In the Desert of Set > Sermons > General Paganism > My Understanding of Magic


G.B. Marian's In the Desert of Set

My Understanding of Magic

The Egyptian hieroglyphic for heka (“activating the ka”).

My understanding of actual magic—not to be confused with mere illusionism or stage magic—hinges on the Egyptian concept of heka, which more accurately translates to mean “divine speech.” This refers not only to literal verbal communication, but also to the use of visual arts and ritualized performances to “activate the ka,” which might be compared to our Western construct of the “astral body.” Virtually any form of dramatic self-expression can be a work of magic within this context, provided that it arouses your spirit and directs it toward some kind of goal. This goal can be operative (to heal the sick, ward off negative energy, divine omens), initiatory (to reach a higher state of consciousness), or even devotional (to honor a deity or ancestor). For the ancient Egyptians, everything from casting love spells to invoking the Creator themself was a magical working that bridged the gap between this world and Duat, its spiritual counterpart. Indeed, magic is fundamental to all spirituality and religion, for even Christian worship services involve “activating the ka” (feeling “the Holy Spirit”), implementing “divine speech” (using key language from the Bible), and accomplishing some kind of goal (feeling close to Jesus).

Naturally, most people scoff at the idea of anyone believing in magic here in our contemporary times. But there is a difference between thinking magic is effective and thinking it is necessarily “supernatural.” I wholeheartedly believe in gods, ghosts, and other worlds, and many of the rites I’ve worked have wielded some truly eerie results. But I also accept that there are completely rational explanations for the things I’ve experienced, and I neither ask nor expect anyone else to forgo such conclusions. This is because I know magic can work regardless of whether the supernatural actually exists apart from the human imagination or not. If you invoke a blessing for someone, it might or might not have any effect on that person in the real world; but it will at least vent your desire for that person to be OK somehow, fulfilling a profound emotional need that all the logic in the world can never appease. So even if it’s all just a bunch of autohypnosis (which isn’t necessarily true, either), magic can still have efficacy and practical value today. Whether it works on objective reality or even on the subjective realities of others is completely secondary to whether it works on your own psyche and spirit. Its true purpose is to change and empower the user, not to directly affect literal changes on the physical world like in some epic fantasy movie.

These principles apply to my theology as well. I can’t claim to be absolutely 100% certain that Set (or any other deity) is really a sentient entity that actually hears my prayers, or that has ever directly intervened in my life to change it for the better. But apart from my personal belief that these things are true, I can at least be certain that if I had never uttered a single prayer to Set, I would never have met some of my closest loved ones; I would not have the family I now cherish; I would not have developed my current career; and I would never have hoisted myself from the cesspool of domestic abuse in which I was raised. None of this proves that Set is objectively real by any means, but it does prove that His influence in my life is strong enough for it not to matter whether He is or isn’t. And to this extent at least, He and the other divinities I’ve encountered are all quite real enough for my purposes. Whatever the gods actually are or however they are to be explained, they are certainly effective, just as magic can be effective whether it is truly “paranormal” or not. So I will just go right ahead and keep praising Big Red until the cows come home!

Inevitably, we must address the issue of magical ethics. The same principle behind the blessing spell I described above will also empower a hex or a death curse to work in much the same way (i.e., on the “sender,” not necessarily the “recipient”). Many Pagans warn that doing this is “unethical” and will unleash terrible consequences upon the user(s), no matter how much the intended victim(s) might deserve whatever is wished upon them. I have even heard someone tell rape survivors they have no business casting hexes on the men who assaulted them, for fear of violating some lofty cosmic law.

This is all bullshit.

Burning effigies and sticking pins into dolls are perfectly healthy ways of vindicating yourself emotionally without actually harming anyone—especially if we’re talking about an injustice as heinous as rape. If the helpless can’t use magic to win some kind of control back over their lives, then what fucking good is it? The true concern here is not whether hexing or cursing violates any external standard, but whether it violates your own conscience. Let’s say you do cast that death curse on your tormentor, and he actually dies that painful, humiliating death you wished upon him. Would this “coincidence” spook you and make you feel guilty? If so, that guilt might eat you up inside, causing your curse to backfire. But if you are certain your enemy’s synchronous destruction in reality would only enhance your well-being, I see no reason you should not enjoy yourself by destroying them symbolically and nonviolently in a spell. Doing so is always preferable to actually harming that person in real life, and you may even find that it alleviates your desire to harm them, helping you re-focus your energy on more productive goals.

Some people describe such procedures as “black,” “dark,” or “left-handed” magic, but this too is bullshit. You don’t have to devote yourself to a dark god to cast a hex whenever you might need to, and you also don’t have to curse people all the time to worship a dark god. Setians enjoy the additional benefit of execration rituals, which work in much the same way, but which target non-human advarsaries like the qliphoth or even the Chaos Serpent instead. Nine times out of ten, a good execration will help you cast out that negative energy better than any death curse would. Nevertheless, there are situations in which a curse might be exactly what you need; so while the option of magically destroying your enemies should never be taken lightly, there is no sense in completely ruling it out either. Furthermore, the term “black magic” is a colonial racist inference to African magical traditions, and “dark magic” lacks any room for nuance. (Is it “dark” to invoke Set the nocturnal storm god in a blessing, or to invoke Sekhmet the fiery solar goddess in a curse?) As for the “left-hand path,” this is a Tantric term for heterodox ritual practices, and it is rendered somewhat meaningless when removed from its original context. (Is it “left-handed” to praise Lucifer in a room full of Satanists?) I prefer to describe hexes, curses, and other such procedures as destructive magic and leave it at that, without assigning any color- or usability-coded value judgments to the matter.

Mind you, there are many “LHPers” (for lack of a better shorthand term) who enjoy my work, and I am very fond of those I know personally. I also have mad respect for writers like Kenneth Grant, Michael Aquino, and Don Webb, each of whom has been a major inspiration to me personally. So it is not a matter of wanting to distance myself from LHP culture at all. It’s just that I deviate from most LHP ideologies I know about, which all seem to emphasize worshiping the self over any external deity. I believe everyone is really a living demigod, so the idea of worshiping yourself actually makes perfect sense to me; but there is no reason a polytheist can’t also revere other divinities in addition to their own. Yet I have found that speaking of devotionalism in LHP circles can stir up just as much controversy as discussing hexes can in Wiccan circles, and for reasons that are equally small-minded. I worship and pray to Set as if He were a real sentient being (again, regardless of whatever He might actually be in objective reality, which is irrelevant). If being a devotional polytheist is enough to disqualify me from fitting beneath the LHP umbrella, then so be it—but I’ll thank you not to insult me by labeling me as “right-hand path” (the Tantric term for “orthodox” practices), since I do not have a single “orthodox” bone in my entire body.

Some writers argue that “magic” should be limited to purely operative and/or initiatory spiritual practices, and that devotional rites are more properly consigned to the less interesting category of “religion.” But even stargazing, lifting weights, or walking a dog can be just as magical or “spirit-activating” as casting a spell to heal your friends, attract a mate, or call down your Holy Guardian Angel. So how can anyone truly legislate what is or isn’t “magical” for others? All spiritual practices are magic of one kind or another, from the obscure Rite of the Bornless One to the common Sunday Mass; so there is no need for anyone to poo-poo other people’s preferences here. Maybe you’re the kind of person who doesn’t care about religion and who only cares about astrology or Tarot reading. Or maybe you’re the kind of person who doesn’t care about fortune telling, and who just wants to pray to some ancient fertility goddess. Either way is enough to justify calling yourself a witch (or the cultural variant of your choice).

I’ve engaged in operative and initiatory projects over the years; I’ve worked spells, gone on vision quests, blessed people’s homes, execrated negative energy, etc. But the bulk of my craft has always been devotional in nature. There is nothing more magical to me than invoking Set at the shore of Lake Superior, out among the trees and the bears, with the Big Dipper twinkling in the sky above and the waters below, and for no other reason than just to enjoy Big Red’s company.

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