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by Lesa Whyte
Originating perhaps with the dawn of civilization, magic is the manipulation of unseen forces to cause change in both the realm in which we live and the realm of the unknown. Considered alternately to be both a science and an art, it has been a word used down through the centuries to describe the occurrences of many natural phenomena that were not yet explained by science, such as certain herbs having a healing affect, magnetism, the turning seasons of the crop, and the elements.
Magic played an everyday part in the lives of people living close to the land, as their survival depended on the health of their crops, and living in harmony with the earth is a basic tenet of many of the modern revivals of magic and witchcraft, such as Wicca and shamanism. During the Renaissance period in Europe the appearance of secret societies and scholar-magicians brought a newer emphasis on the actual controlling of the forces of nature by harnessing the power of both spirits/demons and of the human mind, which gave rise to the popularity of cabala , an ancient, esoteric Jewish system, and alchemy. These scholars were perhaps the first scientists, attempting to discover how the realm of the spiritual interacted with the realm of the physical in order to cause drastic changes in tangible matter.
During this time, several secret societies flourished, such as The Knights Templar, the Rosecrucians, The Hermetic Order of The Golden Dawn, and many others, each surrounded by its own unique mysteries. The tradition of secret societies has survived into the modern day with the presence of organizations like The Freemasons and The Shriners, although their beliefs are vastly different than those of the original alchemists. Shrouded in secrecy , these societies enlisted several men who went on to become great historical figures, like Leonardo da Vinci and Sir Isaac Newton. (see also: Newton and Flamel and Freemasonry)
Magic has experienced a vast reappearance in the 20th century with the popularity of Aleister Crowley, who, consulting many of the ancient systems, devised his own brand of ceremonial magic. He suggested the spelling of the word "magic" be made with a "k" at the end to signify the difference between stageshow conjuring magic and serious occult magic, and that device is used almost exclusively now in reference to the occult. He is infamous for referring to himself as "The Great Beast", but left behind a great following of serious students of the occult.
Practitioners of magic down through the ages have done so in a wide variety of ways. Most often, there is a great deal of sombre ritual and ceremonial performance, aimed at altering the magician's consciousness in order to promote a conducive state for magic to take place. In the earliest earth-based (pagan) religions, the seasons were celebrated, and rituals were in a serious, but celebratory tone. The cunning women of folk-medicine often had no elaborate ceremonies to follow, and only practised the knowledge passed down through the generations of their families. In more native religions, shamanistic magic is also very ritual oriented, including many sacred objects and mind-altering experiences to guide the shaman. Modern magic, too, depends heavily on ceremony and ritual.
Objects included in magical workings (ancient and modern) often include(d) knives (athames), swords, wooden wands, chalices, candles, salt, various containers (for holding herbs, incense, water, wine and other necessary items), writing instruments for drawing various magical symbols, chalk for marking out the circle in which the ritual is performed, bells, and other sacred objects. The magician wears clothing that is designated for ritual purpose only, and often bathes before the ritual in order to purify him/herself.
Magic has played an important part in most folklore and legend. In the major pantheons, the gods and goddesses have been endowed with special magical powers that afforded them great advantage over regular humans. In the legend of King Arthur, Merlin, Morgan le Fay and the enchanted sword Excalibur provided a rich fabric of magical legend. Homer's Circe used magic to turn Odysseus's men into swine.
Grimms Fairy Tales, Hans Christian Andersen, and Aesop's Fables have been much loved vehicles for magical story-telling. Most stories passed down through native verbal story-telling traditions tell of magical beings and places, often explaining the creation of the world, and why things are now the way they are. Modern fantasy novels have carried the torch for humankind's love for the fantastic, and we continue to see magic as the intriguing and mysterious force behind mystical adventures that delight the imagination.