Wednesday, June 12, 2024

"All may use the Art for their own advantage or for the advantage of the Craft, only if you are sure you harm none. But ever let the Coven debate this at length. Only if all be satisfied and none be harmed may the Art be used. If it is not possible to achieve your ends one way, perchance the aim may be achieved by acting in a different way, so as to harm none. May the Curse of the Goddess be on any who breaketh this Law."
Ardanes #122-124, from the Grimoire of Lady Sheba

Sometimes a cliche just wears out. It loses meaning or, worse, begins to say things we never meant. I think it's time to retire the phrase "black magic." Saying "black" when we mean "evil" is nasty nonsense. In the first place, it reinforces the racist stereotypes that corrupt our society. And that's not all. Whenever we say "black" instead of "bad," we repeat again the big lie that darkness is wrong. It isn't, as people who profess to love Nature should know.

Darkness can mean the inside of the womb, and the seed germinating within the Earth, and the chaos that gives rise to all truly new beginnings. In our myths, the one who goes down to the underworld returns with the treasure. Even death, to the Wiccan understanding, is well-earned rest and comfort, and a preparation for new birth. Using "black" to mean "bad" is a blasphemy against the Crone.

But even if we no longer speak of magic as "black" or "white," we still need to think and speak about the ethics of magic. Although black is not evil, some actions are evil. It simply is not true that anything a person is strong enough or skilled enough to do is OK, nor should doing what we will ever be the whole of the law for us. We need a clear and specific vocabulary that enables us to choose wisely what we will do.

We need to replace the word "black," not simply to drop it. Some Pagans have tried using "negative" as their substitute, but that turned out to be confusing. For some people, "negative" means any spell to diminish or banish anything. Some things - tumors, depression, bigotry - are harmful. There's nothing wrong with a working to get rid of bad stuff. "Left-handed" is another common term for wrongful practice, very traditional, but just as ignorant, superstitious and potentially harmful as the phrase "black magic" itself. So in Proteus we tried using the word "unethical." That's a lot better - free of extraneous and false implications - but still too vague.

Gradually, I began to wonder whether using any one word, "black" or "unethical" or whatever, might just be too general and too subjective. Perhaps all I really tell a student that way is "Judy doesn't like that."

I won't settle for blind obedience. If ethical principles are going to survive the twin tests of time and temptation, people need to understand just what to avoid, and why. Even more important, they need a basis for figuring out what to do instead. Especially when it comes to projective magic.

Projective magic means active workings, the kind in which we project our will out into the world to make some kind of change. This is what most people think of when they use the word magic at all. Quite clearly, magic that may affect other people is magic that can harm. This is the basis of the proverb "a Witch who can't hex can't heal." Either you can raise and direct power, or you can't. Your strength and skill can be used for blessing or for bane. The choice - and the karma - are yours.

Just as some people feel that strength and skill are their own justification, others feel that any projective magic is always wrong - that it is a distraction from our one true goal of union with the Divine or a willful avoidance of the judgements of Karma. I think these attitudes are equally inconsistent with basic Wiccan philosophy.

We are taught that we will find the Lady within ourselves or not at all, that the Mother of All has been with us from the beginning. We can't now establish a union that was always there. All we can do, all we need to do, is become aware. Knowing what it feels like to heal and empower, again and again till you can't dismiss it as coincidence, is one of the most powerful methods for awakening that awareness. It makes no sense to say that the direct experience and exercise of our indwelling divinity distracts from the Great Work.

Indeed, it is this intimate connection between our magic and our self-realization that our ethics protect. Wrongful use of magic will choke the channel. No short term gain could ever compensate for that.

The karmic argument against practical workings seems to me to arise from a paranoid and defeatist world view. Even if we assume that the hardships in this life were put there by the Gods for a reason, how can we be so sure that the reason was punishment? Perhaps instead of penance to be endured, our difficulties are challenges to be met. Coping and dealing with our problems, learning magical and mundane skills, changing ourselves and our world for the better - in short, growing up - is that not what the Gods of joy and freedom want from us?

One of the most radically different things about a polytheistic belief system is that each one of us has the right, and the need, to choose which God/desses will be the focus of our worship. We make these choices knowing that whatever energies we invoke most often in ritual will shape our own further growth. Spiritual practices are a means of self-programming. So we are responsible for what we worship in a way that people who take their One God as a given are not.

Think about this: what kind of Power actively wants us to submit and suffer, and objects when we develop skills to improve our own lives? Not a Being I'd want to invite around too often!

So it will not work for us to rule out projective magic completely; nor should we. Total prohibitions are as thoughtless as total permissiveness or blind obedience. Ethical and spiritual adults ought to be able to make distinctions and well-reasoned choices. I offer here a start toward analyzing what kinds of magic are not ethical for us.

Baneful Magic

Baneful magic is magic done for the explicit purpose of causing harm to another person. Usually the reason for it is revenge, and the rationalization is justice. People who defend the practice of baneful magic often ask "but wouldn't you join in cursing another Hitler?"

For adults, there is no rule without exceptions. If you think you would never torture somebody, consider this scenario: in just half an hour the bomb will go off, killing everybody in the city, and this terrorist knows where it is hidden.... It's a bad mistake to base your ethics on wildly unlikely cases, since none of us honestly knows how we would react in that kind of extreme. Reasonable ethical statements are statements about the behaviors we expect of ourselves under normally predictable circumstances.

We all get really angry on occasion, and sometimes with good cause. Then revenge can seem like no more than simple justice. The anger is a normal, healthy human reaction, and should not be repressed. But there's no more need to act it out in magic than in physical violence. Instead of going for revenge - and invoking the karmic consequences of baneful magic - identify what you really need. For example, if your anger comes from a feeling that you have been attacked or violated, what you need is protection and safe space. Work for the positive goal, it's both more effective and safer.

The consequences of baneful magic are simply the logical, natural and inevitable psychological effects. Even in that rare and extreme situation when you may decide you really do have to use magic to give Hitler a heart attack, it means you are choosing by the same choice to accept the act's karma. Magical attack hurts the attacker first.

The only way I know how to do magic is by use of my imagination, by visualizing or otherwise actively imagining the end I want, and then projecting that goal with the energy of emotional/physiological arousal. All the techniques I know either help me to imagine more specifically or to project more strongly. So the only way I can send out harm is by first experiencing that harm within my own imagination. Instant and absolute karma - the natural, logical and inevitable outcomes of our own choices.

I would think, also, that somebody dumb enough to do such workings often would soon lose the ability to imagine specifically, as their sensitivity dulled in sheer self-defense. That callusing effect is the reality behind the pious proverb that says "if you abuse it, She'll take it away."

But not every other magician is ethical. Psychic attacks do happen. Should we not defend ourselves? Of course we should. Leaving ourselves open to psychic attack is no good example of the autonomy and assertiveness our chosen Gods expect. But first, how can we be sure what we are experiencing really is psychic attack?

The fantasy of psychic attack is often a convenient rationalization that allows us to deny our own poor choices or personal shortcomings. When lack of rest or improper nutrition is the cause of illness, or a project isn't completed on time because of distraction, it's a real temptation to put the blame outside ourselves. Doing this too easily betrays our autonomy just as badly as meek submission to attack does. Then, to compound matters, projected blame becomes a pretext for unjust revenge -- and that is baneful magic without excuse.

Once in a rare while, some fool really does try to throw a whammy. It's hard to predict when you might be targeted. Passive shields are always a good idea. Like a mirror, these are totally inactive until somebody sends unwelcome energy. Then a shield will protect you completely and bounce back whatever is being thrown. You may not even know consciously when your shield is working, but the result is perfect justice.

Perfect justice; elegant and efficient. You won't hurt anybody out of paranoia or by mistake. And perfect protection, even though we do not have perfect knowledge.
Bindings, according to some, are completely defensive. They do not harm, only restrain. But imagine yourself being bound - perhaps by someone who believes themselves justified - and notice the feeling of impotence and frustration. Binding is bane from the viewpoint of the bound.

Even if restraint were truly not harm, bindings are just plain poor protection. They target a particular person or group. What if you suspect the wrong person? Somebody harmless is bound and your actual attacker is not bound. Shields, which cover you, not your supposed enemy, will cover you against any enemy, known or unknown.
So, baneful magic, besides being painful in the short run and crippling in the long run, is never necessary. There are better ways of self protection, and retribution is the business of the Gods.

Coercive Magic

Coercive magic is magic that targets another person to make them give us something we want or need. When most people think of the "Magic Power of Witchcraft," this is what they have in mind.

The spell to make the teacher give you a good grade, or the supervisor give you a good evaluation, the spell to make the personnel officer or renting agent choose you, the spell to attract that cute guy, all are examples of coercive magic.

So, what's wrong with high grades, a good job, a raise, a nice apartment and a sexy lover? There's nothing at all wrong with those goals. An it harm none, do what ye will. As long as nobody is hurt, go for it! But don't strive toward good ends by coercive means.

Although there is no deliberate intent to do harm or cause pain in coercive workings, other people are treated as pawns. Their autonomy and their interests are ignored.
For Pagans, to do this is total hypocrisy. We profess to follow a religion of immanence, one that places ultimate meaning and value in this life on this Earth, here and now. We claim to see every living thing, humans included, as a sacred manifestation. To do honor to this indwelling divinity, we place great value on our own personal autonomy. How can we then justify treating other people as objects for our use?

Nor is it harmless. Forcing the will, controlling the independent judgement of another human being, is harm. Once again, empathy leads to understanding. Just imagine you are the person whose will and judgement is being externally controlled. How does puppethood feel? From the viewpoint of the target, the harm is palpable.

The Pagan and Wiccan community as a whole is also hurt by coercive magic. One of the main reasons people fear and hate Witches is our reputation for controlling others. This is an old, dirty lie, created by the invading religion in an attempt to discredit the indigenous competition. Today, that reputation is mostly perpetuated by people who claim to be "our own," who teach unethical coercive magic by mail order to strangers whose ethical sensitivity cannot be evaluated long distance. May the Gods preserve the Craft!
People who are connected to the situation, but invisible to us, may also be seriously hurt: the cute guy's fiancee, the other applicant for that job. What you think of as a working designed only to bring good to yourself can bring serious harm to innocent third parties, and the karma of their pain will be on you.

That isn't the only way an incomplete view of the situation can backfire. There's a traditional saying that goes, "be careful about what you ask for, because that's exactly what you will get." What if he is gorgeous, but abusive? What if the apartment house is structurally unsound? Better to state your legitimate needs (love in my life, a nice place to live) and let the Gods deal with the details.

Finally, remember this: asking specifically limits us to what we now know or what we can now imagine. But I remember a time when I could not have imagined being a priestess. What if the cute guy in the office is reasonably OK, but your absolutely perfect soul-mate will be in the A+P next Wednesday? The more specifically targeted your magic is, the more you limit yourself to a life of tautology and missed chances.

And beyond all the scenario spinning lies the instant karma, the natural, logical and inevitable consequence of the act. It's more subtle than in the case of baneful magic, since you are not trying to imagine and project pain, but the damage is still real.

Every time you treat another human being as a thing to be pushed and pulled around for your convenience and pleasure, you are reinforcing your own alienation. The attitude of being removed from and superior to other people takes you out of community. As the attitude strengthens, so will the behavior it engenders. The long term result of coercive magic, as with mundane forms of coercion, is isolation and loneliness.

Are you beginning to think that magic is useless? Did I just rule out all the good stuff: love charms, job magic, spells for good grades? Not at all. It is not only ethical but good for you to do lots of magic to improve your own life. Whenever it works you will get more than you asked for - because along with whatever you asked for comes one more experience of your own effectiveness, your power-from- within.

Work on yourself and your own needs and desires without targeting other people. Then feel free! Ask for what you want. Visualize it and raise power for it and act in accordance on the material plane. "I need a caring and horny lover with a good sense of humor." "I want an affordable apartment near where my coven meets with a tree outside my window." "I need to be at my best when I take that exam next week." Fulfill your dreams, and sometimes let the Gods surprise you with gifts beyond your dreams.

Manipulative Magic

Manipulative magic is magic that targets another person for what we think is "their own good," without regard for their opinions in the matter. In the general culture around us, this is normal. As you read this, you may have some friend or relative praying for you to be "saved" from your evil Pagan ways and returned to the fold of their preference. These people mean you well. By their own lights, they are attempting to heal you. We work from a very different thealogical base.

As polytheists, we affirm the diversity of the divine and the divinity of diversity. If there is no one, true, right and only way in general, do we dare to assume that there is one obvious right choice for a person in any given situation? If more than one choice may be "right," how can one person presume they know what another person would want without asking them first?

No life situation ever looks the same from outside as it does to the person who is experiencing it. Are you sure you even have all the facts? Are you fully aware of all the emotional entanglements involved? Perhaps that illness is the only way they have of getting rest or getting attention. Perhaps they stay in that dead end job because it leaves them more energy to concentrate on their music. How do you know till you ask?

And, to further complicate the analysis, it's possible that the person you are trying to help would agree with you about the most desirable outcome, but fears and hates the very idea of magic. They have as much of a right to keep magic out of their own life, as you have to make it part of yours!

Our religion teaches that the sacred lives within each person, that we can hear the Lady's voice for ourselves if we only learn to listen. "... If that which you seek, you find not within yourself, you will never find it without." In behavioral terms, when you take another person's opinion about their own life seriously, you are reinforcing them in thinking and choosing for themselves. The more you do this, the more you empower them to listen for the sacred inner voice.

Conversely, whenever you ignore or override a person's feelings about their own life, you are discounting those feelings and discouraging the kind of internal attention that can keep the channels to wisdom open. Although well-intentioned meddling may actually help somebody in the short run, in the longer run it trains them to dependency and indecision. Few intentional banes damage as severely. This is especially true because even the untrained and unaware will instinctively resist overt ill-will, but in our culture we are trained to receive "expert" interference with gratitude.

Check by asking yourself, "who's in charge here?" The answer to that will tell you whether you are basically empowering or undermining the person you intend to help.
And, as usual, the effects go both ways. The same uninvited intervention that fosters passivity in the recipient will foster arrogance in the "rescuer." Control and ego-inflation masked as generosity can be very seductive.

If you make this a habit, you will come to believe that other people are incompetent and powerless. Then what happens when you need help? Your contempt will make it impossible for you to see what resources surround you. Manipulative magic is ultimately just as alienating as coercive magic - and it's a much prettier trap! The way to avoid the trap is to avoid directing any workings toward any other person without that person's explicit permission. Proteans are generally pledged to this, and I think it's a good idea for anybody.

You don't need to wait passively for the person to ask. It's perfectly all right to offer, as long as you are willing to sometimes accept "no" for your answer. For the person who believes s/he is unworthy or who is simply too shy, offering help is itself a gift. Taking their opinion seriously is an even greater gift: respect.

The rule is that whenever it is in any way physically possible to ask, you must ask. If it's not important enough to pay long distance charges, it certainly isn't important enough to violate a friend's autonomy. If asking is literally not possible, then and only then, here are a few exceptions: Sometimes an illness or injury happens very suddenly, and the person is unconscious or in a coma before you could possibly ask them. If you know that this person is generally comfortable with magic, you may do workings to keep their basic body systems working and allow the normal healing process the time it needs. If they are opposed to magic, for whatever reason, back off!

Traditionally, an unconscious person is understood to be temporarily out of their body. Maintaining their body in habitable condition is preserving their option, not choosing for them. Doing maintenance magic requires a lot of sensitivity. At some point, the time may come when you should stop and let the person go on. Be sure to use some kind of divination to help you stay aware.

This is a hard road. It may be your lover, your child, lying there helpless. Any normal human being would be tempted to drag them back, to force them to stay regardless of what is truly best for them, regardless of what they want. Don't repress these feelings, they do no harm, even though your actions might. It takes great strength and non-possessive love to recognize that your loved one knows their own need. You may be calling them back to a crippled body, to a life of pain. You may be calling them back from the ecstasy of the Goddess. And this is no more your right than it would be to murder them.

If a person is temporarily not reachable, you may charge up a physical object, such as an appropriate talisman or some incense. When you present it to them, give them a full explanation. It is their choice whether to keep or use your gift. By interposing an object between the magic and the target in this way, you can work the magic in Circle, with the coven's power to draw on, and still get the person's permission before the magic is triggered.

With all these rules about permission, perhaps it would be safer to work only on ourselves? Safer, yes, but not nearly as good. If you have permission, you may do any working for another person that you might do for yourself. Coercive magic is just as unacceptable when somebody else asks for it, and you may not do manipulative magic on your friend's mother, even at your friend's request. The permission must come from the magic's intended target and from nobody else. With proper permission, working magic for others is good for all concerned.

Every act of magic has two effects. One is the direct effect, the healing or prosperity working or whatever was intended. The other is a minute change in the mind and the heart of the person who does the working. Everything we experience, and especially everything that we do in a wholehearted and focused way - the only way effective magic can be done - changes us. Each experience leaves its tiny trace, but the traces are cumulative. They mold the person we will become. Our karma is our choice.

Instant karma can also be good karma. Logical, natural and inevitable outcomes can be desirable. When you send out good, what you send it with is love. Love is the driving force. When you let love flow freely, the channel down to love's wellspring stays clear and open. When you send out good, you direct it along the web of person-to-person connection, and awareness of that web is reinforced. The totality of that web is the basis of community.

When you send out good it feels good. In the same way that sending out bane requires imagining pain, sending out blessing requires imagining pleasure, strongly and specifically. And, when you send out good, just the same as when you call it to yourself, you reinforce your sense of effectiveness in the world. Blessings grow in the fertile ground of mutuality, to the benefit of all.

A pattern is becoming visible. In baneful magic, the magician intends to harm the target. In coercive magic, the intent toward the target is neutral. In manipulative magic, the magician actually means the target well. But no matter how different the intent may be, in all three cases magic is directed toward another person without that person's permission. In all three cases, the target, the practitioner and ultimately the community are all hurt. And in all three cases, there are safer and more effective ways to reach the valid goals that we mean to aim for.

So, perhaps there is a descriptive word that covers all wrongful magical workings after all. How about "invasive" magic?

Drawing the Line

There's one thing left to examine: the paradox of making rules to protect personal autonomy.

If we make some of our choices as a community, by discussing things together and arriving at a common understanding about what magical behaviors are acceptable among us, then we choose and shape the kind of community we become.

Or we could give up our right to choose, because we feel we shouldn't tell each other what to do. Some people believe that a refusal to set community standards promotes personal autonomy. It never has before.

Appeals to individual rights can be real seductive. None of us wants Big Brother looking over our shoulders, telling us what to do "for our own good." For Witches in particular - members of a religious minority with bad image problems - this is a very legitimate fear. But make sure when somebody talks about "rights" without specifying something like "religious practice rights" or "the right to consensual sex," that you find out just what "rights" they mean.

Rhetoric about "rugged individualism" has been used in recent history to fast-talk us into letting the rich or strong dominate all our lives. Without anything to stop them, they can destroy the forestland, or deny jobs or apartments to "cultists." Personal autonomy for most of us is diminished when we allow that.

Magic can be used for dominance, just the same as muscle or money. There is no difference, ethically, between the magical and the mundane. We are not obligated to tolerate power trippers among us. We are not obligated to run our own community by the slogans and groundrules of the dominator culture.

Thinking about "rights," or about "laws" for that matter, in the abstract leads to "all or nothing" thinking - immature and slogan driven. I don't think we should ever "just say" anything. We need a deeper and more mature analysis. We need to ask questions like "right to do what?" and "law against what?" We need to get away from absolutes and to look in practical terms at the advantages or disadvantages of our choices.

Once more, our religion itself shows us the way to steer between the false choices. "An it harm none , do what you will." What a person does that affects only herself - magical or mundane - is truly nobody's business but her own. For example, consensual sexual behavior affects only the participants. But toxic waste dumping affects everybody in the watershed.

As long as we look at behavior in terms of private choices or individual will, we obscure the distinction that really makes a difference. If we're serious about wanting to give each of us the most possible control over our own lives, then decisions should be made by all the people affected by the behavior - not just by the people acting.
As soon as another person is magically targeted, that other person is affected. If we allow such targeting without consent, we are not supporting personal autonomy, we are subverting it!

When the behavior begins to affect us all - for example when real estate development threatens the salt marshes, and ultimately the air supply - or, very specifically, when invasive magic erodes the trust we need to work together - then we have a right to protect ourselves as a community. No ideology should turn us into passive victims when something we hold precious stands to be destroyed.

Invasive magic hurts the target first, and soon the actor, but in the long run it hurts all of us. It's been so long since we've been able to meet together, share our knowledge, help one another in need. Pagan community is very new, and still very fragile. It can only grow in safe space.

The People of this Land forbade skirmishes around the pipestone quarries, keeping that sacred source open to all. Otherwise, no sane person would go there, and the Old Ways would wither. For much the same reason, we cannot tolerate poppets in our council meetings.

An atmosphere of coercion and manipulation and magical duels does not nurture community. Eventually, for self protection, the gentle will either change or go away. We could lose what we have misguidedly refused to protect.

As within, so without: our karma is our choice.

by Judy Harrow (HPS, Proteus Coven)
updated: January 28, 2012; (c) 1998, 2000, 2012 Judy Harrow
original found at:
Used with permission