Magic and Nature
The Ways of the Life Force
The Foundations of Druid Magic
In Welsh Druid tradition, nwyfre—the life force—is one of three basic principles of existence. The other two are gwyar (pronounced “GOO-yar”), the principle of flow, and calas (pronounced “CAH-luss”), the principle of matter. Lift your hand in front of your face and all three elements are right in front of you. Calas is the physical substance of the hand—the skin, flesh, and bone that make it a material object. Gwyar is the movement and flow of the hand—the motion that brings it in front of your face, to begin with, but also the circulation of blood and lymph, and all the other subtle motions that make it what it is. Nwyfre is the life, vitality, and sensation of the hand—the presence of the life force that makes it a living, active, and sensitive thing rather than a dead object.
According to these same Druid traditions, these three things exist in everything in the world. A stone contains gwyar and nwyfre as well as calas; stone flows very slowly, and its life is hard for human beings to perceive, but both are there. A fall breeze contains calas in the form of molecules of oxygen, nitrogen, and other gases, as well as dust and water vapor; gwyar in the form of the movement that sweeps these molecules along; and nwyfre in the form of a simple life and awareness that old magical textbooks call a sylph, or air elemental. These and everything else in the world have a basis in matter, a pattern of flow, and an indwelling life: calas, gwyar, and nwyfre, in the language of Druid magic.
The living Earth herself is no exception to this rule. She includes calas in the form of all the solid, liquid, and gaseous matter drawn together by gravity into this little corner of space; gwyar in the form of all the intricate tapestry of movement in, on, and around the Earth, from the great arc of its orbit around the Sun to the wriggling of the smallest singlecelled organism in her oceans and soil; and nwyfre in the form of the common life that Renaissance occultists called spiritus mundi, the earth spirit, and many modern ecologists call Gaia.
The force that makes magic work, in other words, is just as much a part of nature as matter and motion. This isn't the way most people in the modern world think about magic, of course. Ask most people who have never practiced magic what it is, and the word supernatural usually shows up in the answer—meaning, among other things, that magic violates the laws of nature. The magic done by characters in films and fantasy novels does this, and most skeptics have this sort of magic in mind when they reject it as impossible. This just doesn't happen to be the sort of magic that mages—people who do magic—actually practice.
Real magic is natural, not supernatural. It unfolds from the natural force of nwyfre, and its effects follow natural patterns and obey the laws of nature. Thus magic won't make rocks fall upward or apple trees bear tomatoes, it won't make matter or energy appear from nowhere or disappear without a trace, and if you were born with brown hair, magic won't make it blonde; you'll have to use hair dye instead. Magic can start, stop, speed up, or slow down anything in nature—including human nature—within the broad limits nature herself sets on those processes. What nature doesn't do, however, magic won't do either.
Accounts of what mages actually do make this point with a high degree of clarity. One of the very best resources along these lines is Vine Deloria Jr.'s extraordinary 2006 book The World We Used to Live In, a collection of accounts of native medicine people and their powers, ranging from the subtle to the spectacular. Deloria's examples include all the things that mages around the world have always done—healing illnesses, finding hidden objects, communicating with birds and animals, shaping weather, making crops fertile, perceiving things distant in space and time, and causing vivid sensory hallucinations in other people. Each of these things happens in keeping with the ordinary patterns of nature, even when the connection between magical cause and physical effect can't be explained by current scientific theories.
Consider a type of magic that sorcerers and shamans have done for thousands of years: a ritual for rain. Nobody who does this kind of magic claims that a successful ritual makes rain fall miraculously out of a clear blue sky. Instead, the barometric pressure drops, the wind shifts, clouds roll in, and rain starts to fall in the normal way. The result looks just like any ordinary rainstorm. It's the way that rain responds to the ritual that makes it magical.
Thus, what makes magic magical, in other words—and what makes materialist skeptics reject it with such heat—is simply that it challenges modern assumptions about cause and effect. Most scientists believe that material effects must have material causes, and the idea that an intention held in the mind, channeled through nwyfre, can set off effects in nature is unthinkable to them. The fact that this is an everyday experience for mages does nothing to make it more palatable! Still, only the role of nwyfre in bridging the gap between mind and matter goes beyond what current scientific theories can explain. Once the ritual gives the rain a starting push, the rest of the process unfolds like any other storm.
One interesting effect of this principle is that skeptics can always insist that the results of magic might be coincidence. When a shaman works a rain spell, it could be coincidence that a rainstorm rolls in a few hours later. If the same spell works a hundred times in a row, it could still be coincidence. As long as the rain spell gets the results the shaman wants, it hardly matters, and indeed magic could almost be defined as the art of causing coincidences in accordance with intention. Think about how many important things in life are governed by what modern people call “coincidence,” and you may begin to grasp the astonishing power magic has to shape the universe of human experience.
Still, recognizing that magic is part of nature and governed by natural limits is a crucial step in using it wisely. Neither magic nor anything else in nature has unlimited power. Magic is not a ticket to godhood or a substitute for the more basic disciplines of spiritual practice. It's simply a useful and powerful craft that, like several other traditional crafts, blends well with Druid spiritual practices and a life in harmony with nature. In a world where enchantment is in short supply, however, the gifts magic can offer are desperately needed.