Magic has been at the centre of many cultures, almost since man learned how to talk. Shamans, priests and wise-men have used magic to achieve status within communities and to serve the people around them. Religions and belief systems have built up around magic, using ceremonies and rituals to cast spells, summon deities and to affect changes on people and the environment.
Magic is still an essential part of many modern religions and belief systems such as Wiccans and Druids, who practice ‘natural magic’ to help them achieve their personal and spiritual goals. However the question that remains unanswered is: is magic real?
Magic and Science
The answer is… it depends who you ask! Science, although it readily admits that there aspects of our existence that it cannot explain, believes it has debunked magic as nonsense and wishful thinking. The argument has attracted comment from many luminaries of the scientific world, most notably, Sigmund Freud. Freud said that “the associated theory of magic merely explains the paths along which magic proceeds; it does not explain its true essence, namely the misunderstanding which leads it to replace the laws of nature by psychological ones.”
He went on to say that he believed magic to have been created after man discovered how to wish: “His wishes are accompanied by a motor impulse, the will, which is later destined to alter the whole face of the earth in order to satisfy his wishes... As time goes on the psychological accent shifts from the motives for the magical act on to the measures by which it is carried out… It thus comes to appear as though it is the magical act itself which, owing to its similarity with the desired result, alone determines the occurrence of that result.”
In essence, Freud is saying that if someone wishes something hard enough, then it is possible for them to convince themselves that something magical has taken place, regardless of there being a plausible explanation. In Freud’s eyes, magic is little more than a form of self-deception through which we allow ourselves to believe that we have somehow engendered a magical effect.
What is Magic?
However, in order to even begin to give a satisfactory answer to the question, we first need to know what magic is. According the Oxford English Dictionary, magic is defined as “the power of apparently influencing events by using mysterious or supernatural forces.”
If you were to ask a Wiccan or other pagan this question though, you might get a very different answer from Freud’s. In many Wiccan ceremonies, a witch or warlock will cast a circle of salt to protect themselves from the powers that they are summoning, such as the spirit of Herne the Hunter. During the ritual that follows, they will cast spells of goodwill on people they know and on the world in general and bid the summoned spirits to take this with them and spread it wherever they go.
In many ways, this is similar to Christian prayer: the Holy Ghost is summoned and the priest asks his congregation to offer up healing prayers to individuals or those in need and asks God to give these prayers strength. A Wiccan will tell you that his ritual involves magic, while a Christian will respond that it is communicating with God – but are they that different? If we are to accept that the Christian ritual has some potency, then by the same token surely we must accept that the Wiccan approach has just as much potential power.
Natural and Unnatural Magic
Many Druids and pagans worship representatives of nature and cast spells in their name. When crops grow and the sun shines, they believe that it is as a result of magic that they have instigated, but a scientist will tell you that it has more to do with the spinning of the Earth and the effects of sunshine on the seeds than anything else. However, for the Druids, all they need is to see the sunrise and seeds germinate for them to believe that magic is real.
There are those who believe they have the power to affect events and people through the manipulation of magic. The gypsy life has a lot of magic at the heart of its culture, with practitioners prepared to sell their services in casting love spells, spells for good fortune and even curses. Whether or not these work is debatable, but they seem to have much in common with the practices of the ancient voodoo witch-doctors who professed to be able to curse, cure ailments and cause people to fall in love with the use of spells and charms.
Perhaps a more accurate way of looking at magic hearkens back to Freud’s theory - that magic is an expression of intent rather than a force in its own right. If the intent behind something is powerful enough, then it can engender effects, whether through apparent coincidence or conscious effort. 20th Century investigations into ‘black magic’ found that people who truly believed that they were under a curse could make themselves physically ill from that belief alone. Similarly, patients in cancer wards who were made aware that people were praying for them seemed to make speedier recovery than those who were not supported by this network of positive intent.
Some might argue that magic is an expression of intent and that intent is an extension of the latent psychic abilities that we are all born with; that we are able to generate positive and negative energies to such an extent that we can engender change. Yet an experiment conducted by Professor Andrew Bartlett in the 1970s found that those who were unaware of spells that were being cast upon them experienced no significant change in their lives as a result of the magic being used.
Magic, as a force, cannot truly said to be ‘real’ in the same way that the chair you are sitting on is real. But the intent behind it, if received and understood can be said to have truly magical effects, for better or for worse.