What is Magic Anyway?

Before that fateful year, way back in the 1990’s, I was heating up leftovers in my mother’s hand-me-down Magic Chef microwave oven, watching commercials about products that “worked like magic” and Magic Johnson was playing basketball for perhaps the best Lakers lineup that has ever graced Los Angeles. Magic was the stuff of commercialism.

The commercialization of magic did not begin in the 1990’s or even the 1980’s. Way back in the late 1960’s the Beatles’ released their enduringly popular “Magical Mystery Tour” LP, Steppenwolf’s most popular song “Magic Carpet Ride”  actually reached the top ten, and Timothy Leary was extolling the magic mushroom experience to impressionable hippies seeking a psychological/psychedelic escape from the war era.

During the same period of time, in the 1960’s and 1970’s, mainstream curiosity in Shamanism coincided with an undercurrent of faith in magic and the birth of Wicca, NeoPaganism and other earth- and magic-based spiritualities. Whether these were originally a product of drug-crazed hippie potheads is debatable. Earth-based spiritualities have endured, and even become accepted religions, partly due to foundations in primitive culture, history and mythology which appeal to educated and curious members of the public.

Wicca retained its unique niche in the counterculture for decades. Late-20th century television programming, with very few exceptions such as “Bewitched”,  was unconcerned with magic and instead entertained the masses with reality-comedy shows like “the Brady Bunch”, “the Jeffersons”, and “Welcome Back Kotter”, whose Urban “Sweathogs” represented the antithesis of Shamanistic, earth-based magical religions.

Then, in 1997, Harry Potter began to take the world by storm. Suddenly magic was mainstream. Much like the British invasion of the 1960’s, teachers, parents and “the establishment” panicked. Fears of wand-waving youngsters refusing to do their homework gripped the collective imagination of authority figures, and Church-goers whispered nervous rumors of pentacle-wearing Wiccan neighbors, as magic became the new obsession of youngsters.

This was not the first time the international public has been gripped by the overwhelming charisma of British charm. Like the British Invasion of musicians in the 1960’s as represented by the Beatles, the Who, and the Rolling Stones, numerous copycats and spinoffs abound. However; unlike that musical influence, which was a British interpretation of red-white-and-blue American rock-and-roll, Harry Potter seems to be a uniquely British flavored phenomenon.

British fascination with magic goes back to the 19th century, when “Mystery Cults” with fantastically pseudo-academic names such as Rosicrucians, the Golden Dawn, and Theosophists attracted elite artists, peripheral members of Royalty and a vast abundance of hangers-on, who seemed to have nothing better to do with their miserable lives than to try to make sense of a mishmash of magical traditions from Alexandrian antiquity.

Sadly, many innovations of that generation stemmed from notoriously hanging-on riff-raff; including one widely-quoted definition of magic … a quote you will not see reprinted in this blog post. More popular were the inner-cult collaborations, which culminated in two enduringly famous works of art created by female artists; the tarot decks depicted by delightfully allegorical Pamela Coleman Smith and the intensely imaginative Lady Frieda Harris.

Prior to the nineteenth century, the entire subject of magic had been fascinating yet “off-limits” to the international public for centuries; the days of the ancient oracles at Delphi and Praeneste had been shrouded in mystery since the 4th century, when Paganism was made illegal, and all sorts of magic were similarly abolished as Pagan practices.

Oddly enough, Jesus himself may have been trained in the style of Hermetic magic which was prevalent in Alexandrian Egypt in his day. According to author Stephen Edred Flowers Ph.D., the words Jesus used to describe himself as the “Son of God” were identical to ritual invocations used by many Hermetic magicians who also described themselves as divine sons of various ancient Pagan and Hebrew deities. If this is true, then is it possible that all the branches of the Christian faith are based in this type of ritual magic?

Let’s take a look at ancient history: About thirty years before the birth of Jesus, Lady Pharaoh Cleopatra and Octavia’s philandering husband Marc Antony were defeated in Egypt. Rome invaded Alexandria, and with that invasion came a fascination with all things Egyptian. Egyptology spread throughout the Roman Empire. Alexandria itself, with its famous library, was a great melting pot for literary and spiritual culture of the known world, including Egyptian, Greek, Hebrew, Roman, African and other influences.

In the book of Matthew, of the New Testament, Jesus indeed lived in Egypt as a young, impressionable child. According to the book of Ephesus, Jesus was aware of books about Greek magic and experienced the powerful popularity of the Pagan Goddess Diana.  However; if Jesus were truly trained in Hermetic traditions, it’s anyone’s guess as to why he wanted those books of magic burned.

A clue comes from this edited-for-blog-version of prophesy by another Greek Goddess in a cryptic “Oracle of Hekate” as referenced by authors Sorita d’Este and David Rankine, and originally recorded by 3rd Century philosopher Porphyry:

And to those who ask why he (Jesus) was condemned … the oracle of the Goddess (Hekate) replied: … the souls of the pious abide in heaven. And the soul you inquire about has been the fatal cause of error to other souls which were not fated to receive the gifts of the gods, and to have the knowledge of the immortal Jove. … He himself, however, was good … You are not, then, to speak evil of him, but to pity the folly of men …

Perhaps, magic was never intended to be a mainstream study for the masses. Perhaps divine knowledge is not something to be tossed about in a book or a movie theater. Perhaps, if the miraculous international success of a certain author of magical fiction is any measure, the most powerful magic is that of the written word.

Multi-millionaire author of the famous and immensely successful Harry Potter series about a young wizard who discovers he is the most recent in a long lineage of gifted sorcerers, J.K. Rowling’s strongest belief is in human imagination and not magic. Perhaps magic does not come from schools of wizardry, generations of family knowledge, nor waving wands made of exotic woods.

I must confess: I have never read any books nor seen any movies about Harry Potter. I am, actually, an interested person on the sidelines experiencing all the hoopla associated with a rags-to-riches transformation from struggling artist to international success. As an aspiring blogger, I am more interested in the art and craft of Ms. Rowling’s writing, than I am in the content of her books.

Fortunately, thanks to Harvard University, we do indeed have the opportunity for a glimpse into the motivations, beliefs and ethics of Joanne Kathleen Rowling; a woman who shares her knowledge of English translations for famous quotes by Latin writers Plutarch and Seneca, among other things:

I said I never read a book by Ms. Rowling, and that’s only partly true. I have not read a book in its entirety. However, I did drop by Amazon yesterday and take a peek into the first view pages. What I saw surprised me. This book, despite any plots, fantastic creatures or amazing adventures of the characters who grace its pages, appears to be as stodgily formulaic as its two-dimensional family of antagonists.

Come on, we’ve seen this line-up since Mary Poppins, Scrooge and the rest. The protagonist is, basically, the misunderstood, starving yet ingeniously gifted writer in disguise. The antagonists are, just as basically, a representation of all the bills that heap up unpaid and knocking at the door. This is the classic writer, writing a classic book; a type of novel the public has bought … hook, line and sinker … for centuries.

Honestly. There’s nothing new about Harry Potter. Not within the first few pages anyway … but I digress. The use of an agent to promote the book and find a publisher is similarly formulaic; no self-publishing here. E-books? I wouldn’t hold my breathe for that either. Even using initials, instead of a woman’s name, is an old trick to fool the public into purchasing a female author’s work.

In my humble opinion, the Harry Potter phenomenon has very little to do with magic, and very much to do with a smart and talented writer who found a niche that hadn’t been covered to any great extent. J.K Rowling is doing, with talking young wizards, the same thing E.B. White did with talking animals for young readers in previous generations. Brilliant. But is it magic?

My handy and reliable book-shelf Webster’s defines magic as:

  1. The art that purports to control or forecast natural events or forces by invoking the supernatural.
  2. Exercise of sleight of hand or conjuring for entertainment
  3. A mysterious quality of enchantment
Of the three, I would put Ms. Rowling’s writing in the second category, and although the book’s characters appear to be in the third category (although this is difficult to imagine, based on the first few pages of the book) do fictional characters truly work magic? Or is the appearance of magic simply the sleight of hand exercise of the writer? I’d opt for the second choice.

In contrast, contemporary spiritualists evolved from the Shamanistic explorations of the latter 20th century often claim a magical practice, in much the same way as 19th century Occultists did in their day. This definition is much more in line with the first category, with words “deity” or “deities” substituted for “the supernatural”, as the different branches of NeoPagan spirituality become more and more accepted as bona fide religions.

Divine invocation in association with magical practice is certainly not new, as I have pointed out in the discussion of Jesus and Alexandrian Hermetic practices. This type of magic is often called “high magic” or “ritual magic” by contemporary practitioners because of the respect given to the divine as the source of all power. This type of magic may be viewed as an elaborate, religious prayer.

Counterbalancing this type of ritual is “low magic”; in line with the third category of Webster’s definition of magic. This is a more traditional, mainstream type of magic which is associated with healing, miracles of healing and is often accompanied by studies of natural phenomena; perhaps most familiar in the mainstream as folk magic in the form of herbalism or aromatherapy. Chamomile tea as an antidote to sleeplessness, or peppermint tea to calm an upset stomach are both examples of “magical” herbs used medicinally.

Botanical magic, as “low magic”, does not involve complicated ritual invocations; the magic of “mother earth” already resides within the divine forces integral to plants, which may have been deemed a mystery by folk healers … although many of these formerly mysterious qualities have been studied and confirmed with scientific methods which explain, in no uncertain terms, exactly “why” a certain herb promotes drowsiness, digestive calming, or the myriad of other helpful things from a technical viewpoint.

These two types of magic form the vast bulk of teachings and practices associated with contemporary magic: Magic as prayer, and Magic as natural healing and health products. Neither type of magic allows us to walk on water, go from rags-to-riches or do any of the other amazing things mistakenly called “magic” by followers of the Harry Potter brand of popular culture.

Actual magic is much more mundane, personal, and … to be honest … in a non-formulaic presentation, magical practice is not likely to rival the financial success of a series of stodgily formulaic, yet highly imaginative and well-written best-selling books.

Neither type of magic is revolutionary nor any cause for alarm. However, both types of magic have a profoundly important place in the human experience, and have inspired the imagination of countless numbers of contemporary practitioners, their friends, family, neighbors and clients.