The word “magic” derived from the Greek mageia and the Latin magia. The earliest use of the word in found in the occult practice and philosophy of the Persian Magi and since these magi had, possibly undeservedly, a reputation for practicing human sacrifice to the god Ahriman, magic very soon became equated with evil, an association with witchcraft and even Satanism. In spite of much effort to improve the public conception of magic on the part of modern practitioners, it remains, for the most part, either an object of ridicule or condemnation.
The word “magic” is often used somewhat loosely; for instance, it is applied to conjuring, and indeed stage conjurers are often termed magicians. Where used in this article the term “magic” refers to the use of rituals and force of will to produce results that appear to contravene the known laws of nature.
Orthodox Christians are in a curiously ambivalent position about magic. The New Testament relates how Persian Magi, employing their knowledge of astrology, were among the first to discover Christ, which ought to have endorsed their credentials, but the early Church Fathers were almost unanimous in condemning magicians as being in league with the Devil. Indeed such Fathers were not conservative in their approach to the subject, condemning sorcerers, pagan gods, and the Gnostics as the “anti-Christ.” The literature of magic is very large. It ranges from the early texts describing the employment of spells, talismans, charms, invocations and Lévi’s The Doctrine of Transcendental Magic, (1923) to severely academic studies such as the thirteen volumes of J. G. Frazer’s, The Golden Bough, (1890). This article will be confined to a general definition of magical practices and the theosophical view of it as found in the works of various theosophical writers.
As early as 1875, Helena P. BLAVATSKY wrote in support of the existence of magic and said: “The exercise of magical power is the exercise of natural powers, but superior to the ordinary functions of Nature. A miracle is not a violation of the laws of Nature, except for ignorant people. Magic is but a science, a profound knowledge of the Occult forces in Nature, and of the laws governing the visible or the invisible world” (CW I:137).
Writing in 1904, Franz Hartmann defined magic as a spiritual power exercised over the spiritual world (Magic, White and Black, Keegan Paul, London, 1904, p. 11). His principal argument is to the effect that any attempt to exercise magical power without first purifying the self by spiritual disciplines and identifying with the soul within will result in disaster.
Alice BAILEY defines the difference between white and black magic as a matter of intent; the concentration on developing the personality and exercising any powers attained for selfish ends constitutes black magic and leads to ever more immersion in the gross physical and a binding to the wheel of rebirth; the white magician aspires toward the spiritual and the common good (A Treatise on White Magic, Lucis Publishing Co., 1979, p. 229).
The qualifications required for the practice of magic are set forth quite trenchantly by Eliphas Lévi who writes, “The man who is enslaved by his passions or worldly prejudices can be initiated in no wise; he must reform or he will never attain; meanwhile he cannot be an adept, for this word signifies a person who has achieved by will and by work. The man who loves his own opinions and fears to part with them, who suspects new truths, who is unprepared to doubt everything rather then admit anything on chance, should close this book; for him it is useless and dangerous. . . . If you hold by anything in the world more than by reason, truth and justice; if your will be uncertain and vacillating, either in good or evil; if logic alarms you, or the naked truth makes you blush; if you are hurt when accepted truths are assailed, condemn this work straight away” (The Doctrine of Transcendental Magic, Rider, 1923, p. 35).
Just what is to be included in the category of “magic” is a matter of preference. In earlier years such practices as mesmerism or hypnotism, clairvoyance, witchcraft and spiritualist mediumship were all included, but today there has been a tendency to be less catholic in definition. It has been said that magic consists of laying hold upon the greatest secrets of Nature and compelling them into the service of an enlightened and inflexible will. Various devices and rituals are used to strengthen and focus the will, but the rituals and devices are largely useless unless employed by a magician trained in their use. Such devices include the Rod of Power, a bone used for “pointing” by Australian aborigines, a pentagram, various talismans, candles, garlic, and holy water.
It is worth noting that most informed writers on magic place emphasis on the exercise of will and Lévi states that, “In the order of eternal wisdom, the education of will in man is the end of human life” (op. cit. p. 255).
J. G. Frazer says, “If we analyze the principles of thought on which magic is based, they will probably be found to resolve themselves into two: first, that like produces like, or that an effect resembles its cause; and, second, that things that 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 former principle may be called the Law of Similarity, the latter the Law of Contact or Contagion” (The Golden Bough, 1976, Vol. I, p. 52). A typical magical procedure based on the latter belief takes place when, desiring to injure or even kill someone, the magician (or sorcerer) embodies nail clippings taken from the target person into an image made of clay and then subjects that image to various injuries.
Magical practices are still encountered as part of the social structure in many societies such as those of Polynesia and an interesting account of the methods used by Polynesian kahunas is given by Max Freedom Long in The Secret Science Behind Miracles (Devorss & Co., 1948) and Recovering the Ancient Magic (Huna Press, 1978).
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