Is magic fact or is it simply something we like to indulge in the concept of, to fantasise about in books such as those I write?
Much will depend on our definition of the word “magic”, our understanding of the mysterious and the miraculous. Is a mystery simply something we do not understand yet? Is a miracle a wonder that goes clear against the laws of nature – or one that merely seems to go against the laws of nature because we do not yet fully understand those laws?
Our answers will be dictated to some extent by our personal preferences. Some people wish to believe, others refuse to, no matter what the evidence. This latter group includes, of course, the kind of doctor who dismisses even homeopathy as absurd because it cannot be explained, only witnessed; the kind of scientist who refused to attend the first flight by a heavier-than-air vehicle, the first demonstration of television. On the other hand, those who wish to believe are only too likely to be taken in by charlatans. We must, then, try to approach the subject with an open mind.
Colin Wilson did so in The Occult.
In Part One, he introduced the concept of “Faculty X”, “the latent power to reach beyond the present to other realities”. Part Two is a comprehensive history of magic, very relevant to our needs on this site, and in Part Three he has a long section on witchcraft and shape-shifting.
In Mysteries, he probed even deeper into the world of the paranormal, dealing with phenomena such as dowsing and divination, and explaining the views of Jung, Ouspensky, William James and Aldous Huxley, as well as those of poet/mystics Blake, Yeats and (a favourite of mine) F.W.H. Myers.
Finally, twenty years later, in Beyond The Occult, he demonstrated that “the world picture of the modern occultist is as consistent and comprehensive as that of the scientist”.
All three books highly recommended to those seriously interested in investigating the fact behind the fantasy.
Witches and Witchcraft
As we have seen, Wilson discusses witchcraft in The Occult, but for those who wish to go deeper into the subject there is Julio Caro Baroja’s classic work The World of the Witches.
This book focuses principally on Spain (where “witches were condemned to be burnt as early as AD 943”) but it covers the growth and understanding of witchcraft in the Middle Ages throughout western Europe and gives a fascinating “in-depth account of the crisis of witchcraft in the Basque country at the time of the Spanish Inquisition.”
Among other subjects he discusses is man’s innate fear of the power women have over them (what we see for instance in the myth of Circe), and the mysogyny not only of the Christian world (Eastern at least as much as Western) but also of medieval Judaism: “the authors of the Talmud,” he points out in commenting upon Exodus 22:18 (“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”), “frequently made statements like ‘Women are naturally inclined to witchcraft’, ‘the more women there are, the more witchcraft there will be’, ‘most women are witches’, and so forth.”
An important and thoughtful book in which every theory of witchcraft is considered.
Another gem is the Cassell Dictionary of Witchcraft, which is especially good on named witches (such as Gowdie, Isobel) and witchcraft in specific places, such as St Osyth. (St Osyth figures largely in Mariana 3, The Undeparted Dead.)
The Merlin-Gandalf archetype does seem to be a figure of fantasy. Yet how did it come to be an archetype? In prehistoric times, the mage-shaman-wizard, the outsider who understood and moved in the world of the spirits, must have occupied a key place in every society.
Magic for You
The best way of learning about a subect is to practise it. For those interested in exploring the subject for themselves, there is Julie Soskin’s Are You Psychic?
This wonderful – and beautifully illustrated – book contains sections (each with practical exercises) on, for instance, “Exerting Mind over Matter”, “Developing Clairvoyant Vision”, “Could You be a Shaman?” and “Amulets and Talismans”. Superbly produced and highly recommended. I loved it – and learnt more from it than from twenty other books. (Her website address is www.juliesoskin.com if you’d like to find out more.)