Experimental Magic: The Evolution of Magic

Experiment with your magical practice by learning how to apply art, pop culture, neuroscience, psychology, and other disciplines to your magical work, as well as exploring fundamental underlying principles of what makes magic work. You'll never look at magic in the same way!

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The Literacy of Magic Pt 2

In my previous post, I explained how literacy is an institution, and how a literacy of magic would be an extension of the institution of literacy, in the sense that a given institution typically determines who is or isn't included in the institution and also establishes what constitutes institutional legitimate actions vs actions which don't fit into the institution. I explored why I felt literacy is a loaded term and why it can be problematic to apply it as a concept to magic. I also explored how trying to define magic as a literacy would inevitably end up excluding certain people or practices because of the institutional aspects of literacy. In the 2nd post to this series, I'm going to explain why the literacy of magic isn't the same as the practice of magic and why it is more useful to examine magic as a practice instead of as a literacy.

Literacy, as it applies to magic, would seem to deal with the ability to read, write, and design magic, which could include among other things the ability to read, write, and design rituals, spells, and other associated magical activities. However, once again we are left with a question: Who determines what the literacy of magic is, and what is their agenda for defining it in the way they have? An additional question that is useful to ask is: "What activities, techniques, etc., are left out of the literacy of magic?" I'd argue that a variety of activities, techniques, etc., are left out if we look at magic as a form of literacy. Now some people might argue that I'm being overly literal by exploring magic as a form of literacy and perceiving it in terms of what are considered traditional activities of literacy, but I think that we need to be particular about the words that we use when trying to define a concepts such as magic or literacy. When we conflate these two concepts together without being particular, what results is a lot of theoretical confusion and armchair arguments that do little to substantively advance the discipline of magic.

Thus I don't think it's useful to define magic as a literacy. If anything, I find literacy to be too confining and limiting in terms of describing what magic seems to be or what one can possibly do with it. At best a literacy of magic can describe certain activities and how those activities are performed, but even in that case the above questions should be asked.

I think it is more useful to define magic as a practice, in part because practice in and of itself isn't associated with an institution, and also because practices can be highly personalized. A practice of magic for one person may not be the same as another person's practice, but nonetheless both people can practice magic and call it that because they understand that what they are doing is a spiritual practice that is personalized to their needs. The practice of magic can also fit into those spiritual traditions where magic is considered to be a part of the spiritual tradition (in some cases, the practice of magic is considered optional, but even in those cases, magic can still be a spiritual practice associated with the tradition). Magic as a practice is also inclusive of activities and techniques which may not fit into a literacy of magic. For example, meditation may not fall under the literacy of magic, but it is nonetheless a practice of magic that many people use. By defining magic as a practice we are inclusive of that technique as well as other ones which either wouldn't fit under the literacy of magic or might only partially apply.

Another benefit of defining magic as a practice is that it emphasizes the practical aspects of magic. Magic isn't just read or written or even designed. Magic is practiced as an activity that brings about changes, internal, external, spiritual, or all of the above to the person choosing to practice it. It's an activity that calls on the practitioner to engage it on a variety of levels beyond the reading, writing, and design of magic. These other levels of experience need to be factored in, in order to really understand magic and its application to your life and the world around you. When we don't factor those levels in, we are left with an armchair experience of magic, which leaves us with little practical experience, but lots of ideas about how magic might work. Those ideas can only become a reality when we actually choose to practice magic and make it a part of our lives beyond the intellectual understanding that would be cultivated through a literacy of magic.

A practice oriented perspective of magic keeps us open to the different practices we discover in the various traditions that integrate magic as part of their spiritual paths. By examining magic as a practice, we can continue to hone our own practices as we apply them to our lives, and as a result engage more meaningfully with magic as a spiritual force for change than if we focus on it as a form of literacy.

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Taylor Ellwood is the author of Pop Culture Magic Systems, Space/Time Magic, Magical Identity and a number of other occult books. He posts about his latest projects at Magical Experiments.


  • Henry Buchy
    Henry Buchy Sunday, 08 December 2013

    I didn't get the idea that Ivo intended to define magic as a "literacy" and not a practice. What he did do is draw an analogy using institutional learning of magic. Also what he didn't do was give a definition of magic from which he was working from. And he used what appears to be the third rail in "Modern Pagandom"- expressing in terms of paganism as some unified whole.
    I think you're stretching things here. Don't get me wrong here because I do think your exploration is interesting and relative, especially with the notion some folks have of instituionalising "Paganism". To be able to practice something you first have to learn it. That's what being literate means in common usage. The meaning of literacy you refer to is an expanded usage of institutional education. jargon.
    I think also there is a difference between 'literacy of magic' and 'magical literacy', perhaps it should be literacy in magic?
    I haven't found any common usage of literacy which goes beyond a) the ability to read and write, and b) knowledge of a specific subject. Any other definitions pertain to specialized fields, again, jargon.
    when I see or hear the phrase magical literacy, I don't think in terms of anything but the above definition, especially b. Generally, folks I've run it by over the past week or so tend to share that view, that the phrase 'magical literacy' implies a knowledge of magic, and literacy, in general, means having knowledge in a subject. I do see the possibility of the phrase becoming a 'stick' to beat folks with.
    Also, I can't say I agree that one has to practice magic to be literate in it. it's a science and like other sciences there are practitioners and theorists. They can learn from each other.

  • Taylor Ellwood
    Taylor Ellwood Sunday, 08 December 2013

    Hello Henry,

    At this point i'm not really Ivo's article anymore, but just taking this into my direction. His article was a good prompt for what I wrote, but there's more to explore here, which is what this article is focused on.

    I don't feel I'm stretching things. As you might recall, in a previous comment you referred to Gurdijieff and his call for the precise use of words, and this article is focused on that kind of preciseness. I don't think that literacy as a concept adequately describes what magic is or what one does with magic. It can describe certain activities of magical practice, but as I mentioned in the article, it doesn't encapsulate every activity.

    I also disagree that being literate in common usage means being able to learn something. Being literate means being able to read and write (whether you learn something is debatable, but that's not relevant to this article). That's a typical definition of literacy that's used in the education system, which is where common usage most frequently occurs. The only way I may have jargoned it is when I examined literacy as an institution, but I think my previous article showed the necessity for doing that.

    And I disagree with the notion that you can be an armchair theorist and know magic. You may know of magic, but that's different from actually knowing it. To know it is to practice it, to make it a meaningful part of your life, as opposed to just an intellectual understanding.

    Having met all too many armchair magicians in my life, I can safely say they weren't even theorists, because all they could really talk about was what someone else had done. To be a theorist involves practicing magic because you necessarily need to have experience working magic before you can develop theories of your own on how magic works. Theorizing without practice isn't theory...it's speculation by a person too afraid to commit to the necessary rigors that any practice brings to any discipline.

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