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Article ID: 10055

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Magic: A Cornerstone of Pagan Identity?

Author: B. T. Newberg
Posted: October 9th. 2005
Times Viewed: 9,338

Have you ever wondered why Pagans use the term "magic?" After all, outside the community it is generally met with derision. It means stage magic, or child's play, or fantasy. Anything but a mature approach to living in the world. Yet Pagans are taking this demoted term, grown small as the elves and faeries that used to wield it, and reclaiming it for respectable use. There are good reasons for this, for magic glues together crucial elements of Pagan identity.

There are two major ways that magic functions in Pagan identity: as a bridge to past cultures, and a boundary to present ones.

First of all, magic is a link to the past. Virtually all forms of Neo-Paganism depend to a greater or lesser degree on the past. Reconstructionists seek explicitly to re-create what was historically practiced. Others are less concerned with historical accuracy but still draw the greater part of their inspiration from ancient ways. Yet in most cases there is a gap of over a thousand years between ancient and modern practitioners. Pagans need ways to bridge that gap. Magic is one.

The peoples of pre-Christian Europe were magical peoples. They had magi, sybils, druids, seers, shamans, oracles, cunning folk, diviners, and many more serious users of magic. They were not cheap fortune-tellers nor thrill-vendors. They were mature professionals and community helpers who saw magic as a way of engaging a deeper reality. When Contemporary Pagans adopt magic as a serious path, they draw an analogy. That analogy allows modern folk to assert a certain continuity between old and new. It allows Pagans to carry on in some sense the ways of their ancestors. By the same token it invests Pagan identity with a measure of age, tradition, and authority. Sometimes this effect falls flat, and in such cases people get accused of "playing dress up." But the attempt is there, and within the right groups it has powerful effect. Magic is at such times a link to the venerable past.

But there are many other ways to achieve that link: revived festivals, myths, prayers, and so forth. Magic is but one among many ancient practices, some of which have been left behind intentionally. Why bring it back now that it has fallen into derision? Why not leave it behind? With this question, we come now to the second major way that magic functions in modern identity: its relation to present cultures.

Frankly, magic is an anomaly in present Western culture. As mentioned earlier, it has dwindled to such a dwarfish form that most consider it an unreal fantasy fit mainly for entertainment. In the popular mindset the idea of taking up magic as a mature spiritual practice is not credible. Thus when someone does in fact take it up as a mature practice, it is a firm statement against the norm. And it is a firm link to others of like mind. To affirm magic is to affirm one?fs identity as Pagan, and to distance oneself from non-Pagan identities. It is a powerful sign to both self and other that one is Pagan.

This sign reads in two ways: in reference to out-group relations (that is, with non-Pagans) , and in-group relations.

As far as out-group relations are concerned, it must be recalled that most Contemporary Pagans live in areas dominated by either Christianity or some form of scientific rationalism. Both of these cultural paradigms more often than not give a cold shoulder to magic. Thus to practice magic is to be unique and different. It must also be remembered that many converted away from Christianity, and magic serves to emphasize the break with that tradition. Others just find the current paradigms unsatisfactory, and therefore take up magic as a hopeful alternative. In these ways magic defines a person against the scientific rational- or Christian-dominated out-group.

But magic also defines the in-group. As previously stated it makes a strong link to others of like mind. Since the majority of non-Pagans do not accept magic, while the majority of Pagans do, it becomes a defining characteristic. Pagans can talk with each other about magical experiences in a way they cannot with outsiders. Just the ability to decode the "k" in magick (as it is often spelled in Pagan discourse) connotes a savvy not possessed by 99% of the out-group. In this respect magic is not unlike a secret handshake. Magic is thus a vital tool of in-group identification.

At the same time, there are times when it is used for in-group control as well. While it is jarring to think of conformity pressures in a community so individualist as Contemporary Paganism, they do exist. Magic is one area where they manifest. For example, questioning the validity of another Pagan's magic is a major faux pas. Any one who gallantly charges against another's belief is bound to get a frigid response. Persistent critique may cause a person to be frozen out of the community. So-called "Witch wars, " in which rivals disclaim the validity of each other's traditions, have made their way into the top ten list of disdainful behaviors. In older days of Occultism it may have been different, but today an unspoken code of interpersonal relativism is the norm (note: Heathenry may be an exception--for a comparison of Heathen and Wiccan communication styles, see ?gThe Pentagram and the Hammer? by Gillette and Stead, .

The effect of this relativism is not only respect for individual beliefs but also suppression of critical voices. Rather than risk offense, many Pagans will decline to offer critical reviews of another?'s magic, or will phrase it in vague terminology that leaves open many possibilities. While social harmony is thereby preserved, a certain precision of thought may regrettably be sacrificed. This is the case at least so far as communication concerns the feelings of another person. In the name of mutual respect, the critical voice all too often falls silent.

On a less dramatic level, there is also the matter of just maintaining smooth relations in the community. Just as Christians of most sects can hardly disbelieve the afterlife without encountering friction from their follows, so Pagans must show at least tacit deference to magic. While there are Pagans that do not believe in magic, it is not something one loudly decries without appearing obnoxious. So as not to offend others, magic is usually left unquestioned. In this way in-group conformity is maintained.

These points make clear the functions of magic in managing group relations. It defines against the out-group, while simultaneously exerting pressure on the in-group. From this it can be seen how significant magic is to Pagan identity. Why do Pagans insist on using the derided term? It functions so well in prescribing group boundaries that it is apparently worth the risk of censure from a hostile out-group, Christian or otherwise.

Perhaps it is even by virtue of the risk that it functions. It is tempting to speculate that sometimes Pagans sign-up for the censure. After all the most explicit target for suppression, historically, was "Witchcraft." And what is today the most popular of Pagan groups?--the Wiccans, who also call themselves Witches. There is often in Pagan discourse a note of defiance, linked to empowerment, which seems to goad on the rancor of the out-group. Do Pagans sow unity by cultivating the perception of a hostile out-group? Perhaps this is but one more way that magic cements the group together.

Indeed magic is a glue that pieces together Pagan identity. It connects modern practitioners to their distant forbears. The link to the past created by magic brings to modern Paganism heritage and authority. At the same time it offers effective means of defining the community against a paradigm dominated by Christianity and scientific rationalism. Finally, it acts as a medium for in-group control.

Whether magic takes the form of spell-casting, divination, worship, meditation, self-help, or alternative medicine, it fulfills these functions. To return to the original question: why do Pagans use the term "magic?" Perhaps it is because it is so useful to Pagan identity. Through wielding a term that is nearly impossible to wield in any other group, Pagans forge for themselves a clear and unmistakable identity. They create a sense of shared experience, and a feeling of belonging. Other terms could have been used, but the one embraced was magic.

Though magick, in each side and face displays
a crystal's facets of the ancient ways
as light refracted in another's eyes,
our kinship emanates more radiant rays
by simple truth our truest sight espies.

Against bleak prospects, magick is the art
with which to prove with true and trusting heart
within the earth our roots are intertwined
though in the grove, as trees, we stand apart
and by no judgment shall be undermined.

(Poem contributed by Bard Oskan--to see more of her poetry search her profile here on Witchvox; also look for her new fantasy novel: Becoming the Crane, by May Oskan) .

Copyright: Article copyright Brandon, 2005
Poem copyright Bard Oskan, 2005


B. T. Newberg

Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota


Author's Profile: To learn more about B. T. Newberg - Click HERE

Bio: Brandon?'s essays have been featured at major academic conferences, including the Conference on Current Pagan Studies at Claremont Graduate University, California, and the Victorian Queer Spirituality Conference in Melbourne, Australia. His magical flirtations draw mainly on Wiccan and Shamanic influences.

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