Copyright Robert Michael Place 2000
this article first appeared in Llewellyn’s Magical Almanac
Magic, real magic, which is not sleight of hand or trickery, is illusive and hard to define. In Merriam Webster’s Dictionary, we find that the term magic is derived from the Greek “magus,” which refers to a sorcerer. The Greeks borrowed this word from Persia where it was the name of a member of the priestly class, which brings out one of the essential problems in defining magic: is it separate from or one and the same as religion?
Webster goes on to define magic as, “the use of means (charms or spells) believed to have supernatural power over natural forces.” This seems to fit the common conception of magic. Except that Webster’s definition contains the disclaimer “believed.” As if to say, “some people believe in magic but we officially do not.” This brings out the second essential problem. Our culture sees magic as a misconception or false belief. Although magic is an important part of ancient culture and of some modern cultures, and many people in our own culture continue to believe in and practice magic, it is officially considered a superstition.
Most studies of modern religious thought start with a discussion of the theories of the British folklorist and author, Sir James Frazer, and those of Tylor, the scholar who most influenced Frazer. In 1890, Frazer wrote The Golden Bough in which he refined Tylor’s theories by placing magic on the bottom rung of an evolutionary anthropological structure, which became a major influence on modern thinking. Briefly, the theory states that humans, finding themselves helpless in nature, first attempt to control nature with magic. As culture advances, humans, realizing that magic in ineffective, abandon it and develop a belief in a higher power outside of their control, which they attempt to appease. This is called religion. When sufficient knowledge of the real workings of the world are attained, humans abandon this second superstition and enter into the wisdom that is called science. In this final stage, the culture aims at real power over nature.
Modern anthropologists have found that the neat sequential structure of this theory is not supported by their observations. Most primitive people believe in a higher power or powers and use both magic and technology (science as power over nature) in conjunction with this belief. The same can be said of prehistoric peoples, ancient Greeks, or modern Americans. Most historians trace the origins of rational scientific thought to the philosophers of the Classical world, such as Pythagoras and his follower Empedocles. Pythagoras is thought of as a mathematician and Empedocles as creating the rational discipline that led to physics. Yet, Pythagoras was the founder of a mystical religious movement and Empedocles, a member of that religion, wrote his theories in the form of poetry and would have called himself a magician. The Pythagoreans seem to be responsible for initiating a religious, scientific, and magical culture simultaneously – one that became the root of modern Western culture.
As we can see, the distinction between magic and religion seems to be an artificial one created in the West. St. Augustine, who lived in the twilight of the Classical age, helped to create the Medieval Christian worldview. He described magic as a continuation of pagan culture and therefore unchristian. His view persisted, and near the end of the Middle Ages, the papal bull of 1320 defined magic as heresy, subject to the censorship of the inquisition. This happened in spite of the of the fact that the essence of the Christian mass is the magical transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, that saints were all reported to have performed miracles, and that many Christians – including Popes – were involved in alchemy and Hermetic tradition, which was considered white magic. In order to think of magic as evil and unchristian, it was necessary to see it as something separate from religion and redefine sanctioned magic as something else – a miracle of God. Although anthropologists do not find this separation in any other culture, it continues to influence modern Western scientific thinking. Only instead of evil, scientists now think of magic as an ignorant superstition.
I feel that it is impossible to separate magic from the esoteric aspect of religion. By attempting to cut itself off from magic Western culture has vilified and driven underground the esoteric aspects of its tradition. The esoteric is that aspect of religion that has the power to create a personal inner experience, one that can lead to psychic transformation and growth – the quest for enlightenment. As a result, modern Westerners have increasingly turned to other cultures for this experience. Although this outside influence has been good for the health of our culture, the unhealthy separation from our own esoteric tradition has not been resolved.
Next, let’s look at how a modern Western practitioner of magic defines it. For this, I have chosen one of the most notorious 20th century magicians, Aleister Crowley. In his Magick in Theory and Practice, Crowley defines magic as, “the Science and Art of causing change to occur in conformity with will.” He precedes this definition with the following quote from The Goetia of the Lemergeton of King Solomon.
Magic is the Highest, most Absolute, and most divine Knowledge of natural Philosophy, advanced in the works and wonderful operations by a right understanding of the inward and occult virtue of things; so that true Agents being applied to proper Patients, strange and admirable effects will thereby be produced. Whence magicians are profound and diligent searchers into nature; they, because of their skill, know how to anticipate an effect, the which to the vulgar shall seem to be a miracle. *
Crowley even goes on to quote Frazer. Crowley believed that because magic makes use of cause and effect experiments in the practitioner’s attempt to control nature and not to the intervention of a spiritual agent, there is a closer analogy between magic and Frazer’s final scientific stage than between magic and religion.
Although Frazer, no doubt, would have been surprised to find his work used to support Crowley’s theories, Crowley seems to feel a kinship with Frazer’s anti-religious sentiment, and therefore views magic as a branch of science. In fact, his definition is so broad it could include any act of technology or art under the title magic. In his next paragraph Crowley goes on to clarify that this is exactly what he means when he states that by writing his book he is performing an act of “magick” (as he spells it).
Aside from not including a disclaimer, Crowley’s definition of magic is not that different from Webster’s. Although, to Crowley the “charms and spells” of the magician only seem to be supernatural to the “vulgar,” both admit that they cause change in the natural world. We can find this same cause and effect relationship in most modern definitions of magic.
BEYOND CAUSE AND EFFECT:
I believe that magic is synonymous with what Jung calls “synchronicity.” Apparently, I am in good company in making this association, because Carl Jung, himself, has stated as much. In his introduction to the Wilhelm/Baynes edition of the I Ching, Jung says that when we successfully consult this Chinese oracle (which we may consider an act of magic) we are experiencing the principle which he termed “synchronicity.”
Synchronicity is defined by Jung as a meaningful coincidence of an external event with a psychic event, such as a dream, fantasy, or thought. These events coincide in time in a way that gives them meaning for the observer. That is, they seem like communications between a divine force and ourselves, and they confirm that there is a connection or interaction between our psyche and physical reality.
Jung gives a personal example of synchronicity in his memoirs, Memories, Dreams, Reflections. First, he describes a dream that leads up to the incident. In the dream, he was introduced, for the first time, to his inner mentor archetype, a wise old man that he called Philemon. Philemon took the form of a Hellenistic Gnostic who wore an ankle-length robe, had a long gray beard, and had the colorful wings of a kingfisher. The following quote describes an event that took place a few days after the dream, while Jung tried to capture Philemon’s image in a painting:
During the days when I was occupied with the painting, I found in my garden, by the lakeshore, a dead kingfisher! I was thunderstruck, for kingfishers are quite rare in the vicinity of ZÃ¼rich and I have never since found a dead one. The body was recently dead – at the most, two or three days – and showed no external injuries.**
We can see that the event described had a magical quality for Jung. It might seem that Philemon had sent the kingfisher to Jung to confirm his existence, but Jung feels that these occurrences are not part of a cause and effect relationship. Instead, he insists that they are acausal acts of pure creation. He adds that when synchronicity happens an archetype – such as the internal mentor – is activated, but we should not think of the archetype as causing synchronicity. Synchronicity is simply what happens when the archetype emerges into consciousness. With this, we are breaking with the previous definitions of magic. They all try to define magic as a cause and effect relationship instigated by the magician. This is typical of our culture, which is predisposed to view all events as cause and effect. However, here we are coming to a deeper and more profound view of reality. This is where magic lives and this is why I feel that it is connected to the quest for higher consciousness.
It seems that if we are going to understand fully what is meant here we must also define Jung’s term “archetype.” Archetype is a term that Jung borrowed from Plato. Plato was searching for what is real and constant in the world – he felt that these two terms should be interchangeable. As a result, he did not trust his five senses to give him accurate information about reality – the exact opposite viewpoint from modern empirical science. Instead, he reasoned that the sensual world was entirely composed of temporary, time-bound objects and that the forms or patterns that these objects posses are timeless and therefore real. These are the archetypes.
In other words, if we look at our house cat what we are seeing is a creature that will die and disappear in a brief instant when its life span is compared to all of eternity. Yet, this cat contains a form that we can distinguish from other animals and that we can see is consistent with others of its species. If allowed to reproduce, it will pass this form onto its offspring, and they, in turn, will pass it onto their offspring. This form is like an immortal or divine cat, because as long as there are cats, it will not die – this is what Plato calls the real cat or archetype. The real cat is the actual intelligence responsible for the direction of the individual cat’s life. We tend to call the decisions that it makes for the individual cat instinct or intuition.
Humans are caught in the same illusions about themselves as they are about other animals. The part of themselves that identifies with this individual physical life is what Jung calls the ego. The ego thinks that it is in charge because it can manipulate the world to attain its desires, but it can not decide what to desire. This decision is made for it by the real self.
Plato said that number is the bases of form and the essence of the archetypes. This view is confirmed by modern scientists who have discovered that this archetypal form is communicated to each living creature through a numerical pattern of molecules, called DNA, which are contained in the center of each cell. It would seem that science has found an empirical location for the acualization of the archetypal self.
When we include the observations of modern quantum physicists in this discussion, we find that the number of electrons and protons in an atom determine what substance it will be (another example of number determining reality); but when we try to determine the nature of these subatomic particles we find that they are made of an illusive non-stuff that can take on the quality of matter or energy. This non-stuff also has the disquieting, acausal habit of slipping in and out of existence, and when we try to prove that it is either a wave or a particle, it can be proved to be either depending on the expectation emplyed by the nature of the experiment.
These facts pull the rug out from under our materialistic worldview and show that there is a connection between psyche and matter. In the end, we are left with the fact that all physical reality is the illusive expression of the numerical thoughts of the universe – what the alchemists would call the “Anima Mundi” – and somehow, our thoughts are a manifestation of the thoughts of universe.
When Jung explored the unconscious mind, he discovered that at its deepest layer there emerged psychic patterns or personalities that were the same in all individuals and that can be found in religions and myths in all peoples throughout time. He called these the archetypes. At the deepest level of the unconscious, he, like the quantum physicist exploring matter, found that he lost sight of the archetypes as they merged into the vast sea of the collective unconscious. For this, he used the alchemical term “Unus Mundus”.
When we use an oracle, such as the I Ching or the Tarot, we bring these unconscious archetypes into consciousness through the use of symbols. The archetypes, or we may call them the Gods, are a more immediate manifestation of the place where the patterns are being formed that will become our future physical reality. Therefore, this gives us the opportunity to intervene and create the future that we desire. This brings us back to the initial problem of defining magic.
When we perform magic, we use symbols to manipulate the inner world of the psyche, and thereby, change happens in the outer physical world. When we succeed in doing this, the changes seem miraculous – that is they seem to happen outside of the normal cause and effect relationships of the physical world or to intervene in them in some mysterious way. By using symbols to manipulate the psyche we are activating the archetypes – in fact in many magic rituals we deliberately contact them as gods, angels, or demons. Therefore, the magical event is the manifestation of an archetype, in other words, synchronicity.
As I said before, Jung feels that synchronicity, or magic, is an acausal act of pure creation. This concept is almost impossible for our Western trained minds to grasp. The definitions, which I quoted above, try to explain that magic is a cause and effect phenomenon making use of a force that science does not yet recognize. Whereas, saying that it is acausal is like saying that it just happens, but it seems to us that our symbolic ritual is causing it because these two things always coincide. Is magic just an illusion created by our ego to convince it that it is in charge? When we attempt to fulfil our desires through magic, it may seem to the ego that it is causing change. However, the very desires that the ego is trying to fulfil came from the archetypes. Perhaps, our magical actions are a manifestation of the archetypes as well. Jung has supplied evidence to support this view by demonstrating that most people perform daily rituals and yet remain unconscious of their symbolism.
The simplest way that I can explain acausality is to use the example of meditation. When we meditate, we observe that our thoughts emerge out of nothingness – they just appear. We can have thoughts that lead to other thoughts, but when we quiet the mind, we notice that they can just as easily emerge out of nothing – with no cause. This is synonymous with the observation of physicists that subatomic particles emerge out of nothingness. At an unconscious level, the archetypes emerge out of this nothingness also.
This void, the Unus Mundus, is the real creative power. This is where inner and outer reality comes from. If we want to effect change, this is where we must go, but when we enter the Unus Mundus the ego dissipates and we go beyond desire. So how can we manifest our desires if we no longer have them? This is the paradox of magic. Magic must take place in the middle zone, where the archetypes emerge out of the unconscious, and our desires are not yet dissolved.
Now, in spite of what Jung says, I have found from experience that the archetypes respond to my expectations of them. If I treat them as individual personalities that can cause change, when I ask for their help, change happens through this cause and effect relationship – although, the way that it manifests has startling acausal quality as well. If I treat them as manifestations of the Unus Mundus, then acausal synchronicity happens. Again, It reminds me of the findings of the quantum Physicists. When they conduct an experiment to prove that subatomic quanta are solid particles, they find that they are. When they conduct an experiment to prove that these same particles are immaterial waves, they find that they are. In both cases, reality responds to the expectation of the observer. The observer is intimately connected to result simply by having expectations. This is magic.