Tuesday, April 07, 2009

A Witch Takes Responsibility

I'll start this post by saying that there's one kind of magic that no one should ever do: magic in which you don't believe.

I started to say: magic that makes you uncomfortable, but that's wrong. Doing good magic, like creating good poetry, running a good marathon, writing a good brief, or doing a good job of weeding the garden can, and often does, make you uncomfortable. But there's magic you just shouldn't do and that's magic in which you don't believe. And, by that, I mean either magic that uses methods to which you ethically (Higher Self), or esthetically (Younger Self), or practically (Talking Self) object, or magic that would create a result to which you object. Within the category of magic that would create a result to which you would object, I include what I'll call "well-meant power over" magic, magic that most witches agree is not a good idea: doing a love spell on someone w/o their consent, trying to heal someone who wants to die, trying to impose your will on someone who isn't harming anyone else by their actions. More on this point later.

I'll make my second point of this post by saying that the Wiccan Rede (an' it harm none, do as thou wilt) and the Rule of Three (whatever you do magically will return to you three times over) are, IMHO, shorthand ways of expressing much more complicated concepts and saying that witches err when they take them literally. (Just as it would be error to take literally the saying, "In perfect love and perfect trust" every time you get together with other Pagans. It's aspirational. Grow up.)

As the Jains make clear, it's impossible to "harm none." Take a step and you'll crush some life forms. Sweep the way before you, as the Jains do, and you have to first kill some plants to make a broom, or disturb the biosphere to harvest the dead grasses. Do some magic to find a job and you disadvantage the other job applicants. Send reiki to your seeds, to help them to grow vibrantly, and you condemn the unblessed seeds of some weed to falter. Work magic to heal yourself, and you kill the viruses or bacteria that want to live in your bronchial tubes or the cancer cells that want to reproduce unchecked in your bone marrow. The circle of life includes both life AND death. The Goddess is both Demeter AND Kali, both Innana and Erishkegial, both the bountiful Empress and Shelia Na Gig, waiting to suck us back into the Earth and make worm food out of us the moment that we falter. You either see the beauty and perfection of that or you don't.

Similarly, the Rule of Three is a shorthand way of expressing the fact that we live in a closed system (don't shit where you eat) where everything is interconnected. You literally can't pluck this tiny string on the web without causing the entire web to vibrate, and it's almost certain that you can't completely know how the vibrations will shake out across the web, nor how those vibrations will feel when they come back round to the part of the web where you feel yourself to be comfortably centered. (See, e.g. butterfly wings in China and storms in South America. And, still, the butterfly flaps her wings.) When we say in circle, "We are between the worlds. What we do between them, affects them all," that's a true statement and a reminder to us to behave responsibly and thoughtfully. It's not an invitation to paralysis, EVEN THOUGH I HAVE NO IDEA EXACTLY HOW WHAT I DO WILL AFFECT ALL THE WORLDS.

I'm often surprised at witches who treat magic as somehow different from other ways of impacting the world. Look, it's just magic. They'll write a letter to their Senator asking her to vote to end the war, but they won't do magic to end the war. They'll go on tv and be interviewed about the need to address climate change, but they won't do magic to change the minds and hearts of world leaders. They'll make a YouTube about the importance of reproductive choice, but they won't do magic to help a scared young woman in Ireland make it to England for an abortion. They'll vote, but won't do magic to help a candidate. Look, it's just magic. My grandmother -- hell, my mother -- would have considered it pretty magical that I can sit at home, type letters on a wireless keyboard, hit "send," and communicate with my Senator miles away. My great, great, great, great grandmother would certainly have regarded tv, the satellites that show us climate change, and the cameras that record an interview as magic. As Arthur C. Clarke reminded us, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Look, it's just magic. It's no more, and no less, likely to affect you than anything else you do. (You do EVERYTHING that you do within a closed, interconnected system. Maybe that's a reason to think MORE about the things that you acquire, throw away, use electricity for than it is to shrink from ever using magic. If you thought that every plastic fork you use for five minutes at a mall food court and throw away was likely to come back to affect you three times, would you never eat again at a mall food court? Would you be more likely to do magic to develop plastic-eating organisms? To bankrupt malls? To stop yourself from shopping? And, yet, all of us have, at one time or another, eaten at a mall food court and thrown away the "spork." Rule of Three, baby. Rule of Three.)

Yet one often finds witches who insist that it's wrong to do magic unless one has been specifically invited to do so. I think that's wrong. I think those witches are conflating two different kinds of actions. If I do a spell to make someone fall in love with me, and I do it without their knowledge, that's a way of exercising "power over" as surely as if I made someone have sex with me because I could fire them if they didn't do what I wanted. However, Barack Obama never asked me to do any magic to get him elected. But you can bet that I did do magic to get him elected. Just as I handed out flyers at farmers' markets to get him elected, donated money to get him elected, put up a sign in my yard to get him elected, blogged to get him elected, drove voters to the polls to get him elected, and voted to get him elected. He never asked me to do magic to protect him from crazy racists, but I did. And, IMHO, there's difference.

Similarly, if I do a spell to bind my sister from marrying a guy I think is a jerk, that's a way of exercising "power over" as surely as if I schemed and connived to make her think he'd been cheating on her when he hadn't. However, if I do magic to prevent John Ashcroft from accessing the medical records of women who've had abortions, that's no different than if I'd written the judge a letter, volunteered to work pro bono for those women, or broken into Ashcroft's office and thrown blood on his files. IMHO, there's a difference between binding my sister and binding Ashcroft.

Derrick Jensen says that if we kill an animal for meat (and I'd add, if we take a plant for food or clothing or shelter or beauty (yes, beauty. there's a bouquet of daffodils on my desk at this moment)) we take on an obligation to that animal's species to ensure that it survives. If I do magic to elect one candidate over another (and, believe me, I'm aware that I'm always choosing one bad choice over a worse choice in American electoral politics) or if I do magic to bind John Ashcroft from violating women's rights, I, too, take on responsibilities. I accept the responsibility of living both in and between the worlds where I do these things. I accept that, should I, for example, try to violate the legal rights of women, others may bind me. Ashcroft may try to stop me using legal methods, may pray to his xian god to stop me, may write the judge a letter about me, etc. I am willing to accept that responsibility.

Being a witch is not only about being a fluffy bunny, as much as I love fluffy bunnies. To be a witch is to step outside the boundaries of the village and to live in that liminal space between the village and the wild woods (and this is true even if you live in Manhattan, Capitol Hill, Paris, London) and to accept responsibility for raising poison plants, dispensing abortifacients, giving advice to the powerless, living outside the law. Being a priestess of the Goddess is about honoring Persephone and Quan Yin and Brigit and about honoring Kali, and Maat, and Hecate. Don't do magic in which you don't believe. But don't hide behind literal interpretations of complex concepts and pretend that you're being anything other than gladly bound by unreasonable rules that let you off the hook, and scared, and, ultimately, irresponsible. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Picture found here.


Lavanah said...

Discretion and responsibility-two words that I try very hard to live by. Thank you for putting it so clearly.

Celestite said...

Excellent, excellent post.
I don't understand the idea that magick is something separate from everyday life. We are witches, it's what we do...isn't it?
Sometimes I think that people think that if they 'save' magick for something really that basket of money from the goddess on the's more likely to happen.
I think that the more you do magick, study magick, work magick, the better you get.
Kinda like playing the piano...or riding a bike.
As for what kind of magick....look in the mirror...make sure you can keep looking in the mirror.

Persephone said...

Thank you for that, Hecate. Everything you do affects something else. Everything has consequences, to believe otherwise is foolishness and a road to failure.

Celestite, I agree. The more magic you do, there better you are. It's a muscle you have to exercise.

whatsername said...

I love this post. I only recently found and subscribed to your blog, but this makes me so glad I did.

I'm not sure if I can flesh out everything I'm thinking after reading, but it's great. :)

Makarios said...

"Well-meant power over. . . ." A very felicitous turn of phrase. A colleague of mine, a psychoanalyst, used to say of such situations, "The helping hand strikes again!"

faeriekat said...

MM Hecate

This is an excellent exposition on magical responsibility and ethics. I've been enjoying a similar debate over at that you may find to be of interest. It pleases me to see this topic being addressed with so much civility and thoughtfulness within our community.



nanoboy said...

As an avid player of table-top role-playing games, I noticed an odd correlation here. In our fictional forays into worlds where magic is very visible (such that you'd have to be an idiot not to notice it) players will use their characters' magical powers as simple utility. In a crude example, the sword-wielding warrior will kill an evil goblin with a mighty chop, while the nerdy wizard will zap him with lightning. In the end, it's the same effect.

The thing is, no matter how hard a game-master tries to insist on magic's mystery, the players will always treat magic as a tool. I suppose the analogy would be someone insisting that magic has a whole other moral force with its own ethical rules and those who see ethics as universal with magic having no special moral rules.

You can see the same thing with technology and ethics. Some insist that new technology changes ethics. I'm not so sure. I think that new technology can change the outcome of some ethical decision, since new options and/or information are available. However, the fundamental rules (the Golden Rule, Kant's maxims, Mill's utilitarianism, whatever) can remain unchanged.

Ultimately, it's only what I call conservative ethical systems that are bothered by our examples of real magic, fictional magic, and technology. I define conservative ethical systems as being an itemized list of duties, rewards, taboos, and punishments. Your fellow witches who insist on magic's own special moral rules have applied a conservative ethical system to the use of magic. You have taken a broader philosophical choice.

Conservative ethical systems are probably necessary in certain things (national laws, say) but they're not the best way to live a personal life. When something new enters in, they have to be amended, and if you think that a good moral system is eternal, which I do, then the conservative morality has a hard time remaining consistent. Laws are different in that respect, of course.

deborah oak said...

Fantastic post, Hecate!!!

Vicki said...

I really enjoyed reading this post, Hecate. Thanks.

You made me think.

And I like that.

crowsfoxes said...

You rock.

Saje said...

I found your site by linking from and am very pleased that I did. This is an insightful post that actually does a great job of incorporating both sides of a similar topic discussed on '2witches' over the past few days. I think you sum it up very nicely with your first statement and do an admirable job of explaining your reasoning in the following paragraphs. Thank you for bridging the small gap that existed for me in this debate with a few simple words that will resonate in my mind for a long time to come: do not perform "magic in which you don't believe."

Susanna said...

Thank you for your very eloquent post!

It really helps me to understand that I can be more pro-active by using magick in ways where I might also do it through mundane actions.

I can't think of a good example to site, but in general, through mundane actions, would I force someone (by action, injury, physical restraint, or threat of these) to change their mind/belief about something? No. Would I try to present fair arguments and present facts that might compel them to change their minds, sure! Would I do magic that would injure or harm a person to make them see things my way. No. Might I try to influence circumstance such that it might help them see things differently, sure!

"If you answered 'yes' to any of the above...", well, I'm thinking that if the situation is so dire that it's "yes" in the mundane world, then perhaps it should be "yes" in the use of magick.

Elizabeth Weaver Engel, CAE said...


Funrunna said...

The most interesting read I have had in a very long time...

Thank you and brightest blessings Hecates!

I am mindfull that we are also physical beings, in a physical world too and we shold make no apology for existing.

Thought and carefull consideration in all things is indeed our duty and responsibility. But, we cannot be afraid to 'move' lest we kill an ant!

'tis but a thread that I am exploring and I have gleaned much from your words... I will reflect deeply on them for a good while to come.

Thank you for your eloquence!

Astor said...

Live Butterfly Garden That's Good!!