Great of Magic. The Enchantress. Lady of Sacred Magic. What does it mean that Isis bears these (and so many more) titles having to do with magic? What is magic?
If you’ve been reading this blog, you already know that “magic” isn’t what the ancient Egyptians would have said. They would have said heka. But the same question applies: what the heck is heka? (Pronunciation note: I usually say “HAY-kah,” because I think it sounds better than heck-kah. Coptic shows the word as hik. If Coptic retained the vowel correctly, then the Egyptians might have said hik-kah, which is worse, since it sounds—in my head anyway—like hiccup. So for me, hay-kah it is.)
Unfortunately, we can’t ask any ancient priestesses or priests of the Goddess of Magic what they meant by magic. So we have to to look to some of the scholars who have studied it. One of the first things that they—and we—see is that in Egypt, heka was not at all supernatural, that is above nature. Indeed, Heka (the God) and heka (the concept) were the very foundation of the natural world. In at least one myth, the God Heka, Magic personified, is the Being first made by the Creator and Heka’s power in every Deity and every thing that comes after Him. The Deities are the most potent wielders of heka, though humanity has its portion, given to us “to ward off the blow of events,” according to one of the Wisdom Texts.
The reason we translate heka as magic is because that’s how the ancient Greeks, who were actually in contact with the ancient Egyptians, translated it: mageia. A person “who does heka” was translated by the Greeks as a magos (masc.) or maga (fem.). On the Egyptian priestly side of things, there were Servants of the God Heka, who were, no doubt, considered powerful magicians. Interestingly, an Egyptian stele listing the names and titles of physicians has both sunu, “doctors” and hem-netjer Heka, “Servants of the God Heka.”
So here magic meets science, as it usually does around thoughtful magicians. It seems that the magicians of every age are anxious to explain magic with the science of their time. Everybody knows that it works (somehow); yet we have a need to explain to ourselves precisely how. In ancient Egypt, heka and Heka are so intertwined that often no distinction seems to be made between them. This is sacred science, priestly science, and magic is a Divine, living, conscious “energy.” Egyptian magic has rather precise ritual forms. Surely these were the advanced scientific forms of their day, having been refined through many generations of experimentation.
In the Middle Ages, magic might be explained in demonic or satanic terms; the magician invoked devils to do his bidding; it was sort of an anti-priestly science of ritual names and actions. Alchemists blended spirituality with chemistry and explained both effects as revealing the Ways of Nature. And isn’t revealing the workings of nature what scientists do to this very day?
18th-century occultists preferred to use scientific-sounding explanations for magical effects: “magnetism” explained attractions between things as well as defined pathways for moving “life energy” or the “etheric medium.” In the late 19th and early 20th century, Aleister Crowley famously defined magic as “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will” and “the Science of understanding oneself and one’s conditions. It is the Art of applying that understanding in action.” Psychology was a relatively new science at the time, you see.
Many modern magicworkers speak of magic as “energy.” There are many types of energy we are just beginning to understand or do not yet understand, so why shouldn’t magical energy be one of these? Some “postmodern magicians” speak of magic in terms of information—as ones and zeros even—since that is the scientific paradigm of our day.
The truth is, I find value in just about all of these ideas about magic. Information magic gets along famously with Egyptian magic and its Words of Power (which is a translation of hekau; plural of heka). The as-yet-unexplained-energy theory of magic also works well with ancient Egyptian magic as there often seems to have been a physical component in Egyptian magic. Both the demon and Deity theories attribute consciousness to magic as was done in ancient Egypt with Heka. And how can our own psychology not play a part in magic?
As usual, my personal answer to a definition of magic is “all of the above.”
As devotees of Isis, the Goddess of Sacred Magic, we have a certain obligation to address magic in some way in our personal practice. This may be the magic of spiritual growth, the Great Work of Hermeticism. Healers might explore the connection between magic and medicine. We may find we have a talent for practical magic, the spellcasting magic that can help us get a job or find a parking spot.
Come to think of it, I haven’t been doing enough magic lately. Think I’ll try to remedy that this weekend…