The ABCs of Magic: Keys to the Practice of This Ancient Occult Art

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Archaeological evidence shows that humankind has believed in and practiced magic for tens of thousands of years. It is at the heart of countless religious belief systems practiced around the world today.
    Most cultural anthropologists believe the practice of magic has been an integral part of humankind’s development for tens of thousands of years and undoubtedly predates any surviving physical evidence.  Communing with nature, petitioning the gods, conferring with the dead--a belief in magic is thought to have played an essential role in our individual psychological development, our social organization, and certainly, the advent of religion (both personal as well as organized). 

     Numerous references to the practice of magic can be found in the world‘s oldest written texts including The Pyramid Texts of ancient Egypt, the Sanskrit Atharvaveda of Hinduism, and of course the Hebrew Bible, and tens of thousands of cave paintings, petroglyphs, and pictographs found throughout Asia, Australia, and the U. S. Southwest speak loudly of our ancestors’ relationship with the supernatural.  But perhaps most poignantly, archaeological evidence indicates that Neanderthals may well have conducted burial ceremonies involving ritualized magic some 70,000 years ago. 

So, there can be little doubt that not only is magic an ancient and concurrent aspect of human development, it is part of our human identity (both individually and societally), interwoven into our psychological, sociological, spiritual, as well as scientific understanding of the world around us.  As both psychologists and anthropologists acknowledge, our belief in the power of magic is inseparable from our worldview regardless of our cultural background, religion, or social status.

     Throughout recorded history, the ability to influence the forces of nature has distinguished our greatest leaders--religious figures, rulers, and trusted imparters of wisdom.  From Ramesses I to Solomon, Leonardo to Pope Benedict XVI, those believed to possess the ability to reach through the veil separating the realm of the mundane from that of the otherworldly have been afforded particular status, authority, privilege, and often, power.  And while in ancient times the practice of magic was commonplace--with magicians said to be on every street corner--it was often a matter of whose magic was more powerful that ultimately determined a practitioner’s societal ranking; those able to demonstrate their skills invariably afforded more social clout.  This reality is well exemplified in the Old Testament account of Moses challenging Ramesses the Great to a winner-take-all magical showdown.  But even in more modern times when computer-generated wizards challenge outlander magicians to cyber-duels to determine whose supernatural Kung-fu reigns supreme, the ultimate underlying question remains the same: “What makes one practitioner’s magic more powerful than another?”

     Is it all a matter of skill--the individual magician’s knowledge and experience?  Is it the variables of the ritual setting--the planetary alignments, the physical location, the atmospheric conditions?  Is it the power of the magician’s tools?  Is one cultural methodology inherently more powerful than another--Celtic more powerful than Native American; Egyptian more potent than both?  Or is power simply determined by how strictly the magician adheres to the letter of the ritual recipe?  These are the questions pondered since the first wise woman raised her arms to the sky and caused lightening to flash.

     For those who acquire their magical skills thorough self-discovery rather than apprenticeship, the names Gardner, Carmichael, Crowley, Regardie, Frazer, Fortune, and Leek are like old familiar mantras.  In Wiccan and Pagan circles, each name represents a formable figure from magical royalty who devoted much of their lives to uncovering--deciphering, in many cases--the esoteric secrets of the universe.  And like Aquinas, Flamel, Agrippa, Budge, and Levi before them, their first revelation was that it isn’t enough to simply know the ceremony of magic--the formula, as it were--to summon and wield the power of nature, one must ultimately become one with these boundless forces.  And as any practitioner who comes to master this relationship can attest, this is a process requiring untold patience, persistence, and for many, a lifetime of spiritual devotion.

     In his highly acclaimed primer, The Golden Bough: A Study of Magic and Religion, anthropologist Sir James Fraser writes, “If we analyze the principles of thought on which magic is based, they will probably be found to resolve themselves into two: that like produces like, or that the effect resembles its cause [the Law of Similarity]; and, second, that things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed [the Law of Contagion].”  In essence, the method by which a magician produces an effect is by imitating it, and that whatever a magician does to a material object will affect equally the person with whom it was once in contact.  But as any ritualist will tell you, the ability to produce these fundamental effects is anything but effortless, and to produce them consistently and on cue is perhaps the greatest test of any magician‘s will.  And that ability first begins with an unwavering belief that the human mind has the inherent ability to affect the physical world.  In virtually every known cultural setting throughout recorded time, this causation is accomplished by the use of specialized tools, formalized ritual procedure, and magical language.

     For many aspirants, it is with the acquisition of their ritual tools that the magical journal actually begins.  In that magic requires a vast selection of highly specialized tools (each chosen specifically for one and one purpose only), this process typically takes many years to complete.  For many adepts, the acquisition of ritual tools becomes an ongoing, lifetime mission, with instruments of higher magnitude replacing lesser ones as fate provides; and fate always provides.  Thus, establishing the proper “thinking” behind choosing one’s magical tools cannot be simplified or overemphasized.  While one school of thought contends that it is the intent with which you direct a tool that ultimately decides its usefulness--all tools are neutral objects through which the magician’s power is directed--most masters accept that a tool’s life-history can greatly affect ritual outcome.  A commonly-held belief among many Native American shaman is that every object carries an invisible history of all the places, events, and people is has touched, and that tool such as a knife once used in an act of violence cannot be transformed into an athame of positive works. Thus, magicians never forget that the intent they bestow upon a particular tool may not have been its first.  And while purification methods should always be a new practitioner’s first acquired skill, most adepts opt for new tools whenever possible (trade or barter preferable to money exchange) or have them hand crafted with their specific ritual purpose in mind. In time, a practitioner‘s tool kit will invariably include a number of tools acquired from more advanced ritualists (which are often most preferred as they carry the psychic memory and accumulated energy of untold rituals, but also have their inherent dangers.)

     For many neophytes, the term ritual is often misunderstood. Although ritual is most certainly the step-by-step formalized procedure associated with ceremonies conducted within a consecrated circle, it is also any number of other behaviors that can and do affect magical outcome.  For example.  Practitioners of many ancient cultures (including the Babylonians, Hebrews, Egyptians, and Germanic Pagans) discovered that number patterns have a direct ritual relationship.  They found that the number of strokes a magician brushes his or her hair, or even number of times they wash their hands during the course of a day, can be analogous with ritual, and so ritualized these behaviors, incorporating them into magical practices.  Likewise, fasting or eating a special diet on a given day, wearing particular clothing (especially undergarments), or choosing a particular herbal soap over another can all have unintentional ritual significance--and thus affect the outcome of an act of magic.  Discovered also by Maya, Aztec, and Inca cultures, magical performances often involved weeks or even months of purposeful preparation--fasting, meditation, ritual bathing, special grooming (including body adornment and hair styling), and reading of sacred text--incorporating behaviors that many of us today might not consider ritualistic or related to the practice of magic.  Still, many traditionalists consider every act and thought--even unintentional--as potentially affecting ritual outcome once it has been consciously decided that magic will be performed.  And once inside the ceremonial circle, any unplanned action, utterance, or thought should be expected to affect ritual outcome.

     Although mere thoughts are believed to affect the chain of natural events, it is spoken language that is considered most sacred.  In that magical language (including vocables: words and tones that by their very sound carry magic qualities) is formally established to be used in a ritual context only, prayers, spells, incantations, mantras, blessings, and chants have long been associated with magic most high.  Crowley, Gardener, and Carmichael are among several ritual purists who firmly believed that ritual must be performed in its “mother tongue” to work, with Crowley said to have invested countless protracted hours learning the precise pronunciation of the ancient incantations he unearthed and reenacted.  This timeless (and time-tested) belief is reflected in the Pope’s Vatican Christmas Mass which is always delivered in an archaic form of Latin, and traditional Jewish rites and rituals like Passover which are always recited in Hebrew--even in the most modest of Jewish households.  In that the ultimate power of language is thought to be in its vibrational qualities, one can only speculate as to what ultimate affect a mispronounced word or syllable may have on magical outcome.  But considering that sound is of the most primal communicative properties (connecting humans to our most ancient selves) and fundamental to our relationship with the natural world beginning with the first human utterances, it would be careless to underestimate the importance of the science behind it.  Oral tradition tells is that the most effective ritual recitations are those spoken with well-practiced, deliberate delivery.

     Today, magic is practiced by virtually every known culture on the planet--and is the foundation of most religious belief systems.  Those who identify themselves as "solo practitioners" of magic or modern witches number in the tens of thousands in the United States today, and that number is expected to rise.  Though varying in societal significance from culture to culture, those who practice magic say that to master this ancient art can take a lifetime, but for those strong of will and pure of heart, the spiritual rewards are unimaginable.

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Posted on Dec 14, 2010