Louis Chalon, Circe, 1888.
Magic has always been a problematic and controversial aspect of Western cultures. In order to understand magic, attempts have been made to study the social, religious, political, and more general ideological intentions and functions that magic has fulfilled. A common area in which magic has been located within Western contexts through historiographical presentations and ethnological accounts has been through processes of exclusion and identity building, which have taken place amongst believers, antagonists, and scholars. Especially in regards to processes of exclusion, magic has consistently been exploited as “a waste-basket filled with left-overs”, such as the ‘occult’, ‘esotericism’, ‘mysticism’, ‘witchcraft’, ‘superstition’, the ‘irrational’ ‘primitive’, ‘fetishism’, and so on. The result of this has been, at times, to employ this conceptual space to identify magic as a single category of identification, and in many circumstances, in order to identify, isolate, and often repress beliefs and practices that can be considered as differing or hostile to both historically and contemporary established socio-cultural, theological, political, and moral rhetorics.
However, despite its status of exclusion, and the fact that there have been many epistemological shifts and ruptures in the history of the West, makes it nearly impossible to provide a single definition for the complex phenomenon of magic. Despite this though, magic has been seen by some as a positive self-identifying category throughout the history of Europe and North America. This consistency of existence makes it clear that magic has served through self-representations by practitioners, impositions by anti-magical polemics, and scholarly research as an attempt to circumscribe specific areas of belief and practice in Western cultures.
When identifying magic as a category of investigation, its existence must not always be taken for grant by means of a simple definition without taking into account concepts that have shaped the self-representation of magic through historical and cultural avenues of expression. All attempts to make sense of an emic representation of magic should first unravel what magic means from this emic perspective, also taking into consideration historical developments that have led to this perspective, along with cultural translations of the nature and effects of magic.
From discussing with various people involved with the philosophy and practice of magic in Europe, and especially Britain, and accompanied by the study of primary and secondary sources related to magic, there appears to be a central practical and active element involved, namely that of ritual. According to Michael D. Bailey, this has been a definitive classification of magical performance. In his paper, ‘The Meanings of Magic’, he writes,
In European society, beginning already in the later Middle Ages and early modern period, Christianity largely separated “religious” elements of belief and contemplation from the physical performance of ritualized actions. While many rites were maintained, particularly by the Catholic Church, their centrality was downplayed, and many authorities, particularly Protestant ones, came to elements of magic in many ritualized performances.
A common emic understanding of the effect of ritual is that it leads to the assumption of a self-legitimised identity. Practitioners claim that this embodies an engagement of an esoteric philosophy and magical intent with a magical worldview of symbolic and actual realisation through the performance of ritual. This magical ‘self’ matures in awareness and understanding of the mechanics of the magical worldview it intentionally corresponds to through the theory and practice of ritual. In continuum, this leads to a perception of the self as an embodied encounter and participation in a conceptualised actuality of a magical worldview, complete with its own religious symbolism, mythology, non-material beings, occult correspondences, limitations and expanses, performative codes of conduct and acts of transgression, and finally materialised results. The ritual space is the inter-focal point where the material and non-material meet and identify each other within a liminal space demarcated by the very act of ritual, and where the practitioners experience a cognitive paradigm shift from one worldview to another coming into contact with the experience of their ritual intent.
Communion with the magical universe is normally experienced as a shift in consciousness and a feeling of self-transformation, which is essential for the magical self to achieve an analogical shift in awareness and understanding in the endeavour to conform to the cosmological patterns of a magical worldview distinct in form and method from a disenchanted worldview. This in itself becomes a focal point of meanings that reinforce each other through the interaction of pre-existing magical worldview and a personalised interpretation of it through experience, which can be described as pertaining to embodiment of ‘gnosis’. This focal point, reinforced and established through ritual, is where the process of the magical self begins to formulate creating the liminal conditions necessary for the ritual intent.