White magic has traditionally referred to the use of supernatural
powers or magic for good and selfless purposes. With respect to the
philosophy of left-hand path and right-hand path, white magic is the
benevolent counterpart of malicious black magic. Because of its ties
to traditional pagan nature worship, white magic is often also referred
to as "natural magic".
In his 1978 book, A History of White Magic, recognised occult author
Gareth Knight traces the origins of white magic to early adaptations
of paleolithic religion and early religious history in general, including
the polytheistic traditions of Ancient Egypt and the later monotheistic
ideas of Judaism and early Christianity.
In particular, he traces many of the traditions of white magic to the
early worship of local "gods and goddesses of fertility and vegetation
who were usually worshipped at hill-top shrines" and were "attractive
to a nomadic race settling down to an agricultural existence". He
focuses in particular on the nomadic Hebrew-speaking tribes and
suggests that early Jews saw the worship of such deities more in
terms of atavism than evil. It was only when the polytheistic and pagan
Roman Empire began to expand that Jewish leaders began to rally
against those ideas.
During the Renaissance
By the late 1400s, natural magic "had become much discussed in
high-cultural circles". "Followers" of Marsilio Ficino advocated the
existence of spiritual beings and spirits in general, though many such
theories ran counter to the ideas of the later Age of Enlightenment.
While Ficino and his supporters were treated with hostility by the
Roman Catholic Church, the Church itself also acknowledged the
existence of such beings; such acknowledgement was the crux of
campaigns against witchcraft. Ficino, though, theorised a "purely
natural" magic that did not require the invocation of spirits, malevolent
or malicious. In doing so, he came into conflict with Johannes
Trithemius who refused to believe in Ficino's theory but created
spells and incantations of his own related to beneficial
communication with spirits. His works, including the Steganographia,
were not published until the 1600s and were then immediately placed
on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum where they remained until the
20th century. Trithemius' "disciple" Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa was
responsible for publishing some of his work and in turn created his
own. His work included the De occulta philosophia libri tres which
contained an outline of, among other things, classical elements,
numerology, astrology and kabbalah and detailed ways of utilizing
these relationships and laws in medicine, scrying, alchemy and rituals
and ceremonies. Giambattista della Porta expanded on many of
these ideas in his Magia Naturalis.
It is the coming-together of these ideas - early "natural" religions and
later philosophical thinking - that Knight suggests is "at the root of the
Western tradition of white magic". Also at the root of white magic are
symbols and religious symbolism in particular. The star, Knight gives
as example, was of critical importance to Jewish tradition and then to
early Christians (like the Star of David) and to later Masonic tradition
and Neo-paganism. It continues to be of importance of white magic
practitioners in the form of the pentagram and night-time ritual.
Zambelli goes further and suggests that white magic - though then not
specifically distinct from its counterpart black magic - grew as the
more acceptable form of occult and pagan study in the era of the
Inquisition and anti-witchcraft sentiment. If black magic was that which
involved Trithemius' invocation of demons, Ficino's "purely natural"
white magic could be framed as the study of "natural" phenomena in
general with no evil or irreligious intent whatsoever. Zambelli places
academics like Giordano Bruno in this category of "clandestine"
practitioners of magic.
In his 2009 book, Magic and Alchemy, Robert M. Place provides a
broad modern definition of both black and white magic, preferring
instead to refer to them as "high magic" (white) and "low magic"
(black) based primarily on intentions of the practitioner employing
them. His modern definition maintains that the purpose of white
magic is to "do good" or to "bring the practitioner to a higher spiritual
state" of enlightenment or consciousness. He acknowledges, though,
that this broader definition (of "high" and "low") suffers from
prejudices as good-intentioned folk magic may be considered "low"
while ceremonial magic involving expensive or exclusive components
may be considered by some as "high magic", regardless of intent.
According to Place, effectively all prehistoric shamanistic magic was
"helping" white magic and thus the basic essence of that magic
forms the framework of modern white magic: curing illness or injury,
divining the future or interpreting dreams, finding lost items,
appeasing spirits, controlling weather or harvest and generating
good luck or well-being.
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