This last August, well known Pagan author Isaac Bonewits passed away after a lengthy battle with cancer. His importance to Paganism was vast, and I have no doubt that there will be a great many tributes written, all richly deserved. However, while Paganism has lost one of it’s most powerful and original voices, I suspect that it will still manage to go forward without too much difficulty. There is however a particular aspect of Paganism, that I fear may suffer dearly because of his loss. I’m speaking of Magick, especially magickal ethics.
There is a tendency among many Pagan authors to treat magickal ethics as if the subject were terribly complicated, or even worse to act as if any but the most tentative and limited of spells was tantamount to black magick. One will often hear others speaking of things like The Wiccan Rede, or The Law Of Threefold Return, as if these were as immutable as the law of gravity. They will tell you that you must never perform a spell on another person without first getting their consent, no matter what the purpose of the spell is. While perhaps their aims might be good, after all I don’t think any reasonable and responsible person wants Magick users casting spells willy nilly, I fear that more often than not the result may be to convince people that most of situations are to fragile and delicate to use Magick in.
In my experience the exact opposite is true. Frankly human will (and by will I mean stubbornness) is very robust and usually can be nudged by Magick if one is lucky. But there are precious few people in this world that can have their will suborned by Magick the way one sees in the movies.
Further, there is something to be said for under considering the consequences of our actions. If you see a man attacking a woman generally you don’t stop to question if he’s really attacking her, or if he’s defending himself from her attack or maybe they are a couple doing a kinky role play, generally you act, first and foremost to neutralize the perceived attacker, and then to protect the perceived victim.
Why should Magick be any different. If you know of someone who is attacking women, why wouldn’t you do a spell to stop him? Why is this even a question? Now surely we can debate all night how much to do, and that is certainly a debate worth having. But to simply sit there and do nothing? Ludicrous.
Ultimately as I have heard Isaac say in the past, the simplest litmus tests are to first consider whether you would act in a mundane way if you could in a certain situation. If the answer is yes then you should probably also act magickally. As far as what to do, that is pretty simple to. If you were to do the mundane equivalent of whatever Magick you are considering and you know it would land you in jail then you probably should not do it. In one lecture Bonewits’ compares love spells, and opines how some love spells are the Magickal equivalent of writing a love letter and some are tantamount to kidnapping.
I think that the kind of hypermoralism that I described above and that Bonewits spoke out against can act as a deterrent against people doing really big Magick and has caused people to feel that Magick is not something to be done for all parts of life both the small and the big, but only for certain situations, and under certain circumstances.
In almost all of the Magickal books I’ve come across, whether it is intended for beginners or for more advanced practitioners, Magick is treated as something that is largely only individual, personal concerns. Heal a friend, get a job, protect your house? Most authors talk about all of these and more. But stop a war, protect a species from extinction, alter the political landscape of a nation for the better? No one that I’ve ever seen talks about any of these ideas. No one that I’ve seen talks about the potential of Magick to make what I call Real Big Change in the world. The lone exception to this that I found was Bonewits. I was first introduced to the idea that one could use spell work to attempt changes larger than just the merely personal, when I came across his website, Neopagan.net. He had a section titled, “Spells For Democracy” in which he listed a number of spell ideas ranging from getting out the vote, to protecting your candidate of choice from harm (both tangible and intangible) and getting dirty politicians and other political actors found out and neutralized.
Ultimately, we must strive to create both Magickal Ethics, and Magickal Workings that are robust, realistic, proportionate to the situation, and above all else effective. And we must not be afraid to be Magickal activists using our gifts for the betterment of ourselves, our families, our communities, and our world.
Perhaps the best way to sum up is with a line from The Wizard by Bonewits himself, “See the Gods gave you your magics, well knowin’ you was mortal, expecting little, save that you, would try to use ’em right!”
Of course that’s just one Mage’s opinion.