Thanet Writers Research Magic

Writer and poet Connor Sansby investigates magic and the occult on behalf of Thanet Writers.

Image Credit: 
Francisco Goya / Public Domain

Magic is a major component of several genres of writing, from the wizards of high-fantasy to the nihilistic techno-mancer of cyberpunk. Although often written incorrectly, magic can be structured in a way that is comparable with real-life occult practice. By exploring the archetypes of magic, ideas can be either reinforced or subverted, creating richer elements within writing.

Aleister Crowley, probably the most notable occultist of the last two hundred years, wrote that magic was “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will.” This is a fairly generic phrasing and under this definition, all action could be said to be magic as long as the act was intentional. Perhaps a more accurate definition would be “the act of causing change in accordance with will, through methods that defy rational connection.”

Crowley is also responsible for the alternate spelling of magic: Magick. This variation was intended to differentiate between the theatrical art of stage magic—rabbits out of hats and card-based sleight of hand—and occultism. The k was intended to stand for knosis, the Greek word for knowledge, often of the spiritual variety. The spelling is not vital, however.

The term ‘occult’ is even broader than magic. It simply means ‘the knowledge of secrets.’ This includes magic, Freemasonry, New Age philosophy, and astrology. In the 20th century, the term took on additional meaning to cover the worlds of Ufology, Cryptozoology and Parapsychology. In short, the occult refers to anything outside the remit of usual science that can be studied. This contrasts with esotericism, which covers the same broad scope, however esotericism rejects the methodology of science and assumes a fixed base of knowledge that cannot be changed, while the occult is subject to evaluation.

In real world occult practice, magic functions in subtle ways. There has yet to be a magician who could verifiably cause earthquakes or bring back the dead, however there are many magicians who would speak to the power of their practice and how it has influenced their lives in subtle ways. Examples include invoices being paid after creating a sigil to attract money, or cures for diseases being found just in time.

Noted occultist and comic writer Grant Morrison has spoken about the effect of using magic while writing his series The Invisibles and the cost of nearly killing a character created as a stand in for Morrison, similar to a voodoo doll or poppet. Only by curing the character of his mysterious illness was he too able to recover from a similar flesh-eating sickness.

The art of the placebo effect and suggestion is hugely powerful—the inaccuracy of stormtroopers in the Star Wars universe could be attributed to the influence of the Force. This isn’t as visually impressive as the telekinetic effects shown during Jedi/Sith fight sequences, but it is arguably more valuable.

Real world magic requires patience and dedication, however magicians in fiction can be as powerful as the writer needs, and it is worth considering limits to power. A magician who can accomplish anything is ultimately a dull character. Restrictions to their practice, knowledge, or their ability to act, make more compelling characters.

There are three methods of practising magic, however each of these can be expanded and pushed into any number of shapes. What I have written is not exhaustive and is rife for subversion.

Folk Magic

The folk magic path constitutes those who work with nature. This path is sometimes called ‘Low Magic’ as it’s purposes and materials used are mundane and attainable. Folk magic is the practice of the everyday person, those who are more concerned with good luck and healthy harvests, though it’s possible to use the channelling of natural energy for offensive purposes, such as conjuring fire or storms.

The Wiccan might be the most obvious example of this path in real life, communing with nature to bring forth luck or positivity. Many practitioners of folk magic believe in a system of checks and balances. In Wicca, this would be the rule of three: the idea that what you put out into the universe returns to you threefold. Under this rule, a magician would be wary of using curses or destructive magic, only using it when necessary.

Ceremonial Magic

Through the use of complex and precise reading, performance and craft, the ceremonial magician loans power from higher powers, whether they be demons, deities or extra-dimensional creatures. Ceremonial magic is sometimes also called ‘High Magic’ as its purpose is spiritual rather than practical, though there can be a crossover.

Most Western ceremonial magic is rooted in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, drawn from works such as The Ars Goetia of The Lesser Key of King Solomon, however movements have been made since the 19th century. Famously, the Necronomicon featured in H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos has been turned into a real book of demonic practice, with a backstory to match.

Voodoo would also be considered a form of ceremonial magic, in that it uses ritual to work with spirits or loas. However, voodoo is a very interesting paradigm in that it has roots as a form of folk magic used by slaves in secret from their masters. Modern voodoo can be much more elaborate as it can be conducted in a more public setting.

A ceremonial magician may not need to be in the process of ceremony for their powers to work. A contract could be established between the magician and an entity to call upon an ability upon request, or an item could be enchanted during a ritual for later use.

It is worth noting that for every ritual, there must be a price. This could be a sacrifice of an animal, or human, or a piece of the magician’s soul, or more mundane artefacts such as gold, wine, or another commodity. In rare circumstances, the magician can simply command entities, though this should only be attempted by the highest of magicians as many entities will reject being bossed about by someone inferior and will punish the summoner for revenge or for instruction.

Chaos Magic

This does not mean seeking to create disharmony; instead the term chaos comes from the Greek khaos—the great nothing from which everything arose.

The chaos magician disregards the trappings of religion and spirits, instead focusing on the methods and results. They are able to apply magic in any way they see fit, in whatever weird way they can, as long as they can explain why it will work. They consider magic “the cheat codes of the universe”—quirks in physics that allow them to defy logic.

Chaos magic is found on the idea that ‘belief is a tool,’ thus anything that can be believed to be true, is. In this fashion, the chaos magician can cohort with demons and the human psyche as readily as quantum mechanics. The chaos magician is one who experiments and applies magic in unusual settings. It is not uncommon for the chaos magician to be loaded up on drugs and playing with computers. For the chaos magician, there are no rules.

David Lynch’s Twin Peaks features several moments of applied chaos magic, notably in the rock toss scene. Agent Dale Cooper throws rocks at a bottle while working through a list of suspects, recording successful strikes to indicate which should be investigated as a matter of priority. It does not matter why this works, only that it does. This ideology is also one of the motivating elements of Douglas Adam’s Dirk Gently, Holistic Detective.


Separate from these three types, there are eight schools of magic. These are akin to specialisation in science. While a physicist may have an understanding of chemistry, they would certainly not claim to know more than those who work directly in the field, and often disagree with fundamental laws that define their area of specialisms.


This is the school dealing with protection, which may take the form of barriers, charms, or event-banishing spells. A skilled abjurer could suppress the magic of another, or even their physical abilities.


The school of creation, conjuration is the ability to create or summon things or people. This could take the form of teleportation or the slower calling, which pulls the subject towards the conjurer.


This is the revelation of secrets, most notably the future. The diviner can be subject to visions or dream, or they can use objects to tell them. Famously, crystal balls, tarot cards or the bones of small animals have been used in this capacity, though there is no limit to what could be used.


The subtlest school, enchantment affects the mind. Hypnosis and darker mind control are examples of enchantment, though so is distraction. It is commonly misunderstood as the granting of powers; however, it refers more to the state of being enchanted.


Evocation is the channelling or creation of energy, or spirit, in an external fashion. Projecting fire would be evocation, though so would summoning a demon in a protective circle. At its most dangerous, it becomes invocation: summoning within, leaving the magician vulnerable to the subject.


Similar to conjuration, illusion appears to create, however it is the school of appearance. If a spell alters the facade of something, makes it look like something else or hides something, it is an illusion. Illusion can also create other sensory phenomena, such as sound or smell.


This is the school dealing with life and death. The dead have a great many purposes in magic: they can be reanimated, under their own authority or the will of the summoner, or they can be channelled, bestowing their power, knowledge and secrets to the magician. Necromancy can also be used to kill another outright, or drain them of their energy. Mostly, this is thought of as a dark skill, however drawing on one’s ancestors for help can also be thought of as necromancy, as can healing magic (literally the staving off of death).


This is the school of change; shifting one object into another. The most obvious form of transmuter would be the alchemist, using magic and science in the hunt for eternal life, wealth or the immaterial. Anything that alters the physical nature of something or someone is transmutation. By way of example, turning water into ice or, grander, water into wine.


There are many magical occurrences that do not fit neatly into one school. The ability to suddenly learn a language does not fit into these modes, so we consider it a universal magic, one that does not require total commitment to a path. Picking one path, or maybe two at a push, and working that properly into the story creates heightened stakes and is far more creatively rewarding.

This talk of magic seems grand but within real-world magical practice, an occultist does not summon tidal waves or summon trolls. Magic in fiction should likewise be bound by rules. Just as you would sketch out a character’s backstory, the system of magic they use should be explored in your notes. Consulting existing models of magic can inject your story with flavour, rather than defaulting to the now-overfamiliar tropes of Lord of the Rings or Dungeons and Dragons.

Magic should be a system of cause and effect; the actions of the magician should come at a price, rather than having their power run unchecked. A powerful spell should require the sacrifice of life or that which is most precious to the hero. Entities that your magician might make contracts with have the same world of desires as corporeal beings, however their objects of desire will differ greatly. Consider Ryuk, the death god from the anime Death Note (the act of writing in a book to cause death is definitely an act of magic) who has a lust for apples. He treats them as an addict may treat cocaine. The craving is different but corollary to our desires.

Magic is a study; it is both science and art. The old and wise wizard is a stereotype because it works; it makes sense as to why they have so much experience and knowledge to draw on. Simply put, an old magician is a powerful one. You may elect to use a young prodigy as your hero but, even though you’re dealing with the unreasonable, reason must still exist.

The purpose of magic is to affect change; change of the soul, of the physical world, of actions or consequences, or of a specified variable. Consider what the purpose of magic is in your work and why your characters would devote themselves to its study.

Many young magicians in real life join lodge systems, such as Golden Dawn, essentially formalised training in a specific path, in accordance with knowledge passed down long lineages. This acts to speed up the process of learning, however there are also tests and members can be dismissed (sometimes killed) from the lodge for failing to show results or loyalty.

Other young magicians profess to be from occult bloodlines, those who have had their genetic make-up tampered with by the supernatural. The thirteen royal families of the Illuminati are a famous example. This grants them power and a natural aptitude, though even someone born into these bloodlines would be born with inherent knowledge.

The work of an occultist is long and arduous. It is bound in research and discipline. This is a lot like writing itself, so it is no wonder that the occult features so prominently in fiction. Even those writers who don’t publicly proclaim occult themes are influenced by the craft and good research into an occult area provides ample material. In a world where ancient grimoires are digitalised every day, and new platforms allow for the creation of new work, it has never been easier to begin researching the occult. In turn, it has also never been easier to start a personal practice.

Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.

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