Magic and Psychology – Under the Microscope

A lot has been made of psychology and magic, almost to the point whereby the practice becomes all psychology and very little magic. Where is the fine line and how is it best to tread that line for someone coming into magic? Our magical grandparents (Dion Fortune, Crowley, Mathers et al) had a new toy to play with in their generations: psychology. It was considered at the time to be the mental/energetic/spiritual cure all and was heavily woven into magical practice and thought by the 1930’s. But was it such a good idea? Psychology has its uses but in magic those uses are truly limited if a neophyte wishes to truly step beyond the eternal beginner phase and pass into deeper more profound magic.

It is true that most people who step into magic have ‘issues’, we all have, and those issues must be dealt with over time if the magician wishes to truly blossom into an adept. And by adept I mean a true adept, not a title conferred by a group after tests, hierarchical steps and initiations.

A true adept is one who connects deeply with Divine power in all its forms, good and bad, neutral and hidden.mystic A true adept takes those connections and engages actively in the constant dance of destruction and creation from the smallest magical act to the biggest. In practical terms, this often puts the magician toe to toe with all manner of powers and beings: to survive such contact intact and sane, the magician must have dealt with their shit, be balanced and solid. That does not come from rituals and initiations designed to ‘self examine’ or ‘speed up maturity’.

This need for stability of mind and spirit is an issue that has been talked about in magical /mystical tomes for Millennia. It is a process that takes its time, often over decades, and is the product of self truth above all other things.

This wisdom was scooped up and funnelled into psychological rituals and initiations which became the backbone of many magical lodges. Magicians would connect with angelic or planetary powers in order to ‘become’ something better, wiser or more powerful. This also spilled into the arena of doing rituals and invocations to gain knowledge, strength etc…. the grandchild of psychology married to commercialism. The mentality of I do not have to do lots of life work to improve or heal, I can just do a ritual and I will become stronger/better/wiser. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Yes there are magical acts that can draw in strength/knowledge, but first there has to be a deep inner gnosis and foundation, along with the well earned wisdom to know what not to do and why. Like any true art form, first you must learn the rules in order to break them. An initiate doing rituals to become something they are not will not work. Indeed it is likely to work the other way and slowly weaken them. They may feel great while doing the ritual, but ten years down the line they are still as immature and weak as they were when they first started. This is blatantly apparent in some magical groups and lodges, where the adepts, as WE Butler observed, “cannot even tie their own shoelaces”.

So what went wrong? When psychology was new, it was the greatest thing since sliced bread. Now we know it is a useful tool, like many other tools, but it has its serious limitations and failures. Trying to short cut the long drawn out process in the training and development of a magician has always been a tempting glittery goal on the horizon. That does not mean that the magician cannot use such tools on the road, life is never that black and white, what it does mean is first you have to understand what magic is, what psychology is, and what self development actually means. Magic on its own will not make you a better person. Magic is a series of techniques. Psychology on its own will not make you a better person, nor will it turn you into a magician.

Self development is the fulcrum that makes both of these two tools work properly. But isn’t self development, psychology, I hear you ask? No it is not. Self development is about taking responsibility for yourself, recognising who you are, and being truthful with yourself. Self development is self discipline, facing up to your fears, your wants and engaging self discipline. Sure, these things crop up in psychology, they also crop up, in a much more efficient way in every facet of life that requires years of training be it as an athlete, a classical artist and so on. Let’s have a look at some practical scenarios. ImageFirst let’s look at a magical system that is ‘infected’ with psychology. The neophyte joins a group or lodge. They make promises, do study, join in rituals, learn skills. They then begin to partake of a series of initiations and rituals to ‘enhance’ the magician and give them a status within the hierarchy. They desperately want a grade, to be able to wear a certain sash, or hat, or coloured robe and to have a place in the pecking order with people below them. The initiations comprise of rituals to call upon certain godforms, planetary beings or angels to assist in their progress by giving them more skills.

They go through a series of role playing drama actions, divesting of one robe to take on a another, declaring yet more promises, learning sigils, signs and secret words etc etc. They work with mirrors to ‘look at themselves’, or do meditations on being a better person. They then go back to their day job, treat people like shit, and get into ego/power games with people they know to be weaker than them, or continue with some unhealthy or self destructive behaviour.

Ten or twenty years down the line, nothing has changed much at all. So what went wrong? Probably a few things. If magical training is too externalised, i.e. mostly un contacted ritual and study, the person never comes face to face with powers much greater and better balanced than they are. If they do not learn to mediate power from the inner worlds to the outer world, no power passes through them. The net result of such training is that no real challenges spill out into their lives, no powerful inner beings expose the person to themselves, and no checks and balances run through their lives. Instead they tiptoe around themselves in a constant dance of belly button gazing (psychology) and back patting or self centred pity parties.

In such a scenario no spirit can properly evolve within magic. Some paths devolve down to communal feel good ceremonies, or go the other way into trying to obtain their wants through magic. Again, this keeps the magician in a loop of weakness. From the view of the bystander, the magician is doing rituals for the seasons, working powerful looking magic to obtain the job they want, or going through a series of initiations that will make them more and more powerful. From an inside view they are doing fuck all. This is not a new story: magic has always had this level, which is a filter to sort out those who do not truly wish to get off their ass and progress. In today’s world of the internet and social media, it is the all encompassing view of what people think magic should be. Easy, looks cool, gives status, has ‘feel good’ as a major element and can be bought – the net is awash with books that promise an easier way, a quicker way, a recipe for this and a key for that…at a price.

Of course there are other ways.. and it is not one path… all paths can lead to true magic… it is not so much the path but the integrity and determination of the seeker. Some paths are more compatible than others for particular personalities, some paths are more culturally acceptable and some are better tuned than others. But essentially it is not the path which makes the magician, it is the person themselves.

                                                               The Way Ahead ImageWhatever magical path you are embarking upon, or considering, there are two key elements that will guide your first steps to progression. One is truthfulness and the other is integrity. These two dynamics should be applied to oneself and to the people around you. Make no mistake, these are not easy things to do and it can take many years of struggle until you begin to master these qualities.

So for example, if you really want to walk a magical path, the one described in the previous section of this post, then immediately begin by applying those two qualities to yourself and everything around you. It is the first step towards the threshold of ‘Man, Know Thyself’. Taking this first step, while also engaging in some form of magic, gets the attention of inner beings who will then decide at some point, to make a connection. If you are doing rituals or ceremonies or visions in a magical group and it truly is not working, be truthful with yourself about it. Do not kid yourself or others. If you make declarations in a ceremony, live up to them. If the ritual etc was plugged into an inner source, you will be tested by the inner powers through your outer life… right when you are at your weakest. And it will continue. It will never stop.

Everyone sets out with great intentions, but then life throws vicious curve balls and you fall off of your high ideal. That is normal…. it is showing you your limitations, which is the first real initiation of the neophyte. You begin to know just where your limits lie and where your work needs to be. And this process never stops… it just gets harder and harder: it is the path of Hercules.


The Scales of Ma’at

The process is like a grain of sand that grinds against you, polishing you as you reach harder challenges. It is the beginning of the Initiates training into the laws of Ma’at. That does not mean you are secretly studying Egyptian magic, it means that you are engaging a deeper current of power that runs through everything, which the Egyptians called Ma’at – the law of balance.

To work magic at high levels of power, you need to understand these basic dynamic powers and to understand them – you need to be immersed within them, not just read about them. It is not about morality, or ‘light’ or ‘dark’ magic… such issues dissolve in the face of true power. You need to know how they work, truly work. And once you know how they work, then you can engage them with the path of magic that you are working within. The magical path is the vessel and true power fills that vessel to bring it to life. That power can only be fully engaged for magic when you know how to raise it, how to handle it and how to mediate it, without blowing yourself up.

So let’s go back to the beginning, to the search for a path. If you begin to really engage truth and integrity fully into your life, very quickly you will begin to learn what your hidden weaknesses and wants truly are. You will not be able to hide from yourself. That in turn will help you to make more mature choices regarding which magical path you should be walking, and whether it is with a group or alone.

Let’s have a look at a scenario. Gene wants, from the bottom of his heart, to become a magician. He looks around, finds a group, joins, does some study, buys the tools, the outfits etc. But after a short while he engages the two beginning dynamics of magic; truth and integrity. One day he sits down, surrounded by his magical baubles and takes a long hard look at himself. Does he think all of this is really about magic for him?  Image No is the answer that comes back to him. He admits to himself he likes the social connection, he likes the glamour, the status, but he is not finding magic. That is a major first step. But Gene decides that he wants to continue with the group as he really likes it, enjoys the rituals and loves the glamour. In one of Gene’s initiations, he promises integrity, service and truth. And he really means it. He begins to engage such dynamics in to his everyday life. Things around him begin to change. He has dreams, deep dreams, he begins to notice things changing around him: he is helping people more, even when it is hard for him or he is tired.

It is all subtle, simple and its profundity still escapes him. A few months later, in the midst of one of the group rituals, something speaks to him profoundly: a breakthrough occurs and through the words of one of the magicians, a being speaks. It challenges him. He had done a small ritual at home the week before to get a better job because he wanted more money to spend on things he likes. He had told himself he needed these things. In the midst of the group ritual, the being challenged him about his wants versus his needs. He admits to himself he really didn’t need the better job, he just wanted more security, more buying power. The being then speaks to him in a dream that night, asking him to surrender to the flow of magic if he really wants to learn. He agrees to the surrender. He is told in his dream to meditate more, he shrugs and agrees.

So he begins to meditate, continues going to his group and his job. The job is grinding him down and he becomes almost overwhelmed with the feeling of being trapped. One night, in anguish, he cries out to the universe to help him. He had worked hard all year trying to be a better person, to live up to his promise he had made at his initiation. But he feels almost stretched beyond his capability to cope. He continues to slog on, one step in front of the other. The call did not go unnoticed


by Philip Maxwell

One day he gets fired, has to give up his nice apartment and go to live in a poor area. The only job he can get is waiting tables at a diner. He cannot afford to go to his group anymore and the group abandons him. He quickly makes friends at the diner with people he would not have even given the time of day to only a year ago. Through those friends he meets an older woman who drinks coffee with him and talks about the universe. A light bulb goes on in his head. Everything that comes out of the woman’s mouth is like an angel talking to him. One thing leads to another.

He finds an old book store with weird and wonderful books. One is about a magical path that is a bit odd; he buys it, reads it, begins to practice what it talks about. Things begin to shift again. The woman picks up the book he is reading one day, laughs and says her brother is into this stuff. Gene and the brother meet. A magical connection is made. The brother agrees to train Gene in everything he knows. Image Gene’s life slowly expands out to jobs that are suited for what he needs at that time, not what he wants. He becomes skilled in the form of magic he is learning, he has a new group of friends, but he misses the glamour of the old magical group. He knows well now that the glamour is not magic, but he needs that sense of ceremony. So he joins the old group again. But this time, in the midst of the rituals, he hears the words of beings in the ritual, he feels the power gathering around him and he recognises how he can engage the skills he learned from the brother into the magical work he is now doing. It all begins to come alive, all the lights start to go on, and he gets a deeper understanding of the ritual work. He is leaner, fitter, wiser, and ready to work. Is he now an adept? No, he is now a true initiate of the first step onto a path that will slowly but powerfully expand for him over time. Then one day he will realise, that it is all about cats…..Image

About Josephine McCarthy

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15 Responses to Magic and Psychology – Under the Microscope

  1. dan p. says:

    I knew it! MY cats are way smarter than me. Trained me well and proper, they have, spoiled kitties.
    A really excellent article, Josephine. Along the way if there is really is the 1-2 kernel of truth and integrity being sown,something really there, things are going to change. While we all face these critical times in our lives, it is uncanny what will be proposed along a magical path, as opposed to someone whose overriding concern is with material splendor, their career, or what have you. A nurse’s path will hold just as much change and seeming obstruction, if their calling is to be a nurse or healer of some capacity. It will weave through every facet of their lives. I like how in Gene’s example you showed it was just fine for him to go back to the old magical group, emphasizing the individual capacity to apprehend the work that is latent in a structure. Too many people get caught up in their identification of magical personifications, which runs counter to the natural progression of development, the possibility of generating wisdom. I’m glad I’m not a 13 year old heavy metal , or a punk of 17, or a noise-damage guy of 23 or any of those things. I’m a 44 year old knucklehead! It’s okay to assume the mantles as we need them, but this thing has a way of stripping it all down anyway.
    THanks for that , Jospehine.


    • It is true… if these rules are applied to any calling….and after a long time struggling with them, because they are the hardest possible things to do, that calling will blossom, the spirit will blossom and that is magic!


  2. Suzi Petito says:

    LOVED, loved this “story” about The Path………which will challenge you more often than not. Definitely does resonate with me, Josephine. Everything you have written is useful to me, right here, right now. AND To be able to go back to the old group after gaining wisdom and experience, instead of “throwing the baby out with the bath water” is revealing. Hey, you never know who may be present at that ritual, and another connection is a possibility. I would like to add that you can NEVER, EVER be too old, to BEGIN either – as my consciousness is in ZOOM mode at this moment How the @#^* did I get to 63 already – I don’t remember hitting “fast forward” !!


    • That is true, there is no set ‘age’ for joining magic… you come to it when you are ready, regardless of age. Know what you mean about the fast forward too lol….life moves so quickly!


  3. Jason says:

    Loved the article especially the examples. You also bring up an interesting aspect which is rarely talked about in magic, if at all, being need vs want. A lot of people, especially in our commercial modern society confuse the two, and with most modern teachings telling you you can have your cake and eat it too it becomes much harder. But, like you wrote being honest with yourself, truth and integrity, you can wade through the modern cesspool and still grow as a spiritual being.

    Personally I do believe there are times were working magic to help yourself or others is justified, i.e. healing, overcoming destructive addictions, temporary protections. But, honestly have rarely had to rely on magic in a long time. Sometimes it was just being honest with myself about new vs want, but mostly I have found that doors open were they are supposed to. By this I mean that since I have decided to let the inner set the course of my life that when it was time for a change, either work or going back to school, that things would just line up if I was going in the right direction. Andwhen I was being stubborn and decided I knew best, well I’d get smaked down a peg or two real quick. So in the long and short, I listen a lot more now.

    Thanks for writing this blog and keep you the good work.


    • Hi Jason,
      It is true that if you are doing what you are supposed to be doing, things do line themselves up, I find the same thing. And magic to help yourself and others is justified if it is needed (rather than wanted) and particularly if it is to rebalance magic done by others. The key is to know what to do and what not to do. 🙂


    • Jason says:

      Which is why learning, and being profient in a proper divination system such as the tarot is so important. Maturity along the path is also another important aspect, and one that only comes with time and dealing/learning from life’s lessons.

      I have come across and heard of some people who do magic for almost everything short of ensuring proper bowel movements in the morning.:-) But like you say it is a weeder stage and the mysteries have a way of protecting themselves by sorting the wheat from the chaff. One of my friends likes to keep iterating that some people just don’t want to do the work and are looking to be a part of a magical/pagan congregation.



  4. This is an excellent blogpost, Josephine. I agree it’s crucial to differentiate between magical practice and psychology (and of course the picture is not an either/or but a both/and; and I recognise that you’re not contradicting that). You speak eloquently of that.

    However, I also feel that the kind of psychology you’re speaking of is a limited reductive one, and not really representative of C21st psychology. Any psychology worth the name (IMO) will be led by the ‘know thyself’ dictum, but not just as theory, or navel-gazing – more as an increasing sense of wholeness, as well as as a prophylactic against superficial consumerism, a culture that lacks depth values, etc; and as a constant ongoing process of self-development in the multitude of aspects of our lives. This IS self-development, and that’s what an enlightened (and I include in that ‘endarkened’, if by that we mean coming to know shadow, the inchoate and our own shadows, too) psychology leads us towards.

    The psychologies (the ‘4th wave’ ones; usually archetypal/post-Jungian) that include some sense of a transpersonal or meta-realm don’t focus on navel-gazing, but on how we live as creatures of inner and outer geographies, as individuals within a collective, between conscious and subconscious, within transcendent and immanent realities, and especially in the tension of the pairs of opposites, in our search for meaning, creativity and greater purpose.

    Enough from me! – Give my love to Himself.



    • HI Ro, you are spot on and this highlights my own ignorance as to the developments and maturity that have come into psychology in the last decade or so, so thankyou for pointing that out.
      I am speaking more of the now antiquated forms of psychology that still embed many of the more formal magical lodges and paths and that have not moved on. I am excited to hear that there are movements within psychology that are developing along more interesting lines and it gives me hope for the future!
      I will indeed pass on love to HImself, he is doing well, painting up a storm and generally flourishing!
      Much love to you,


  5. I have a question -or comment?- about the way contacts, specifically formerly human contacts, can mimic some of our own learning curves. For instance two contacts I work with seem to have character flaws that I struggle with myself. I didn’t seek these contacts out -they found me. The danger of these flaws was shown to me in the “mountain” position in the Desert spread in a reading pertaining to working with one of them. There is definitely more going on with these beings than just a way for me to “improve myself”. If nothing else they show just how much of an edge we walk on in magic and how far the fall can be. That’s scary, but it also gives me hope that I can improve in these areas. And perhaps that is part of the magic too?


    • It is all part and parcel of the ‘package’ and what you will find is that when you work deeply in magic, and are also working on the struggles with flaws, by addressing those flaws within yourself, you open the way forward magically for others to also untangle themselves or develop themselves. By you developing, it also provides the energetic key for others to also improve… you pave the way magically and energetically – we are all linked and whatever you do to further yourself helps to further others also. As a magician, everything you do affects everything around you and you are constantly mediating… so for example struggling to live within balance/truth/integrity, you mediate those powers out to everything and everyone around you…. regeneration and redemption of society truly starts within yourself and flows outward. You change one person, you change the world 🙂 …hence your contacts…. as you improve, it enables them to also.


  6. Daniel Cowan says:

    Quite an interesting piece, particularly the insight into the role of psychology in the mindset of the “magical grandparents”. My introduction to the Western Mystery Tradition was through a tarot course that relied heavily on the works of P.F.Case, who seemed very heavily into psychology, I viewed everything through that lens for a number of years.

    I remember John Michael Greer writing that, just as geometry was the cutting-edge scientific field for the classical Greeks and the neo-platonists, psychology was the avant garde for many magicians in the early 20th century, and both tied the new advances into their works.

    I really appreciate the little story about the magician Gene & the path of his life… it gets at something I never hear talked about, but that seems to crop up in my own life all the time… not sure how to put it into words, but just the sheer weirdness of how life develops, that doesn’t seem to progress by a logic that makes very little sense by how society would view things, or even how you might try to look at life through any variety of spiritual or philosophical viewpoints… but nonetheless there seems to be learning & connections at every point in all the seeming ups & downs….

    One question: I’m kind of grasping the distinction between psychology and magic, but wondering what the distinction is between magic and religion?


    • That’s a very interesting question, Daniel – will be eager to read Josephine’s response.

      I found myself wanting to say ‘Religion (as opposed to spirituality) limits itself to a prescribed set of usually ritualised beliefs, usually determined by something that has been “revealed” and therefore dictated,’ but then I realised that to some extent at least that could be said to be true of some magical practice, too.

      I guess an important distinction might be around ideas that are arcane and esoteric, rather than orthodox and exoteric…?

      My partner says that he thinks that magic is very much to do with a direct working with certain forces/creating/conjuring ‘reality’ via what some call elementals and others call deities, angels, devas, in order to bring about certain effects, whereas religion is a systematised approach to deity.

      I’d add, however, that religion is also intended to bring about certain effects; and that eg the gnostic approach (as of course the Western Mystery Tradition) could be said to do what magic according to my partner’s definition is intended to do too…

      I think John Michael Greer is always worth listening to and reading – interesting and wise guy.


    • Religion is a human construct created to form a means for communion with Divinity, often they quickly devolve down into dogmas and are used as a form of control/manipulation, but not always. Basically religion is formed to get the parent to ‘do’ for the child (humanity). Magic is a human vocabulary created to understand and interact with the universe, creation and Divinity, Magic is formed to have the child learn how to work with the parent. The major difference is that magic is a set of tools, skills, knowledge and techniques, religion is a container for faith. Sometimes the lines are blurred and sometimes they are heavily entwined within each other. A healthy religion also has magic, and healthy magic has communion with the Divine.


    • Nice. I wonder if there might be something, too, around propitiation/invocation? Exactly as you say: one seeking approval, the other co-creating?


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