Thoughts About Magic - 1

What do we understand by the word 'Magic' ?

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What is magic, what does the word mean? It is a difficult question to answer as the word ‘Magic’ has meant, and continues to mean, many things to many people. Indeed, it has been the subject of a great deal of debate over the centuries and there is as yet no consensus as to its meaning. In fact the meaning of the word has been a matter of uncertainty since classical times.[1] What is known is that the word Magic is generally accepted as being derived from the Greek ‘mageia’ (μαγεία), a word the Greeks derived from the word Magu or Magi, a title of the sacerdotal caste of ancient Persia and Media, who were followers of the prophet Zoroaster and priests of the god Ahuramazda. The word Magi signifies those who are ‘wise’, not only in the ways of the world, but also in the ways of God, and because of their wisdom the Magi commanded great respect throughout the ancient world.

Plato, felt comfortable using them as exemplars of the highest virtue when discussing statesmanship in Alcibiades I, where he describes how a royal prince of ancient Persia, upon reaching the age of fourteen years, was put in the care of four carefully selected schoolmasters (magians). These masters were “reputed to be the best among the Persians of a certain age; and one of them is the wisest, another is the most just, the third the most temperate, and the fourth the most valiant. The first instructs him in the magianism of Zoroaster, the son of Ahuramazda, which is the worship of the gods, and teaches him also the duties of his royal office...”[2]

Thus Plato held the Magi in the highest esteem, and furthermore, informs us that the work of a magus, or magician, is the worship of the gods (Theurgy). With the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century, the Classical world came to an end and the Dark Ages began in Western Europe, out of which emerged the medieval era, spanning the best part of a thousand years, during which time magic generally became known under three main headings: Natural Magic, Goetia, and Theurgy.

Natural Magic

Natural Magic was concerned with the hidden workings of nature; its properties, powers, qualities, substances and virtues. It was held to the noblest part of the physical sciences, and as such was not forbidden by faith and therefore not legislated against. For many students of the magical art, it was the consummation of Natural Philosophy. The study of Alchemy, Medicine, Astrology, and the manipulation of nature’s ‘finer forces’ were considered to be the proper domain of Natural Magic. One of the greatest exponents of Natural Magic was Paracelsus, a renowned Alchemist and healer of the sixteenth century who is well-known for his Doctrine of Signatures, in which he proposed that natural objects suggest by their external appearance the complaints for which they were cures; thus, some plants may be seen as representing parts of the body, whilst others suggest diseases for which they may be used as remedies. A ‘signature’ was therefore any distinctive feature or quality that indicated a connection between remedy and malady.

There is a fundamental distinction between the field of Natural Magic and those of Goetia and Theurgy. Natural Magic was understood to be the application of true and natural causes to produce rare and unusual effects by means that were neither superstitious nor diabolical. It was a discipline of enquiring into the workings of Nature and did not involve engaging with spirits or gods. Whereas, Goetia and Theurgy are disciplines that do engage with spirits and gods, and indeed, with a vast hierarchy of other supernatural beings, to affect the desired changes.


To the ancient Greeks, what we in our time might generally understand by the terms sorcerer, witch and witchcraft, was known by the name Goēs or Goētes, from which the term Goetia and Goetic are derived. Indeed, from the earliest times the term Goetia has been employed in a sinister and disreputable sense, being invariably linked with magical ceremonies devised to control and manipulate spirits for questionable reasons, often to the detriment of others. Another term associated with Goetia in later centuries is Thaumaturge, which derives from the Greek ‘thaûma’ (θαῦμα), meaning "miracle" or "marvel", originally associated with miracle-working saints such as St Gregory of Neocaesarea and SS Cosmas & Damian, to name but a few.

In the 16th century, the word thaumaturgy entered the English language meaning ‘wonder-worker’ or ‘magical powers’. The word was first anglicized and used in the magical sense in John Dee's book  Mathematicall Praeface to Euclid's Elements (1570). Although it had been used in a non-magical sense previously, referring more to ‘wonder-working’ and ‘miracles’, it quickly became associated with the seedier side of life, and has since acquired the reputation that is typically associated with Goetia.

Today Goetia is associated with rituals such as the seventeenth century Grimoire, Lemegeton Clavicula Solomonis, otherwise known as The lesser Key of Solomon, around which a vast amount of fanciful myth and legend has accumulated. Indeed, Goetia has long been accepted as being synonymous with Black Magic. Historically, Goēs (sorcerers, witches etc.) were often seen as a threat to the social order and there were many occasions when the laws against them were vigorously enforced, particularly in the Roman Empire.

Almost from its foundation Rome introduced laws against the exponents of sorcery and witchcraft. The earliest Roman code of Law, the Twelve Tablets, introduced in the mid fifth-century BC, so named because they were publicly displayed in the Forum on twelve tablets of Bronze, forbade people from using magic to harm others; the punishment for such a crime being severe.

In the first century BC the Patrician, Felix Lucius Cornelius Sulla, reformed these laws. Part of the reformed laws, the Lex Cornelia de sicariis et veneficis, (The Cornelian Law Concerning Assassins and Poisoners) includes the following statements with regard to magic:

“Persons who celebrate, or cause to be celebrated impious or nocturnal rites, so as to enchant, bewitch, or bind anyone, shall be crucified, or thrown to wild beasts.

“Persons who are addicted to the art of magic, shall suffer extreme punishment; that is to say they shall be thrown to wild beasts, or crucified. Magicians themselves shall be burned alive.

“No one shall be permitted to have books on the art of magic in his possession, and when they are found with anyone, they shall be publicly burnt, and those who have them, after being deprived of their property, if they are of superior rank shall be deported to an island, and if they are of inferior station shall be put to death; for not only is the practice of this art prohibited, but also the knowledge of the same.”[3]

Obviously, the ancient world was no bed of spiritual roses, for society then, just like today, had its share of unscrupulous people who were prepared to use both natural and supernatural forces to take advantage of, and or intimidate their neighbours. However, in Plato or Sulla’s time it would have been unlikely that a sorcerer or witch would have been mistaken for being a member of the Magi, for the Magi, whether from Persia, ancient Egypt, Greece or Rome, were the elite of their civilisation. They were learned, not only in the liberal Arts & Sciences but also in spiritual sciences such as Theology and Psychology, as well as sciences, including, Metallurgy, Philosophy, Medicine and Physiology, and as such were highly respected. As Plato so eloquently put it, the work of the Magi was the worship of the Gods; work that is formally known as Theurgy.


The word ‘theurgy’ is based upon the Greek words Theos (God) and Ergos (work), from which is derived the word theourgia – which means ‘works of God’ or ‘divine workings’[4]. These divine workings were the sacramental rites or mysteries that were central to the spiritual life of the ancient world. One of the main exponents of Theurgy in the ancient world was Iamblichus, who was born in Syria in the middle of the third century. He was a pupil of Porphyry[5] and the author of several books, most of which are now lost. Fortunately, among those that did was a book, entitled De Mysteriis. It is an account of a lengthy correspondence about Theurgy between an Egyptian High Priest called Abammon, and Iamblichus’s teacher, Porphyry. It is perhaps the most significant work concerning ancient theurgic principles and dynamics still in existence.

Over the course of time the ancient rites of Theurgy were absorbed into the sacramental system of the Church, and have since fallen into disuse, being no longer valued either by the Church or the State; indeed, our society has barely any knowledge of the sacred rites of spiritual regeneration that were so important to the ancient world. This is hardly surprising as the modern secular world views the spiritual dimension of life as a pot-pourri of primitive beliefs, practices and superstitions promoted by the unscrupulous with the intention of fleecing the naïve and the incredulous, or fostered by the misguided and the irrational as a delusory mystical science that rests more on hopes, dreams and misconceptions than on any objective truth or observation.

Even the majority of those who are knowledgeable perceive Theurgy and Goetia to be more or less the same thing, which is a potentially hazardous perception in that the objectives and dynamics of both are on their own terms diametrically opposed. Eliphas Levi said of Goetic Magic: “This torrent of universal life….it is this which brings to our evocations and to the conjurations of our Goëtic Magic such swarms of larvæ and phantoms. Therein are preserved all the fantastic and fortuitous assemblages of forms which people our nightmares with such abominable monstrosities.”[6]

Herein we may perceive the distinction between Goetia and Theurgy, for in Goetia the magician seeks to control the forces of nature and the spirits that abound in creation, to take heaven by storm, to become as a god; ‘Let my Will be done’ is the rule, whereas the Theurgist seeks purification, liberation, and salvation of the soul, following a path of ‘Thy [God’s] Will be done’ as opposed to ‘My Will be done’. This is best summed up by Iamblichus himself, who wrote:

“From the beginning, it is necessary to divide ecstasy into two species: one is turned towards the inferior, filled with foolishness and delirium, but the other imparts goods more honourable than human wisdom. “The former is unstable, the latter unchangeable; the first is counter to nature, the latter is beyond nature; the former makes the soul descend, the latter raises it up; and while the former entirely separates the soul from participation in the divine, the latter connects the soul with the divine.”[7]

From the foregoing it becomes obvious that describing what is meant by ‘Magic’ is at best a little tricky. Magic has meant different things to different people at different times, but, if there is a common theme that runs throughout the history of magic, it is control. In all systems of magic throughout history, people have sought to control both their material and spiritual environment, and all things within it, through the use of magic.

In material terms ‘magic is seen in today’s world as a delusory pseudo-science, and so it might be, but in spiritual terms magic is a term for the inevitable technology that emerges from theology - a technology which is at best ethically neutral. Thus, there is magic and there is magic. Broadly speaking, Natural Magic was traditionally concerned with exploring the natural world, and over the course of time has naturally evolved into the sciences, but there are systems of magic that fall either under the banner of ‘Divine Workings’ or under the banner of the diabolical and many and varied are the views concerning them.

For instance, I was taught in my youth that in Kabbalah the Divine Workings are not magic and the Kabbalist is neither a magician nor seeks to become a magician - I have since found this to be absolutely true. It may be difficult for an impartial observer to grasp the significance of this point, particularly in the light of popular opinion that views Kabbalah and kabbalists in terms of popular fiction or the machinations of Hollywood, but it may become clear if one understands that to the serious Kabbalist, Practical Kabbalah is concerned only with the Divine Names of God as derived from the Scriptures, and their mysterious workings in the soul, which are in the main meditative. The Divine Names are intimately connected with the Sephirotic world - the spiritual archetype of creation - thus, to engage with the Divine Names is to actively engage with a spiritual world in a sacred process, a process geared to the regeneration of the soul, not for its elevation, aggrandisement, or intellectual curiosity.

From the time of the Sepher Yetzirah, and probably before, a complex and sophisticated system evolved concerning the application and use of the Divine Names. For the Kabbalist this system constitutes the essence of Practical Kabbalah. However, in the late Middle Ages, this system passed into the realms of ceremonial magic from which a degraded form of Practical Kabbalah emerged, and many scholars and magicians have never really seen the two as separate entities. Concerning this, A.E. Waite states that:

“The White and Black Magic of the Middle Ages constitutes a kind of spurious practical Kabbalah which represents Jewish esoteric doctrine debased to the purposes of the sorcerer, and it is necessary that we should estimate it at its true worth, because it has been the subject of misconception not only among uninstructed persons but even professed expositors. A study of Zoharistic writings, their developments and commentaries will shew the ends proposed by the Speculative Kabbalah are very different from evocations of spirits, the raising of ghosts, discovery of concealed treasures, the bewitchments and other mummeries of Ceremonial Magic. The Kabbalah does, however, countenance, as we have seen, the doctrine of a power resident in Divine Names, and it is in fact one of the burdens of its inheritance.”[8]

To be continued. . .

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[1] Lynn Thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science, (New York, Macmillan, 1923) vol. 1, p. 4.
[2] B. Jowett (Trans.), The Dialogues of Plato, (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1953) vol I, p654. [3]Sentences of Paulus 5.23. 15-18. See Stephen Benko, Pagan Rome And The Early Christians (London, Batsford, 1985) p. 128-9).
[4] H.G. Liddell & R. Scott, Greek – English Lexicon, (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1883). [5]Porphyry (232-305 CE) The best known disciple of Plotinus. It was he who undertook the difficult task of editing the lecture notes and essays of Plotinus, and publishing them under the title of the Enneads, and for which we shall ever be in his debt, particularly for Plotinus’ biographical details that he thoughtfully included in the Introduction.
[6] Eliphas Levi, Transcendental Magic trans. A.E. Waite, (London, Rider & Co., 1923) p. 95.
[7] As quoted in: Gregory Shaw, Theurgy And the Soul, (Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania State University press, 1995) p. 235.
[8] Waite, The Holy Kabbalah, p. 518-19.