THAT OLD BLACK MAGIC:
Getting Specific about Magical Ethics
Sometimes a clichejust wearsout. It losesmeaning or, worse,begins
to say things we never meant. I think it's time to retire the phrase "black
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 canmean 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
Projectivemagic means active workings,the kind inwhich 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 judgments of Karma. I think these attitudes are
equally inconsistent with basic Wiccan philosophy.
Weare taught that we will find theLady 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 againstpractical workings seems to meto 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 workfor us to rule out projectivemagic 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 magicis magic done forthe explicit purposeof 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 getreally angry on occasion, and sometimeswith 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 dosuch 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
But not every othermagician is ethical. Psychic attacksdo 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?
Thefantasy ofpsychic attackis often aconvenient excusethat allows
us to avoid looking at our own 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 an excuse for unjust revenge -- and that is baneful magic without
Once in a rare while, some fool really does tryto 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
Bindings, according to some, arecompletely 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 magicis magicthat targets anotherperson to makethem 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 asa 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 thesituation, 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 specificallylimits us towhat 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
perfectly 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 youbeginning to think thatmagic is useless?Did I justrule 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 is magicthat targets another person forwhat 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.
Aspolytheists, weaffirm thediversity of thedivine andthe 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
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 furthercomplicate theanalysis, it'spossible thatthe 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
Ourreligion teaches thatthe sacredlives withineach 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 encourage 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 byasking yourself, "who'sin charge here?" Theanswer 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
that fosters passivity in the recipient will foster arrogance in the
"rescuer." It's control and ego-inflation masked as generosity. It's very
If you makethis a habit, youwill come to believethat 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 do no working affecting another person
without that person's explicit permission. Proteans are pledged to this,
and I think it's a good idea for anybody.
You don'tneed to waitpassively forthe person toask. It'sperfectly
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.
Therule is thatwhenever itis in anyway physically possibleto 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:
Sometimesan illness or injuryhappens 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, anunconscious personis understood tobe 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
With all these rulesabout permission, perhaps it would besafer 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 isbecoming visible.In baneful magic,the magicianintends
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 done to affect 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 "non-consensual" or "invasive"
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 wecould give up ourright to choose,because we feelwe 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 toindividual rights can bereal seductive. Noneof 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" hasbeen usedin recenthistory
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 ground rules of the dominator
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 showsus the way tosteer 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 magichurts the targetfirst, and soonthe actor, butin 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
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
As within, so without: our karma is our choice.
Next: Mind Control Techniques (Dick Sutphen)