Magic is about power and control – the ability to create change in accordance with Magical Will. The change is effected through ritual acts in which supernatural forces are invoked and made subservient to the will of the witch or magician. Will is understood by magical practitioners as the focusing of desire to achieve goals. Will is not the same as desire; will is something that must be created and trained. Belief in one’s ability to perform magic involves coming to accept a belief that one is capable of creating change (that one is powerful) and that the change will occur according to one’s will (that one is in control).

Aleister Crowley, one of the Golden Dawn’s most famous and most controversial magicians, suggested that every intentional act is in essence an act of will. He believed that if more people practised magic they would learn more about their true selves and purpose in life and this would reduce conflict and confusion in humanity.

Magic has existed in all cultures since ancient times. The word is derived from the Greek megas, which means ‘great’. Magic is often subdivided into white magic or black magic, or even grey magic, but magic itself is neither good or bad – it is the magician’s will that determines whether the magic serves good or evil. Every culture has different names for practitioners of the magical arts, for instance witch doctor, wizard, wise woman, witch, magician, sorcerer, shaman and so on. In some cases magic is the speciality of a priest or religious leader. The ability to practise the magical arts is typically considered to be hereditary, passed down through family lines. Practitioners are also considered likely to possess psychic ability.

The earliest form of magic was probably mechanical sorcery, in which an act is performed to achieve a particular result. Palaeolithic cave paintings at the Trois Frères caves in France, for instance, reveal images of magical rituals for a successful hunt. It is thought that the systems of low and high magic were first developed by the ancient Greeks. High magic – which involved working with spirits – was considered to be akin to religion, but low magic – providing spells and potions for a fee – developed an unsavoury reputation by the beginning of the sixth century BC.

In the centuries that followed, as Christianity spread throughout Europe, low magic became the folk magic and witchcraft of rural peoples, while high magic became intellectual, spiritual and ceremonial. High magic (which drew its inspiration from Hermetica, the Kabbalah, Neo-Platonism and Oriental law) thrived in the Renaissance as a reaction to the Church’s denial of all magic outside that of religious miracles. It was nurtured by secret societies and lodges, such as Freemasonry, the Order of the Knights Templars and the Rosicrucians.

During the scientific revolution of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries magic fell out of favour, but interest was revived in the nineteenth century by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and occultists such as Eliphas Levi, whoseDogma and Ritual of High Magic (1856) was very influential.

The foundation of high or ceremonial magic is the Hermetic Kabbalah, an amalgam of the Hermetica and Jewish Kabbalah used by the Golden Dawn. Ceremonial magic rituals have three elements:

* Love and devotion.
* Invocation.
* Drama, which involve the magician identifying with the deity.

Ritual clothes and tools and symbols are crucial as they are thought to attract magical forces. The ritual itself serves as a means of uniting the microcosm with the macrocosm, i.e. as a way to join the human consciousness with God or a god.

It is a path of self-realization. The initiate first learns how to achieve samadhi, a state of concentration where forces akin to primal archetypal forces, are personified as astral beings or elementals. It is through these forces and the invoking of gods and goddesses, or communication with or entry into alternative states of reality, that the magician begins to understand him or herself and discover his or her strengths and weaknesses.

Magic in the modern religion of neo-pagan witchcraft includes both high and low magic. There are prescriptions advising against the use of magic for anything other than good, and against blood sacrifice. Effectiveness at magic is believed to be the result of study and practice. Often magic is presented as an on-going discipline, the cornerstone of which is self-knowledge. Neo-pagan magical training begins with knowing oneself and training one’s will. ‘Knowing oneself ’ is a complex, introspective process and a number of exercises designed to raise awareness of one’s thoughts, feelings and intuition are suggested to facilitate it. Neo-pagan witches and magicians believe that through increasing self-knowledge, one increases the effectiveness of one’s magical will.

All of these activities have their counterparts in secular equivalents such as psychotherapy and the modern self-help movement. Where neo-pagan magical activities appear to be alien to outside observers is in their use of material elements in spell work, such as candles, oils, herbs, coloured robes and so on. Magical practitioners tend to explain the use of physical elements in spell work as aids to concentration, meditation and visualization. They also believe that objects do not just suggest moods and energies; they embody them or are attuned to them in some way. Manipulation of objects therefore is a microcosmic way of manipulating the broader energies to which they are connected.

In essence, neo-pagan magic is more about changing the internal landscape than the external and in this way it is closer to religion than to science, which seeks only to explain the material world. This is not to say that spells are not expected to work in the material world. They are, but according to neo-pagan magic, changing the external landscape is not all that magic does – even though many people think that that is all it is meant to do. Magic changes the internal landscape as well and is an elaborate, dramatic metaphor for the individual’s relationship with him or herself and the universe.