was the idea that true knowledge came not through reason but through direct revelation. This view of knowledge was particularly striking in light of the intellectual tradition of ancient Greece and Rome. Reason, always, was the measure of truth: direct revelation rarely had the sanction of traditional philosophy. Yet the seeds of this approach are in Plato, and grow strong in the formulation of Neoplatonism.
Similarly, the Gnostics accepted the doctrine of emanation from Neoplatonism, although they identify the creator of the universe, the demiurge, as an evil figure rather than a good one, and therefore regard matter as degraded. This naturally led to the practice of asceticism, the ritual denial of the needs of the body. One reason there are few gnostics, in fact, is that many sects denied the holiness of sex and held reproduction itself to be a sin.
Gnosticism also held little room for magical practice. If your purpose was to deny matter, why interact with it at all? Unlike the view of Iamblichus, that matter could be used as a source of symbolic tokens to act as step stools to the divine, the gnostics saw matter as irredeemably degraded. The only way to be free of its degradation was to be free of matter.
Hermeticism borrowed a lot more from Neoplatonism, despite the assertions otherwise by some scholars. The Hermetic doctrine is laid out in a series of hermetic writings, mostly dialogues, compiled as the Corpus Hermeticum. To say “the Hermetic doctrine” is a bit inaccurate, as these dialogues outline doctrines, some of them contradictory. In some, matter is treated as degraded, as in gnosticism; in others, matter is holy.
Unlike Gnosticism, as well, we have the “practical Hermetica,” a series of writings, among which include some of the passages in the Greek Magical Papyri, for practical magical aims as well as the more spiritual theurgic aims of the so-called Philosophical Hermetica. From these, we can see what appear to be Hermetic rituals, but might bare some resemblance to the rituals espoused by Iamblichus. These include the manipulation of material objects and the recitation of holy names and objects.
These three streams — Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, and Hermeticism — converged in the Renaissance to form the western occult approach often called “Hermetic.” This approach concerned itself with three great fields of magic: Alchemy, the study of the magic of material objects; Astrology, the study of the magic of celestial objects; and Theurgy, the study of the magic of divine objects. These three divisions also reflect a threefold view of the universe: the divine, the celestial, and the material. God, who is featureless and without any quality but goodness, is reflected by a divine intelligence or nous. This nous, the demiurge or craftsman of the cosmos, gives order to the universe. Different Hermetic tracts provide slightly different cosmologies, but they always describe a chain of being from incorruptible perfect idealism to matter, whether regarded as evil or merely transient.
Philosophically speaking, this amalgamation of the various streams that led to modern occultism lacks any sort of overarching system. Overall, the result of this amalgamation wasn’t so much consciously constructed as cobbled together. Yet this result does resemble a system: we can clearly say what is and is not western occultism, at least in some terms. For one thing, western traditional occultism describes a chain of being. It recognizes the importance of consciousness, and regards consciousness as a universal law. It also reflects an ethical system, in which the cultivation of virtue is concurrent with the cultivation of magical power.
The grimoires that arose from late renaissance and early enlightenment experimentation with magic emphasize this ethical system. The Arbatel of Magic, a 16th century grimoire, consists chiefly of moral aphorisms, which do not look out of place in the light of the Hermetica or Neoplatonic writing. It is clear that moral virtue is connected to magical virtue, in the sense of power. Similarly, the Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin describes magic as a side-effect of the theurgic work of attaining knowledge and conversation of a holy guardian angel. Even the Goetia, a very practical work of demonic magic, is not without its moral exhortations.
With a cosmology, a system of ethics, and a theology all its own, it’s clear that the western mystery tradition arising from the confluence of Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, and Hermeticism is itself a religion. Of course, the magicians cleaving to these systems wished to connect it to their own religions, usually some variety of Christianity. But it differs from Christian theology in significant ways. Although there is talk of salvation and the son of God in the Hermetica, there is little talk of original sin, no indication that humans must be saved or will burn forever. Moreover, there are occasional references to transmigration of souls in Neoplatonic philosophy and western mysticism. It’s clear that western Hermeticism is, or at least can be regarded as, a separate and distinct religion.
Yet it is not a dogmatic religion, but a religion of personal gnosis. This feature is one reason that the Hermetic dialogues do not always agree on fine matters of cosmology. Even Iamblichus seems to privilege personal experience over reason. This element of personal gnosis is also the feature that allows the diverse manifestations of western magic. Some of the better grimoires, for example, appear to be notebooks designed for students or the practitioner himself. This is one reason the grimoires often differ in details.
Similarly, it is a religion with no central authority, no clergy, and no particular sacraments. It is a religion, therefore, not of orthodoxy but orthopraxy, but practice is defined by the practitioner himself or herself. Even the issue of whether or not it is a monotheistic or polytheistic religion is left, to some extent, to the practitioner. While there are Hermetic texts that argue for monotheism, they argue for a nonpersonal monotheistic god with multiple personal gods acting as intermediaries.
In this light, the practice of western magic represents a religious tradition existing concurrent with, and sometimes parallel to, the practice of more orthodox Christianity. Just as Gnosticism, Neoplatonism, and Hermeticism arose in response to sterile state religions in the second century, so western magical traditions arose as one option among several for personal experience of religious truth in the face of standard state doctrines.
Just as Hoodoo, which I discussed in my last column, arose from a desire of an oppressed people to gain some power over their environment, so did western traditional magic arise as a reaction to an oppressive ontology. In that light it seems to have a place, even a respectable one, in the face of the contemporary monolithic epistemology of material reductionism. Perhaps we are undergoing a similar magical revival now as a reaction to materialism and as a desire for a personal way not only to control one’s environment but also to open an avenue upward to the divine.
This might be one of the most valuable things magic can offer the world: an experiential, non-dogmatic religion that can syncretize with nearly any other religion. One needn’t necessarily even believe in the efficacy of practical magic (although I do) to espouse this religion, as theurgy is about the internal states of the magician and his or her relationship to the divine.
And if magic is a kind of religion, it helps explain the universally pervasive religious elements in most traditions of magic. Even those newer traditions, such as Chaos Magic, that try to divorce magic from religion often find a god in their bed in the morning anyway. I have even known chaos magicians, pragmatic view of belief aside, who exalt chaos itself to the status of a deity. The Neoplatonic, Hermetic, and Gnostic roots of magic are found even in these new, supposedly hyperrational, and atheistic views of magic.
©2010 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.
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.
Earlier, I said that every single modern, western magician is responding, in one way or another, to Plato. We are all either Neoplatonists, or reacting against Neoplatonism. The strange thing is, in most of our daily lives, we are not Neoplatonists at all — in fact, in most other contemporary intellectual fields, Neoplatonism has been set aside so firmly that one doesn’t even have to react against it anymore. Most scientists embrace material monism, which denies even the possibility of a nonphysical existence. In many of the humanities, scholars embrace postmodernism, which denies the possibility of an ideal or original meaning. And even in popular music and art, we have thrown away the mathematical harmonies thought to be fundamental in ancient times; if you doubt it, just listen to a Metallica song.
So how is it that we magicians are still acting like Neoplatonism is the Thing? It’d be as if scientists still included disclaimers against the existence of Aether in their papers, or if Metallica thought they were clever because they avoided the complex mathematical counterpoint of Bach. Yet we either embrace Neoplatonism (perhaps not knowing that’s what we’re doing) or we reject it explicitly (again, perhaps not by name, but Chaos magicians argue against its ideas). The reason comes down to a particularly influential, and particularly useful, formulation of Neoplatonism that arose in the Middle Ages, although its roots stretch back long: This is the mystical, religious, and magical system of the Cabala.
Briefly, the Cabala is a system of number and word mysticism that grew out of the medieval Jewish study of the Talmud. In its original formulation, if an oral tradition can be said to have such a thing, it concerned chiefly the relationship between and meaning hidden within words. But it also taught a system of emanations from deity, probably borrowed from Greek Neoplatonism. There are ten such emanations, the sephiroth, corresponding to the ten numerals, and each is given a correspondence to a direction, a body part, and so forth. Finally, the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet are seen as a sort of intermediate between these emanations.
Every single modern magician in America and England, whether Wiccan or Hoodoo root doctor, Chaos magician or Brit Trade Witch, has made some use of the Cabala, knowingly or not. Catherine Yrenwode points out that Hoodoo, for example, borrowed from European grimoires such as the The Key of Solomon which themselves borrowed from the Cabala. Even the “Charge of the Goddess,” which reads in part:
Upon Earth I give the knowledge of the Spirit Eternal, and beyond death I give peace and freedom, and reunion with those who have gone before. Nor do I demand aught in sacrifice, for behold, I am the Mother of all things, and my love is poured out upon earth1.
is a borrowing from Crowley’s The Book of the Law, a book filled with Cabalistic and Neoplatonic ideas:
I:58 I give unimaginable joys on earth: certainty, not faith, while in life, upon death; peace unutterable, rest, ecstasy; nor do I demand aught in sacrifice2.
While this sentence may not, out of context, seem particularly cabalistic, it is surrounded by a suggestion that the Hebrew letter tzaddai should not be associated with the tarot card The Star, as well as bits of complex numerical mysticism.
So how did this system become so popular, while similar systems did not? After all, we could all be practicing some system based on Sufi mysticism, or even Merkabah rather than Cabala. So what is it that made Cabala so ubiquitous? We could explore historical accidents of all kinds, from the invasion of the Mongols to the fall of the Temple, but ultimately, it comes down to utility. The Cabala is a Neoplatonic formulation of the universe with an eye toward use, and later developments and refinements of the cabala, such as Hermetic Cabala, emphasized and built on those uses.
The primary utility of the Cabala is as a system of classification, which might sounds rather lame — a Dewey decimal system for magic? — but is in reality foundational. The Cabala offers a system of symbols that interlock coherently. Obviously, any system of symbols could work, but just as one individual might find it hard to invent his or her own language (not impossible, mind you, but hard), so an individual might find it hard to invent a symbol system of such richness. If I take any two symbols from any two domains, I can relate them together in the cabala and figure out which shape in Plato’s cave they ultimately point to.
Think about the implications of that. Take a planet, a big gassy one with rings, orbiting out there at about the limit of our ability to see it. Take an herb, bitter, astringent — a gum actually, used as an embalming agent. Take a metal, dark, heavy, often used to seal containers in ancient times because of its low melting point. Take a grave. Take a womb. The Cabala tells us that all of these things are connected, that they all are reflections of the same shadowy shape in Plato’s cave of images: specifically, one named Binah. These are things that mark limits: the limit of our sight, the boundaries of life and death, the inside and outside of containers. Binah is about limits and boundaries. This Binah manifests in the world in numerous ways, but each shares some of that essence of limiting, and each is touching all the others in the world of ideas.
This system acts as a calculus of leverage. I know that to push this thing here — a poppet made of lead and anointed with myrrh — might push that thing there — an enemy. Of course, you can use this same leverage for good. I can gather things associated with Hesed and create an expansion of power or wealth, or I can call up the powers of Tifareth and manipulate the shining light in the center of everything that gives it the impetus to be what it is.
So everyone should run out and study the Cabala. Or perhaps not. After all, we often use it without knowing that we’re using it, and other systems can do the same thing. It’s just that the Cabala is an example of a system that’s so well-developed and carefully defined, it’s hard to ignore. It’s also hard to keep away from: if you study magic in the west, you will at some point or another study the Cabala, whether you like it or not. And sometimes whether you know it or not, because the Cabala is an amoeba.
What I wrote about above, the connections between Saturn, lead, and myrrh, actually wasn’t originally Cabalistic. The Cabala incorporated those associations like an amoeba eating a paramecium. And there’s no reason not to imagine that the Cabala won’t absorb anything else set near it. There are Cabalistic associations with tarot cards, musical notes and genres, and the characters of the The Rocky Horror Picture Show. This amoebic nature of the Cabala means two things: First, there are thousands of doorways in. Second, everything is a tool.
There are a thousand doorways into the Cabala. A lot of tarot readers, for example, begin studying it because the cards’ associations with the sephiroth and the paths can lead to illuminating connections during readings. And the cards can even be used in the opposite direction: Donald Tyson has a splendid little book about using the tarot as an entire temple, and while he doesn’t make a big complicated deal out of it (one of the things I like about his books), it’s all quietly and calmly Cabalistic. Whatever you’re into, whether it’s herbalism or epic poetry, you can find a way into the Cabala from there.
Second, as I suggested above, everything is a tool. You can use the tarot as a set of magical tools once you understand their Cabalistic associations. But in a pinch, you can use anything. Once you see what idea an object reflects, you can use that object to represent that idea. This notion sounds counterrational, and I suppose to some degree it is. But you can literally do magic with some pocket lint and a few spare coins, if you realize the ways in which those things connect to the platonic ideal reality. And the Cabala is a handy heuristic for figuring that out.
Now let’s interrupt this paean to the Cabala to say that, in fact, it’s more complicated than this. For example, while most Hermetic Cabalists place Saturn in the path of Tav, others place the Moon there. While most place the sun in Tifareth, some place Mercury. It seems, indeed, that they get results. So which is it? Who’s wrong?
Well, they are. Not because their associations are wrong, but insofar as they insist that they’re the right and true associations. Because the Cabala is, at its most basic level, a language for describing ultimate reality. It’s not a map of that reality, or an image of it, or even an abstraction of it. It’s just a set of symbols set into relation to describe it. And ultimate reality can be described in multiple ways, some useful, some useless. Putting Mercury in Tifareth has some negative side effects (it screws up the order of the Neoplatonic crystal spheres which the order of the planets in the sephiroth is based on, for example) and some benefits (it creates a balanced tree in terms of binary oppositions). We can imagine hundreds of useful organizations of the sephiroth, and in fact we should remember that the current popular diagram is only one of many historical diagrams of them, and one of the oldest simply places the sephiroth as rays from a central point.
To say that the Cabala points to an ultimate reality implies that reality exists, of course. But it doesn’t say how it exists. Some people pretend that there’s a “true” cabala pointing to a “true” reality, but “absolute” doesn’t mean “objective.” It doesn’t even mean that our symbols are anything but arbitrary. We could imagine a useless Cabala, probably, but that doesn’t mean that there’s one better than all others: we can imagine a useless language, but that doesn’t mean that one language is better than another.
It’s not so much a matter, then, of unlocking ourselves from the chains in Plato’s cave and walking back, grabbing the shadow images, and saying, “Oh, look, it’s really a paper swan!” Instead, it’s more like walking back and saying, “it appears to be the sound the color blue makes when it’s cast out of tin and struck with a hammer at the speed of joy.” We don’t have eyes to see that ultimate reality. All we have are crude sketches that show some links between them, and no guarantee that what you see is what I will see. And yet, if we’re Neoplatonists, even for a few moments when we’re practicing magic, we have faith that these absolutes exist — even if we can’t know them.
©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.
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.
A while back, I went to see a movie after my piano lesson, mostly on a whim. Feeling virtuous for forgoing the nachos (how can something so nasty be so tempting?), I settled into my seat and after silently judging the previews (“yup,” “cool,” “no way,” “Western civilization has officially collapsed.”), I watched my film.
In it, the two heroes fought, first with each other. Eventually, one of the characters, tamed partially by the love of a woman, joined up with the other hero and together they managed to thwart a mighty foe. One hero offers peace to the foe, and the other objects. The foe rejects the peace offer, and is destroyed.
I’ve seen this movie before. In fact, it’s a pretty old movie — it first played in a Sumerian scribe’s head about a thousand years before the common era, and the earliest written version we have is from the 7th century BCE. In that version, the first hero was Gilgamesh, the second was Enkidu, and the monster they defeat is named Humbaba. I’ve seen this movie dozens of times since, or parts of it. This film is the first time, however, that Enkidu was a Vulcan.
Every movie borrows some plot from some ancient story (although, to be fair, some use more modern myths as well). And you don’t need a degree in literature to recognize it. With or without a literature degree, audiences are rarely surprised by plots. After all, who really thinks that the hero will die before achieving his or her goal? Even the surprises of movies famous for them — The Sixth Sense, The Crying Game — has little to do with the plot. The goals and outcome would remain the same whether the surprise were there or not, although the surprise does complicate them. The simplest plot outline — a hero tries to regain faith in himself after failure; an enemy soldier finds himself struggling with his duty — would remain intact with or without the twist. And everyone watching expects the action to play out in these predictable ways.
We expect our stories to have these mythological structures because we know that all stories are built of the same stuff. The building blocks of stories — I’ll call them “mythemes” — are the fundamental particles of character, personality, motivation, setting, and action. They’re not forces of nature; we learn them as we learn to speak. They’re the parts of our first stories, and more importantly, the parts of our culture’s stories. Each mytheme comes prepackaged with expectations, so that if the author invokes the mytheme of “sea,” we know that we will deal with isolation, travel, and exile. If the author invokes the mytheme of “mountain,” we expect revelation and hardship and struggle for attainment. When the author places a trickster in the story, we know that seemingly random actions will lead to life-changing results. When the author paints a character as a knight, we know that the he or she will fight with his or her superior, feel guilty for neglecting family. In other words, we know what’s coming because we know all these stories in their fragmentary parts already.
The magical bit comes in when we realize that what we call our lives is a movie that we play in our own minds. When we do magic, we are not flinging about energy to push stuff around. We’re redefining the universe in which we find ourselves. Magic is a much more radical practice than most magicians realize: every time we do magic, we destroy the entire universe and remake it in our own image. Of course, no one notices — except that our lives change, and we seem perhaps more fortunate than others.
Whether magician or not, we define events in our lives as mythemes in our personal stories. An argument at work is a rebellion against the king. A missed bus is a disaster on par with Ulysses’ lost ships. Sometimes, this tendency to tell stories about the events in our lives can get us in trouble. Your secretary not collating the report properly can become Brutus stabbing you in the back, if you let yourself imagine that it is. On the other hand, even those who do not know magic benefit from arranging their lives into stories. We can make sense of events by seeing how their mythemes fit together. This story-making can save us cognitive effort. Similarly, although sometimes it is useful to resist story-making, it can also be useful to engage in it more consciously — and this is one definition of magic.
Our magical goals are the mythemes of ancient stories. Love, money, happiness, even self-actualization, are all the goals of particular heroes whose archetypes we can wear like a coat. If we wish to go home but cannot, we are Odysseus. If we wish to shift and react to events with cleverness and skill, we are Taliesin. Imagine, for a moment, that you are heading to work in the morning. How different is the experience of stop and go traffic on the Dan Ryan (or whatever other route you take) if it’s a desert you must cross out of duty, a slow stream carrying you into a mysterious forest, or a mountain you must climb to achieve wisdom? You can manage your mood — and, magically, the result of your work day — merely by telling yourself a different story.
One way of seeing magical ritual is as a deliberate rearrangement of mythemes in order to revise the stories of our lives. In this view of ritual, when we pick up the athame to make a circle, we are Gilgamesh and Romulus and every other warrior who ever defended a wall in battle. Similarly, to pick up a wand is to become, for a moment, the mytheme of Ruler — it’s the scepter of the king, the thunderbolt of Zeus, and the magical rod of Enki all at once. We don’t necessarily think consciously that we become these archetypes, but they’re so ingrained in the way we arrange our experiences in story, that we cannot help invoking these archetypes. And, in fact, we live our lives as archetypes. It’s worthwhile (do I really need to put this in an “exercise” box?) to take a few moments to think and maybe write about which archetypes — what characters — you play in your life. You needn’t worry about giving them the “correct” names, of course; you could even rely on names from contemporary fiction. Are you always Spock at work, logical and rational in a society that reacts precipitously, or are you Scotty, fixing the impossible to fix? If you hate Star Trek, you might prefer to ask yourself if you’re Harry or Hermione, Ulysses or Telemachus, Mr. Darcy or Edward Casaubon, Jane or Mr. Rochester?
I’m not arguing that all magic is just psychology, and the only real effect we have on the world is in our own mind. I think we do affect, first and foremost, the mind — but I think matter is a side-effect of mind. By changing the stories we tell ourselves, we change the world we live in not just in our perceptions (although that’s easiest to notice first), but in the world of matter as well.
The Obligatory How To Bit
First, it’s important to have a conscious, rather than the usual unconscious, vocabulary of mythemes. The best way to achieve this vocabulary is by reading the myths, but of course this raises the questions of what myths. It is important to choose myths whose mythemes resonate in our psyches. For most Americans, no matter their background, these are the myths of Greece, Rome, and Iceland. These are the myths that inform most of our culture. Of course, if you feel like an alien in Western culture and frequently find yourself confused at movies everyone else seems to enjoy, perhaps you have a different vocabulary of mythemes. I find anime confusing, for example, because I don’t know the mythemes. (Why is his nose bleeding? What does that have to do with having a crush on someone?) And I didn’t get Xiu Xiu until one of my Chinese friends explained it to me. You can best start with making your unconscious perceptions of patterns more conscious, but it is also possible to become bilingual in myth. The more fluent we are in myth, the more we can understand not just the stories we tell ourselves, but how those stories fit together.
Mythemes aren’t building blocks that fit together any old way; like words, they have a grammar. They fit together in some ways and not in others. You’re more likely to find a sage on a mountain or in a desert than on the ocean, because the grammar of myth fits some mythemes together than others. The grammar of mythemes already encode the likely conflicts in our desires. For example, if we wish to become wealthy, we need to look at some of the mythemes of wealth. Croesus had great wealth, but his overwhelming pride and failure to attend to wisdom led to the fall of his nation. Midas had great wealth, but nearly died because of it, by turning everything he touched to gold. Clearly, if we wish to be rich, we must be aware that our ambivalence will spring from fear of our own pride and greed. We might be led to think of wealth differently then: rather than an acquisition of items of value — real estate in Croesus’ case and gold in Midas’ — we can begin to see wealth as the wisdom to use resources. Hunting around for a story that we can use, we fall finally on Philemon and Baucis — two poor but pious people who, when visited by Zeus disguised as a stranger, offered him the last of their food and were rewarded for it. Now we have a ritual structure: an offer of generosity as an act of faith.
It helps to study not just the myth, but also theories of myth. Joseph Campbell and Robert Graves aren’t exactly regarded highly by contemporary anthropology, but they go a long way to defining an abstract grammar of myth that is invaluable in the study of magic. Campbell, for example, reduces all myths to one ur-story, which simplifies the process of learning the grammar of myth. Instead of memorizing a lot of Greek names, we can start with a framework and use it to hang the names on later. Similarly, Graves’ work is often an unsung and uncited influence on much contemporary Wiccan theology. A reader needn’t accept their theories in the academic sense to find them useful for magic.
Second, it helps to have a system. A system will take the story and translate it into action. For example, if our myth calls for a journey most of us can’t take off a week and travel on a pilgrimage to Greece. But walking about in a circle — circumambulation — is an accepted symbol in Western magical systems for a journey. Fortunately, several convenient pre-made systems of mythemes already exist. If we must represent a figure of authority, and we use either Wicca or Ceremonial Magic, we can grab our wand, no matter what particular device was used in the original myth. Similarly, perhaps Perseus uses a sword to kill the Gorgon, but we can use our athame as a mythemic equivalent in a ritual to confront our own paralyzing fears.
Incidentally, I’ve had good luck using a system as simple as a tarot deck (and in a pinch, a deck of playing cards). Similarly, some magicians do all their magic using systems like the runes, so that drawing the rune tiwaz invokes the whole of the myth of Tyr, with all the attendant strength, victory, and sacrifice, depending on intent. A magical system needn’t be complex, and in fact, one could take one’s favorite myths and reduce them to symbols to create a own magical alphabet of mythemes.
Third, a ritual requires a structure — one that is not, incidentally, noticeably different from Aristotle’s structure of a story. A ritual has a beginning, a middle, and an end. In the beginning, the magician separates himself or herself from the world. Most western magicians do this by drawing a circle around oneself, but even actions such as fasting, changing into robes or special clothing (or going nude), and ritual baths serve to separate the magician from the world. Once separate, the magician is free to refine the story. The ritual’s middle consists of ritual actions, symbolic reproductions of the story the magician wishes to tell. Inspiration, especially verbal, can be taken from the myths themselves, and symbolic action can be quite abstract. No one needs to slay a serpent to reenact the myth of Apollo’s winning of Delphi. Finally, a ritual ends by reintegrating the magician back into the story of the world, usually by reversing the actions that led to the opening, and often by a quotidian act like the eating of food or drink.
Even outside of rituals, having labels for the habitual patterns in which we find ourselves can help us break out of those patterns, which is of course one of the aims of magic. If you find yourself a lonely, antisocial writer, realize that the “lonely” part of writer is part of the writer mytheme, and not necessarily part of the reality you can live. Similarly, if you are a “struggling artist,” an awareness of the stories of our culture helps you to see that “struggling” need not go with “artist,” but usually does because that’s the story we tell.
The stories we tell as a culture, or myths, may therefore master us or be mastered by us. The magician masters myth, chooses the mythemes of his or her life consciously, and lives deliberately. Many other people simply follow the script written for them, for good or ill. Magic can teach us to revise that script, and have a more meaningful life — and perhaps become contemporary Taliesins and Apolloniuses ourselves, founders and characters in a unique life story.
©2009 by Patrick Dunn.
Minor edits by Sheta Kaey.
Patrick Dunn, author of Postmodern Magic: The Art of Magic in the Information Age and Magic, Power, Language, Symbol: A Magician’s Exploration of Linguistics is a poet, linguist, and writer living near Chicago. He maintains a blog at http://pomomagic.wordpress.com/.
I’m pleased to offer myself as a regular columnist on these august though entirely electronic pages. As those who have read my books or know me personally know, I’m an academic through and through, and so my conversations have a tendency to turn to lectures, and my dinner parties often become seminars. This column therefore will play to my strengths. My goal, ultimately, is to trace the connections between occult practice and schools of academic thought. I’m hoping to make this less boring than it sounds on its face, and at the same time offer something practical that the working occultist can take away.
It’s fitting that this first column begin at the beginning, the foundation of most Western occultism. Many people will tell you that Western occultism began in Egypt, and even the ancients thought so. But really, most of western occultism began in a cave, and not even a real cave but an allegorical one.
Socrates was perhaps the first professor. He liked to walk around and profess his own innocence and ignorance, and ask probing questions that quickly revealed that everyone around him was just as ignorant. He was eventually asked to kill himself, possibly because he was tedious at curriculum committee meetings. One of his students, Aristocles, a jock who no doubt offered a letter from his wrestling coach every other Friday excusing him from class, ended up rising to the top and writing quite a few books of his own. We know him by his wrestling nickname: “Fatty,” or, in Greek, “Plato.”
Now, Fatty had a problem, aside from an embarrassing nickname. He couldn’t figure out perception. It was common knowledge, of course, that we perceived the world by engaging it with our senses, but Plato had learned from his old professor to question common knowledge. And in doing so, he dug up a few problems that have plagued philosophy ever since. For one thing, he realized, we can’t really see the whole of anything we look at, touch, taste, or smell. We get only a momentary perception. Sure, we could turn a pot over and over in our hands really fast, but how do we know that the side away from us doesn’t turn another color, or even disappear entirely? Common sense, of course, but how do we come by that common sense, and how is it that everyone has it?
Plato said, or rather reported that his teacher said, Imagine a cave. In it, you are chained next to a group of like people, all facing a wall. You grew up in this cave, chained up thus, and no, Xenophon, it doesn’t matter how that happened, just shut up and listen. Now, behind you is a big fire, and people walk between you and the fire holding objects. But you are chained such that you cannot see behind you, so all you see are shadows. Now, being raised in this cave, all you know of the shape called “elephant” or “horseshoe” or “vase” are the shadow shapes on the wall, and if you could be freed and look suddenly at the real thing, you would be amazed that it looked as it did, not to mention how they fit an elephant into the cave.
This allegory describes perception. We seem to see things, but really we see their shadow, and another, more perfect world than this contains those real items. So we know that the pot continues around to the other side not because we can perceive that it does, but because we remember the ideal pot, the Form of pots, of which all other pots are mere shadows. And that’s how we can also recognize the pot-ness of a squat pot, a tall pot, a wide pot, a purple pot, and a blue pot. We know that they are all pots because, just like the shadows on the wall, much depends upon how we look upon that ideal.
Plato had a student of his own, Aristotle, who threw the whole thing into the soup by saying that there was no such perfect, ideal world. Aristotle argued that we know the Form of pots only because we have seen a heck of a lot of pots and called them all “pot.”
Thus began the epistemological (meaning, the study of knowledge) split between magic and what would eventually become empiricism. But I’ve written about that before, and so will let it go for now.
Aristotle opened a school and wrote some deeply influential books of his own, and eventually we hit two interesting fellows who founded much of what we now imagine to be magic. Conveniently, these two figures stand as symbols for two paths of magic, two ways of knowing the unseen, ideal world. We call them “Neoplatonists,” because they began with Plato’s idea that there was such an ideal world, a world of Forms, and pushed it to its natural edge: if such a world existed, and we could perceive it, could we also perhaps interact with it? Could we, in fact, use it to change this world? Could we reach behind us, as it were, and grab that elephant and yank it around, so that we could make its shadow in this world dance?
Plotinus answered, essentially, in the negative. That ideal world was perfect, and perfection by its very nature cannot change. But what we could do, according to Plotinus, is change ourselves to rise up to that world, and thus gain a clearer image of ultimate reality. If we understood what was going behind us, we could manipulate things in this world of shadows more sagaciously.
For Plotinus, and his student Porphyry, the way to do this consisted of contemplation. Sadly, we lack descriptions of what to contemplate specifically, but we can reconstruct some of it by understanding what he taught. He taught that all reality, this world of shadows, was an emanation from a perfect reality. The highest perfect reality was the One. This One was beyond all characteristics, because all characteristics imply their opposite. If the One is big, then it’s not small and therefore not perfect — by which he meant something closer to “complete.” It has to be beyond bigness or smallness. From the One comes the Nous, or Mind. This is the first thing that can be given characteristics, and the characteristic it has is “goodness.” From Mind comes the rest of the world of shadows in a successive series or ladder of emanations.
This contemplative approach survives in a lot of practices we might regard as Eastern. One contemplation, in the spirit of Plotinus and Porphyry, would be to take one’s perception of oneself and begin deleting things. For example, try to remove your sense of physical position by sitting very still. Then try to remove your emotional feelings. Then abandon mental activity and remain as pure awareness. In other words, we climb the ladder of emanations back upward to the One.
We also see Plotinus’ influence in the contemporary understanding of the Qabala, and there’s some convincing evidence that the Qabala was Neoplatonic before it was strictly Jewish. Whether you believe that or not, it cannot be denied that a ladder of emanations really does describe most understandings of the sephiroth. And the practices of traditional Qabala — recitation of names, permutation of letters, and so on — smack of the contemplative practices of Plotinus.
On the other end of the teeter totter we have Iamblichus, one of Porphyry’s students, who suggested that contemplation was fine and good, but also difficult and impractical. Most people, he said, are so engrossed in the shadows that they simply can’t get anywhere with contemplation; it’s like trying to grow eyes in the back of your head. Better, he suggested, to turn around, and the way we do that is through ritual action. That ritual action, of course, was accompanied by contemplation, but contemplation alone could never apprehend what was not rational. If you tried the previous contemplation, you may have found it incredibly difficult; Iamblichus would say, “exactly.” Ritual provided an easier way.
Ritual action for Iamblichus consisted of recognizing the symbolic relationship between ideas. After all, if we can recognize a picture of a pot as a pot, it must be partaking of some bit of pot-ness from the world of ideas. If we manipulate this symbolic image, we can begin to train our minds to perceive and perhaps manipulate the ideal Form as well. How this worked exactly we don’t really know, but certain objects were thought to embody the ideal more intensely than other objects, just as a profile of an elephant is easier to recognize in a shadow. These objects or symbols included such things as the tools of ritual sacrifice, as well as — probably — various objects held sacred to deities. By ritually manipulating these objects, one could gain a clearer view of the ideal world.
A ritual in the style of Iamblichus might involve a series of ritual sacrifices of bread or wheat, each of which represents a return of some faculty to the One. So we might symbolically enact a sacrifice of our passions so that we can more easily contemplate the One as an Ideal without passions. Of course, we don’t know exactly what Iamblichus’s rituals looked like, but we can imagine that they looked quite a lot like the ordinary religious rituals of the time, but accompanied with appropriate contemplations.
Now, of course, most occultists mix these two approaches, the contemplative and the ritual. But the old argument between the two schools still exists. Some contemplatives talk scornfully of rituals as “crutches,” for example, an idea that might well have come out of Porphyry. And even those occultists who do not profess an ideal world of forms still engage in ritual actions in which a concrete object (the athame, say) represents a mental idea (will, or defense). Finally, most occultists will decry mindless ritual for ritual’s sake. We are to remember, as Iamblichus would argue, that every ritual action is an action in the world of Ideas as well.
No matter which approach you take to magic, whether you regard it as a contemplative practice or a ritual one, you are — if you’re involved in the western magical tradition — a Neoplatonist. Of course, chaos magicians might argue that there is no actual world of ideals, and a postmodern magician might argue that ideals are just clumps of self-referential symbols, and not meanings in themselves. Yet every school of western magic must situate itself in regards to Neoplatonism; they must begin by affirming or denying the central insights of that chubby wrestler.
The root of the whole endeavor of magic is in Plato, as is the root of all Western philosophy. Magic, then, rather than being a fringe effort of a few strange men and women, is a branch of philosophy itself, with its own epistemological and ontological claims. We diverged from philosophy in the same way that chemistry and alchemy diverged, or where mathematics and engineering diverged. Where philosophy began to dedicate itself to the analysis of ideas, we began to learn the practical arts of manipulating them. In future columns, I hope to explore some of those issues of knowledge and being, with an eye toward the practical implications of the philosophical positions we take.
©2009 by Patrick Dunn
Edited by Sheta Kaey
The teacher heaved himself from his stone seat. “Enough sitting. My knees are aching. Let’s walk and talk together,” he said to his few disciples. Other teachers had more — some as many as thirty students — but Aristotle took his pleasure in selecting the six or seven students who could best understand his teachings.
Used to their teacher’s habit of wandering while he lectured, the students gathered together styli and wax tablets and a few closely spaced sheets of lecture notes painstakingly copied from their teacher’s own notes. They gathered in a close circle around their teacher as he walked, trying as best they could to prick out a few salient notes on their tablets. Walking, talking, and juggling the material of learning forced them to listen carefully to their teacher.
“An object falls through the air,” the teacher says. “Imagine two objects — a section of that column here,” he tapped it with his staff, “and a blade of grass dropped from a height. They fall toward the earth. Why?”
“Both contain Earth in their nature, and so are drawn to the greatest concentration of that element,” said Eudemus.
“And why does the column fall faster?” Aristotle asked.
“It is heavier,” blurted out Phanias.
“Which just means that it contains more Earth than the grass,” Eudemus put in.
“And Earth is another name of mass, so we can say that objects of greater weight fall faster than objects of lesser weight. Yes?”
The students tossed their heads back in agreement.
“But why do they fall at any speed at all? Why not simply contact the ground instantly as they leave the hand? What holds them back from their affinity with Earth?”
The students thought for a while, and finally Phanias ventured an answer, hoping to redeem himself from his earlier stupidity. “The element of Air pushes against them, and Air is inimical to Earth. Every falling object is a war between Air and Earth.”
“Exactly so. Now, reason this out. If there were no Air to push against falling objects, how fast would they fall?”
“Infinitely fast,” put in Eudemus. “Which is an absurdity.”
“Therefore?” Aristotle’s “therefore” was always devastating. It meant you hadn’t finished your chain of reasoning.
“Therefore there can be no place without air. There can be no void.”
“Because if there were?”
“It would lead to a logical absurdity, and the universe is rational.”
Aristotle smiled, pleased. “Exactly so. So now let us explore this idea of the rational . . . ” And the students walked with their wise teacher into two thousand years of fame.
* * *
Galileo huffed his way up the stairs of the tower, his secretary in tow lugging not only the necessary writing equipment but a heavy bag that made a low clunking noise with every step.
Galileo had done the arithmetic and it had all worked out, but for it to work out required something nearly unthinkable. Aristotle had to have been wrong. And not just Aristotle, but everyone else stretching back between that time and this — and that of course included the holy church.
Finally, at the top, he fished two cannon balls out of his bag. Aristotle was right about the air, at least partially — air resistance would slow down an object as it fell, which is why a feather did, indeed, fall slower than a cannon ball. But two cannon balls, one of a large caliber, another of a smaller caliber, should cut through the air at more or less the same speed, being spherical. He sent his secretary to the bottom to watch as he dropped the two objects, and call out whether they hit the earth at the same moment, or different moments.
He conducted the experiment over and over, with both him and his secretary watching on the ground, and in every instance, the two balls struck the ground at the same instant.
Rather than being elated, he found himself a bit disappointed. He felt cut adrift, like a boat whose rope has finally frayed beyond control. But no, that was the wrong analogy. He was more like a horse who has realized that the line that seemed to be securely tied was, in reality, merely draped over a twig. From here, he could go anywhere.
* * *
I’ve fictionalized these two incidents because they illustrate an important shift in the way that humans thought, and this story is one central to the history of science and — I wish to argue — magic. Because I wish to argue that contrary to magic being a science, magic and science are both two ways of knowing, compatible, but independent.
But the stories I’ve told are not stories of compatible ways of knowing, but two warring systems of knowledge.
Aristotle began with the commonly held assumption that our senses can be deceived. In fact, we know this to be not simply common sense, but quite true. A simple optical illusion can reveal that our eyes don’t always see what we think they do. Our ears can hear things that aren’t there, or mistake things that are; even our taste and touch can be confused. We can drink a soda and believe we’re tasting cherry, when really we’re drinking sugar and apple juice colored red and flavored with chemicals. Our senses are inadequate.
So Aristotle joined the tradition that, since senses are faulty, we must rely on reason. This idea led to mathematics, where senses are not only faulty but useless. One cannot see “two” — the best one can do is see symbols about twoness, or two of something. But arithmetic, not to mention the higher branches of mathematics, is abstract well beyond the range of sense. So we must rely on pure reason. We know that 2 + 2 = 4, to employ the hackneyed example, because if it doesn’t everything else we know about mathematics falls apart. In mathematics, we can have certain knowledge. Of course, that certain knowledge is of an abstract system, and as later mathematicians discovered, if you start with slightly different assumptions it’s easy to end up with a different system, in which 2 + 2 does not equal four but, perhaps, eight. Yet Aristotle would argue that the real world, while not the perfection of mathematics, clearly partook of it. After all, maybe the idea of right triangles is all just an abstraction, but just try to erect a house without it. The very concrete and sensory house is built of abstract numbers.
If pure reason led to truth in mathematics, Aristotle reasoned, and mathematics led to truth in matter, then surely we could come to truth about the physical world without relying on our senses at all. We could simply reason it out from first principles. Select the right set of first principles, apply rigorous reason, and knowledge would result like a nice buttery baklava. And if we avoid the engagement of the senses, we avoid the faults that senses are heir to.
Galileo began with a different set of assumptions. While accepting that senses could be deceived, he worked from the premise that this deception could be evened out by having multiple people observe at different times. In the fictionalized (and probably apocryphal) account above, both he and his secretary make observations, and they do not stop with just one but do it again and again. In addition to building up excellent calf muscles by lugging cannon balls up the leaning tower of Pisa, this method has the benefit of certainty. We know it works because we can see it working.
I’m not a philosopher, so what I’m attempting here is a bit arrogant of me, but we can summarize Aristotle’s underlying assumptions about knowledge and compare them to Galileo’s. For Aristotle, observation is secondary to reasoning. For Galileo, reasoning is secondary to observation. For Aristotle, we make a prediction based on reasoning from first principles. For Galileo, we define principles by reasoning from observation.
The scientific revolution was a war between these two ways of knowing the world. In the end, the latter system of reasoning conquered the former, usurping it to its own purposes. Pure reasoning still has a place in the sciences — mathematics, after all, is core to all sciences and still employs reasoning that Aristotle could understand, although he might not follow all the advanced concepts of modern mathematics. Now, scientists observe the physical world and create models of reasoning to explain and predict the behavior of that world. These models are called theories. It’s easy, therefore, to laugh at Aristotle’s naiveté. He simply had the incorrect method for gaining knowledge about the world, and now we have the correct method, and so we’re done. Give us enough time and observations, and we’ll figure it all out. And, in fact, we’ve come quite far in just a few hundred years after the scientific revolution. We know — with some certainty — more about the structure of reality than Aristotle could have imagined, and we even understand how to manipulate it to some degree. Aristotle’s explanation of a magnet from first principles was clumsy and inadequate. Scientific explanations of electromagnetism allow me to use this computer to write this essay, which some of you may be reading on an electric screen that would baffle Aristotle.
The problem is, the above isn’t entirely true. Aristotle didn’t have the wrong method, because Aristotle is still quite relevant. Virtue ethics as Aristotle described them, for example, are still relevant, and literary criticism classes still often begin with his works on the structure of tragedy. Obviously, those fields have advanced in volume of books if nothing else, but we still read Aristotle there not to ridicule him but to appreciate his insights. Yet physics classes rarely — if ever — begin with Aristotle’s Phusis. It seems he got some things right — in ethics, literary criticism, and other areas — and other things wrong. We cannot simplify then and say, “this system of knowledge is the right one, and his was the wrong one.”
The war between Aristotle and Galileo was misguided on all sides. On the side of Aristotle stood the church, which had long since reconciled that pagan philosopher with their understanding of the world. On the side of Galileo stood — at first — Galileo. Then the Royal Society of London and other groups of scientists who struggled mightily and won (the Church recently surrendered by apologizing to Galileo). The Church was wrong in that indeed Galileo had the right idea about gravity and the right notion about planetary motion (with some fuzzy details). But the church wasn’t arguing that — they were arguing about his method. If human observation could discover truth, what purpose remained for God? Their error was assuming that the truth of planetary motion is the same truth as the nature of the divine. Similarly, newly minted scientists made the same error, assuming that religion existed only to explain what science has not yet gotten around to on their grand to-do list.
The reality is more complicated.
The current state of this war is between two fronts: science and religion. Science, represented (or perhaps more accurately co-opted) by militant atheists like Richard Dawkins, argues that religion is inherently absurd and even deluded. Religion, on the other hand, argues that science cannot answer the questions that religion approaches. In this war of words, it is hard to tell who is winning, but the atheists are making some headway with the same sort of spurious and fallacious reasoning that they decry. It’s not my goal to enter this war in these pages; instead, I want to suggest another approach, as an inhabitant in that neutral country of magic. After all, we lost this war long ago — and yet a few of us still remain, quietly doing what the dominant culture no doubt regards as eccentric at best.
What magic offers is the model, not of war, but of a toolbox. Perhaps instead of imagining that one way of knowing the world is right and all the others are wrong, we could imagine that one way of knowing the world is very good at accomplishing a certain task, and other ways are good at accomplishing certain other tasks. The skeptic picks up magic and says “look at how empirical examination of astrology proves that it’s bunk. How can you still believe it?” This skeptic is like the do-it-yourselfer who picks up a wrench to pound in a nail. If you approach a system of knowledge, you must do so first by understanding its use.
Each system of knowledge begins with certain assumptions, axioms if you will, and has certain strengths. To understand and employ that system of knowledge you must understand its assumptions and strengths. Moreover, our toolbox must contain more than two means of knowledge about the world. In fact, magic teaches us a myriad of ways to understand the world. Most magicians pay their bills, do their taxes, and go to work like normal people living in an empirical world. But at the same time, they recognize that associational thinking — linking diverse symbols to create new ideas — can affect reality in a fundamental and concrete way.
If we imagine that associational thinking is the only tool in our box, we become superstitious and become paranoid at a world too fraught with meaning. On the other hand, if all we have is empiricism, we never examine our underlying assumptions about knowledge, our philosophical foundations, and so we can never move beyond a naive empirical view of the world into meaning. Meaning, if empiricism is the only tool in our toolbox, is reduced to data collection.
It’s clear, then, that different mental tools suit different life-tasks better. What is needed, in both science and magic, is cognitive flexibility and willingness to experiment meaningfully. I think that science can teach us something about magic, maybe even investigate some of its claims, just as magic can help us create meaning out of the discoveries of science. Yet science is not just magic that we’ve learned to understand, and magic is not just unexplained science. If that were the case, we would be the poorer for it. Our minds understand the world physically and metaphysically, and we need to honor both in order to make full use of our toolbox, and we must avoid the errors of both Aristotle and Galileo, while simultaneously respecting their unsurpassed contributions to human thought.
©2009 Patrick Dunn
Edited by Sheta Kaey