Magic systems and meaning

Magic systems and meaning
Photo by Daiga Ellaby / Unsplash

I’m rereading a book I first read when I was fourteen years old: Real Magic by PEI Bonewits. It was perhaps the second book I ever purchased. Upon over 40 years separation, I now see that it is very well written, and was a very good choice for one of the first books I was ever to purchase.

Right now he’s going through definitions of what “magic” actually means. Early anthropologists pointed out that magic within a tribal culture was a very practical thing — obeying certain laws, to have certain affects. The way in which the rules must be observed to the letter in order for the magic to work properly. It is always a little charming to read someone else’s magical rules, because they are not our own.

As with observing another culture’s mythology, it always seems a little funny how “arbitrary" some of their rules are, while ours seem totally natural (internalized). The key facet of all these rule systems, however, is that they must be internally coherent to work. Like language itself, a magical system must conform to its own internally coherent rule sets.

A language, in fact — when considered as an integral part of a culture — is not so different from a magical system. A way to cast spells, as it were. Once again, each system must be internally coherent to work, and strict adherence to the conventions (which may look quite arbitrary from the outside) is essential.

Where we look at physical systems, it is more obvious why they must cohere; but of course as humans, we are physio-linguistic beings, constantly doing a dance between physical realm reality and mental realm reality. We are constantly weaving and intermixing the two, swirling between them. It’s a psychedelic experience being human — we just don’t notice it because we’re always on the same drugs, I suppose.

I’m sure if you looked at any of the meaning systems — that of the Trobriand Islanders, or the Manhattan Islanders (New Yorkers), you will find:

  • The meaning system might seem somewhat arbitrary from the outside
  • It probably does have many lines of internal coherence which, if examined, would yield all sorts of interesting qualities
  • It also proscribes the potentialities of the creators in some ways

Each of these meaning systems — when observed as a functional system — will have different qualities which shape the possibilities of the inhabitants. The very utility of “believing in” each part of the system (without needing to question it) also sets parameters about what is possible. For the most part, these believing systems will work for the inhabitants (until they don’t — then you have breakouts, transitions, and meaning crises, as we are having now).

Our shared meaning systems in the United States include a magical adherence to this thing called "money”.

The natives imbue this magical symbol with such power as to affect nearly every aspect of their lives. It is charming to notice how meticulously they adhere to its rules. Even the slightest misstep in the use of this magical token is considered to be the breaking of the greatest taboo.
The native of Unitedstates bears such a familiar association with this token that — if he is to see is fellow starving in the street — he is most likely to avoid him, as the more of private ownership being such a central tenet of his reality as to govern nearly every aspect of his existence….

We can also extend out from these realities. In this light, Avatar lets one occupy the fundamental building blocks. It is an instruction set — as source — in how to create reality systems. And what a ride it has been.