On Magic

A note to the reader

All of the books mentioned below (and more!) have extensive sections on magic, how it works, how to practice it, and when not to use it. I could not begin to summarize the breadth of material found in them, so I urge you to read as many of these books as possible. I especially recommend Positive Magic by Marion Weinstein. It is still one of the better expositions of magical ethics around.

Footnotes are indicated by a boldfaced number in parentheses. Click on this to go to the note. Click on the first words of the note to get back to your place in the text.

What is magic? (1)

This is a complicated subject for which you will find a number of different definitions. Below is a list of definitions of magic used by several popular Pagan/Ceremonial Magic authors. What do you think they have in common?

Starhawk: “Magic, the art of sensing, and shaping the subtle, unseen forces that flow through the world, of awakening deeper levels of consciousness beyond the rational, is an element common to all Witchcraft traditions … ” [Attributed to Dion Fortune] “the art of changing consciousness at will.” (2)

Marion Weinstein: Magic is “transformation.” (3) “The work of magic involves transformation.” (4)

Scott Cunningham: "Magic is the projection of natural energies to produce needed effects.” (5)

Raymond Buckland: He expands on Aleister Crowley’s definition: “‘the art and science of causing change to occur in conformity with Will.’” (6)

Janina Renee: “… magic is ‘using the power of the mind to nudge probabilities.’” (7)

Margot Adler: “Magic is a convenient word for a whole collection of techniques, all of which involve the mind. In this case, we might conceive of these techniques as included the mobilization of confidence, will, and emotion brought about by the recognition of necessity; the use of imaginative faculties, particularly the ability to visualize, in order to begin to understand how other beings function in nature so we can use this knowledge to achieve necessary ends.” (8)

R.J. Stewart: Stewart does not define magic per se, but does imply in his definition of a magical adept what magic must be: “the arts of exchanging consciousness and energy between differing worlds.” (9)

There are many such similar words as “mental power,” “consciousness,” “will” and “the use of the mind”; also “change,” “transform,” “produce" and “shape.” It seems that the use of mental abilities, and transformation are common to most of the definitions.

I personally tend to use a combination of Dion Fortune’s and Janina Renee’s definitions of magic: magic is the art of transformation by force of will and intent. This transformation often occurs by nudging the probabilities of events.

How does it work?

Most magic-workers view the universe as a system of connecting energies. They will use widely-varying images to describe that system, as often happens when you are trying to describe the indescribable, but basically, everything is conjoined to everything else by seen and/or unseen connections. (10) Magic works with those unseen connections.

For magic to work, you must have two things: a great need for a change and a focused will/intent to achieve that change. If you do not really need for a change to occur, then it won’t likely happen. Likewise, if you do not focus and direct that need, little or nothing will change. The props you use: ritual, colors, candles, chanting, dancing, symbolic actions, “smells and bells,” etc. help you focus your will and intent, concentrating it for more effective use.

It is difficult to work magic for others since that you do not have the deep need for change that they do. It would be better if you helped them achieve their needs themselves. Some ways of doing this is to teach them to construct and perform a spell, and/or help them perform it. What they can do for themselves is far more powerful than what you can do for them.

The focused intent/will provides the mental energy that is able to bring transformation. What, then, is transformed? Magic often works by changing one or, more usually, both of two things: your own attitude towards a situation, or the external world. It is just as magical a result to see a situation from a new perspective as it is to manifest a new situation. (11)

Don’t put limits on your results. Try not to visual how your result will be manifested, only that it does manifest. If you do not place limits (other than the ethical ones discussed below) on the manifestation, you may find that the result occurs in completely unexpected ways that are better than you imagined. Let the Universe decide how to meet your needs; you may find that it comes up with better answers! (12)

Following up magical working in the “mundane” world

In addition to doing the spell, you have to “live in accordance” with your intent in the “mundane” world. (13) Remember what I said about everything being interconnected with seen and unseen connections? Magic works on the unseen connections, but you also have to work on the seen connections to finish the job. The seen and unseen realms interpenetrate each other; both realms must be worked in. If you are doing a healing spell for yourself, you still must seek medical treatment for your condition; if you are doing a spell for a job, you must still respond to ads, send resumes, network, and go to interviews. Spells often manifest as opportunities to get/do what you need, which you need to follow through on to complete the action.

How does the transformation manifest?

Have you ever heard the saying, “Any sufficiently advanced form of technology is indistinguishable for magic”? Well, I think the reverse is true as well. Any sufficiently advanced form of magic is indistinguishable from technology. In other words, magic manifests in perfectly “ordinary” ways according to the laws of nature, and magic may take a while to work or may manifest in dribbles and bits. The job you need will “just happen” to be in the newspaper or mentioned to you by a friend in a week or two, or the physician is amazed at how fast you are healing …

This is why non-magical people are so skeptical. When magic works, it looks like something that would have happened anyway. What you did was nudge the probabilities your way or speed the process. In my experience, I have usually known when my spells has worked, and you probably will feel when yours are working, as well.

Notes on the ethics of magic

One ethical guideline used by most Wiccans and many other Neo-Pagans is the Wiccan Rede: “an’ it harm none, do as you will.” What is known as the Law of Return, “whatever you do is returned to you,” or the Three-fold Law, “whatever you do is returned to you multiplied three times,” are also widely accepted. The interpretations of these phrases vary greatly, but the rede seems to say that it’s alright to do anything that does not cause harm; it says nothing about whether or not you should or should not do an action you know to cause harm. Nonetheless, if you follow these guidelines, it will be wise to examine the magic you plan to work to see if harm can be caused by your actions and/or whether or not you are prepared to accept the consequences of your actions being returned to you.

Generally, if possible, your magic (or your ordinary actions) should not be intended to harm yourself or others. Any form of manipulating another's will can be considered harm, so it is better to have the consent of another person for whom you intend to work magic. On the other hand, do not interpret this in such a way that you do not render aid or healing to a person who is not in a position to give conscious consent. There are ways to structure magical workings so that you offer your working to another’s use and if she or he chooses not to accept your magical aid, send it on to others who might wish to accept it.

When planning your magical working, think very hard about the consequences of what you are about to bring about. Try to construct your working so that you cause no unintended harm and you do not manipulate another’s will. To insure that I do not inadvertently cause harm, I have always included a phrase in all my workings, both at the beginning and at the end (and sometimes in the middle) of the spell. That phrase is “ … for the good of all and according to (or in accordance with) the free will of all.” There are other ways to phrase the same idea. If you do this, your working may not manifest in a way that you expect it to, but it will do so in a way in which all benefit.

At other times, causing some harm to prevent a greater harm may be unavoidable. You must be prepared to accept responsibility for all consequences of your actions, intended or unintended.

Keep in mind that the word rede means advice, not rule or law. For more information and discussion on the Wiccan Rede, the Law of Return and their ramifications, please consult the following sources:

Marion Weinstein. Positive Magic: Occult Self-Help Custer,WA: Phoenix Publishing Co, 1981.

Judy Harrow. “Exegesis on the Rede”, “Do What You Will: best-choice values” and “An It Harm None: high-choice ethics

Randall Sapphire. “Problems with the Wiccan Rede

John J. Coughlin. “The Evolution of Wiccan Ethics


  1. Within the modern Pagan movement, the word magic is often spelled with a k to distinguish it from stage magic. Aleister Crowley is said to be the origin of this idea. The correct modern English spelling for this word for all its meanings is magic.
  2. Starhawk, The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess (New York: HarperCollins, 1989), 27–28.
  3. Marion Weinstein, Positive Magic: Occult Self-Help (Custer,WA: Phoenix Publishing Co, 1981), xxvi.
  4. Ibid., 9.
  5. Scott Cunningham, Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner (Minneapolis: Llewellyn, 1988), 19.
  6. Raymond Buckland, Complete Book of Witchcraft (Minneapolis, Llewellyn, 1990), 157.
  7. Janina Renee,Tarot Spells (Minneapolis: Llewellyn, 1990), 2.
  8. Margot Adler, Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today. 2nd ed., (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986), 8, also 154–175 for a fuller discussion on various approaches to magic
  9. R. J. Stewart, Power Within the Land: The Roots of Celtic and Underworld Traditions. Awakening the Sleepers and Regenerating the Earth. (Shaftsbury, Dorset, UK: Element Books, 1992), 156.
  10. For some theories combining magic and quantum theory, see the three volumes of Schrödinger’s Cat and other books by Robert Anton Wilson. Also Larry Cornett has also written about the connections between quantum physics and magic
  11. See Adler, Drawing Down the Moon, 6–8.
  12. Weinstein, Positive Magic, 221–234.
  13. Ibid., 219–220.