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Witchcraft vs. Religion
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Does Magick Work?
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Does magick work?
In this essay I will take a look at magick, and examine how and if it “works”. I am using the spelling “magick” as originally created by Aleister Crowley and will base much of my working definition on his original description.
Magick is at the heart of many Pagan practices, and is also a key difference between most Pagan practices and non-Pagan practices. Some may argue that prayer is treated much like magick in some religions, but there are some fundamental differences that I will investigate later. Given the importance of magick, proving that magick either does or does not “work” is a very relevant task.
I am using “works” here in quotes, because I believe that the term itself is somewhat ambiguous. There are two main components to magick “working”: how, and what. The “how” is the basis of what makes magick work. What mechanism causes it to be considered a success? The “what” is the end result.
Ignoring the question of how it works, do you achieve the end results that you desire? If it works by some mechanism differently than what you believe, but still achieves the desired results, is that still “working”? I propose here that it is the end results that are important, not so much the actual mechanism. In other words, if it works for you…then it works for you.
The premise I will start with, and attempt to prove, is that yes, magick does in fact work. That is, it does achieve results. Perhaps not the exact results that are always desired, but most explanations of magick include a belief that magick does not always work all of the time in exactly the way the practitioner wants. In this respect it is very much like prayer, and I am reminded of the old saying, ”God always answers your prayers – but sometimes the answer is no.”
There are three main explanations of how and why magick works that I will examine. The first is that it works through access to the divine. We get a God or Goddess to do our bidding and use our will to control their actions, giving us access to powers greater than that which we ourselves possess... The second option I will explore is that magick works because of basic scientific principles as of yet not fully understood.
To quote Arthur C. Clarke, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” In this second category I include most of what we think of as supernatural forces today but may well have scientific explanations for tomorrow.
The third option that I will explore is that of the benefits of belief by the individual, and the ability to change yourself and your surroundings based on belief. There are countless examples of people in crisis or those who have advanced training (martial artists, yogis, etc.) and are able to perform feats of control over their bodies that seem impossible. It is exactly in this way that by believing something hard enough, we are able to rise above the limits of our normal lives. In this way, a belief in magick does, in fact, allow us to tap energy that we otherwise cannot utilize and therefore effect a change.
In short, magic does work and it works by one of three methods: divine intervention, supernatural/science, or psychology.
What is magick?
In this essay I am specifically referring to magick, with a “k”. Traditional views of magic involve the action of supernatural beings or deities, the use of specific spells or actions, and particular ceremonies. This is really not so different than the traditional church approach to prayer. So why is magick so different?
Magick, with the “k”, is a term originally created by Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) . This was the early 20th century and stage magic abounded as a form of entertainment and mystery. At the same time, interest in the occult was blooming and a number of high-profile occult organizations, such as the Order of the Golden Dawn, flourished. This was a time of Harry Houdini (1874-1926) and Aleister wanted a way to differentiate occult magic from stage magic. To this end, he created the term “Magick” with an extra “k” on the end.
In his book Magick in Theory and Practice, he introduces the term “Magick”. Crowley begins the introduction to his book with quotes from a number of sources including Pythagoras, The Golden Bough by J.D. Frazer, St. Paul, etc. so we see that he drew from many classical sources when creating his work.
Magick, as defined by Crowley, is “the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with will.” What is particularly interesting is that the definition does not say anything about divine forces, spiritual intervention, or occult phenomenon. All it really describes is a cause and effect relationship, initiated by the practitioner.
Magick can be applied to anything, from mere mundane activities to chemical reactions, an example that Crowley himself uses. He tells us that “Any required change may be effected by the application of the proper kind and degree of force in the proper manner through which the proper medium to the proper object.”
Crowley further states quite simply “every intentional act is a magickal act.” This means that anything that we do as a result of our will is an act of magick. Traditional views of magic (k) had assumed a supernatural element. Crowley, however, defines it as any act that we will to happen. In this regard, magick is an act of will that could be carried out by our own physical actions, by our instructions or commands, or even the use of supernatural forces. The involvement of supernatural forces, however, is far from a requirement.
The beauty of Crowley’s magick is that it covers a whole spectrum of forces at our disposal. We use our will directly to make changes in ourselves. We use our will and employ the tools of science to make changes. We use our will and employ the tools of witchcraft to make changes.
To improve our health, we might use our will to exercise more. To travel from Boston to New York we might use our will and the tool of the car that we drive. Magick builds on the use of our will to influence common events in our mundane life, but then adds in the use of our will to control supernatural forces as well.
Others since Crowley have largely followed his lead on what constitutes magick. In his bookThe Mystic Foundation, Christopher Penzcak calls magic (he does not use the extra k) a process of creation. He believes that words have creative power and energy, and are important to the use of magic. Magic is about harnessing and directing energy. Christopher then explains that energy can come from words, thoughts, and actions.
In addition to internal sources, he believes that herbs, metals, stones, symbols and colors are also forms of energy. Magic rituals harness this energy along with the magician’s will to create change. He explains that magic is a science, but it is also an art and a skill. He also proposed that what we call magic today may simply be what is called science tomorrow and refers to Arthur C. Clark’s famous quote about how any sufficiently advanced science will appear to be magic.
Like Crowley, Penczak also believes that magic is part of everything we do and says that we are all doing magic all the time. The difference as he sees it is that a magician is consciously aware of it and uses it as part of his or her personal and spiritual path. He points out that different people call magic by different names: many Pagans use the spelling with a k to differentiate it, but magic is also the same as medicine to a shaman, or prayer to a catholic. Ultimately, Penczak sums it up by saying, “Magic is any change that conforms to a person’s will.” While the words are slightly different, this is exactly what Crowley said as well.
InNatural Magic, Doreen Valiente describes magic (also without the k) as being centered internally. Symbols, tools, etc. are all useful to strike a mood but are merely external aids and the real magic is inside the human mind. She says that, “The only way you can really change your life is by changing yourself.” She, too, then goes on to describe how it is the power of will that causes change – regardless of what paths or energies are used to implement the will.
Many other notable authors from the pagan community have given their own particular spin and explanation on magick, but they all pretty much come down to the same description: Magic is the application of will to effect change. How this change comes about may be simple physical action on the part of the practitioner, or it may involve the use of forces or energies not scientifically understood or explained. It is all about wanting something to happen, and making it happen. In short, being empowered and being in control of your life.
Magick: invoking the divine
Of the three ways of looking at magick, the idea of invoking and controlling the divine is by far the fuzziest. Are there Gods and Goddesses? Are there other supernatural forces? Do we really think that we have the ability to actually control any of these forces? Or at least to request their assistance and have them pay any attention to us?
This is a far deeper discussion than fits within the scope of this essay, for our purposes here we will simply assume that yes, there are supernatural forces of some kind and we can access them for our own objectives. The exact nature of such forces is not important here, but rather the question of exactly how we can access them and direct them.
Accessing a God is quite a common endeavor in human history, but it has often been in the form of prayer. The key difference between prayer and magick is that prayer is a request to the deity to perform some action, whereas magick is a command to the deity to perform a service. In the former view we are subject to the whims of the divine and exist to serve at their pleasure. In the later, we are equal to any Gods in importance, if not in power, and they are available for us to command if we can figure out how. This may sound egotistical, but consider the vast forces of nature that we have learned to harness such as atomic energy. Is it really such a stretch from controlling nuclear reactions to controlling a God?
With prayer, we are supposed to exhibit good behavior (and belief) according to that particular mythology and as a reward we may ask the divine for favors. Of course, as discussed earlier, the answer can often be, “no.” Bargaining with the divine is also popular in prayer trading a promise for future good behavior or some special action in exchange for a prayer being answered.
With magick, we use our will to impose a task on a specific deity. Most pagans and practitioners of magick support a pantheists or polytheistic view and will usually pick a specific God or Goddess that is particularly appropriate for the task. We might call to Thor to be successful in battle, or Aphrodite for help with love for example. Frequently we will employ some sort of ceremony designed to attract and then compel the deity to perform our will.
Magick involving deities is often referred to as “Ceremonial Magick” and is not something that is universally encouraged. Raymond Buckland describes ceremonial magick as dangerous and totally unnecessary. He does support asking the Gods to aid you with power, however, in the “drawing down” of the God or Goddess and bringing a surge of their power into you during a magickal working.
Is it possible to direct the actions of the divine? Or even to ask them for power to aid you in your working? Certainly it is hard to top the power of a God and so if this method works, then it can be very effective. It is extremely difficult to actually prove or disprove that it is possible in invoke deities. There are also difficulties in assuming that this works for everyone or even for anyone. How, exactly, do you control a God?
What happens when someone else directs his or her God to do the opposite of what you are directing your God to do (for example, two people who both want to win the same lottery) ? Will the Gods only obey someone who has enough self-mastery to not want power and riches? There are many reasons why it might be possible for us to command the Gods but still not be able to access this path reliably.
Magick: a force of nature
We have seen examples in popular culture such as Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings where magick is a force of nature that can be controlled by people with special talents. In these three examples, the person controlling the magic has to be born into it although their powers can usually only be fully realized after training. In this worldview, magic can also be used to create magical objects that have their own power. Here the power does not come from any actual deity, but rather is a force of nature that some people have the ability to tap into.
Accessing this force is usually accomplished through the use of incantations, or tools such as wands that allow the user to focus their own magical abilities and powers. While there is certainly an element of willpower involved in using magic in this way, the right words, tools, or actions are crucial in making the magick work as well.
In The Golden Bough, James Frazer describes a classic view of the use of sympathetic magick, where we can control some target object through the manipulation of a second object. The two objects are linked, or have a sympathetic bond, and that is why action to one also impacts the other one. He then goes on to describe two basic types of this magic: contagious and imitative (or homeopathic) .
Imitative magick relies on the use of something that is similar to the object we desire to control, and assumes that by controlling the one object we can impact the target object. A traditional voodoo doll is a good example of this. The doll is created in a fashion to represent the target subject. By sticking pins into the doll, the theory is that we can cause pain of illness in the target subject.
Contagious magick, on the other hand, relies on the use of objects that have been in contact with the target object. Because they were once in contact with each other, there is a bond between them even when they are separated. Here, too, actions on the sympathetic object can be done to control the target object.
At the other end of the spectrum we can view these forces as scientific, rather than magickal. There is actually a very thin line between the two, and much of what is solid scientific fact today was considered magick quite recently. As noted in section 1, advanced technology is indistinguishable from magick. There is no science today to explain magick, obviously, or it would no longer be viewed as magick but rather as scientific fact. There, are, however, both technologies and scientific theories that point to the possibility of magick or bear a hint of action similar to what we think of as magick.
Let us consider how our will can affect the world around us without normal physical interaction. The brain creates electrical impulses during normal operation. It has not been shown that these weak impulses are capable of acting in any way on the surrounding environment, but they are there nonetheless, and are being broadcast to the world around us.
We cannot show that these affect anything, but we can prove that at least they are receiving the signals. It proves that there is at least a vehicle for our brain to communicate in a non-physical way with the world around us.
Quantum physics has been over-blown badly and many false conclusions drawn by people who understand only a little bit of what they have read about quantum theory. However, there are phenomenons in quantum physics that seem similar to some of our concepts of magick.
Entanglement, for example, tells us that two particles that are once entangled with each other will thereafter continue to reflect each other’s state even after they are separated by a great distance. While this does not prove any actual magick, it does show us how two objects, once connected, can continue to share a bond even after their separation. This is the same basic concept as contagious magick and shows that at least the idea of two objects sharing a remote bond is now in the realm of scientific theory.
Einstein once even went so far as to call this “spooky action at a distance”. Unlike brain wave activity, which is a measurable fact, it is important to remember that quantum entanglement is still part of a theory and while it is actually measurable as well, why it works is still being debated.
These are merely two examples where science has shown us mechanisms that demonstrate similar concepts to those proposed by classical magick theory. This is a huge step towards providing a scientific explanation for magick itself, or at least for making the more scientific among us to pause and consider before simply dismissing magick off-hand.
So if we believe some forces of nature support that magick, whether or not they are supernatural or scientific but unknown is a meaningless distinction. Clearly there are still many things that are unknown, and clearly there are things that are today labeled “magick” that may well be science tomorrow. This is a topic that has occupied entire books and this is, at best, an introduction.
One point that should be made, however, is how magick can exist when magick doesn’t work. Harry Potter can reliably and repeatedly make something happen once he has learned a spell. Witches in the real world often come up with mixed results at best. There are many ways to explain this and it does not in any way eliminate the possibility that magick exists.
Why can’t I win the lottery through magick, for example? Well, if we think of magick as our tapping into basic natural forces, do we not suppose that everyone else who bought a lottery ticket is doing the same thing, to greater or lesser degrees?
In this way, we are all countering each other’s magick. Unless we can assume that our magick is so much more powerful than everyone else’s combined, which seems unlikely in practice (Charmed or Bewitched notwithstanding) , we cannot force that outcome. It would be like a rowboat trying to steer an ocean liner. There is much more to be said on this topic, but the point of this example was merely to show that magick could, in fact, work quite well and still not work for us in any given situation.
Magick: tapping into psychology
The third explanation that we will look at is the value of magick through psychological results. This is different than the general understanding of magick as involving something supernatural, but is a legitimate explanation. What we are trying to examine here is whether the belief in and performance of “magick” creates results. If we go back to our definition of magick as being the application of will to effect change then we can argue for a wide variety of actions as technically being magick. In order to make magick really interesting, however, we should assume that in order to really be magick, the end result needs to be something that would not otherwise have happened without the use of magick.
With this requirement I mind, we can fairly easily look at magick as enabling us to control at least our own mind and body, and to a degree that we do not normally have. This could be anything from stopping smoking or losing weight to success in love or our career. If we are looking at psychological reasons for magick working, we can rule out looking at things that we are not actively involved in. If magick works because of psychological reasons, we can control ourselves to a heightened degree directly but that also will have an impact on our immediate environment.
In the case of stopping smoking or losing weight it is “just as simple” as getting the will power to stop smoking, or to eat less and/or exercise more. As anyone knows who has tried to do this, this can be easy to say and very difficult to actually do. We need to overcome actual addictions as well as deeply ingrained personal behavior. Using magick to achieve these ends is not unlike using self-hypnosis. The power to make the change is entirely in our control, we “just” need the will power to make it happen.
Impacting our environment can also largely be a matter of effecting change in ourselves. If we can make ourselves more productive at work, we will probably be more successful. If we can change our own behavior to be more attractive to a partner, we can improve our love life. These are cases where we can essentially change the behavior of others by changing our own behavior and therefore changing our relationship with them. As we change, and our relationship changes, their behavior towards us will then change as well in response. Here, too, we need to make the change in ourselves first, and these changes may be very difficult because again they may run contrary to a lifetime of habits or personality.
The power of positive thinking is not just a sound-bite, but it is a well-documented and studied fact. People who are optimistic are able to achieve more than people who are pessimistic. While this sounds like common sense, studies have shown that people who believe they will succeed are not just “more motivated”, but are able to actually tap into more physical and mental energy than others who believe they will fail. If you think you will succeed, you will actually be able to work harder.
Beyond the basics step of merely going faster, further, longer, or harder, there are many documented stories of the ability of people to tap into inner strength that is not considered normal. There are many stories of people who have prayed or willed diseases into remission, who have tapped into super-human strength to save a loved one, or even just to walk on hot coals without suffering burns. These actions are the result of achieving a level of control over the human body that we do not normally have. Here, too, the key is to convince ourselves that it can be done.
Self-hypnosis provides a framework for making changes like this, and the techniques are actually very similar to what we do in ritual when casting a spell. Key to the effectiveness of self-hypnosis is our own belief that what we wish to achieve is possible. If we do not really believe it can be done on a sub-conscious level, we can never convince ourselves to make the change. While it is probably mandatory to believe in order to direct the actions of a God, or to marshal supernatural forces to our will, it is absolutely crucial to believe in order to create change within ourselves.
While this explanation of magick involves the mundane instead of the supernatural, nevertheless it is also a path to extraordinary results that have been absolutely proven. If you convince yourself of results, you can change your behavior and even tap into extraordinary, but not supernatural, abilities. This limits the potential reach of the results of magick, but it also gives an absolute, proven path to results.
Magick in this case provides the enabling action to reach these goals. In order to convince ourselves that we have made the change, something has to happen to act as the agent of change. We do not simply wake up one day and say, “today I will stop smoking.” That is rarely, if ever, effective because we know that we are no different than we were yesterday when we were still addicted to smoking.
There needs to be some event that we can use to convince ourselves that this change really will happen. Magick, and a magick ritual in particular, provide us with the event that will allow us to convince ourselves that change has occurred. Because we believe that the magick is going to work, it does in fact work.
While it is actually our own mind that is making the change, we are unable to do it without the event that convinces us. I believe in magick, therefore the magick is going to work. I have now convinced myself (especially on a sub-conscious level) of the success of my effort, and therefore I am able to achieve the desired results that I could not have achieved before. It is not the magick itself that makes the change in this case, but rather our belief in the magick that makes it work.
Magick vs. prayer
In section 3 we briefly touched on the differences between magick and prayer. The main difference, as we mentioned, is that prayer is based on asking God for a favor, whereas magick is based on you using your will to make things happen. Even in the case where you are working with a deity, you are telling that deity to do something for you, not asking.
Beyond the differences in approach, and the differences in execution, this also reflects a core difference between paganism and mainstream religions: where control of your life ultimately lies. Paganism places your life in your own hands – you are responsible for what happens to you and for making life what you want. Mainstream religion places ultimate responsibility in their God’s hands. You can only control your life to a certain point, and beyond that it is “God’s will.”
Of course, there is a down side to having this control as well. You, and only you, are responsible for your life. You can’t shrug it off and blame your problems on God. Yes, the world may have plans for you, and you may have a path that takes you in a certain direction, but you can also take control of your own destiny through an act of will. This is the use of magick – to provide control of your life and your destiny.
Things may happen to you that you don’t like, but at no point do you have to sit back and accept that. While giving you control, however, it also takes away the comfort of being able to blame your problems on “God’s will.” Stuff happens, some of it bad stuff, but not because it is part of “God’s plan”.
Having said that, prayer can still be effective. If you believe hard enough that God is going to answer your prayers, you can approach the same mindset of confidence that is used to drive magickal workings. Certainly if you believe that your prayers will be effective, you can at least convince yourself and therefore gain the benefit of positive thinking. Whether or not that person’s God does really exist, prayer, too, can end up having a positive impact.
Magic for everyone
Ultimately, the question of why magic works is an academic exercise and really not relevant. The important thing is to decide that yes, in fact, magick does work. Exactly why it works is not important. The key elements are that magick does work and that it is a product of our own willpower. This is what and how, and to use it that is really all we need to know. Few people understand exactly how a cell phone works, but they are able to use it quite effectively nevertheless.
It is important to understand how to use magick, obviously, in order to get results. It starts with a will to cause an effect. Whether it’s our brains or cosmic forces or Gods that make it work after that is not important. What is important is that we can make it work.
Wayne Dyer wrote an excellent pop self-help book about using magick titled Real Magic. My description of his book is in no way meant to be derogatory. “Pop” as in “popular” or “popular culture” is actually an asset. If you want to study the history and details of magick as a scholar then by all means, head for the more serious and scholarly authors.
If you simply want to use magick to change your life, then read Wayne Dyer (or others like him) who reduces the practice to simple, will-based techniques. If you believe you can change your life, then yes you really can change your life. But it has to start with will. This is the essence of self-help. Only you can perform magick for yourself. It is driven by your strength of will, no one else’s.
Wayne Dyer’s approach strips away the trappings of mystical magick, and obviously avoids the Crowley spelling, and places the techniques of magic in common life. His approach is based in large part upon meditation and visualization: both very sound and proven techniques, and ones that are important fundamentals for any magickal practice. This simple form may not be for everyone, and part of your own ability to tap into your own magick may well require the trappings of ceremony and ritual in order to help focus and control your will. What works for you…works for you. How to best focus your will is going to vary from person to person and is something you will need to work out for yourself.
There are a few caveats that bear discussing when it comes to magick. While it is true that Magick requires faith and belief to work, this is a double-edged sword. If you believe that you can achieve something through magick, then you are certainly more likely to achieve the end result because of your belief. It is also, however, true that if you believe you cannot achieve something because of magick then you are certainly going to be far less likely to achieve it. This could be because you believe someone else’s magick is blocking you, it could be because you do not believe that the magick is going to work for you for whatever reason, or it could be because you believe that magick cannot help you achieve your objectives. Belief in failure is just as damaging as belief in success is rewarding.
Belief must also be reasonable, and you must make sure you do in fact use the right tools. If you work magick to get a job but do not actually apply for the job, think of how much more effort the magick needs in order to make it happen. Always use every tool at your disposal when working magick. There is a lot of truth I the old saying “God helps those who help themselves.” If you are not willing to put in the effort required, why should the magick do it for you? Don’t pick ridiculous goals for your magick either, or goals where you know you are going to be pushing up against many other people’s magick. Winning the lottery is a good example of this – everyone who buys a ticket is pushing against the outcome – some are more powerful than others, but your own magick would have to be incredibly powerful to overcome all of those counteracting forces.
Finally, there are things that magick should not do. It is not a favor to prolong the life of a terminally ill person who is suffering. That is selfish, not helpful. Magick should not be used to bring about results for the wrong reasons, and should not be used on people who do not want its help. What you want may not be what others want, and it may not even be good for them. You cannot decide whether your unwanted actions will end up for good or bad, and you are robbing someone else of their free will. Magick should only be used for people or on people who want the help and agree to it. Otherwise, leave them to their own path.
I started out by making the claim that magick does work – for everyone. An explanation of exactly how magick works depends on whom you talk to, with a number of different beliefs and explanations. The main explanations given by practitioners typically involve either the harnessing the power of a sentient God to do your will, or the access to supernatural powers. Essentially the same as supernatural forces are scientific forces that we do not yet fully understand. Ultimately, however, the mere fact that the practitioner believes in magick makes certain that, at least to some degree, the magick will unquestionably work. Because belief in success does, in fact, increase the chances of success by drawing more effort and energy out of the believer.
Magickal workings are an attempt to influence events and make changes in the world according to your will. These results are in relation to you and your place in the world, so making a change in yourself (by increasing your energy) will obviously have a change in your environment as perceived by yourself.
Ultimately, how magick works becomes less important than the fact that magick does work. The only requirement, however, is that you must believe in magick for it to work effectively. That’s the key, and the only thing that is needed to unlock the power of your will. Just like when Peter Pan tells us that Tinker Bell will die if we say we don’t believe. But if we believe, then Tink will live.
Without belief, Magick dies, but with belief, a whole world of possibilities is open to us. To use another children’s story as an analogy, “The Little Engine that could” makes it up the mountain only because he believes that he can. Children know these things, and these stories resonate with them. Sadly, as we grow older we are taught to learn boundaries and restrictions and once we find out that magick is not real and not possible, then, in fact it does become unreal and impossible.
Crowley, Aleister. Magick: in Theory and Practice. Castle Books, 1970 (originally published 1929) .
Penzcak, Christopher. The Mystic Foundation. Llewellyn, 2006
Valiente, Doreen. Natural Magic. Phoenix Publishing, 1975
Buckland, Raymond. The Complete Book of Witchcraft. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2007.
Frazer, Sir James. The Golden Bough. Macmillan, 1922.
Aczel, Amir. Entanglement. Plume, 2003.
Keith, William. The Science of the Craft. Citadel, 2005.
Vaughan, Susan C. Half Empty, Half Full: Understanding the Psychological Roots of Optimism. Harvest Books, 2001.
Hogan, Kevin, and LaBay, Mary Lee. Through The Open Door: Secrets of Self Hypnosis. Pelican Books, 2000.
Dyer, Wayne. Real Magic. Harper Collins, 1992.
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