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Magic and Religions of the World

(from the writings of Alys Kinnear)

I am occasionally asked how magic and various religions get along with one another. My usual (joking) answer is "Pretty well, thanks."

But that's also the truth, thank goodness. The vast majority of religions around the world have a long history of active interaction with magic and magical traditions, dating as far back as oral history tells stories. Even just at a glance, it's pretty easy to see that magic and religion are almost irrevocably intertwined, but since I keep getting asked about it, I'm going to comment on some of the more common religions that I'm familiar with and how their communities relate to magic.

Please note that this isn't a discourse on the existence (or lack thereof) of a God or gods. I prefer to leave that to theologians. For the purposes of this document, the simple fact of the matter is that powerful entities have been known to surface from time to time, and they are often worshipped as gods. Whether they are or aren't is a matter for constant and sometimes violent dispute. If you're a skeptic, they're just very powerful and difficult to comprehend beings. If you're a believer, they're gods. Nobody knows for sure which is true - that's the nature of faith.

Most religions featuring more than one deity seem to be thoroughly intertwined with magical practices. Greco-Roman pantheism immediately comes to mind, as one of the world's largest and most common religions (I use the word loosely, of course). The biggest problem discussing Greco-Roman pantheism as a religion is that it really isn't just one, but rather a collection of religions lumped together as their gods are all related to one another in some way. You never hear someone say they're "Greco-Roman" (as Jews and Christians do, for example); instead, they identify themselves as a "Follower of Zeus" or a "Worshipper of Poseidon" (the most common being Zeus, Hera, Athena and Apollo...though Hermes/Mercury is extremely popular amongst healers and doctors).

In their case, magic is practiced in a way very similar to the Hermetic tradition; with rituals and formulae, looked on as an outside force available for use by individuals for good or for evil. It's not considered to be granted by the gods...the gods have their own forms of magic, and may intervene with them if asked properly. There's some question as to whether this is actually an entity granting favors or the requestor casting a spell - once again, it's the nature of faith to choose to believe. Be that as it may, it's very common for magic (in some form) to be part of religious practices.

Norse pantheism - my own brand of religion - is very similar to Greco-Roman, but it's not as easy to equate the gods to one another. As such, Norse pantheism has remained separate, where the Greek and Roman pantheons blended together over time. Norden practices (the Norse pantheon of gods) have spread far and wide as well, but unlike the Greco-Roman religions, Norse religions have little in the way of organized clergy or religious structure. Individuals pay tribute to the gods in their own way, and may give homage to all of the gods in turn, depending on a variety of factors ranging from the day of the week and time of year, to what they're doing at the time.

For the most part, followers of the Norse gods treat magic in much the same way as Greco-Roman followers; as an outside force that people can learn to wield, for good or evil. The Norse gods - the commonly worshipped ones, anyway (Odin, Thor, Freya, even Loki) - are closer to mankind than most of the Greco-Roman gods, but don't answer requests for aid as often or as easily; what you can't do for yourself, they're not going to do for you. Draw on them for strength, but don't expect intervention.

There is one major exception, however. Runecasters - spellcasters whose power is bound up in, defined by and called forth through the use of small stones with runes engraved on them - believe their powers are granted by the gods, especially Odin. Runecasters usually use magic for fortune-telling and divination...but woe betide he who triggers a defensive rune set down by a Runecaster. I once saw a lightning rune bring forth a seemingly living bolt of lightning, which actively pursued the people who had set it off until each one had been dealt with...violently. Runecasting is powerful magic, and Runecasters are amongst the most honored and respected members of any Norden community.

Like Norden religions, the worship of the Egyptian pantheon of gods has changed little over the millennia. Egyptian civilization has thrived and grown, but the Pharaoh and his priests are still considered to be the representatives of the gods on Earth, and all of their rituals involve some form of magic. The average citizen will make requests of whichever god they feel is most appropriate, and feel that their magical abilities are granted by the gods. It's not uncommon for an Egyptian spellcaster who falls out of favor with his god to lose his ability to cast spells; the question of whether this is a matter of the power being withdrawn or a psychological impairment is open to interpretation. Tests have shown that a fallen Egyptian spellcaster still has access to Anima, but can't do anything with it. Interpret that as you will.

Other religions are equally tied to their magical traditions. The Druidic religion, another I'm intimately familiar with, has magic inseparably woven into all of its rituals and beliefs. Druidic magic is considered to be an aspect of nature, controlled - with nature's blessing - by human minds, hearts and hands, and granted by whichever of their deity-figures they're asking for aid. Having seen some of the things my mother can do with magic that I can't, I don't find it hard to accept that her power is granted by intelligent beings outside herself.

I know a few people - my mother amongst them - who argue that Druid beliefs don't comfortably fit into the Pantheist heading, saying instead that their beliefs are Gaiaist - that all are aspects of a single creative force, Mother Earth (so to speak). However, there are multiple figures in the Druidic belief cycle who are worshipped in the same way as gods, so they usually get lumped in with the Pantheists. Druidic magic is considered to be an aspect of nature, controlled by human minds and hands and granted by whichever deity-figure they're asking for aid. In the case of Druid beliefs, magic and religion are utterly inseparable.

Moving on from pantheistic religions to monotheistic ones, we can identify the three most commonly recognized and practiced without much trouble. In fact, whether they want to admit it or not, all three descend from the same original belief system. These are the so-called “Abrahamic” monotheistic religions…Judaism, Christianity and Islam. 

The most wide-spread of the three is Judaism. The religion of the Jewish people has flourished and grown strong, being one of the three dominant religions in Europe (with Greco-Roman Pantheism and Norden Pantheism). While synagogues can be found all over the world today, they are largely a meeting place for the Jewish community and the site of the specific High Holiday rituals of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Aside from those times of the year, most religious rituals are practiced at home, in family groups or in private.

Judaism has been fragmented into a number of sects, though with the exception of the Hasidim they all get along fairly well. Differences of note include:

The second most common monotheistic religion is, of course, Christianity. While some still consider them to be a comparatively small but very vocal sect of Judaism, the Christian belief that Jesus Christ (a Rabbi whose real name is lost to antiquity) was the Messiah sets them firmly apart. Most Christians get along well with their Cultural and Conservative Jewish brethren, but are frowned on by Orthodox Jews and have been known to disagree violently with Hasidim.

Christian churches can be found in most European and Asian nations, and their Priests are as respected as Rabbis as teachers, counselors and negotiators. There was a brief period near the end of the Age of Expansion where Christianity seemed poised to become a dominant force, but failed to come to the fore when a Roman Caesar refused to convert and didn't demand his people convert. For Christians, magic is absolutely and undeniably a gift from God, the power of God manifest in man...but it's up to men to use it properly. For the most part, magic is used only to accent the trappings of Christian faith and for the good of the community.

Finally, the third most common monotheistic religion is Islam. Again, some think of the Islamic religion is as an offshoot of Judaism, but the followers of Mohammed consider themselves sufficiently different that they are considered by most to be a separate religion altogether. Followers of Islam are primarily found in the Middle Eastern countries of Arabia, Persia and Judea, and have never really gained a foothold elsewhere. Like their Hebrew kin, they usually consider magic to be a gift from God, and magical practices are integral to the religion.

Many religions don't fall comfortably into either the pantheistic or monotheistic categories for a variety of reasons. For example, the practices of Shinto in Nippon don't have a deity (or deities) in the traditional sense. Instead, they practice a mixture of ancestor and nature spirit worship. Magic is, therefore, an integral and inseparable part of their religious practices.

Then there are the religions of the Vinland Native Tribes, which are so widely varied in both practice and what beings are worshipped that they are difficult to categorize. Some of the Tribes have practices that resemble the ancestor and spirit worship of Shinto, others believe in a pantheon of gods. As such, the individual tribal religions are rarely classified. In all cases, Shamans and Spiritcallers are their most common magical traditions, and are revered as being blessed by their gods; as such, magical practices are integral to their religions.

Over the years, there have - of course - been a few exceptions where religion and magic were at odds with one another. Those exceptions have been fewer since the Black Plague (1346 - 1350, cross reference with notes on 'Vampires: Nosferatu') pretty much wiped out the non-magical populations of Europe, Asia, Africa and India, but they still exist.

One such exception that immediately comes to mind is the Puritan movement of the 1630s. For a variety of reasons (largely political), the Puritans left Albion for Vinland, claiming a need for religious freedom and lack of tolerance from the reigning High King (Charles I). One of the reasons they made emphatic note of was the "Devilish influence of magic in the land" (I'm paraphrasing). When they sailed for Vinland, they had not a single spellcaster amongst them.

Unfortunately, they were less than friendly to both the native tribes and their Norden Viking neighbors...neither group was interested in converting to Puritan Christianity, nor were they impressed by the Puritan leaders' bible-thumping rants about the evils of magic, which both groups revered. The end result was predictable, and the resulting conflict was terrifically one-sided and over quickly (c. 1637, cross reference with A History of Intolerance: Visitors to Vinland by Chief Redhawk, New Vinland Press, 1962.)

Note to self: Add modern Aztec, Mayan and Incan empires to research; should make for interesting reading.