Is energy manipulation necessary for magic?

Funnily enough, I got the idea for this post a long time ago — when I was reading up on reasons why cognitive behavioral therapy might fail. That, coupled with a lot of books and papers on traditional and folk magic, raised an interesting question in my mind:

Is energy manipulation requisite for magic?

I’ve seen some experienced witches who poke fun at the spells created and posted by younger ones. I’ve even written about raising and directing power myself. Here’s the thing though — none of that shows up in the really old stuff.

Seriously. I can point you to a hundred different old bits of magical folklore and formulae, and not a one will mention anything about raising, directing, or releasing power. Nonetheless, these spells were important enough for the practitioners to pass them down.

If you look at modern spells and rituals, though, some manner of energy manipulation is considered absolutely requisite. If you skip it, or somehow do it wrong, you won’t achieve your goal. You could argue that the old wise women and cunning men raised and directed power without doing so in so many words, or even worked old magic without realizing that that’s what they were doing. If that’s the case, then who’s to say that this power-raising has to be done on a conscious level?

I have a theory that I find pretty interesting. It’s similar to one posed by Phil Hine in Condensed Chaos, when he talks about Spirit, versus Energy, versus Cybernetic models.
I don’t think magic changed. I think we did.

The Guardian posted an article a couple of years ago on the apparent decline in effectiveness of CBT. Oddly enough, this decline might be due to nothing more than CBT’s reputation. When it was first developed, it was lauded as a marvel of modern psychology. This perception may have influenced how effective it was for people who tried it — believing they were learning a miracle cure for their problems, they experienced one. As more and more people went through CBT with less than stellar results, this perception shifted. It’s declining in effectiveness because it no longer benefits from a reputation as a miracle.

This isn’t to say that all magic is a product of the placebo effect (though there are certainly branches of mental magic that rely on it to a degree). I’ve had experiences I definitely can’t attribute solely to that. But, as the article above mentions, a 1958 book by psychoanalyst Allen Wheelis stated that Freudian psychology no longer worked because people had changed. Modern humans were better at self-understanding. They now needed different tools.

The old techniques weren’t completely wrong; they’d just outlived their usefulness.

Oliver Burkeman

Modern humans are better at understanding the physical underpinnings of the world (arguably at the expense of our metaphysical understanding and psychic sensitivity). We have knowledge that would’ve been unthinkable to our ancestors. Learning changes us. We interact with energy — and therefore magic — differently. One of my ex-partners’ grandmothers cured people of worms by snapping a handful of straw over their stomachs. My ancestors did things that, if I posted them to an online grimoire, would have experienced witches laughing and poking fun at them for being ineffective “baby witch” spells.

The act of observing changes the observer as well as the observed, and we’ve done a lot of observing.

Does this mean that one way is better, more legitimate, more powerful? I really don’t think so. As Burkeman says, old tools outlive their usefulness. We’ve changed. Ten thousand years ago, nobody could digest milk in adulthood. (And don’t even get me started on what we’ve done to our jaws.) We occupy and interact with our environment differently — including the unseen world. It’s entirely possible we need to consciously manipulate energy because that’s what we’ve adapted to.

I’m curious to see what shape the future takes.

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