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The Definition of “Magick” in the 21st Century

This post was written by Anna
on March 24, 2014 | Comments (11)

Readers, please enjoy this guest blog post by Aaron Leitch, author of several books, including Secrets of the Magickal Grimoires, The Angelical Language Volume I and Volume II, and his new Essential Enochian Grimoire.


Wait! Don’t surf away yet! I know this subject—the definition of magick—has been rehashed a billion times over the years. It has been the focus of heated debates and even flame wars—and never (not once!) has a consensus been reached.

Frankly, this debate has been going on for longer than you think. It was a question during the occult revival of the 19th century. It is even tackled by the authors of the medieval grimoires. Why, I would bet real money that Egyptian and Sumerian priests used to sit around in their temples and argue the same damn points.

But that is really the point of this blog. I’m not naive enough to think we’re going to reach a consensus here. However, I do think we can add something to the conversation—especially now that we have entered the 21st century, and our relationship to magick is changing drastically. As that relationship changes, so too does our understanding of magick and what it means in our culture.

In previous years, the debate was caught up in the occultism of the late 1800s. The Age of Enlightenment had dawned, the Industrial Revolution had… revolved?… and the discipline of Science (that is, as divorced from all mystical concerns) had risen to supremacy. Psychology was a new and developing study. And absolutely anything that struck the Western mind as “occult ooga-booga” (read: pretty much any form of indigenous folk magick, voodoo, hoodoo, etc.) was firmly shown the door.

Thus, the people who were raised in that environment sought an explanation for magick that fit into their paradigm. Hence was born the “psychological” definition of magick: it’s all just a form of primitive psychology. Magick is all in your head. The spirits and gods are mere “names and faces” that we have placed on our own instincts and mental complexes. Magickal tools and considerations are just “props” that help your mind engage the magick. Chaos magick arose in this environment, and it also gave us Aleister Crowley‘s often-quoted definition:

“Magick is the science and art of causing change in conformity with Will.”

Taken at face value, I find this definition to be pointless. If any change I make (on purpose) to the world around me is “magick,” then “magick” ceases to be a useful word. If I walk outside, am I performing magick because I opened a door and changed my location? Of course not! Yet, the way many students interpret the above definition, magick ceases to be a specific discipline or craft. Electricians are performing magick. Carpenters are performing magick. The ice cream man is performing magick (and he even brings smiles to the faces of children)!

Of course, Crowley added in that word “Will,” which means there is a lot more to his definition than most students realize. He means making changes in accordance with your True Will (your Fate or Karma), and his definition is saying that any action you take toward fulfilling your True Will is a magickal act. That’s better… but it still negates “magick” as a discipline unto itself. I’ve used a lot of magick in pursuit of my True Will, but I’ve also had to do a lot of mundane stuff, too.

Today, we are leaving behind the 19th century views on magick. While the psychological definition still has its adherents—some of them quite passionate in defense of their position—there is now a counter-movement of Old Magick practitioners who find that view unsatisfying. As the world we grew up in continues to break down, economies continue to collapse, medicine and other necessities become unavailable, and ill-defined wars continue to rage across the globe, people aren’t looking for “self help occultism” the way they were twenty years ago. They want the real deal: magick that can make real change in the real world. They want magick that can keep food in their families’ bellies, a roof over their heads, and everyone alive and healthy.

I fall into that category. We’re the guys who see spirits, gods, and angels as objectively real. We find the magickal tools and considerations to be important to the technology, not just a bunch of props that can be substituted or dispensed with entirely. And because of these, we see the magickal ceremonies as vital protocols when dealing with spirits, not outdated superstitions that should be simplified, reinterpreted, or left behind. And as for those indigenous forms of magick and witchcraft, rather than turning our noses up and thinking we are somehow better than all of that, we’re actually turning toward them and learning as much as we can.

So, how does this new movement define magick? Good question, and that’s why we are having this discussion now.

To get the ball rolling, I’ll share with you the definition by which I work. In fact, it is an older definition that existed for thousands of years before the modern world. The Solomonic grimoires (a specialty of mine) were written under this definition, and I think it is time we all took a fresh look at it. (I originally found this outlined in the book Ritual Magic, by Elizabeth Butler.)

First, occultism in general is broken down into three categories:

  1. Astrology: The study of the stars and other heavenly bodies (originally including astronomy) and their influence on the world and individuals. There were many applications for it—divination being primary, but also including such things as healing.
  2. Alchemy: This wasn’t just turning lead into gold. It covered all metallurgy, mixing of medicines, the making of tinctures, brews, etc. ings were very interested in alchemists who promised fill their coffers with gold, but the true focus of alchemy was always on healing. Our modern sciences of medicine and chemistry got their start right here.
  3. Magick: The art of working with spirits. (Also called witchcraft.)

Of course, these categories are given for convenience, and do not represent hard-drawn lines. In fact, any system of Old Magick is going to include aspects of all three mixed together. For example, if you don’t know something about alchemical symbolism, and a lot about astrology, the spirit-magick outlined in the old grimoires isn’t going to make a lick of sense to you.

What the above categories do show us is that, classically speaking, the definition of “magick” was to work with spiritual entities. When you call upon Divine Names, gods, angels, spirits, familiars, heroes, or ancestors, you are engaging in the art and science called “magick.”

Now, I’m aware many of you are going to get angry over that definition. What about incantations and talismans and folk magick that don’t call on any of those guys? Are they suddenly not magick? Of course they are magick! But you have to realize that all of these things weren’t just invented by witches with too much time on their hands. That money talisman you found in an old book was, in fact, delivered to an aspirant by a spiritual entity. That incantation to bring you a lover? It was revealed by an angel to someone who asked for it. That rain dance you’re doing? Guess who transmitted it to the shamans?

That’s how the Old Magick works. You ask a spirit for help, and it responds by giving you some kind of hoodoo/witchcraft-y thing to do to achieve the goal. Make this talisman and bury it over there. Recite that incantation in a specific place and time. Go leave an offering here on a specific day. The examples are endless—but they all started with a shaman, witch, or magician making contact with his guardian spirits and having them teach him the magickal art.

So feel free to post your own thoughts in the comments section. What do you think of this definition of magick? What is your definition? Why? (And, to keep things simple, keep in mind we are defining the practice of magick, not the intangible “force” we often refer to as magick. That’s an entirely different debate!)

Our thanks to Aaron for his guest post! Visit Aaron Leitch’s author page for more information, including articles and his books.

Reader Comments

Written By byron
on March 26th, 2014 @ 6:53 am

Hm… I feel that your definition would suit a medium ,or a spiritualist rather than a magician, because there is no mention of an end towards which the magician and spirits work towards .
Crowley was very right to stress the importance of Will (with a capital W), because it stresses the role of the magician as an active participant in the Great Work, the evolution of consciousness, and for the unification of all the levels of being in creation from the highest to the lowest. Indeed it’s because of such a unified plan, or purpose, that the lower and higher spirits, angels etc are committed to their role within creation.
The aim of magick, as I see it, is of course very personal, often revealed, but I’d recommend that it be kept as abstract and as high as possible, definitely beyond the personal self gratification of the senses, otherwise don’t be surprised if ‘the door’ will not open no matter how hard one knocks.
Often, one’s motives will keep changing throughout one’s lifetime, and that is good and natural, but the important thing is to keep on practising.
Many magicians, both in the East and in the West, prefer to suffer with hunger or poverty rather than dilute magick and use it for personal material gain. Yes, of course there are gains, and sometimes losses too, because of magick but these are not so important I feel. The Great Work is what is important. Unfortunately, today sacrifice and dedication are rare indeed and very very unfashionable! For since the 20th century not only is spiritual materialism rife, but most people today have even forgotten that there is a larger world out there, ruthless and with a hidden agenda, but which is worth exploring, and that Knowledge brings one increased responsibility.
So I definitely feel that one of the aims of magick is to enable the practitioner to remember their own center and become more aware, which in turn will also reveal that one is not alone in this world but that there are other forces at play.

I like both Crowley’s and Dion Fortune’s definitions of Magick: as “the art of causing change, (in consciousness), in conformity with Will”, but ultimately every magician worth his/her salt must redefine things for themselves, and take responsibility for their actions.
No doubt you too have taken full responsibility for your own definition of Magick and will live and die by it. My best to you, may you grow wise healthy and prosper.

Written By Carl
on March 28th, 2014 @ 1:23 pm

I have to go to work so on read the first part of what looks like a good discussion.

The Crowley (carpenter etc) definition is quite excellent. Have you personally tried to build a house? If you said to yourself “Aaron, we need a house, reify it now” how would it happen? Mentally/astrally step it through for a moment. Even though each step might appear Trivial or Mundane, it is a cascade of reality to make such change.

– “The spirits and gods are mere “names and faces” that we have placed on our own instincts and mental complexes.”
Ahhh. A pet hate of mine :). Just what depths is the ego willing to go through in every Willful being to place itself at the top of the Christmas Tree. If “spirits and gods” are merely projections of our own internal processes, what *IS* outside the mouth of Plato’s cave. The Astral Choir sit and stare at the various perceptions of shadows on the cave wall, but there is an outside. A whole Kingdom of “Not I”, we are part of it at this level of manifestation of consciousness, not it a part of us. Not that such tools of perception aren’t useful, even necessary (we indeed _have_ said “names and faces” but it helps not to think of every person you meet as a projection of your own self, even if at the sensory level that is the mask we must operate though.

I also reject any definition of Magic(k)that is directed to own consciousness and self/ego. For the above reasons hinted at, and because frequently they are used by the “ego on the xmas tree” to justify itself and that persons practices rather than magic(k) as a whole. Which means we’ve already started downwards on the track of defining the world as we want/do rather than opening ourselves to the bigger unity.

Written By Aaron Leitch
on March 28th, 2014 @ 8:32 pm

Byron: Thanks for sharing your thoughts. 🙂 I think I see exactly where you are coming from, too. In essence, your definition of magick is firmly rooted in the tradition of Theurgy. However, from that standpoint, I’m trying to explore a definition of Thaumaturgy – the art of the practical application of magick. What Don would have called “Gray Magick.”

Carl: Oh I’m not saying that the building of a house isn’t a miraculous thing in itself. Going all the way back to the first deliberately sharpened rocks and sticks, human technology has set our species apart from all others. Our ability to form language and mathematics, and to alter our environment is certainly all caught up in this thing we call “magick” – all of which I personally attribute to the Logos (sentience).

Meanwhile, within this melting pot called sentience – which includes everything from bread baking to space station construction – is a craft called “magick” or “sorcery” or “witchcraft.”

For thousands of years, magick was defined in a particular manner (i.e. – the art of working with spiritual entities). Then in the 19th century the Western tradition abandoned that definition in favor of what we see reflected in Crowley’s definition.

Today, some folks are taking another look at that older definition. And still others are coming up with original definitions of their own. I’m interested in seeing how this is changing as our culture changes.

Written By Spencer Graves
on March 30th, 2014 @ 8:57 pm

I’ve posted a longer response as part of an essay on this subject at http://hermeticulture.blogspot.com/2014/03/a-greased-pig-defining-magic-part-one.html, but I think the definition you present works better as a statement of personal orientation than it does as an attempt to define the sum total of magic. Of course, that’s exactly the spirit in which you present it–as the definition by which you work. But while I’ll certainly grant that there’s a thriving counter-movement to recapture the value of the premodern approach toward magic, and while a great deal of contemporary magical practice does fall under the heading of spiritual magic (in the sense of “magic that works with spirits”), it seems to me that defining magic as a whole as “the art of working with spirits” disenfranchises a lot of other views and practices that we would be quick to identify as magical.

A few of the categories that are left out in the cold under this definition are ones that you identify in your post: the modern psychological view of magic, as well as chaos magic. I can appreciate that you’re advocating for a return to the Old Magick, but that certainly doesn’t mean other forms don’t exist or that they aren’t legitimate. A definition that excludes them may be useful from a personal, political, or didactic perspective, but it seems to me that it can’t successfully be put forth as a representative definition of magic as a whole.

Nor is it merely the modern and postmodern forms of magic that your definition excludes. Premodern magic was most certainly not limited to spirits. As Agrippa demonstrates, there were very well-developed fields of natural and celestial magic in play as well during the Renaissance and before. While I think there’s a fair argument to be made that celestial magic overlaps significantly with spiritual magic (after all, the sigils of the spirits and intelligences of the planets are inextricable from the planetary sigils themselves in De occulta philosophia), the same cannot be said of natural magic. While Elizabeth Butler made great contributions to the academic study of magic, I feel her contention that all magic was ultimately spiritual magic was needlessly reductionistic and deteriorates under scrutiny.

While your definition serves a useful purpose, especially insofar as it is a provocative reminder of what much premodern magic was (and is) about, I tend to think it succeeds more as a political statement of sorts, a subtle polemic against the de-spiritualized view of magic that rose to prominence in the 20th century, than it does as a broad definition of magic per se.


Written By Aaron Leitch
on March 31st, 2014 @ 10:09 am

Extremely thought-provoking response, Spencer! Thank you very much. I don’t think I necessarily see my definition as exclusive as you do – for example I feel that some spiritual focus exists even in many systems that do not call on what would traditionally call “spirits.” Instead they refer to godforms, talismanic images, thought-forms, egregores, artificial elementals or even the more nebulous term “raising energy.” All of these things fall under working with spirits (or the spiritual) as I understand it.

I suppose my definition would be antithetical to any view that specifically excludes the spiritual. I am suspicious of theories that suppose we work magick by sheer force of will and some unknown telekinetic aspect of the human mind. It’s a bit “Mage: the Gathering” for my taste. lol And, in that light, your statement about “a subtle polemic against the de-spiritualized view of magic that rose to prominence in the 20th century” may have some weight.

Written By carl
on March 31st, 2014 @ 1:22 pm

Build the house and you’ll know (I’ve done building courses and assisting in building houses, and can do everything except gas lines). I’m sure you have a layman or armchair scholars’ knowledge of the “build a house” mysteries; but were you to undertake that miracle…do you understand the whole process?

per your last paragraph: Then magickally, and in a more objective divine/angelic level sense, if the words and interaction of human minds is changing and the meaning of magic is changing…. is the old magic changing?
I know Ter transforms slower than Mer, but is it chaning or are you been caught up in human words?

Written By carl
on March 31st, 2014 @ 1:26 pm

…see the importance there…
is where are you looking for your magic(k)?

In the universe, in the divine presence, or are you seeking to fit some “special to you hot button” word to a specific meaning that you want it to mean.

Magickial practitioners will possibly understand what I’m talking about there… Are we chasing maya in our minds (“the so called Apple* of Knowledge”) or are we harmonising with the processes of the greater existence?

* probably fermented.

Written By carl
on March 31st, 2014 @ 1:29 pm

ps…one of the quickest and best magickal definitions I’ve seen is actually used by the Star Edge/Avatar cult.

The Art of Living Deliberately.

That Harry is a sharp smart dude.

Written By Langston
on April 2nd, 2014 @ 2:08 pm

I love this article, but I also think the definition of magic as “to work with spiritual entities” is limited and serves to further a colonizing agenda of wanting to find one definition/paradigm that fits everything.

While there are certainly cross cultural similarities and guiding principles, every culture/tradition has its own way of defining and working with magic that isn’t necessarily based in a cosmology that lumps all magic in as working with an entity.

One perspective I find useful is Jason Miller’s delineations of Material, Energetic/Astral, and Divine/Causal as three different levels of magic you can work with. While of course you could argue all of these are working with spirits to some extent (including your own), I think this isn’t very useful (in the same way that Crowley’s definition isn’t useful) and that many masters in varying traditions (say a Taoist working both energetically and with spirits) would disagree.

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