This work is copyright (c) 1998 G'Noas Qohazior. All rights reserved. This work may not be edited or altered in anyway, and may not be distributed in any form other than electronic transmission.

The purpose of this lesson series is to provide a generic grounding in the study of "occult arts and sciences." It will provide a step by step guide to prepare for, and learn, the basics of grounding and meditation as well as more "complicated" studies.

This is the third lesson in the series and deals with the various theories of "how magic works." As it is the theory of magic that is being explored, the "source" or method used will not generally be at issue, only the act or effect itself. At times, however, some theological and philosophical contexts will necessarily be discussed, but no judgment or preference will be presented. No actual practices or exercises will be given, but some grounding in why something works is necessary to understand how it works--this textfile is presented in this order that later lessons will not be bogged down with discussions of the explanations behind certain practices.

Footnotes will be indicated by a number in parentheses and are hyperlink enabled.


What is Magic?

Magic has been with us since the dawn of humanity. "History" is considered to have begun at the point that we first have written records since there is no way to know for certain what happened without having a record of it. Since the historic record begins with a rich and complicated tradition of magic, it seems obvious that magic has its origins in the deep well of prehistory. All this, of course, is commonly accepted. But it does provide a basis for the discussion of the literary and practical history of magic.

As magic began, only certain people were considered to be able to access its power. The knowledge was closely guarded and only passed on after lengthy trials and apprenticeships, though its power was used freely for the benefit of the entire community. As community began to evolve into society and roles within it began to specialize and become more concrete, the shaman/magician was looked to as the liaisons between the people and their gods--as the practitioners of magic became priests, the priests became the guardians of magic.

As religion developed, the gods became accessible, to a certain extent, to everyone. Priests, being devoted to the deity the served, were considered to be closer to the gods as well as more accomplished in magic, but the people in general were able to conduct some ceremonies themselves as well as wield some occult power. Then science started to develop. As mathematics, herbalism and chemistry moved from the realm of the priests to the realm of the professionals, magic began a migration as well.

The above two paragraphs are a general history of magic as it developed among various cultures. As different cultures evolved at different rates and times, the history presented above does not represent a universally historic record, but it is fairly consistent in each culture as each passed through the described processes, and it does bring us generally to the advent of Christianity as a hemispheric entity.

As Christianity became the "world" religion, the priests denounced magic as the work of "the Devil." Arguably, it can be reasoned that magic gives the individual control over his or her own life and that this conflicted with the desire of the church. Whatever the reason, the only accepted use of magic in Western society soon became the intercession of priests on behalf of God--any other use was, at best, blasphemy. Eventually, though, science became more "pure" and more accepted, and as 'cause and effect' were slowly recognized as natural laws, the view of magic started to change as well. As scientists began to discover that certain actions resulted in other actions as a natural course of events, and that this relationship was "built-in" to God's creation, magic slowly began to be viewed as a simple series of "cause and effect" events. Religious explanations were removed from the equation and Ceremonial Magic evolved among the priests and intelligencia as a scientific study. This allowed at least a partial acceptance of magic (at least in certain forms), and once again magic could be studied without fear of excommunication or death.

It was also at this time that 'stage magic' began to flourish. Originally used by priests and magicians to "prove" their power to those that needed some sort of immediate, visceral evidence, it passed to the realm of the entertainer as magic entered the age of religious condemnation. The entertainer was able to capitalize on the fascination of the public with occult powers while being able to demonstrate to the church that those powers were merely tricks and illusion.

Magic continued in this vein for about four hundred years. There were changes in the "details" of how it was viewed during that time, but overall it was viewed as generally acceptable as long as there was no 'non-Christian' element to it. Then, in the 1800's, things changed again. The 'magician-Priests' slowly disappeared in the late 1700's, and in the 1800's there were several theological changes in the population, including Deism, atheism, theosophy and spiritualism. Ceremonial Magic had become an almost compleatly secular practice, and as the populace began to explore other theological options, magic started working its way back into religion. By the late 1800's and early 1900's there was both an explosion of magical exploration and a general skepticism of magic as "unscientific". Due to the advances in technology and technique among stage magicians, there was also a nearly universal cynicism towards magic as being nothing but hype and trickery.

The person who arguably had the single most impact on the current acceptance of magic was Aleister Crowley--who also had the single most influence among modern schools. (1) To combat the cynicism resulting from stage magic's popularity, he adopted the practice of spelling magic with a k "to differentiate between the art and science of Magick and the trickery and illusion of the prestidigitator." The practice of using the spelling "magick" became standard among occultists and pagans within a couple of decades, even among those who reviled him. (2)

Today, we are at the point where magic is emotionally accepted by most people while being intellectually denied by many. The level of acceptance, however, is at a level not seen for many centuries...

The various explanations of 'how' or 'why' magic works that follow are broken down into categories for ease of explanation. They do not, however, represent distinct or separate schools of thought. Many 'cross over' each other, and in fact there is probably not a single category that is not combined with at least one other category to some extent.


Magic as Religion

Defining magic in religious terms is tricky at best, however, some people find the two so inextricably intertwined that they have a difficult time conceiving of magic as anything other than religiously "powered." Whether this involves asking a deity (or group of deities) for intercession in specific ways (prayer), or merely the belief that the power and efficacy is dependent on the faith and fervour one has in his or her religion, the fact remains to them that all magic comes "from the gods"--this is 'why' magic works.

Magic as Science

Defining magic in scientific terms can be tricky as well, but it is much "easier" to the modern mind that has been condition to look for logical and concrete explanations. The idea behind Ceremonial Magic is that magic is not supernatural (3) at all, it merely follows natural laws that we do not yet understand. Advancement in the practice of magic, then, comes through applying these laws in more efficient ways, and that is best achieved through careful observation of the process--keeping careful notes and approaching the process with confidence, objectivity, and a lack of expectation.

Not all people who share this view of magic as "scientific" in nature are Ceremonial Magicians, but they do all share certain ideas: magic is a purely natural force; magic is a form of energy, and like any other energy, has no inherent moral or ethical biases--it merely is; and lastly, magic works not because of a belief in it, nor because of intercession by gods and goddesses, but because it follows certain specific laws which we are only beginning to understand.

The Power of Faith

Some people do not care why magic works. They either feel it is pointless to argue about the 'source' of it, they feel it is a waste of time that could be better spent on other things, or they feel that both previous arguments lack adequate explanation. These people generally feel that magic works simply because we expect it to--because we have faith in it.

This does not fall under the religious category because they do not feel it is necessary to have faith in any beings other than yourself (in fact, many people in this 'school' are agnostic or even atheists) and it does not fall under the scientific category because they generally feel there are no "laws" to follow. Simply having faith that magic works is enough to make it work.


Magic as Art

No matter what opinion is held regarding why magic works, the matter still remains as to how to make it work. Magic is traditionally broken up into "types" of magic deriving from the theory behind each particular method. As these classifications are common to nearly all schools of magic, and as they are relevant to later installments in this series, it is prudent to discuss them to some small degree. The following paragraphs relate the prominent divisions of magical operations. Particular endeavours may use more than one method, and particular methods may, in some cases, be further subdivided by some people. This discussion is not meant to be exhaustive by any means, but is intended to provide a good understanding of the basic categories of magical methods.


Based on the idea that "like attracts like," sympathetic magic is the basis of the popular "voodoo doll," though that is by no means the extent of the method. As the theory has it, two things that share some kind of a link inevitably influence each other. It can be something as simple as a rough image (such as a figure carved from wax) that is "given the name" of the target or something as elaborate as collecting hair, fingernail and blood samples; as long as there is some kind of link established, there is a method of influence. The aforementioned 'voodoo' doll and the various dances of Amerindians are examples of sympathetic magic; leaving aside the psychological explanations, the practice of Visualization is sympathetic magic.


Although this usually falls under the prove of the ceremonial community, it is used by many disparate types of practitioners. The idea is that sigils represent the names of certain entities and/or certain processes. By creating and manipulating a sigil correctly, you can call that entity or cause that process. Talismans (and some amulets) fall under this category, as do protective symbols carved into buildings or on stones; traffic symbols are also examples of sigilistic magic. (4)


There are some rituals that have been around for thousands of years. They may or may not have been practiced continually since they first began, but their origins are lost in the mists of time--as are their meanings. Whether they began as sympathetic magic using some link we cannot recognize today or had some other basis, there is little we can see to justify the expected result based on the operation itself--the "empowering" factor seems to be tradition. Most of the extant examples of this category are folk chants and/or superstitions: knocking on wood to forestall bad luck and washing your face in the morning dew of May eve to foresee your future spouse are both examples.

Mind over Matter

There is a growing population of occultists who believe that all magic is created through the power of the mind. Whether this is some form of "psychic manifestation," a matter of impressing your Will on the universe, or some less explainable phenomena, the fact is (according to this school) that all tools and rituals are merely 'window dressing.'

This is not to say that tools and ritual are useless, far from it. They can be indispensable methods of focusing concentration and training the sub-conscious to attain the state needed to effect magic. But as the student progresses, in this theory, the tools and ritual become less and less important as the practitioner is able to focus and concentrate the sub-conscious without them. It is eventually possible, according to this school, to practice magic without anything external at all, though tools and ritual will *always* be helpful.


It is prudent at this point to discuss various buzz words popular among occultists. Some of these words will carry a high emotional charge for some people while being compleatly inconsequential to others. All of them, however, are relevant to anyone even casually interested in studying magic.

Magic in Black and White

The terms "black magic" and "white magic" have been with us since at least the middle ages. While there have always been "good" and "bad" shamans/witches/magicians/what have you, the idea of "good" and "bad" magic is relatively recent. It seems to have arisen during the time that ceremonial magic was becoming popular with certain members of the clergy and was used to distinguish between "accepted" magical practices and those heretics or "devil worshippers" whom the Church still wanted to condemn. It has recently become popular again amongst neo-pagan groups to make themselves more acceptable to the Christian society around them. The problem comes in when you try to define what is "black" and what is "white."

Generally, black magic is something considered harmful and white magic is something considered beneficial. But where does harm stop and benefit begin? Performing a ritual to stop the coming horde of locusts that will devastate crops harms the locusts to benefit the people who need the crops. And if the ritual merely turns the horde in a different direction, it visits that crop devastation on someone else. The obvious benefit only comes at the expense of harming something else, even if that harm is not as obvious.

Some people, trying to avoid the above dichotomy, define black magic as that performed for selfish reasons while white magic is that performed for selfless reasons. But where is the ethical line between performing a ritual to gain money so you can buy a luxury and performing a ritual to gain money so you can buy bread? And even if you leave money out of it, performing a ritual to receive aid, no matter how much it is needed, is still doing magic for personal gain.

Some people, having the need to believe in black and white magic but wanting to forestall ethical arguments, simply define black magic as evil and white magic as good. But there are very few things that are considered evil in all societies, even though magic does exist in all societies. And the old cliché of killing Hitler at the beginning of World War II applies here--would it be evil to commit murder if you knew that that one murder would save tens of millions of lives and prevent unimaginable suffering world wide?

Magic, High and Low

Nearly student of the occult is familiar with the terms "high magic" and "low magic," but a surprisingly large number don't actually know what the terms define. Magic has a very wide range of utility, from curing a simple illness to conversing with angels--from dealing with day to day life to attaining transcendent wisdom. "High" magic is that which is performed to attain wisdom or personal growth--it has no material or practical effect. "Low" magic (or, more commonly, "practical" magic) is that which has some kind of physical or concrete effect--curing illness, finding food, protecting your home, etc.

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(1) Crowley presented a new face to magic. Originally making international headlines as a sophisticated explorer (he was an Oxford-educated scholar who captured attention as a renowned mountain climber, among other things), he gave popular credence to a field that heretofore could only be practiced in secret and at the risk of ridicule and ruin. As his theories developed, however, his private life became more public and scandal upon scandal ensued. The very situation he created (the acceptance of magic as a legitimate pursuit) became a detriment as occult authors began to make their name by denouncing Crowley as the epitome of the "black magician." Strangely enough, most occult authors of the fifties and sixties were friends or students of Crowley (or both) before his reputation turned sour. BACK

(2) The spelling "magic" has been used in this lesson series for two reasons: A) it is historically accurate, and B) there has been a backlash recently against the spelling "magick" because it originated with Crowley. This has led to innumerable variants including "magik," "majik," "majyk," etc. I have even seen "madgjick" used seriously. The spelling "magic," however, still retains its original meaning without getting into petty squabbles over the motivation behind the usage of specific 'versions.' BACK

(3) The term "supernatural" literally means "beyond nature." It can be argued that nothing exists beyond nature since nature includes everything that exists. "Supernatural" can also be defined as "beyond our understanding of nature," at which point it becomes meaningless to the Ceremonial Magician since nearly every piece of technology we take for granted today was 'beyond our understanding' just a few decades ago. BACK

(4) Laws are passed regarding the proper protocol under certain traffic situations in order to minimize the risk of accidents. To use the stop sign as an example, you must legally stop at any incidence of a stop sign. The red octagon on which most are printed are to enable people to recognize them from a distance and make it possible for people who cannot read to know what it means. However, the red octagon is *not* an integral part of the stop sign--if it were a yellow circle that read "stop" it would still be illegal to proceed without stopping. That particular symbol has also been co-opted in many other areas--if you pay attention when you are in larger buildings and/or buildings with complicated floor plans, you will notice that some have a small red octagon painted on certain walls at eye level. People that see it will automatically stop at that point and check the crossing hallway before proceeding--if, perchance, one does *not* stop at that point and collides with another pedestrian, everyone will assign fault to the person who ignored that symbol. There are no legal reasons for it, and the symbol (outside its use on the roadways) rarely has any letters at all on or in it, but it has the magical effect of creating a specific set of behaviour in everyone (in the USA, at least) that is exposed to it. BACK