Much of the Neopagan community is woefully ignorant about magic and its terminology. I should point out the many in the occult or magical community also fall under this ignorance, but I haven’t run into many occultists who necessarily have problems with “black magic” unless they are pulling legs, or pretending to be infamous. This would normally not present any problem, since Neopagan religions are not necessarily magical systems, though they may use magical elements in ritual much as the majority of world religions do. The problem is that Wicca, and other Pagan religious variants under the Witchcraft rubric, consciously uses magical elements and practices and names them as such. This has led to the curious situation today where many Wiccans, self-professed Witches, and Wicca-influenced people will claim they do not practice “black magic.” Many older or more experienced people will often respond with the seemingly intelligent phrase “magic has no color.” But such a statement really says nothing new.
We know that magic has no color anymore than poetry or music has any color. So what? Many people, in using the terms “black” or “white” in reference to types of magic, are making a conscious value statement in clear lack of understanding where the terms come from and to what they really refer.
Victor Anderson, the co-founder of the Feri tradition of Paganism, said “White magic is poetry. Black magic is anything that actually works.” And he was right, not only in the attitude of his statement, but also historically. Magic came to be categorized broadly between twin poles of black and white, but not in the way you’re now thinking. Don’t make the assumption that white magic would refer to blessings, healing, and beneficial effects, while black magic refers to harmful intent. This current view is ignorant of both magic and its history. Magic with intent to harm is black magic in the sense that it works, not in the sense that there is an intent to harm. White magic refers to something altogether different than what most Neopagans think of today; it is not about blessings, or beneficial intentions.
White magic originally referred to “theurgia.” Which was in essence the high magic of the ceremonial practitioners which sought to align the mage’s will to a higher power, will, god, or self. Black magic referred to “goetia” (not necessarily the contents in the renaissance grimoire of that name). Which was basically both the low magic of witchcraft, popular sympathetic magic, spell casting, certain divinations, and also the high magical arts of evocation, necromancy, long ritual enchantments – thus, anything that a person did which sought to effect change in the environment and circumstances of the practitioner. The former was thought of as spiritual and the latter as worldly. And these two distinctions came originally from classical times and were carried through the renaissance straight away to modernity with a lot of bad religious propaganda thrown in for distraction.*[see note]
Thus, most of what modern witches do, whether pagan Witches or of the various folk or ethnic kinds, could be considered black magic. Much of what ceremonial practitioners do is black magic. So is a lot, if not most, of what Chaos Mages do. (Hell, most of the world’s population is doing black magic, if you think about it.) Yes, when you bind someone, or banish a negative influence or entity, or when you cast a spell for a better job, or when you look to scry into something for information as to how to proceed with some action, or when you seek to ward off aggressive people, or when you construct shields or seals… you are, by the historical definition, practicing black magic. But because witches, as well as other magic practitioners have been getting bad press from Christianity for years, if not for centuries now, calling it black magic is a public relations nightmare. This is why you have many people, especially Wiccans, who will go to absurd lengths to state that they never intend to cause harm and therefore they practice beneficial or white magic. Frankly, it’s time people in the occult community, whether Pagan or not, stop using these fuzzy definitions if they are going to make distinctions between black and white magic at all. Maybe they should even go further and not use the terms.
Furthermore, intent to harm is not necessarily black magic, not only because people often bend rationalizations to fit their actions, but because sometimes harm may be the necessary and right thing to do. (How’s that for a logical twist?) Would you not seek to cause harm to another if you knew that it would prevent them from doing greater harm? Right or wrong, this line of thought is commonly used. Also, many people may do various reprehensible actions in order to bring about a blessing or a better relationship with god or the universe. How many people have harmed themselves in some twisted ritual to get closer to god or some higher essence? Intent to harm is simply intent to harm. Using magic to cause harm is simply that. It doesn’t make it “black magic” as opposed to “white magic,” no matter how many people ignorant of magic and its history may repeat the lie.
White magic as a practice came to be seen as better than the black varieties simply because of Western civilization’s 2000 year long flirtation with the spiritual / worldly split which posited spiritual goals as being higher, better, or selfless and worldly goals as being baser, lower, or selfish. God was seen as light or white and the absence of god was seen as dark or black. That’s where the terms came from. (And though they were polished by Christianity, they didn’t originate from there.) From the view of magical theory in the post-modern world, this white/black dualism is obviously false and Neopagans especially should strive to eradicate its influence since the material world, the physical, is seen as spiritually valid, if not the essence and expression of spirituality in itself. In this vein, black magic would thus take on spiritual worth in the same way as other worldly goals such as financial success, enough to eat, and certain comforts/enjoyments. Remember that Wiccans, among other Pagans, are enjoined and encouraged to enjoy life to its fullest. Celebration is as spiritual as any other activity.
Since “black magic is anything that actually works” then we may either come to the conclusion that we have nothing to fear from actually wanting to use our talents or art to change our environment or project our will into it, or instead to seek to solely align ourselves to divinity or the universe. This latter goal is admittedly religious or spiritual, but I wouldn’t fault you for it. It’s just that, for me, even such an alignment would demonstrate a wanted or needed change which impacts the environment. Otherwise, it’s just playing intellectual games. I don’t care to separate the so-called material world from the so-called spiritual world. Since my life view unifies (or collapses the distinctions between) the spiritual and worldly (which is the heart of Neopagan religious practice), I can’t see what good it would be for me to distinguish between the two. But if I must make a distinction, then I would have to go with “black magic.” Sorry, but that’s the way it is. Without doing something that actually works and gets results, what is the point?
So if you find yourself asked about black magic and you just don’t know, don’t assume that it means magic with intent to harm or selfish magic, and then go on to answer that you never ever practice it. That simply displays both your abdication to political correctness and your willingness to collude in keeping ignorant prejudices alive. It also shows many of us experienced practitioners that you probably have no idea what you are going on about.
Reject the spurious notions that others may have about you because you practice magic that gets results in this real world as opposed to on some higher postulated spiritual plane; the practice of historically “black magic.” Reject the invectives of criticism that others may level against you because you admitted using magic to cause change in your environment or to interfere with another’s will. Reject the false notion that all magic you do should be for a higher purpose than your own life and its circumstances. This sounds selfish, but remember, even if you want to help others, you yourself must first be well and strong. Those who would try to tell you that sacrifice of your needs for some higher purpose is a lofty goal are only fooling themselves into thinking that their life-denial is spiritual.
We come from the dark of the womb and will one day pass into the darkness of death, all the while the light that is energy, chaos and life, is both everywhere immanent and transcendent. Without light there is no darkness and vice versa. Without night, day is meaningless. Magic is life itself and since any magic that has so-called worldly aims is black magic, then we must all be black magicians.
“Thou hast no right but to do thy will.”
-Irreverend Hugh, KSC
October 1st, 2006
At this point, many experienced occultists may bring up the whole ‘left hand / right hand’ dualism (left hand = black or selfish magic; right hand = white or selfless magic) and think to themselves that they have a better handle on this topic. But only apparently, since the terms right hand and left hand when referring to magic are not historical and cannot be shown to be much older than the Romantic Era and the writings of Eliphas Levi. The terms as they are used today by most people, aren’t even accurate. They originate in both Buddhist and Hindu forms of Tantric practices and refer to both literal and symbolic ritual approaches. Aleister Crowley and many of his contemporaries were familiar with Tantric practices and symbologies and many modern ideas and practices can be said to be influenced by Tantra. Unlike what many Western occultists think today, the left hand approach was a way of honoring someone. Modern Western occultists simply grafted the term ‘left hand path’ to the idea of ‘black magic’ and it assumed ‘selfish’ or even diabolical connotations. This comes from the historical attitudes towards the left side and left-handed people. The very word ‘sinister’ which is today used to mean evil, is nothing more than Latin for “left handed.” So it is time that occultists stop using even the left/right hand dualism when referring to magic and magical paths.
That the terms left hand and right hand in reference to magic are arbitrary becomes clear when you realize that ‘left’ can also refer to the feminine principle and ‘right’ to the masculine principle, as occurs in some Tantric rituals. Thus, at least for two hundred years, occultists in the West have gotten it all wrong. This is only to be expected as Crowley and others who wrote of the left/right hand path differences were consummate leg pullers. This was so that students would eventually learn to think for themselves beyond the socio-cultural conditioning of their respective upbringings. In modern or post-modern times it seems that the Chaos Magicians, advanced Feri practitioners, and many experienced Wiccans have learned to see through the left/right hand canard, while the vast majority of people involved with the ‘occult’ have yet to come to this realization.
(Note from Daven: This article prompted me to write the following blog post: A Brainstorm.)