Ceremonial Magic in Theory and Practice


Medea the SorceressBy H. Stanley Redgrove.

THE word “magic,” if one may be permitted to say so, is itself almost magical—magical in its power to conjure up visions in the human mind.  For some these are of bloody rites, pacts with the powers of darkness, and the lascivious orgies of the Saturnalia or Witches’ Sabbath; in other minds it has pleasanter associations, serving to transport them from the world of fact to the fairyland of fancy, where the purse of FORTUNATUS, the lamp and ring of ALADDIN, fairies, gnomes, jinn, and innumerable other strange beings flit across the scene in a marvellous kaleidoscope of ever-changing wonders.  To the study of the magical beliefs of the past cannot be denied the interest and fascination which the marvellous and wonderful ever has for so many minds, many of whom, perhaps, cannot resist the temptation of thinking that there may be some element of truth in these wonderful stories.  But the study has a greater claim to our attention; for, as I have intimated already, magic represents a phase in the development of human thought, and the magic of the past was the womb from which sprang the science of the present, unlike its parent though it be.

What then is magic?  According to the dictionary definition—and this will serve us for the present—it is the (pretended) art of producing marvellous results by the aid of spiritual beings or arcane spiritual forces.  Magic, therefore, is the practical complement of animism.  Wherever man has really believed in the existence of a spiritual world, there do we find attempts to enter into communication with that world’s inhabitants and to utilise its forces.Professor LEUBA[1] and others distinguish between propitiative behaviour towards the beings of the spiritual world, as marking the religious attitude, and coercive behaviour towards these beings as characteristic of the magical attitude; but one form of behaviour merges by insensible degrees into the other, and the distinction (though a useful one) may, for our present purpose, be neglected.

[1] JAMES H. LEUBA:  The Psychological Origin and the Nature of Religion (1909), chap. ii.


Animism, “the Conception of Spirit everywhere” as Mr EDWARD CLODD[2] neatly calls it, and perhaps man’s earliest view of natural phenomena, persisted in a modified form, as I have pointed out in “Some Characteristics of Mediaeval Thought,” throughout the Middle Ages.  A belief in magic persisted likewise.  In the writings of the Greek philosophers of the Neo-Platonic school, in that curious body of esoteric Jewish lore known as the Kabala, and in the works of later occult philosophers such as AGRIPPA and PARACELSUS, we find magic, or rather the theory upon which magic as an art was based, presented in its most philosophical form.  If there is anything of value for modern thought in the theory of magic, here is it to be found; and it is, I think, indeed to be found, absurd and fantastic though the practices based upon this philosophy, or which this philosophy was thought to substantiate, most certainly are.  I shall here endeavour to give a sketch of certain of the outstanding doctrines of magical philosophy, some details concerning the art of magic, more especially as practiced in the Middle Ages in Europe, and, finally, an attempt to extract from the former what I consider to be of real worth.  We have already wandered down many of the byways of magical belief, and, indeed, the word “magic” may be made to cover almost every superstition of the past:

To what we have already gained on previous excursions the present, I hope, will add what we need in order to take a synthetic view of the whole subject.

[2] EDWARD CLODD:  Animism the Seed of Religion (1905), p. 26.


In the first place, something must be said concerning what is called the Doctrine of Emanations, a theory of prime importance in Neo-Platonic and Kabalistic ontology.  According to this theory, everything in the universe owes its existence and virtue to an emanation from God, which divine emanation is supposed to descend, step by step (so to speak), through the hierarchies of angels and the stars, down to the things of earth, that which is nearer to the Source containing more of the divine nature than that which is relatively distant.  As CORNELIUS AGRIPPA expresses it: “For God, in the first place is the end and beginning of all Virtues; he gives the seal of #the Ideas to his servants, the Intelligences; who as faithful officers, sign all things intrusted to them with an Ideal Virtue; the Heavens and Stars, as instruments, disposing the matter in the mean while for the receiving of those forms which reside in Divine Majesty (as saith Plato in Timeus) and to be conveyed by Stars; and the Giver of Forms distributes them by the ministry of his Intelligences, which he hath set as Rulers and Controllers over his Works, to whom such a power is intrusted to things committed to them that so all Virtues of Stones, Herbs, Metals, and all other things may come from the Intelligences, the Governors.  The Form, therefore, and Virtue of things comes first from the Ideas, then from the ruling and governing Intelligences, then from the aspects of the Heavens disposing, and lastly from the tempers of the Elements disposed, answering the influences of the Heavens, by which the Elements themselves are ordered, or disposed.  These kinds of operations, therefore, are performed in these inferior things by express forms, and in the Heavens by disposing virtues, in Intelligences by mediating rules, in the Original Cause by Ideas and exemplary forms, all which must of necessity agree in the execution of the effect and virtue of every thing.

“There is, therefore, a wonderful virtue and operation in every Herb and Stone, but greater in a Star, beyond which, even from the governing Intelligences everything receiveth and obtains many things for itself, especially from the Supreme Cause, with whom all things do mutually and exactly correspond, agreeing in an harmonious consent, as it were in hymns always praising the highest Maker of all things…. There is, therefore, no other cause of the necessity of effects than the connection of all things with the First Cause, and their correspondency with those Divine patterns and eternal Ideas whence every thing hath its determinate and particular place in the exemplary world, from whence it lives and receives its original being:

And every virtue of herbs, stones, metals, animals, words and speeches, and all things that are of God, is placed there.”[1] As compared with the ex nihilo creationism of orthodox theology, this theory is as light is to darkness.  Of course, there is much in CORNELIUS AGRIPPA’S statement of it which is inacceptable to modern thought; but these are matters of form merely, and do not affect the doctrine fundamentally.  For instance, as a nexus between spirit and matter AGRIPPA places the stars:  modern thought prefers the ether.  The theory of emanations may be, and was, as a matter of fact, made the justification of superstitious practices of the grossest absurdity, but on the other hand it may be made the basis of a lofty system of transcendental philosophy, as, for instance, that of EMANUEL SWEDENBORG, whose ontology resembles in some respects that of the Neo-Platonists. AGRIPPA uses the theory to explain all the marvels which his age accredited, marvels which we know had for the most part no existence outside of man’s imagination.  I suggest, on the contrary, that the theory is really needed to explain the commonplace, since, in the last analysis, every bit of experience, every phenomenon, be it ever so ordinary—indeed the very fact of experience itself,–is most truly marvellous and magical, explicable only in terms of spirit.  As ELIPHAS LEVI well says in one of his flashes of insight:  “The supernatural is only the natural in an extraordinary grade, or it is the exalted natural; a miracle is a phenomenon which strikes the multitude because it is unexpected; the astonishing is that which astonishes; miracles are effects which surprise those who are ignorant of their causes, or assign them causes w hich are not in proportion to such effects.”[1b]  But I am anticipating the sequel.

[1] H. C. AGRIPPA:  Occult Philosophy, bk. i., chap. xiii. (WHITEHEAD’S edition, pp. 67-68).

[1b] ELIPHAS LEVI:  Transcendental Magic, its Doctrine and Ritual (trans. by A. E. WAITE, 1896), p. 192.


The doctrine of emanations makes the universe one vast harmonious whole, between whose various parts there is an exact analogy, correspondence, or sympathetic relation.  “Nature” (the productive principle), says IAMBLICHOS (3rd-4th century), the Neo-Platonist, “in her peculiar way, makes a likeness of invisible principles through symbols in visible forms.”[2] The belief that seemingly similar things sympathetically affect one another, and that a similar relation holds good between different things which have been intimately connected with one another as parts within a whole, is a very ancient one.  Most primitive peoples are very careful to destroy all their nail-cuttings and hair-clippings, since they believe that a witch gaining possession of these might work them harm.  For a similar reason they refuse to reveal their REAL names, which they regard as part of themselves, and adopt nicknames for common use.  The belief that a witch can torment an enemy by making an image of his person in clay or wax, correctly naming it, and mutilating it with pins, or, in the case of a waxen image, melting it by fire, is a very ancient one, and was held throughout and beyond the Middle Ages.  The Sympathetic Powder of Sir KENELM DIGBY we have already noticed, as well as other instances of the belief in “sympathy,” and examples of similar superstitions might be multiplied almost indefinitely.  Such are generally grouped under the term “sympathetic magic”; but inasmuch as all magical practices assume that by acting on part of a thing, or a symbolic representation of it, one acts magically on the whole, or on the thing symbolised, the expression may in its broadest sense be said to involve the whole of magic.

[2] IAMBLICHOS:  Theurgia, or the Egyptian Mysteries (trans. by Dr ALEX. WILDER, New York, 1911), p. 239.


The names of the Divine Being, angels and devils, the planets of the solar system (including sun and moon) and the days of the week, birds and beasts, colours, herbs, and precious stones—all, according to old-time occult philosophy, are connected by the sympathetic relation believed to run through all creation, the knowledge of which was essential to the magician; as well, also, the chief portions of the human body, for man, as we have seen, was believed to be a microcosm—a universe in miniature.  I have dealt with this matter and exhibited some of the supposed correspondences in “The Belief in Talismans”. Some further particulars are shown in the annexed table, for which I am mainly indebted to AGRIPPA.  But, as in the case of the zodiacal gems already dealt with, the old authorities by no means agree as to the majority of the planetary correspondences.


Archangel Angel Planet Part of Body Animal Bird Stone
Raphael Michael Sun Heart Lion Swan Carbuncle
Gabriel Gabriel Moon Left foot Cat Owl Crystal
Camael Zamael Mars Right hand Wolf Vulture Diamond
Michael Raphael Mercury Left hand Ape Stork Agate
Zadikel Sachiel Jupiter Head Hart Eagle Lapis Lazuli
Haniel Anael Venus Generative organs Goat Dove Emerald
Zaphhiel Cassiel Saturn Right foot Mole Hoopoe Onyx

 The names of the angels are from Mr Mather’s translation of Clavicula Salomonis; the other correspondences are from the second book of Agrippa’s Occult Philosophy, chap. x.

In many cases these supposed correspondences are based, as will be obvious to the reader, upon purely trivial resemblances, and, in any case, whatever may be said—and I think a great deal may be said—in favour of the theory of symbology, there is little that may be adduced to support the old occultists’ application of it.

So essential a part does the use of symbols play in all magical operations that we may, I think, modify the definition of “magic” adopted at the outset, and define “magic” as “an attempt to employ the powers of the spiritual world for the production of marvellous results, BY THE AID OF SYMBOLS.”  It has, on the other hand, been questioned whether the appeal to the spirit-world is an essential element in magic.  But a close examination of magical practices always reveals at the root a belief in spiritual powers as the operating causes.  The belief in talismans at first sight seems to have little to do with that in a supernatural realm; but, as we have seen, the talisman was always a silent invocation of the powers of some spiritual being with which it was symbolically connected, and whose sign was engraved thereon.  And, as Dr T. WITTON DAVIES well remarks with regard to “sympathetic magic”: “Even this could not, at the start, be anything other than a symbolic prayer to the spirit or spirits having authority in these matters.  In so far as no spirit is thought of, it is a mere survival, and not magic at all….”[1]

[1] Dr T. WITTON DAVIES:  Magic, Divination, and Demonology among the Hebrews and their Neighbours (1898), p. 17.


What I regard as the two essentials of magical practices, namely, the use of symbols and the appeal to the supernatural realm, are most obvious in what is called “ceremonial magic”. Mediaeval ceremonial magic was subdivided into three chief branches—White Magic, Black Magic, and Necromancy.  White magic was concerned with the evocations of angels, spiritual beings supposed to be essentially superior to mankind, concerning which I shall give some further details later—and the spirits of the elements,–which were, as I have mentioned in “Some Characteristics of Mediaeval Thought,” personifications of the primeval forces of Nature.  As there were supposed to be four elements, fire, air, water, and earth, so there were supposed to be four classes of elementals or spirits of the elements, namely, Salamanders, Sylphs, Undines, and Gnomes, inhabiting these elements respectively, and deriving their characters therefrom.  Concerning these curious beings, the inquisitive reader may gain some information from a quaint little book, by the Abbe de MONTFAUCON DE VILLARS, entitled The Count of Gabalis, or Conferences about Secret Sciences (1670), translated into English and published in 1680, which has recently been reprinted.  The elementals, we learn therefrom, were, unlike other supernatural beings, thought to be mortal.  They could, however, be rendered immortal by means of sexual intercourse with men or women, as the case might be; and it was, we are told, to the noble end of endowing them with this great gift, that the sages devoted themselves.

Goety, or black magic, was concerned with the evocation of demons and devils—spirits supposed to be superior to man in certain powers, but utterly depraved.  Sorcery may be distinguished from witchcraft, inasmuch as the sorcerer attempted to command evil spirits by the aid of charms, etc., whereas the witch or wizard was supposed to have made a pact with the Evil One; though both terms have been rather loosely used, “sorcery” being sometimes employed as a synonym for “necromancy”.

Necromancy was concerned with the evocation of the spirits of the dead: etymologically, the term stands for the art of foretelling events by means of such evocations, though it is frequently employed in the wider sense.

It would be unnecessary and tedious to give any detailed account of the methods employed in these magical arts beyond some general remarks.  Mr A. E. WAITE gives full particulars of the various rituals in his Book of Ceremonial Magic (1911), to which the curious reader may be referred.  The following will, in brief terms, convey a general idea of a magical evocation:–

Choosing a time when there is a favourable conjunction of the planets, the magician, armed with the implements of magical art, after much prayer and fasting, betakes himself to a suitable spot, alone, or perhaps accompanied by two trusty companions.  All the articles he intends to employ, the vestments, the magic sword and lamp, the talismans, the book of spirits, etc., have been specially prepared and consecrated.  If he is about to invoke a martial spirit, the magician’s vestment will be of a red colour, the talismans in virtue of which he may have power over the spirit will be of iron, the day chosen a Tuesday, and the incense and perfumes employed of a nature analogous to Mars.  In a similar manner all the articles employed and the rites performed must in some way be symbolical of the spirit with which converse is desired.  Having arrived at the spot, the magician first of all traces the magic circle within which, we are told, no evil spirit can enter; he then commences the magic rite, involving various prayers and conjurations, a medley of meaningless words, and, in the case of the black art, a sacrifice.  The spirit summoned then appears (at least, so we are told), and, after granting the magician’s request, is licensed to depart—a matter, we are admonished, of great importance.

The question naturally arises, What were the results obtained by these magical arts?  How far, if at all, was the magician rewarded by the attainment of his desires?  We have asked a similar question regarding the belief in talismans, and the reply which we there gained undoubtedly applies in the present case as well.  Modern psychical research, as I have already pointed out, is supplying us with further evidence for the survival of human personality after bodily death than the innate conviction humanity in general seems to have in this belief, and the many reasons which idealistic philosophy advances in favour of it.  The question of the reality of the phenomenon of “materialisation,” that is, the bodily appearance of a discarnate spirit, such as is vouched for by spiritists, and which is what, it appears, was aimed at in necromancy (though why the discarnate should be better informed as to the future than the incarnate, I cannot suppose), must be regarded as sub judice.[1] Many cases of fraud in connection with the alleged production of this phenomenon have been detected in recent times; but, inasmuch as the last word has not yet been said on the subject, we must allow the possibility that necromancy in the past may have been sometimes successful.  But as to the existence of the angels and devils of magical belief—as well, one might add, of those of orthodox faith,–nothing can be adduced in evidence of this either from the results of psychical research or on a priori grounds.

[1] The late Sir WILLIAM CROOKES’ Experimental Researches in the Phenomena of Spiritualism contains evidence in favour of the reality of this phenomenon very difficult to gainsay.


Pseudo-DIONYSIUS classified the angels into three hierarchies, each subdivided into three orders, as under:–

First Hierarchy.—Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones;

Second Hierarchy.—Dominions, Powers, and Authorities (or Virtues);

Third Hierarchy.—Principalities, Archangels, and Angels,–

and this classification was adopted by AGRIPPA and others.

Pseudo-DIONYSIUS explains the names of these orders as follows:

“ . . . the holy designation of the Seraphim denotes either that they are kindling or burning; and that of the Cherubim, a fulness of knowledge or stream of wisdom…. The appellation of the most exalted and pre-eminent Thrones denotes their manifest exaltation above every grovelling inferiority, and their super-mundane tendency towards higher things; . . . and their invariable and firmly-fixed settlement around the veritable Highest, with the whole force of their powers…. The explanatory name of the Holy Lordships [Dominions] denotes a certain unslavish elevation . . . superior to every kind of cringing slavery, indomitable to every subserviency, and elevated above every dissimularity, ever aspiring to the true Lordship and source of Lordship…. The appellation of the Holy Powers denotes a certain courageous and unflinching virility . . . vigorously conducted to the Divine imitation, not forsaking the Godlike movement through its own unmanliness, but unflinchingly looking to the super-essential and powerful-making power, and becoming a powerlike image of this, as far as is attainable….The appellation of the Holy Authorities … denotes the beautiful and unconfused good order, with regard to Divine receptions, and the discipline of the super-mundane and intellectual authority . . . conducted indomitably, with good order towards Divine things…. [And the appellation] of the Heavenly Principalities manifests their princely and leading function, after the Divine example….”[1] There is a certain grandeur in these views, and if we may be permitted to understand by the orders of the hierarchy, “discrete” degrees (to use SWEDENBORG’S term) of spiritual reality—stages in spiritual involution,–we may see in them a certain truth as well.  As I said, all virtue, power, and knowledge which man has from God was believed to descend to him by way of these angelical hierarchies, step by step; and thus it was thought that those of the lowest hierarchy alone were sent from heaven to man.  It was such beings that white magic pretended to evoke.  But the practical occultists, when they did not make them altogether fatuous, attributed to these angels characters not distinguishable from those of the devils.  The description of the angels in the Heptemeron, or Magical Elements,[2] falsely attributed to PETER DE ABANO (1250-1316), may be taken as fairly characteristic. Of MICHAEL and the other spirits of Sunday he writes: “Their nature is to procure Gold, Gemmes, Carbuncles, Riches; to cause one to obtain favour and benevolence; to dissolve the enmities of men; to raise men to honors; to carry or take away infirmities.”  Of GABRIEL and the other spirits of Monday, he says:  “Their nature is to give silver; to convey things from place to place; to make horses swift, and to disclose the secrets of persons both present and future.”  Of SAMAEL and the other spirits of Tuesday he says:  “Their nature is to cause wars, mortality, death and combustions; and to give two thousand Souldiers at a time; to bring death, infirmities or health,” and so on for RAPHAEL, SACHIEL, ANAEL, CASSIEL, and their colleagues.[1b]

[1] On the Heavenly Hierarchy.  See the Rev. JOHN PARKER’S translation of The Works of DIONYSIUS the Areopagite, vol. ii.  (1889), pp. 24, 25, 31, 32, and 36.

[2] The book, which first saw the light three centuries after its alleged author’s death, was translated into English by ROBERT TURNER, and published in 1655 in a volume containing the spurious Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy, attributed to CORNELIUS AGRIPPA, and other magical works.  It is from this edition that I quote.

[1b] Op. cit., pp. 90, 92, and 94.


Concerning the evil planetary spirits, the spurious Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy, attributed to CORNELIUS AGRIPPA, informs us that the spirits of Saturn “appear for the most part with a tall, lean, and slender body, with an angry countenance, having four faces; one in the hinder part of the head, one on the former part of the head, and on each side nosed or beaked: there likewise appeareth a face on each knee, of a black shining colour:  their motion is the moving of the wince, with a kinde of earthquake: their signe is white earth, whiter than any Snow.”  The writer adds that their “particular forms are,–

A King having a beard, riding on a Dragon.

An Old man with a beard.

An Old woman leaning on a staffe.

A Hog.

A Dragon.

An Owl.

A black Garment.

A Hooke or Sickle.

A Juniper-tree.”

Concerning the spirits of Jupiter, he says that they “appear with a body sanguine and cholerick, of a middle stature, with a horrible fearful motion; but with a milde countenance, a gentle speech, and of the colour of Iron.  The motion of them is flashings of Lightning and Thunder; their signe is, there will appear men about the circle, who shall seem to be devoured of Lions,” their particular forms being—

“A King with a Sword drawn, riding on a Stag.

A Man wearing a Mitre in long rayment.

A Maid with a Laurel-Crown adorned with Flowers.

A Bull.

A Stag.

A Peacock.

An azure Garment.

A Sword.

A Box-tree.”

As to the Martian spirits, we learn that “they appear in a tall body, cholerick, a filthy countenance, of colour brown, swarthy or red, having horns like Harts horns, and Griphins claws, bellowing like wilde Bulls.  Their Motion is like fire burning; their signe Thunder and Lightning about the Circle.  Their particular shapes are,–

A King armed riding upon a Wolf.

A Man armed.

A Woman holding a buckler on her thigh.

A Hee-goat.

A Horse.

A Stag.

A red Garment.


A Cheeslip.”[1]


[1] Op. cit., pp. 43-45.

The rest are described in equally fantastic terms.

I do not think I shall be accused of being unduly sceptical if I say that such beings as these could not have been evoked by any magical rites, because such beings do not and did not exist, save in the magician’s own imagination.  The proviso, however, is important, for, inasmuch as these fantastic beings did exist in the imagination of the credulous, therein they may, indeed, have been evoked.  The whole of magic ritual was well devised to produce hallucination.  A firm faith in the ritual employed, and a strong effort of will to bring about the desired result, were usually insisted upon as essential to the success of the operation.[2] A period of fasting prior to the experiment was also frequently prescribed as necessary, which, by weakening the body, must have been conducive to hallucination.  Furthermore, abstention from the gratification of the sexual appetite was stipulated in certain cases, and this, no doubt, had a similar effect, especially as concerns magical evocations directed to the satisfaction of the sexual impulse.  Add to these factors the details of the ritual itself, the nocturnal conditions under which it was carried out, and particularly the suffumigations employed, which, most frequently, were of a narcotic nature, and it is not difficult to believe that almost any type of hallucination may have occurred.  Such, as we have seen, was ELIPHAS LEVI’S view of ceremonial magic; and whatever may be said as concerns his own experiment therein (for one would have thought that the essential element of faith was lacking in this case), it is undoubtedly the true view as concerns the ceremonial magic of the past. As this author well says:  “Witchcraft, properly so-called, that is ceremonial operation with intent to bewitch, acts only on the operator, and serves to fix and confirm his will, by formulating it with persistence and labour, the two conditions which make volition efficacious.”[1b] 

[2] “MAGICAL AXIOM.  In the circle of its action, every word creates that which it affirms.

DIRECT CONSEQUENCE.  He who affirms the devil, creates or makes the devil.

“Conditions of Success in Infernal Evocations.  1, Invincible obstinacy; 2, a conscience at once hardened to crime and most subject to remorse and fear; 3, affected or natural ignorance; 4, blind faith in all that is incredible, 5, a completely false idea of God.  (ELIPHAS LEVI:  Op. cit., pp.  297 and 298.)

[1b] ELIPHAS LEVI:  Op. cit., pp. 130 and 131.


EMANUEL SWEDENBORG in one place writes:  “Magic is nothing but the perversion of order; it is especially the abuse of correspondences.”[2] A study of the ceremonial magic of the Middle Ages and the following century or two certainly justifies SWEDENBORG in writing of magic as something evil. The distinction, rigid enough in theory, between white and black, legitimate and illegitimate, magic, was, as I have indicated, extremely indefinite in practice.  As Mr A. E. WAITE justly remarks:

“Much that passed current in the west as White (i.e. permissible) Magic was only a disguised goeticism, and many of the resplendent angels invoked with divine rites reveal their cloven hoofs.  It is not too much to say that a large majority of past psychological experiments were conducted to establish communication with demons, and that for unlawful purposes.  The popular conceptions concerning the diabolical spheres, which have been all accredited by magic, may have been gross exaggerations of fact concerning rudimentary and perverse intelligences, but the wilful viciousness of the communicants is substantially untouched thereby.”[1b]

[2] EMANUEL SWEDENBORG:  Arcana Caelestia, SE 6692.

[1b] ARTHUR EDWARD WAITE:  The Occult Sciences (1891), p. 51.


These “psychological experiments” were not, save, perhaps, in rare cases, carried out in the spirit of modern psychical research, with the high aim of the man of science.  It was, indeed, far otherwise; selfish motives were at the root of most of them; and, apart from what may be termed “medicinal magic,” it was for the satisfaction of greed, lust, revenge, that men and women had recourse to magical arts. The history of goeticism and witchcraft is one of the most horrible of all histories.  The “Grimoires,” witnesses to the superstitious folly of the past, are full of disgusting, absurd, and even criminal rites for the satisfaction of unlawful desires and passions.  The Church was certainly justified in attempting to put down the practice of magic, but the means adopted in this design and the results to which they led were even more abominable than witchcraft itself.  The methods of detecting witches and the tortures to which suspected persons were subjected to force them to confess to imaginary crimes, employed in so-called civilised England and Scotland and also in America, to say nothing of countries in which the “Holy” Inquisition held undisputed sway, are almost too horrible to describe.  For details the reader may be referred to Sir WALTER SCOTT’S Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft (1830), and (as concerns America) COTTON MATHER’S The Wonders of the Invisible World (1692). The credulous Church and the credulous people were terribly afraid of the power of witchcraft, and, as always, fear destroyed their mental balance and made them totally disregard the demands of justice.  The result may be well illustrated by what almost inevitably happens when a country goes to war; for war, as the Hon. BERTRAND RUSSELL has well shown, is fear’s offspring.  Fear of the enemy causes the military party to persecute in an insensate manner, without the least regard to justice, all those of their fellow-men whom they consider are not heart and soul with them in their cause; similarly the Church relentlessly persecuted its supposed enemies, of whom it was so afraid.  No doubt some of the poor wretches that were tortured and killed on the charge of witchcraft really believed themselves to have made a pact with the devil, and were thus morally depraved, though, generally speaking, they were no more responsible for their actions than any other madmen.  But the majority of the persons persecuted as witches and wizards were innocent even of this.

However, it would, I think, be unwise to disregard the existence of another side to the question of the validity and ethical value of magic, and to use the word only to stand for something essentially evil.  SWEDENBORG, we may note, in the course of a long passage from the work from which I have already quoted, says that by “magic” is signified “the science of spiritual things”[1] His position appears to be that there is a genuine magic, or science of spiritual things, and a false magic, that science perverted:  a view of the matter which I propose here to adopt.  The word “magic” itself is derived from the Greek “magos,” the wise man of the East, and hence the strict etymological meaning of the term is “the wisdom or science of the magi”; and it is, I think, significant that we are told (and I see no reason to doubt the truth of it) that the magi were among the first to worship the new-born CHRIST.[2]


[1] Op. cit., SE 5223.

[2] See The Gospel according to MATTHEW, chap. ii., verses 1 to 12.


If there be an abuse of correspondences, or symbols, there surely must also be a use, to which the word “magic” is not inapplicable.  As such, religious ritual, and especially the sacraments of the Christian Church, will, no doubt, occur to the minds of those who regard these symbols as efficacious, though they would probably hesitate to apply the term “magical” to them.  But in using this term as applying thereto, I do not wish to suggest that any such rites or ceremonies possess, or can possess, any CAUSAL efficacy in the moral evolution of the soul.  The will alone, in virtue of the power vouchsafed to it by the Source of all power, can achieve this; but I do think that the soul may be assisted by ritual, harmoniously related to the states of mind which it is desired to induce.  No doubt there is a danger of religious ritual, especially when its meaning is lost, being engaged in for its own sake.  It is then mere superstition;[1] and, in view of the danger of this degeneracy, many robust minds, such as the members of the Society of Friends, prefer to dispense with its aid altogether.  When ritual is associated with erroneous doctrines, the results are even more disastrous, as I have indicated in “The Belief in Talismans”. But when ritual is allied with, and based upon, as adequately symbolising, the high teaching of genuine religion, it may be, and, in fact, is, found very helpful by many people.  As such its efficacy seems to me to be altogether magical, in the best sense of that word.

[1] As “ELIPHAS LEVI” well says:  “Superstition . . . is the sign surviving the thought; it is the dead body of a religious rite.” (Op cit., p. 150.)


But, indeed, I think a still wider application of the word “magic” is possible.  “All experience is magic,” says NOVALIS (1772-1801), “and only magically explicable”;[2a] and again: “It is only because of the feebleness of our perceptions and activity that we do not perceive ourselves to be in a fairy world.”  No doubt it will be objected that the common experiences of daily life are “natural,” whereas magic postulates the “supernatural”. If, as is frequently done, we use the term “natural,” as relating exclusively to the physical realm, then, indeed, we may well speak of magic as “supernatural,” because its aims are psychical.  On the other hand, the term “natural” is sometimes employed as referring to the whole realm of order, and in this sense one can use the word “magic” as descriptive of Nature herself when viewed in the light of an idealistic philosophy, such as that of SWEDENBORG, in which all causation is seen to be essentially spiritual, the things of this world being envisaged as symbols of ideas or spiritual verities, and thus physical causation regarded as an appearance produced in virtue of the magical, non-causal efficacy of symbols.[1] Says CORNELIUS AGRIPPA:

“. . . every day some natural thing is drawn by art and some divine thing is drawn by Nature which, the Egyptians, seeing, called Nature a Magicianess (i.e.) the very Magical power itself, in the attracting of like by like, and of suitable things by suitable.”[2]

[2a] NOVALIS:  Schriften (ed. by LUDWIG TIECK and FR. SCHLEGEL, 1805), vol. ii. p. 195

[1] For a discussion of the essentially magical character of inductive reasoning, see my The Magic of Experience (1915)

[2] Op. cit., bk. i. chap. xxxvii. p. 119.


I would suggest, in conclusion, that there is nothing really opposed to the spirit of modern science in the thesis that “all experience is magic, and only magically explicable.”  Science does not pretend to reveal the fundamental or underlying cause of phenomena, does not pretend to answer the final Why?  This is rather the business of philosophy, though, in thus distinguishing between science and philosophy, I am far from insinuating that philosophy should be otherwise than scientific.  We often hear religious but non-scientific men complain because scientific and perhaps equally as religious men do not in their books ascribe the production of natural phenomena to the Divine Power.  But if they were so to do they would be transcending their business as scientists.

In every science certain simple facts of experience are taken for granted: it is the business of the scientist to reduce other and more complex facts of experience to terms of these data, not to explain these data themselves.  Thus the physicist attempts to reduce other related phenomena of greater complexity to terms of simple force and motion; but, What are force and motion?  Why does force produce or result in motion? are questions which lie beyond the scope of physics.  In order to answer these questions, if, indeed, this be possible, we must first inquire, How and why do these ideas of force and motion arise in our minds?  These problems land us in the psychical or spiritual world, and the term “magic” at once becomes significant.

“If, says THOMAS CARLYLE, . . . we . . . have led thee into the true Land of Dreams; and . . . thou lookest, even for moments, into the region of the Wonderful, and seest and feelest that thy daily life is girt with Wonder, and based on Wonder, and thy very blankets and breeches are Miracles,–then art thou profited beyond money’s worth….”[1]

[1] THOMAS CARLYLE:  Sartor Resartus, bk. iii. chap. ix.


This is taken from Bygone Beliefs.


See also: Ceremonial Magic, by Thomas H. Burgoyne.