We live in a magical world. Except we don’t. Which is it?
Well, obviously we live in a magical world, but almost no one sees it that way, and even those of us who do see the world as magical suffer the dominant paradigm and live effectively in two worlds — one mundane and one magical.
It doesn’t have to be that way. To jump to my conclusion, the world is magical through and through, but suffering the dominant paradigm shackles our perception and thus our lives in a mundane way of thinking even if we believe in magic!
Let me explain.
What I call ‘the dominant paradigm’ is a popularized version of the different ideas developed over the last few centuries about how the world works. These different ideas are called cosmologies. Each of us has a cosmology. This is a model of our reality that determines how we look at things. It’s a paradigm through which we can understand the world, ‘paradigm’ being just an old Greek word for ‘model.’ In the dominant cosmology our world is round, just one planet among many in the solar system, and spins and orbits around the sun which is no more than a giant ball of plasma.
A cosmology, though, is more than just an idea like ‘the world is round’ or ‘gravity pulls us down,’ even though these statements both depend on our current dominant paradigm, i.e. the commonly held cosmology. Our cosmology actually organizes our experiences as we are experiencing them. The weakest version of this can be seen in confirmation bias, a subtle process of perception whereby we only allow certain kinds of information to take root in our minds. At its strongest, cosmology can utterly obfuscate “reality” because what we perceive as reality is dependent on it. At its most powerful … well, that’s for a different time.
To illustrate the power of cosmology, consider the history of hypnotism. In the mid-nineteenth century there was practically a campaign by the medical establishment to discredit hypnotism as an authentic tool for healing, despite its being used in place of general anesthesia in open surgery during the Civil War. In the 1920’s interest in the use of hypnotism began to challenge its dismissal until official recognition began to tip the balance in its favour, but resistance to it still remains. This clash of cosmologies, one in which hypnotism is an authentically powerful mental tool and one in which it’s all hokum and has at best no value beyond entertainment, hounded hypnotism since Franz Mesmer, but the interesting thing is that it seems to have worked better in places where people believed it worked — places where the cosmology allowed for it. Dr. James Esdaile actually had better success with hypnotism as a surgical anaesthetic in India than in England precisely for this reason.
Of course this is where the idea of cosmologies overlaps with the very well-known idea that belief is fantastically important, but that is not where I am going with this. From the placebo effect to witch-doctors’ curses, the idea that belief has the power to change things physically is hardly new. Everyone who has any interest in paganism is familiar with it, but what I am interested here is a broader, less practically immediate, deeper and thus more powerful thing: the cosmological aspect.
You see, even if we believe that the magic we try to do will work, we are still conceiving it as something which breaks or at least supersedes the physical laws of nature. (By supersede, what I mean is that the performance of magic still operates by causative principles, i.e. I do this and that happens, but these principles operate either above, beside, or otherwise outside of newtonian physics.) That is its appeal, but funnily enough Tolkien was one of the first to take this idea to task. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Galadriel tells Samwise
…”for this is what your folk would call magic. I believe; though I do not understand clearly what they mean; and they seem also to use the same word of the deceits of the Enemy.”
The idea is that, as Arthur C. Clarke once observed, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Tolkien’s elves simply have such advanced technology that their quality goods seem magical to everyone else.
Now if you’re wondering how I can talk about elves with advanced technology, then your cosmology is showing. When most people think of advanced technology they think of digital devices, electricity, plastic and internal combustion engines, but this is a holdover of post-industrial thinking that insisted progress was to be found in mechanization, the advancement of our current economic system, and the civilizing of primitive peoples by subjecting them to mechanization and our economic system. If you think an elf with advanced technology means that they’re using nanobots and teleporters then you’re missing my meaning entirely, and I will need to explain a little more.
The word technology comes from two Greek words: techne meaning skill or art, and logos meaning word or study. Now techne has developed its own technical (see what I did there — technical?) meaning in Art History and other similar fields. In these areas the term specifically refers to the ability to apply fundamental principles so as to produce something. By this definition, poetic art is a technology. To limit technology only to physical objects is to limit one’s mind to that late nineteenth-century positivism which denies soul and spirit, to say nothing of the gods.
To put it another way, if you think technology only applies to space ships and tv’s then you’re not thinking like a pagan.
To the pagans of the ancient world there was no breaking of natural law. Sir Isaac Newton hadn’t written his Principia yet and so had not built the ground floor of our modern cosmology. (Francis Bacon, Copernicus, Galilei etc. had laid the foundation.) To those early pagans, the world was fluid and malleable, so magic wasn’t about stepping outside the normal way things work. In fact, every pagan tradition viewed magic as simply the product of special knowledge that allowed you to do really cool stuff. What mattered was what you did with that knowledge.
Ok, so I’ve beaten about the bush long enough. The reality is that we are wizards beyond anything J.K. Rowling has invented.
It is a matter of course that we can get into giant metal tubes that can fly. We have little panes of glass that are literally windows to places far removed from us. We make clothing out of the decomposed matter of plants and animals that lived millions of years ago. We can cure diseases by swallowing something that looks and feels like a tiny rock. We can cut people open, fix what is wrong with them inside, and then sew them back up again safely. In many cases now, we don’t even have to cut them open! We can use rays of light to fix poor vision and, just for the fun of it, have huge rooms where we all can share a collective dream. They’re called cinemas.
But where are the robes? Where are the castles? Where are the beautifully illustrated tomes behind secret doors carved with intricate runes?
The problem is that we can do all this technological magic, but we don’t appreciate it as magic because we understand the technology as being scientific and not magical. It’s just cold, dead science that tells us that our world around us is just as cold and dead.
Ok, sorry about that thing I just inserted into my post. Let me make it better …
Now according to the dominant paradigm, the second image — the dragon and the floating castle — is what we want the world to be like, all beauty and wonder, but the reality is the previous image: an uncaring objective universe. It is founded on this prevalent notion that our mind, imagination and intention have nothing to do with this objective universe, while the other is founded on the principle that dragons and floating castles are awesome: austere objectivism vs. aesthetics; realism vs. romanticism; science vs. magic.
The social damage resultant from objectivism is catastrophic, but again that is a post for a different time. My ultimate point is that we as pagans must overcome the dominant paradigm in our own lives, must replace the prevalent objectivist cosmology with one that invests reality with that wondrous magic we so yearn for. We must do so because I believe that this yearning among pagans, this desire for the Otherworld, is actually a deep understanding that the science of the last three centuries does not tell us anything about how the world truly is at a deep, fundamental level. It explains how things are in this realm we occupy between the immense and the tiny, this realm that blends extremes in such a way that we can live and grow and be conscious, this Middle Realm, this Midgard, and only now are scientists beginning to address the weirdness that is out there in Útgarðr.
Of course it’s not enough to just say “get rid of the baggage.” In terms of the mind and soul you never really get rid of something; you just make it part of something bigger and better, so what is to encompass and drown out this dominant paradigm?
I won’t get into it fully here as this post has gone on long enough (though believe-you-me I will in the future), but the basic method is to look back to our earlier viewpoints, our traditional paganisms, and see what we get when we combine those views with the findings of modern science. The four elements, for example, had interconnected, resonant meanings with things out here in the larger world, so what happens when we start examining the chemical elements from the same perspective? Earth, Air, Fire and Water were associated with the four seasons, the four directions, and the four qualities, dry, wet, hot, and cold, and they map easily onto solids, gasses, plasma, and liquids — the four states of matter — so what happens when we look at the four fundamental interactions or forces in the same way? How do they fit into it all?
One of the things that separates traditional paganism from contemporary paganism is an inclusivity that presumes syncretism. What I mean by that is that our pagan forebears never thought twice about including new findings and new ways of seeing into their cosmologies. It’s one of the reasons why Christianity was able to take over so easily in Europe. What matters to traditional paganism is what works, not what is right. Many contemporary pagans today fall into conflict over what is right whether in terms of social justice, historical authenticity, or — yes — even cosmology. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Conflict is a part of life and it produces growth and change speedily, but it isn’t comfortable and it can often be destructive. For a rather depressing if edifying reflection on how this is playing out in the contemporary pagan world, check out John Michael Greer’s (a little too-)gleeful account of Rhyd Wildermuth’s voice in contemporary paganism’s possible decline.
As a last note, among druids there is a concept of Awen, a kind of poetic and divine inspiration which informs all things. (N.B. The Wikipedia article I link to takes the word back to *-uel. I am more of a mind to connect it to *au(e)- which could also mean ‘to flow‘ and gives it a possible connection to water, literally as well as figuratively.) In many ways Awen is like the concept of the Tao but with some key differences. The important thing is that it is first and foremost the idea that everything is magic, no matter how you look at it. Everything has divine resonance. You can’t get away from it unless you choose to hide from its sheer ubiquity, like a fish denying the existence of water (and this takes us back to my source quote from The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner — ‘water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink‘). It can be easy to be overwhelmed by the immensity and beauty of it all, but isn’t that better than feeling like there is no meaning and no beauty in anything?