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 Post subject: The Nature of Magic
PostPosted: 13 Oct 2007, 21:14 
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I made this post on IIDB in response to a poster who is grieving the absence of "magic" in the Universe. It is the most comprehensive thing I have ever written on my view of magic, and I'm very pleased with the way it came out:

[OP's username], what exactly are you looking for? Is the "magic" whose lack you mourn the fairy-tale stuff, turning pumpkins into gilded coaches and slaying giants with swords found inside ancient oak trees? Is it D&D-style magic where with the right gestures, words, and ingredients, you can throw a fireball and vaporize your enemies? Is it witchcraft--healing with herbs and whistling up the wind? Is it the sensation of magic, of something amazing happening and no one can figure out how?

It looks to me like it's not the "magic" missing from the Universe that's bothering you, but the "magic" missing from your own outlook.

As both a rational skeptic and a Witch, I have had to reconcile what I know of science and natural laws with my subjective certainty that the world is a "magical" place, and this is what I figured out:

In Ye Olden Days, and still today in some places, people believed in all sorts of things, including "magic." But when you examine what was considered magic, you find that it doesn't necessarily have anything to do with gods and spirits. "Magic" has always gone hand-in-hand with mystery, with occurrences that were amazing because they were rare, because only a few people had the knowledge to make them happen. The blacksmith was a magician because he could transform brittle iron into strong and supple steel. The herbalist was a magician because she knew which plants cured diseases. The horse trainer was a magician because he could command beasts with the touch of a hand and a "magic" word. Go back far enough, and the tribe's fire-maker was a magician because she could coax the sacred flame out from the stones where it lived. None of these people had special "powers." What they had was special knowledge--knowledge that most people didn't have.

So what happened? All these amazing things still occur today--people forge metal, cure illnesses with herb-derived drugs, train animals, and make fire. But they aren't "magical" anymore. What happened is that we learned more about how the processes worked. The knowledge spread and became commonplace. The wonder went out of it because it wasn't special anymore. Anyone can strike a match, anyone can train a dog to "Sit!"

What I realized was that "magic" is not a substance. It is not the blood of spirits or the breath of gods. It is not something from outside this world, nor is it "something" from inside this world, really. Magic is an outlook. It is not an objective phenomenon, but a subjective experience. When something amazes you, you experience magic.

And I have found that many things amaze me in ways that they never did when I was an ignorant child who was convinced that I could be a sorceress if I could just figure out the right words to say. Making fire is easy, and I even know what fire is--it's the heat and light released from a rapid oxidation reaction. But isn't it astounding that something as prosaic as that should be beautiful, that a candle flame can mesmerize? The biochemistry of intoxication is fairly well understood, but isn't it amazing that it should exist to be understood in the first place, that certain species of plants should produce chemicals that intoxicate animals? Doesn't it just blow your mind that you and your dog have a common ancestor, and wouldn't it be awesome if you could meet that little Cretaceous critter? The fireballs-from-fingertips and enchanted sword variety of magic might not exist, but isn't it fantastic that a team of cameramen and actors and pyrotechnicians and computer graphics experts can make you believe, for a couple of hours at least, that it does?

Look around you. There's a spider, spinning her web. Glands in her abdomen produce a liquid protein that soldifies on contact with air, crystallizing into fibers that she then spins together into a silk thread. She drops from twig to twig, laying down guy wires in a wheelspoke pattern. Then she alters the way she spins the silk so that it comes out sticky instead of dry, and painstakingly circles the hub, tracing a spiral. Finally, she attaches one last thread to the center of the web, takes hold of the loose end, and hides in the leaves. And she knows how to do this without having to learn it. And you're telling me there's no magic in the world?

Or hey--it just stopped raining, and the sun came out. In the distance, the drops are still falling, and the sunlight bounces off those distant dots of water, refracting in the process. Each drop preferentially reflects one narrow wavelength of the sun's light, and in the aggregate they arrange themselves in perfect order, from the shortest to the longest, and we see a rainbow of colors grading into one another in magnificent harmony. And we find it beautiful, even though this perception does not help us to survive and reproduce in any way that we know of. And you don't think that's magic?

We live in the same world as our ignorant and credulous ancestors. If it was magical then, it is magical now--the change has been in how we perceive, not what we perceive. You can have all the magic you crave if you can teach yourself how--if you can remember how--to be amazed by the mundane and the commonplace. Children believe in magic because everything amazes them. Adults often lose that sense of wonder, but they can re-learn it. The Universe is an astonishing place. In that sense, I do believe that not only does magic exist, but it is, literally, everywhere.

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PostPosted: 15 Oct 2007, 08:32 
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Very nicely put. :D

It's something that's hard to convey to people whose experiences with religion are of the go to church on Easter/Christmas and forget it the rest of the time.

Dealings with the supernatural seem to do best when put into your whole worldview. Keeps things in perspective ...


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PostPosted: 15 Oct 2007, 14:36 
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Thank you!

Actually, this view of magic is hard to convey to almost everyone in the modern world. When we're kids, not only do we believe in magic, but we don't draw any distinction between the fairy-tale kind and the wonders-of-nature kind. Then adults, with the best of intentions, tell us "There's no such thing as magic," and when we point to something miraculous, like a rainbow, they say "Oh, that's not magic, that's just nature." So most kids grow up thinking of magic and nature as opposing things. The fantasy genre of books, movies, and games--as well as the dogma of many mainstream religions--reinforces this idea by depicting sorcery as something that goes against the natural order, and miracles as a deity intervening to stop an event from taking its natural course.

The weird thing is, I have always known better. Even when I was a little girl who had never heard of Wicca or Neopaganism and believed the Bible to be more-or-less true, my gut told me that real magic came from Nature and that good people could use it to do good things. (After all, Billie Burke was just as powerful as Margaret Hamilton, wasn't she? 8) ) That might be how I managed to stay interested in science when most of my classmates were discovering fashion and sports.

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 Post subject:
PostPosted: 03 Nov 2007, 04:22 
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I guess I have a different perception of magic. It's not a thing that's just "around", I think of it as more of a primitive science. Someone performing magic is going through a particular process to produce a desired result. Magic is the attempt @ controlling & influencing outside forces.

This is also what I see as a major difference between religion & magic, religion (to me) being a submission/surrendering to & supplication of an outside force.

To me what the original OP was lamenting was the lack of "wonder".




Human beings have an inalienable right to invent themselves.


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 Post subject:
PostPosted: 14 Nov 2007, 13:11 
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From what I've read about shamanism, it seems to me that more than wonder has been lost in transition to the modern society. I agree, though, that it's a question of acquiring knowledge.


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PostPosted: 26 Nov 2007, 18:00 
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Hrvoje Butkovic wrote:
From what I've read about shamanism, it seems to me that more than wonder has been lost in transition to the modern society. I agree, though, that it's a question of acquiring knowledge.


I think the move from 'shamanism' to 'modern society' has a fundimental paradigm shift to it on two levels.

First, you shift from 'spirits' (be they ancestral/human or nature-based) to 'gods' (way powerful, remote entities). Spirits are often anthropomorphic in mindset (so people can relate to their whims, likes, dislikes, and motivations), whereas gods are 'on a higher plane' and have bigger motivations or ones that don't involve humans really at all (look to the capricious nature of early Mesopotamian gods for an example).

Second, when you deal with spirits, you generally deal with a whole lot of them. And you deal with them all in their own particular ways, but they're not that powerful, so ... it's just part of life. They may affect the way you do a task, or where you travel so that you don't offend a particular one, but the spirits are often as likely to quibble with each other as they are with humans. Gods on the other hand, tend to control much vaster realms, and thus to demand more control of one's life. So, you end up doing something a particular way AND watching where you travel, because EITHER might offend the same god.

In this way, with modern society, more is explained by less, and the gods by necessity must become more incomprehensible to account for why they like something on one day or in one place, and dislike the same thing on a different day or place.

It's a great arguement as to whether or not this 'modern version' is actually a simplification of supernatural system or not. Systems that incorporate spirits tend to be far more personal and flexible (ideal for a society of 'independant personality'-types) while the systems that incorporate gods are far more impersonal and inflexible (ideal for keeping order and cohesiveness in dispirate groups that hold the same beliefs).


Which, of course, is not to say that folks in a 'modern version' don't see the wonder of the creation and bestow that to their god(s). Just that because of the reduction of personalized interaction with the envronment and the thought/worry/care of anamism, as a whole they perhaps seem to notice it less ...


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PostPosted: 28 Nov 2007, 15:19 
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Hex wrote:
Spirits are often anthropomorphic in mindset (so people can relate to their whims, likes, dislikes, and motivations), whereas gods are 'on a higher plane' and have bigger motivations or ones that don't involve humans really at all (look to the capricious nature of early Mesopotamian gods for an example).


I don't know about that. It often seems to me to be just the reverse: "gods" are usually depicted as looking and behaving essentially like humans (only more powerful), whereas "spirits" can have any form or personality. Even when the gods are inscrutable and seem capricious, we are told, they have their motivations, and if we were to be let in on what those motivations were, it would make perfect sense to us. So we're not to question them. (I hear this about Yahweh all the time.) Whereas animal totems and faeries and kami and what-have-you are more than happy to explain themselves to the humans they deal with, but that doesn't mean they share our mindset enough to be comprehensible when they do.

Another difference I have noticed is that spirits are generally treated like another sort of "people," who may be vastly more powerful than humans in some ways, but lack some of our abilities in others. For instance, faeries are often depicted as having astoundingly beautiful voices, able to sing the stars down from the sky...but no capacity for creativity, so that all their songs are learned from humans. Gods, on the other hand, are almost never attributed this sort of trade-off. Anything a human can do, a god can do, only a thousand times better.

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 Post subject:
PostPosted: 29 Nov 2007, 00:25 
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Karalora wrote:
Hex wrote:
Spirits are often anthropomorphic in mindset (so people can relate to their whims, likes, dislikes, and motivations), whereas gods are 'on a higher plane' and have bigger motivations or ones that don't involve humans really at all (look to the capricious nature of early Mesopotamian gods for an example).


I don't know about that. It often seems to me to be just the reverse: "gods" are usually depicted as looking and behaving essentially like humans (only more powerful), whereas "spirits" can have any form or personality. Even when the gods are inscrutable and seem capricious, we are told, they have their motivations, and if we were to be let in on what those motivations were, it would make perfect sense to us. So we're not to question them. (I hear this about Yahweh all the time.) Whereas animal totems and faeries and kami and what-have-you are more than happy to explain themselves to the humans they deal with, but that doesn't mean they share our mindset enough to be comprehensible when they do.


Check out the Mesopotamian gods, or even the Greek gods if you want a feel. Yaweh is notorious for having plans that far surpass the cognitive abilities of humans. Yeah, we;re not supposed to question them because they know what's going on -all- the time. Supposedly, anyhow.

Karalora wrote:
Another difference I have noticed is that spirits are generally treated like another sort of "people," who may be vastly more powerful than humans in some ways, but lack some of our abilities in others. For instance, faeries are often depicted as having astoundingly beautiful voices, able to sing the stars down from the sky...but no capacity for creativity, so that all their songs are learned from humans. Gods, on the other hand, are almost never attributed this sort of trade-off. Anything a human can do, a god can do, only a thousand times better.


But if the spirit is an animal, you can rationalize their actions in the context of that particular animal and their likes and dislikes. They tend to be a whole lot more consistant than gods, FWIW ...


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