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That Old Black Magic:
Getting Specific about Magical Ethics
By Judy Harrow


Sometimes a cliche just wears out. It loses meaning or, worse, begins to say things we never meant. I think it's time to retire the phrase "black  magic."

Saying "black" when we mean "evil" is nasty nonsense. In the first place, it reinforces the  racist stereotypes that corrupt our  society. And that's not all. Whenever we  say "black" instead of "bad," we  repeat again the big lie that darkness is wrong. It isn't, as people who profess to love Nature should know.

Darkness can mean the inside of the womb, and the seed germinating within  the  Earth,  and  the  chaos  that gives  rise  to  all  truly  new beginnings. In our myths, the  one who goes down to the  underworld returns with  the treasure. Even death, to the Wiccan understanding, is well-earned rest and  comfort, and a preparation  for new birth. Using  "black" to mean "bad" is a blasphemy against the Crone.

But even if we no longer speak of magic as "black" or "white," we still need to think and speak about the ethics of magic. Although black  is not evil,  some actions are  evil. It simply  is not  true that anything  a person is  strong enough or  skilled enough to  do is OK, nor  should doing what we  will ever  be the whole  of the law  for us.  We need a  clear and specific vocabulary that enables us to choose wisely what we will do.

We need  to replace the word "black," not simply to drop it. Some Pagans have tried using "negative" as their substitute, but that turned out to be confusing. For some people, "negative" means any spell to diminish or banish anything. Some things  - tumors, depression, bigotry -  are harmful. There's nothing wrong with a working to get rid of bad stuff. "Left-handed"  is another common term for wrongful practice, very traditional, but just as ignorant, superstitious and potentially harmful as the phrase "black magic" itself. So in Proteus  we tried using the word  "unethical."  That's a  lot better - free of extraneous and false implications - but still too vague.

Gradually, I began to wonder whether using any one word, "black" or "unethical"  or whatever,  might just  be too  general and  too subjective. Perhaps all I really tell a student that way is "Judy doesn't like that."  

I won't settle for blind obedience. If ethical principles are going to survive the  twin tests of time  and temptation, people need  to understand just what to avoid, and  why. Even more important,  they need a  basis for  figuring out  what to do  instead. Especially when  it comes  to projective magic.

Projective magic means active workings,the kind inwhich we project our will out into the world to make some kind of change.  This is what most people think of when they use the  word magic at all. Quite clearly,  magic that may affect  other people is magic that can harm.  This is the basis of the proverb "a  Witch who can't hex  can't heal." Either you  can raise and direct  power,  or you  can't.  Your strength  and  skill can  be  used for blessing or for bane. The choice - and the karma - are yours.

Just as some people feel that strength and skill are their own justification, others feel that any projective magic is always wrong - that it is a distraction  from our one true goal  of union with the Divine  or a willful avoidance  of the judgments of  Karma. I think  these attitudes are equally inconsistent with basic Wiccan philosophy.

We are taught that we will find theLady within ourselves or not at all, that  the Mother of All has been with  us from the beginning. We can't now establish a union that was always there. All  we can do, all we need to do, is become aware. Knowing what it feels like to heal and empower,  again and again  till you can't  dismiss it as  coincidence, is  one of the  most powerful methods for  awakening that awareness.  It makes  no sense to  say that  the  direct  experience  and  exercise  of  our  indwelling  divinity distracts from the Great Work.

Indeed, it is this intimate connection between our magic and our self-realization  that our ethics protect. Wrongful use of magic will choke the channel. No short term gain could ever compensate for that.

The karmic argument against practical workings seems to me to arise from a  paranoid and  defeatist  world view.  Even if  we  assume that  the hardships in this life were put there by the Gods for a reason, how  can we be so sure that the reason was punishment? Perhaps instead of penance to be endured, our difficulties are challenges to be met. Coping and dealing with our  problems, learning magical and mundane  skills, changing ourselves and our world for the better - in short, growing up - is that not what the Gods of joy and freedom want from us?

One of the most radically different things about a polytheistic belief system is that each one of us has the right, and the need, to choose which God/desses will be the focus of our worship. We make these choices knowing that whatever energies we invoke most often in ritual will shape our own further  growth. Spiritual practices are a means of self-programming. So we are responsible for what we worship in a way that people who take their One God as a given are not.

Think about this: what kind of Power actively wants us to submit and suffer, and objects when we develop skills to improve our own lives? Not a Being I'd want to invite around too often!

So it will not work for us to rule out projective magic completely; nor   should   we.  Total   prohibitions  are   as  thoughtless   as  total permissiveness or blind obedience. Ethical and spiritual adults ought to be able to make  distinctions and well-reasoned choices. I offer  here a start toward analyzing what kinds of magic are not ethical for us.

Baneful magicis magic done for the explicit purpose of causing harm to  another  person.  Usually  the  reason  for  it  is  revenge,  and  the rationalization is justice. People who defend the practice of baneful magic often ask "but wouldn't you join in cursing another Hitler?"

For adults there is no rule without exceptions. If you think you would never torture somebody,  consider this scenario: in  just half an  hour the bomb will go  off, killing everybody in the city,  and this terrorist knows where it is hidden....

It's a bad mistake to base your ethics on wildly unlikely cases, since none of us honestly knows how we would react in that kind of extreme. Reasonable ethical statements are statements about the behaviors we  expect of ourselves under normally predictable circumstances.

We all get really angry on occasion, and sometimes with good cause. Then  revenge can  seem like no  more than  simple justice. The  anger is a normal, healthy human reaction, and should not be repressed. But there's no more need to  act it  out in magic  than in physical  violence. Instead  of going for revenge - and invoking the karmic consequences of baneful magic - identify what  you really need.  For example,  if your anger  comes from  a feeling  that  you  have  been  attacked  or violated,  what  you  need  is protection  and safe  space.  Work for  the positive  goal, it's  both more effective and safer.

The  consequences of baneful magic are simply the logical, natural and inevitable psychological effects.  Even in that rare and  extreme situation when you may decide you really do have to  use magic to give Hitler a heart attack, it means  you are choosing by  the same choice to  accept the act's karma. Magical attack hurts the attacker first.

The only way I know how to do magic is by use of my imagination, by visualizing  or otherwise  actively  imagining the  end  I want,  and  then projecting that  goal with  the energy of  emotional/physiological arousal. All the techniques I know either help me to imagine more specifically or to project more  strongly. So the  only way  I can send  out harm is  by first experiencing  that harm  within my  own imagination.  Instant  and absolute karma - the natural, logical and inevitable outcomes of our own choices.

I would think, also, that somebody dumb enough to do such workings often  would  soon  lose the  ability  to  imagine  specifically, as  their sensitivity dulled in  sheer self-defense.  That callusing  effect is  the reality behind the pious proverb that says "if you abuse it, She'll take it away."

But not every other magician is ethical. Psychic attacks do happen. Should we not defend ourselves? Of course we should. Leaving ourselves open to psychic  attack is no good example of the autonomy and assertiveness our chosen Gods  expect. But first, how can we be sure what we are experiencing really is psychic attack?

The fantasy of psychic attacks often a convenient excuse that allows us to avoid looking at our own shortcomings. When lack of rest or improper nutrition  is the cause  of illness, or  a project isn't  completed on time because of distraction,  it's a real  temptation to  put the blame  outside ourselves.   Doing this too  easily betrays our  autonomy just as  badly as meek  submission to attack does. Then, to compound matters, projected blame becomes  an excuse for unjust revenge --  and that is baneful magic without excuse.

Once in a rare while, some fool really does try to throw a whammy. It's hard to predict when you might be targeted. Passive shields are always a good idea. Like a mirror, these are totally inactive until somebody sends unwelcome energy. Then a shield will protect you completely and bounce back whatever  is being  thrown. You  may not  even know  consciously when  your shield is working, but the result is perfect justice.

Perfect justice; elegant and efficient. You won't hurt anybody out of paranoia or by mistake. And perfect protection, even though we do not have perfect knowledge.

Bindings, according to some, arecompletely defensive. They do not harm, only restrain. But imagine yourself  being bound - perhaps by someone who believes themselves justified - and notice the feeling of impotence and frustration. Binding is bane from the viewpoint of the bound.

Even if restraint were truly not harm, bindings are just plain poor protection. They target  a particular person or group. What  if you suspect the wrong person?  Somebody harmless is bound  and your actual attacker  is not bound.   Shields, which cover you, not your  supposed enemy, will cover you against any enemy, known or unknown.

So, baneful magic,  besides being  painful in the  short run  and crippling  in the long  run, is never  necessary. There are  better ways of self protection, and retribution is the business of the Gods.

Coercive magicis magic that targets another person to make them give us something we want or need. When most people think of the "Magic Power of Witchcraft," this is what they have in mind.

The spell to make the teacher give you a good grade, or the supervisor give you  a good evaluation,  the spell  to make the  personnel officer  or renting  agent choose  you, the  spell to  attract that  cute guy,  all are examples of coercive magic.  

So, what's  wrong with high grades,  a good job, a  raise, a nice apartment and a sexy lover? There's  nothing at all wrong with those goals. An it harm none, do what ye will. As long as nobody is hurt, go for it! But don't strive toward good ends by coercive means.

Although there is no deliberate intent to do harm or cause pain in coercive  workings, other people are  treated as pawns.  Their autonomy and their interests are ignored.

For Pagans, to do this is total hypocrisy. We profess to follow a religion of immanence, one that  places ultimate meaning and value in  this life on  this Earth,  here and now.  We claim  to see  every living  thing, humans  included, as a sacred manifestation. To do honor to this indwelling divinity, we place great value  on our own  personal autonomy. How  can we then justify treating other people as objects for our use?

Nor is it harmless. Forcing the will, controlling the independent judgement of another human being, is harm. Once again, empathy leads to understanding. Just imagine you are the person whose will and judgement is being externally controlled. How  does puppethood feel? From the viewpoint of the target, the harm is palpable.

The Pagan and Wiccan community as a whole is also hurt by coercive magic.   One  of the  main  reasons people  fear and  hate  Witches is  our reputation for controlling others.  This is an  old, dirty lie, created  by the  invading   religion  in  an   attempt  to  discredit   the  indigenous competition. Today,  that reputation  is mostly  perpetuated by  people who claim to be "our own," who teach  unethical coercive magic by mail order to strangers whose ethical sensitivity cannot be evaluated long  distance. May the Gods preserve the Craft!

People who are connected to thesituation, but invisible to us,may also be  seriously hurt: the  cute guy's  fiancee, the other  applicant for that job.  What  you think of as a  working designed only to bring  good to yourself can bring serious harm to innocent third parties, and the karma of their pain will be on you.

That  isn't the only way an incomplete  view of the situation can backfire.  There's  a traditional saying that goes, "be  careful about what you ask  for, because  that's exactly  what you will  get." What  if he  is gorgeous,  but  abusive?   What  if  the  apartment  house is  structurally unsound?  Better to state  your legitimate needs  (love in my  life, a nice place to live) and let the Gods deal with the details.

Finally,remember this: asking specifically limits us to what we now know or what  we can now imagine.  But I remember a  time when I could  not have imagined  being a priestess.  What if  the cute guy  in the office  is perfectly OK, but your absolutely perfect soul-mate will be in the A+P next Wednesday? The more specifically targeted your magic is, the more you limit yourself to a life of tautology and missed chances.

And  beyond all the scenario spinning lies the instant karma, the natural,  logical and inevitable consequence  of the act.  It's more subtle than in the case of baneful magic, since you are not trying to imagine and project pain, but the damage is still real.

Every time you treat another human being as a thing to be pushed and pulled around for your  convenience and pleasure, you are  reinforcing your own alienation.  The attitude of being  removed from and  superior to other people takes you out of community. As the attitude strengthens, so will the behavior it  engenders. The  long term  result of  coercive magic,  as with mundane forms of coercion, is isolation and loneliness.

Are you beginning to think that magic is useless?Did I just rule out all the good stuff: love charms, job magic, spells  for good grades? Not at all. It is not only ethical but good for you to do lots of magic to improve your  own life. Whenever it  works you will  get more than you  asked for - because along with whatever you asked for comes one more experience of your own effectiveness, your power-from-within.

Work on yourself and your own needs and desires without targeting other people. Then feel free! Ask for what you want. Visualize it and raise power for it and act in accordance on the  material plane. "I need a caring and  horny  lover with  a  good  sense of  humor."  "I  want an  affordable apartment near where my coven meets with a tree outside my window." "I need to be at my best when I take that exam next week." Fulfill your dreams, and sometimes let the Gods surprise you with gifts beyond your dreams.

Manipulative magic is magic that targets another person for what we think is "their own good," without regard for their opinions in the matter. In the general culture around us, this is normal. As you read this, you may have some friend or relative praying  for you to be "saved" from  your evil Pagan ways  and returned to the fold of their preference. These people mean you well.  By their own  lights, they are attempting  to heal you.  We work from a very different thealogical base.

Aspolytheists, we affirm the diversity of the divine and the divinity of diversity. If  there is no one, true, right and  only way in general, do we dare to  assume that there is one  obvious right choice for a  person in any  given situation? If more than  one choice may be  "right," how can one person presume they know what another person would want without asking them first?

No life situation ever looks the same from outside as it does to the person who is experiencing it.  Are you sure you  even have all the  facts? Are  you fully aware of  all the emotional  entanglements involved? Perhaps that  illness  is  the only  way  they  have  of  getting rest  or  getting attention. Perhaps  they stay in that  dead end job because  it leaves them more energy to concentrate on their music. How do you know till you ask?

And, to further complicate the analysis, it's possible that the person you are  trying to  help  would agree  with you  about  the most  desirable outcome, but fears and hates the very idea of magic. They have as much of a right to keep magic  out of their own life, as you have  to make it part of yours!

Our religion teaches that the sacred lives within each person,that we can hear the Lady's voice for ourselves if we only learn to listen. "... If that which you seek,  you find not within yourself, you will  never find it without."   In  behavioral terms,  when you  take another  person's opinion about their  own life seriously, you  are reinforcing them in  thinking and choosing for themselves. The more you  do this, the more you encourage them      to listen for the sacred inner voice.

Conversely, whenever you ignore or override a person's feelings about their own life,  you are  discounting those feelings  and discouraging  the kind  of internal  attention that  can keep  the channels  to wisdom  open. Although well-intentioned  meddling may actually help somebody in the short run,  in the longer  run it trains  them to dependency  and indecision. Few intentional  banes damage as severely. This is especially true because even the untrained and unaware will instinctively resist overt ill-will, but in our culture we are trained to receive "expert" interference with gratitude.

Check by asking yourself, "who's in charge here?" The answer to that will  tell  you whether  you are  basically  empowering or  undermining the person you intend to help.

And,  as  usual, the  effects go  both  ways. The  same uninvited intervention that  fosters passivity  in  the recipient  will  foster arrogance  in  the "rescuer."   It's control and ego-inflation masked as generosity. It's very seductive.

If you make this a habit, you will come to believe that other people are  incompetent and powerless. Then what  happens when you need help? Your contempt  will make it  impossible for you  to see what  resources surround you.  Manipulative magic is ultimately just as alienating as coercive magic - and it's a much prettier trap!

The way to avoid the trap is to do no working affecting another person without  that person's explicit  permission. Proteans are  pledged to this, and I think it's a good idea for anybody.

You don't need to wait passively for the person to ask. It's perfectly all right to offer, as long as you are willing to sometimes accept "no" for your answer.  For the person who believes s/he is unworthy or who is simply too shy,  offering help is itself a gift. Taking their opinion seriously is an even greater gift: respect.

The rule is that whenever it is in anyway physically possible to ask, you must ask. If it's not important enough to pay long distance charges, it certainly isn't important enough to violate a friend's autonomy. If asking is literally not possible, then and only then, here are a few exceptions:

Sometimes an illness or injury happens very suddenly,and the person is unconscious or in a coma before you could possibly ask them. If you know that  this person is generally comfortable  with magic, you may do workings to  keep their  basic body  systems  working and  allow the  normal healing process  the time  it needs.  If they  are opposed  to magic,  for whatever reason, back off!

Traditionally, an unconscious person is understood to be temporarily out  of  their  body. Maintaining  their  body  in  habitable condition  is preserving  their option,  not choosing  for them. Doing  maintenance magic requires a lot  of sensitivity. At some  point, the time may  come when you should  stop and  let  the  person go  on.  Be sure  to  use  some kind  of divination to help you stay aware.

This is a hard road. It may be your lover, your child, lying there helpless. Any  normal human being  would be tempted  to drag them  back, to force them to stay regardless of what is truly best for them, regardless of what they want. Don't repress these feelings, they do no  harm, even though your  actions might.  It takes  great strength  and non-possessive  love to recognize that your loved one knows their own need. You may be calling them back to a crippled  body, to a life of  pain. You may be calling  them back from the ecstasy of  the Goddess. And  this is no more  your right than  it would be to murder them.

If a person is temporarily not reachable, you may charge up a physical object, such as  an appropriate talisman or some  incense. When you present it to them,  give them a  full explanation. It is  their choice whether  to keep or use  your gift. By interposing an object between  the magic and the target in  this way, you  can work the  magic in  Circle, with the  coven's power to draw on, and still get the person's permission before the magic is triggered.

With all these rules about permission, perhaps it would be safer to work  only on ourselves?  Safer, yes, but  not nearly as  good. If you have permission, you may do any working for another person that you might do for yourself.  Coercive magic is  just as unacceptable when somebody  else asks for it, and you may not do manipulative magic on your friend's mother, even at  your  friend's  request. The  permission  must  come  from the magic's intended target and from nobody else. With proper permission, working magic for others is good for all concerned.

Every act of magic has two effects. One is the direct effect, the healing or  prosperity working  or whatever  was intended.  The other  is a minute change in the mind and the heart of the person who does the working. Everything  we  experience,  and especially  everything  that  we  do in  a wholehearted and focused way  - the only way effective magic  can be done - changes  us. Each  experience leaves  its tiny  trace,  but the  traces are cumulative. They mold the person we will become. Our karma is our choice.

Instant karma can also be good karma. Logical, natural and inevitable outcomes can be desirable. When you send out good, what you send it with is love. Love is the driving force. When you let love flow freely, the channel down to love's wellspring stays clear and open. When you send out good, you direct  it along the web  of person-to-person connection,  and awareness of that web is reinforced. The totality of that web is the basis of community.

When you send out good it feels good. In the same way that sending out bane  requires  imagining pain,  sending  out  blessing requires  imagining pleasure, strongly and specifically.  And, when you send out good, just the same  as  when  you call  it  to  yourself,  you  reinforce your  sense  of effectiveness  in  the  world. Blessings  grow  in  the  fertile ground  of mutuality, to the benefit of all.

A pattern is becoming visible.In baneful magic,the magician intends to harm  the target.  In coercive  magic, the intent  toward the  target is neutral.  In manipulative  magic, the  magician  actually means  the target well. But  no matter how  different the intent  may be, in  all three cases magic is done to affect another person without that person's permission. In all  three cases, the target, the practitioner and ultimately the community are all  hurt. And in all  three cases, there are safer  and more effective ways to reach the valid goals that we mean to aim for.

So,  perhaps there is a descriptive word that covers all wrongful magical  workings after  all.   How  about  "non-consensual" or  "invasive" magic?

There's one thing left to examine: the paradox of making rules to protect personal autonomy.

If we make some of our choices as a community, by discussing things together  and  arriving  at  a  common  understanding  about  what  magical behaviors are  acceptable among us,  then we choose  and shape the  kind of community we become.

Or we could give up ourright to choose,because we feel we shouldn't tell  each other what  to do.  Some people  believe that  a refusal  to set community standards promotes personal autonomy. It never has before.

Appeals to individual rights can bereal seductive. None of us wants Big Brother looking  over our shoulders, telling us what to do "for our own good." For Witches in particular  - members of a  religious minority with bad  image problems -  this is a  very legitimate fear.  But make sure when somebody talks about "rights"  without specifying something like "religious practice rights" or  "the right to consensual sex," that  you find out just what "rights" they mean.

Rhetoric about"rugged individualism" has been used in recent history to  fast talk us into  letting the rich  or strong dominate  all our lives. Without anything  to stop them,  they can destroy  the forestland, or  deny jobs or  apartments to  "cultists." Personal  autonomy for  most  of us  is diminished when we allow that.

Magic can be used for dominance,just the same as muscle or money. There is no difference, ethically, between the magical and the mundane.  We are not obligated to tolerate power trippers among us. We are not obligated to  run our own community by the  slogans and ground rules of the dominator culture.

Thinking  about "rights," or about "laws" for that matter, in the abstract leads to "all or nothing" thinking - immature and slogan driven. I don't think we should ever "just  say" anything. We need a deeper and  more mature analysis.   We need to  ask questions like "right  to do what?"  and "law  against what?"  We need  to get away  from absolutes  and to  look in practical terms at the advantages or disadvantages of our choices.

Once more,our religion itself shows us the way to steer between the false choices. "An  it harm none,  do what you will."   What a  person does that affects only herself - magical or mundane - is truly nobody's business but  her  own. For  example, consensual  sexual  behavior affects  only the participants. But toxic waste dumping affects everybody in the watershed.

As  long as we  look at behavior  in terms of  private choices or individual will, we obscure the distinction that really makes a difference. If we're serious about wanting to give each of us the most possible control over our  own  lives, then  decisions  should be  made  by all  the  people affected by the behavior - not just by the people acting.

As soon as another person is magically targeted, that other person is affected. If we allow such targeting without consent, we are not supporting personal autonomy, we are subverting it!

When the behavior begins to affect us all - for example when real estate  development threatens  the  salt marshes,  and  ultimately the  air supply -  or, very specifically,  when invasive  magic erodes the  trust we need to  work together -  then we have  a right to  protect ourselves  as a community. No ideology should  turn us into passive victims  when something we hold precious stands to be destroyed.

Invasive magic hurts the target first, and soon the actor, but in the long run  it hurts all of  us. It's been so  long since we've  been able to meet  together, share  our knowledge,  help  one  another  in need.  Pagan community is very new,  and still very  fragile. It can  only grow in  safe space.

The People of  this Land forbade skirmishes  around the pipestone quarries, keeping that sacred source open to all. Otherwise, no sane person would go there, and the Old Ways would wither. For much the same reason, we cannot tolerate poppets in our council meetings.

An atmosphere of coercion and manipulation and magical duels does not nurture community. Eventually, for self protection, the gentle will either change  or  go away.  We could  lose what  we  have misguidedly  refused to protect.

As within, so without: our karma is our choice.

Judy Harrow