Thinking About: Magic and its Role in Modern Paganism

waterhouse_the_magic_circleLast night at our local moot we discussed ‘magic and its role in modern Paganism’. It was a fascinating night and once again it has caused me to ponder a change I’ve seen over the years. When I first became aware of my path Wicca was the dominant tradition and so it’s no surprise that the focus of discussion was on magic – its use, its ethics, its practical effectiveness, and its study.

Magic was one of the things that brought me to this path. My interest as a teenager was with the occult, and magic played a strong role within that. The kind of magic I studied was deeply ceremonial, working with the teachings of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The magic I encountered in Wicca was more earthy, as it was based not so much on the ceremonial, but rather came from folklore.

But over the years, maybe because of the path I chose, or the people I socialise with, I’ve noticed the topic of magic being discussed less and less. As time has moved on so has my attention. From changing my life through active magical work, towards a more contemplative Journey. So it was good to go back and reassess my relationship with magic, and by doing so that relationship became a little clearer again with a few revelations.

1) I no longer believe in the law of three-fold return – this was something that was driven into me back in the day. That our actions in the world will return to us ‘three-fold’. So if we are good that energy will return tripled, but if we work negative magic then that negativity will also return to us three-fold. I take my teachings from nature, and there is no other part of nature where that rule applies. In science we hear that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. It doesn’t say that for every action there is a three-fold reaction. I realise that there is a cost to working magic, but I find it odd that many peoples’ default is that this cost will be a negative one. I wonder if the law of three-fold return might just be another way of controlling people. I think I’m done with it as a concept.

2) I believe that Magic is just another skill – to me magic is energy. It is like gravity, radio waves and x rays, the only difference is that scientists haven’t yet created a machine that can see and measure it, but to me it is as natural as the air we breathe. Learning to tune into that energy and direct it is a skill we can learn. Karate is a skill we can learn, driving is a skill we can learn, our A levels are qualifications we get through learning. If someone has spent time studying magic and they then use that magic to get a job, is that wrong? Some would say they have denied another from that job by using their magical skills. That’s true. There might have been a better candidate who lost out. The thing is, getting the job is just the first step. If they then prove themselves useless at the job, magic or no magic, they will lose it. The magic was a waste of time. The other more capable candidate may end up with the job anyway. With the use of magic it is the small print that needs to be thoroughly studied and understood.

3) Is it really wrong to use Magic in self defence? – Some would say it’s using magic in a negative way. But is it really? If someone hurts you, or your family, and you are a magician, is it wrong to use that skill in defence? Is karma a one-way street? If someone uses negative energy towards me by mugging me, and if the universe has the rule that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction by using my magical skill to return that negative energy to the mugger, am I not just helping their own karma return to them? I’m not sure to be honest, but this occurred to me last night during the discussions, and I need to think about this some more.

Thinking about and re-evaluating my relationship with areas of my path is something I love to do. It makes things clear if the water has been muddied by other peoples’ opinions. But it would be interesting to read your opinions, so do leave a comment if you feel moved to do so.

42 responses to “Thinking About: Magic and its Role in Modern Paganism”

  1. It was certainly an interesting moot. The points you made about the threefold law currently have my brain making strange shapes as i try to work out what it is i actually believe on the subject.
    Hmmmm….*wanders off deep in thought*

  2. About being harmed by some person : sometimes I do take revenge but that is a rarity. I leave it to the Universe to handle this person; and yes, having this thought is also magical act, so…

  3. Very interesting post. The older I grow, the less sure I am about anything. I’ve lost the belief that there are universal rules to follow, such as karma. So often this is used to condemn or control others rather than as a guiding principle I strongly agree with the opening sentence of point 2, the one thing I do intuitively believe to be true. This energy exists, but I’m not sure how it should be used. Love is the obvious guiding priniciple, but this is a very hard path to follow. Too much self sacrifice (for me, at least) and complications such as emotional blackmail, a big tangled web! Everything becomes more and more of a mystery. The second thing I’m sure about it is that there IS something going on, but what????

  4. I’ve said this since way back when I was scuttling around on URP; magic’s a tool like a hammer’s a tool. Just because I can waft a hammer around and bang a few nails in no more makes me a carpenter than wafting a few magics around makes me a witch/magician/whichever term people use these days. As with your example of karate, it’s a skill that requires practise to get from beyond beginners’ level.


    • I feel that since all things spring from the Devine, the real magick is in the connection to the Devine. To me, prayer / communication with the Devine is the purest form of magick or as it is referred to in other traditions, miracles.

      • I definitely agree with you Gary, if we are in communion with the Divine, it is Her (or His or Its if you prefer) peaceful and loving will that will manifest in our lives and those around us. That’s most important for me at the moment and it strengthens my friendship with Her to rely on Her in this way rather than carve my own path through… maybe I’m a bit of a ‘dependent infant’ but I don’t want to let go of Mama’s apron strings!
        Blessings all, Bia

  5. Nicely stated, I have found it a rare thing that someone else mirrors so much of my own belief about magic, it’s effects & it’s repercussions. About the last part, I have never considered it wrong to use magic in self-defense, no one considers it wrong to use karate training in the defense of self & loved ones. I could never wrap my head around the concept of learning magic but never being able to practically apply it because it has the ability to tip the scales in the circumstances where it might be used. Seriously, if I can’t use magic to help me get a job, or something else I might need, then what good is it & why bother “practicing” an art that you can’t practice. The same could even be said for healing magics, what if it was that person’s fate to be ill & all I can say to that is, if that is what you believe, better not go to a doctor either.

    • Just wanted to put out there, my post was not advocating harming another person with magic, instead advocating the deflection of harm.

  6. I’m a big fan of constantly questioning your beliefs. I always remind myself that a faith unquestioned is a faith untested. Unfortunately, at some point it seems to have become popular in neopaganism to appear fundamentalist – as if blind and absolute dedication to one path is a status symbol, or makes a person better in some way. I sometimes have to remind myself I’m on this path for myself, not for how others see me.

  7. A very interesting and emotive subject, particularly within the Druid tradition! Many of us within Druidry today have come from a golden dawn, wiccan background, and have dabbled in magical practices at some point in our lives, that said, there are not many who when discovering a Druid path continue with the arts of magic, despite the plethora of native tales which are crammed with magical transformations, acts and deeds to achieve a set outcome.
    I firmly believe the use of magic within a Druid path, where one is calling on the like of Math and Gwydion is an extremely powerful form of craft, these lands sing of their songs, and when you perform rites you are tapping into the energies of these demigods and the powers they held within nature.
    I too do not hold with the three fold rule, i rather think that was created to appease the pc brigade, and allay fears of the media who faced with the threats of witches and magicians performing magic would inevitably “go to town” to discredit and ostracise such people.
    What is the definition of negative magic? If someone hurts you, and you craft magic to make amends, then is the outcome not positive for yourself? Again the Christian constructs of good and evil, positive and negative are coming into force, if we carry out such acts, we would be classed as under the influence of the Devil !
    Magic is not something to be taken lightly though, as i have said, tapping into the powerful source of our ancestors and magical beings here in Ynys Predein can yield undesired results:
    I wish i were wealthy – your parents die and leave you money
    I wish Cuadzilla would not drill in my locale! – they build a nuclear waste processing plant instead! You get the drift…
    Druidry is SO diverse, for every comment deed or act, within Druidry several will disagree, offer the right way, their way, someone elses views or teachings, You sing your own song, you walk your own path, if others walk that path with you, then you are blessed to have companions on your journey.

  8. I must say I often watch for your post. This one hits home. I often ponder these same thoughts about the use of magick and the reaction it will cause in all aspects of the use. I too had a time when I used the power to hurry along Karma. But, I also realize that Karma has a mind of its own so to speak. If the forces of nature didn’t feel it was a justified action, then it wouldn’t happen.
    We as practioners of the forces of magick have a responsability to know what and who our magick affects. With devination we check all aspects before we cast. And, I believe that we as said pracitioners of magick have an advantage over those who do not believe. We aren’t any better as a person than anyone else. So, do we not deserve that job if were capable of doing it. Do we not deserve to protect our families and friends when the outcome is investigated.
    Thank you for your post sir. Blessing, love, and light. SDM

  9. thank you Damh, your statement of belief has certainly resonated with me. I have always felt uncomfortable with the law of three fold return, not least because of the element of control and threat which is implied. in it.

  10. I too have gone through on a similar journey with my faith and path and I am currently studying the Bardic grade. With the 3 fold law I agree completely with your sentiments but I have read it expressed differently in that what you do comes back to you on 3 planes – the physical, the astral and the mental. I find this description/application of the law sits better with my feelings than the other one. Magic? hmm? Barrie Jenks says – you need to be careful and this puts me off it these days as I have experienced good and bad results and sometimes I wonder if I need more skill or is it just the way of the universe. I think I now prefer to ‘see’ the magic in nature and enjoy the transforming effect it can have on my soul and leave it at that !

  11. IMHO Magic is there, we almost do it intuitively, make a wish and leave a coin, blow a dandelion head to the breeze with thoughts of peace, leave an offering to appease the spirits of place. It’s ingrained in us and so can be so easy to take the worth out of it. I use magic regularly, although never for personal gain. I find simple is best and clear intent essential. You don’t have to be labelled at all to do magical workings but you do need experience. My mother used to leave a small figure of Jesus on our doorstep with silver coins under it to ensure good weather on wedding days etc, she’s certainly not pagan but clearly had an understanding, at some level, of magic. I am pagan and came to druidry via witchcraft route but do lean more to the Anglo Saxon Heathenry side these days where there is a wealth of magic, plant lore, divination etc.

  12. A good blog (as always) Dave. I’ve always thought of the 3 fold rule as something to make you consider the full consequences of your magical workings rather than an absolute truth. The morals of whatever one is doing magically ultimately come down to the practitioner (on your head be it!). Personally I always try to be positive in my workings such as wishing an unpleasant work colleague well on their way with a better job or a noisy neighbour happy in their new home away from me! I would have liked to have been at your moot to discuss this subject and share some of my amusing stories of spells that have gone too well or ones that have gone wrong – note to self: Be careful what you wish for you just might get it!

  13. Threefold law has been taken too literally, but is a handy scare-stick for the neonates.
    The bottom line, for me, is that magic has it’s costs, it’s uses and it’s addictions. Use with caution – study and understand the fine print, as you said.
    But I feel that in one thing you have erred. It’s not energy, it’s power. That may only be a word change, but energy is like batteries. Power implies responsibility. And that is where magic differs. It is a tool, but it is one that has potential ramifications far more severe or prolonged than blundering with a drill. Most of the world and especially those in the western world have no knowledge, interest or concept of the arcana about us. So being careful when you work so you don’t ‘irradiate’ (deliberate word choice) the unaware is de rigeur.
    That being said, I must declare my bias – tis only fair. Karma is a slow process and the use of magic has a cost that must always be paid personally. Diverting the tariff places you in karma’s sights. Good luck with that.
    Insightful piece, Dave. I see the folk about me going from seeking pagan gods to seeking something ‘more’ or disillusionment too often of late. Maybe they should have stopped trying so hard and let the land do the talking.
    Blessed Be.

  14. Often I feel magic is another word for simplicity, maybe trust too. It seems complexity takes us away from magic, but when we shed stuff, anxieties, guilt, concerns, analytics, bias, judgement, order and become more present, to our senses, then the magic is something we become much more aware of.

  15. Interesting thoughts: I agree with you re. the first two points, but Kevin’s reply is probably right regarding the origin of the three point rule. Re. point 3, I don’t think it’s necessary to defend yourself with active magic, I believe it’s enough to just put up the psychic umbrella and watch as anything nasty which has been sent will boomerang back to the originator. But then I am Buddhist 🙂
    Though my views were the same in the past when I was more active as a shamanic healer and experienced psychic attacks from some people who misunderstood.

  16. This is so interesting to read because I too have recently reassessed my views on karma and the whole threefold return concept. I blogged about this recently at

    I guess what I’m saying is it feels like if something bad happens I either have to roll over and take it or if I take a stand and fight back I will get punished far worse than the original action. I just don’t think this washes with me any more.

  17. A very interesting post — thank you.

    I agree that the three-fold law has it’s problems, but in a different way than you suggest.

    It’s the same problem that almost everyone overlooks about Newton’s Third Law (generally understood these days as “for every action there is an equal an opposite reaction”). Namely, we stop looking too soon.

    Action A produces “equal and opposite” Action B. Cool. Most of us can accept that and go on.

    But what about Action B?

    Let’s say a frog is floating on a stick (assume the stick’s mass is the same as the frog’s, for simplicity), and he jumps off. That is his Action A. He is pushed a certain distance in a certain direction, and the stick is pushed the same distance in the opposite direction.

    Again, for simplicity’s sake, let’s remove outside forces like friction, efficiency of transfer of kinetic energy, etc.

    Now the stick runs into something else. What was Action B, a REaction, has now become the new Action A as it imparts force into whatever this new object is, and that new object now has an equal and opposite reaction… and this cycle repeats again and again.

    Yes, in the real world, the stick would only travel a short distance before friction and other entropic forces brought it to a stop, but the principle is the same.

    Every action does not produce AN equal and opposite reaction. It produces a CHAIN of actions which ripple outward to unimaginable degrees.

    So whether I work magic toward a particular cause, or whether I simply do something nice for someone else, I create ripples of positive energy expanding outward. Like that frog, I may never be aware of the impact I’ve had on my “pond,” as the ripples that make it back to me may not be something I can recognize as related to my original action.

    • That’s more waveform propagation than Newton’s 3rd law, but you do make a very good point there. Energy/power, whatever one wishes to call it does move like a waveform with many side effects we are not always directly aware of.

      • Sorry, don’t want to come of as a reply spammer :/ but something else just occurred to me, the law of conservation. The ripples grow weaker the greater the distance from the source as energy is lost from the wave itself & transmitted to the water & whatever else may be in the water. Just as a radio signal becomes degraded at a further distance. Energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transmuted. Then also, it can be much like gravity, the further you are from a gravity field the less it is perceived, but according to Einstein there is never a point where we are unaffected by that gravity field, it just becomes undetectable at a vast distance from the source (when talking about space when I use the word “vast” I’m really referring to greater than 2 light years distance, almost everything moving inside our solar system is gravitationally detectible to us & the Oort Cloud is about 2 light years out from the sun)

        • Corin, yes under regular conditions the wave does get weaker. However IF we look at something like a very long line of upright dominoes, push one and ALL the rest WILL fall down. This has less to do with the wave as supplied by the initial push and more to do with the constant force of Gravity which amplifies that initial push to not only continue to knock over successive dominoes but to increase the speed or the wave of falling dominoes. To primitive people this WOULD appear to be Magic, yet to us modern-day folks it is simply the application of completely understandable laws of Physics. This goes to support Damh’s understanding that magic is phenomena which we do not understand that operate by perfectly natural laws which we have not been able to describe yet.

  18. Similarly I was drawn to magic before I became pagan. Only I didn’t get very far. Ceremonial magic just didn’t work for me. What it did do was open ways of thinking magically- in terms of studying the relationships between intentions and actions, the power of imagination and working with correspondences. Much later I discovered my Bardic path- which for me involves a mixture of learning the songs of my local land and journeying to the Otherworld to bring find words to inspire others. These processes are magical to me.

  19. Doreen Valinente said that Gerald Gardner made up the Threefold Rule.

    That said people i know who try to live their lives by manipulating others with magic usually end up sad and lonely.

    However that is also true of those who do the same with sex, money or whatever.

  20. I agree with Starhawk: “Magick is the art of changing consciousness at will.” We have an effect on others and the world, but it is because we change ourselves, and we can’t always predict what those changes will be. All we can do is continue to work on knowing ourselves.

  21. In the Kemetic worldview, Heka (which is similar to magic) was given as a gift to humans to protect them from the bad things in life. There isn’t any stigma attached to negative magic or cursing. The problem is that it should be done with discernment. If you do something against someone just because they aren’t doing what you want, be prepared to deal with the consequences.

  22. Hmm. What is the cost of magic? I always thought of the law of three -fold return as more of a metaphor, you send good energy out, you get more of it back, you send negative energy out, you get more of it back. The number three is arbitrary in that sense, but three being a powerful magic number it sticks in your mind.

    I see magic as an energy as well ,that is all around us and we can tap into. We all do it, but most people do it subconciously. Aleister Crowley said “You do it anyway so you may as well learn to do it well” Using magic to get a job may help psychologically to make you appear more confident in an interview, for example. This doesn’t deprive another person of their opportunity. You are not forcing the employer to hire you, you are only trying to influence them, which everyone else is trying to as well. If you have nothing to offer in terms of skills or experience or at least good interview skills, magic alone won’t help you get that job.

    Love spells are another topic, many people claim that you should stay away from them, but I believe a spell works mostly on yourself. if you perform love magic, this may help you to be more confident and therefore attract the person you want. If you turn out to be incompatible, well, that’s just life, doesn’t mean it was wrong to perform the magic.

    Hexes are a different matter, but it’s probably still better to perform a hex than to bash someone’s head in with a baseball bat. everything comes with a price, not just magic.

    However, I must confess that I too have been drifiting away from it and mostly go with the flow instead. I have found that I only use magic when there is an extreme blockage or in an exceptional situation which cannot be solved any other way. My main reason for this is , that you simply go crazy if you try to apply magic to anything and everything, it becomes more difficult and time consuming than simply acting in the real world.

  23. My thoughts on the 3 fold law are similar to those mentioned above, including the “If it harms none, do as you will” statement which gets used a lot with the 3 fold law. I take them as a metaphorical view that they are there to remind us that we need to consider the motivation and consequences of our actions. Maybe we should start a new code “Beware the law of unintended consequences!” 😉

    After all nearly everything we do in life removes the opportunity for others to access resources or services.

    I agree with Jae’s comments about energy and power, my view is that I tap into energy to raise power and then the outcomes of how I use that power are my own personal responsibility and I need to be prepared to live with any consequences. I think this is where working with a close group like a coven is important. It means that you can run something by people who are prepared to tell you to pull your head out before you do something you maybe wouldn’t given other circumstances!

  24. A great article! Actually, there *is* a place in Nature where energy is magnified: resonance. In my tradition of Wicca, we certainly teach the Threefold Law of Return, but not in the literal sense.

    I see the ‘energy’ (for want of better term) we put out like ringing a singing bowl. In a singing bowl or any other pure sound, those sound waves will strike up a *resonance* within other items that have similar properties to it, and they may start “ringing” as well. I have seen magick seemingly act like that: a relatively small amount of energy will … “find places” to resonate and create effects that are out of proportion to the initial Work. In fact, I see this throughout life, in all my actions – a mild temper flair on my part tweaks the temper flair in a partner, and what was a minor irritant become a full-on row.

    I think resonance should be discussed more in all our crafting and spirituality.

    We also teach that we have three souls and that our actions or magicks affect us in all three souls, even though we may think it only affects our “surface walker.”

  25. So far defensive magic has never gone beyond binding the person against doing harm to me and even then I have only used it three times. If I was truly harmed I might go further, but so far I have been alerted to possible harm before it took place.

    Never had any further problems with those people, in act they all lost interest in me completely. So proactive protections seems to work and is far better than anything one can do after one is harmed. I have not felt at risk in a great many years.

    Now there is a possibility the danger was not there, but the people were not harmed and by having something that I could do, I ended the fear which was once a big part of my life. Perhaps that is the biggest aspect of magic, it gives you something to do and gets rid of that helpless feeling.

  26. What DtB said in this blog made a lot of sense to me. In fact, he and I seem to be on the same page, theoretically speaking. I have spent many insomniac hours in my adult life, pondering these very same principles. Many of the pagans that I call brother and sister have mentioned similar misgivings about the negative connotations of the “rule of three”, we worry aloud about our Karmic debt and “Do No Harm” vs. self-defense… It is a conundrum of cause and effect. Some people need boundaries. While others can enjoy a freer lifestyle… It is a fine athame’s edge to balance on, personal opinion of right & wrong…

    Happily, since most pagans have no set “rules” or dogma to rigidly follow, we each must take responsibility for our own actions, magickal or otherwise.

    Blessed Be the Witches, Pagans, and all who gleefully and playfully “run amok” in the glow of the Lady Full Moon’s light.

  27. I came to paganism/animism via magical practice, and fund that I resonated with the stories and myths on this side more than the more ceremonial. I’m not very religious, but much more a sprit worker. I think the 3fold law is a somewhat blunt tool, where a sharp one would better serve.

    My sense is that the Buddhist concept of everything arising from causes is one such sharper tool. It helps address your end of the issue, as well as perhaps helping you clarify where change actually can or should occur. So while cursing or outright shooting someone in some cases may be justifiable, they (usually) are not the most useful courses of action. Of course this requires some serious self assessment, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

    It makes me think of the guy who curses the police because they keep tossing him in jail. He eventually realizes he’s better off not drinking, and that the police were never the illness, only it’s most prominent symptom.

  28. I would totally agree with the view of magic being a skill and particularly when you’re talking of an emotive subject like protecting one’s family, as a mother I know I would do anything in the world to keep them safe. It’s ones intention that’s important and as long as you are purely acting defensively, then I think it’s ok.

    I loved reading this and all you lovely people’s comments – nice knowing you’re not alone xx love and light xx

  29. Hennie’s idea of “Revenge” doesn’t sit well with MY understanding of “Defense” I see Revenge as a form of deliberate harm as opposed to actual “defense” as in Karate. Yes the Karate Master DOES have an advantage over his/her attacker in that they know HOW to actually prevail over the attacker. However, the intent is NOT to harm the attacker, it is intended to stop the attack, and if the attacker is injured or killed in the process that is an unintended by-product. That attack was initiated by the attacker and not by the defender and the harm to the attacker was merely the the consequence of attacking a person who had the skills to thwart that attack. Such an attack should have been considered by the attacker before the assault was made and the defender is NOT responsible for HIS foolishness. the defender IS entitled to prevent harm to him/her self through the use of the skills which he/she has mastered. Just as the attacker has no idea whether or not the defender has such knowledge, neither does the defender know whether or not that attacker has superior knowledge and skills. In this case, it IS up to the Fates or Karma regarding the outcome. When an attack is made it stands a chance of succeeding OR failing. When defending, the defense ALSO stands a chance of succeeding OR failing. Intent is irrelevant in such cases (defensively, that is) and it is entirely up to chance as to the eventual outcome of both the offense and the defense. Although skill WILL have a role to play, it will merely be a minor role.

  30. When a great unjustice has been done and you know (hopefully trust with all fingers and toes crossed) that Karma and the Universe will come back to serve its justice. Its seems an eternity for this to happen and hope that it will happen in this lifetime for you to witness and see and before it is too late (divine timing right?). Is there any magic we (I) could do to speed this karmic process up without being caught up in the path of negativity and to be caught up in the other persons web of distruction. I have heard that we create our own destiny (but never really believed that), and I was somewhat relieved when Phillip Carr-Gomm said that we create each others destiny (hope I quoted right, but this does seem to be more realistic)…

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