“Magic Circle” by John William Waterhouse (1886)

In the modern world, magic is ostensibly relegated to a ghetto of cheap, non-durable paperback books read by gullible teenagers in the midst of a rebellious phase. “Magic,” like “myth,” is usually used as something of a derogatory word denoting barbaric superstitions best forgotten.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Our modern, mechanistic worldview, which likes to explain phenomena purely in terms of linear, deterministic cause and effect relationships, has no place for magic. Magic has been expelled from the modern world so thoroughly – at least in theory – that very few people even understand what magic is anymore. Most people think of magic as being a sort of deus ex machina (“god in the machine”) that miraculously contravenes the “laws” that govern matter and energy. This is, after all, precisely what magic is portrayed as being in popular culture, such as in the Harry Potter series, for example. It makes perfect sense that people whose only (mis)information concerning magic is that which is spoonfed to them by modern culture would think of it as being whatever these sources tell them it is.

When one looks to other, more knowledgeable sources, however – and the Norse Eddas and sagas are as good a place as any to start – one finds that magic is something very different from what it’s usually claimed to be nowadays, and that, within the framework of some worldviews that are very different from our own, magic is an entirely comprehensible and even, in a sense, ordinary thing.

A Definition of Magic

What, then, is magic? The best definition to date is almost certainly that of one of the twentieth century’s leading writers on magic, Dion Fortune, who defined magic as “the art and science of causing change in consciousness in accordance with will.”[1]

Magic produces change by working directly with consciousness. Its effects often spill over into the physical world, but this occurs only indirectly. This is, in an important sense, the exact opposite of what modern science does. Science causes changes in the physical world in accordance with the “laws” of the physical world. Magic and science not only work by different means; they also work toward different ends, and, in fact, this difference in ends accounts for the difference in means. This is why practitioners of magic don’t conduct laboratory experiments, and why scientists don’t intone chants before altars inscribed with emotionally powerful symbols. The apologists for the conventions of our own age often claim that magic is a “primitive,” immature groping toward science, and now that science has arrived, magic is obsolete. But science and magic are different enterprises altogether. Neither can entirely supersede the other. Indeed, as will be discussed below, magic is as alive and well in the modern world as it’s ever been – it’s just been brilliantly disguised.

The final clause of Fortune’s definition is “in accordance with will,” which refers to both the will of the person or people working the magic and the person or people upon whom the magic is worked. The elucidation of this principle in the 1590 work On Bonding in a General Sense by the Renaissance philosopher Giordano Bruno remains the most thorough to date. In this treatise, Bruno details the role of bonds – simultaneously in the sense of “relationships” or “closeness” and “fetters” or “constraints” – in magic. His central thesis is that in order to bind another – that is, to transform the desires of another so that they aid the fulfillment of one’s own desires – one must work with the other’s existing desires. To get someone to believe or to do something in accordance with one’s own will, one must present the belief or action in such a way that the person feels it to be in accordance with his or her own will, thereby satisfying the desires of both the enchanter and the enchanted.[2] Whether this ends up helping or harming the person upon whom the magic is worked is beside the point here; either can be the case depending on the context. The point is that magic can only be successful if it satisfies the desires of all involved in the working. The historian of religion Ioan P. Couliano has rightly discussed On Bonding in a General Sense as a broader, more existential, and ultimately more ambitious counterpart to Machiavelli’s The Prince.[3]

Magic in the Pre-Christian Germanic World

You’re likely thinking at this point, “Okay, but that only works on humans, right? What about influencing the weather and the behavior of animals and plants, activities with which sorcerers, shamans, and the like from all over the world are credited?”

It’s a perfectly valid question, and it can be answered by pointing out that this sort of magic typically takes place in a cosmological context that’s very different from our own. The pagan Norse and other Germanic peoples believed that spirit could be found in countless things throughout the world, rather than exclusively belonging to mankind. This included even things that we today would consider to be nonliving, inanimate objects. And if something has a spirit, then in some sense it is conscious and has a will of its own. Thus, humans weren’t the only beings who could be influenced by magic. Inasmuch as a storm, or a cat, or a ship partook of spirit, it, too, was subject to the workings of magic.

For the ancient Germanic peoples, magic was a fairly normal part of the fabric of everyday life. The practitioner of magic worked with the basic principles that were thought to underlie the workings of the cosmos rather than against them. If he or she was set apart from other people in any way, it was in his or her level of knowledge concerning the cosmos in general and those upon whom he or she was working. It’s worth pointing out that this is something Bruno emphasizes as well: the person who binds most successfully is the person who knows the beings to be bound and their desires the most thoroughly.[4]

The Old Norse vocabulary of magic revolves around conceptions of knowledge. As Professor Catharina Raudvere, a specialist in Norse magic, explains, “the verb kunna, meaning both ‘to know, to understand, to know by heart’ as well as ‘to have insight in the old traditions and lore’…is at the core of this semantic field.”[5] The most common and general word for “magic” is fjölkyngi,[6] which is derived from kunna and means “great knowledge.”

In addition to the knowledge of magical techniques and knowledge of the beings involved in the working, another form of knowledge at the heart of traditional Germanic magical practice is the knowledge of fate. In Raudvere’s words:

The importance of destiny must not be understood to mean that the Norsemen held purely fatalistic beliefs. Rather it must be understood in terms of knowing the future, in order to keep it under some kind of control. Divination rituals and the performance of seiðr [a type of Norse magic discussed below]… were expressions of ways of finding the keys to hidden parts of reality and measuring what was given. The results of divination marked the limits of individual free will and after the divination ceremony strategies could be made for acting within these limits. Hence, prophecies, dreams and dream interpretations, and curses were treated with the greatest concern. … They reveal a tension between freedom and dependence. Nevertheless, there can seem to be a contradiction in terms: the conceptions of destiny could also be viewed as a definition of personal freedom. On the one hand, the limits are set and it lies within the human condition to identify them and act within the given space; on the other, choices and their consequences over a longer period of time is an important theme in the sagas. …

Destiny was in one sense given, but there were still opportunities for developing different strategies… in connection with the fundamental structure of the perception of time.[7]

Magic, therefore, is (amongst other things) the ability to discern fate and work with it to accomplish one’s purpose.

When modern people speak of magic, they often make a distinction between “white magic” and “black magic,” the former being “good” magic and the latter being “evil” magic. This is as common in anthropology as it is amongst the general populace. Such a taxonomy, however, is nowhere to be found in the conceptions of magic held by the pre-Christian Germanic peoples, who had radically different moral standards than those of what we today call “morality.”

Were there any truly indigenous categories or divisions within Germanic magic, then? There were, but we know frustratingly little about them today. The only type of Norse magic that is clearly marked off from other kinds of magic in Old Norse literature is seidr, a form of “high” ritual magic practiced only by women and “unmanly” men such as the god Odin. Men who practiced magic typically delved into the amorphous complex of “warrior shamanism” practiced by initiatory military societies. The Old Norse word galdr, derived from galan, “to crow,”[8] denotes magic that centrally involves the use of runes and incantations, and may have referred to another particularly organized magical system, but, due to the absence of sufficient evidence, this must remain an intriguing speculation.

Magic in the Modern World

Magic was an integral part of the Western world up to and including the Renaissance. However, that “Rebirth” of Classical culture, arts, and sciences was crushed beneath the boot of the fearfully pious and reactionary elements of the European society of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which included the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Counter-Reformation, the Inquisition, and the Witch Trials. Out of understandable concern for their own safety, philosophers and scientists – formerly among the most likely to be avid practitioners of magic – stripped their crafts of anything that might seem “magical,” rebranding them as the study of inert, mechanistic phenomena. This brought their disciplines into harmony with the dominant strains of Christian theology, wherein the visible, tangible world is an unthinking, unfeeling artifact created by a god who is utterly separate from his creation. Consciousness was dismissed from the world – except, conveniently, from the human mind, but even the workings of the human mind were reframed in mechanistic, as opposed to animistic, terms. Magic had been banished from the world – and, it should be noted, for purely ideological reasons.[9][10]

Or, at least, polite society demands that we speak as if this revolution had actually been successful in removing magic from Western civilization.

Politeness aside, however, the “mechanistic philosophy” of René Descartes, Isaac Newton, and their ilk has utterly failed to erase magic from the modern world, or even to diminish its influence. Magic occupies as prominent a place in modern society as it ever has. We just prefer to call it things like “psychology,” “sociology,” “advertising,” “marketing,” and “personal development” rather than “magic.”

Looking for more great information on Norse mythology and religion? While this site provides the ultimate online introduction to the topic, my book The Viking Spirit provides the ultimate introduction to Norse mythology and religion period. I’ve also written a popular list of The 10 Best Norse Mythology Books, which you’ll probably find helpful in your pursuit.

The Viking Spirit Daniel McCoy


[1] Greer, John Michael. 2012. The Blood of the Earth: An Essay on Magic and Peak Oil.

[2] Bruno, Giordano. 1998. On Bonding in a General Sense. In Giordano Bruno: Cause, Principle and Unity: and Essays on Magic. Translated and edited by Richard J. Blackwell and Robert de Lucca. p. 143-176.

[3] Couliano, Ioan P. 1987. Eros and Magic in the Renaissance. Translated by Margaret Cook. p. 89.

[4] Bruno, Giordano. 1998. On Bonding in a General Sense. In Giordano Bruno: Cause, Principle and Unity: and Essays on Magic. Translated and edited by Richard J. Blackwell and Robert de Lucca. p. 143-176.

[5] Raudvere, Catharina. 2002. Trolldómr in Early Medieval Scandinavia. In Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, Volume 3: The Middle Ages. Edited by Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark. p. 88.

[6] Price, Neil S. 2002. The Viking Way: Religion and War in Late Iron Age Scandinavia. p. 65-66.

[7] Raudvere, Catharina. 2002. Trolldómr in Early Medieval Scandinavia. In Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, Volume 3: The Middle Ages. Edited by Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark. p. 96-97.

[8] Eliade, Mircea. 1964. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Translated by Willard R. Trask. p. 98.

[9] Abram, David. 1991. The Mechanical and the Organic: on the Impact of Metaphor in Science. In Scientists on Gaia. Edited by Stephen Schneider and Penelope Boston.

[10] Couliano, Ioan P. 1987. Eros and Magic in the Renaissance. Translated by Margaret Cook.

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