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Opus Operandum: distinguishing between superstition and magic

To: alt.magick,soc.culture.haiti,alt.religion.voodoo,alt.religion.orisha
From: catherine yronwode 
Subject: re: Opus Operandum: distinguishing between superstition and magic
Date: Sun, 30 Nov 2003 07:48:26 GMT

> From: Joe Cosby ( 
> Subject: Opus  Operandum: 
> distinguishing between superstition and magic
> (commentary on 'Religion and the decline of Magic' by Keith
> Thomas)
> This all came out of a book I'm reading, the context may be a
> little vague without reference to that book.  Basically it is a
> compendious survey of religious and magical practices in England
> through the Reformation, paying special attention to the relation
> between the transition from Catholic to Protestant practice and
> contemporary Magical practice.
> Originally I just started writing up a set of notes, things I was
> thinking while I read the book, but then I found myself thinking
> that this was very similar to things I was talking about on
> Usenet at the time.  As that line of thought continued though
> this has evolved more into a Usenet article.
> Thomas's idea of magic is in many ways a typical one.  So far I
> have only read into his examples of Protestant objections to
> various Catholic rituals and practices as 'magic', but these
> illustrate a basic difference between magic as it is understood
> by those who practice it and magic as perceived by those who
> don't.

Hold this thought, because it is valuable. It has to do with how
outsiders perceive persons functioning within a cultural,
religious, or social paradigm unknown to them, and how they tend
to downgrade the persceptivity, intelligence, and knowledge of
the supposed "other" without ever bothering to acquire first-hand
knowledge of the system or even taking time to interview one or
more practitioners.

In what follows, i am not trying to argue with you or pick a
fight, but i do want to preface my responses with a note to the
effect that while i agreed with your opening position above, by
the end of your essay, i found myself in complete opposition to
your conclusions -- and my opposition was based upon my belief
that you failed to follow your own lead here. It is my opinion
that by imagining what others think or do, without asking them,
you allowed yourself to drift into a comforting fiction in which
your tradition (an initiatic European magical tradition) could be
seen as superior to other religio-magical traditions. 

> The idea of Opus Operandum (a phrase I had never heard before,
> I'm not really a student of religion in itself) defines the
> difference nicely. This is the idea that a magical or religious
> act has efficacy in and of itself;  regardless of who performs
> the act, outside influences, the mindset of those involved, or
> anything beyond the mechanical details which constitute the act. 
> A purely Opus Operandum act could, theoretically, be performed by
> a sufficiently life-like robot as effectively as by a live
> practitioner.
> Many of the Protestant objections cited came down to this one
> principle:  that the clergy, in asking us to believe that the act
> (such as consecrating the host) has an efficacy Opus Operandum
> (such as causing the host to be miraculously transformed), and
> that this makes the clergy magicians (in that they would believe
> that the act is effective, rather than the will of God).
> As far as the particular debate between Protestants and Catholics
> I can have little to say (again, I'm not a student of religion)
> but I think it reveals a poor understanding of what magic is, as
> understood by those who practice it.

Hold that thought again. The Protestant versus Catholic conflict
-- the charge that the hated other practices Opus Operandum, is
no different than the initiatic magic versus superstitious magic 
dicotomy which you will address later on. 

> In fact Thomas touches on this indirectly himself when he
> mentions Frazier's Golden Bough, in which Frazier defines the
> difference between a prayer and a magical charm as that the
> latter is assumed to work Opus Operandum.  

Frazier was obviously outside the classical (long defunct)
religio-magical systems he described, and he PRESUMED to speak
for them in an unflattering way. This is the error i call "the
creation of the comforting fiction" -- the comforting fiction
being that "we" are quite different / superior to / more rational
then "them."  

A true scientist will resist the comforting fiction because he or
she will admit that without data, there is not way of determining
what people thought. Specifically, without diaries, interviews,
or other methods of getting at people's thoughts about what they
are doing when they practice religion or magic, one is left only
with a bare record of their activities.

> The problem though (as
> Thomas points out) is that in much practice of magic, this simply
> isn't the case;  the magician's incantation is intended to
> address supposed spirits, and any effect is supposed to come from
> these spirits.  I would go beyond saying this is the case in a
> lot of magical practice, and say that where the act is performed
> by a 'magician' in any true sense, it would nearly always be the
> case that something beyond Opus Operandum is supposed to be at
> work.

Exactly. Making the judgement that one's own class and culture
knows this (either about religion or magic) and that other
classes and cultures do not, leads to the close-mindedness and
false smugness of the comforting fiction, based on very little
other than class or cultural prejudice. 
> On the other hand though, I don't doubt that much 'magical'
> practice is done which is much like the examples Thomas
> enumerates, charms and hexes which people who we would not
> consider magicians themselves have learned by rote and believe to
> be 'magic' with no real idea how or why that would be the case. 

Alas, now i believe you have fallen into the very trap that Frazier
landed in and that you were warning us against.

You did not say that you don't doubt that many ceremonial or
thelemic "rites and rituals" are performed Opus Operandum "by
rote." You said you don't doubt that many "charms and hexes" are
"learned by rote"

"Rites and rituals" implies ceremonial high magick -- your class
of initiatic magicians.

"Charms and hexes" implies lower class and/or folk magic -- not
your class of magicians.

Have you asked any folk magicians if they create charms and hexes
"by rote" and "with no real idea" of how magic works?

How many have you asked?  
> This comes close to the idea of Opus Operandum, although it
> doesn't necessarily always imply such a belief. (I may not
> understand what, exactly, happens when I turn my car's key in the
> ignition switch, but that doesn't mean that I necessarily think
> that it is the act of turning the key, in and of itself, Opus
> Operandum, which makes the car start.)
> It seems then that we need some way of differentiating between
> the two classes of acts.  

I do not feel such a need.

Further, i propose that the "need" you feel is perhaps the need
for the comforting fiction, the need to be judgemental, to
distinguish *your* culture or religion or magical system from
*another's* by means of hierarchical ranking.

> The simplest and seemingly most obvious
> would be to define any symbolic/ritual act believed to be
> effective Opus Operandum as superstitious, rather than magical. 

And here, in a nutshell, is the problem presented by a smug
urban Zen-mage (name withheld by request) who presumed to state
that the Voodoo religion is "riddled with superstition," and that
those who buy magical supplies online are "gullible."

> To some extent though, it leaves the idea of magic, per se,
> undefined. A lot of our culture would consider magic and
> superstition more or less interchangeable.  I don't think this is
> realistic though, probably anybody reading this group is aware of
> considerable precedent for magical practice which doesn't fit my
> definition of superstition. 

I wish i could agree with you, but i don't. There is no
universally agreed upon form of magic or religion that has not
been labelled "superstition" in alt.magick by some one or
other, regardless of whether or not the practice in question
would qualify as superstitious under the Opus Operandum rule you
espouse here. Posts in alt.magick in which one mage calls another
one's practice "superstition" without studying it or learning the
depth of its system of thought are the norm, not the exception. 

> In fact for the majority of us, most
> of our study of magic has been nothing to do with superstition. 
> Crowley, the GD, Qabbalism, practical Voodoo, Taoist alchemy,
> Goetia, Platonism and neo-Platonism, and the list goes on:  in
> all of these the practice of 'magic' is an expression of an
> underlying belief system.

Drawing a line between realio-trulio magick and foolish
superstition is just a ranking game. It can also be embarrassing
in this age of worldwide communication, for sometimes the "other"
happens to be right here, not off in the wilds where he or she
can be talked about behind his or her back. It's easy for
alt.magick posters to play the smug game of "we're so cool" when
the people they are labelling "superstitious" are unknown to
them, uninterviewed by them, and, in short, mere figments of
their culturally biased imaginations. But look what happened when
the urban Zen mage declared that Voodoo was "riddled with
superstition" -- he got a prompt call-back from soc.culture.haiti
asking him to stop his offensive put-downs of the national
religio-magical system of belief.

> But at the same time, all of these systems have associated with
> them some amount of superstition, to various degrees.  

Instead of "we are not superstitious; you are," it becomes, "we
are far less superstitious than you are" and you are back to 
the comforting fiction and playing ranking games.

> The initiatory/mystery systems probably least of all.  

Don't count on that, Joe. 
> Just as a
> medieval Catholic might feed a communion wafer to his cow to
> protect it from disease, with little thought of the overall logic
> of what he's doing, so might someone living today in a
> Voodoo-dominated society ask the loa for a little rain with only
> a vague idea of the pantheon and no real personal experience with
> them. 

Ask a few Medieval Catholics if they have "little thought of the
overall logic of what [they are] doing." Don't presume. Oh, you
can't ask -- they're dead. Then you are just making up stories
about dead people who can't be interviewed, aren't you?

Ask a few dozen Voodoo practitioners if they have "only a vague
idea of the pantheon [of the loas] and no real personal
experience with them." Don't presume. Here. I'll help you out by
cross-posting this to soc.religion.haiti, alt.religion.orisha,
and alt.religion.voodoo. Maybe some folks there will admit to you
how superstitious they are and how ignorant they are about their
own religion and its deities. Or maybe they'll ask you, as they
asked the urban Zen-mage, to stop making up unpleasant and
disrespectful theories about their culture.

> In this case really, the line between magic and
> superstition is at least a little blurry.  Both Catholicism and
> Voodoo are, intentionally, 'public' systems, intended among other
> things to provide a form of religious expression for the laity. 
> As such, even the relatively confused use of the religious idiom
> among the laity must be seen as an organic aspect of the system.
> Furthermore, in both cases above, it's questionable whether the
> particular magical practice is 'wrong', within the logic of the
> system, or not.

You're just digging a deeper and deeper hole for yourself, Joe.
The "line" that you say is "blurry" only exists because YOU drew
it! You can simply decide NOT to draw a line without first-hand
experience. Talk to Catholics. Talk to Voodooists. Ask them what
their understanding of their practices consists of. Ask them how
and if they draw lines between religion, magic, and
superstition. Ask them to explain their understanding of how these
things work, whether through spiritual intercession or Opus
Operandum. Go ahead. Ask them. DON'T MAKE UP SHIT ABOUT PEOPLE

> There is though a clear separation between laity and the
> initiated, and in general superstitious practice is more
> associated with the former.

I doubt that. I doubt also that you can substantiate that. 

> Mystery-traditions then are somewhat inherently immune from
> superstition, at least by this working definition.  Withholding
> the details of the organization and it's practices and their
> meaning from the initiated prevents the confused, superstitious
> misapplication of them.

I strongly disagree. Initiation does not inherently do away with
Opus Operandum thinking. Also, more tellingly, you destroyed your
own argument, because one of the two examples you gave of a
"confused" and "superstition" prone religion is in fact an
initiatic mystery tradition. The distinction between clergy and
laity in Voodoo is based on the type of training received, but all
members have received certain forms of initiation as you would
define it in a European sense, You are simply off-base here. 

> In brief then, a definition of magic as opposed to superstition
> would be:  the practice of the initiated.  This isn't a
> definition of magic in general, as it says nothing at all about
> actual practice or what the 'initiated' actually -do-.  (Neither
> does it differentiate between magic and religion in any way). 
> It's simply a useful yardstick in differentiating magic from
> superstition.

I disagree. 

I think that most attempts to sharply differentiate magic from
superstition, or religion from superstition, are largely a method
of politely enacting cultural, social, class, or religious

I also think that although the Opus Operandum test can be used to
define those differences in any one person's case -- preferably
through a one-on-one interview and never through the creation of
fantasies about a group -- one will still find superstitious
people within every religious, initiatic, magical, and
socio-cultural system of thought on earth.

Again, this post was not intended to cuase a fight between us -- 
I simply tried to follow your logic and found myself on the other 
side of a fence from you.


cat yronwode

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