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Final Paper for a Class in Hellenistic Magic
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The materials on presentation during the Hellenistic Magic course from the Literature Department at the University of California at Santa Cruz last quarter contain many causes for thought. Writings of two types are prevalent. The first type of text is one written by a user or performer of magic. The second type is one written by non-magicians, while attempting to document or understand magic. There can be some overlapping or ambiguity in these two types. Both types can be useful, but can never explain fully the experience of magic due to the linguistic limitations that arise when attempting to define and describe the nature of magic.
The first type of magical text is one that contains examples of artifacts of written spells, magical rituals, and explanations, whether of an ancient or current time frame. Many of these are written in a garbled, poetic format, which may include instructions for actions that are to be physically performed as words are spoken. Some of these texts act as field notes for the magical practitioner to use for the remembrance of complicated spoken passages or for the training of future magicians. Others are drawn from items used in written spell work itself, such as the writings found on binding bowls, curse tablets and himmelsbrief letters from Pennsylvania Dutch tradition.
These writings are only the tip of the iceberg and leave out a huge portion of practices and experiences that never have or will never be written down, but if they are, and will be written in a way that is unintelligible to anyone other than those who are initiates into a magical worldview, either through life experience or through a set initiatory ritual, which functions to place the future magician into an initiatory experience. Some of these texts may resemble religious texts; and Magicians who decipher the texts do so in a way similar to Jewish midrash, particularly in discovering a secret meaning which is passed orally and/or experientially. Such is the case with much of the voces magicae. These writings may be persistently intellectually unintelligible to the magician, but deemed necessary for the successful completion of the working due to their very unintelligibility, which removes thought processes from the magical ritual or the spell working itself, thereby allowing for a vocally vibratory state of sublimity.
The second type of text arises from the observations and explanations of those outside of the practice of and mostly outside of a belief in magic. The rites and rituals of magical practice, as well as the artifacts thereof, are the primary part of magic that is physically available for observers to witness and define as magic. The forces that the magician encounters and the outcomes that rites and rituals create are difficult for observers to be aware of as being in connection to the act preceding it; therefore the observers don’t tend to take heed of these effects. The texts that do note the outcomes of magical practices are seen as stories of myth, folklore, or fiction and are therefore unbelievable. The texts that are written in the historical past are especially very useful for magicians to learn lessons on how the history of the past affects the current cultural paradigm.
With many of these writers, although some lessons are learned, the disbelief contained in their written words serves to marginalize them, in the eyes of magicians, from any great magical knowledge. Frazer in The Golden Bough writes to expose the connections between previous violent pagan religious and magical practices with current Christian examples. Although a lesson is learned about the folly of unconsciously practiced religion, one must wonder, how much real magical knowledge can Fraser and other writers of his ilk really have concerning magic if they haven’t practiced it? Metaphorically, a person writing about magic who has never had any sort of magical experience is like a person who has been blind since birth discussing the intricacies of various shades of the color blue. In noting this, do not disregard that most people admit to at least once having an experience of a strange coincidence or some other hard to explain event that gives them a small taste of magical experience.
The two types of texts discussed here overlap slightly in some instances. Anthropologists are well known for encountering magical societies with an ethnocentrism that doesn’t include a belief in magic. Although the anthropologist and writer E. E. Evans-Pritchard in his book Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande “always argued with Azande and criticized their statements”, he soon experiences the need to use the prevailing notions of witchcraft to explain various happenings in the village in which he stays in. (20) . “I too used to react to misfortunes in the idiom of witchcraft, and it was often an effort to check this lapse into unreason.” (45) .
Sociologist Marcel Mauss complicates matters of centrality and marginality concerning magic as well when he discusses the topic in his book A General Theory of Magic. In the beginning of the text he wishes to define the term ‘magic’ theoretically. He writes: “We shall have to provide this definition for ourselves, since we cannot be content to accept facts as ‘magical’ simply because they have been so called by the actors themselves or observers. These points of view of such people are subjective, hence not necessarily scientific.” (Mauss 22) . By not accepting the subjective experience of magic, he chooses to be viewed as an outsider to an art that is largely based on experience. As the book progresses, he works to centralize himself intellectually into a magical worldview by stating that the entire human population is in fact using magical thinking, because magic exists “a priori, before all other experience.” (Mauss 145) . He places magic at the core of human thought, thereby removing the marginality of magic from his thesis. Although his view is one-sided, he believes in magic by his own definition. In the Greco-Roman model that Western culture derives from, magic is marginal to society. With Mauss, the format is reversed. The patterns of society are marginal to magic but intertwined.
A linguistic understanding of magic is only one facet of the whole. The fact is, at its core, there is more magic in practice that never includes an uttered word, than in practice which does. Once that core of magic is experienced, there is a realization that a veil has been removed to show another layer to reality that many can connect to and be aware of. It is as if the world freezes; and a person here or there remains unfrozen. The unfrozen ones are able to talk with each other for a moment without the frozen people being aware of it. Then, normal consciousness is regained. Humans are not the only ones to communicate this way with and this ability is only one of many within the domain of magic.
Truthfully there could be a word for every possible concept or experience in existence, but due to the empirical differences in each practitioner’s experience of magic as well as the assumed marginality of the topic itself, deriving a standard term for each aspect of magic looms as a dauntingly impossible task. Even achieving a standard definition for the term ‘magic’ itself has been difficult. In the Pocket Oxford Dictionary ‘magic’ is defined as: “Art of influencing events by occult control of nature or spirits, witchcraft, (black, white magic, with, without, invocation of devils; natural magic, without recourse to personal spirits) personal agency or power; (attributive) used in magic, of magical origin or powers or meaning, (magical word, spell, mirror, lantern) . (474) .
James George Fraser in The Golden Bough writes of magic as: “a mistaken application of the very simplest and most elementary processes of the mind, namely the association of ideas by virtue of resemblance or contiguity” (Frazer 52) . He describes magic as foundational to humanity, but this it is at this point best left behind as a relic of the past.
The author of this current paper defines magic as psychically receptive and/or projective activity in physical, mental, emotional, and energetic formats with an underlying soul-connection to a source greater then than the magician her/himself.
John G. Gager, when introducing his work Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World refuses to use the term ‘magic’ altogether, because “it is our conviction that magic, as a definable and consistent category of human experience, simply does not exist.” (24) .
There can be almost as many definitions of magic as there are people who would define it. As has been seen by the process of describing the difficulties with defining the term ‘magic’, the idea is sufficiently broached that any other idea or experience within the underlying umbrella of this term ‘magic’ would be equally or even exponentially difficult to define by linguistic methodology. This is part of what makes magic so continuously fascinating to humanity.
Texts of philosophy, history, religion, anthropology and other subjects shape the road to the veil that separates a person from great mysteries. Ultimately, they can become a part of that veil which blocks a person from magical reality, and must be put aside for awhile in order to experience the nature of magic itself; but a seeker of many wisdoms will always pick them up again eventually.
Evans-Pritchard, E.E. Witchcraft Oracles and Magic Among the Azande. abr. Eva Gillies.
Oxford, New York: 1976.
Fraser, James George. The Golden Bough: A New Abridgement. Oxford, New York:
Gager, John G. Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World. Oxford, New
Mauss, Marcel. A General Theory of Magic. trans. Robert Brain. Routledge, London:
The Pocket Oxford Dictionary of Current English. 4th ed. Oxford, London: 1924.
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