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The Changing Face of Magic: Thinking Big Thoughts

This article was written by Brandy Williams
posted under Magic

When we make magic, magic makes us.

All of us are shaped by many factors: genetic heritage, family structure, our generation, the culture in which we are raised, and how that culture views gender. As we move through the years our experiences also go into making us who we are. Magic gives us tools to cope with the challenges life presents. For example, many of us learned to ground and center as our first magical lesson, establishing a mental, emotional, and energetic foundation from which to act.

Some magical techniques address our human needs—attracting love, caring for a family, and engaging in meaningful work. The western magical tradition calls this kind of magic thaumaturgy, or low magic. I’ve heard this described dismissively, "That’s just thaumaturgy!" Donald Michael Kraig points out that the term "low" describes magic developed in the lowlands, in farming communities where healing ailments and managing a bit of prosperity are vitally important. Thaumaturgy is contrasted with theurgy, magic involving the gods or divine powers. Theurgy is also called high magic, which Kraig notes developed in the cities, literally higher than the countryside.

Don’t let anyone tell you high magic is superior to low magic! Every human being needs to eat, to have a place to live, to be healthy, and to be loved. It’s much harder to invoke your Holy Guardian Angel if you are couch-surfing with family. Thaumaturgy provides the essential foundation of our magical lives, helping us to provide for ourselves and contribute to the families and communities which support us. My book Practical Magic for Beginners describes this kind of magic at length, detailing the knowledge that forms the western occult heritage, and applying that knowledge to aid us in our everyday lives.

Magic also offers us a path of personal development, a way to explore our relationship with the divine and our own divine natures. Theurgy is sometimes translated "god-work," the work we do to bring ourselves closer to the gods. High magic (or ceremonial magic) tends to be formal, involving established ritual, and includes the study of esoteric magical systems, particularly Qabbalah. In the Magical Philosophy series, Melita Denning and Osborne Phillips note that engaging in esoteric study is a form of initiation in itself. Many ceremonial systems and groups also include a staged series of initiations that are designed to take the student on a spiritual journey to magical adepthood.

High magic evolved over millennia to fit the needs of past generations. The formal magical systems draw on the western occult heritage—the workings of the elements and planets, energies and tides—to build transformative rituals. Many ceremonial orders exist today that preserve the rituals of the last century, providing an opportunity for men and women of all ages to experience their power.

Just as we are shaped by our times and culture, magical systems are shaped by the needs of the people who create and use them. The last century offered a different set of challenges than the ones we face today. One hundred years ago the industrial age promised an ever brighter future, brightening the night, greening the desert, and extending the human lifespan, while at the same time conflicts exploded into destructive world wars, tearing families and countries apart. In this century we are struggling to cope with the destructive legacy of industrialism itself while learning to tolerate cultural and religious differences and support the right of all people to govern themselves.

We think and act differently than our forebears did in the last millennium. This is especially true of how we think about gender and how our culture treats gender differences. In the last century women worked for the right to vote, to wear trousers, to move into the workforce. Today women work for equal representation in leadership, to earn the same salary as men for the same work, to be taken seriously as agents of our own destiny.

High magic has not yet incorporated the cultural shift in gender roles. Rituals created to help men to experience the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel don’t work in the same way for women. My book The Woman Magician examines the ways in which Western Traditional Magic has thought about women and creates an initiatory system for women to explore their highest spiritual potential.

High magic similarly fails to include diversity of race, sexual orientation, and ability; to cope with the equation of magic with superstition and the academic framing of magic as opposite to science; and to explore spirituality in the context of competing world religions. It is the challenge of today’s magicians to synthesize a cohesive view of the world that takes contemporary diversity, religion, and scientific discovery into account in a way that includes and validates magical-spiritual endeavor.

Remaking High Magic
How do we go about remaking magic? What even gives us the right to think such a big thought? Doesn’t that kind of work come from geniuses or people who speak the words of the gods?

Geniuses may absorb information more quickly, but anyone who can read and is willing to persevere can acquire knowledge. We can overcome our personal limitations by working in groups, encouraging each other, and supporting our individual development in a communal context. For example, we know now that any group is smarter than its smartest member, even if that smartest member is a genius. Also, any one of us can establish a relationship with deity, and every one of us can come to a realization of the divinity within us.

Suppose we give ourselves permission to tackle this idea. Where do we begin?

  • List Sources
    A good place to start is to consider the sources of our magic. It’s important not to censor this list and to be willing to include all the roots of our systems, however unlikely or embarrassing. Fans of the Harry Potter series will remember Luna Lovegood, whose willingness to consider unorthodox sources of information earned her scorn but permitted her to notice things that others did not see.

    We have inherited high magic from people who assembled magical knowledge for thousands of years. Astrologers studied the skies, alchemists studied metals, herbalists pondered plants. Some of those herbalists must have contacted the spirits of those plants just as Eileen Caddy did at Findhorn in Scotland. Many spirits have communicated to humans. People routinely see and hear the spirits of loved ones who have died, an experience that blossomed into the popular religion of Spiritualism in the last century. Angels spoke to Edward Kelly and John Dee, and gods have appeared in dreams and visions to magicians many times throughout the ages.


  • Study Religion
    High Magic encompasses the Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as well as the folk religions and ancient Paganism that underlies them all. Since the Parliament of the Worlds Religions brought east and west together in 1893, western magic has incorporated Buddhism, Hinduism, and Tantra, while in modern times techniques from indigenous religions, particularly involving chant, trance, and possession, have been incorporated (some say appropriated) into the systems.

  • Study Philosophy
    Some of the great thinkers of past ages seem like geniuses to us because their education was different than ours. We no longer study Latin and Greek in school as the turn-of-the-century magicians did. It is a rare person today who has any knowledge of philosophy, the history of how humans have come to think the way we think.

    I came to philosophy as an outsider, reading on my own rather than in an academic environment. Even women who study inside the academy report feeling like outsiders, as the practice of philosophy has been held to be a man’s domain for several millennia. So I was surprised to discover how fascinating the study of ideas can be. If religion is the history of magic, philosophy is its operating system. Studying philosophy teaches us how to think about thinking, the meta-level that is precisely the place we need to reach to be able to rethink a magical system.


  • Experience Ritual
    Since the philosopher-magician Apollonius of Tyana visited India in the first century of the common era, the magicians who have contributed to the high magic systems have often been great travelers and experimenters. In the last century the men who crafted the rituals and study systems we use today were often Freemasons, trading and collecting fraternal initiations and religious ordinations, while the women who created the rituals and study systems also participated in Theosophy and Spiritualism. Today there are so many public events and open groups available that anyone can gain a wealth of experience that would have been the envy of any Victorian magician. We are the most cosmopolitan magicians in history.

  • Ask the Fundamental Questions
    Who are we? Why are we here? How does the universe work? What is the appropriate way for a twenty-first century magician to behave? The knowledge we gain from our studies, along with the experience we gain from our rituals, informs our answers to these questions. Our answers may change over time as we incorporate new experiences and knowledge.
As Denning and Phillips said, in the Hermetic tradition the study of knowledge itself changes us. To remake the systems of high magic we apply those changes to the body of traditional knowledge and ritual. We can then create new rituals that incorporate diversity, honor religion, partner with science, and shape us into the people we need to be to face the challenges of our age.

Not everyone is called to this work, but anyone who wills to do so can participate in it. The Woman Magician is one contribution to this effort, joining that of many others who are rethinking ceremonial magic for the twenty-first century. Together we will shape the form of high magic that will shape us into the people we envision we can be.

Brandy Williams
Brandy Williams (Washington) is a Wiccan high priestess and ceremonial magician who has been practicing and teaching magic for over 25 years. In 1997, Williams founded the Seattle Pagan Scholars, and she has served as director ever since. She also is...  Read more

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