Home > Blog Posts, Series 2: Evaluation of Traditions > Evaluation of Traditions: Magic

Evaluation of Traditions: Magic

“There is no ‘black magic’, but rather sorcerers groping in the dark. They grope in the dark because the light of gnosis and mysticism is lacking.” (Meditations on the Tarot, corrected edition 2002 Tarcher/Putnam, pg. 43)

There are many different “traditions” of magic, though they all come down, more or less, to aesthetic differences over practical ones. Certain among these traditions do appear to be more consistently effective than others, but I’ll get to that. Given the preceding, I’m going to treat magic as a single subject for the purposes of this article, only referring to differences of magical systems when necessary for clarity. It is also important to define my parameters right from the start. Under the heading of magic, I include divination and psychism (psychic powers). Divination is simply the use of magical techniques to gain information, while psychic powers are magical powers usually distinguished by their untrained use. Within these categories are also included most New Age and New Thought practices.

“Psychic” means “pertaining to the soul”, from the Greek “psyche”. Let us briefly explore mystical psychology (study, or logic, of the soul) before moving on to the implications of such on magic. Each human being is composed of their physical body, their soul (personality, astral body) and mind (mental body). Nearly every mystical and religious tradition worldwide will agree on this scheme, or one very much like it. Some divide these three “bodies” yet further, while some consider the soul and mind to be two facets of a single entity. It doesn’t matter if these divisions are taken literally or not; while we are alive, there are no hard and fast divisions here, anyway. What is important is that we recognize these three levels of our living awareness: physical, emotional/personal, and mental.

There is still a subtler layer, though: Spirit. In much of Western esoteric thought, mind and spirit are often conflated with one another. Even the great Franz Bardon used the terms almost interchangeably (although with an often unnoticed subtlety that belies his acute awareness of the differences). The cause of the conflation is that most people will go through their whole lives with only a handful of truly, consciously, spiritual experiences. Under those conditions, experiences of the spirit seem to be explainable as simple overload of the mind-brain. This is not entirely untrue; the way we consciously learn to reach for spiritual experiences does involve a lot of mental game-playing (concentration) at first. Eventually, according to the masters, the games become unnecessary as mind melts into Spirit and becomes identified with It.

So what is Spirit? Without going too far with my words, Spirit is God. In Buddhism, Spirit and Nirvana are identical. In Judaism, Spirit may be called Ain Soph. In Hinduism, Spirit is the Atman which is Brahman, the Unknowable and Uncreated. For a Christian, we are talking about God’s Holy Spirit by which we attain to Union in Love with God the Father. Our bodies, souls and minds are of God, as we are each of our human parents, but our Spirit is that in us which is God. I cannot say “my spirit”, but only “Spirit”. Without Spirit, that which identifies itself as “Nicholas Graham” simply wouldn’t be. Spirit is the breath-of-God in which we live, move, and have our being.

All of that being said, we can move on to the relevance of this to an exploration of magic.

Magic is not, cannot be, a spiritual practice. It is mental and psychic primarily, and physical secondarily, but not spiritual. It is by virtue of Spirit that magic works at all, but that is true of everything, so magic is not uniquely “spiritual”. Magic itself cannot help us in drawing closer to Spirit, in the process of identifying mind with Spirit.

In fact, this is the very source of the prohibitions in most traditional religions against the practice of magic: it is not that magic is evil, so much as it is a distraction from higher pursuits. In both Christianity and Judaism, at least as far as the Scriptures are concerned, there is no prohibition against the practice of magic. The Bible only prohibits the use of specific methods of enslaving the souls of the dead (oboth and yideonim) in the Old Testament, and in the New Testament it prohibits poisoning with herbs (pharmakoi). In most English Bibles, all of these terms are translated “magic”, “sorcery”, “witchcraft”, “witch”, “wizard”, and the like, but none of those words actually mean “magic” or anything of the sort.

There is nothing inherently wrong with using magic to change the world in which we live, though any use of magic to attack or manipulate another living being is as unlawful as any other means of doing the same, with the added sin of doing so dishonorably, “behind the scenes” as it were. It is without question that using magic to help people with their problems is a good act, insofar as that aid actually removes barriers between them and God.

There is also the question of the various traditions of so-called “ritual magic”. The practitioners of these traditions typically make great spiritual claims about them, citing dramatic visions and meeting with all manner of metaphysical entities. I do not doubt that many ritual magicians do achieve these visions. I have plenty of personal experience in this realm, myself. I also do not doubt the life-changing nature of the experiences involved. They, at the very least, provide experiential confirmation that the physical world is not all that there is. Still, these things are not “spiritual” insofar as they do not have anything to do with Spirit. They are experiences of the mind and soul. The masters and saints of all traditions, as well as the personal experiences of many seekers through the ages, reveal to us the fact that pure spiritual experience is without any sensory input from within or without. “For silence is the sign of real contact with the spiritual world and this contact, in turn, always engenders the influx of forces.” (Meditations on the Tarot, pg. 11)

There is one category of practice often related to magic which is genuinely spiritual, insofar as it leads to spiritual experience. This is known as theurgy. “Theurgy” means “God work”; that is, the theurgist seeks to make of herself a conscious and willing “instrument of God’s peace”. “The magus in sacred magic plays the role of the last link in the magical chain which descends from above, i.e. in order to serve as the terrestrial point of contact and point of concentration for the operation conceived, willed and put into action from above.” (Meditations on the Tarot, pg. 57)

I will not go into theurgy more deeply than this for now, except to say that theurgy can outwardly resemble magical rituals in many ways, including the use of ritual gestures, physical tools, incense, and the like, but the inner processes differ greatly and more closely resemble contemplative prayer. Theurgy is also sometimes known as “sacred magic” or “divine magic”. It is only magic at all insofar as theurgy may sometimes be used to effect a change in the mental, astral or physical worlds.

In theurgy, we do find the whole of the ethic of magic:

This is the aim of sacred magic; it is nothing other than to give the freedom to see, to hear, to walk, to live, to follow an ideal and to be truly oneself—i.e. to give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, the ability to walk to the lame, life to the dead, good news or ideals to the poor and free will to those who are possessed by evil spirits. It never encroaches upon freedom, the restoration of which is its unique aim. (Meditations on the Tarot, pg. 61)

Even the simplest sorcery will be judged upon this basis: does it enhance or diminish freedom? Does it liberate, or does it enchain?

So there is the crux: magic is itself not spiritual, but it can either aid or hinder the spiritual quest. It can create space in one’s life for Divine things, or it can become a means of abuse like any other. Magic is only lawful insofar as it creates that space and manifests true, perfect love; otherwise, it is the most foolish and vain of pursuits.

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  1. February 25, 2010 at 9:46 pm

    This post was the source of a discussion for my wife and I tonight. We came to the conclusion you have a completely different spiritual paradigm than we do.

    • February 25, 2010 at 10:05 pm

      I thought that was well-established. 🙂

      Mine is significantly more traditional than either of yours, as far as I can tell.

      Still, it’s really neat to be the source of somebody’s discussion.

  2. February 25, 2010 at 10:16 pm

    You say Traditional, I say out-dated, you say Potato, I say Potato….

    • February 25, 2010 at 10:25 pm

      If it has held-up for Siddhartha Guatama, Jesus Christ, Sri Ramana Maharshi, Mouni Sadhu, Brother Lawrence, Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint John of the Cross, Saint Teresa of Avila, Thomas a Kempis, Thomas Merton, D. T. Suzuku, Shunryu Suzuki, Thich Nhat Hanh, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the Mahatma Gandhi, and Pittsburgh Steeler Troy Polamalu, who am I to argue?

  3. March 2, 2010 at 6:22 pm

    Nicholas –

    The essential purpose of magick is to become one with God, using ritual, symbols of transformation and bodily ecstatic techniques to do so. The path of the magician and the mystic are identical, except that the magician does not renounce the world, and instead he or she seeks to revitalize it through a new vision or paradigm. This fits in with the mythic cycle of the Hero and Transformative Initiation, and the mythic cycle of the Magus. (You can see a more detailed exposition of these ideas by examining some of the articles of my blog.)

    Some of the great religious founders may have been magicians, such as Zoroaster, Solomon, Lao Tzu, Apollonius of Tyana, some speculate that Jesus was a magician as well. See my article in my blog on the Myth of the Magus – since there are modern candidates as well.

    In short, I believe that you are using a very narrow definition of magick. However, the Abramelin Ordeal and the Bornless One Invocation rite are powerful tools used to obtain a state of at-one-ment with the Godhead. Like forms of meditation and monastic spiritual disciplines, these processes take decades to produce their effects, but having done them myself, and knowing others who have done them, I would say that they do work as advertised. In order to prove this hypothesis, you would have to at the very least have to undergo such a rigorous discipline. And I am sorry, but the results won’t be fully realized for decades afterward – just as it occurs to those who adopt a monastic discipline. So it might just have to be said that you haven’t practiced these disciplines long enough to be able to effectively judge them.

    Also, you seem to confuse earth magick with higher forms of magick, both of which are equally important but quite different. In order to achieve a peaceful harmony with one’s material life process, earth based magick is important. However, high magick is involved in the invocation and evocation of spirits within their domain, so each of these operations is a powerful initiation by itself. One travels up the planes of spirit to engage and fuse with ever greater expressions of the one, until the One is finally achieved. This, of course, can’t be achieved unless there is solid material foundation. Hence the important of earth based magick.

    The highest magickal experiences that I have had involved states of consciousness that were undoubtedly in the lower causal level, since I saw and heard nothing, felt nothing but an eternal infinite bliss. Is this just phenomena of the mind? I doubt it. However, what is really important is my practice and my spiritual awakening – these are powerfully augmented by spiritual and magickal practices. Since I function as both a priest, godhead devotee and magickal practitioner, I see no difference between what I am doing and what any other religious leader is doing. I have not completed my process, but if I live long enough, I fully expect to.

    Also, any one of the adherents of a mystical discipline will say emphatically that a seeker must apply themselves to one system and methodology, and spend a lifetime engaged in it in order to fully comprehend the basis of their religious system and their monastic order.

    Have you at least stuck to a single path and discipline in order to see it to its ultimate realization? The answer to that question appears to be that you have apparently moved from one system to another, but not consistently worked one until it is able to communicate its secrets and open up its mysteries. This is true of either magick or mysticism.

    I know that we won’t agree on this idea that you have presented here, but the evidence, perhaps unbeknown to you, is overwhelmingly against your stated opinions. It requires proof, not just clever research and one sided arguments. While I respect your brilliance, I don’t have to agree with ideas that attempt to contradict decades of my personal experience.

    With High Regards –

    Frater Barrabbas

    • March 2, 2010 at 10:27 pm

      Barrabbas,

      It seems to me that the only thing you take offense to is my definition of the word “magic”. Much of what you do does not fit my definition of magic, but instead of theurgy or liturgy. Does that in any way debase what you do, or devalue your experience? I should hope not.

      I do not draw a distinction between “high magic” and “low magic”; it seems a false dichotomy which only purists feel the need to make. I do not, however, call rituals used to induce true spiritual experience by the name “magic”. “Mystical liturgy” is, to my mind, more appropriate. But if you wish to call that “magick”, you are welcome to do so and I will not argue over it. Why does this word matter so much?

      As to your assault upon my personal and spiritual credibility, I will not respond in kind, but say that my practices are my own. I am not willing to discuss what I practice with most people, even many very close friends, so it should come as no surprise that you do not know if I have followed a path to “completion”, or how far I have followed any given path to this point. There are some who know, but they are few and I plan to keep it that way. I will not post lengthy descriptions of my experiences in public, as you are willing to do. There too, we differ.

      I am curious as to why you are so defensive of my use of a word. Your decades of experience ought to be enough for you. Once again, if you wish to call “magick” what I call “mystical liturgy”, you are welcome to do so. I do not take it as an insult that we understand our terminology differently. Some of what you do is most certainly magic by both of our definitions, but using mine, there is much that is not. So what?

      In peace profound,
      Nicholas

  4. March 2, 2010 at 11:03 pm

    Ave Nicholas –

    I am sorry if my reply appeared to assault your credibility. That was not my purpose in attempting to show you that any path, however it’s defined, requires many years to develop and mature. That’s my point in its entirety. When I was in my twenties, I branched out quite a bit and I am not at all ashamed about it. Later on, I focused much more deeply on my specific discipline. So in a way, perhaps I was very much like you when I was a lot younger. It takes decades to build up a spiritual discipline and realize its full measure of wisdom and mystery.

    As for me being something of an exhibitionist and sharing my spiritual experiences with the public on my blog, I do that not to show people how superior I am. I do it to teach and to reach out to others, to help change and modify the path of magick in the Western Mystery tradition. I also only reveal a certain amount of what I experience and there is quite a bit that is kept private and exclusive. So my purpose is heuristic, not egotistical. For many years my work was very private. I am sure that even you knew nothing of what I had done or accomplished. Very few did. Also, while I may share some of my experiences, the rituals and workings are either not revealed or only discussed somewhat – they remain a mystery to almost everyone.

    As for the importance of the word magick, yes, it is vitally important to me – and to many others. If I don’t agree with your definitions, and I happen to be an experienced practitioner, then perhaps the problem is with how you are defining your terms. We disagree, that’s all. But I notice that you kind of snowballed Lex Pendragon when he disagreed with you. To me, magick is spiritual, whether one is aware of that component or not. I have witnessed some practitioners who started out just working spells for material things, but then over time, the process caused them to blossom and become deeply spiritual in their work. I myself had a very similar pattern in my early days – so there must be something to magick that is intrinsically spiritual.

    Anyway, it saddens me that I have been misconstrued by you, but I had to weigh in with my years of experience to balance what I felt was an error in your considerations and expressed beliefs. If I have in any way insulted you, please accept my heartfelt apology.

    With Highest Regards –

    Frater Barrabbas

  5. March 2, 2010 at 11:29 pm

    Barrabbas,

    I’m aware that you don’t reveal every detail in your blog, and that what you do reveal isn’t for egotistical purposes. I didn’t intend to imply otherwise. Just saying that there’s quite a bit that I’m up to that isn’t anything like public knowledge, and that I’m extremely (some would say too extremely) private on the topic.

    I have not been jumping around as much as you may think. I did that at one time, and am not ashamed of doing so; it gave me a fairly wide range of knowledge and experience that I couldn’t have gotten otherwise. Once again, I’m not willing to get into details, but I’ve been maintaining fairly consistent practice for the past several years now.

    I have known many magicians who have been practicing for decades who agreed more with my definition of magic than with yours. (See, for a published example, the work of Draja Mickaharic.) Once again, I think which definition one uses is a matter of opinion, where one chooses to draw the line, and little else. I do not mean by this to devalue your opinion, but to say that my own has its own support.

    I did snowball Lex with the caveat that were in a snowball fight, so to speak. He and I are very close friends, and were actually conversing personally via AIM at the same time as responding to each other’s comments on this blog. In other words, the comments here on this entry between he and I were conscious jokes made for our own mutual benefit and amusement. I can see how they might look mutually insulting from the outside.

    My practice of magic is certainly spiritual in the sense that it supports and enhances my other practices. When I practice magic, I feel as if I am participating in the numinous processes of continuing creation. I still do not define it as a spiritual activity, though, except insofar as all activities, when performed with full mindful awareness are spiritually alive. But again, we are defining our terms differently and I’m ok with letting that be; I know what you mean when you use the word “magick”, and I believe that by now you have a good idea of what I mean when I say “magic”.

    You have not insulted me. The purpose of allowing comments on blog entries is to encourage discussion. It would have been insulting had somebody come here and called me stupid and childish, or if a fundamentalist commented with something like, “magic is al evl nd u r go 2 hell”, but that isn’t you, and that’s not what happened. You and I may define our terms differently, but it should be clear by my support of your published writing and our continued friendship that I have great respect for you as a magician and, yes, as a spiritual being. That counts for far more than any minor, by comparison, disagreement.

    In peace profound,
    Nicholas

  6. m.e.
    April 21, 2010 at 8:18 pm

    @ Barabbas:

    As someone with years of experience, surely you are familiar with the “ring pass not” which limits the supernal from the astral and terrestrial-chthonic worlds? Aren’t you familiar with the Kabbalistic teachings regarding the Ain-Soph and the Tree?

    You have an order which uses powerful imagery and the word Gnostic in it. For you to disagree with fundamental Gnostic ideas would be unusual in that light.

  7. June 14, 2010 at 6:10 pm

    Nicholas,

    I’ve just recently discovered your blog. I’m not certain how active you are at this point, but I wanted to express that it is nice to find a well developed source that is perfectly in line with my own cosmology. Without a doubt, I will be piling through your older entries to glean whatever wisdom is available to me.

    I’d like the opportunity to connect with you sometime and pick your brain, and if nothing else, to get some extra direction from a fellow Hermetic Christian. Luckily, I have one or two great connections with others of our type that I have learned a lot from, but whenever I stumble upon another, I am immediately compelled to extend my hand.

    Hope that you are well.

    -Frater S.E.A.

    • June 14, 2010 at 6:26 pm

      Frater S.E.A.,

      Thank you for your comment. I, too, always like to meet a fellow Hermetically-oriented Christian. We seem to be a fairly rare breed!

      I am indeed still active, and fully intend to support this blog further. I have just gotten settled after a move from Pittsburgh, PA to rural Minnesota, and in addition have been devoting much of my writing time and energy working on a book project. You’ll see that I have several times supplemented the blog with excerpts taken from the book, so you’ll see a bit of what I’ve been working on.

      I look forward to hearing more from you. Feel free to comment, even on old entries, when you feel inspired to do so. Also, if you are so moved, go ahead an e-mail me using the address in my profile here at WordPress.

      In peace profound,
      Nicholas

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