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White magick, black magick: What’s the difference?

Michelle Gruben opinion spells

White dove and black cat with a full moon

“I’m a white Witch. He practices black magick.” If you spend enough time in witchy company, you’re sure to come across some discussion of shades and tints of magick. But what do these terms really mean? What beliefs and ideas do they encompass? And, more to the point, is there really a distinction between white magick (good) and black magick (evil)?

Before I launch into the whole white/black magick taxonomy, I should acknowledge that these terms have fallen out of favor in recent decades. Few contemporary Witches really use them to describe their practice. You can blame creeping moral relativism for the shift, but there’s really more to it than that.

Try it. Bring up black/white magick at a gathering of Witches, and count the mere seconds until someone blandly recites, “Magick is neither good nor bad, it’s your intention that counts.” Then someone else will pipe up and make an analogy between magick and a knife (or box of matches). A third person will add that the words “black” and “white” have an implicit racial bias, and shouldn’t be used to describe morality all. A chorus of Witches will chime in that “white magick” and “black magick” are reductive, insensitive, and outdated terms.

Magick is a tool that can be used for good or evil. It’s your intention that matters. Sure, it’s a loathsome cliché. But it does neatly sum up how many Witches feel about the ethical status of magickal work. That’s another way of saying that any spell or working that’s done with good intentions is white magick.

Is it ever that simple? Of course not! Why? Because human intentions are never that simple. But, when you’re explaining to your grandma why witchcraft isn’t Devil worship, I suppose it’s enough.

I could stop right there, but my psychic powers tell me that some of you won’t be satisfied with such a glib answer. So let’s drill down a little further into the “colors” of magick.

The history of an idea

While the dichotomy of white versus black magick may be out of fashion at the moment, it’s not going away anytime soon. This concept can be traced all the way back to the earliest medieval writers on occultism. Though nobody likes to admit it, the entire Western esoteric tradition is built on a foundation of medieval magick. (And that includes a framework of Judaeo-Christian cosmology.) Even Wicca has never really escaped the long shadow of Jehovah. Trying to extract the medieval worldview from Western occultism is a bit like boning out a whole chicken: The end result may be more palatable, but also rather flat and wobbly.

The 12th and 13th centuries were a very exciting period of magickal discovery. Ancient traditions of geometry, astronomy, proto-chemistry, written language, and image-making were being rediscovered after getting buried during Europe’s Dark Ages. The medieval grimoires rushed to synthesize all this knowledge into a comprehensive map of all Creation. Fueling it all was a yearning to match the massive achievements of the Classical world.

Nostalgia for ancient times is something that many Witches and polytheists can relate to. And while we might be tempted think of the Pagan empires—Egypt, Greece, and Rome—as being happy magickal paradises, some of that is wishful thinking. State-sanctioned magick was basically limited to oracles and priests of the gods. Most ancient legal codes contain laws against witchcraft—including sorcery, necromancy and poisoning.

It’s not always spelled out in black and white (heh), but as long as magick has existed, there have been legal and social rules governing its use. Early civilizations did distinguish between approved and unapproved types of magick. Acceptable types—like augury and healing—were usually practiced under the sponsorship of some deity. As far as personal magick, you might ask Ra to punish your enemies or pray to Diana for fertility. Maybe you’d even sweeten the pot with a generous gift or carefully made tablet or talisman.

But that was as far as it was safe to go. You made your offerings, and you prayed to the gods for omens or favors. If you didn’t get your way, one can presume, you upped the ante and tried again. Anyone caught trying to manipulate the natural order of things through forbidden arts was distrusted as the worst type of criminal.

If you think about witchcraft laws from a sociopolitical point of view, they make a lot more sense. Kings and priests don’t want their authority undermined by every hedge-witch and soothsayer in the land. They can also do without the panic and turmoil that comes along with witchcraft scares. (On the other hand, arresting a handful of Witches every now and then is a tried and true from of propaganda—a way to show you’re still in charge and fear no one.)

Things were even stricter among the People of the Book. The Old Testament forbids witchcraft explicitly. Not just harmful sorcery in this case, but also polytheism, idolatry, fortune-telling, spell-casting, astrology, and mediumship. The scriptures demand complete trust in God, which was seen to be incompatible with occult practices. (Never mind the rumors that King Solomon himself practiced magick.) For centuries, Christians and Jews shunned witchcraft as a rebellious and faithless act against God. Predictive magick, such as astrology, was rejected as an affront to free will.

So anyway, here we are in the Middle Ages and the crowning of the Western occult tradition. Reams of ancient texts are being re-discovered (or in some cases, forged). People started reading Aristotle and Pythagoras again. The Emerald Tablet, the foundational text of Hermeticism, was translated into Latin for the first time. And soon enough, new Kabbalistic writings in Arabic were lending Abrahamic legitimacy to this esoteric flood.

The rules about magick began to get fuzzy. People started to lighten up a bit. But as (mostly) Christians, they still had to tread carefully. Doing the wrong kind of magick could still get you in big, big trouble. Suddenly, it became very important to know what occult pursuits were approved by the Man Upstairs, and which would damn you to hell. (Or at least a very uncomfortable death by execution.)

Among the first to draw a line in the sand was the 13th century French bishop William of Auvergne. William rejected the earlier Christian belief that all magick is demonic. His treatises made a distinction between “natural magick” (which was allowed) and other kinds (which were not). Natural magick draws on the beneficial properties of herbs, gems, and animals. Because these powers were conferred by God, using them in the service of mankind is permissible. Unacceptable forms of magick include consulting with spirits and all types of image magick—the use of idols, signs and symbols.

Medieval thinkers started—but did not finish—the conversation about white and black magick. For the next several hundred years, ceremonial magicians try to find a way to do what they want while staying at the right hand of the Lord. Rules are bent and hairs split. Magick circles acquire even more holy initials. Occultists tease out the boundaries between theurgy and thaumaturgy, high and low magick.

During the Enlightenment, the conversation goes dormant until the occult revival of the 19th century. Magickal ethics get revisited and refined in libraries and drawing rooms—this time with the introduction of Eastern ideas, including karma. Gerald Gardner unveils Wicca to a conservative British public. Facing a major PR battle, he rebrands witchcraft as “the craft of the Wise” and promulgates the Wiccan Rede and the Threefold Law.

The modern neo-Pagan movement is born. Witchcraft’s public makeover has begun. It’s from this point on that the phrase “white magick” comes into regular use as newly minted Witches step up to defend their craft.

What is white magick?

White magick, is beneficent magick. It is performed to help or heal the magick worker or the target. White magick may include spell-casting, energy work, divination, blessings and prayer. As first decribed in the Middle Ages, white magick often depends on the inherent virtues of colors, herbs, or stones. Through his/her knowledge and its careful application, the white Witch harnesses the hidden power of the natural world. To this day, white magick is sometimes called “natural magick” and even “the right-hand path.”

White Witchcraft generally makes use of Earth energies and celestial energies. But not all Witches agree on the source of their powers. White Witches may draw their power from higher beings, from their own energy/will, or by capturing and directing neutral energy toward positive outcomes. Many white Witches work with deities or angels to steer their work toward its highest purpose.

Cleansing and healing are the most obvious branches of white magick. White magick also encompasses spells for friendship, peace, wisdom, creativity, dreaming, and personal growth. However, white magick is not necessarily selfless. Also, even well-intentioned spells can have negative consequences.

Many Witches consider all magick to be white magick, as long as it does not harm another. Some Witches do not see love and money spells as white magick, since they may constrain the wills of others. Protection spells may qualify as white magick if they are passive (e.g., setting up wards around a property), but not if they seek out or attack an adversary. Binding magick—even if it’s intended to prevent harm—is also usually excluded from the realm of white magick.

Contrary to what medieval magicians would have condoned, today’s white magick practitioners may contact spirits as part of their work. Communing with spirits for guidance, channeled healing, and conveying messages from departed love ones are all spiritist practices that fit under the banner of white magick.

What is black magick?

Black magick, called “the left-hand path,” is white magick’s opposite. There are really two separate definitions of black magick swirling around: Magick intended to harm, and magick involving rebellious spirits.

The meaning of the term has been further complicated by people who label any occult practice they disapprove of as “black magick”. Workings involving the dead or the Underworld also get tossed into the black basket out of fear or misunderstanding. Voodoo and other (non-white) traditions have been exploited for decades by horror books and film—so they, too, get unfairly classified as black magick.

So, one definition of black magick would be all negative magick: Curses, hexes, psychic attack, spells to bring injury, illness, and misfortune.  Negative magick can be as simple as wishing harm upon someone, or as complex as an elaborate ritual. Occult practices that seize the energy of other life forms—such as vampirism and animal sacrifice—are regarded as black magick no matter their aim.

Another, older definition of “the black arts” is magick assisted by spirits or demons. The black magician makes pacts with the devil, conjures spirits of the dead, or summons infernal beings to do his bidding. In this medieval view of black magick, it doesn’t matter much what the magician’s purpose is. (She could be summoning Azaroth to heal her sick poodle. It’s the contact itself that’s unsavory.) Yet there are plenty of Solomonic and Goetic magicians who work with demons, and who would be mightily offended by the suggestion that what they do is black magick.

The most comprehensive way to tell the difference might be this: White magick works in harmony with nature, while black magick is against nature. Nature’s habit is to continually improve, albeit in fits and starts. Black magick seeks to undo progress through chaos and destruction. Quintessential black magick workings—raising the dead, pacts to achieve immortality—usually seek to defy the natural cycles of life, replacing them with the magician’s own selfish obsessions.

What is gray magick?

Gray magick is a term that describes ethically ambiguous magick. It first appears in occult writings in the 1960s. Also called neutral magick, gray magick is neither specifically beneficial nor hostile. It can also refer to magick in which the ends justify the means, and vice versa.

You can imagine a square in which white magick—doing good things for good reasons—is in one corner. In the opposite corner is black magick (doing bad things for bad reasons). All of the rest of the square is filled in by gray magick (doing bad things for good reasons, or doing good things for bad reasons). Gray magick exists in a continuum, from a cloudy tint to a deep shade of charcoal.

If you cast a binding spell to stop someone from bothering you, or a love-drawing spell without concern for the trail of broken hearts, you might call that gray magick. Persuasion and glamour magick are gray-ish. So is magickal power for its own sake. Money magick can be gray: If your charm to win at the gambling table causes the other players to lose, then it’s not clear that your magick has contributed to the greater good. In one sense, all magick done for self-gratification can be considered gray magick at best.

Is gray magick a real category, or a cop-out? Gray magick is one way of acknowledging that you can never know all the consequences of your magick, and that your motivations may not be as saintly as you believe them to be. However, it can also be a way of dodging responsibility—or worse yet, delaying action.

Uncle Al (Crowley) —tells us, “The first condition of success in magick is purity of purpose.” If you’re not wholly committed, the results of your magick will be so feeble that you won’t need to worry whether it’s black, white, or gray.

Other colors

Are there other colors of magick? So glad you asked! “Green magick” or “green witchcraft” refers to the herbal branches of the magickal arts. Green Witches sometimes use that phrase to emphasize their reliance on the plant kingdom. A related term is “brown magick,” which includes the magick of animal guides, animal familiars, and shapeshifting.  And although it’s not common, I have heard the term “red magick” to describe the use of (consensual) bloodletting or sexual activity to raise massive amounts of energy in a hurry.

White and black magick today

Wiccans and Witches have been trying for decades to convince the public that their magick is benign—and for the most part, it’s worked. There’s more understanding and acceptance of alternative spirituality than ever before. If you tell someone you’re a Witch in my city, they’re more likely to visualize a pile of herbs and cats and crystals than some disturbing rite. It only took a thousand years, but white magick is finally dominating the cultural conversation about witchcraft.

But some Witches, it seems, do miss the element of fright that comes along with their vocation. Some don’t want to be lumped in with the wishy-washy, lovey-dovey white-light crowd. Some just don’t give a damn about what color their magick is, as long as it works. For every mild-mannered Wiccan agonizing over whether her reversal spell violates the Rede, there is someone in a botanica buying a bottle of Bend Over Oil.

The whole black magick/white magick divide is arbitrary, culturally specific, and rooted in old Judaeo-Christian dogma that we Pagans profess not to believe in. And yet, magickal actions, like all actions, can have serious consequences. Most of us can agree that there are types of magick that are inhumane and destructive, and some that are vastly beneficial. But there’s a lot of wiggle room in the middle of the spectrum. In speaking and writing, the definitions of black and white magick seem to come down to what is acceptable to an individual Witch. It’s worth keeping these tired phrases around if they can help us to think and talk about magickal ethics.

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