There is a popular meme, "some of you have never [experienced X] and it shows." I think, looking at a lot of forums, that can be said about real magic.
A lot of popular books on magic focus on religious and mystical experiences, self-help, and seeking psychological catharsis. It's less common for magic to be focused on miraculous effects, or even not so miraculous but still discernibly magical effects. As a result, for a lot of people magic stays within the realm of religious experience and mental reflection - or rituals to give you the feels.
Sometimes that's ok. Sometimes that's what people need. I wish we could get away from calling some of those activities magic, because it muddies the waters of discussion and makes it harder for people trying to find actual magic to find it.
Browsing forums over the years has made me realize there are three things which people often say which indicate that either they have a shallow knowledge base or they have little experience of the actual capability of magic to make real world changes. Not everyone needs a deep knowledge base, and not everyone needs to make or recognize miraculous moments. It's unfortunate when the ideas that stem from this paucity become common or predominate though, and sadly they often are.
The first of these is the knee jerk response that everything is dangerous. Yes, everything is dangerous. You are at risk if you lay in bed all day, you are at risk if you get up and leave your bed. That doesn't mean nothing should be done. Risk has different levels. Different ways to mitigate and control risk exposure exist in different activities. Different situations and potential successes make the acceptable level of risk also a variable factor. So an empty response of "that's dangerous" does no one any good.
People who understand what they're talking about might explain what the dangers are, and how to successfully manage them. Or they might say "this approach is undesirable because these dangers exist and it doesn't manage them or have enough success to make them worthwhile, this other approach is better because XYZ reasons."
People who don't understand things are more likely to say "This was written by this author I've never read, his materials are advanced but he was a bit mad and so his work is too dangerous to be useful." "This author was in league with dark forces and they led him to misunderstand the true nature of magic, which I understand from studying systems that are watered down versions of said author's work."
Ok, so they won't hand their ignorance to you on a silver platter like that, but it's easy enough to read between the lines. More often you'll just get "that kind of spell is dangerous," "no one should ever do that because you can't control it," "only dark magicians would do that kind of magic, it's very dangerous," or other similarly vague and spooky warnings with no substance.
The real keys here are "is the warning substantive?" and "does the substance make sense?" If the answer to these questions is no then maybe look for someone else to answer your questions. If your answers are always like that, maybe realize you aren't ready to answer questions.
The second common fail-boat response is, "google it," "we don't spoon-feed people here," "no one is here to teach you," "shouldn't you know that if you're ready to do this magic?"
Admittedly, sometimes, the last challenge to a question is a reasonable one. Google it might be a reasonable response occasionally too based on the way someone is asking stuff or if you've provided some help but they need more. The other two make sense much less often.
I've written about this before. In most disciplines, experts are overjoyed to talk about their specialized area of expertise. Experts often want to share and teach. In magic, this is actually often the case too...although a lot of experts don't like the drama and hassle of public forums so they just aren't super active there. They might skip responding to posts if they don't have time or interest in answering. I have rarely see any bruskly brush off a sincere question. In the case of a forum, I would also assume any question that isn't clearly trolling is sincere enough.
Magic doesn't have a clear bar for expertise. Expertise isn't easily testable. Expertise could refer to practical capability or to learned knowledge and those would have different measures. There are no standards or accreditation organizations. There is nothing barring Andy Random from reading a book or two, attending an online chatroom sabbat ritual and declaring himself a high priest of the ancient moon cult of witches. People do this pretty much daily. A lot of people establish their status as experts in forums by virtue of being loud and condescending. There are also those who establish it with fancy names, flashy weird back-stories, and routine seemingly pithy hot-takes that are easy to deconstruct but too sassy to want to shoot down...but that's a whole different issue.
The loud and condescending sort would never dream of answering questions. Because they'd have to reveal that they don't know stuff. Actual experts will answer things when they have the time or inclination, and they will admit they don't know or are not the best source of information when something is outside of their scope.
The final example is the one which made me write today's post. Originally I was just going to tweet "people who think magic never has any actual methodology clearly have never experienced real magic," or something like that. Maybe pithier...maybe more scathing, or maybe more gentle. Then I thought, "well it needs more clarity, so maybe a longer tweet? maybe a Facebook status?" Then I decided I'd do a blog post...just a paragraph or two, but then this happened. That's pretty much me in an exploded nutshell though.
Anyone familiar with forums knows that the most predominant idea in the magical and NeoPagan communities is "it's all about intention," "the only thing that matters is intention," "there are no rules, it's just whatever it means to you because it's about intention," "answers to your question don't matter, because what matters is how you feel because it's about your intentions."
Intention is important in magic, because magic is often accomplished through taking various mundane actions and combining them in a symbolic way and activating them through the intention to perform magic by doing them. Intention is important in the sense that magic is an intentional act. Even that is kind of a weak argument for intention because there is more to it than that. Not any actions performed with the intention of doing magic will always produce magic, and some actions might produce magic even without an aware intention on the part of the doer.
The idea that magic is about what you intend to manifest, and that magical acts are relatively meaningless in the face of your intentions is a nonsensical sort of misunderstanding and one which is very easily demonstrably false. If this were the case, we wouldn't ever need to learn any magic, we could just intend for things to happen. We wouldn't ever run into mistakes or mishaps in magic, because our real intentions will just show through no matter what we do. Everyday acts would all be magical because we would always have some intended outcome, and things would always match our intentions. Instead of the saying "the road to hell is paved with good intentions," being common in our culture, we would instead recognize universally that what someone intended to do is what's important, because their intentions will win out in the end.
Obviously, I am not a strictly by the book magician. I'm an educated magician, but I have all the messy eccentricity that just about everyone who grew up with bits and bobs of magic and the influence of spirits they encountered as children shaping their early experiments in magic. I think experimentation, innovation, and substitution are necessary. I also think these things are better when people have a good base knowledge of the system they're working with and other systems. I also know that there are things which can go wrong when symbols, materials, names, and spirits are used without understanding them or without working with them in the correct ways.
Ironically, people who are quick to mock assertions that some things are correct and other things are incorrect are the same people who will say "never try this because it's spooky dangerous." This overlap kind of illustrates how both are based in not really getting that magic has real power, and that power can do great things, and that great things can be stuff we're happy about or stuff that devastates us.
I have seen real magic do intense things. Sometimes, intense things can be really small but still incredibly impressive. Sometimes they are huge. I've seen it destroy towns, end lives, save lives, save homes, deliver fortunes to people unexpectedly, I've seen liquidations of investments in failed businesses yield people great returns, I've seen people healed of things where doctors were confused or avoid illness that seemed unavoidable. The list of stuff where it is inexplicable and clearly not just psychology or coincidence is endless. Magic being real and powerful doesn't mean people are throwing fireballs or flying around cities, or using magic carpets instead of airplanes. It means real powerful effects which can shake the foundation of your perceptions of reality and power are a standard element of magic.
When we consider that simple tools can have that kind of power we must consider that there are correct and incorrect ways to use those tools. This isn't meant in a moral sense. I'm not saying if you want to destroy some village because someone offended you at a dinner party that that is an incorrect use of magic. It would be a pretty awful thing to do and I'd hope you weren't going to do it. I'm saying I've seen things that let me know that that is possible. I've seen things that let me know that completely innocent uses of magic can go horribly wrong when we don't understand how the tools we're using work or how they assemble into the effects we're trying to create.
So when someone says "these things shouldn't be used together because of the way their effects combine or cancel," or "this should be used in this way but not this way because chances are this will happen," we should ask why and explore whether or not the advise is reasonable. We shouldn't mock the idea that the advise exists because it's all about intention.
If your answer is "I lazily spin in my chair while wearing three talismans and sitting next to a bowl of crystals and I'm fine," then yeah, you probably are fine. You're probably also not doing any actual magic and aren't equipped to answer questions about actual magic. Your practice of feeling empowered is probably great for you, but that's probably most of what you've got going on.
It would be very easy to read what I'm saying here as reactive and sensationalist. A lot of real magical work won't do things which are cataclysmic if we make a little mistake here or there. More likely, we'll make a mistake and get no meaningful result, or we'll make a little mistake and our result will be misdirected off from our goal. The damage here is simply the loss of opportunity to get what we wanted or needed. This kind of problem can be a great learning experience for tweaking method. If we don't recognize that methods have an impact then we don't consider making those tweaks. Not understanding that there is a reality to magical acts limits us from improving.
As we become more proficient and move on to more intermediate and advanced methods - if we can really consider them in that kind of hierarchy - we start to encounter possibilities which might have more consistently powerful effects. Depending upon the moment and the magician super simple super basic things can have very powerful effects. There are also approaches that tend to be more likely to produce those because of the spirits or the natural powers which are involved in effecting them.
As we engage those techniques, we might not realize powers or tendencies that a particular spirit has. Or we might not recognize how certain elements of our timing impact the spirits or the natural forces we are applying to the situation. If we understand those things we can sometimes navigate them. We can put restrictions in place, or take additional measures, or involve other spirits to help manage the effects and avoid undesirable side effects or undesirable means by which the goal is manifested.
This is not to say that if you do a spell for money that your most likely option for a windfall is a relative dying and leaving you money, so your spell will unintentionally kill someone. There are various reasons why that is not super likely. More to the point, it's saying that if you ask a spirit who gives dignities in war and grants treasure to bring you money, and you do it in the day and hour of Mars, while Mars is exalted, and the Moon is aspecting Mars, and Jupiter and Mercury are in signs ruled by Mars, and Jupiter is afflicted by an aspect with Saturn then maybe violence, war or chaos will bring about your monetary goal. If you recognize those factors, maybe you pick a different spirit, or maybe you choose a different time, or incorporate talismans or ritual magic components to offset the electional qualities of the time at which you're doing your work.
For a more simple example, a love spell intended to make a particular person desire you won't necessarily end up like the rapey obsession that occurred when Robin Tuney enchanted Skeet Ulrich. First he becomes a doting and vacant servant, following around the witch who ensorcelled him. Then he becomes obsessed, he can't eat, he can't sleep, he tries to see her at inappropriate times, and eventually attempts to rape her. This is the horror story that people hold up as an example of the danger of love spells. It's kind of ironic since it's from a horror movie, albeit minor horror, and usually people would dismiss the idea that magic works the way it does in horror movies.
Doing a spell which is effective but misguided could easily result in this kind of effect. I am aware of someone doing a spell intended to kind of turn things up in a developing relationship and it involved some pepper oil for passion and the candle caught the oil and ended up igniting most of the spell components in a conflagration. The spell was left in a fireproof area in case something like that happened and ended up safely burning itself out. Something came up and the magician decided to put off their date with the object of the spell and the person effected by the spell became somewhat enraged and demanded they must have their date then. That fiery passion clearly took hold. Nothing bad happened though.
We could take the mistake further. Maybe we take two red candles and some crimson rose petals for passion. We take some oils for lust and obsession and dress the candle with those and with red pepper oil. We add some additional components for heat and to speed up the spell. We carve the names of the two people intended to get together into the candles and bind the together. The candle for the suitor being spelled gets rose thorns stuck into it to create a painful and irritating desire. We obtain the assistance of an intranquil spirit and command it to disturb the target with dreams, a loss of sleep, a loss of appetite, a burning in their blood, until they are with the person that they are intended to pursue. We agitate the spirit with peppers and fire and threats of damnation. Maybe we are afraid that the target will be too inert because of their nature, so we call on spirits ruled by Mars to stir the blood to action and make our suitor take initiative.
This spell would be pretty awful, but it would be pretty effective. It would also be full of things that shouldn't go together in this context unless measures are taken to also cool the effects of the spell and soothe everything which is stirred up in the target. If the person who desires the suitor doesn't want sex, or wants to play coy and feel pursued, then this spell is probably asking for violence to happen.
Some people might say "this is why you don't do love spells," but you could do one which doesn't do this and accomplishes the goal. Maybe you obtain personal effects from the two people. Put them in a pink sachet with pink rose petals, sugar, a load stone dressed in iron filings and oil suited to affection and attention. Anoint two pink or two green candles with the same oils and carve in their names, drizzle them in honey, and sprinkle honeysuckle over them. Maybe add some elements related to beauty on the candle for the person who wants to be desired, and courage for the person who the spell intends to turn into a suitor. Light the candles next to each other so they will melt into the same place. Call on spirits ruled by Venus and ask them to make the beauty of the individual inspire affection and sweet treatment from the suitor.
The elements of the spell will effect the nature of the results. In both cases, Sally Spellman obtains her desired suitor. In one case, the suitor is more likely to be wound up, horny, and agitated by desire. In the other case the suitor is more likely to be affectionate and caring and attracted to Sally's qualities.
It's not the ethical nature of the spell that potentially results in disaster, it's the way the spell tries to create the effect and whether or not the effect is directed and channeled in a way which safely allows the effect and deals with the specifics of how the spell is working. When we don't consider what we're doing, why we're doing it, and how it works, we can't consider how it will develop and how we need to address that development.
You'll also notice that while I'm talking about dangers here, none of them are spooky vague dangers. All the dangers are based in specific elements of how and why this could be dangerous and how it can be dealt with. This again, is the different between that first issue that reveals that someone isn't super aware of magic.
All in all, it's easy to be the guy that says "No, that's just spooky dangerous for no real reason," "you should just google it because we won't spoon-feed you," and "your intention is all that matters so do whatever you want." It takes less work to answer questions this way. It takes less work to read a few books, buy cool necklaces and crystals and live an aesthetic that makes you feel good. It takes less work to develop a basic practice of magic and basic understanding and never expand it.
It isn't just laziness though. It can be scary to open up to a world with more possibilities and more risks. It can be scary to open up to a world where you might have real power and therefore might have to be responsible for things you do with that power. It can be incredibly depressing to hold onto power, and do really cool stuff and still be routinely faced with situations where you can't do anything about them, or where you feel too inert or unsure to try doing anything about them and are forced to still feel small and powerless and to try and unpack those feelings relative to moments of power. It's not necessarily a simpler easier world. It can be a rewarding world, but it is a choice that still opens you up to other things you will have to deal with. It's just as reasonable to not want that world as it is to want the rewards that go with that world. It isn't reasonable to reject that world and then still pretend to be an expert and get in the way of other people finding it.
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