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?
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.
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.