The Importance of Magic in Social Structures

Builds Upon: The Most Precious Resource: Legitimacy

In our modern way of thought, few things can be more contemptible than superstition. Words like ‘magic’ and ‘witchcraft’ are taken to be synonymous with everything dark and barbaric.

Yet every pre-industrial society and plenty of post-industrial societies include magic as a regular part of daily life.

Whether magic is ‘true’ or not is of little relevance. We can divine that societies with belief in magic had a competitive advantage over those that did not.

If we really look at what magic is, we find that its function is pretty consistent and straightforward. It’s a means of influencing the human subconscious.

Let’s look at a typical shamanic strategy: Tell the family that the sick person is inhabited by a demon and that it can only be driven away if the family members are totally devoted in their hearts to recovery.

Is there really a demon causing the disease? Who cares? The shaman has inspired a sense of urgency in the family and caused them to really take the situation seriously. Attitude influences action and the shaman has gotten their attitude in the right place so that the right actions follow.

It’s a pretty straightforward chain of causation that almost unanimously escapes ‘rational’ modern thinkers.
In fact the relationship between the shaman and his patient is pretty similar that between worker and boss. Begin with incentives(worker gets fired if they screw up), then watch for results(worker knows on a visceral level they can’t screw up).

Magic has already been discovered by science.

The proof is a cure that often proves the equal of the best technology has to offer. Medical science calls it a ‘placebo’ a totally useless pill that actually works if you just add belief.

Yet Enlightenment thought in its worship of the Absolute Explicit still tries to tell us the placebo doesn’t work. People just think it works. Therefore if people are cured by the placebo effect they are irrational and deluded. They’ve been tricked.

Some shamans might agree with scientists that they ‘trick’ people but the connotations and implications of this word would be understood very differently.

To the ‘rational’ thinker the effects of a placebo treatment actually do not exist because the treatment itself was not explicit or measurable. To them the shaman is a primitive lout and a charlatan.

If any word hits a nerve with Enlightenment thinkers, it is ‘witchcraft.’

Today’s thinkers have never evolved beyond the 16-18th century rebels who were actually persecuted and pursued by the church, the state, the entire establishment.
The cultural memory of witch hunts by the church or by the king remains fresh in their minds as if Galileo or Voltaire still walked the earth.

In their eyes, witchcraft has become symbolic of the stupid, benighted things people did before Enlightenment.

Yet every traditional society and plenty of modern ones believe in witchcraft.
In fact, I had a roommate in college who was a Kikuyu from the Kenyan highlands. He was an intelligent and rational person who absolutely believed in witchcraft. And he quite frankly told me that witches were still stoned to death where he lived.

Why would every traditional group in the world unanimously come up with remarkably similar ideas of witchcraft and be willing to take extreme measures to prevent it?

As best as I can figure, witchcraft is the opposite of magic used for healing.

That is, a witch uses rituals to program the subconscious to achieve destructive and selfish aims.
All the nonsensical ingredients, the dolls, the rituals are a means of influencing the visceral self. To adjust one’s attitude and then passively let actions follow from the attitude. Or to adjust their environment in a way that would precipitate negative consequences…

I suppose that if I wanted to be a modern Western witch, I might go out at night and start breaking windows in strategic, visible places.
Our modern studies tell us that when people see lapses in order such as broken windows, they instinctively perceive weakness in the ruling order and more readily act on their immediate desires.
With a simple mental ‘trick’, I could influence the attitudes and therefore the actions of hundreds of people.

Pre-modern societies are in many ways founded on a much sounder understanding of human nature. Tribes founded on wishful nonsense have long since been stamped out of existence.

In our own literal-minded society, I could be punished for breaking windows, but no law we have on our books would address the far worse damage I had caused the community by influencing people. I might pay fines and do some community service or jail for vandalism, but that’s about it.

More ‘primitive’ people don’t need studies to tell them that the integrity and morale of the group must be protected at all costs.

Cohesive, pre-industrial societies would have had little patience for my mind games; the exertion of my magical powers over the populace.
Sooner or later, people would have intuitively perceived my malicious intent. Though they might not understand exactly what I was doing, I would eventually be accused of witchcraft and executed.
The society would be better off without me. It would be more fit to compete against rival societies.
While ‘irrational’ on the level of individuals, executing a witch becomes the lowest sort of pragmatism when considered on the level of the group.
A coach who cuts an underperforming or disruptive player from the team does much the same thing.


5 responses to “The Importance of Magic in Social Structures

  1. Pingback: Expanding our Moral Universe « Talesfromthelou's Blog

  2. I’ve said substantially the same thing as this article for a long time. I am a practitioner of Sumerian Diabolism,a recreation of ancient Mesopotamian practices but with a focus on certain deities which are unlawful.

    The only area where I might quibble a little bit is the description you have given for a witch.It is true that one of the Western words for witch is malefica,which carries such a negative connotation. No doubt the “witch” so feared in African countries even today is of a similar character to our “malefica”,but I posit that the faith healer/folk healer/country doctor version of the witch (like the character played by Christina Ricci in the movie Sleepy Hollow) is much more common.People focus on the malefica kind of witch because they have a tendency to dwell on the things that hurt them. Take sharks for example. There are many kinds of shark,some dangerous to humans,some not, but if you and I were swimming together in the ocean and I yell “Shark!”,you’ll probably picture Jaws or a mako shark and flee.

    Read some of Aleister Crowley’s rants about “The Black Brotherhood”. This guy has a ritual for copulation with a demon and he’s warning people about “black magickians”.Like you,he believed that because he practiced ceremonial magic rather than witchcraft,it was automatically of a higher or more sublime order of magic.This is not true. The witch is as often a harmless veterinarian/fortune teller as a crop blighter or poisoner.The ceremonial magician of the Golden Dawn/OTO school talks a good game about “knowledge and conversation of one’s Holy Guardian Angel” but in some circles that could be code for anything.

    A witch is distinguished more by their shabby or plain appearance,simple tools (usually kitchen implements),lack of imagination and creativity,and tendency to eschew magical theory in favor of hands-on experimentation using herbs,roots,shells, and things of this nature.They work from cookbooks and swap spells amongst each other rather than participate in defined ritual.

    A ceremonial magician usually has more refined taste,is probably more likely to be familiar with alchemical procedure,Hermetic philosophy, he conducts himself in a priestly fashion,often in flowing robes,diadems,censers,perfumes,and other costly array. He prefers psychodrama,theatrics,devises his own rituals using methodology gained from analysis of diverse occult procedures and schools of thought.A ceremonial magician may be more likely to claim a higher or transcendental purpose behind his occult operations,but being human, is just as susceptible to the temptations of the flesh as any of us.

    Having described myself as both of these things at one time or another in my life, that’s about as fine a distinction as can be made.It may even be argued that the study and practice of witchcraft is an inevitable and necessary step between being interested in the occult and mastering it. I know the foundation I received in witchcraft,including Obeah,hoodoo,and Brujeria was essential to my understanding of the work with which I am now occupied.

    It is not as simple as “magic is good-witchcraft is bad”.Witchcraft is base. When dealing with the base,you sometimes get low-bred assholes and their ignorant customs.Ceremonial magic is advanced. When dealing with advanced systems you sometimes get things like the Holocaust,atomic weapons,and other abominable evils delivered with indifference.

    Anyone who’d use magic to do away with rivals and things of that nature simply needs to sit down with a nice cigar,perhaps a glass of cognac,and imbibe some of the principles of Hermeticism, namely the parts that outline that destructive behavior with magic is self-defeating because it attacks the mechanism whereby it works, the interconnectedness shared between all living things. It is an exercise in diminishing returns.

    Even those of us “on the left hand path” or the so-called “Black Brotherhood” if you will, respect the sanctity of life.That is the hallmark of those who truly believe. Anyone else is just chasing thrills,and they will pay for it eventually.

  3. “If any word hits a nerve with Enlightenment thinkers, it is ‘witchcraft.’
    Today’s thinkers have never evolved beyond the 16-18th century rebels who were actually persecuted and pursued by the church, the state, the entire establishment.”

    Yet (of course) today’s Enlightenment -based establishment is constantly conducting witch hunts against “racists” and other classes of heretic. Maybe taboo-enforcing witch hunts are inevitable and necessary.

  4. Crowley’s English speaks “wicked” two different ways. The godly English do not know the nature of their own serpents tongue. “wicked Witch” indeed.

    Of craft and magic,

    Try the magic of the Kale Jin as one example of the craft prior to the great darkening.

    Astounding to me. The story of Kale. The story of the Jin. The wizardry of the ancient kale Magi.

    The people who now bear the brand of the Jin with such pride. Who cannot look on them without knowing the wisdoms of the pyramid builders celestial parents?

    Kenya the spirit of Africa.

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