...But Can You Do Tricks?

Last modified by Robin Culain on 2014/12/26 04:03

Dec 21 2014

On Wiccan Magick, Theurgy, Thaumaturgy and Setting Expectations

Sooner or later somebody will want you to do parlor tricks.  The pitch is usually a little more subtle, but the gist will be clear.  There's always the prurient curiosity of acquaintances, but more importantly students often come to the Craft seeking or building on an expanded view of what's possible.  I've seen otherwise excellent Coveners drift away in covert disappointment because, on some unspoken level, they expected to be able to regularly  "call spirits from the vasty deep", have them show up, and leave verifiable physical traces.  It's wise to set expectations to avoid disappointments. 

Magick is Forbidden Fruit

People come to the Craft with expectations in multiple dimensions ... community, knowledge, wisdom, agency (the ability to effect change) and communion with the Gods to name a few.  The agency dimension is especially dramatic because Magick is part of how we do agency in our religion and Magick is a very sensitive topic in our culture:

  • Masculinist religions often contend that Magick is forbidden by their Deity -- and sometimes teach that Magick should be punished by shaming, shunning or violence
  • Rationalists -- both of the "everyday reality is all there is" sort and those who have elevated scientific method to the status of a faith -- often believe the practice of Magick is evidence of credulous stupidity at best, and serious mental illness at worst and should be punished by shaming or shunning.  There used to be some rationalist violence too, which pretty much faded with the defunding of public mental hospitals, for unrelated reasons.

That doesn't make either class of individuals bad people, but it does help to clarify safe grounds for discussion.

With Wiccans it's different.   As a reasonable generalization, people come to Craft in spite of or because of these prohibitions -- either not caring what their inner and outer Masculinists or Rationalists say, or seeking some enhanced kind of agency unavailable elsewhere.  People come to Craft hoping for Magick.  No big surprise there.

When we talk about Magick as "creating changes in reality according to will" we cast a wide net.  People change reality according to will beginning with a trip to the store, right up to toppling regimes and subverting long standing paradigms of mind.  What we're really saying is that on top of the usual tools for changing reality -- study, perseverance, communication, cunning, rhetoric, direct and communal action to name a few -- Wiccans use ritual.

Cultural Taboos on Ritual

Of all those thousands of tools for changing reality, the use of ritual is hedged with severe psychologically active barriers.  Extreme rationalists tend to regard nearly all forms of ritualistic behaviour as OCD-spectrum illness, contending that the ritualistic aspects of scientific method exist only to approach consistency and eliminate extraneous variables and have few or no psychological implications or secondary effects.

The Masculinist religious have no barrier to ritual per se and are permitted a range of channels depending on the degree of fundamentalism -- individual prayer is almost always allowed and encouraged, but song, chanting and mantra (rosaries are included), intercessory prayer (saints and the like), right up to sacrifice (think indulgences as a form of financial sacrifice) are also possibilities and at times encouraged or even mandatory.

Theurgy and Thaumaturgy as Points on a Scale

All the religious modes of ritual have an element of Theurgy as human/divine partnerships of one form or another.  Humans approach, merge with, invoke or otherwise engage with a Deity and according to their mutual nature work towards a result.  Some take a strict view of theurgy, constraining the goal to be one of union with the Deity, and excluding prayers or workings for physical benefits like health, a better job or an improved romantic life.  Yet in practice I'm going to guess that the vast majority of real everyday theurgic workings are for external results of one kind or another.

Then there's Thaumaturgy. I'm delighted the Wikipedia includes the Blessed Isaac Bonewits' definition, which is " "The use of magic for nonreligious purposes; the art and science of “wonder working;” using magic to actually change things in the physical world.".

In practice theurgy and thaumaturgy are almost always mixed -- at the extremes of theurgy you'll find saints, bodhisattvas and highly experienced meditators; at the extremes of thaumaturgy you'll find ...


Really, how often do you find a ritual that has absolutely no nonhuman element -- no invocation be it of God or demon, no appeal for help, just pure raw working.  Even our Ceremonial Magician cousins usually invoke some kind of nonHuman entity in ritual.  Mostly you'll only find raw thaumaturgy in the science lab.  This is why some scholars of science refer to astrology, alchemy and magic as "failed sciences".  The aim of scientific method is thaumaturgic; the means are ritualistic.  Science has largely been purged of theurgy, although individual scientists have, of course, their religions, belief systems and affiliations.

In Wiccan practice, most of "What Witches Do" involves a mix of Theurgy and Thaumaturgy.  Usually the early stages of a classic Wiccan working involve connecting up with the Deity, then activities shift to clarifying the aim of the work.  The Witches raise energy and, under the aegis of the Deity, direct it to the aim, then off to grounding, Cakes and Wine.

With theurgy and thaumaturgy in mind, we can talk about "doing tricks" and meeting expectations with a little more precision.  

Theurgy and Wiccan Magick

To the extent that Wiccan workings involve theurgy, there's a relationship to be considered.  Think of Deity as a partner who has bigger fish to fry than yours, but who is interested in your welfare for Her own reasons, and is willing to help out on occasion.  You'd call upon Her to help with an important job, but might be reluctant to call her up to help clean the kitchen, or impress friends at a party.  She just might not keep you on Her "A" list.  In Wicca relationships with the Gods are voluntary, bidirectional and subject to change.  Many long-term Wiccans would draw the line at abusing such an important relationship.

Theurgy also involves personality changes.  When a human person engages with a nonhuman person to effect changes in the world, most often the metaphorically "softest" substance in the mix is what gets changed.  Take a guess what's softest -- the world and its habits or laws, a nonhuman Deity or you.  Most Magicks that work make their principal alteration in the practitioner.  Generally that's a good thing -- the main process in our Tradition is personal growth, and a mix of theurgy and thaumaturgy that strengthens our relationships with the Gods, improves our own character and capability, and does something useful, or at least unharmful in the world is all to the best.  Nonetheless it's more like doing surgery on your own head than it is like moving a box across a table.

A person might think twice about carrying out a little personal brain surgery to impress somebody.

As an aside, that's one reason many Wiccans do less and less Magick over time.  For one, the main reasons for doing workings have already been resolved if all went well, and for another if things are going reasonably well less extreme measures are preferable.  Like most religions, we have a bias towards theurgy.  Still, we keep our hand in, which is why most Seasonal rites involve a thaumaturgic component.  Got to keep the gears oiled.

But what about Thaumaturgy

Pure thaumaturgy is different.  It's less common in Wiccan Circles, and doesn't have the overt relationship aspect with Deity that theurgy does.  It does, however have the personal surgery aspects.  The Law of Three is an observation, not a constraint -- what we do affects us, usually disproportionately to any other effects.  If there's such a thing as scientific thaumaturgy -- a heresy if I've ever heard one, since the current state of popularized science denies the efficacy of purely internal operations -- the same holds.  In thaumaturgy the relationship is with the World, as a living breathing being, and to the extent that thaumaturgy objectifies the world and its creatures there's a price to be paid in relationship.

I'd maintain that along with the effects of treating the world, and especially our fellow biological creatures as objects, we've paid a price in terms of both the psyche's of the individuals directly involved, and as a society.  It's no surprise to me that a culture that tortures dogs, cats, monkeys and rats for knowledge will ultimately do the same to each other.  How different is it to argue that "Countless children will die if we do not experiment on dogs (even though most individual experiments are fruitless or gratuitous)", and "Countless children will die if we do not torture alleged terrorists (even though most individual torturings are fruitless or gratuitous)".  The argument is typically that the one experiment or torture that works goes on to justifies the lot -- if all you care about are results and you ignore the wider effects.  That's a big "if".

How Do You Know if Magick Worked?

Without gross immediate and measurable effects, it's difficult to determine when most common Magicks have succeeded.  That's one reason we encourage all our students to keep careful records of the exact terms of workings at the time of the operation, and results at the time of observation.  It's easy to be sloppy and recall you wanted "X" when what you got was "Y".  But that isn't enough.  Beyond problems of verifiability, we have problems of reproducability.  

Most Magicks have human life as the target, regardless of the mix of theurgy and thaumaturgy.  You work for a better job, an insight, a relationship, the resolution of a sticky situation -- all fairly human subjective things.  These are the Magicks that work best, and on average work extremely well.  But -- when the result comes about, it occurs by ordinary means.  It becomes very tempting to believe that the result would have occurred in the ordinary course of events, without the Magick, because the result comes about through ordinary events.

We don't have a way to test that in the scientific sense, because we're talking about lives over a relatively long time, not particles over a relatively short time, and you can't (as far as I know) go back on a timeline and relive a series of events with and without a working.

So we're left with two tests:

  • Did the working's result correspond, within a reasonable margin to be determined with honesty, with the intent, and
  • Taken as a whole, over time, does the aggregate track record of workings indicate a positive result?

The second is especially important.  It's very easy to talk yourself out of the results of an effective working.  To a small degree we have our inner Masculinists scolding and shaming us, and to a much larger extent in this society we have an inner rationalist insisting that we're credulous fools to believe that anything we did on an inner plane has an effect on the outer world.  This inner rationalist, while supremely helpful in solving a logical problem, becomes a thief of joy and enemy of hope when weighing in on concerns beyond the rational.  Which, of course, the inner rationalist regards as the empty set, carved away to nothing in all right thinking individuals by Sir William of Occam's very blunt razor.

This -- and I'm borrowing liberally from my favorite Christian apologist here is where the concept of faith comes in.  Contrary to some opinions, faith isn't believing in things without evidence.  Rather, in this context, it's believing in the evidence over a period of time when the immediate impulse is to do otherwise.  Rather like having faith in a friend who has never lied to you, yet the immediate evidence is that she has.  If you're faithless you go with the immediate evidence.  If you're faithful you look over the long haul and ask yourself "How's this person's track record over time?"  

We should do the same with our Magicks.

Created by Robin Culain on 2014/12/21 23:20
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