First posted in a newsletter e-mail 2019 Dec. 5 to talk about my Western Witchcraft I: The Fundamentals and Doctrinal Basis independent study course
What is the difference between witchcraft and ceremonial magic?
I’ve been struggling to understand for myself what the distinction is between witchcraft and ceremonial magic. Because the immediate go-to points of differentiation you often hear people reach for feel kinda superficial.
There are more significant differences between two different traditions under the heading “witchcraft” (or two different traditions under “ceremonial magic”) than there are the alleged differences between the main generic headings “witchcraft” or “ceremonial magic.”
It was all “maleficia“…
Pretty much up until witchcraft or maleficia was no longer outlawed, what we today might associate with ceremonial magic would have been tucked under the heading “witchcraft.”
The law (back when the law cared about public accusations of maleficium…) lumped it all together and while I was doing historic research for my novel, bishops and otherwise powerful men had gotten accused of witchcraft and for being witches (though in those cases, they were probably false accusations; those men were just challenging political power).
So witchcraft vs. ceremonial magic wasn’t a gender thing. Although… something fascinating did turn up in my research: in many of the documented incidences I was reading about, accusations of witchcraft and same-sex attraction came up simultaneously against the men.
The Gendering of Witchcraft vs. Ceremonial Magic
You can’t deny that even today, though the logical, reasonable side of us can immediately refute it and say, “No, of course it’s not gendered,” we still can’t help ourselves from picturing a woman when we say “witchcraft” and picturing a man when we say “ceremonial magic.”
In other languages, such as Chinese, the most common direct translation for the word “witch” is wupo 巫婆, where the word itself is gendered female. I believe the Japanese equivalent is also gendered female (魔女).
But wupo is a borrowed, imported concept. As a concept, even in Asia, it’s commingled with Western belief systems, not native Asian. Wupo is more in the realm of pop culture and fiction than our native concepts of an alchemist, a shaman, a psychic medium, diviner, or fortune-teller.
Historically, and even in terms of Eastern occult philosophy, wupo as a witch archetype is not the same as a Taoist priestess, shamanic priestess, or medium (which are all very separate and distinct concepts in Eastern occult philosophy).
In recent years that gendered presumption has improved somewhat, though sure, we still have a ways to go. By and large, even within the occult community, we picture someone gendered female when we say “witch” and someone gendered male when we say “ceremonial magician.” But it is getting better.
The “Low Magic” vs. “High Magic” Distinction?
What we still see, however, are classist presumptions. Low magic is, as you’ll often see it defined, for achieving the objectives at the pyramid base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It’s physiological, and personal safety, social belonging, and love. High magic, then, is for achieving the objectives at the tippy top of the pyramid– self-actualization and spiritual transcendence.
Except not. Because witchcraft is still often associated with communion with patron gods or goddesses and invocation of divine names. Witchcraft is about self-actualization by way of personal empowerment. And you still see a whole ton of prosperity and love magic in historical grimoires now associated with high magic.
There’s also the view of witchcraft as this folksy, don’t-need-no-books, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-broom-handle-no-rules-no-study low magic sort of thing. Witchcraft is home-cooking without measurements.
Meanwhile ceremonial magic touts itself as being more cerebral, lots of rules, lots of regalia, and it’s high magic. Ceremonial magic is Michelin-star culinary arts.
But if you actually observe the practice of the two, those presumptions of witchcraft = low magic; ceremonial magic = high magic don’t hold up.
Eliphas Levi recounted in one of his writings about a time he went through quite a bit of ceremonial pomp and circumstance only to ask the entity he had conjured up something about his job and financial prospects.
Sounds like Mr. Levi is using “high magic” to achieve what we more commonly associate as a “low magic” objective.
As I was reading those passages, I remember thinking, dude—you went through the trouble of summoning something, succeeded according to you, and all you want to know is, basically, will you get the job? For crying out loud, ask about the secrets of the universe! Ask, “what is dark matter!” Argh.
Classist Distinctions between Alchemy/Ceremonial Magic vs. Witchcraft/Folk Magic (Eastern Perspectives)
Taoist alchemists in East Asia, who often ventured into the realm of ceremonial magic, would have been discriminatingly particular about sourcing ingredients, both in their alchemical work and what their ritual, altar, or divination tools were made from. One reason travel protection magic was so robust back then was because these alchemists and ceremonial magicians had to travel great distances to source their magical goods.
In other words, they’re from money. They have the money and the means to import, to travel, and to demand the most exotic of ingredients for their Craft.
Folk shamans and those practicing folk magic were more often commoners and from the peasant classes. These were agricultural communities, so they would have been more expert than their peers when it came to, say, the influence of moon phases, tracking the sun and stars, and what herbs did what. Folk magic hinged almost entirely on regional ingredients. The farthest you would have traveled was the nearest mountain, river, or forest.
Where ceremonial magic, from a Taoist historical perspective, often demanded exotic ingredients sourced from distant lands, from all corners of the known world, no matter the cost, folk magic (which I’m going to equate with witchcraft here) focused almost entirely on locally sourced materials. Folk magic worked with the land, with what you had access to and got creative with that. Ceremonial magic would make a cerebral determination of what would be best, and then went out to get the best of the best.
Even in terms of what went into assessing the timing of spells, since Taoist alchemy and ceremonial magic was often associated with scholars, government officials, and the aristocracy, they had access to sophisticated astrological/astronomical charts. And therefore how rituals were timed was more particular.
Whereas regional folk magic was often associated with the merchant and farming classes, and so the primary calendar systems they would have used were the moon and the sun.
But these particular distinctions don’t make a lot of sense in today’s world. So in contemporary times, how do we distinguish between witchcraft and ceremonial magic?
Contemporary Considerations & the Witchcraft Fundamentals Course
And that throws me right back to square one. I’m no farther at understanding the difference between witchcraft and ceremonial magic than when I first started the inquiry.
Today for example, Wicca gets lumped under the category of witchcraft, and yet its roots are in ceremonial magic and initiatory traditions of ceremonial magic.
Although this has been a persistent and relentless inquiry that has never really left my side, ever, it did come up more explicitly when I started talking about putting together a Witchcraft Fundamentals course.
A good question came up: Is this (the content of the course) witchcraft as I’m saying it is, or is it really more ceremonial magic? Levi titles his book high magic, or transcendental magic, which we tend to equate with ceremonial magic, not witchcraft.
But why? Is that a presumption I want to continue promoting?
I think when you hear “witchcraft fundamentals” today, in our present cultural context, you’re thinking like you are going to learn how to do a full moon ritual, study the Wheel of the Year and what fun arts and crafts to do each solstice, or plant some flowers to learn about the element Earth.
By the way, if you’re serious about learning witchcraft fundamentals, you should totally do all of that.
That type of instructional material—and a lot of it—exists already. By titling a Levi-based transcendental magical philosophy course “Witchcraft Fundamentals,” I am in no way saying that I disagree with the existing material. I agree wholeheartedly with it and support it with such sincerity and enthusiasm that I don’t want to infringe on that territory. Those doing that work are doing a phenomenal job at it. They don’t need me.
I think in terms of witchcraft or occult studies, my approach is a matter of “and.”
Take those types of witchcraft fundamentals courses “and” something a little more cerebral and academic to ensure a well-rounded knowledge base. Learn how to develop and trust your intuition, your innate, natural connection to the Divine “and” learn the engineering of how the gears in the engine turn.
The two paths of witchcraft and ceremonial magic (Levi’s transcendental magic) have always been one and the same.
Science, Magic, Mysticism… and Baking
An example I like to give is baking. First, let’s start by acknowledging the gendered bias in the culinary arts against baking, as baking is often poo-pooed by chefs as women’s work.
And while women are normally not linked with science, the funny thing here is by and large, people call baking an exact science. More than anything else in the kitchen realm, you need to measure stuff, weigh stuff, and snobs about it will even tell you that you cannot use this to weigh your measurements, you’ve got to use that, you must know chemistry, and possess an expert knowledge of thermodynamics.
I would argue yes and no, but no, no baking does not need to be an exact science, though yes, it is an exact science.
Some people are just magically intuitive when it comes to baking. They don’t need to measure or weigh anything. They don’t even need to set the timer on the oven. They don’t need to calculate proportions to figure out exactly what temperature to go with or where exactly the cake needs to be positioned inside the oven.
They can intuit it. It’s still science.
Even if they aren’t consciously or intentionally being scientific about it, what they’re doing is still science.
There really is something psychic to it, if you’ve ever watched such an intuitive baker work in the kitchen. Sure, most of it is experience. They just know if the batter is too thick or too thin, and how to thin or thicken it out because they possess a deep experiential knowledge of the ingredients, thereby they know exactly how to bring that batter back to that perfected, calculated, mathematically precise ratio.
But it’s still inexplicably psychic because they aren’t keeping time while the pie is in the oven. They get that prickly sensation over the hairs on their forearms and they just know it’s time.
I’ve come to realize that innovative science is intuitive. There is no doubt in my mind that all genius inventors are to an extent psychic.
What makes them bona fide scientists, however, is their ability to explain their work in the aftermath. The initial shot is almost always an intuitive, psychic one. The science part is the ability to then show their work.
I’m always so tickled when I hear people shout emphatically that magic and the occult isn’t science. That’s the same as me declaring that calculus is a crock of bullshit because I can’t make heads or tails of quadratic equations. Honestly speaking, calculus scrawled across a giant whiteboard looks like junk science to me because I simply don’t know any better, so what is preventing me from declaring that calculus is junk science?
The truthful answer to that question is quite unsettling…it has almost nothing to do with any knowledge of science or intellectual reason that I possess, and much more to do with faith—my faith in expert opinions, my faith in authority figures, my faith that the people telling me calculus is legit are really, really smart and know what they’re talking about, my faith that society wouldn’t lie to me like that.
That’s not to demean science. That’s not to demean faith. That’s just to point out that the reality of their close kinship is unnerving.
Take a moment to think about the known science in this world right now. You, a lay person, how much of it do you take on faith? On pure faith? How much about how your computer or mobile phone (assuming you possess ordinary knowledge of computing systems) do you actually understand? How much do you actually understand about the technology you’re surrounded with every day, that you’ve come to rely on so much? How godly does it feel to flick on the light switch in your home?
The most visible, discernible difference I see between science and ritual magic is the faith.
The masses don’t possess the faith in ritual magic that they do in science for a whole host of superficial, political reasons. The masters of ritual magic are not considered authority figures, or credible, and most certainly not thought of as intelligent.
In defining “science,” we often say it’s science because you can reproduce the results. Yes and no, right?
We’re learning in relativity and quantum physics that that’s not necessarily true. It is true, but it’s not true because there are far too many volatile factors for us to humanly account for to actually “reproduce the results.”
Here, though, I hesitate to say more because I’m not qualified to talk about quantum physics. I know people who are, however, and I listen intently, take notes, and study their research.
Plus, I do believe ritual magic is a form of science and requires a certain scientific method that can yield reproducible results. The caveat to that is there are many volatile factors. There’s so much that needs to be brought under control, and so much of it intangible, for you to even be in a position to reproduce results.
Methods of talisman or spell-crafting or of conjuring particular entities are reproducible. That has been my experience. The problem is the ability to manage all required factors and get them to line up to reproduce the same results isn’t humanly easy. The factors aren’t superficial, meaning it’s not “oh, you have to draw this thing this way, and you must use this incense and that colored candle.” Those aren’t the factors. The factors are far more intangible, and volatile.
It turns out—and this part is science, like science-science, NASA-science—68% of our universe is dark energy. 27% is dark matter.
What you see, this physical world all around you that you can access or comprehend with your five physical senses, only makes up 5% of the universe. Just visit science.nasa.gov to read all about dark energy and dark matter.
My totally unfounded, non-expertise lay person’s hypothesis is that ritual magic in some part involves science that is working with that dark energy and/or dark matter, whereas much of the physical sciences we know of today works with that 5% of the universe.
And maybe both what we consider witchcraft and what we consider ceremonial magic (…that’s assuming they’re two different things…) draw from dark energy and/or dark matter.
Maybe the same neurotransmitters fire up in our brains when we’re engaged in either witchcraft or ceremonial magic. Neurologically, maybe there’s no difference. Energetically (for lack of a better word), maybe there’s no difference.
Witchcraft vs. Ceremonial Magic Today
With a heavy sigh, I wonder if the politically incorrect gut assumption of the difference between witchcraft and ceremonial magic is the “right” one, and by right I don’t mean objectively correct, but what we’re resigned to acknowledge, reluctantly, because society has made it so.
Witchcraft today in the 21st century is what you see presented on Instagram and TikTok under #witchy hashtags. It’s empowerment of the historically marginalized and oppressed classes. It’s about diversity (i.e., eclectic witchcraft, mixing and matching traditions and faiths), equity, and inclusion (everyone is welcome). There is no “doing it wrong.” It is as you define it to be so.
Ceremonial magic today in the 21st century is an effort to re-embody the medieval alchemist, to get scholarly with occult philosophy but also to invest a significant amount of personal resources in acquiring “just the right” tools and mystical paraphernalia. If witchcraft is seeking equity in the human world, then is ceremonial magic about seeking equity with the gods? When we say it’s “transcendental” magic, what do we even mean by that? Transcending what?
Because these terms remain so murky, and the definition lines keep moving, I find that I confuse myself. One moment I use witchcraft and ceremonial magic interchangeably; the next, without missing a beat, I’m hammering on about why they’re totally different.
Sigh. Just shy of 3,000 words later, I’m no closer to understanding witchcraft vs. ceremonial magic than when I was at 0. =/