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Skeptical Inquiry in Folk and Ceremonial Magic

To: alt.magick.tyagi,alt.paranet.skeptic,alt.magick,alt.pagan.magick,alt.paranormal.spells.hexes.magic,sci.skeptic
From: catherine yronwode 
Subject: Re: Skeptical Inquiry in Folk and Ceremonial Magic
Date: Sat, 06 Dec 2003 09:51:38 GMT

flufwikn wrote:
> Tom:

> # Folk magic arose in small communities, where the root doctor 
> # or the local variant on a shaman was immediately and repeatedly
> # available to the people.

And this is still the way it is. Folk magic practitioners generally have
homes or storefronts and can be visited. They are not to be confused
with anonymized telephone psychic services or the like who are only
accessible in cyber space. 

I regularly get visitors at my place -- many miles off the beaten track.
In the tradition i work in, it is common for folks to travel to see the
root worker. 

Last week a man came up about an hour and a half drive to meet me and
consult about how to do some work for a dying friend. This man was born
in Lousisana, is in his late 50s, and is a Viet Nam veteran. His late
uncle was a locally celebrated root doctor in the Creole Cajun area
around Lafayette. We talked for hours, swapping tales and recipes, and
memories. He bought some candles, oils, and books, and was confident
that he would be able to help his friend die in greater peace.Siva and i
took him out to dinner, and i hope he will drop by and see us again. 

I had a woman here today who had driven 2 1/2 hours, stayed overnight in
a motel, and waited an hour in the morning at the shop to see me and
talk with me. She is in her mid 30s, has a 4 year old son, was born in
Belzoni, Mississippi, and grew up in Chicago. Her late grandmother was a
practitioner and she said she wanted to apprentice herself to me. She
had alkready bought my book and is taking my correspidence class. I told
her i was interested in teaching her and would pay her to work while she
learned because i don't use people, i try to help them. I believe she
may have what it takes to become a root worker. She bought some books,
candles, herbs, and oils. We talked over some of her family traditions
and shared a few laughs. It would be a long drive for her to come up
here once a week, but if she can do it, i would be proud to be her

My rural location is unusual in these urban days, but going a great
distance to see a root worker is not unusual. 

> reasonable. one might say that ceremonial magic arose in secret
> societies and therefore be subjected to similar limitations.

Well, as long as one is not expelled from the lodge / temple /
organization, then one's initiatior is "immediately and repeatedly available."
> # The business didn't operate on a "Let the buyer beware" basis. 
> #  That person didn't sell you a spell kit and let it go at that. 

I cannot speak for others who make and sell spell kits, of course, but
within my own tradition, i have never felt that they are marketed by
impersonal salespeople -- rather, the occult shop owner talks you
through the work, assembles the products for you, gives you a hand-out
or instruction sheet, physically demonstrates the altar layout if you
visit the shop, and is readily available by telephone or in person to
talk about how the work was going. 

> # He or she was accountable and, if the remedy didn't work, then, by
> # cracky, everybody knew who to blame and it wasn't the victim.
> my impression is that this is far from a convention. generally,
> skill at spell casting has probably been taken into consideration,
> as well as role with respect to any kind of spiritual authority.

It is a mistake to assume that most practitioners of folk magic believe
that it invariably works, like adding water to a box of instant mashed
potatoes -- and that if it fails, it is the rootworker's fault. This is
not so.  

Most folks know that skill or giftedness enters into magical successes,
that timing is important, that traditional natural ingredients are
preferred, that personal will and an outpouring of spiritual energy are
crucial -- and that even when everything is done with the strongest of
intentions and best of timing and authentic ingredients by a worker of
great skill or giftedness, there is still no guarantee of success.

Tiger Woods is one of the greatest golfers ever. He sometimes loses. He
sometimes loses extensively. No one says that golf is a game of random
chance or that Tiger Woods is a fraud just because he cannot win every
game. It is the same with magic. 

People who are members of magic-using cultures learn from an early age
not to expect more from magic than an improvement of their odds -- that
they will sometimes score a startling win or an almost impossible
success, but not always. Most people who work with magic on a regular
basis think of it as an edge, not as a certain win. 

> # How much of folk magic was inherent in that reciprocal set of 
> # social and emotional connections between the shaman and the 
> #petitioner?
> seems to depend in large upon the culture seeing it. sometimes the
> formulae are powerful in and of themselves, sometimes they are seen
> as powerful for those who know how to handle the technology, and
> sometimes they're just triggers to be employed only by the powerful.
> # If you delete that part, is there really any of the old folk magic
> # power left?
> natural magic seems to incorporate this, yes. Agrippa's material
> includes such reservoirs. conventional Power Items include it too.
> # In other words, is making the sale of folk magic items into a
> # depersonalized commercial act really folk magic?

> that I don't know. it would depend on how you define the phrase.
> the simple consolidation of materials into sets which have some
> kind traditional usage history doesn't require a change of the
> overall category of the magical act, no.

The question is founded on a question that is founded on a question. 

The first question ("How much of folk magic was inherent in that
reciprocal set of social and emotional connections between the shaman
and the petitioner?") is phrased in the past tense, when actually
community-centered folk magicians are fully contemporary. And anyway,
the reply simply cannot be quantified as requested because, as Siva
noted, there are cultural variabilities.

The second question ("If you delete that part [the social and emotional
connections; the permanent solcial role of the root worker in the local
cultural mileau], is there really any of the old folk magic power
left?") again contains the embedded premise that folk magic is
historical rather than contemporary ("the old folk magic power"). It
also cannot be answered because, for the most part, folk magicicians
operating today do NOT "delete that part" and, in any case, trying to
rate magic by "power" levels is juvenile. 

The third question, ("is making the sale of folk magic items into a
depersonalized commercial act really folk magic?") is based on agreement
that there is something called "a depersonalized commercial act" -- and
that raises an argument not specific to folk magic at all. Consider some
analoguous queries: 

Is draught beer brewed in a factory and canned it with a nitrogen widget
in the can really draught beer?

Is a sweater knitted on a hand-operated knitting machine really hand-knitted?

Is a frozen gourmet entre a real dinner or just fast food? 

These questions strike not at the heart of folk magic, but at the heart
of deporsonalized contemporary urban civilization.

Furthermore, despite what any one person decides with respect to factory
"draught" beer, machine "hand knitting," frozen food "gourmet dinners,"
and "commercial" folk magiuc supplies, there ARE still people brewing
draught beer at home, knitting with needles by hand, cooking dinners
from scratch, and growing herbs or mixing up oils or powders in small
batches by hand for use in folk magic. 

For every large folk magic "factory" in a big city, there are ten or
more small shops where everything is made up to order for the client or
customer. You just have to ask around, look around, and make a telephone
call or two. 

Whether or not you believe in the efficacy of folk magic, you cannot
dismiss it merely by declaring it to be more "commercial" than it once
was in some idealized rural past. Some of it is. And some of it isn't.  


cat yronwode 

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