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The Sources of Magical Power, Part Two

By John Michael Greer

Last month’s survey of sources of magical power in the Western tradition covered a lot of ground, and it’s probably going to be helpful to summarize before we proceed. Until the middle years of the nineteenth century, there were broadly speaking two major theories among operative mages about how magic works and where the power comes from. There was the ancient and widespread belief that magic is about getting disembodied beings of various kinds to do things for you, and there was the not quite as ancient and not quite as widespread belief that magic is about tapping into the same flows of creative energy in the cosmos that astrologers track.

In the Middle Ages, scholars talked knowledgeably about goetia and magia, which were the respective Latin terms for these two approaches. You’ll find the same distinction in modern scholarly writings such as D.P. Walker’s Spiritual and Demonic Magic from Ficino to Campanella—Walker here meant “spiritual” and “demonic” in their precise Renaissance Latin senses, with spiritus meaning our old friend the Astral Light, and daemon any disembodied being who wasn’t either a ghost or a god. It’s almost impossible to make sense of the older works of magical philosophy unless you keep the distinction in mind: is magic a natural process that simply works with the flows of energy that sustain the world anyway, or is it a supernatural process that cajoles or coerces nonhuman intelligences into serving as your labor force? Depending on the specific book you’re reading, it could be either or both.

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