January 14, 2023
by Sean Alexander
This article will explore the differences between so-called high magick and low magick, as well as what goes into unifying them. As with my other articles, "magic" (sometimes spelled "magick") refers to an indefinable force that all of us know even if we have difficulty giving it an exact definition.
As with many aspects of the esoteric and occult and even mainstream religion, magic is composed of dualities. The most obvious divide is that of black ("bad") magic and white ("good") magic. From time to time, when acquaintances find out that I mess with the craft, they immediately ask "but you're doing the good kind of magic, right?"
So, I personally prefer the Latin terms Maleficium and Beneficium. These better encapsulate the difference between working with ill intentions (malice) and working to heal (benefit). Although something of a trope, a sort of stereotype rooted more in both folklore and mass media than in how real magic is done in the world, this duality still helps classify our knowledge of the magical arts.
But how should we describe magic in terms beyond good and evil? After all, not all magic has to be about fighting or healing. We can use it to explore our imagination, through astral travel or guided visualization, or bring clarity to nebulous thoughts, through card reading or other forms of divination. When building up rituals and other magical acts from scratch, we still need a moral structure or framework to create a relatable experience and efficient execution of ceremonial magic work.
Taking into account what is mentioned above, high and low magic offer the right kind of framework of which we can create more elaborate operations, regardless of their moral character. While high magic and low magic are not exclusive to each other, malicious and beneficial magic still cannot easily be mixed. For instance, one doesn't "hex" someone to enjoy good health. Just as with white and black magic, it is really important to note that these terms are not value judgments— high magic isn't the "better" of the two, nor does low magic belong in the gutter. Aside from very distinct ways of operation, low magic often revolves around internal transformation (especially in the case of alchemy and herbalism) whereas high magic concerns itself with producing change in the outside world.
Low magic, also called natural magic, is closely linked to the natural world and how its laws manifest in us both mentally and physiologically. In this sense, high magic resembles engineering, in that it uses those same natural laws to build, create, and destroy; low magic is the pure science which we study for its own sake. Although low magic includes folkloric traditions such as herbalism and astrology, it also encompasses more modern innovations such as alchemy and divination. I define “alchemy” as a form of deep psychology that uses chemical metaphors for explaining spiritual and cognitive mechanisms, in which the alchemist breaks down, or dissolves, their ego, and reforms, or coagulates, himself or herself in a perfected way. Similarly, I define “divination” as gaining clarification on a question, in the same way one finds divine inspiration.
Low magic, too, is certainly the ancestor of modern science, but the reason magicians are interested in this proto-science and not only modern science is that low magic blends intuitions about the natural world, and lets us experience the normal world through a lens that shows how awe-inspiring the normal things we take for granted actually are. Low magic also has its roots in shamanism, the oldest religious and scientific paradigm enjoyed by humans and our ancestors. Perhaps instead of just calling it "natural" magic, one should think of it as "intuitive" magic.
Likewise, low magic is the kind of magic that a child would invent in their youth and perfect over the course of their life. Low, in this sense, means that one is going deep into the recesses of one's mind. In fact, two of the most influential modern figures in occultism, notorious Satanist Anton LaVey and psychologist Carl Jung, both recognized low magic as a kind of deep psychology. Jung even went further and claimed that alchemy was the predecessor of not only modern chemistry, but of psychoanalysis itself.
High magic is often called ceremonial magic, ritual magic, or learned magic. Despite being ritual-centric, these high magick rituals have historically consisted primarily of Goetia (conjuration of angels, demons, or djinn/genies) and Theurgy (the working with and becoming a deity). Both Goetic and Theurgic practices are methods of magic, rather than full-scale belief systems, that have both malicious and beneficial aspects. These practices can be expressed via a distinctively devotional character (right-hand path) or revolve around self-empowerment (left-hand path). For more about the differences between the Right- and Left-hand Paths, check out this blog article I wrote a while back about An Introduction to Magic[k] and Alternative Belief Systems.
High magic enjoyed a resurgence starting in the late 1800s and early 1900s as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn grew popular and subsequently died out. The Golden Dawn was a magical system that blended elements of Christian and Jewish mysticism with elements from Freemasonry and the Tarot, seeking to unify all of the religions into one single framework. Although considered a dead system by many, the Golden Dawn has influenced Wicca and Thelema, and its legacy and impact cannot really be overstated. If this interests you, be aware that there are some legitimate groups (such as the Gnostic Christian Builders of the Adytum) but are drowned out by many pretenders to the Golden Dawn legacy who share the name but are only in it for the money. The Golden Dawn materials are entirely public domain, so anyone who has an interest in them ought to research them before spending money.
But high magic goes further back. Before the late 19th and early 20th century revival of this form of magic, high magic was central in the Renaissance-era grimoire tradition. The word "grimoire" basically means "grammar" in French, and these were books that contained elaborate rituals magic and sometimes the confessions of semi-anonymous magicians who attempted to perform these magical operations. It is not shocking then that the French grimoires influenced both Louisiana Voodoo and Haitian Vodoun. However, Even before this era, the Greeks and Romans participated in what we now call "mystery religions" -- such as the Eleusian Mysteries, which were initiations held every year for the cult of Demeter and Persephone. Little more is known about these (hence the name "mystery"), but we do know that they combined theatrical elements that culminated in the enlightenment of the participants.
Though a very subtle difference, it may help somewhat to think of a grimoire not as a "book of spells" or “spellbook” (in the sense of how Wiccans generally maintain a personal Book of Shadows), but as a dictionary in which the components of spells are laid out. Many of the grimoires feature a fictitious version of King Solomon, and the operations described in these grimoires largely consisted of channeling the core essence of King Solomon to beg angels to come down to protect the magician while he (in these grimoires the magician was always assumed to be a man) is controlling demons to do things such as bring a loved one closer, or generate material wealth. “The Book of Ceremonial Magic” is a somewhat comprehensive list of grimoires, compiled by A. E. Waite (an early Golden Dawn member and the co-creator of the most widely recognized tarot deck in history, the Rider-Waite-Colman deck).
But let me caveat what I just said with this: if you feel bothered by the idea of performing ritual magic according to a flagrantly, offensive cultural stereotype (what some would call "ethnic drag") by pretending to be a fictitious version of a Jewish Biblical figure whom begs god to have demons show up and hand you cartoonishly large bags of gold — then you are not alone. Besides the fact that Solomon probably never actually existed, there is increasing evidence that these grimoires were created by Catholic priests, who learned Jewish mysticism (mainly Qabala via the 13th century classic text, The Zohar) and Hebrew under the direction of the Vatican, in order to discredit the Jewish religion.
image: "Émile Bayard Summoning the Beloved Dead, Illustration from ‘Histoire de la magie’ (History of magic) by Paul Christian, Paris, 1870 ” - this supposedly represents Moina and MacGregor Mathers in Rites of Isis, a Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn ritual
So what high magic really boils down to is this: if we take into consideration the theatrical aspect of the high magick rituals, as well as the Goetic/Theurgic aspects, if one is reaching higher into another realm, and creating a bridge between the two. It is up to the individual to decide whether that world involved is a metaphysical world above us (or below if you want to work with demons), or is some aspect of the mind. Some prefer to work with what they call their guardian angel (through what is called augoeidical work), but will readily say that their angel is their super-ego or the guiding mental force that drives their action. Regardless of the metaphysical commitments one makes, the concept still remains the same.
In conclusion, the theatrical aspect of ritual allows for an expressive power not afforded by simply lighting a candle and making a wish. From this, it is rather straightforward to combine both high and low magic, using the ritualistic theatre of the latter with the raw intention and sense of worldly connection provided by the latter.
So, now that we have a basic understanding of the differences, how can we can use high magick and low magick both in our practice? Some techniques to get started with your own versions of blending the two are using the assumption of god-forms - a kind of Theurgical ritual that was inspired by Egyptian art, particularly the gods and goddesses having animal heads on human bodies- and transmutation. The following ritual, which I call “Le Défenseur du temps” (French for “The Defender of Time,” combines the two using a chronomancy (time magic) as its paradigm.
In this ritual, the magician shall summon three entities — a dragon, a crab, and a phoenix — to assist in channeling their guardian angel. Although the term "angel" has modern connotations of a winged, androgynous human draped in white clothes, the term really just means "messenger" (coming from the Hebrew word מַלְאָךְ or mal’akh). This angel can be a personal, inspiring figure they look up to, or a version of yourself that you aspire to become.
Of historical note, this ritual is loosely based on a statue by the same name that I saw in France when I was 4 years old, made by French artist Jacques Monestier in 1979, where it remains to this day, although it ceased operating in 2003.
The ritual combines high magic with low magic by using elements from Tarot, Alchemy, and Freemasonry to form a symbolic bond between a painful event one has gone through, to an inanimate object that will remind the magician that the sacrifices of the path were necessary for a perfected future. The three creatures evoked in this ritual represent the ground, sky, and sea; one can think of them as the past, present, and future (it is up to the reader to decide which they identify with each).
Note: This ritual requires no materials but free to embellish it as you please!
image: Temperance bearing an hourglass; detail Lorenzetti's Allegory of Good Government, 1338
Sean Alexander is an independent author and freelance writer from the Los Angeles area, specializing in the occult and other curiosities. He is also a decorated veteran of the United States Army.
Additionally, if you are looking for a comprehensive system of magic that’s both innovative and pays homage to the past, look no further than his new book, Vapourmage, which goes over divination, journaling, astral projection, and dream interpretation.
Read more on astrology, horoscopes, occultism, magick & ritual on our blog, Esoteric Insights!
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