What Is Magic?

Abracadabra, alakazam! For the majority of people the word "magic" conjures mental images of a David Copperfield like figure pulling white rabbits out of a black top hat. However, this is not the magic of ancient Egypt, the Druids of Ireland, shamans of the Amazon, or the alchemists of the Renaissance. The wonder of magic has been naively associated with illusionists due to the childlike awe summoned by their clever slight of hand, subtle card lifts, and manipulations of human perception. At the same time we find ourselves immersed in cultural images celebrating the magical, evidenced by the explosive success of Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Game of Thrones to name a few which strike at a sort of mystical chord within a global audience. Horror movies like The Exorcist and The Conjuring also fulfill the terror which magic has historically invoked due to its continual relation with the exercising of demonic possession, the conjuring of spirits, and the cleansing of alleged haunted places. However what do these popular books, movies, and T.V. shows actually say about the nature of magic? What is magic?

Sympathetic Magic

Well, with the right knowledge these shows may reveal more than one would suspect. You see, magic exists in the space between mind and physical reality. Magic has less to do with the tricking of perception and more to do with the immanent power residing within words, symbols, and ritual. The most central of all concepts in regards to understanding the mechanism which is believed to allow magical correspondences to happen is the theory of sympathetic magic. Sympathetic magic is an academic term coined by J.G. Frazer which describes the manner in which magical efficacy or energy is transferred. Roughly the theory can be summed up by the ancient Hermetic adages, "as above so below" and "like effects like." The idea is by developing sympathetic resonances starting with the natural world, humanity has the ability to harness the power of the natural universe into their personal endeavors.

If our goal was to utilize the power of the sun, what this looks like in a ritual scenario is symbolization of the sun in every feature of the ritual. It would take place at the hour of the sun (8am & 8pm), on the day of the sun (Sunday), wearing the colors of the sun (gold/yellow and white), burning candles for the sun, while singing hymns or prayers to the sun, and so on. The more sympathetic resonances you have towards the source of energy which you are trying to harness the stronger the ritual.

Another concept that some might be more familiar with and works in the same manner is a Voodoo doll. You cannot just take any doll off the rack, stick it with pins, and suddenly your enemy is struck down with physical pain. Rather, one has to make a doll and then through sympathetic bonds tie it back towards the person they intend to harm. Therefore, typically, one has to have hair from the person and make it the hair on the doll, as well as shirt and pants fabric from the person to be made as the shirt and pants on the doll. Like effects like, so in this type of magic now that the doll is like the person, they can begin doing things to the doll and it will be done to the person.   

These sympathetic connections between what is man-made and what is universally/divinely made is central to language as well as magic. For example money and water are linguistically symbolized as the same thing and this can be found in languages all over the world. Money is a man-made creation, whereas water was created by the creator; the power and importance of water in the natural world can be mimicked by symbolic magical correspondences into the human created world of culture/language/symbols. So where do you find banks? On the sides of rivers, river banks, and river banks direct the flow of the current, or our currency. That is why you liquidate something when you turn it into cash, and like water cash flows. People who are financially struggling are trying to stay afloat, and not drown in debt, but when the ship takes on too much water they must be baled out, or bailed out. Even in modern times we find the same symbolic connection to water when claim to be "making it rain" while throwing money in the air. Due to these linguistic connections to nature money can now acts as the man-made water; in the societies we've constructed money is as essential to living as water is to living organisms.

Terence McKenna, in his book Food of the Gods points to another linguistic-sympathetic connection between human speech and cordage. Being gatherers, typically it was women who advanced the enterprise of language as they sat together in groups and it was women who were responsible for cordage making in a tribal context. With this in mind, Terence states,

"it is interesting to note that the English vocabulary that refers to spoken discourse is often the same as that used to describe cordage-making and weaving. One weaves a story, or unravels an incident, or spins a yarn. We follow the thread of a story and stitch together an excuse. Lies are made from whole cloth, reality is an endless golden braid."


Fundamental in understanding the history of the Western magical tradition is to be familiar with the esoteric tradition of Hermeticism. Grounded in mythologies of the Egyptian wisdom deity Thoth and then renovated with Grecian cultural elements around the dawn of the common era, Hermeticism is based on a series of texts called the Corpus Hermeticum allegedly written by the "thrice great one" Hermes Trismegistus. These texts are astonishingly insightful with a surprising contemporary feel; the Hermetica contains philosophical discussions on the cosmos, alchemy, astrology, health, imagination, nature, and the divine.

Whether Hermes Trismegistus was a historical figure is impossible to prove and highly doubtful, however this does not take away from the intrigue, mystery, and relevancy of the teachings. Greeks and Egyptians knew that the Greek god Hermes was syncretic with Thoth and in fact both deities were worshiped at the Temple of Thoth in Khemnu, which the Greeks named Hermopolis. Both deities were the gods of writing, magic, and goers-between realms. Once Rome adopted Christianity as the empire's official religion Hermeticism was decimated; many of the original Greek writings were destroyed by Christians and were only preserved in Syria until the Renaissance once translated from Syriac to Latin. Roughly 2,000 years ago the city of Alexandria, Egypt was a spiritual hub for seekers all over the world and was a strong hold for Hermeticists, Gnostics, and other esoteric practitioners. Unfortunately, when the library of Alexandria was destroyed so much of our spiritual and historical knowledge was lost and destroyed along with it.  

Below is a video of Terence McKenna describing his opinion of what magic is along with a brief description of Hermeticism. For McKenna magic resides in the mystery of language; he claims that the "world is made of language" which hints at the riddle between quantum physics and psychology. If the observer does influence what is observed, then language is uniquely positioned between mental worlds and the physical world. Make sure to catch the ending in which Terence reads form the Hermetica regarding the sacredness of the imagination.

“The syntactical nature of reality, the real secret of magic, is that the world is made of words. And if you know the words that the world is made of, you can make of it whatever you wish.” - Terence McKenna

Words and Names

Linguistic commands and magic are intrinsically linked. Words and names have a special bond back to things in which they describe. So it is interesting to note that "in the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God."(John 1:1) In Christian theology it is commonly believed that Jesus Christ was the incarnation of the Logos; the informing voice to pre-socratic, Socratic, and platonic philosophers. This seems to again put further emphasis on the unique human ability for language.

Essential in the performance of exorcisms is finding out the name of the spirit being exorcised. If you've ever seen Hollywood horror films of spirit possession, there is typically a catholic priest - as if they're the worlds defenders against the demonic - demanding the demons name and information. Language is the way we humans communicate no just with each other but also the world of spirit. Magic attests that with the correct words man can command the world to act.

Arguably, Hollywood is the producer of some of the most influential images and stories that imprint onto the human mind. So it is interesting to note that he name "Hollywood" itself finds its origin in the western magical tradition. Magic wands were and are a staple for wizards and magicans alike. The holly tree produces wood that was believed to be the most efficacious for magical performance; this is why Harry Potter was presented with a special white wand made from "holly-wood." Hollywood then is the name of what many in Europe use to believe to be the most powerful of magic wands; it seems to still be working its magic on us all.  

Many of the names and logos of major corporations find their roots in mythologies all around the world. If Carl Jung was right in his theories on the collective unconscious, the use of these symbols are able to reach deeper into minds of observers. Whether the individual is conscious of its meaning or not, at an unconscious level we are aware of many of the symbolic meanings around us.      

Alan Moore is an English writer primarily known for his work in graphic novels including Watchmen, V for Vendetta and From Hell. In 1993, on his fortieth birthday, Moore openly declared his dedication to being a ceremonial magician, something he saw as "a logical end step to my career as a writer." Moore associates magic with any creative act;

"I believe that magic is art, and that art, whether that be music, writing, sculpture, or any other form, is literally magic. Art is, like magic, the science of manipulating symbols, words or images, to achieve changes in consciousness ... Indeed to cast a spell is simply to spell, to manipulate words, to change people's consciousness, and this is why I believe that an artist or writer is the closest thing in the contemporary world to a shaman."

"Magic is a state of mind. It is often portrayed as very black and gothic, and that is because certain practitioners played that up for a sense of power and prestige. That is a disservice. Magic is very colorful. Of this, I am sure." - Alan Moore

Scholarship On Magic 

As a Religious Studies scholar, there are a few key names anyone should know in regards to the academic study of magic. Though their opinions are at times skewed by 19th and early 20th century prejudices against native and indigenous people, these are a few of the scholars who have shaped the academic study of magic. 


A modern reinterpretation of the chemical retorts from Renaissance Alchemists, the sympathetic word-play of wizards, the defiance of physical laws by Yogis, ecstatic flights by Amazon shamans, and the power of religious ritual must include a cross-disciplinary approach through the fields of anthropology, history, psychology, neuroscience, quantum physics, and religious studies. Hopefully in the future the academia will become more open to the supernatural and paranormal as well look to other fields to add perspective to age old conundrums.

Types of Magic and Magical Traditions