Magic in the Grove – The Place of Magical Arts in Our Druidry
The meaning and use of ‘magic’ (I will refrain from using the ‘k’ that some attach to the common spelling, since that has associations with specific schools of practice outside of our own) in our Druidic practice is an important issue. Throughout the Neopagan Movement the term magic is common, used with a variety of meanings. To some it refers to all the ‘occult’ methods involving spells, charms, spirits and divination. To some it refers to the intrinsic wonder and mystery of the cosmos, or to the ‘energy’ that underlies existence. Some say that magic is something you ‘are’, not something you do, while others that it is a skill as much as a talent. Some see magic and religion as nearly opposites; some see them as nearly identical. There is a simple reason why ‘magic’ has such a confusion of definitions – it has in fact no clear meaning in an Indo-European Pagan context.
This article is meant both to introduce a few scholastic basics concerning magic in IE Paganism and some of the real uses of magical skills in a Druidic context.
The roots of the term ‘magic’ are in the culture of archaic Greece. The Greeks were cousins of the Persians, whose traditional Fire-priests may have been called Magi (sing. Magu). The term is nearly lost in Persian, but occurs in Greek beginning roughly in the 500s bce. Indo-Iranian priestcraft seems to have included the performance of rites meant to provide individual clients with practical goals such as fertility, wealth or the removal of ill-luck. Whether it was wandering members of that caste or merely imitators cashing in on their mystique, by 500bce there were people known in Greek as magoi, practicing mageia or magike. These figures traded in spells, blessings, dealings with spirits and the offer of spiritual experiences through secret initiations. This complex seems to have appeared foreign to the Greeks and they came to view much of it as impious and suspect. What began (and continued) as plainly sacred practice in one Indo-European culture became a complex of marginal and suspect practice in another.
If the Greeks were suspicious of the use of spiritual arts for personal goals – that is, of magic – the Romans were more so, and that suspicion passed to the Christian empire in turn. Our modern default ideas about what categorizes magic remain based on the notions of the late classical Greeks and Romans. However when we examine other IE systems we find very different attitudes.
The basic skills of what has been called magic are identical to those that are used in Pagan religious practice. Invocation of the divine, the use of herbs and stones, signs and symbols, the consecration of objects with spiritual power, the knowledge of times and seasons, all are part and parcel of traditional Pagan ritual. While all of these skills are used in the service of the Gods and the folk they can also be readily applied to the needs and will of the individual. It is the varying attitudes of IE cultures toward the private use of spiritual arts that determines their attitude toward what we call magic.
If I were to offer a definition of magic it might be: “Specialized spiritual skills employed for personally willed goals.” The core elements of Pagan religion are those employed by magicians and priests alike, and often for the same goals. Within this basic definition we can look at a couple of important basic distinctions.
Theurgy and Thaumaturgy
One basic set of categories divides specialized spiritual arts according to intention.Theurgy (Gr. ‘divine working’) is the use of spiritual skills to produce personal and group religious or spiritual experience at will. Thaumaturgy (Gr. ‘wonder working’) is the use of spiritual skills to create specific effects in the world. Wealth, health, love, and all the common goals of ‘spells’ might result either from theurgy or thaumaturgy. Thaumaturgy would seek them directly – theurgy would offer them as a side benefit of spiritual progress.
In the ancient world theurgy was part of the work of any skilled priest. Knowledge of the symbols and traditional invocations of the Gods, of the proper use of images and physical anchors for the spirits, of the uses of herbs and stones and the hidden powers of things, of oracles and seership were all integral with IE religion. In later classical times traditional religion was challenged by Christianity and other ‘mystery’ religions. In response the traditional skills were reformulated with a focus on solitary or small group ritual. Greek thinkers debated whether these practices belonged in the less-than-reputable category of magic. Christian authorities placed them firmly there, with the exception of those methods that were co-opted for Christian liturgy.
Thaumaturgy has always had a distinctly less savory reputation, but has always been studied and practiced. While there were many honest purveyors of spells and spiritual support, marketplace fortunetellers and sellers of charms were probably more common than wise men in towers. Some IE systems seem to have allowed the priesthood to work such arts for individuals, while others forbid it. Of course when the community required thaumaturgy, such as rainmaking or the cure of blight on the cattle, the priesthood’s thaumaturgical skills would be expected to be up to snuff.
Public and Private
Another important set of categories describing spiritual arts is the distinction between public and private rites. Pagan religion was decentralized, and personal and household religion was often handled by the household members. There was, however, a suspicion of rites done in secret. Among the Romans one simple distinction between an invocation and a ‘spell’ was that one was spoken plainly aloud while the other was whispered in secret.
In some IE societies the learning of these specialized spiritual skills seems to have been fairly tightly regulated by societal norms. The Celtic Druids and Vedic Brahmins seem to have had a firm apprenticeship system in which learning was limited to those who could find a teacher to accept them. However cultures with literate records of the arts would certainly have had a degree of ‘leakage’, perhaps producing self-proclaimed wonderworkers and gurus. The limitation of higher-order spiritual skills to a trained elite probably contributed to the mythic image of the ‘wizard’. The leakage of ‘secrets’ into less approved hands may have helped to produce the sense of ‘forbidden arts’ even before (or outside of) Christian dominance. Since these arts produce powerful effects they traveled widely in a way that tended to transcend caste, ethnicity and other proprieties, making them subject to the public disapproval of priests.
So we can say that in some sense magic is private spiritual practice outside the control of the social authorities. When these skills, often developed in private by priests, are brought into the public temple they are usually used quietly, while the folk sing the hymns and watch the offerings. However in our modern Pagan milieu it is much more common to involve even the casual congregation in the deeper spiritual work of the rites. Once again the distinction between magic and religions blurs almost to the vanishing point.
Magic in Our Druidry
Most of the practice of magical arts in Our Druidry is focused on the theurgic work of our rituals of worship. The willed intention that we bring to our High Day rites is to create an environment where mortals and the Powers can see one another, and be seen, and we can gain the blessing of the Gods and spirits. We employ ritual, trance, symbolism and offerings – all the elements of theurgy – to draw the blessing of the spirits to our Fire.
Through this we mean to have an effect upon the participants. We bring the presence of the love and power and wisdom of the Gods closer to our mortal lives. We ask the Holy Ones to bless us with health, wealth and wisdom. Sometimes we choose to direct this blessing by our conscious will. Very often we simply rely on the proper turning of the Weave of Fate, with the power of the Gods and Spirits who wish us well, to bring us what we need.
Thaumaturgy has gotten less attention than has theurgy in our sacrificial rites. The Order of Ritual has been variously adapted for spellbinding. One rite for group practical work uses the standard Neopagan method of ‘power raising’ combined with worship and blessing. After receiving the Blessing the members present the candle or token they wish to bless, speaking their intention aloud. Chanting and drumming are then used to alter awareness and focus intention to ‘charge’ the tokens. My own work in my book “Sacred Fire, Holy Well” offers a full system of Druidic ‘spellwork’ and other magical skills. In general most of the methods in common use in traditional later-period magic grow from practices common in Indo-European cultures. Images, talismans, spoken and sung charms, the ‘conjuration’ of spirits all seem to extend far beyond the late classical world into the past.
The practical application of spiritual arts as ‘spells’ or ‘magical works’ has had a very limited role in our Pagan religious practice. While all the elements of such work are available in our context our focus on receiving all good things through the Blessings of our rites has made the need for tinkering with events through spells a tertiary matter. That said, we are working to build the presence of practical magic in our work. Our Clergy and Initiate’s program requires all students to try their hand at practical work, and no doubt some of us will find a knack for one or another skill. By whatever name we seek to train our Druids by giving them experience of invocation of the divine, of work with spirits, divination and spellcraft.
These skills of practical spiritual arts are inherent in traditional Paganism, but are just beginning to find expression. More generally, spiritual arts are applied in all well-worked rites. What western ‘occultism’ has sometimes referred to as ‘high magic’ is itself an inheritance from Pagan religion. Cleansing and purification, invocation, divination and consecration play a part in every Druidic rite of worship. These skills can also be applied in service to individual practical goals, but our work is more concerned with the Blessing of the Gods and Spirits, and the finding of harmony between the individual soul and the World Order. That is the heart of the magic of Our Druidry.