Is Magic One Thing?

Physics works wherever we are.  Go to Haiti and drive a car.  Go to Louisiana and drive a car.  Go to Bangalore and drive a car.  In each case, that car’s motion is governed by the same laws.  It doesn’t matter what kind of car it is, either: electric, gas, or nuclear.  Acceleration is still velocity over time.  Force is still mass times acceleration.  There’s a famous joke about physicists: how many physicists does it take to change a lightbulb?  Well, first assume that all physicists are frictionless spheres . . . In other words, we can abstract behavior, and details don’t matter.  The color of the car or what it runs on is cultural decoration to the physicist.

Is magic the same way?  If a practitioner of Wicca, a Cabalistic magician, a Buddhist sorcerer, and my chaos magician buddy T.B. all do a spell, it’s gonna look different.  But is the magic the same?  In other words, is there just one thing we call magic?

I think it’s helpful to think in terms of culture and onton. By “culture,” I mean those symbols, rituals, practices, and beliefs that get passed on and define membership in a particular group. Wearing pants rather than a toga is culture. Thinking slavery is reprehensible is culture. Eating enchiladas for Christmas is culture. Onton is a term I made up, because there just isn’t an easily available one in English. Onton is what’s actually really real, beyond all difference, and outside of time.

The car’s color, what means it uses to drive it, and so on, that’s all culture. But the onton of a car, what a car is when reduced to absolute eternal theory, is a set of equations describing motion, and all motion is one kind of thing: F = ma, no matter what object has that quality of mass, no matter what color it is and no matter what it’s called.

Another way to understand it is this: I speak English, grew up in the midwest of the United States during the late twentieth century. Someone else may speak French, and maybe grew up in Paris in the early twentieth century. Our cultures are very different. But our onta, what we are, is the same: we’re both humans.

Papa Legba, the Iunges, angels, and so on — all very different things, granted. But they belong to the same class of things, the same sort of things: spiritual entities. Magic, too, in the broadest sense, differs culturally, and that cultural difference matters a lot — I’m not discounting that. But what magic is, ultimate, the sort of activity it is, seems to me to be one thing, one onton. Maybe it’s not: maybe some things are different. Maybe talking to spirits is different from making a talisman in a very fundamental way; they certainly feel very different. But if they are, it seems strange that the same sorts of habit of mind, the same sorts of skills, are useful in both.

What I’m not saying is that culture doesn’t matter or is just decoration. I’m not saying that we should discount people’s experiences (the exact opposite!). I’m not saying that nothing exists but culture (again, the exact opposite!). I think that culture matters a lot and one of the decisions we make when we do magic is how our culture shapes that magic.

We have the advantage of knowing what some of the onta are that govern the behavior of our world. We know the equations of force, thanks to Newton. What we don’t know are the onta that govern magic, and I think it’d be interesting to think about how we might find that out. Because I don’t think science can do it. Which is the subject of a future post.


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