A Commentary on the Art and Science of Magic
:: Silverspear - August 2007 © ::
Magic, to a greater or lesser extent, is a feature of most pagan paths and yet despite its prominence, the nature of magic generates an enormous amount of debate and varied opinion amongst pagans. Most individuals will be familiar with Crowley’s definition that ‘Magic (or Magick as he preferred to spell it) is the art and science of effecting change in conformity with Will’. Unfortunately such a definition explains very little to those unfamiliar with magical practise and indeed raises some questions. How is it, for example, that magic can be called a science when science deals only with that which can be studied, measured, analysed and understood rationally? Magic, on the other hand remains by its very nature entirely within the realm of the mysterious and elusive. And how justified is the assertion that magic is a product of the human Will, and what exactly does Crowley mean by ‘Will’?
These are just a few examples of why magic often engenders confusion and bewilderment, even amongst the most experienced practitioners. But putting aside definitions let me approach the subject of magic from the position of the poet because the art of the poet and the art of the magician are closely parallel; in understanding something of one we can understand something of the other.
In ancient tribal cultures imagination (allied to the word magic) was perceived as actual as the so-called real world in which humanity found itself. Conjuring up an image of someone in one’s mind was believed to be just as real as the actual physical presence of that person. By the same token, reciting a name brought that which was named into existence. Many Creation myths reflect this belief in the idea that the universe came into existence by the utterance of Divine Speech: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God’ says John’s Gospel. In addition to possessing the power of imagination, humanity evolved to perceive in terms of patterns because this ability is essential in making sense of the external world.
These two elements, the power of imagination and the ability to create patterns are fully exploited by both poet and magician. Through the imagination the limits of the physical world are transcended, and with the ability to make patterns inanimate objects can be invested with personality. Such animistic thinking remains a feature of human thought, expressed through the use of metaphor. Children more easily than adults see the world in animistic terms and it is this child-like perception that poets and magicians retain, or attempt to recapture if the ability is lost in the transition to adulthood. It must be said that the power of child-like imagination is not mere fantasy. The truth is that we all contribute to the reality we perceive because the external world is a world of chaos upon which we confer pattern. Consequently humanity is emotionally entrenched in the world in which Nature has placed it.
And so to express the power of imagination emotionally the poet organises words into certain rhythmic patterns. In doing so his aim is to produce a change in the perception and understanding of those touched by the poetry. One method of arranging words poetically is in the form of an incantation, an arrangement employed not only by poets but also by religious systems and magicians through the ages. This formula is spell-like in its use of pattern, repetition and word emphasis: ‘May they stumble, stage by stage on an endless pilgrimage…at each and every fall they take may a bone within them break’ is one example from a poem in the form of a curse by Robert Graves.
There is nothing supernatural in the nature of magic. The association of magic with the so-called supernatural is a product of superstition based on the dualistic idea that there are agencies at work outside of and beyond Nature. Most pagans would concede that Nature is all encompassing and self-containing. Theoretically that within Nature has the potential to be understood, but at the present development of humanity much remains a mystery and therefore that which is unknown can be described as magical.
However there is a science to magic, as Crowley points out, and the scientific element exists in the knowledge of how to manipulate certain unknown laws. One can learn to drive a car without understanding anything about internal combustion engines. Poets know how to create word magic through the use of alliteration, metre, metaphor, and syntax and so on and this constitutes the science of poetry. But the best poetry is not created by rigorous observance of rules and the contrived use of literary devices. The poet, having studied and mastered certain techniques, must then go beyond their conscious application and surrender to the mysterious dictates of inspiration; what the Ancient Greeks referred to as the Muse. This quantum leap is truly magical and has to be experienced to be fully appreciated.
When the work is complete the poet may wonder if the poem actually composed itself or was somehow channelled from an independent and higher source. The same process often seems to be at work in the area of musical composition, which is why Schubert slept in his spectacles with pen and paper by his bedside. On waking in the morning an entire piece of music presented itself to his conscious mind and all he had to do was write it down.
However such ease of creativity has to be preceded by hard mental work, without which no art or craft can be mastered, hence the adage that genius is one percent inspiration and ninety nine percent perspiration. The technical and intellectual skills eventually become second nature, allowing the poet or magician to operate freely within the realms of inspiration and imagination. From a magician’s position, such dedication means learning to ‘tie one’s shoelaces magically’ so to speak, and mastering the elements of his or her craft from the most basic level. Sadly some aspiring magicians fail to realise how important is attention to detail and assume that magic is something they can turn on and off like a tap. Without appreciating the real nature of magic their dilettante approach only serves to reinforce the compartmentalised function of the Western mind, and therefore defeats the objective of the magical mind, which is to function holistically. Like the poet or composer, the magician must become fully immersed in his craft to enable its energies to flow through him. Magic has to be lived and not merely performed.