Magic (also called magick to distinguish it from stage magic) is a way of influencing the world through supernatural, mystical or paranormal means. This article provides an overview of specific magical traditions and practises. It also discusses the use of magic as a plot device in various kinds of fiction. For a list of historical figures associated with paranormal magic, see: List of occultists.
For a discussion of magic as an aspect of religion, see magic and religion.
History of magical beliefs
Appearing from aboriginal tribes in Australia and New Zealand to rainforest tribes in South America, bush tribes in Africa and pagan tribal groups in Western Europe and Britain, some form of shamanic contact with the spirit world seems to be nearly universal in the early development of human communities. The ancient cave paintings in France are widely speculated to be early magical formulations, intended to produce successful hunts. Much of the Babylonian and Egyptian pictorial writing characters appear derived from the same sources.
Although indigenous magical traditions persist to this day, very early on some communities transitioned from nomadic to agricultural civilizations, and with this shift, the development of spiritual life mirrored that of civic life. Just as tribal elders were consolidated and transformed into kings and bureaucrats, so too were shamans and adepts devolved into priests and a priestly caste.
This shift is by no means in nomenclature alone. While the shaman's task was to negotiate between the tribe and the spirit world, on behalf of the tribe, as directed by the collective will of the tribe, the priest's role was to transfer instructions from the deities to the city-state, on behalf of the deities, as directed by the will of those deities. This shift represents the first major usurpation of power by distancing magic from those participating in that magic. It is at this stage of development that highly codified and elaborate rituals, setting the stage for formal religions, began to emerge, such as the funeral rites of the Egyptians and the sacrifice rituals of the Babylonians, Persians, Aztecs and Mayans.
Magical beliefs and practices are common in many cultures and religions. The word magic comes from the beliefs and practices of the Magi (singular, Magus), Persian priests and scholars, followers of Zoroaster, who were credited by the classical world with mastery of astrology and other arcane arts.
Officially, Judaism, Christianity and Islam characterize magic as witchcraft, but some forms of magical thinking have existed within these religions throughout some of their history. When these religions' views of magic were later applied to the beliefs of other religions, this had the effect of vilifying tribal shamans and other practitioners of magic.
Muslims, followers of the religion of Islam, believe in magic, but forbid its practice. Muslims believe that two Angels taught magic to mankind in order to test their obedience.
And they follow that which the devils falsely related against the kingdom of Solomon. Solomon disbelieved not; but the devils disbelieved, teaching mankind magic and that which was revealed to the two angels in Babel, Harut and Marut. Nor did they (the two angels) teach it to anyone till they had said: We are only a temptation, therefore disbelieve not (in the guidance of Allah). And from these two (angels) people learn that by which they cause division between man and wife; but they injure thereby no-one save by Allah's leave. And they learn that which harmeth them and profiteth them not. And surely they do know that he who trafficketh therein will have no (happy) portion in the Hereafter; and surely evil is the price for which they sell their souls, if they but knew. (al-Qur'an 2:102)
Examples of the suppression of magical belief and practice range from the eradication of neighboring polytheistic tribes by the early Hebrews, to the attempted suppression and eventual appropriation of pagan holidays by the Catholic Church, to the mingled motives of the Conquistadors, to the Salem witch trials of the Puritans. During such periods, the tendency of magic is to become more obscure and esoteric, with a certain element in society always managing to preserve lore and tradition, often in disguised or metaphorical terms. This pattern gave rise to the term occult.
The motivation of much scientific enquiry is similar to the motivation of magic; that it is possible to discover the underlying reality behind mundane reality, and that that reality may have laws and princples which may be discovered and controlled. Unlike the practice of magic, science has the scientific method to correct its errors. As the scientific method took hold, astronomy evolved from astrology, and chemistry from alchemy.
Belief in various magical practices has waxed and waned in European and Western history, under pressure from either organised monotheistic religions or from scepticism about the reality of magic, and the ascendency of scientism. The time of the Emperor Julian of Rome, marked by a reaction against the influence of Christianity, saw a revival of magical practices associated with neo-Platonism under the guise of theurgy.
Mediæval authors, under the control of the Church, confined their magic to compilations of wonderlore and collections of spells. Albertus Magnus was credited, rightly or wrongly, with a number of such compilations. Specifically Christianised varieties of magic were devised at this period. During the early Middle Ages, the cult of relics as objects not only of veneration but also of supernatural power arose. Miraculous tales were told of the power of relics of the saints to work miracles, not only to heal the sick, but for purposes like swaying the outcome of a battle. The relics had become amulets, and various churches strove to purchase scarce or valuable examples, hoping to become places of pilgrimage. As in any other economic endeavour, demand gave rise to supply. Tales of the miracle-working relics of the saints were compiled later into quite popular collections like the Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine or the Dialogus miraculorum of Caesar of Heisterbach.
There were other, officially proscribed varieties of Christianised magic. The demonology and angelology contained in the earliest grimoires assume a life surrounded by Christian implements and sacred rituals. The underlying theology in these works of Christian demonology encourages the magician to fortify himself with fasting, prayers, and sacraments, so that by using garbled versions of the holy names of God in foreign languages, he can use divine power to coerce demons into appearing and serving his usually lustful or avaricious magical goals. Not surprisingly, the church disapproved of these rites; they are none the less Christianised for all that, and assume a theology of mechanical sacramentalism.
Renaissance humanism saw a resurgence in hermeticism and other Neo-Platonic varieties of ceremonial magic. The Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution, on the other hand, saw the rise of scientism, in such forms as the substitution of chemistry for alchemy, the dethronement of the Ptolemaic theory of the universe assumed by astrology, the development of the germ theory of disease, that restricted the scope of applied magic and threatened the belief systems it relied on. Tensions roused by the Protestant Reformation led to an upswing in witch-hunting, especially in Germany, England, and Scotland; but ultimately, the new theology of Protestantism proved a worse foe to magic by undermining belief in the sort of ritualism that allowed religious rites to be re-purposed towards earthly, magical ends. Scientism, more than religion, proved to be magic's deadliest foe.
More recent periods of renewed interest in magic occurred around the end of the nineteenth century, where Symbolism and other offshoots of Romanticism cultivated a renewed interest in exotic spiritualities. European colonialism, which put Westerners in contact with India and Egypt, re-introduced exotic beliefs to Europeans at this time. Hindu and Egyptian mythology frequently feature in nineteenth century magical texts. The late 19th century spawned a large number of magical organizations, including the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the Theosophical Society, and specifically magical variants on Freemasonry. The Golden Dawn represented perhaps the peak of this wave of magic, attracting cultural celebrities like William Butler Yeats, Algernon Blackwood, and Arthur Machen to its banner.
A further revival of interest in magic was heralded by the repeal, in Great Britain, of the last Witchcraft Act in 1951. This was the cue for Gerald Gardner, now recognised as the founder of Wicca, to publish his first non-fiction book Witchcraft Today, in which he claimed to reveal the existence of a witch-cult that dated back to pre-Christian Europe. Gardner's new religion combined magic and religion in a way that was later to cause people to question the Enlightenment's boundaries between the two subjects.
Gardner's new religion, and many imitators, took off in the atmosphere of the 1960s and 1970s, when the counterculture of the hippies also spawned another period of renewed interest in magic, divination, and other occult practices. The various branches of neo-paganism and other new earth religions that have sprung up in Gardner's wake tend to follow his lead in combining the practice of magic and religion. The trend was continued by some heirs to the counterculture; feminists led the way when some launched an independent revival of goddess worship. This brought them into contact with the Gardnerian tradition of magical religion, and deeply influenced that tradition in return.
Modern believers in magic
Many people in the West claim to believe in or practise various forms of magic. The forms of magic they adhere to have been reconstructed from secondary or tertiary sources. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Aleister Crowley, and their followers are most often credited with the resurgence of magical tradition in the English speaking world of the 20th century, but in their eagerness to reconstruct the lost traditions of the past, they often included elements of questionable authenticity, or manufactured them from whole cloth. Other, similar movements took place at roughly the same time, centred in France and Germany. Thus, any current tradition which acknowledges the natural elements, the seasons, and the practitioner's relationship with the Earth, Gaia, or the Goddess may be correctly regarded as Neopagan, and few such traditions can be sensibly labelled more authentic than any others.
Although some current practitioners of magic prefer the term pagan, Neopaganism is more correct for scholarly reference to current rituals and traditions. Wicca is a more codified form of modern magic than Neopaganism, again owing much to Crowley and his ilk. Wicca and Neopaganism are very different things from Satanism, which owes its structure and memes primarily to inversions of monotheistic texts.
How does Magic work?
Mainly by suggestion, see hypnosis, and the focusing of attention. It can be characterized as assertion of the will. Working of magic is often dependent upon being part of a social group which supports the belief. A survey of writings by believers in magic shows that adherents believe that it may work by one or more of these basic principles:
If we analyse the principles of thought on which magic is based, they will probably be found to resolve themselves into two: first, that like produces like, or that an effect resembles its cause; and, second, that things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed. The former principle may be called the Law of Similarity, the latter the Law of Contact or Contagion. From the first of these principles, namely the Law of Similarity, the magician infers that he can produce any effect he desires merely by imitating it: from the second he infers that whatever he does to a material object will affect equally the person with whom the object was once in contact, whether it formed part of his body or not. 
Many more theories exist. Practitioners will often mix these concepts, and sometimes even invent some themselves. In the contemporary current of chaos magic in particular, it is not unusual to believe any concept of magic works.
Religious ritual and magical thinking
Viewed from a non-theistic perspective, many religious rituals and beliefs seem similar to, or identical to, magical thinking.
Related to both magic and prayer is religious supplication. This involves a prayer, of even a sacrifice to a supernatural being or god. This god or being is then asked to intervene on behalf of the person offering the prayer.
The difference, in theory, is that prayer requires the assent of a deity with an independent will, who can deny the request. Magic, by contrast is thought to be effective:
In practice, when prayer doesn't work, it means that the god has chosen not to hear nor grant it; when magic fails, it is because of some defect in the casting of the spell itself. It is no wonder that magic tends to be more formulaic and less extempore than prayer. Ritual is the magician's failsafe, the key to any hope for success, and the explanation for failure.
The basic mechanism of magical practices is the spell, a spoken or written formula which is used in conjunction with a particular set of ingredients. If a spell is properly executed and fails to work, then the spell is a fraud. However, in most instances, the failure of a spell to bring about the desired effect can be attributed to the failure of the person executing the spell to follow the magic formula to the letter.
Generally speaking, there are two types of magic: contagious magic and sympathetic magic. Contagious magic involves the use of physical ingredients which were once in contact with the object or objects one hopes to influence with a spell, and sympathetic magic involves the use of physical objects which resemble the object or objects one hopes to influence.
Varieties of magical practice
There are several historical varieties of magical practice. Generally, magical intentions can be divided into two general areas. The first is divination, which seeks to reveal information. Varieties of divination include:
Necromancy involves the summoning and conversation with spirits. This can be done either to gain information from the spirits; or it can be done with the intention of commanding those spirits, in which it falls under the second general area of magic; that of casting spells. Included in this broad category are a number of specific magical intentions, such as the weather magic of the rain dance, the physical magic of alchemy, or the making of potions and philtres.
Another method of classifying magic is by "traditions," which in this context typically refer to complexes of magical belief and practice associated with various cultural groups and lineages of transmission. These traditions can compass both divination and spells. Examples of these traditions include:
Some of these traditions are highly specific and culturally circumscribed. Others are more eclectic and syncretistic. When dealing with magic as a tradition, the line often becomes blurry between magic and folk religion.
Magic in fiction
In considering magic as tradition, a related category concerns magic in fiction, where it serves as a plot device, the source of magical artifacts and their quests. Magic has long been a subject of fictional tales, especially in fantasy fiction, where it has been a mainstay from the days of Homer and Apuleius, down through the tales of the Holy Grail, Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, and to contemporary authors from J. R. R. Tolkien to Mercedes Lackey and J. K. Rowling (see Magic (Harry Potter)). There may be a well-developed system in fictional magic, or not. It is by no means impossible, moreover, for fictional magic to leap from the pages of fantasy to actual magical practice; such was the fate of the Necronomicon, invented as fiction by H. P. Lovecraft, who sold it so well that there have been several attempts to produce this fabled and dangerous grimoire.
Many mythological or historical magicians have appeared in fictional accounts as well.