Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Magical Musings - Theories of Magic

I have been practicing magic in many forms for over 36 years, from simple earth magic to the most advanced forms of evocation. This experience has not blinded me to the basic concepts of how magic works and the nature of magical power. I have not only worked very successful magical rituals for myself, but for others as well. I have taught this regimen to students and they have met with success as well. I believe that I can, with a certain degree of confidence, make some propositions about magic, how it works, and how it can be successfully deployed. I have also been collecting some theories about magic and I have classified a few of them that I think are useful. I present them here for you to examine and judge, but I don’t believe that these musings are exhaustive or comprehensive.


There are probably just as many ways to work magic as there are ways of cooking food. Every cook has his or her own methodology, from the ingredients used to the techniques of preparing and presentation. Every locale in our world has its own recipes and its own spices and seasonings. Cooking is both an art and a science - but not necessarily an exact science. All this is true of magic as well. Magic is determined by the culture and the time that it was developed and used. There are old traditional recipes and there are traditional magical applications, new haute cuisine and cutting edge forms of high magick. There are a number of different schools of cooking, so too, there are different schools of magic. Each school of cuisine probably has its own theories and models for cooking, too.

Like the analogy for food, there are also several different theories about magic, and all of them take a very specific model and methodology and apply it exclusively. So there is a theory of magic that is based on Spirit, another one based on Energy, and still another one based on Psychology. All of them are correct as far as they go, but all of them are limited to a single model and their associated assumptions. I would also consider them to be gross generalizations, but models are good learning devices, since they challenge and help us to accurately think about the way something really works.

We can see these models operating in how people talk about magic. Some are engaged with spirits and see magic as being a process that involves gods or goddesses, others are involved in energy and talk about magical powers. Some seem to think that magic is just a form of applied psychology, so they talk about magic as a means of positive affirmations, linguistic devices and artifices, and cathartic psycho-dramas. There are other theories about magic as well, and some of them are based on the empirical fact that magic and magical thinking are completely fantasy based, so to them magic is a false belief. Yet another theory has it that magic represents the manipulation of physical powers that are as yet unknown to science.

As witches, we believe that magic is real, but besides that, there are as many opinions about magic as there are individuals practicing it. For the sake of simplifying something that is very diverse and complex, we will look at three theories about magic, since they would aptly apply to how most witches define magic.

The first theory of magic is that magic is all about spirits and this is probably one of the oldest theories about magic. Whether they are called Gods, Goddesses, ancestors, earth spirits, fairies, angels, demons, spirit guides or any of the otherkin, they are all spirits. (They may all be categorized as spirits, but they are listed in different and mutually exclusive hierarchies in the various traditions that work with them.) A spirit theory of magic proposes that all magical phenomena are caused by the intercession and/or manipulation of spirits. A spirit theory of magic has to not only define the nature of spirits and the spirit world, but also the nature of Deity and how spirits and gods interact in the practices of magic and religion. The nature of spirits and deities are paradoxical, so we have to understand that any rules we make about spirits and their qualities are subject to being regularly altered. There is also the consideration that each of us has within us a spirit as well, and that this personal spiritual dimension has a role to play in magic and religion as well.

Witchcraft has the unusual advantage that liturgy and magical crafts blend together to form a single praxis. Devotional invocations to the gods can also be magical spells meant to cause changes in the material world. As we will see when examining the other theories, witchcraft is a hybrid, combining many theories into a blended and practical perspective.

The second theory of magic is that magic is energy. An energy theory of magic proposes that all magical phenomena are caused by the generation and/or manipulation of energy. Some aspects of this theory are quite ancient, such as when magical energy is equated with mana or the Chinese martial arts concept of chi. Indian theories of kundalini energy would also be applicable to this theory.

However, most western practitioners of magic who use the energy theory of magic tend to perceive it as an analogy for electricity. Such a model will use terms like power, forces, colored lights, polarity, resonance, vibes, intensity, bolts, sparks, wave-forms, emitting, magnetic, electric, charging, loading, short-circuiting, zapping and blasting. We have all heard these terms being used at some point in a lively discussion of magic. All of them seem to describe a very physical phenomena that is mindless and easily applied to any medium, just like turning an electrical light switch on or off.

Those who are deeply committed to the theory of magic as energy don’t realize that there isn’t any quantifiable energy in their magic. Some might speculate that the actual energy is very subtle, capable of being sensed only by those who are sensitive to it or who are operating under an altered state of consciousness. This would be like someone stating that electricity only works if you are sensitive to it and trained to perceive it. Electricity is a verifiable energy, but magical energy seems to be more like a metaphor.

The third theory of magic is that magic is a psychological phenomenon. This theory has an unfortunate corollary that magic is based on mental fantasy and doesn’t really exist. It’s just a “head trip” for those who lack any capability in the real world. One could also easily say that everything is a mental phenomena or perception, and very little is actually objective or real other than the obvious physical world.

Human nature also has a mass psychology of culture, which would be studied under the discipline of sociological psychology, and it also has the phenomenon of language, which would be studied via psycho-linguistics. All of these disciplines have as their base certain ontological qualities, such as the psychology of perception and beliefs about the self and the nature of reality. All of them can be applied to a psychological definition of magic.

Psychological magic becomes a kind of “as if” premise to build up a system of beliefs that assist individuals in becoming empowered and independent, even if they are actually neither. It’s effective in the areas of re-programming the mind through positive affirmations and undergoing transformative ordeals through ritualized psycho-drama. Magic can be seen as a linguistic phenomena or a social phenomena, but beliefs about spirits or energies are downplayed. Deities are classified as archetypes, so they can be compared and qualitatively combined. For instance: all female goddesses are represented by a single universal female goddess, etc. Or: magical powers are just rhetorical devices that have no reality whatsoever.

A psychological theory of magic can have the unfortunate effect of devaluing the energies or the quality of spirit experienced in magic. Classifying deities and qualifying them as psychological archetypes makes them less real and seem more like just psychological phenomena, which is profoundly wrong in regards to the paradoxical nature of Deity and the human experience of it. Spirits appear dynamic and real to those who so regard them, and the energy of magic also seems very potent to those who work with it. Merely judging things as nothing more than the product of the mind seems to really omit the power and reality of these phenomena. The psychological theory of magic has its limits, like all theories, and must be used sparingly and precisely. This is also true of these other theories of magic as well. They can be useful to a point, but if used excessively, they can easily produce a lot of nonsense as well.

Of course we are talking about theories and not the real world of magic. People who work magic in the Western Mystery Tradition, which includes all of the folks practicing European Witchcraft, use a combination of all three systems. So when most people talk about magic, they refer to powers, spirits and psychological transformations combined in what they do. Sometimes this can get a bit confusing, especially if one of the models is being used too aggressively. Yet a balanced approach and a degree of admitted uncertainty can help us to understand something that does not readily lend itself to being understood.

Thoughts About the Energy Theory of Magic

I previously discussed the basic premise of the energy theory of magick - where it proposes that all magical phenomena are caused by the generation and/or manipulation of energy. I now propose to engage in a deeper discussion of the energy theory of magic. Some purists believe that there is no need to exhaustively describe or develop the concept of energy, as they will say “energy is energy.” They are happy to use the “cone of power” or witches dance to raise energy to do their magical work. However, I have always found this simple use of magical energy to be quite limiting. So I have begun to deliberately classify and analyze the practices and uses of magickal energy, and I have discovered many other structures that are quite useful.

We need to start with a practical definition, so we’ll look at the simplest method of generating or raising magical power, and that is the cone of power. The cone of power is a ritual where the participants are arranged in a male and female order around the perimeter of the magic circle, holding hands, they dance with a pivoting step around the circle in the direction of the sun, or clockwise - also known as deosil. The leader stands in the center, perhaps pivoting in the same direction. As they dance around the circle, they also chant some repetitive chant and the pace quickens steadily until they are nearly running. At the climax of the dance, the leader calls them to stop, the dancing immediately ceases and all of the dancers drop to the earth as if dead. The leader gathers the still swirling energy to the center of the circle and projects it to the zenith, so forming a cone. The cone of energy is built on the polarity of male and female coven members, and the dance is the sexual chase, where the men chase the women, who in turn chase the men - always pursuing and being pursed, but never actually achieving consumation until exhaustion intervenes. One could see the cone of power as just being energy, but I would see it as a masculine energy.

Why do I think that the cone of power is a masculine energy? There are many clues and the first is that the energy generated forms an obvious phallic shaped structure. Other clues are found in way that the energy is raised. It is produced through an incremental intensification of polarity, that the energy field is first raised and brought to a plateau of intensity, and then the energy is stimulated a second time and brought to a final climax. This is an unwitting model of the masculine sexual cycle, where the end of the rite produces a kind of “ejaculation” of energy. I think that a strong case can be made that the cone of power is masculine.

The cone of power is a sun-wise spiraling energy field that moves from the earth to the sky, and sends out a bolt of energy to a specified target when it reaches a critical climax. So if we can agree that the cone of power is masculine, then what would a comparative feminine force be like? Well, I would say that it would have to be exactly the opposite in all ways.

The hypothetical feminine energy would be a magnetic, anti-sun-wise or widdershins spiraling energy that moves from the earth to below the earth, forming a vortex. (Some might consider any movement in an anti-sun-wise or widdershins direction to be evil and would avoid doing so. Of course I consider this a superstition, and that energy being neutral should be able to go one way or the other without any associated bias or prejudice.) As the cone of power is polarized along the perimeter of the circle, a vortex would be polarized with a cross-roads of opposing watchtowers, and the cardinal directions would be joined together in the center of the circle. Where the cone of power represents a kind of fission, the vortex represents fusion. The cone of power reaches a climax and sends out a bolt of energy, the vortex achieves a kind of critical mass and sends out waves of transformative energy - just like dropping a pebble into a still pool of water. A cone of power typically requires some kind of banishment after it is used, but a vortex remains in place, almost indefinitely. One would seal a vortex with a sealing spiral instead of banishing it with a banishing spiral. A vortex can be reused indefinitely and hold or contain built up energies from working to working. A vortex structure that is used over a long period of time actually develops layers within layers and becomes increasingly more powerful over time, filling the temple with a potent aura.

To recap: I believe that magical power should be perceived as having a gender. Examples of genderized powers are the cone of power used by some Witches, which has a masculine gender, and the magnetic vortex, which is feminine. There are some assumptions built into these rituals used to raise energy, such as resonance and polarity. Yet by the admission of these additional properties, there are other considerations that could be made, and indeed I have followed them to build an entire magical system on this model. However, we need to carefully define what the theory of energy is so we don’t confuse it with something that it’s not - which is a real energy like electricity.

Clarification of the Energy Theory of Magic

First of all, magical power is not a real energy. It can’t be measured by scientists and wouldn’t represent a phenomenon characterized by the electromagnetic spectrum. When magical practitioners use the word “energy” or “power”, what, then, are they actually talking about? If it’s not some kind of measurable physical energy, then it’s functioning as a metaphor, and this is what I believe it is. That’s not to say that magical power is just imaginary, since things that exist in the mind also can be powerfully projected into the physical world. Other powerful metaphors spring to mind - such as “Liberty”, “Wisdom” and “Love.”

As we have stated, there are several models used to explain the effects of magic, and energy is just one of them. So the energy theory of magic is really a metaphor used to describe the effects of experiencing of magic. What is that effect? From my firsthand knowledge it is the intensity of the magic, how meaningful it is to the participants and perhaps that it causes some kind of transformation of consciousness. Physical phenomena may occur, but even if it doesn’t, then the magic still works. It could also be said that the physical phenomena observed may not be so unusual outside of the subjective frame of reference of those who experienced it. So what we have is that magical “energy” is a metaphor for the intensity, meaningfulness and degree of conscious transformation of the experience of magic. I think that we can possibly agree on this definition.

If magical power is a metaphor, then further qualifying that metaphor with other associated values does nothing more than define it in a detailed manner. Since it’s not a real measurable energy, doing this doesn’t invalidate the nature of that energy or misinform one about its qualities. It’s a tool, and a tool that is embellished in the art of magic is one that is made more effective and potent in the mind of the wielder. Therefore, if we say that the power has a certain color, elemental quality, gender, shape, or other associations, we are building up a more detailed metaphor of that magical power and producing a more effective tool.

How do witches raise energy? They raise it from their bodies - it comes from their physical exertions and their stimulated imaginations. The raising of energy is an “as if” device, since it assumes the energy model of magic and uses it to build a powerful affirmation that affects the practitioners and their environment. Resonance is the key to the energy model of magic, and it requires that ritual activities are cyclic, iterative and of increasing intensity. What this means is that when witches dance in a circle, their activity, the chanting, pace of movements and the overall intensity incrementally increases until a climax of action is achieved.

However, raising energy isn’t the only thing that is done, since I have observed a great deal of exuberance and activity that produced little or nothing later on. I have also met individuals and groups who don’t know what to do with their magical energy once it is raised. There are definitely other components involved when using the energy model of magic other than just raising energy.

The way that raised magical energy is made more real and readily perceived is to give it greater definition. So the energy is qualified by associating it with other symbolic things, like an invoking pentagram drawn in the air, or by tools, fetishes and other means. The energy can also be shaped by the circumference of the magic circle and also by other structures incorporated into the raised energy - such as defining a center, drawing lines of force (from the four cardinal points, or the points between them), and by the direction of the flow - whether deosil or widdershins. Of course, none of these additional considerations are required, but they make the magic work more effectively. Certainly a person could cut down a tree with a sharpened stone, but a steel axe, or even a chain saw would be more effective and efficient. I have learned through experience that when magical energy is qualified, the more detail that one applies to it, the better it works.

Once the magical energy is raised, then the most important action in a simple magical working is to imprint that raised, qualified and shaped magical energy. Imprinting can be as simple as using one’s will and desire to give a direction and volition to that power, in other words, setting a target. Without a target, the magical energy has no where to go once it is released. However, it’s better to fashion some kind of symbol of the desire or target of the magic that represents a bond between the witch, the target and that which is desired to happen. Often this bond is implicit, that is, it’s implied in the nature of the desire that is the object of the magic.

For instance, if one were performing a money spell, then the need for money would be the desire used to imprint the magical energy raised, so when released, it would aid the witch in gaining that objective, money. If the target is more precisely defined, then the possible outcome will also be more focused and precise. So just imprinting the raised energy often isn’t enough to guarantee results. Something additional is needed to define the objective of the magic in a very precise manner, and that brings us to the second most important action - building the magical link.

A magical link is a way of symbolizing the object of the magic, and it can be fashioned in a myriad of forms, from a gross link (poppet with bits of hair and nail parings or a cache bag filled with different herbs) to a symbolic link (a sign, sigil or talisman drawn on parchment, or a piece of jewelry). The link represents the work that the magical energy is to perform, and the link is applied to the raised magical energy through chanting specific words, showing the link to the power, drawing the chosen sign or sigil, or placing the link in a prominent place in the circle (on an altar, in the center of the circle, affixed to a pole or stang, etc.). The mind of the practitioner also performs this imprinting by associated the raised energy with the intended purpose of the rite (setting the intention), so the imprinting is also done, too.

In our money magic example above, we might be looking for a specific kind of job or opportunity. This could be symbolized in some fashion by creating a sigil or even cutting out a specific job ad from the newspaper and drawing a pentagram on it with a green colored pen (green for U.S. money) and also one’s magical name or symbol, so it becomes personally identified (a link). This item is then held in an incense censor, charged, and then used as a magical link to help imprint the magical power. The specific job ad itself would no longer be important, because it now symbolizes a means to an end. One would chant the words “money” or other appropriate words (“opportunity”, “growth”, “security”), and perhaps display the link or even burn it in a cauldron - sending it into the air to be absorbed by the raised power.

The final action is to exteriorize the raised, qualified, shaped and imprinted energy, and this is done through a second round of resonance activity ending with an even greater climax. The energy is sent out of the circle resembling the shape through which it was formulated, and so it assumes the form of a dart or a wave, or some other geometric structure, depending on the shaping qualification that was used. Some groups perform a spiral dance, or a deosil round, others choose to go widdershins to unlock the power. All of these techniques use resonance to bring the power to final climactic finish.

The energy and its associated link is then released to do its work, but the practitioner doesn’t just sit around and hope the magic works. Instead, he or she goes out and performs all of the mundane steps required to achieve the objective, knowing that the magical spell will give greater aid and luck than what would ordinarily be experienced without it. In the case of the money spell, the witch would commence with a very rigorous job search regimen, and he or she would be open to whatever presented itself, showing the maximum level of flexibility and openness to the effect of the magic spell. Such a powerful, optimistic and relentless pursuit of one’s objective is almost certainly met with success. The magical working is only a part of the overall ambition, but its effect can be quite astonishing and seemingly miraculous.

These are some of my thoughts about magical power and how it can be used. As there are other models of magic, there are other considerations and practices that can be performed. We can also get very deep into the methodology of shaping and qualifying magical energy, too. My personal repertoire of ritual magick includes over 24 different basic energy structures, using the four watchtowers, four angles, and the three points in the center of the circle - the nadir, zenith and mid-point - eleven points in all. We will be visiting these other models in future articles and also examining other structures in the energy theory of magic.

Frater Barrabbas Tiresius


  1. When magical practitioners use the word “energy” or “power”, what, then, are they actually talking about? If it’s not some kind of measurable physical energy, then it’s functioning as a metaphor, and this is what I believe it is.

    I think of the "power" or "energy" of a magical operation is the measure of the probability shift that the ritual produces. This is not the same thing as "energy" in physics, but it is quantifiable as long as you have a good idea of the relative likelihood of the event or situation that you are attempting to influence with a spell and you do enough trials to get a decent sample size.

  2. Excellent idea - one would suppose that this issue is well documented in "Operant Magick?"

  3. Yes. Also here:

    M, the magical effect, is a measure of the "power" of any given ritual.

    The latest revision of "Operant Magick" also combines the operant equation with the spirit model, which is similar to the way in which I describe groups of magicians combining their abilities. Essentially a spirit is an additional source of this "power" above and beyond what the individual magician can produce so you can add M(Magician) to M(Spirit) to determine the final result of the ritual.

    That's going to be another blog post one of these days, once I get around to writing it up.