Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft? what do these words mean?

The establishment of a new journal titled Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft begs the question: what do these words mean? In what sense do they comprise a useful academic category or field of inquiry? The history of magic and the cultural functions it has played and continues to play in many societies have been a focus of scholarship for well over one hundred years. Grand anthropological and sociological theories developed mostly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries offer clear structures, and the classic definitions of Edward Burnett Taylor, James Frazer, Emile Durkheim, and others still reverberate through much scholarly work on this topic. While aspects of these theories remain useful, more recent studies have tended to take a much narrower approach, examining the specific forms that magic, magical rites, or witchcraft assume and the issues they create in particular periods and within particular societies. This has led to laudable focus and precision, yet it has also stifled communication between scholars working in different periods, regions, or disciplines. This journal is intended to promote such communication, and to provide a forum in which issues common to the study of magic in all contexts can be raised. Therefore, it will prove useful at the outset to present some thoughts about the significance of magic as a category, about the meanings it has carried and the approaches it has evoked, about some of the ways in which the study of magic might be advanced, and about some of the areas to which such further study might contribute.

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  1. I actually perused the full article by Michael Bailey, and sent him this e-mail in response to his scholastic attempt to create a category of study out of “magic.” Which raises the old question of how we all go about defining ye old magic, not only to others but to ourselves?

    Hello Mr Bailey,

    I recently perused your piece for Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft, “The Meaning of Magic,” and thought this diagram might aid you in refining your definition of magic.

    As there are three definite distinctions of human experience ? those that can be classified as subjective, interpersonal, and as man vs nature/society ? you may find that religion indeed has a handle on magical elements, when seen in the social context. As individuality and the expression of the self became a motivation in both politics and marketing after World War II (as made possible by the works of Freud and, particularly, his nephew Edward Bernays), the potency of the group mind and the controlling myths as purported by the Church and other orthodox institutions bagan to wane. Magic, as the diagram in the above link illustrates, is fully realised when the individual can eschew the dogma of peers, family, and social construct in favour of defining their own natures and paradigms. This allows a fuller mastery of magic which can then be objectified from one’s own sense, as they are now defining their own ontology of experiences and sensations.

    This shamanic seperation from the group both ostracises the magician and empowers him or her. Abstractions of ontological assocations is what allows further initiation into the occult understandings of a supranatural “order of things.” As has been proclaimed, Language is a virus and consciousness the disease.

    With some practise, you too can learn to identify the subjective sensations we all play host to. As you spend more time working with your deeper internal sensations, you will gain an experience and capacity for organised thought when referring to them. The occult is the knowledge needed to express and share with others these subjective facets which the West has been ignorant of since Freud shook the snowglobe so many decades ago. Symbols and metaphors are used as means to communicate the subjective feelings and sensations, forces and powers at their most primal that we can experience without an interpersonal or social context to frame them. We then map them out with models such as Campbell’s monomyth, Jung’s archetypes, or alchemical equations. And in the end, Knowledge + Experience = Wisdom. And that is all the occult is? is wisdom.

    Magic, however, is understanding the forces out of context. With proper knowledge and experience, one may weild these primal sensations and subjegate the world to their affect. Context is simply the fa?ade draped around these forces, whether it’s the frozen light of quantum theory, the shattered reflection of the Gnostic Demiurge, Philip K. Dick’s Black Iron Prison, The Matrix, or the illusion that is maya. (On this note, I am just entering the works of Michael Polanyi and his thoughts on epistemology are quite enlightening when trying to frame context.)

    I look forward to seeing where the journal goes.

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