Practical Magic: A Beginner’s Guide, Part One
I often get asked by newcomers to magic/witchcraft/occultism about how they can begin to learn and practice the magical arts. And it’s no surprise many of them are confused or intimidated—the subject is riddled with myths, nonsense, and absurd superstitions, and a lot of it has been perpetuated for hundreds of years.
First, let’s define magic, and then clear up some of the most common misconceptions surrounding it. For the purpose of this series, we will define magic very simply as:
The art of shaping reality and skewing probability in accordance with will.
Got that? Good.
(There’s much more to magic than that, of course. The ultimate goal of any magician should be to align one’s self so perfectly to the world around her/him/they that the desire or need to shape or manipulate reality is moot. Magical mastery is best understood as riding reality like a surfer rides a wave. Effective magic allows one to be in the right place at the right time for powerful and transformation experiences to manifest.)
I don’t consider myself a Master or Adept, by any means, but I’ve practiced magic long enough to experience the joy of riding that wave. If you do the work, you’ll experience it, too.
But before we get to the basics of practice, let’s examine some of the myths that hold people back. The most common are:
Myth 1: You have to be a witch/Pagan to do magic
I ran into this when my Trump binding spell went viral. Nearly every journalist who interviewed me assumed I was a witch, because in pop culture, magic and spellcraft = witches. I’m not. I dabbled in Wicca in my early 20s, but it didn’t stick. I’m a magician, plain and simple. I do magic. Witchcraft utilizes magic, but so does Hoodoo/Conjure (a uniquely American tradition created by enslaved Africans), many African and African-diasporic syncretic practices (Vodoun, Santeria, Lukumi, Palo, etc.), Hermeticism, Aleister Crowley’s Thelema, and hundreds of indigenous and folk traditions across the planet.
Witchcraft is a wonderful, diverse, and storied set of traditions, but if it doesn’t appeal to you, never fear—you can still do magic.
Nor do you have to be a Pagan. I have an enormous number of Pagan friends, and warmly embrace the community, but the term has always made me a little uncomfortable. Why? Because it supports the historical and cultural divisions and conflicts between orthodox Christianity and other religious and spiritual traditions. It ignores the fact that many spiritual traditions (Hoodoo and Conjure in particular) are syncretic, and their practitioners have no qualms about working with the Bible, Jesus, Mary, and the pantheon of Catholic saints.
Folk magic has always been promiscuous when it comes to spirits and deities, as we can see from ancient texts like the Greek Magical Papyri (or PGM), in which magicians mingled Greek, Hebrew, and Egyptian gods. In practical magic, since antiquity, the rule is simple: if it works, use it.*
*Keeping in mind the thorny problem of cultural appropriation. We’ll address that later.
So no, you don’t have to be a Pagan to do magic. You can be a Christian or a Jew or an atheist or a Buddhist or a Taoist or Hindu or part of the fast-growing “spiritual but not religious” demographic. Magic belongs to everyone. It is part of our birthright as spiritual beings.
Secular magic, which I write about and promote, functions as a template. That template of magical practice can be utilized within almost any spiritual framework or system*, or can serve to build one’s own tradition (and that’s the best path of all—see my friend Mitch Horowitz’s fantastic discussion about why that’s the case).
*Systems that specifically forbid magic, such as fundamentalist Abrahamic sects, being the exception. But if you’re a member of one of those, you’re likely not reading this anyway. Keep in mind, however, that magic has been utilized historically in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. When magically-inclined people were told by their religious leaders they couldn’t do magic, they did it anyway in secret. Take a clue from them!
Myth 2: Magic is dangerous!
So is driving a car. Life is dangerous. Magic is only dangerous when employed for destructive or purely selfish purposes. If you utilize magic to help yourself or others, or to prevent harm to yourself or others, there’s no need to worry. There are practical and time-tested means of ensuring that your magical workings are safe and free from unexpected repercussions, and we’ll examine them in a future article in this series.
Myth 3: I need to understand astrology, know how to read tarot, and buy a lot of sage and crystals, right?
Not at all. You can do all of those things (although I’d recommend not purchasing White Sage and being very careful about sourcing crystals and gemstones) and understanding astrology, reading tarot, or working with natural rocks and stones can most definitely boost your practice. But they are not necessary, and don’t trust anyone who says otherwise.
So . . . you’re saying that I can just be myself and do magic?
Yep! You don’t need to stop celebrating your favorite holidays to follow the Pagan Wheel of the Year. You don’t have to wear black and get a bunch of occult-themed tattoos to prove your spellcasting cred. You can still go to church or synagogue—or scientific conferences—without feeling like a hypocrite.
You can do magic because you are human and magic is part of our shared heritage.
Okay, sign me up! Let’s make some magic!
We’ll get to that soon! But in the meantime, here is a simple, short routine to get a taste of what’s to come.
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Next up: Books and Resources for Beginning Magicians
Michael M. Hughes is a writer, speaker, and magical thinker. The American Spectator said, “He may play footsie with the devil, but at least the man has a sense of humor.” His latest book is Magic for the Resistance: Rituals and Spells for Change (Llewellyn Worldwide). You can sign up for his newsletter, check out his YouTube channel, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook. The official Bind Trump group is also on Facebook, so if you’re looking for a group to work some progressive magic with, you’ll find a warm, safe, and welcoming community.