Does Magic Work?

My practice now is mostly devotional, aimed less at tangible results and more at cultivating a strong relationship with my gods. Like many folks, I started out with a romantic, fantasy-tinged idea of what modern Paganism was all about. And, honestly, there were ten Learn to Cast Spells books for every one Learn to Listen to the Gods books in those days, so it was easy to get the impression that it was all about the Vast Cosmic Power. At the time, I felt pretty good about this, and about magic, and I was doing a spell every week or so.

As I kept on, the magic seemed to fade in importance. Maybe it was the process of growing from 19 to 30, the relative maturity of spending a decade at this work. At any rate, establishing solid communications with the gods took over shortly after I met Dionysos for the first time. My spell work slowed, became a sideline, and eventually, mostly stopped. I don’t miss it so much.

But, does magic work? Honestly, I’m not decided.

It’s a question a lot of magicians don’t like to answer. First off, like anyone else, we can be pretty touchy when we feel like we’re being mocked. Second, few of us keep really good records of what we’ve tried and what results we observed. Really, though, I think it’s because most magicians who actually think critically about what they do just aren’t sure.

Repeatable, objective results are hard to achieve. I cast a spell to get a job, and there are all kinds of factors involved besides whether or not I did the spell right. The local economy matters, the health of the specific industries to which I apply matters, where I send resumes and with whom I network matter. If I don’t get a job, did my spell fail? Or was it just not magically butch enough to overcome other factors? If I did get a job, similar questions apply.

Enough stalling. Does magic work?

Well, that depends…

The question is too broad. If I were to divide my past practice into what seems to me to have worked and what seems to have not worked, the distinction becomes pretty clear.

Operational magic, when I cast a spell to make something happen in the world outside of my head (like the job spell above), is really my weak spot. In honesty, I’ve never gotten a job after casting a job spell, and that lottery charm didn’t work, either. I can’t say for sure that my sick friends have gotten better, faster, because of healing spells.  Other people claim to have better, clearer results, but I’ve not seen anything that I couldn’t explain by mundane means, or dumb luck.

So, does operational magic work? In my experience, probably not, but I’m open to being surprised.

Then there’s visionary work.  What I’m talking about here is the kind of magic that takes place inside my head, and inside the heads of the folks I’m working with. This is spirit summoning, communing with deity, the sort of thing where the goal is to evoke a vision or invoke specific states of consciousness. This works well, and repeatedly, though not at all provably, in any objective sense.

For instance, I once performed a spirit evocation to help me write a book review. The magic worked, in that I did experience a vision of speaking to a serpent-spirit on its home turf. That experience did give me insight I needed to complete the review.

There’s also divination. For six years, I was a tarot reader at <a href=http://ancientways.com>Ancient Ways</a>, an occult book and supply store in Oakland. I’ve also helped interpret dreams and omens, and very occasionally had <em>something</em> grab the back of my brain and force words out of my mouth.

I’ve never been particularly good at doing this for myself, mind you, but other people seem quite satisfied with my efforts. This may be an effect of how the process works for me; dealing the cards (for instance) is just the first part. Each card has several possible interpretations, all on the same theme, but not all applying in every case. In the moment, one interpretation will feel truer than the others, and that’s what I’ll go with. These individual interpretations are given context by their positions in a spread, and I’ll turn the whole thing into a narrative. The second part is the other person listening to me, evaluating and applying the narrative I’ve given in the context of their own feelings and experiences, and figuring out what it means to them.

When I’m reading for myself, the “one interpretation will feel truer” bit fails. I get too much interference from my own desires and fears.

The lesson I’ve taken from this is that magic allowing me to work on the immaterial aspects of a problem, in order to better tackle the material aspects, works rather well.

So, does magic work? Yes, I think it does. So long as you don’t expect it to work like magic.

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About Lon Sarver

Lon Sarver is a polytheist priest of Dionysos, living in the San Francisco Bay Area and contemplating (with a healthy amount of dread) making a second attempt at a career in Marriage and Family Therapy. View all posts by Lon Sarver

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