Upon the Art of Magical Adaptation in a Dynamic Cosmos
Article ID: 12624
Age Group: Adult
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Author: Grey Glamer
Posted: October 19th. 2008
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The Greek philosopher Heraclitus, reflecting upon the dynamic nature of the cosmos we inhabit, once observed that you can never step into the same river twice. That is, you can kick off your shoes today and walk into something called the Ocmulgee River, to borrow one nearby geographic feature, and yet the water that washes over your bare toes isn’t the same that washed over mine a month ago, nor will the ripples and eddies that you perceive be identical to those which I witnessed. Still, we can intelligibly discuss the river flowing through the heart of Macon as though that river were one discrete entity.
We observe a related philosophical quandary when we consider the Ship of Theseus, an ancient Greek vessel whose planks were replaced one by one until no material from the initial construction remained. Students of philosophy still ponder whether the resulting vessel can be legitimately considered the Ship of Theseus. Those who inquire into the nature of human identity soon encounter the biological equivalent of the famous vessel, since most of the cells contained within the human frame routinely replace themselves, while psychologists confront the reality that the thought processes of the child are different from those of the adult whom that child becomes.
Perhaps the simplest solution is to consider the river, the ship, and the person as processes, rather than static entities. Syntactic conventions within the English language aside, you and I are verbs, rather than nouns. You are the same person at different points within the arc that follows your existence precisely because your identity is co-identical with the arc, not just with one point composing the whole.
Such arcs fill the observable universe, with some playing out upon the grand scale of stars and galaxies, others upon the more nuanced level of atoms and molecules, and still others upon every conceivable scale between those octaves. Bound by our limited perspective, which generally considers discrete things existent within one arbitrary slice of time, we humans find it difficult to think about the world as process. The magically inclined souls among us frequently see just a little further, touching the threads that weave through time to work divination and spells. All of which makes the static mindset adopted by many within the magical community all the more puzzling.
When we practice magic, we look beyond the apparent world, tapping subtle energies in order to direct events towards certain ends. From chaos theory we learn about the butterfly effect, wherein small, seemingly insignificant changes redirect the whole course of events, i.e. the butterfly flapping her wings in New York changes air currents within her immediate vicinity, which then affects the course taken by other currents, until eventually the whole collection of changes steers a typhoon into Tokyo.
The butterfly effect, I believe, constitutes one of several mechanisms along which magic works. For chaos theory to make sense, though, our magical paradigm must include a fundamentally dynamic cosmos. There is scant reason to believe in magic’s ability to effect changes within our lives if we can’t accept the possibility that things can change.
For students of change, Witches and Heathens can be remarkably static in their thinking. Please understand that this essay isn’t an attack on traditions that favor historical reconstruction. Far from it! When we consider the process arcs that comprise our various spiritual traditions, it’s important to know our origins, and those traditions, which delve into the spiritual practices of ancient peoples, do all Witches and Heathens a great service. My concern here is that we often fail to consider history as process, and thereby we lose sight of that dynamic quality of the cosmos that drives our magical endeavors.
We don’t live in ancient Europe, ancient Africa, or the ancient Americas. You and I inhabit an inherently multicultural world that grows closer together by the day, sometime during the early twenty-first century of the Common Era. Given sufficient financial resources and the right passport, I could travel to Moscow and back before this time tomorrow. And what’s even more amazing, I can speak with someone on the other side of the world instantaneously.
To borrow author Arthur C. Clarke’s analysis, our contemporary medical care and our technology would likely appear magical from the perspective of our ancient ancestors. We confront concerns over things like nuclear weapons and global warming, which don’t even exist within the ancient paradigms. All of which simply underscores the fact that we navigate a very different river than the ancients followed.
Enter the study of all things magical. “As above, so below” - So intones the Hermetic principle. As things occur within the spiritual, so do events follow along the material. How we interpret this law, however, says much about how we conceptualize the cosmos we share. (Regarding what follows, I know these views will contradict certain beliefs held by many. I’ve stated this before and yet methinks the notion bears repeating: I draw upon my experiences and my reflections to generate my unique magical paradigm. Your experiences, your reflections, and your paradigm doubtless will differ from my own, and that’s a Good Thing!) In short, I think we err when we interpret “as above, so below” as defining a causal relationship. That is, one side of the Mists doesn’t play second fiddle to the other.
The applicable metaphor here is the iceberg floating within the ocean. For an observer above the ocean’s reflective surface, only the iceberg’s tip remains visible, even though we can reasonably infer a much greater extent of frozen water underneath the surface. In like manner, a ship’s keel runs underneath the waterline, whereas the greater portion of the ship remains visible above. No one suggests that the foundation of the iceberg equals the “cause” of the peak, nor does anyone infer that the keel is an “effect” produced by the ship we can see. Instead, the iceberg’s tip and its bulk are parts of one and the same thing; the sail mast and the keel belong to the same object.
In much the same way, creatures that exist primarily within the material world possess other, less visible aspects when observed from the spiritual side, while those beings we term spirits exhibit certain physical manifestations when viewed from the material side. Nevertheless, both realms – material and spiritual – are part and parcel of one singular cosmos. Spells are more than machinations by the inhabitants of some separate realm playing out within our reality.
Rather, when we work magic we tug upon threads that run through both material and spiritual simultaneously. Sometimes we employ oars or propellers under the waterline to effect movement; sometimes we rely upon sails that catch the wind. The vessel remains one entity, pushed by water and wind alike. The Hermetic adage speaks to the underlying unity between the two realms. Material and spiritual describe the same universe seen from two different angles; one does not cause the other.
Why take this foray into interpretations of the Hermetic principle? To return to our original argument, we cannot step into the same river experienced by our ancestors. We inhabit an evolving world, with different resources and different challenges. Why do we assume those beings who populate the spiritual realm remain static? On the contrary, as the visible world develops we should expect equally dramatic changes upon the other side of the Mists.
In fact, by my own admittedly limited inquiry into the nature of the spirit realms, this evolution is exactly what I observe. Among the spirits that I have encountered, several have exhibited the same multiculturalism, which marks our own society, drawing upon traits occurring within diverse mythologies.
Moreover, I can detect echoes of things like electrical appliances upon the astral, while the material realm hums with the resonance of increasingly sophisticated “technology” employed by the spirits. Most developments, whether material or spiritual, can be perceived more clearly from one side or another, and yet every such change in principle can be felt within both realms. In our role as walkers between the worlds, Witches and Heathens must learn to recognize and effect these subtle changes – all of which means conceptualizing things as they really are!
Ironically, every now and again our very technology can allow the Witch to lose sight of the dynamic element of our universe. With the Internet, we can lose ourselves inside the mythology and the cryptozoology of faraway places that don’t really speak to the material or spiritual entities that inhabit our little slice of reality. Our ability to transport and transplant means a Witch can purchase herbs like mugwort and verbena for spells found within older grimoires, even when such plants don’t grow locally. In short, our ready access to historical research, coupled with our capacity to acquire anything from anywhere, gives postmodern Witches license to practice pre-modern magic seemingly at will – except then we’re not practicing magic at all! When the Witch ceases to recognize the fact that beings today, material and spiritual alike, inhabit a very different river than beings yesterday, then we likewise cease to work genuine magic and instead practice empty rotes.
I’m not opposed to importing exotic elements into our magical practices, but we should be mindful when we do, and we should remain keenly aware of our immediate environs. Speaking from my local identity of Middle Georgian, I can safely say that herbs like mugwort and verbena don’t occupy the same cultural context they enjoyed in Merry Olde England.
Conversely, I doubt someone from Europe during the Middle Ages could speak intelligibly upon the significance of kudzu. Yet drive down I-75, and then tell me which plant has more relevance for someone from the contemporary Deep South. In fact, when you’re looking for a symbol for growth, you could do far worse than kudzu. For anyone who doubts me, try parking your vehicle beside this hardy vine!
I weave spells with a plum wand crafted for me by a good friend. A cursory online search will reveal only a handful of references to plum wood and its magical correspondences. Written texts seldom address such correspondences. (In fairness, in Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner, Scott Cunningham proposes peach and cherry among other woods for crafting the Witch’s wand.) And yet looking back upon my childhood home, plum trees were much more common than something like rowan. I’ll wager many Southern Witches could identify pecan trees long before something like ebony.
Plum and pecan woods bring unique resonances, powerful energies that tap into the magic inherent within my homeland. (In particular, plum seems to strengthen faerie glamers!) There’s nothing wrong with employing magical tools crafted from exotic materials – I’ve employed an ebony wand to great effect! Yet when we demand rowan or ash just because that’s what the very old text demands, never mind the fact that neither tree actually grows there, then the spell ceases to be meaningful engagement with our environment and instead devolves into mindless following of mere formula.
When I enchant herbal sachets for magical purposes, dry grits are perhaps my favorite ingredient. (For everyone unacquainted with the cuisine of the Deep South, take a few moments to look up “grits” via your preferred search engine. Or you could rent My Cousin Vinny…) Now look for magical correspondences thereof. Did you think “plum and magic” yielded few meaningful hits? Relevant results for “grits and magic” are practically nonexistent!
Still, the Southern Witch or Heathen places grits within a culturally relevant context much more readily than something like barley. Dry grits, like many other grains, provide an earthy, stable foundation for the more aromatic herbs, and when I’m making the sachet for someone unversed in symbolic intricacies, they almost always acknowledge the grounding element upon an intuitive level. I doubt less recognizable grains would invoke the same instinctive response.
Once we accept that ours is a dynamic universe, then we must likewise endeavor to make ours a dynamic magic. That many magical practitioners do not is testament to our perceived need for something stable within an often unstable world. Still, to embrace magic we must rise above such doubts, and acknowledge things as they really are, changeable and changing. The spirit world changes and evolves along with our material realm. The plants and other natural energies of our immediate locale frequently differ from those observed by our ancestors. As things change across space and time, we must learn to adapt, or else our magical practices will quickly become irrelevant. We must study our origins and honor those who have gone before, and yet we must also honor the ground upon which we stand.
Again, please don’t read this essay as criticism of the traditions which value historical reconstruction. Knowing from whence our spiritual traditions originate proves just as crucial as reflecting upon where we’re going. By the same token, whether we’re looking forward, backward, or sideways, we who practice the Craft should not forget that history constitutes an evolving process that touches every facet upon our shared cosmos. When we practice magic, we must learn to adapt with our changing world.
May we walk lightly and with compassion.
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