|The word ‘magick’ comes to us from ‘magea’, the Greek word which itself derives
from ‘magoi’. The Magoi were a caste of Persian priests who studied astrology and
It was not just in Persia (modern-day Iran) that these arts were practised thousands
of years ago. All over the world, in every primitive society, men and women looked
to the stars for guidance and the spirit world for inspiration. These our ancestors
worshipped their gods who, they believed, looked after the spirits of those who had
died and gone to live in the spirit world. In most, if not all, of these societies there
was one person, usually a man, who was regarded by the others as being able to
communicate with ancestral spirits. Today, we call such a person ‘the shaman’.
There are many parts of the developing world in which the shaman continues to
play a major role in small communities.
As part of his (or very occasionally her) role, the shaman performed rituals and
made magick. Rituals help to demarcate the ordinary and the extraordinary,
focusing attention on aspects of the cosmic process, which were believed to
control every aspect of life. Magic was an integral part of these rituals and it is fair
to say that some magical elements survive in the religions of today and that most
of these religions have their roots in some aspect of shamanic practice. As an
example of the former, some Roman Catholics believe that during the Mass,
consecrated wine turns into the blood of Christ and bread into His body (although
the majority have now come to see the bread and the wine as symbolic rather than
actual). And to exemplify the latter, Sufis believe that in entering a state of ecstasy
brought about by intense physical exercise, their holy men can communicate with
As ‘civilization’ dawned, first, according to archaeological evidence, in
Mesopotamia and from there spread east into India and west into Egypt, religions
developed in which magick played a central part, and both magic and religion
depend on ritual to maintain cosmic order. The religions of Ancient Egypt, of
Classical Greece and Ancient Rome, those of the Celtic world and the
Scandinavian countries, all had magic in some form at their roots.
Magick has no one homeland, but Ancient Egypt can be said to be its cradle. There it was
believed that the sun god Ra died in the western sky every night to spend the hours of darkness
in the underworld and to be magickally reborn every morning in the eastern sky. Many later
magicians believe that nine-tenths of the world’s magic comes from Egypt and the Old
Testament depicts Egyptian magicians as so powerful that they could reproduce the magic that
Moses used to convince the Pharaoh to allow his people to leave Egypt.
In Ancient Egypt, magick was known as ‘hike’, which was a spoken formula that had to be
reproduced exactly as prescribed if it was to work, and an act or gesture that had to be
performed at a particular time and place and under special conditions and position. The
Egyptians believed that two things that had been connected could continue to react on each
other even when separated and that like has the power to affect like. Thus, a burn could be
cured by the recitation of the words used by Isis over her son Horus when he was once burned,
and that one may cause one’s enemies pain by mistreating a wax image of them. From these
and similar conceptions arose the belief in protective amulets which assumed huge
importance for both the living and the dead.
Egypt was an extremely stratified society, in which everyone knew their place, but there was no
professional class of magickians – indeed, there was not even a general word for magician.
Magic was the domain of priests and others who studied sacred books. But magic on a small,
personal scale was within the reach of anyone who was willing to observe the conditions laid
down, and judging from tomb paintings and papyri that have survived the many thousand years
that have passed, magic played a very large part in everyday life. There are records of spells
being cast to escape death, to drive out disease, to avert the evil eye, to cure snakebite, to
drive out rats from a barn and to prevent the approach of a storm. There was even a spell to
secure the various advantages summed up in the phrase, ‘to be blessed every day’.
In the Graeco-Roman world, the gods were duly worshipped and tales of them looking down
from where they lived and using their magick powers to help those whom they favoured and
hinder those whom they frowned upon became part of common belief. And the same can be
said of the Germanic and Scandinavian people.
All of these peoples honoured the same things – rivers, trees, plants, animals, the
wind and the rain, the sun and the moon. But perhaps it was for pagan Celts that
they played the most important part in religious ritual, although little is known
about the Celts for they left no written records and archaeological records of them
are scant. A number of votive sites have been found, suggesting that religious rites
were performed at sites of natural significance – on the banks of important rivers,
in clearings in woods and on the tops of hills and mountains.
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