Materia Magica

Over the last few months, my personal practice has come to include more and more materia magica. The particular functioning of these things (stones, herbs, bent pins…) has become something of a fascination for me. I have encountered several different explanations for the operation of materia magica, and, honestly, I find very few of them to be satisfying.

I simply cannot accept the idea that materia magica function solely as a focus for the will. A great deal of the discussion of modern magic places power entirely within the operator. While I certainly do think that there are certain forms of magic which work in this way, such as Chaos Magic, certain types of contemporary Hermeticism as well as certain strains of contemporary Alchemy, I find the idea that all magic is of the subject rather … off putting. In the case of materia magica, it seems to me as though if it were the case that the materia possessed no special properties, then the particular materia are of no importance: ritual baths could be assembled out of anything as long as the will of the operator was correct. There is a rebuttal, then, that particular materia are required for generating the correct mental state, but then, again, it seems as though one is shifting the power out of the subject, or at least splitting it with the materia.

High Ceremonial magicians rely on particular atmospheric effects, of incense, color and various paraphernalia, yet are frequently quick to denounce the necessity of such accoutrements. It seems to me that either the materia magica is vital, or else absolutely unnecessary. I may be making too harsh a distinction, but if one is determined to achieve a certain mental state, does that not imply that the mental state alone is sufficient? Now, to say that the various materia are an aid seems unsatisfactory. From a phenomenological perspective, the changes which the necessary materia induce on consciousness can only be achieved through the lived experience of those materia. The embodiment of the operator is inescapable. So, then, the accoutrements of High Ceremonial Magicians are the source and fulfillment of their power. All the window dressing is as absolutely necessary to their success as their intent, as all of the complex atmospheric effects are caught up in the spell craft, regardless of their individual powers.

It appears, then, that I am moving toward a basic supposition: materia magica is effective because of the particular effect it has on perception. However, I feel like this is far too basic to be of any real use. All objects, being perceived, produce effects within perception. The use of materia magica relies on the assumption that they possess some special qualities which make them particularly suited to magical acts.

Now, I must shift slightly. I do think that there are some materia which do operate predominantly on a symbolic level: the bent pins in a Witch’s Bottle or the sword of a ceremonial magician. These things operate largely within the subject, their effects are interior. These sorts of materia are intended to act predominantly within or upon subjects (the magician, in the case of the sword, malign spirits, in the case of the pins). That materia which is is actant upon the Subject need not possess anything more than the power assigned to it by the operator/Subject. Therefore, symbolic power is power which manifests within the Subject, and that materia which acts predominantly upon the Subject need not possess anything more than symbolic power, fulfilled in the Subject.

Now, what makes basil a good luck charm? I must say that there is some quality possessed of basil that attracts good luck. It seems to me that magic pretty much must be a thing in the world, possessing formal qualities. If we, as subjects, are able to recognize and manipulate it, it must share some properties with other things which we manipulate. That is to say, magic must always react in the same way given the same circumstances. Magic must be as formal as the rest of the world. I may be making a mistake in naming magic as the thing manipulated. Magic may be a frame in which things are manipulated. However, my argument still holds. Objects, being bound by formal relations and bound as well by magic, so, if such is the case, magic must be a formal relation. Magic is shifted into the world itself, as gravity or strong nuclear force. Magic, however, remains somehow unique, as it appears to be a force accessible only to the Subject.

So, I recognize that these musings are largely incomplete: I’m really just trying to air some ideas. It seems to me like magic must be more than just an effect of will, and, if so, then materia magica becomes incredibly important.

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One thought on “Materia Magica

  1. Materia magica have always intrigued me on this brambled, philosophical path of mine, even in its nascence at the feet of Protestant Christianity (Baptist specifically). There were bits of it inherent that I noted even then; for how “relaxed” it seems with respect to High Ceremonial Magick, there was still a rhythm and structure to how a service could be performed. There was ritual, protocol to be met before the service could even begin, special dress for the participants with active roles (and even just the witness were dressed well, in their finest), and song and ceremony for each step of the way. There was—if you would forgive me the cliché—a magic to the atmosphere created by all the energy focused toward the goal. Before I was most acutely aware of what this energy was, I would hear the women, towering over me, talking with my mother about the “electricity” of the sermon or the “power” of the song.

    I still go home from time to time, and though I find myself more and more divorced from the dogma, I can still go to my home church and witness that ceremony at work. Although faces have come and gone, the materia magica are still there. Even the simplicity of the paper fans in the pews (used even in the cold, even when the furnace went out) feels necessary; when the fans weren’t there or had to be replaced, there was a sense of something being out of place, so entrenched it was in the ceremony. There’s a fascinating accessibility to observing and experimenting with the machinae ex magica; when the mind is remote, the tangible acts as guide.

    I think that materia magica have properties on their own; acting solely as the focus of will of the Subject suggests that anything in a ceremony could be replaced without diminishing effect. While there is a kernel of wisdom in that (the overwrought can stand in the way to understanding), the persistence of tradition should not be enough to justify their use, especially in the face of quasi-universality of the properties of some materials.

    To expound upon the idea of perception, it may simply be the product of perception over time that give materia magica their “properties.”

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