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" A good traveller has no fixed plans,

and is not intent on arriving "

Lao Tzu

The Risks of Magic

Published by Philip Carr-Gomm

Magic has always been considered dangerous, and even today most people are probably torn between a fascination with magic and yet an almost instinctive fear of it. Much of this fear comes from the fact that magic deals with ‘hidden forces’ and we are programmed to be fearful of the unknown. But are there any risks involved in the practice of magic?

Some people are so cautious by nature they adopt a policy of going nowhere near the subject. Others take a reckless approach, in the style of the great conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, who said ‘In this life, try everything once, except incest and morris dancing.’ A middle way between these two extremes seems the most sensible.

Any exploration of the unknown carries risks, and when the unknown happens to involve the powers of your own mind, and of feelings and instincts that may be repressed, it is possible to experience discomfort or distress as these hidden parts of yourself begin to surface into awareness. In addition, the magical world-view involves a belief in spirits and the continuity of life after death, and anyone who takes on board such a view must be prepared for the possibility of encountering these beings. On the positive side, practitioners will say that they experience an increased sense of well-being as they come to know themselves and the universe around them in a deeper and more satisfying way. On the negative side, someone trying to follow the path of magic can easily find themselves in a world redolent with superstition and illusion.

For this reason, most magical schools and teachers recommend approaches that develop the student gradually, so that any increased access to the untapped powers of their mind or sensitivity to the psychic realm is balanced by their developing self-knowledge and psychological maturity. This is fine in theory, but in practice the world of magic is still shot through with liberal quantities of delusion, grandiosity, naivety and superstition, which is why it can be so easily derided.

A major step forward in the evolution of magic occurred, however, in the late twentieth century, when a number of psychological approaches were developed, which have come to be known as the ‘Transpersonal’ or ‘Spiritual’ psychologies. With much of their roots in Jung’s fascination with alchemy and mysticism, and his theories of the Collective Unconscious and Archetypes, these psychologies saw the human being as a spiritual entity possessing the untapped powers that magicians had always sought to develop.

Although conservative occultists were distrustful of psychology, perhaps basing their opinions on a knowledge of the limitations of Freudian and Behavioural psychology, a number of magicians began working with these new psychologies, incorporating many of their approaches to the study and teaching of magic.

The great contribution of these psychologies lies in the fact that they work with the ideas of psychoanalysis and other psychotherapies to promote ways of developing the self that can help avoid some of the pitfalls involved in the old-fashioned pursuit of magic. One of the best steps to take in a further exploration of magic is therefore to experience transpersonal psychotherapy, or at least to learn more about it.

The risks involved in the pursuit of magic are – put simply – either getting frightened by unpleasant perceptions or becoming deluded. Unfortunately it is possible to suffer from both symptoms at the same time. The delusion most commonly cited, is known as ego-inflation in psychology, where access to archetypes or inner powers deludes a person into thinking they are vastly more important than they really are. In Golden Dawn work, for example, a magical technique is employed in which the magician identifies with an Egyptian god. From a Jungian point of view, the power from the Collective Unconscious that might flood into the limited vessel of the magician’s ego could result in severe inflation or delusion. Such a risk is exacerbated by the use of grand-sounding titles, which can result in the magician making pronouncements such as: “I, Hymenaeus Alpha, 777 IX° O.T.O., 9=2, Caliph of the Ordo Templi Orientis of Aleister Crowley, Baphomet, 666, do hereby Charter Thelema Lodge as Grand Lodge of O.T.O.”

While such a degree of ego-inflation may be rare, there are so many tantalising ideas, images and techniques in the world of magic, it is easy to fall prey to any one of numerous red herrings that can lure the unwary into a half-lit world reminiscent of that of obsessive conspiracy theorists. As Stephen Fry remarked, quoting Oscar Wilde: ‘“The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.” How I wish mad new agers and the daftly superstitious realised that truth.’

The other risk involves feeling ‘spooked’: feeling as if one is experiencing unwanted visitations from the spirit world or is being attacked by invisible forces. Dion Fortune believed that she had suffered such an attack, and her 1930 Psychic Self-Defense (Weiser 2001) which she wrote to offer advice on how to protect oneself magically, is still popular, as is Caitlin Matthew’s more up to date treatment of the same theme: The Psychic Protection Handbook (Piatkus 2005). Both books offer practical techniques for repelling the unwanted influences of malevolent spirits and human beings.

The mind is so suggestible, however, and the imagination often so vivid, it can be hard to determine the origin of any particular feeling or symptom, and even those who believe in the need for psychic protection recognise that the possibility of ‘psychic attack’ is extremely remote. However, in times of stress many people find relief and comfort from engaging in a specific act, such as wearing an amulet, repeating an affirmation or conducting a ritual of protection, whether this works its magic by suggestion, through the placebo effect, or in another unseen way.

Up until the nineteenth century, wizards or cunning-folk were often asked to offer magical protection. Before adequate policing and insurance, and when the causes of most ailments remained a mystery, the curses of malevolent witches or the baleful influence of spirits or elves, were often blamed. Rituals and spells were used to repel these unwanted forces, and today many magicians still hold that magical means are necessary to protect us from harm. Others believe that common-sense and discrimination offer us more protection than any number of magical formulae, which can be counter-productive when they encourage fear and superstition. The magician and essayist Lionel Snell writes: ‘Don’t waste time clutching crucifixes when terrorised by psychic phenomena – it’s far more effective to exorcise them with scientific scrutiny.’

Philip Carr-Gomm