Some Thoughts on Magic

Sorcerer's LuckThe other day I realized that I’ve been studying the history and belief systems of various kinds of magic for 50 years.  I thought others might find some of my conclusions interesting, so here’s what might be the first of several blog posts.

Anyone who wants to write in the various fantasy genres can profit from some understanding of “real” magic, that is, the beliefs about magic that real people have held throughout history.  Magic that has some depth, some feeling of reality, enhances a story far more than magic as a substitute for technology or as some kind of “goblin zapper” alone.

First off, I see magical systems as cultural constructs rather than Universal Truths. It used to be fashionable to talk about the “collective unconscious” and, worse yet, “racial types” when scholars like Mircea Eliade discussed shamanism and magic.   Joseph Campbell, in his reductionist skimming of world myths is perhaps the final reduction of this line of thought.  The human brain has deep structures — neurology makes that clear — but “the archetypes” are far too abstract to be hard-wired.  Magical systems are thus cultural products in the same way as art styles are cultural products.  Styles can be borrowed, and indeed they often are.  Similarities between magical styles are thus likely to be disseminated or outright imitated rather than something inborn.

Here’s one example of this kind of cultural transmission of magical ideas.

Let’s consider the American “rune revival” system that’s been developed England and some areas of the United States.  The runesters whose work I’ve read try hard to divorce themselves from the “Golden Dawn” -ish system of Mangled Kabbalism, but the borrowing seem fairly clear.  The magical revival of the late 1800s, coupled with the Theosophical movement, set the basic terms and operations for most modern systems of magical practice.  Terms such as “etheric double”, “planes of existence”, and “scrying in the astral” owe their existence to the bookish reworking of would-be magicians in England and America.  These concepts can be renamed in order to fit them into one system or another, but they’ve become impossible to ignore.

Another problem modern occultists who study the runes face is the origin of the runes themselves. One good look at them, and you can see that they must derive from the alphabets of the Mediterranean region, most likely the Roman, since the Romans had the most contact with the Gothic and Germanic tribes in the early years C.E. However, like most modern occultists, runesters want their system to be extremely old, plus they want it to be free of “Mediterranean cultures” as well. The “northern soul,” the “Germanic way,” and other such phrases reveal their desire for a system that’s pure in some way from — let’s face it — Semitic influence. This doesn’t necessarily mean anti-Jewish; the alphabet originally was Egyptian, but it got passed around by the Phoenicians, another Semitic people.

In the early days of the revival, in Germany in the latter days of the 19th century, anti-semitism did mean anti-judaism, but it was also anti-Christian. Christianity and Islam are, after all, basically Jewish heresies, not that their followers want to admit this.  Modern runesters are struggling mightily to put this anti-Jewish feeling behind them, by and large. But it’s not going to be easy to do.   The grim shadows of Nazism and its perversion of the runes still lie too close.

One of my main conclusions, however, as I look back over all those years of studying the subject of Western magic, is that the origin or character of any given set of symbols really does not matter. Unless you believe in racist theories that say each “race” has a particular “soul”, and only the right kind of magic will work of that “race”, any set of symbols, any tradition, will produce the willed changes in consciousness that modern magicians seek. What does matter is the consistency and dedication of the magician. These symbol systems are ways of organizing a magical mind, not some kind of buttons to push to get instant results.

It’s a matter of doing what Dion Fortune (pen name of Violet Firth) calls “making one’s notes.” If you play a properly tuned guitar, and you finger a string between two frets, and you will get the right note automatically. If you play a violin, you have to learn where the note is without any kind of guide marked on the neck of the instrument. By working with a symbol, the magician builds meaning into that symbol, personal meaning, that can, with the right kind of work, then reflect the meaning and the power behind it back onto the magician.

I suspect that a magician could invent a set of symbols, somewhere between 20-25 of them to keep things tidy, invest them with meanings drawn from philosophy and occult theories, and then use them to the same effect as the Hebrew Alphabet, the Runes, or any other system of marks and symbols. Provided of course the set was drawn up respectfully, as it were, no mickey mice in it etc.  Basically, the European occult movements of the late 19th century, The Golden Dawn in England, Guido von List in Germany, the French Rosicrucian orders, did just that — they took symbols that were indeed old and had been considered “magical” in the past, then overlaid them with every exotic idea they could get their hands on. Once they’d done this, to those who worked with them, the symbols had tremendous mental power.

Thus, whether the magician chooses the futhark or the Hebrew alphabet as pegs to hang mental constructs upon is a matter of choice — and of culture.


About Katharine Kerr

Katharine Kerr's bookshelf Katharine Kerr spent her childhood in a Great Lakes industrial city and her adolescence in Southern California, whence she fled to the San Francisco Bay Area just in time to join a number of the Revolutions then in progress. After fleeing those in turn, she became a professional story-teller and an amateur skeptic, who regards all True Believers with a jaundiced eye, even those who true-believe in Science. An inveterate loafer, baseball addict, and rock and roll fan, she begrudgingly spares time to write novels, including the Deverry series of historical fantasies or fantastical histories, depending on your point of view. She lives near San Francisco with her husband of many years and some cats.


Some Thoughts on Magic — 2 Comments

  1. Huh. What I find intriguing and useful is ancient and medieval stuff, insofar as it can be discovered. . . I will go look at digging up references up.

    • Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: Ancient Greece And Rome edited by Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark
      Magic in the Middle Ages by Richard Kieckhefer