I believe in magick–to a certain extent–and I also believe in the natural history of the world, so often devoid of the mystical. Here is my argument for the reality, and usefulness, of magick:
For starters, we have to acknowledge that our current worldview is essentially devoid of magick. We might say this was the effect of the Protestant Reformation or the subsequent Enlightenment Period. This is a fact of the modern mindset, which is inculcated on all young people in the Western world and sometimes even beyond. This is how our own minds function, at least until we have accessed real magick and explored it in the context of pre-Christian (and some current) societies.
Why is it important to begin from this acknowledgement? First, for most of us the allure of magick and our first encounters with it are “mind-altering” to some degree. Secondly, if magick is to have a renewed place in the story of our species, it must be widely understood. A worldview that excludes magick has entire systems of thought and attitudes built in to deal with it. This might be specially true of our (very European) worldview, which could be said to have grappled with the idea of magick and found ways to dismiss it as either superstition, chicanery, or maleficium.
For magick to be a useful aspect of society–a force within it, even–it should not be thwarted by preconceived and erroneous cultural baggage. This post will attempt to free it from the “marginalizing strategies” historically employed against it.
Regardless of the claims made by some individuals, and the expectations foisted on the idea of magic by our own culture, we must first agree that magick isn’t fantastical. At no point should we imagine a magus throwing fireballs or raising the dead. These expectations all boil down to an old straw man argument created for the purpose of vilifying the magickal practices, or dismissing them as false. Besides, for magick to coexist with the known laws of the universe, it cannot violate them without reasonable explanation or process.
The quality of magick is different, even when words fail to express the experiences it evokes in people and places. We can’t resort to the same arguments the Church used in their ignorance of what they were trying to stomp out of the European zeitgeist. While satisfying to the imaginative ego, these experiences are more akin to Zen koans than reality. They are impossible riddles to be contemplated, but never taken at face value. They are the locked gateways to the real mysteries and each require a key crafted out of logic to unlock the path.
The landscape of magick is as old as our creative minds, potentially as old as the species and perhaps even beyond. It has worn deep grooves in the brain which are often passed down the generations and developed with fairy tales and Disney movies, tooth-fairies and Santa Claus. These are little lies, as Terry Pratchett put it in Hogfather, that we need to learn to believe in before we master the great concepts that bind our society together.
Magick is also very similar to the different modes of artistic expression that developed within our species. Taken together, they are each different ways of seeing the world beyond the mundane reality before our eyes. Yet, magick is never interchangeable with the arts. For those who desire magick, no Picaso or Mozart will do. The visceral, mystical experience of the thing itself equals nothing else in human experience. Even though it often takes on the guise of crafts, music, poetry, and dance, magick supplies a different current of perception for humans.
The best way to describe it would be to say it “enchants” the world around us. This is the supernatural affinity that might muddle our understanding, if taken literally. Like impressionism, cubism, or interpretive dance, magick isn’t a faithful replicate of the things it stands for.
There could be a neurobiological reason for this. It has been pointed out by scientists, like Anil Seth, that the processes of perception and cognition in the brain are more akin to a (somewhat) realistic hallucination than the more authentic recording of the world via camera lenses. On the path between chemical and electric signals, the brain nudges our perceived reality with memories, feelings, and expectations. Which is why, for example, people sometimes think their names are being called in a crowded place. This sort of explanation could easily become the basis for dismissing magick altogether. Each of those magickal experiences that are so vastly different from art and mundane reality? Bunk. Hallucinations. Go no further.
But I want us to pause before passing judgment and consider human history before magick became so easily dismissed. Look beyond the utilitarian aspect that belief in magick lent stability to religious authority, and therefore, the authority of rulers. We are after the phenomenon itself. People’s belief stemmed from an experience of something else that was radically different from other pursuits. It is unrealistic to believe that in tens of thousands of years, the authority of the shaman/priest overruled the mental faculties of everyone whoever experienced magick. This was a real, lived experience for our ancestors. It served to put humanity in its place, at times, or to inspire great deeds.
Here we must separate magick from religion. Magick has to be understood as the mysterious experience that defies explanation, whereas religion is the codified and routine practice of a set of beliefs regarding supernatural beings, sometimes involving magick. They are different grooves carved in the brain of humanity and should not be conflated. While it sometimes encounters profound mystery, religion deals with an ever-evolving mythology that acts to explain and comfort these experiences. Magick has none of those qualities, though it may come to be linked with faith or ancient stories. None of the contents of the human psyche are wholly separate.
Furthermore, magick is not inherently evil–maleficium to use the Latin word. It is a neutral aspect of human experience, another “tool” of the psyche in an unfolding quest to understand the world. Experiences of magick might be frightening and even life-threatening at times, but so is crossing paths with predators and ingesting poison. Because it rises from our own cognition, magick is natural. It cannot “come from beyond Creation” because there is literally nothing beyond the physical world of Natural things. Seen from this lens, magick transcends the human mind-brain interaction, flawed as it is, and becomes embedded in Nature. It exists in sunsets and caves, just like it exists in budding roses and mammalian instincts.
This is the mystery that links us to the past, the strange quirks of our consciousness, and the Natural world around us. Magick can best be defined that way: a potent glimpse of the subtle connections between all things, and the access to inhabit the universe as agents within this web of causality. It is finally breaking through the water’s surface, after a long swim upward toward the light. It dredges up mysteries of existence that have yet to be understood by science, but what’s more, it promises that we’re not merely passive lumps of flesh.
There is a limit to how much can be understood about magick, but that is not reason enough to dismiss this unique experience. Like much that has been unexplained, there are many layers of superstition to strip from the phenomenon. We must not get married to our current, flawed appreciation of the thing itself, but dig deeper toward the truth. I do not think it will someday be explained away or vanish from our collective consciousness. But I do worry that a fantastical understanding of it may come to dominate our view, and therefore relegate it to great novels and films.
Magick is real and it is an essential component of our species’ psyche.