by Jon Sharp.
The aim of this short paper is to consider how we might, as magicians, go about judging the effectiveness of our workings. My interest in this area has been nibbling away at me for a number of years and stems from a concern with the potential to frame practical magical work within a recognizably valid (or potentially valid) philosophical framework. I have been working on a PhD thesis which attempts to account for ‘non ordinary’ experience using Husserl’s notion of the eidetic consciousness; a point where we experience ‘the things themselves’. A fellow member of Arcanorium College made the excellent point that, ‘ a magician ought to have some evidence that magic has worked’ and it was Aurum’s point that spurred me to look at this issue in a more practical context. Much of what appears below is culled from my various posts that relate to this question as discussed on the Arcanorium College site. If anyone would like to read a more philosophically dense discussion I have a lengthy and typically dry academic paper I would be happy to email out.
The question of ‘did it work?’ is perhaps the most important factor that allows us to clearly separate magic as an active process intended to generate a result from the passive state of belief associated with religious experience or the mystical path where the nature of any result is left to the God/s to determine. Interestingly, it’s surprising how reluctant most self proclaimed occultists, magicians, witches and so forth are to offer up any evidence when asked. When talking in the general it is common to hear such dilettante types talk in terms of magic as a process that impacts in the visible world. However, when asked to talk in the particular there is usually a retreat into the safer position that claims magic works only on the inside. This failing seems most noticeable amongst the New Age crowd who confuse standard consumer values with genuine magical work. This is not to say that magic must be verifiable in the way in which hard core materialism would seek to verify any truth claim or that there is no internal role for magical operations. For me magic has to be about both the external and internal. The latter is both the most important aspect of the work and inevitably much harder to test in terms of genuine effect. However, there is a need to move away from the mutually indulgent unquestioning acceptance that predominates in much of the so called occult scene. If we honestly challenge ourselves in this regard we are on the right road I think.
Towards the beginning of Ian Read’s Rune course we were presented with a quote from Heimskringla; ‘trua á mátt sitt ok megin’. The substance of this nugget of wisdom was that each of us must hold true to one’s own might and main. In the context of how we determine the effectiveness of our magical work this suggests that the crucial determining factor is the need for our magical work to align with our own inner sense of right action and Truth. However, like Crowley’s insistence that we should follow our will, this does not mean that the measure of success is entirely subjective or that it can afford to lack rigorous analysis. In terms of working with the Runes, this quote also suggests that you have to look to where the strength of the runes originates. The runes are potentially embedded in the person but have their meaning also embedded in a tradition, and so to take them too far out of that tradition would be to lose their strength. We need to be careful where we locate our might and main. If we go only as deep as our immediate conscious existence we will lack the strength afforded by climbing a tree that has its roots deep in the dark earth. In locating our own truth and strength we should be driven to dig deep in whatever tradition from which we draw our current will to progress. Odhinn only spilled a single drop of the mead of inspiration when passing over Midgardh and so we need to give every moment we can to seeking out the rare remnants of that drop wherever we can find them. If we wish to plough a furrow that will yield good crops it is better to turn the earth over deeply in a single channel than to scratch at the whole field with a tooth pick. Thus one aspect of the effectiveness of our magical operations may lie in the going deep rather than spreading ourselves thinly. As Dave Lee said ‘magicians and insects specialize’.
This view is immediately problematic in a world that values quick fixes and abhors hard work. Magic can be very attractive to the postmodern consumer who wants it all now. The idea that the effectiveness, both internal and external, is reliant on bloody hard slog runs counter to the gospel of consumerism. The new God of the West has only one commandment and that is ‘Thou shalt consume’. In consuming we do not need to be concerned with the process of becoming, we simply want to accumulate goods. In such a culture a surface knowledge of many systems appears to be more valuable than a deep understanding of one. In addition the current ‘culture’ seems adept (pun intended) at turning forces which might oppose it into just another product.
There is a general infantilising of our society, which seems to be stimulated by a range of factors, from the nanny state, to low levels of educational expectation and achievement, to a lack of any real challenges for many; either in terms of what they might seek to achieve, or the work required to achieve those things that are deemed worthy of striving towards. Unless we recognize the value and necessity of work then our magical expectations will be equally shallow. The excitement of an experience to be swallowed and tasted as yet another novelty replaces the desire for a deepening of understanding.
Before the question of measuring effectiveness there is the question of what would constitute success in magic. A look around the shelves of any bookstore will demonstrate that many so called occult paths have been reduced in their public presentation to self development of the lowest kind. The quest for the mysteries becomes a search for better sex, career advancement and flatter abs all of which are obtainable in ten easy steps using new and improved Egyptian runic tarot! [Sounds excellent. Where can I buy a copy? Ed.]
Such tat will claim to foster inner change, but also claims to know before you even begin, and before you have reached the end (the very notion of which is itself short sighted), know where it is you are meant to be going and how you are meant to be changing. The teleological nature of most occult paths betrays an inner religious orthodoxy that makes a nonsense of any magical work. E.g., if the end point is known already, and is determined by a higher power, and all my operations are simply a manifestation of the will of that higher power that lies outside me, there can be no magical work; only puppetry. This circular thinking was present in the Golden Dawn system in which I was previously immersed and prevents any assessment of effectiveness. Any result or absence of result has to be interpreted as the will of the higher and so all operations are by definition both successful but equally wholly redundant.
To talk meaningfully of effectiveness in any magical work we must first take on the responsibility for that work and its outcomes. In my own experience, 20 years working with hermetic Kabbalah and Egyptian forms was intellectually stimulating but never really touched my innards. The magic was always located outside of oneself, the operator reduced to a conduit through whom the Divine moved. In contrast the work with the Northern tradition has hit me on a whole other level, there is a sense of unfolding what is already there, but lying dormant in the darkness. This is because I have a connection ‘in the blood’ to this particular presentation of the mysteries. In terms of effectiveness it presents a furrow that was already deeply etched and so can be fruitfully sown. Another key to its effectiveness lies in the responsibility placed upon the magician. In this system it is I who is successful or who fails in an operation. This then allows a genuine analysis of any given operation. It is only when I accord to myself the potential power of being effective as an individual as opposed to a functionary that I can ask myself if I have been successful.
In this concept of magical work there is no creator God working through me, rather the All Father functions both as that element within me that the work brings to consciousness, while at the same time being a conceptualisation of that acausal being that preceded me. Hence I am descended from him, if I have the will to allow that to be the case and seek to manifest it. I find it hard to conceive of working with Runes in the wider sense of the mysteries without incorporating the sense of an internal pre-existing relationship to the mysteries (the rime egg of Hagalaz) within the individual that the process of rune working causes to unfold. This individual process mirrors the manner in which the rune ring unfolds out of the hail stone. Similarly, the link between the vertical axis of Eihwaz and the spiral function of Jera represents the harvest that each person may reap by digging in their own earth. Thus for me effectiveness in magic requires first the possibility of being individually effective, this in turn requires that I am responsible for the outcomes, and I can best acquire that responsibility by working to fully realize the root of that potential for individual action.
While the above presents a view about what effectiveness in magic requires as a starting point in order for it to make sense as an idea, it offers nothing in terms of how we might judge the effectiveness of a particular magical working. The simple answer to that problem is that the ultimate arbiter of success can only ever be the individual. What is therefore most important is that a rigorous notion of magical work and of responsibility is established within the individual to minimize the danger of self indulgence in such personal judgments.
It seems reasonable that effectiveness will in no small part be related to the level of work that one puts into the operation. If magic operates on all levels of being (the physical, mental as well as deeper levels of the individual), it seems reasonable to assume that effective magical work should also involve all those levels. As a recent practical example I could look at the process I used in finding a name to reflect the persona at work when working with the runes. Crucially, the name of this persona, Odhs Fadhir (Father of the Odh) was not consciously selected but ‘arose’ in the back of my mind during meditation. The spontaneous arrival of unbidden ideas can often point to effective work but as ever needs rigorous testing and analysis. To test this name and to develop its significance I spent considerable time looking at the symbolism of each individual letter, its numerical value and the numerical value of the whole as well as its various subtotals in order to determine if some form of internal coherence could be found. The next bit of embedding the name was to spend time going through the galdor for each of the rune staves in the name as well as the use of prior experience of vibrating names in other systems to create a way of singing the name Odhs Fadhir. While singing I wrote out the name using the appropriate staves and tried to ‘feel my way’ into the pattern. This brought a lot of insights for me, a lot of it focused around the centrality of dagaz in both the elements of the name and the relationship in terms of the rune row between the numbers 3, 5 and 8 along with 12 and 9 (total value of name is 108: 12 x 9 = 108).
For me one of the benefits of this approach is that my whole focus is already absorbed in the creation of this persona before I even begin the ritual proper. In terms of effectiveness this again points to the principle that the energy exerted is likely to be indicative of the relative success of the operation. In order to counter the potential that is always larger than we would like to think for self indulgence to overtake any magical working, I made a point of not having any shape in mind for this persona to acquire during the subsequent ritual. Instead I constructed a bind rune from the letters in the name to have on the ground as a physical focus, which would also govern the form that would be constructed. This level of preparation has a double advantage in that it pushes out the monkey chatter that usually clutters up our conscious mind.
Magic is not like self assembly furniture though and while following the instructions that one has written is mportant since it emphasizes the responsibility for the work the fact that effectiveness is in the hands of the practitioner means that improvisation is also a plus. This is entirely different to attempting magical work without preparation relying solely on one’s feelings at the time since the latter approach lacks the essential element of rigorous work. In this particular work after projecting the rune staves I chanted the name Odhs Fadhir both as words and letter by letter repeatedly while focusing on the bind rune, but because it felt right to do so I took the bind rune and traced over the rune shape with a little blood and red paint I had left over from creating a rune circle.
I then simply sat in the darkness focusing on the bind rune. I had a lot of Dittany of Crete going so there was a nice thick smoke in gloom which always helps. For a long time all I had was the name and the rune shape but eventually I had a number of very quick images in my head all of which made sense to me and related to the theme of the name. The most powerful being a horse headed figure and repetitions of very angular shapes which resolved into triangles. I don’t tend to visualise outwardly except when concentrating on projecting a particular sign or shape so I didn’t so much see a shape in front of me to walk into. However, I did have an internal sense of a seated hooded figure in front of me. Inside the hood was very vague and I had an odd sense of not being able to look up to see the face fully, it was like being on the edge of seeing it but not quite and it would subtly shift each time. There was an overall atmosphere about the figure that I recognized but haven’t experienced so directly before.
The experience was very intense and physical much more so than the results of rituals I have experienced in other traditions. I judged it to be effective for a number of reasons that in part point to the inability of any mainstream notion of testing to validate the results of magical operations. The fact that what I saw was entirely unexpected helps to rule out mere imagination being at work and this was emphasized by the inability to see the figure as clearly as I wanted to. Additionally, results that both resonate with the aim of an operation, but are not immediately clear as doing so also suggest that more is involved than the conscious mind generating appropriate images and concepts. On top of this are the physical sensations that accompany successful magical workings. All of these are undeniable to the individual magician, but are for the most part impossible for any third party to test.
An experiment in using Runic talismans or Taufr magic certainly appeared to yield an external result. The function of the taufr was to remove a problem in my sister’s workplace that was threatening her job. Not only has she retained her role in the work place but the individual in personnel causing the problem has been sacked as a direct result of their appalling handling of the matter. My sister took the taufr wrapped in the verse which I had written out on parchment for her to the final meeting and it was this meeting that seems to have clinched it for her. However, since magic tends to lack the predictable repeatedly that scientific experiments appear to provide, while I may see this is as good evidence of an effective working someone else can legitimately see it as pure coincidence or at best a strong placebo effect affecting my sister’s behaviour in the meeting thereby influencing the outcome.
I don’t have a strong science background and have no mental toolkit that would allow me to prove even to my own satisfaction how magic works, but experience over the years tells me that the outward projection and manifestation of a willed event is entirely possible, in the right circumstances. My interest is not in the mechanics (quantum or otherwise) of the magical function, but more in how the magician or indeed other third party is able to evaluate the whole event in terms of effectiveness. In mundane terms I don’t what to know what chemically happens when I put the pie in the oven, but I am interested in how we decide whether the pie is tasty or not.
As magicians we operate a different set of truth categories to the majority of the population. This allows us to engage in magical acts for if we did not believe in the possibility of directing our will to effect change (inner and outer) we could not even begin to attempt to make that possibility a reality. This capacity for believing that which is widely ridiculed has to be carefully managed, in order to avoid what we might call the Loch Ness syndrome, where anything however daft is accepted, for to do otherwise would be to cast doubt on our own ‘non ordinary’ experiences.
The New Age seems to attract people who having decided to give up belief in mainstream religions often on the basis that they lack credibility but will then go on to believe almost anything that various snake oil sellers throw out at them. However, magicians have an aversion to this blanket acceptance and are often very careful to separate the reasonable from the ridiculous in terms of systems, truth claims and crucially, in relation to individual claims about the effect of magical operations.
So what is going on when we make that judgement? For the vast majority of the population ‘Truth claim A’ is certainly just as ridiculous as ‘Truth claim B’ and yet many magicians will accept A (I invoked Tahuti last night and now I have an urge to buy lots of pens and eat bird seed), but utterly reject B (I spent £50 on a psychic and they got through to my gran who told me she was very happy). I think that the way to judge the effectiveness of a magical operation ultimately goes back to the quote referred to earlier on; ‘trua á mátt sitt ok megin.’ We have to be the judge ourselves based on our own inner might and main. There is no measuring stick to be found, or quality assurance checklist when it comes to magic. Even if I perform a working to bring me £3,120 exactly and a month later find myself writing a piece for a fee of exactly £3,120 this is not proof in the accepted sense that my magical working was effective. It may have been the magical operation, it may have been chance, it may even have been the undisclosed work of someone who knew I needed that amount of money. The ability to judge the effectiveness of magical work seems to increase with experience of magical work that we have judged to be effective. This all sounds pretty close to being a horribly circular argument that amounts to nothing more than your magic is effective if you think it is effective. However, as magicians we are all seeking to know ourselves and we only do the imperative Gnothi Seaton justice if we are brutally honest with ourselves. Judging the effectiveness of a magical operation seems to me to be an act of complex magic in itself, since only when we are genuinely True to ourselves can we make that judgment accurately. What’s more, at that point it does not matter what anyone else may think and very often the success of a magical operation is inversely proportional to the felt need to tell anyone about what you have done or its result.
We do of course not only make judgments about our own workings, but whether we like to admit it or not, we make judgments about the workings of others. There is a tendency in our degraded culture to regard judgment of others as an absolute negative, which of course ensures that we live in an hugely judgmental age, but an age where those judgments are restricted to trivial issues. Thoughtful judgment on the other hand is largely absent, it is no surprise that discrimination has become a dirty word! As magicians we must accept total responsibility for our lives for the possibility of effective magic to even make sense. This means that when asked ‘who are you to judge?’ our answer should be a proud reference to our willingness to take a position, to take responsibility. It is possible to judge the Truth claims of others, including claims about magical operations. The fact that validity of our judgment can never be proven in the currently understood sense of the word is irrelevant.
Long before the God of Consumerism decreed that we must only buy, buy, buy we spend a lot of time making things and engaging in activities that were genuinely productive. Such activity creates a form of knowledge based on experience that allows us to make experiential judgments. A consumer culture based on the constant repetition of novelty has no place for experience and so it’s ability to discriminate is cast into doubt. As I gain more experience of doing I am able to make judgments about the work of others as well as my own on a level that is deeper than intellectual assessment. Such forms of judgment are now discouraged because they suggest that there may be a hierarchy of value that cannot be bureaucratically administered and controlled. Moreover, such judgments rely on forms of knowing that cannot be articulated and so place a responsibility on the individual making a judgment and place trust at the heart of whether that judgment is then accepted by others. Since trust is dangerously linked to notions of honour this kind of judgment is disregarded and treated as though it were mere bias.
Aristotle had a wonderful category of judgement known as Phronesis. This is a judgement that is not based on rational deduction or inferential reasoning but on experience. It is the form of judgement that a footballer uses when taking a curving free kick which hits the top corner of the net. He can’t articulate how he did it, but he knew it was the right way to strike the ball. I think phronesis is the key mental tool that we need to be able to use when responding to the magical claims of others.
By applying Phronesis we rediscover a way in which we can judge the effectiveness of activities that seem to defy a more mechanical approach to testing. It also provides a means by which we can avoid the Loch Ness syndrome without resorting to what are usually dubious attempts to show a physically verifiable difference between two competing claims. We can also use phronesis wisely in reflecting on our own magical operations. Of course we can indulgently ignore what our phronetic judgement may be telling us and try and regard every operation as a success, but at the heart of Phronesis is the requirement that we are first and foremost honourable in the application of our understanding, which takes us right back to, ‘trua á mátt sitt ok megin’.