Great of Magic. The Enchantress. Lady of Words of Power. What does it mean that Isis bears these (and so many more) epithets having to do with magic? And what do we mean by magic, anyway?
You probably already know that the ancient Egyptian word that we translate as “magic” is heka. In Egypt, heka was in no way supernatural, that is, above nature. Indeed, Heka (the God) and heka (the force) 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, so Heka’s power is infused in every Deity and every thing that comes after Him.
The Deities, of course, 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 Egyptian heka as magic is because that’s how the ancient Greeks translated it: mageia. The Greeks had a somewhat ambivalent relationship with magic. Oh, they used it (witness the Greek Magical Papyri), but it was condemned as well.
This wasn’t true on the Egyptian side. Since heka was a building block of the universe, it was a good thing. And yes, of course, it could be used for ill; there are plenty of Egyptian destructive spells, but the force itself is not bad. Magic was also frequently teamed with healing. An Egyptian stele listing the names and titles of physicians has both sunu, “doctors” and hem-netjer Heka, “Servants of the God Heka.” In fact, most of the ancient Egyptian healing formulae have both practical and magical components.
And so magic meets science, as it usually does around thoughtful magicians. Interestingly, magicians of every age often attempt to explain magic with the science of their time. Modern magicians like to quote Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” We all know that it somehow works, yet we still want to explain to ourselves precisely how.
In ancient Egypt, the reason was divine. Heka the force and Heka the God are so intertwined that often no distinction seems to be made between them. Heka is sacred science, priestly science, and Magic is a Divine, Living, Conscious Power. Surely ancient Egypt’s rather precise ritual forms were the advanced scientific formulae of their day, having been refined through many generations of experimentation.
Even so, magic has always been edgy. (Quite a few ancient Egyptian formulae swear the user to secrecy.) And what humans would like to do with magic is not always benevolent. Magic’s reputation has suffered the consequences.
By the Middle Ages, magic was being explained in demonic terms; magicians invoked devils to do their bidding. So now, instead of magic being basically good and a gift to humankind, magic was now basically bad and a function of demons.
Alchemists wisely emphasized the science of their Art, blending spirituality with chemistry in their desire to reveal the Ways of Nature (including the ways of human spiritual nature). They would sometimes refer to this as unveiling Isis or Venus.
18th-century occultists preferred 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, the magician 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, so naturally magical explanation got a psychological twist.
Many modern magicians speak of magic as “energy.” From cosmic rays to quantum mechanics, there are many types of energy we are just beginning to study and will perhaps someday understand. I’ve been interested in the idea that the four fundamental forces of nature (the strong force, the weak force, electromagnetism, and gravity) might correspond to the four Elements (Fire, Water, Air, Earth). Other modern magicians speak of magic in terms of information—as ones and zeros even—since that is a key scientific paradigm of our day.
I find value in most of these ideas about magic. Information magic gets along famously with Egyptian magic and its hekau, its “Words of Power.” The as-yet-unexplained-energy theory of magic works well with ancient Egyptian magic, too. We can clearly see instances of the flow of this power, whether in a shower of ankhs, in sunbeams, or simply as streams of energy as on the golden shrine of Tutankhamon; the energy is not only real, but in some sense physical. Both the demon and Deity theories attribute consciousness to magic as was done in ancient Egypt with Heka. And yes, of course, our own psychology plays an important part in our magic.
As devotees of Isis, the Goddess of Magic, I think we have a certain obligation to address magic in some way in our personal practice.
Perhaps it is the magic of spiritual growth, the Great Work of Hermeticism. Healers might explore the connection between magic and medicine or work toward the healing for the earth. Or 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.
Whatever form our own personal understanding and practice of magic may take, under the wings of Isis and with Her guidance, I trust it will be blessed.