Five thousand spells. Is any of it real?
What is magic anyway?
What a question. Rational people know how to define magic—magic is illusion, sleight of hand, at best the fine art of tricks, at worst fraudulence—or so goes the definition usually taught to schoolchildren. Another interpretation dismisses magic as supernatural fantasy and wishful thinking—the stuff of fairy tales, Mother Goose, and mythology; tales for children and hence of little value; its only purpose entertainment; its only possible truth metaphoric. A third interpretation is more malevolent, with occult masters—the proverbial evil wizards and wicked sorceresses—attempting to maintain control over gullible and innocent plain folk, their tools fear and superstition, not true magic, which, of course, rationalists argue, doesn’t exist anyway. Yet another explanation suggests that magic works solely by psychological means, a sort of self-hypnosis. According to this theory, usually offered by old-school anthropologists and psychologists, the poor benighted native’s very belief in something, such as a death curse or a traditional healing, is what causes it to come true. Magic happens because you believe in the system not because the system works or even exists, although explanations for why, if their powers of belief are so all-powerful, the natives remain poor and benighted, and forced to tolerate outside observers, are rarely offered.
Occult is a word commonly misinterpreted. It doesn’t mean evil or satanic. It has no moral connotations whatsoever. Occult really means “secret” or “hidden.” Secrets may be kept hidden for a host of valid reasons. In many cultures and at many times, the definition of real true working magic wasn’t a hidden secret, subject to false interpretation, but a normal fact of life. In other cultures and at different times, however, real true working magical practitioners have been subject to torture, persecution, and oppression. Magic’s very survival has often depended upon secrecy and a willingness to tolerate patronizing, false definitions.
True magical practitioners, of whom there remain many, would reject the definitions of magic given above, although there are vestiges of truths in all of them. Real magical practitioners consider themselves guardians, preservers, and (sometimes) revivers of Earth’s forgotten, besieged, and suppressed occult truths and traditions.
Magic, at its most basic, is the science of Earth’s hidden powers. For the true practitioner, there’s nothing supernatural about magic. Natural is just a lot more complex than conventional modern wisdom allows.
Although there are many ways to practice magic, many schools, philosophies, methods, and traditions, the bottom-line definition of what actually constitutes real magic, and why and how it works, is amazingly consistent throughout the world.
According to general worldwide metaphysical wisdom, common to all magical understanding and tradition, there is an inherent energy radiating from Earth and all living things. Analytical traditions and cultures have studied this energy in depth; others simply accept its existence and work with it. Many languages have specific names for this energy. English does not. This increases the confusion when discussing magic—an already vast and confusing topic. In the same manner that English, a language so rich in descriptive adjectives, has but one word for snow, while Inuit has many, one word for love, while Sanskrit has many, so English has but one word, magic, to define its various aspects. Harry Houdini, Harry Potter, Helena Blavatsky, Aleister Crowley, and countless anonymous village wise-women are all lumped together as masters of magic, as if it were a monolithic art.
English also lacks a specific word to name that power that radiates from all life.
The ancient Egyptians called it heka; on the other side of Africa, the Yoruba, parent culture of myriad spiritual and magical traditions, call it ashé. The most familiar word may be the Polynesian mana. In Morocco, this radiant energy is known as baraka. For lack of a better word, let’s just call it magic power.
This magic power, this capacity for magic, radiates from all living beings to a greater or lesser extent. In fact, it is the existence of this power that defines what, in magical terms, is considered “alive,” a very different criterion than that required by a coroner’s report. (In magical terms, death is not the absence of life. Absence of power equals absence of life. A corpse, although no one denies the person is dead in the conventional sense, is still very much alive, as is the pine box and, most especially, the iron coffin nails. The average plastic bottle, however, lacks life. Confused? More about this crucial concept later.)
This magical life-power is formless: you can’t see it, hear it or touch it. So how do you know it exists? How is it quantified and measured? By its effects upon you.
Baraka, the Moroccan term for this power, contains significant implications. The root word can be recognized in another Semitic language, Hebrew, where it translates as “blessing.” To be in the presence of this power is to receive blessings. Although people have learned to manipulate magic powers for malevolent purposes and ill intent, it is intrinsically a positive, benevolent, and sacred energy. According to an Egyptian legend, having contemplated creation, the Creator foresaw that all would not be good and felt pangs of remorse. He therefore imbued Earth with heka as a gift to people, so that they might use it to ward off the harsh blows of fate. Magic is the system that attempts to harness this energy.
The closest comparison one might make is to radioactive energy. That, too, is formless, cannot be seen, touched, or smelled. Yet its impact is profound and cannot be denied. Because nuclear radiation has had such a devastating impact on our world, it’s difficult to recall how recent a discovery it truly is. Marie and Pierre Curie, and the other early scholars of radioactive energy, were visionaries. They recognized the existence of something that others did not. Not everyone believed in their theories, including many very educated people, in much the same way that people say they don’t believe in magic. Many thought the Curies deluded, crazy or just incorrect, at least until the power they sought had been unleashed with too much force to ever be denied.
If one tells the story of Marie Curie’s quest in simple terms, it resembles a modern-day fairy tale. Marie, laboring obsessively in her laboratory/shack resembles the quintessential alchemist feverishly attempting to extract and develop the philosopher’s stone, that legendary substance reputed to bestow eternal youth, health, and life.
In a sense, Marie Curie extracted the anti-philosopher’s stone. Modern fairy tales are sanitized for children; today’s adults are uncomfortable transmitting the truths contained in them. Real fairy tales—the original versions—don’t always have happy endings, just like the tale of Marie Curie doesn’t. Marie’s quest ultimately led her to death; many of her surviving books, materials, and tools are so packed with the deadly power into which she tapped that even today they remain too radioactive to handle.
The goal of magic is to tap into a different energy, an energy so powerful and benevolent that all aspects of life improve. The most potent magical books, tools and materials (just like those books and papers of Marie Curie) hold, retain and radiate their power and energy infinitely.
How do you measure exposure to nuclear radiation? While scientific tools of measurement have been developed, ultimate, undeniable proof comes in its effects on the body. Similar scientific tools to quantify, measure, and identify magic power have not been invented, yet (to the magical practitioner) its effect upon the individual is equally clear. The term, a person of power, is meant literally. People who possess magical power in substantial quantities, who live in close proximity to it, are magnetic and charismatic personalities. They radiate personal power. Other people find merely being in their presence invigorating and empowering. Although into every life some rain must fall, for the person with strong reserves of magic power, the world exists as a place of possibility. If, on the other hand, you feel consistently drained or frustrated, if your libido and life-force are chronically diminished, if you foresee nothing ahead of you but monotony or gloom, if life lacks joy, if your goals seem so out of reach that it’s pointless to try, and it’s hard to muster enthusiasm for anything, then it’s very likely that you suffer from a serious deficiency of this life-power. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle, although these power reserves are continually shifting. Like a gas tank, magical life-power needs to be replenished as you use it, and acquired if you lack it.
This power is contagious. It can be transferred, transmitted, increased, decreased, or lost. These power-exchanges occur continuously, with or without human participation. The power is contained within a botanical plant or crystal, for instance, whether or not a human taps into it. You can ignore this power and these energy transactions, although their effects upon you continue and remain, for good or ill. You can also attempt to harness this power for your own benefit and the benefit of your loved ones.
Perhaps magic may best be understood by considering one of its branches: the school of magical arrangement, feng shui. Once obscure outside China, the art of feng shui is now discussed and debated worldwide; it has even grown sufficiently commonplace to merit, for a time, a newspaper column in the Sunday Los Angeles Times’ real estate section! (Although apparently there were enough complaints about the intrusion of magic into real life for the column to eventually disappear.)
Feng shui’s literal translation, “wind and water,” implies that this is a natural art, not a manufactured one. According to feng shui, objects are manipulated to create good fortune, minimize hardship, and (hopefully) eliminate disaster. Likewise, one must pay attention to natural earth formations (mountains, valleys, waterways) in order to harmonize one’s own energies and desires with them for your maximum benefit. This conscious manipulation and harmonizing of energies and forces is the basis of all magic. By manipulating various magical powers, goals are achieved, success attained, and misfortune prevented. For instance, the presence of lavender theoretically empowers any other spell or materials. Powdered vinca, the sorcerer’s violet, transforms any bouquet of flowers into a tool of seduction, although some flowers (roses, orchids, tuberoses) are powerful enough not to require any assistance.
Of course, rationalists refute all of this as nonsense. It can’t be proven scientifically—therefore it doesn’t exist. Magical practitioners are either gullible idiots or outright charlatans.
The magical practitioners’ response to this criticism is that rationalists have invented and are clinging to a very limited notion of a world that really doesn’t exist. Practitioners would say that scientific method, as well as so-called logic, are unrealistic, artificial human-created constructs designed to deny and place limits on Earth’s true mystery and grandeur. According to magical theory, some sacred mysteries cannot be explained, defined or controlled, although one can attempt to use them for one’s benefit. Ultimately, one could say, magic is another way of looking at and understanding the world. If you are not yet initiated into this magical world, then be prepared: once you’ve learned some real magic and successfully cast some spells, you will see the world in a different way than you did before. Will you trust your own experiences and insights? Or will you be among the many who say, “I can’t believe what just happened to me?”
Although modern science is the child of the magical arts, most especially alchemy, its world vision and goals are diametrically opposed to its parents’. To enter into the magical world is to be a willing, conscious participant in a dream landscape. One accesses power by surrendering control over boundaries. The magical world is a huge, unruly, fluid, dream-like place filled with invisible powers, psychic debris, positive and negative forces, guardian spirits, and radiant beings existing on all sorts of planes of energy that defy human definition, domination, and control. Everything pulsates with vibrant, potentially powerful life, including you.
Magic is a partnership between powers, human and otherwise. The question of whether magic is used for good or ill depends upon the practitioner’s intentions, not the inherent nature of the system. Every interaction is an energy transaction of some kind, although, obviously, some are more significant than others.
Scientific method demands consistent, predictable replication of results. Magic revels in the unique, the unusual, the individual, and the exception. Magic refutes the entire concept of coincidence. Anything that appears coincidental possesses some magical significance; the more unusual and freakish the coincidence, the more worthy of attention and analysis. Anything too easily replicated is either a very basic natural law (stick your finger into fire and it will hurt) or else lacks power and is thus magically worthless (that lifeless plastic bottle).
Confusion derives from a limited word pool, as we have seen. Identical words are used to indicate different meanings. Magic defies boundaries: life doesn’t terminate with death. Death is not the end, nor is it the opposite of life; it’s merely another mysterious stop on the spectrum of existence. Dead as in “Uncle Joe is dead,” may be meant literally, but life, living, or alive usually refers to something very different in magic-speak. Life in magical parlance is a quality, a capacity for power: someone or something has it, in varying quantities, or they don’t. If something is unique, not entirely predictable or reproducible, and also possesses potential for power, it’s alive.
Everything that exists naturally on Earth or is constructed from naturally occurring parts possesses the capacity for power, including you. This magic power, this baraka, is what ultimately fuels Earth. Fans of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy may recognize parallels to those novels’ controversial power, dust. Without it, existence is drained, lifeless, frustrating, joyless, and bereft.
By magical definition, anything occurring naturally on Earth, whether plant. animal, element, stone, or metal, is alive
Anything radiating any degree of magical power whatsoever is perceived to he alive. although the manner in which different beings are alive is not identical. A stone may be alive hut even the most hard-core practitioner won’t look for a pulse
If something can he recreated so that there are identical, indistinguishable specimens, and if that something is completely predictable and controllable, it lacks life. Lacking life, it contains no power, no innate magic, and is of little value to the magical practitioner
This holistic power expresses itself on all planes simultaneously: physical, spiritual, mental, sexual, and emotional. This power is not generic. Every plant, every stone, every species of living creature radiates a specific type of power, although the most powerful are incredibly versatile. Roses seduce, but they also heal, comfort, and summon benevolent spirits. Individual members of a species radiate these powers to varying degrees, depending upon circumstances and personal power.
That’s a lot of powers to remember. Luckily practitioners have been contributing to the magical repertoire of materials, the materia magica, since that old, proverbial time immemorial and continue to do so. It’s not necessary to re-invent the wheel, although experimentation can be fun. A font of established information exists for you to draw upon. The Encyclopedia of 5000 Spells merely scratches the surface of world magic.
What is Magic?
Magic is an individual action, undertaken because the cosmos is not believed to be benevolent by nature, or, at least, not benevolent enough to that person.
Maya Deren, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, London, 1953
Magic spells stem from the observation and consideration of an Earthly paradox.
Earth is beautiful, full of power and promise. Yet despite all that potential for fulfillment and happiness, individual existence is too often harsh, hungry, painful, limited, bitter, dangerous, and just plain miserable. Yes, life holds promise, but will your promise be fulfilled? Can you depend upon benevolent forces of the universe to provide your needs and desires for you, or is further action required? It is significant that Adam didn’t need a book of magic spells until he was forced to leave the paradise of Eden.
Magic is the manipulation of Earth’s naturally occurring powers in an attempt to provide the spell-caster with the success and happiness she or he desires
Magic spells are deliberate, specific attempts to harness and manipulate this energy, following some sort of formula or direction
Magic power is inherent on Earth; people didn’t create it, imagine it or make it up. By various means, they learned bout to use it: magic spells are the result
Every magic spell was created by at least one person and probably refined and improved by thousands more
Magic is a realistic art, not an idealistic one, although it is a game for optimists. The one thing magic requires is a belief that things could get better.
Not every promise is fulfilled, not every power is realized. Life is not fair. Some are born with looks, brains, talent, vibrant health, all their limbs, and a loving family, while others are not. Some have a head start towards success that others lack, even within the realm of metaphysics. Some come from families immersed in magic traditions, eager to transmit secrets and techniques. Others do not.
Occult knowledge, however, is egalitarian. All you have to do is acquire it. In theory it’s not even necessary to understand it in order to tailor your destiny more to your liking, fulfill your dreams and aspirations and, perhaps most crucially, ward off life’s harsh blows, just like the ancient Egyptians said you could.
Magic levels the playing field.
Magic encourages creativity and inventiveness. It rewards persistence and curiosity. People have discovered thousands of ways to exploit Earth’s natural magic power. There is basically no technique, no material, providing it possesses some life (and, once upon a time, prior to mass industry, there was virtually nothing on Earth that didn’t possess life), that can’t be used for a magical purpose. Magic accesses a huge repository—rock, paper, scissors, you name it, somewhere it has been used in a spell.
Wealth and status are not necessary for acquiring magical power; the crucial requirements are desire, will, curiosity, awareness, knowledge, and education. That is the secret message hidden within the Celtic tale of Taliesin. A poor, beaten, oppressed orphan child is forced to labor endlessly for the great witch-goddess Cerridwen, stirring the fuming, boiling cauldron where she brews a potion capable of transmitting all Earth’s wisdom. By accident the child tastes the brew intended for Cerridwen’s own son. Those mere few drops of wisdom immediately transform a miserable, ignorant child into a shape-shifting master shaman, a pre-eminent wizard, and his ultimate rebirth as a true child of the goddess, a child Cerridwen cannot deny. Who cares about transforming pumpkins into coaches or pulling rabbits from hats? Real magic holds the key to self-transformation.
Although rare, precious materials, gemstones, and fragrant tree resins are packed with power; there’s also tremendous magic in blades of grass, handfuls of dirt, moonbeams, and ocean water. Plenty of the most powerful magic is free, available and abundant for all.
Is Magic Evil? A (Very Abridged) Secret History of Magic
Another issue must be addressed, as it is the rationale most frequently offered for centuries of concerted efforts to eliminate magic and persecute practitioners, and because it is an issue that prevents some from accessing their personal power. You think you’d like to cast a spell, but you’re afraid. Is practicing magic evil?
According to general worldwide metaphysical wisdom, magic is a source of power. Power may be used benevolently or selfishly, with varying degrees of mal intent. Thus it isn’t the abstract practice of magic that is either good or bad; it’s what each practitioner chooses to do with it. Responsibility for one’s actions and the consequences that stem from them rest securely on the individual practitioner’s shoulders. Have evil people ever abused magic power? Sure. Just take a look at some of the hexes in this book. Is magic the only power capable of being abused? Of course not. How about financial power, political power, brute strength, nuclear power, and so on and so forth? In the sweep of history abuse of magic power is far less responsible for the accumulated sufferings of the world than many other forms of abuse.
There is a general rule, accepted across the board, that magicians reap what they sow. Cast an evil spell—ultimately receive evil back. Negative efforts attract negative returns, at a return rate of three-, seven-, or nine-fold. The standard rule of witchcraft is do what thou will, but harm none. Many modern witches are absolutely terrified of transgressing that rule.
So then, why magic’s bad reputation?
Yes, there are legends of wicked sorcerers using their skills to hold others in thrall. However, if one examines those legends closely, it’s usually revealed that the magical aspect is but a smoke screen for more reliable, conventional methods of coercion, like brute force and access to greater wealth, although I suppose one could argue that magical prowess enabled their acquisition. Suffice it to say that any position of power, in any profession, is vulnerable to corruption and temptation. Let’s talk about the average working magical practitioner.
Magic is concerned with the immediate needs and desires of the practitioner in the here and now, or at least in the immediately foreseeable future. It is not about “pie in the sky.” The average magician doesn’t want to wait for the possible rewards of the sweet hereafter. Magic is not for the passive; if you’re willing to passively accede to your fate, the destiny others decide for you, whatever it is, why waste time, effort or money casting a spell?
Magic recognizes that Earth is full of gifts and the practitioner wants his or her share now. Magic is not the same as religion, although many religions have historically incorporated magic into their practice, and still do. To put it mildly, magic is not an inherently reverential system. Magic demands that my will be done, not necessarily thine, or at least, let’s find a compromise. It is not a humble art. Magic possesses an intensely powerful independent, egalitarian streak.
An infinite quantity of magic power exists in the world, enough for everyone. It’s not like a scarce commodity, where if I have it, you don’t. Magic power is constantly being generated, although various modern practices, especially those that affect the natural environment, have diminished present quantities drastically. Similar to Pullman’s His Dark Materials’ dust, the energy that each individual generates enters the universe where it affects and may be drawn upon by others. It is to everyone’s benefit (except perhaps for that elite few already achieving their heaven on Earth at the expense of others) that every individual, creature or thing, maximizes its potential for power.
Furthermore, not all powers on Earth are positive: intense extended misery, suffering and oppression generate a negative energy that ultimately affects everyone badly, diminishes baraka, obstructs magic power and limits everyone’s access to it. In addition, the extinction of Earth’s life forms—the loss of plant and animal species—eliminates every practitioner’s potential access to their unique powers. Thus general oppression and certain policies affecting the environment, beyond any ethical considerations of right or wrong, hamper the magician’s ability to maximize personal power and the power of their spells.
There is an inherent tension between the individual practitioner seeking power, and authority of all kinds, most especially religious authority, which seeks to maintain its authority by retaining and controlling access to the divine, as well as to tools, theology and ritual. Religion frequently seeks to establish rules and boundaries about who has direct access to the divine, and who bestows that access and the proper channels. Correct methods of worship and spiritual communication are prescribed, including what is permitted and what is not.
If something has power, magicians usually want to try it out, regardless of whose tradition or faith it comes from, regardless of whether some authority says use is forbidden. Although magic is a conservative force in ways, harking back to humanity’s most primal arts, it also evolves endlessly, adapting new materials, new traditions and new methods as they appear. It is fluid and defiant and resists control.
Fundamentalists of all kinds are inevitably opposed to magic, but this tension exists even among liberal faiths that prize their magical traditions—so-called magical religions. Here, inevitably, religious tradition stipulates a right way to practice magic. Knowledge may be reserved for the few, with methods reserved for those going through the proper, authorized channels. Tension will exist between the officially initiated and independent practitioners.
That tension between authority and magical practitioner is, I suspect, the real reason why secular rulers and religious authorities (frequently in conjunction with each other) attempt to brand magic and its practitioners as evil influences, a cancer among the submissive. Lack of obedience rather than lack of morality is what really draws down the wrath of authority.
It is no accident that the Bible records that Israel’s diviners, shamans and necromancers were “put away” during the reign of its very first king, Saul. When the prophet Samuel warned the children of Israel that choosing a king would mean losing sons, daughters, land and livestock, he neglected to mention that they would also lose their previous access to professional magical advice. Or perhaps he didn’t bother to mention it because he was aware, as apparently was the king, that those magical services are so crucial that they are never entirely suppressed. In fact, King Saul himself is very soon shown, in his hour of need, searching out one of those prescribed, forbidden bone-conjurers for a private consultation.
Because the Bible has so often been used as an excuse to persecute and exterminate witches, it’s significant to note how the Bible depicts the Witch of Endor actually accomplishing her task. She’s not painted as a stranger with strange talents, or as a foreigner, but as a member of the community. Neither is she shown to be a fraud; she capably fulfills her royal client’s request. Nor is she depicted as malevolent or evil, but as a good hearted woman: having accomplished the unhappy task that every fortune-teller dreads, of delivering really bad news, she comforts and feeds the distraught king, providing his last meal on Earth, at personal sacrifice (she kills a calf to feed him) considering that he is responsible for her loss of profession and presumably income.
Fortune-tellers, readers and diviners hold an especially tense relationship with political authority. Historically, rulers, particularly the all-powerful, very much like to have the future revealed. They also typically wish to retain exclusive control over this information. Because others may use a diviner’s skill to plot rebellion, historically diviners have been imprisoned, or one is imprisoned for the ruler’s private’s use, while others are killed. To make matters worse, rulers usually desire to hear only the future as they envision it; a diviner can only read what entrails, shoulder blades, or other tools reveal. You see the need sometimes to keep one’s power secret. Although it frustrates us today, there’s a very good reason Nostradamus recorded his prophesies in code.
Wherever efforts have been made either to subjugate or convert another country or people, among the first acts traditionally taken is the attempted subversion or elimination of native shamans and traditional magical practices and practitioners. This is inevitably perceived as necessary for the pacification of the masses. This is not purely paranoia on the part of those seeking to assert and retain authority.
Traditional shamans and magical practitioners are consistently in the forefront of resistance to oppressive authority. (Because winners write history, the conventional historical explanation for this phenomenon is that shamans attempt to impede the “path of progress.”) In the British West Indies, historical records show that Obeah men and women (the local shamans) led slave revolts or attempted to do so. The Haitian revolution, which ended slavery in that French colony and established the first independent black republic in the Western Hemisphere, was inaugurated at a Vodoun ceremony dedicated to the Spirit of Iron, the material, with the sole exception of menstrual blood, singularly most charged with magical power—although as soon as native dictators proceeded to seize and consolidate power, not surprisingly, they too attempted to restrict or eliminate Vodoun.
This, not evil, power-hungry sorcerers, is the hidden history of magic. In the United States, the prominent Voodooists Marie Laveau and Mary Ellen Pleasant rescued and redeemed slaves, with Pleasant providing funding for John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. (Their male counterpart, Dr John Montanet, was himself a freed slave, as was Pleasant.) Lest you think that this association between magic and social justice is limited to African influence, Native American shamans were (and remain) in the forefront of resistance to white encroachment, and traditional practitioners led desperate resistance to Christian domination of Europe. Who knows what attempts to defy limitations on women’s magical and spiritual traditions were destroyed in the flames of the craze of medieval witch-burning? Virtually all the records that remain are filtered through the eyes of the torturers.
Although men suffer too, societies that suppress the magical arts will, as a rule, also limit women’s voices and power, often with terrible brutality. Significantly King Saul, in need of a necromancer, requested that his minions find him a conjuring woman. Although it’s since taken many twists and turns, magic ultimately derives from women’s mysteries and the mysteries of creation, and the history of magic’s suppression cannot be separated from the history of women’s oppression.
Is magic evil? Well, if your perception is that sex is inherently evil, Creation inherently tainted with sin, and that women constitute Earth’s weakest link, then I guess you’d better lump magic in there with the rest of these moral dilemmas.
If magic cannot be entirely divorced from religion, even less can it be separated from herbalism, the root of all traditional medicinal systems, systems that for millennia have investigated botanical impact on health and (above all) on reproduction. Magic is the primordial human art and science. It stems from awe inspired by all Earthly creation, but especially the mysteries of human creation. Every new human life is the ultimate act of magic. Conscious attempts at conception probably constitute the first magic spells, especially if you consider that our remote ancestors didn’t understand pregnancy in the detached, technical manner that we do today. Primordial religions venerated the divine in the form of human genitalia with joy, awe and respect, not prurience, recognizing their capacity for sacred generation and creation.
Although these symbols still survive in isolated pockets of official religion, magic remains suffused with sexual imagery, in ways that may surprise us today, in efforts to maximize the blessings inherent in the powers of anatomy, both male and female. However, magic stems from fascination, on the part of both women and men, with women’s mysteries: the capacity to produce life where it didn’t exist before, magic blood that flows on schedule from no wound and then is mysteriously retained, the links between that blood, fertility, women, the moon, and the sea. These were and remain conduits to the sacred for primordial magic and spirituality alike.
Where Do Magic Spells Come From?
According to the author, folklorist and scholar of magic, Zora Neale Hurston, “magic is older than writing. So nobody knows how it started.” Very true, but what we do know is that magic comes from all over the globe. There is not a people or culture on Earth that did not at one time possess a magical tradition, whether they recall it today or whether or not they still use it. Some cultures and religions revel in their magical traditions. Others are ashamed of them or deny that the traditions ever existed. Some ethnic groups like to point the finger and suggest that magic comes from other people, not them, oh no, never—any practices of their own are only isolated bad habits picked up from disreputable magical wanderers or neighbors.
When a large cache of papyri from Alexandria in Egypt was found to be largely devoted to magic spells, anthropologists, Egyptologists and other scholars exulted. Not because they were necessarily so interested in magic, although some were, but because magic spells reveal a tremendous amount about a culture and its circumstances. Read between the lines of a spell and you will discover important details about people’s expectations of life and death, their daily problems, the materials that they cherish, their spiritual outlook. For example, recently published books intended for the urban magical practitioner attempt to minimize or even eliminate the need for botanicals. Beyond their value to their intended audience, these books also transmit a crucial message to all of us regarding the state of our environment. As another example, only cultures that possess a belief in the possibility of legal justice, however remote, produce court case spells. Love spells reveal cultural sexual dynamics. So you see, magic spells have tremendous value as history, anthropology, and sociology way beyond their practical value to the spell-caster.
Translations of these Alexandrian papyri, now known as the Magical Papyri, were eagerly awaited. Stemming mainly from the second century BCE to the fifth century CE, they span a crucial, fascinating period of history: the times of Cleopatra, Jesus, the rise of Rome, the fall of Jerusalem, and the emergence of Christianity as a cohesive faith and world power.
Alexandria, although it became Egypt’s capital, is not an ancient pharaonic city. It was founded by the Macedonian conqueror, Alexander the Great, one of several cities he named in his own honor. Its orientation is the Mediterranean, not the Nile, like other older Egyptian cities. At various periods, indigenous Egyptians were not even permitted to live within Alexandria’s boundaries. It was a Greek outpost in Egypt, with Greeks as the elite citizenry. Cleopatra, descendant of one of Alexander the Great’s generals and the last of her dynasty, was the only one of her lineage who troubled to learn the Egyptian language.
The city achieved a reputation as a world-capital of magic. Alexandria supported a sizeable population of magic practitioners of all kinds—diviners, dream interpreters, professional spell-casters—all presumably serving the needs of their specific communities rather than Alexandria as a whole, because Alexandria was a rigidly divided city. Although Alexandria, like many cities of its time, was divided into quarters, true divisions, like many a modern city, were cast along ethnic lines. Two of Alexandria’s quarters were Greek; one was Egyptian (the only area in which they were permitted to reside), and the fourth housed a sizeable Jewish community.
Divisions between the quarters were distinct, reflecting hostility between these communities, which periodically bubbled over into rioting and violence. It was a turbulent, volatile city, demonstrating ethnic tensions only too familiar today. This may be ancient history but it’s a familiar landscape to many contemporary urban dwellers or anyone who reads a current newspaper. It was precisely the city’s divisions and its multi-ethnic population and varied religious and spiritual traditions (Alexandria was also the birthplace of Gnosticism) that so excited the archeologists and scholars—it provided the potential for something like historical “control groups.”
Expectation was that the orientation of the papyri would be largely Greek. In Athens, there was a tendency to associate magic with out-of-towners—Thracians or Thessalians. Would this practice continue? Would there be completely Greek magic, or would the Alexandrians transfer the outsider role to the native Egyptians? Would the Greeks, traditionally impressed by Egyptian mysticism (Pythagoras studied in Egypt) adopt some of their host country’s practices? Would it be possible to clearly trace the emergence of Gnosticism as well as Pagan reactions to Christianity? Answers to these crucial questions were anticipated with baited breath as translation of the papyri progressed.
What was uncovered is a mess. The spells, on the whole, are neither clearly nor even mostly Greek, or Egyptian, or that third ethnic group, Judaic, but a scrambled jumble of all three, with a healthy dose of Pagan and Christian Gnosticism, together with a sprinkling of influences from other parts of the Greek and Roman empires. Any individual spell may incorporate the God of Israel, assorted angels, Egyptian gods, Mesopotamian gods, Greek gods, Nubian gods, Jesus Christ and Christian spirituality, botanical magic, divination, names of mysterious things we have no way of presently identifying, some or all of the above, and definitely not necessarily in that order.
What was a poor scholar to do? How to interpret and sort this material, determine who wrote it, and to whom it truly belongs and applies?
None of the information in the papyri is mundane everyday material that you might say any individual on the street was bound to know. The spells and incantations are the height of occult knowledge. The Magical Papyri are the descendants of highly guarded spiritual secrets, the ancestors of high ritual magic. Alexandria was an intensely urban community. These spells don’t reflect the knowledge common to any village wise-woman or cunning man but are highly detailed and specialized, occult in every sense, the stuff of initiates and adepts. Who wrote them? The information contained in them defies all attempts to pigeonhole these spells.
They derive from over centuries and so can’t be attributed to one person, not even the legendary Hermes Trismegistus. Nothing in Alexandria’s history indicates a mingling of cultures that would provide a general intercultural exchange like this—quite the opposite. Furthermore, although Greek was Alexandria’s lingua franca and many Jews, for instance, spoke that language rather than their own, spiritual secrets were still recorded in each community’s distinct tongue. Sacred, secret, spiritual texts in each possible tradition were maintained in the most obscure version possible specifically so that profane eyes could not access them. Egyptian, Greek, and Hebrew aren’t even written with the same alphabets. Who had access to all this vast information? How was it transmitted?
Intense debate ensued regarding who compiled these spells and who actually cast them. Were they Greeks, as had originally been anticipated, or were they Egyptians? Were they Greeks gone native? Controlled attempts had been made to combine aspects of Greek and Egyptian religion, culminating in the cult of Serapis. But then, why the Jewish references? Were they Egyptians striving to Hellenize? But then, why the Christian references? Maybe the spells were compiled by unemployed wizard-priests trying to find a new professional niche market, but then why don’t they hew more faithfully to centuries of conservative Egyptian tradition? They couldn’t be Jews, because, of course, Jews are monotheistic and don’t participate in this kind of thing, but then, if not, how did the spell-casters learn all those obscure Hebrew names of power, names extremely difficult to access even within the Jewish community? But if they were Jews, what were they doing invoking Hecate, Hathor and Hermes? They couldn’t be Christians because Christians forbade magic in general, because Alexandria was home to a particularly militant branch of Christianity and because the rift between Christians and Pagans was especially violent and bitter in Alexandria. But if they were not Christians, why all the references to Jesus Christ? These mysteries were not the ones that scholars had so eagerly anticipated investigating and debating.
Translation of the Magical Papyri occurred only recently. Perhaps more information will be uncovered. Volume one of The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation Including the Demotic Spells was first published in 1986. Egyptologists, anthropologists, historians, linguists, and other scholars continue to discuss their origin and broad scope. The only experts, I suspect, who have not been consulted are contemporary urban magical practitioners, for whom the entangled ethnic and spiritual roots of the Magical Papyri’s spells would come as no surprise.
When historians counted Alexandria’s four quarters, they neglected a fifth community, who quite obviously rejected, transcended, and ignored those boundaries: Alexandria’s vast community of magical practitioners, a quarter unto themselves. Where other residents of Alexandria found divisions, these magical practitioners discovered a crossroads. Magic thrives where roads meet. What the Magical Papyri manifest is the birth of modern magic.
If you were an up-and-coming metaphysical seeker or magical practitioner back then, Alexandria was the place to go. Why? Not just to make money; you’d retain more of a monopoly by staying home as a big fish in a small pond. No, you’d go to Alexandria to meet other practitioners, learn what they had to teach and share some secrets of your own. The spells of the Magical Papyri demonstrate what happens at those crossroads.
Where others obeyed the rules and kept to their own kind, magical practitioners went wandering, with magic as the lingua franca, the common tongue, exploring each other’s secrets, deconstructing them and putting them back together in whole new confabulations. This mixing is not necessarily about improvement; spells that hew faithfully to one tradition work just as powerfully as blended spells. Instead it’s about experimentation and the desire (common to all practitioners), to adapt something of power to one’s own needs. (This process is not always a happy one. One person’s sharing is another person’s appropriation. The Egyptians, for example, were appalled when they learned that Greeks had discovered aphrodisiac properties in their sacred temple incense, kyphi.)
Alexandria presaged the modern city, filled with immigrants from Earth’s different corners. Previously, opportunities to meet other practitioners were limited. Nearby practitioners probably came from your own family; everyone shared the same knowledge and repertoire of tools and materials. Sure, there was the occasional wandering stranger, but nothing like the vast landscape of Alexandria, where practitioners from so many traditions could sit and share secrets. Magic, back then as it does today, transcends and defies boundaries of language, ethnicity, race, gender or religion to form its own community.
When I first read the Magical Papyri my immediate reaction was recognition: all those mixed-up, boundary-jumping spells resembled, in nature if not in specific detail, the culturally diverse magic that I learned in my own hometown, that crossroads of the modern world, New York City. New York, like Alexandria, has had its moments of tense ethnic division, but you wouldn’t know it from the metaphysical community. Fearing the law, fearing ridicule, people may hold themselves aloof, at least until genuine magical credentials, knowledge, respect and curiosity are demonstrated, but then the walls come down.
One thing magical practitioners have in common all around the world is curiosity, the quest for knowledge. We are the original enquiring minds who wish to know. Obstacles to knowledge are bitterly resented and are persistently undermined. Magicians always wish to expand their power and increase their knowledge and repertoire. There is a reason that so many of the earliest books printed were grimoires, or books of magic—the same reason that Lord Thoth is patron both of scribes and magicians. Providing that a society is at all literate, magical practitioners, on the whole, are great readers, from ancient Egypt’s Houses of Life to the Voodoo queens of New Orleans.
There is only one thing better than learning from a book and that’s learning from each other. Magical practitioners are, in general, an open-minded bunch. Put a few in a room together and fairly quickly tools will be compared, secrets shared, and demands for knowledge made.
Spells are constantly evolving to suit changing needs. This is particularly true where cultures live closely alongside each other. Nothing crosses borders faster than a magic spell. For instance it can be almost impossible to separate totally the intermingled strands of various European magical traditions. Because certain methods, materials and styles are more popular and prevalent in one area than another doesn’t necessarily mean that they originated there or, at least, not in isolation. Even the most sedentary, isolated communities received periodic magical cross-pollination from Jews, Romany, tinkers, and assorted wanderers.
These entwined traditions become even more complex in the magical and spiritual traditions of America and the Western Hemisphere.
During the height of the African slave trade, people were kidnapped from all over Africa. What were originally distinct cultures, each with specific spiritual and magical traditions, found themselves thrown together in dire circumstances, the type of circumstances in which many reach for magic. In Haiti, the traditions of the Fon people of Dahomey were dominant and evolved into Vodoun, although not in isolation. These traditions evolved, adding components of indigenous Taino magic, diverse other African traditions, French, and Spanish magic, thus also transmitting Basque, Jewish, Moorish, and Romany influences and, last but not least, Freemasonry. You think this is beginning to make Alexandria look simple? Just wait.
Following later political turbulence, many Haitian refugees fled to New Orleans, where Vodoun evolved once more, retaining its frame but picking up new influences, this time from the local black population, whose own magic derived from Congolese sources rather than Fon, and also British, Italian and Native American magical traditions. New Orleans, the Crescent City, became known as the capital of American magic. Its traditions would soon be incorporated into what might be called mainstream magic, that magic most accessible to the population at large. This magic would eventually be transmitted to Europe where, who knows? Maybe it’s now been picked up by African emigrants to evolve and transform once more.
After extended contact, New Orleans Voodoo can be hard to distinguish from Hoodoo. Hoodoo’s basic framework also derives from Africa, mainly from Congolese traditions, but again not in isolation. Deprived of the botanicals with which they had been familiar in Africa, their materia magica, enslaved African magical practitioners consulted with Native Americans and acquired a whole new botanical tradition, sharing magical and spiritual secrets as well. These Hoodoo doctors typify the proverbial questing, intellectually curious magician. In addition to Native American, West and Central African roots, their tradition soon incorporated European folk magic, the Egyptian mysteries, Freemasonry and Kabbalah. The great grimoires became available to all. Transmission was cross-cultural. With the exception of a very few isolated mountain pockets, American magic in general demonstrates tremendous African influence.
Further north, Pow-Wow is the magic of German immigrants to Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Dutch (a corruption of Deutsch). The basic framework is, of course, the German magic the migrants carried with them, both high ritual and folk magic, which incorporated a healthy dose of Jewish and Romany influence as well as those of neighboring European people. In America, strong further influence (and the tradition’s name) came from Native Americans, especially the Iroquois, and from the Chikkeners, the so-called Black Dutch: Romany (Zigeuners) forcibly deported from Europe who, separated from clan and family, found discreet safety among the Pow-Wow artists.
In 1819 or 1820, dates vary, Pow-Wow artist and hexenmeister, John George Hohman compiled a canon of Pow-Wow wisdom and published it under the title The Book of Pow-Wows: The Long Lost Friend. This book, still in print, traveled to the cities of the South, carried largely by Jewish merchants, who sold it to Voodoo and Hoodoo practitioners, who incorporated it into their already multi-cultural blend of magic and, no doubt, sent some equally valuable information up North with the returning merchants, who were learning from everybody and spreading the news.
There is an important exception to this magic melting pot, of course. Very isolated areas, places where people have historically had little or no contact with others, maintain extremely pristine, ancient magical traditions. Like the unique creatures of the Galapagos Islands, their traditions developed in isolation and thus may have very unique, easily identifiable characteristics. It’s much easier to clearly identify a spell from Papua New Guinea, for instance, than it is to distinguish between French, German, or Swiss spells. Because these traditions are so unique and because one can identify the spell’s origins, it’s very tempting to constantly point out which spell came from which isolated culture. The danger is that this creates a lopsided effect, akin to those old-school anthropologists who were so quick to note the curious habits of the “Natives” while failing to remark on similar practices, parallels and traditions back home.
I can’t emphasize more that every distinct people, every culture, every nation, every religion and spiritual tradition has, at one time or another, incorporated, developed, and created magic spells. Each one of us has a magical history somewhere along the line. Loss and abandonment of these traditions tends to accompany loss of cultural or religious autonomy. These spells, therefore, are our shared human heritage, not isolated odd things engaged in only by strange other people, very different from us.
In some cases, in this book, I have pointed out where spells come from and which traditions they represent, especially if there’s some interesting factoid associated with it or if that knowledge may help you cast the spell, or sometimes just to give credit where credit is due for a particularly beautiful spell. However, I have not done so in every case. Sometimes I did not wish to keep emphasizing one culture, as if they were Earth’s only magical ones, especially those cultures whose vast magical repertoire has stimulated others to vilify, stereotype and persecute them. In other cases, the roots were too tangled to identify their origins honestly.
Although many of the spells in this book are meant for use, others are included purely for historic value and perspective, so that we may remember and learn from them.
These are both the best and the worst of times for magic.
On one hand, there is currently less persecution of magical practitioners in more parts of the world than at any time since the rise of Christianity. This very book that you hold in your hands would once upon a time have earned reader, writer, publisher, and bookseller alike a slow and painful death.
Materials, once rare, craved, hoarded and often forbidden are available and affordable to more people than ever before. Think about that the next time you sip some mugwort tea, an herb that might have branded you a witch just a few centuries ago. Frankincense and myrrh, once the most precious expensive commodities on Earth, may now be purchased in any well-stocked health food store. Salt, packed with magic power, once extracted from Earth and sea with terrible human effort, once very expensive and precious, is now so cheap and common that every fast-food vendor gives away free packets by the handful.
Although fewer people have private gardens, there is greater access than ever before to the botanical material that constitutes the foundation of magic. Some spells in this book refer to what may seem to be very obscure items and plants: virtually nothing is unattainable, however. Once upon a time, a practitioner was limited to local botanicals. Now you can import living as well as dried plants from virtually anywhere on the globe for your private use. Do you want to access the power of Peruvian shamanic plants? Go on the Internet; you’ll be able to buy some. Where botanical material isn’t practical, modern essential oils and flower essence remedies reproduce alchemical methods to bring you the power of even more flowers, available in a simple, easy to store, user-friendly, inexpensive form.
Practitioners are unafraid to teach and to share information. I remember when booksellers didn’t generally stock spell-books. Now you can buy them everywhere. Classes are advertised in newspapers. You don’t have to be a member of an inner circle to discover metaphysical companions. There’s little need to hide in back rooms, fearing arrest or worse, as in previous days. In industrialized nations there is new-found appreciation for magical wisdom and traditions.
Yet it’s also the worst of times in other areas—ironically, in those isolated communities where magical knowledge was preserved in such purity for so long. Many of Earth’s surviving magical traditions are vanishing as quickly as the rainforest, coral reefs or any other endangered species.
While some re-embrace a magical heritage rejected for so long, traditional practitioners who’ve maintained those spiritual traditions for millennia, lack similar privileges and protection. Like those vulnerable creatures of the Galapagos, having never before met attempts at suppression, they may never have developed the skills of subterfuge developed over generations amongst other more frequently oppressed people.
As rainforests are cut down, as ancestral lands are annexed, traditional practitioners and shamans have less access to the botanicals they depend upon than ever before. Instead of open-minded, questing fellow magical practitioners, eager to learn and share knowledge, the only outsiders these traditional practitioners are likely to meet are those who undermine their magical traditions and pressure them to abandon their own faiths and convert to others.
Every day, somewhere on Earth, a traditional practitioner is pressured to abandon shamanism, divination, or some variant of the magical arts. Sometimes suppression is violent. Tools are destroyed, modes of transmission suppressed. Shamans and leaders of magic are isolated from their communities, or as the Bible so eloquently says, “put away.” The stimulus to reject old magical traditions may also come from within, from a culture’s desire for modernity, to appear civilized and rational. In other cases magic and traditional knowledge are victims of war and political unrest.
It is ironic to observe precisely which information appears to be vanishing versus what appears to be preserved for posterity. Once upon a time, very recently, Western magical adepts and elite scholars of magic alike favored the remote “pure” traditions of the Himalayas and Indonesia. Scholars and adepts journeyed with tremendous personal effort to the far corners of the Earth to meet with Ascended Masters while simultaneously scorning magical traditions found closer to the home as superstitious nonsense.
Today it is those previously respected traditions that are rapidly being eroded and are vanishing for a host of religious, political and environmental reasons. Closer to home, Celtic traditions, once reviled as foolishness, have been revived and energized by a massive number of new practitioners. The Romany people, terribly persecuted for centuries, scorned sometimes precisely because of their magical traditions, have recently re-asserted control over those traditions and how they are to be perceived. Hoodoo, once beheld by both academicians and elite occultists with particular scorn, largely for race-based reasons, appears to have its survival assured, thanks to the dedicated efforts of its own scholars, Zora Neale Hurston, Harry Middleton Hyatt, and Catherine Yronwode.
Silver Raven Wolf, modern chronicler of Pow-Wow, once dismissed as ignorant folk-practices that were unworthy of scholarly interest, writes of scouring Pennsylvanian nursing homes, looking for old people with snippets of information that she may then preserve and share. Perhaps others will fulfill this role for other genres of magic in other parts of the world. It takes only one generation for information to be lost forever. How many traditions, how much hard-won human experience and accumulated wisdom from every inhabited continent, have already been lost? This big book that you hold in your hand is but a tiny portion of Earth’s magical wisdom.
In keeping with the inquiring, questing spirit of magical practitioners throughout the ages, don’t be too respectful with the spells in this book. If you find something that suits you or intrigues you, use it. If something isn’t quite right, play with it. Tap into your own magic powers and continue the evolution of our magic repertoire.