“These metaphysics of magicians,
And necromantic books are heavenly;
Lines, circles, letters, characters.
Ay, these are those that Faustus most desires.”Christopher Marlowe, The Tragedie of Doctor Faustus (B text) Act 1.
Magic or sorcery are terms referring to the alleged influencing of events and physical phenomena by supernatural, mystical, or paranormal means. They can refer to cultural beliefs and practices that believers can follow in order to wield this supernatural influence; and also, to similar cultural complexes that seek to explain various events and phenomena by supernatural means.
The term magic in its various translations has been used in a number of ways:
- In the context of parapsychology, magic is often defined as the study and application of psychic forces or energy.
- From the point of view of many established religions, for example Christianity, magic is often used as a pejorative term for Pagan rituals, with the implication that they involve sinful, blasphemous or idolatrous practices. The magic and religion article deals largely with this aspect.
- Among occultists, magic is a fairly neutral term which has some varied connotations, such as white magic and black magic. The famous occultist Aleister Crowley coined the spelling magick to distinguish “the true science of the Magi” from all its “counterfeits,” such as stage magic. Today many use that spelling in the same or otherwise similar way, often to connote a Pagan, Wiccan, or Hermetic system of beliefs and ritual practises.
The word magic ultimately derives from Magus (Old Persian maguš), one of the Zoroastrian astrologer priests of the Medes. In the Hellenistic period, Greek μάγος (magos) could be used as an adjective, but an adjective μαγικός (magikos, latin magicus) is also attested from the 1st century (Plutarchus), typically appearing in the feminine, in μαγική τέχνη (magike techne, latin ars magica) “magical art.” The word entered the English language in the late 14th century from Old French magique.
Likewise, sorcery was taken in about 1300 from Old French sorcerie, which is from Vulgar Latin *sortiarius, from sors “fate”, apparently meaning “one who influences fate.” Sorceress appears also in the late 14th century, while sorcerer is attested only from 1526.
Magic and religion
The conceptual relationship between religion and magic is similar to the relationship between “religion” and Paganism, whereas “religion” refers to a system of established beliefs, and “magic” and “Pagan” are labels used by people within that system to describe beliefs and practices that conflict with or are outside of that system.
From the point of view of adherents of Christianity, the terms “magic” and “wizardry” connote beliefs which are held to be false beliefs or heresy. In this sense, the term ‘magic’ is typically outdated, although in the direct quotation of religious scripture it may have some limited usage in modern times.
Originally referring to the older Zoroastrian Magi (i.e. sages, priests), the term “magic” became a negative term, and among the followers of the Judaism religion was recorded into Western history with its denigrating meaning. In times of antiquity, practitioners of other religions were accused of practicing magic, (the adherents of Christianity and Islam were never accused of this on any large scale, though they were (and still are due to technicalities of Jewish Law) accused of idol worship.)
In the Middle Ages, what we now call “the sciences” began to develop, partially through alchemy. Alchemy attempted to codify specific methodology for the mechanical achievement of tasks which most considered to be important, such as the healing of illnesses and the making of wealth (gold etc). Whereas religion advocated a faith-based deference to matters of spirit, alchemy played a significant role in developing human curiosity about the natural world into a systemic structure of beliefs and practices. It is from alchemy that our modern concept of wizardry and magic come from; as a kind of melding of spirituality and methodical and professional investigation into the mysterious or “arcane.”
Magical beliefs in Western Europe
Belief in various magical practices has waxed and waned in European and Western history, under pressure from either organised monotheistic religions or from scepticism about the reality of magic, and the ascendancy of scientism.
In the world of classical antiquity, much as in the present time, magic was thought to be somewhat exotic. Egypt, home of hermeticism, and Mesopotamia and Persia, original home of the Magi, were lands where expertise in magic was thought to be prevalent. In Egypt, a large number of magical papyri, in Greek, Coptic, and Demotic, have been recovered. These sources contain early instances of much of the magical lore that later became part of Western cultural expectations about the practice of magic, especially ceremonial magic. They contain early instances of:
- the use of “magic words” said to have the power to command spirits;
- the use of wands and other ritual tools;
- the use of a magic circle to defend the magician against the spirits he is invoking or evoking; and
- the use of mysterious symbols or sigils thought useful to invoke or evoke spirits.
The use of spirit mediums is also documented in these texts; many of the spells call for a child to be brought to the magic circle to act as a conduit for messages from the spirits. The time of the Emperor Julian of Rome, marked by a reaction against the influence of Christianity, saw a revival of magical practices associated with neo-Platonism under the guise of theurgy.
In the Middle Ages
Mediæval authors, under the control of the Church, confined their magic to compilations of wonderlore and collections of spells. Albertus Magnus was credited, rightly or wrongly, with a number of such compilations. Specifically Christianised varieties of magic were devised at this period. During the early Middle Ages, the cult of relics as objects not only of veneration but also of supernatural power arose. Miraculous tales were told of the power of relics of the saints to work miracles, not only to heal the sick, but for purposes like swaying the outcome of a battle. The relics had become amulets, and various churches strove to purchase scarce or valuable examples, hoping to become places of pilgrimage. As in any other economic endeavour, demand gave rise to supply. Tales of the miracle-working relics of the saints were compiled later into quite popular collections like the Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine or the Dialogus miraculorum of Caesar of Heisterbach.
There were other, officially proscribed varieties of Christianized magic. The demonology and angelology contained in the earliest grimoires assume a life surrounded by Christian implements and sacred rituals. The underlying theology in these works of Christian demonology encourages the magician to fortify himself with fasting, prayers, and sacraments, so that by using garbled versions of the holy names of God in foreign languages, he can use divine power to coerce demons into appearing and serving his usually lustful or avaricious magical goals. Not surprisingly, the church disapproved of these rites; nevertheless, they are Christianised, and assume a theology of mechanical sacramentalism.
In the XIII century, astrology had some great names: in England Johannes de Sacrobosco, in Europe the Italian Guido Bonatti from Forlì.
Magic in the Renaissance
Renaissance humanism saw a resurgence in hermeticism and other Neo-Platonic varieties of ceremonial magic. The Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution, on the other hand, saw the rise of scientism, in such forms as the substitution of chemistry for alchemy, the dethronement of the Ptolemaic theory of the universe assumed by astrology, the development of the germ theory of disease, that restricted the scope of applied magic and threatened the belief systems it relied on. Tensions roused by the Protestant Reformation led to an upswing in witch-hunting, especially in Germany, England, and Scotland; but ultimately, the new theology of Protestantism proved a worse foe to magic by undermining belief in the sort of ritualism that allowed religious rites to be re-purposed towards earthly, magical ends. Scientism, more than religion, proved to be magic’s deadliest foe.
Alongside the ceremonial magic followed by the better educated, were the everyday activities of folk practitioners of magic across Europe, typified by the cunning folk found in Great Britain. In their magical practices astrology, folklore, and distorted versions of Christian ritual magic worked alongside each other to answer customer demand.
Magic and Romanticism
Baron Carl Reichenbach’s experiments with his Odic force appeared to be an attempt to bridge the gap between magic and science. More recent periods of renewed interest in magic occurred around the end of the nineteenth century, where Symbolism and other offshoots of Romanticism cultivated a renewed interest in exotic spiritualities. European colonialism, which put Westerners in contact with India and Egypt, re-introduced exotic beliefs to Europeans at this time. Hindu and Egyptian mythology frequently feature in nineteenth century magical texts. The late 19th century spawned a large number of magical organizations, including the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the Theosophical Society, and specifically magical variants on Freemasonry. The Golden Dawn represented perhaps the peak of this wave of magic, attracting cultural celebrities like William Butler Yeats, Algernon Blackwood, and Arthur Machen to its banner.
Magic in the twentieth century
A further revival of interest in magic was heralded by the repeal, in England, of the last Witchcraft Act in 1951. This was the cue for Gerald Gardner, now recognised as the founder of Wicca, to publish his first non-fiction book Witchcraft Today, in which he claimed to reveal the existence of a witch-cult that dated back to pre-Christian Europe. Gardner’s religion combined magic and religion in a way that was later to cause people to question the Enlightenment’s boundaries between the two subjects.
Gardner’s newly publicized religion, and many others, took off in the atmosphere of the 1960s and 1970s, when the counterculture of the hippies also spawned another period of renewed interest in magic, divination, and other occult practices. The various branches of Neopaganism and other Earth religions that have been publicized since Gardner’s publication tend to follow a pattern in combining the practice of magic and religion. Following the trend of magic associated with counterculture, some feminists launched an independent revival of goddess worship. This brought them into contact with the Gardnerian tradition of magical religion, and deeply influenced that tradition in return.
Many people in the West claim to believe in or practise various forms of magic. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Aleister Crowley, and their followers are most often credited with the resurgence of magical tradition in the English speaking world of the 20th century, but in their eagerness to reconstruct the lost traditions of the past, they often included elements of questionable authenticity, or items altogether manufactured. Other, similar movements took place at roughly the same time, centred in France and Germany. Thus, any current tradition which acknowledges the natural elements, the seasons, and the practitioner’s relationship with the Earth, Gaia, or the Goddess may be correctly regarded as Neopagan, and few such traditions can be sensibly labeled more authentic than any others.
Aleister Crowley preferred the spelling magick, defining it as “the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with the will.” By this, he included “mundane” acts of will as well as ritual magic. In Magick in Theory and Practice, Chapter XIV, Crowley says:
What is a Magical Operation? It may be defined as any event in nature which is brought to pass by Will. We must not exclude potato-growing or banking from our definition. Let us take a very simple example of a Magical Act: that of a man blowing his nose.
Although some current practitioners of magic prefer the term Pagan, Neopaganism is more precise for scholarly reference to current rituals and traditions (though both are technically correct, as Neopaganism is but a particular subset of Paganism). Wicca is a more codified form of modern magic than Neopaganism, again owing much to Crowley and his ilk.
Wiccans and other followers of modern religious Witchcraft use magic extensively. However, they do not all subscribe to Aleister Crowley’s definition of what that is, nor use it for the same purposes. Ruickbie (2004:193-209) shows that Wiccans and Witches define magic in many different ways and use it for a number of different purposes. Despite that diversity of opinion, he concludes that the general result upon the practitioner is a positive one.
Theories of magic
In an age where the existence of magical forces is no longer taken for granted, believers in magic are likely to be asked, “How does magic work?”
A survey of writings by believers in magic shows that adherents believe that it may work by one or more of these basic principles:
- Natural forces that cannot be detected by science at present, and in fact may not be detectable at all. These magical forces are said to exist in addition to and alongside the four fundamental forces of nature: gravity, electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force.
- Intervention of spirits similar to these hypothetical natural forces, but with their own consciousness and intelligence. Believers in spirits will often see a whole cosmos of beings of many different kinds, sometimes organized into a hierarchy.
- A mystical power, such as mana or numen, that exists in all things. This power is often said to be dangerous to people. Sometimes this power is contained in a magical object, such as a stone or a charm, which the magician can manipulate.
- A mysterious interconnection in the cosmos that connects and binds all things, above and beyond the natural forces.
- Manipulation of symbols. Adherents of magical thinking believe that symbols can be used for more than representation: they can magically take on a physical quality of the phenomenon or object that they represent. By manipulating symbols (as well as sigils), one is said to be able to manipulate the reality that this symbol represents.
- The principles of sympathetic magic of Sir James George Frazer, explicated in his The Golden Bough (third edition, 1911-1915). These principles include the “law of similarity” and the “law of contact” or “contagion.” These are systematized versions of the manipulation of symbols. Frazer defined them this way:
If we analyse the principles of thought on which magic is based, they will probably be found to resolve themselves into two: first, that like produces like, or that an effect resembles its cause; and, second, that things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed. The former principle may be called the Law of Similarity, the latter the Law of Contact or Contagion. From the first of these principles, namely the Law of Similarity, the magician infers that he can produce any effect he desires merely by imitating it: from the second he infers that whatever he does to a material object will affect equally the person with whom the object was once in contact, whether it formed part of his body or not. 
- Concentration or meditation. A certain amount of restricting the mind to some imagined object (or will), according to Aleister Crowley, produces mystical attainment or “an occurrence in the brain characterized essentially by the uniting of subject and object.” (Book Four, Part 1: Mysticism) Magic, as defined previously, seeks to aid concentration by constantly recalling the attention to the chosen object (or Will), thereby producing said attainment. For example, if one wishes to concentrate on a God, one might memorize a system of correspondences (perhaps chosen arbitrarily, as this would not affect its usefulness for mystical purposes) and then make every object that one sees “correspond” to said God.
Aleister Crowley wrote that “. . . the exaltation of the mind by means of magickal practices leads (as one may say, in spite of itself) to the same results as occur in straightforward Yoga.” Crowley’s magick thus becomes a form of mental, mystical, or spiritual discipline, designed to train the mind to achieve greater concentration. Crowley also made claims for the paranormal effects of magick, suggesting a connection with the first principle in this list. However, he defined any attempt to use this power for a purpose other than aiding mental or mystical attainment as “black magick”.
- The magical power of the subconscious mind. To believers who think they need to convince their subconscious mind to make the changes they want, all spirits and energies are projections and symbols that make sense to the subconscious. A variant of this belief is that the subconscious is capable of contacting spirits, who in turn can work magic.
Many more theories exist. Practitioners will often mix these concepts, and sometimes even invent some themselves. In the contemporary current of chaos magic in particular, it is not unusual to believe any concept of magic works.
Religious ritual and magical thinking
Viewed from a non-theistic perspective, many religious rituals and beliefs seem similar to, or identical to, magical thinking.
Related to both magic and prayer is religious supplication. This involves a prayer, or even a sacrifice to a supernatural being or god. This god or being is then asked to intervene on behalf of the person offering the prayer.
The difference, in theory, is that prayer requires the assent of a deity with an independent will, who can deny the request. Magic, by contrast is thought to be effective:
- by virtue of the operation itself;
- or by the strength of the magician’s will;
- or because the magician believes he can command the spiritual beings addressed by his spells.
In practice, when prayer doesn’t work, it means that the god has chosen not to hear nor grant it; when magic fails, it is because of some defect in the casting of the spell itself. It is no wonder that magic tends to be more formulaic and less extempore than prayer. Ritual is the magician’s failsafe, the key to any hope for success, and the explanation for failure.
A possible exception is the practice of word of faith, where it is often held that it is the exercise of faith in itself that brings about a desired result.
Varieties of magical practice
The best-known type of magical practice is the spell, a ritualistic formula intended to bring about a specific effect. Spells are often spoken or written or physically constructed using a particular set of ingredients. The failure of a spell to work may be attributed to many causes, such as failure to follow the exact formula, general circumstances being unconducive, lack of magical ability or downright fraud.
Another well-known magical practice is divination, which seeks to reveal information about the past, present or future. Varieties of Western divination include:
Necromancy is another practice involving the alleged summoning of and conversation with spirits of the dead (necros). This is sometimes done simply to commune with deceased loved ones; it can also be done to gain information from the spirits, as a type of divination; or to command the aid of those spirits in accomplishing some goal, as part of casting a spell.
Varieties of magic can also be categorised by the techniques involved in their operation. One common means of categorisation distinguishes between contagious magic and sympathetic magic, one or both of which may be employed in any magical work. Contagious magic involves the use of physical ingredients which were once in contact with the person or thing the practitioner intends to influence. Sympathetic magic involves the use of images or physical objects which in some way resemble the person or thing one hopes to influence; the Voodoo dolls of “New Orleans Voodoo” are an example of this.
Other common categories given to magic include High and Low Magic (the appeal to divine powers or spirits respectively, with goals lofty or personal as accords the type of magic). Manifest and Subtle magic typically refers to magic of legend rather than what many individuals who practise the Occult claim to use as magic, where Manifest magic is magic that immediately appears with a result, and Subtle magic being magic that gradually and intangibly alters the world.
Academic historian Richard Kieckhefer divides the category of spells into psychological magic, which seeks to influence other people’s minds to do the magician’s will, such as with a love spell, and illusionary magic, which seeks to conjure the manifestation of various wonders. A spell that conjured up a banquet, or that conferred invisibility on the magician, would be examples of illusionary magic. Magic that causes objective physical change, in the manner of a miracle, is not accommodated for in Kieckhefer’s categories.
Another method of classifying magic is by “traditions,” which in this context typically refer to complexes of magical belief and practice associated with various cultural groups and lineages of transmission. Some of these traditions are highly specific and culturally circumscribed. Others are more eclectic and syncretistic. These traditions can compass both divination and spells.
When dealing with magic in terms of “traditions,” it is a common misconception for outsiders to treat any religion in which clergy members make amulets and talismans for their congregants as a “tradition of magic,” even though what is being named is actually an organized religion with clergy, laity, and an order of liturgical service. This is most notably the case when Voodoo, Palo, Santeria, Taoism, Wicca, and other contemporary religions and folk religions are mischaracterized as forms of “magic” or even “sorcery.”
Examples of magical, folk-magical, and religio-magical traditions include:
* Ceremonial Magic
* Chaos Magic
* Mantrik Hinduism
* Hoodoo, Conjure, Rootwork
* Jewish Witchcraft
* Kabbalistic magic, Practical Kabbalah
* New Age
Religious attitudes towards magic
Appearing from aboriginal tribes in Australia and New Zealand to rainforest tribes in South America, bush tribes in Africa and ancient Pagan tribal groups in Europe and the British Isles, some form of shamanic contact with the spirit world seems to be nearly universal in the early development of human communities. The ancient cave paintings in France are widely speculated to be early magical formulations, intended to produce successful hunts. Much of the Babylonian and Egyptian pictorial writing characters appear derived from the same sources.
Although indigenous magical traditions persist to this day, very early on some communities transitioned from nomadic to agricultural civilizations, and with this shift, the development of spiritual life mirrored that of civic life. Just as tribal elders were consolidated and transformed into kings and bureaucrats, so too were shamans and adepts devolved into priests and a priestly caste.
This shift is by no means in nomenclature alone. While the shaman’s task was to negotiate between the tribe and the spirit world, on behalf of the tribe, as directed by the collective will of the tribe, the priest’s role was to transfer instructions from the deities to the city-state, on behalf of the deities, as directed by the will of those deities. This shift represents the first major usurpation of power by distancing magic from those participating in that magic. It is at this stage of development that highly codified and elaborate rituals, setting the stage for formal religions, began to emerge, such as the funeral rites of the Egyptians and the sacrifice rituals of the Babylonians, Persians, Aztecs and Mayans.
Magic and the Magi
Magical beliefs and practices are common in many cultures and religions. The word magic comes from the beliefs and practices of the Magi (singular, Magus), Persian priests and scholars, followers of Zoroaster, who were credited by the classical world with mastery of astrology and other arcane arts.
In Judaism and Christianity
Further information: Kabbalah
Officially, Judaism, Christianity and Islam characterize magic as forbidden witchcraft, and have often prosecuted practitioners of it with varying degrees of severity. The traditional theologies of these religions have held that the apparent effects of magic are either delusional or the result of fallen angels manipulating nature on behalf of the sorcerer, hence witchcraft has often been seen as a type of pact with demonic beings.
Unofficially, Jewish and Christian mystics have practiced varying forms of magic for hundreds of years. Jewish folk stories often feature wonder-working rabbis and sages as protagonists, whose powers more or less resemble magic.
Magic in fiction
In considering magic as tradition, a related category concerns magic in fiction, where it serves as a plot device, the source of magical artifacts and their quests. Magic has long been a subject of fictional tales, especially in fantasy fiction, where it has been a mainstay from the days of Homer and Apuleius, down through the tales of the Holy Grail, Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, and to more contemporary authors from J. R. R. Tolkien to Mercedes Lackey and J. K. Rowling.
Such magic may be inspired by real world beliefs and practices, but may also be an invention of the writer’s. Furthermore, even when the writer uses real practices, the effect, strength, and rules of the magic will normally be what the writer requires for the plot. There may be a well-developed system in fictional magic, or not, but when the writer does not systemize the magic, there is always the difficulty of ensuring that it is not merely used when convenient for the writer.
It is by no means impossible, moreover, for fictional magic to leap from the pages of fantasy to actual magical practice; such was the fate of the Necronomicon, invented as fiction by H. P. Lovecraft, who described it so well that there have been several attempts by modern authors to produce it as a grimoire.
In science fiction plots (especially the “hard” variety), while magic tends to be avoided, often extraordinary facts are portrayed that do not have a scientific basis and are not explained in that fashion. In these cases the reader might find it useful to remember Arthur C. Clarke’s “Third Law”: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Magic has been portrayed in numerous games, in which magic is a characteristic available to players in certain circumstances.
- de Givry, Grillot, Witchcraft, Magic, and Alchemy (J. Courtney Locke, trans.) (Frederick, 1954)
- Hutton, Ronald, The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft (Oxford, 2001) ISBN 0192854496
- Hutton, Ronald, Witches, Druids, and King Arthur (Hambledon, 2003) ISBN 1852853972
- Kiekhefer, Richard, Forbidden Rites: A Necromancer’s Manual of the Fifteenth Century (Pennsylvania State University, 1998) ISBN 0271017511
- Ruickbie, Leo, Witchcraft Out of the Shadows (Robert Hale, 2004) ISBN 0-7090-7567-7
- The Skeptic’s Dictionary entry for Magical Thinking
- The Cauldron’s Grimoire Online Collection of Spells
- Free Encyclopedia of Thelema
- ThelemapediaThe Encyclopedia of Thelema & Magick
- A Collection of Occult People Articles on the Mysterious People website
- Catholic Encyclopedia “Occult Art, Occultism”
- Catholic Encyclopedia “Witchcraft”