Patreon Topic 51: On The Ethical Use of Magic

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From Maleck comes this topic:

“The ethical use of magic.”

The problem with saying “the” at all, especially in the use of such a thing as versatile and nebulous as magic, is that almost any ethical system can be used to justify the use, or the lack of use, of magic. Is your personal philosophy utilitarian? Then the question of “Should I use magic?” comes down to “Will the use of magic do the most good or do the least amount of harm to myself and others?” Likewise, “Should I use magic?” can also be answered by “Will the lack of my use of magic do the most good or the least amount of harm to myself and others?”

Is your personal philosophy based on the common good? Then some of the questions to ask may be “Whether or not my intention is good, will the use of magic cause undue harm to others/society?” and “Whether or not my intention is good, will the use of magic cause the effect that I am seeking and help others/society?”

Is  your personal philosophy virtue ethics? Then the question of “Should I use magic?” comes down to whether or not it is in line with the particular virtues of your virtue ethics to do so.

There is no singular answer to whether the use of magic is ethical, good, or not, because there is no singular ethic that governs magic as a whole. Being a polytheist, I believe that different Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir can and do subscribe to different ethical approaches. Likewise, different polytheist religions, and then adherents within them, can have different ethics systems, and different systems of understanding and deciding what an ethical use of magic is. Rather than give an exhaustive overview of different ethic systems and their approach to magic, I would rather look at what magic is and does, and from there talk about my own approach.

This took me the better part of a month to write, and I want to say how much I appreciate my úlfkyn, Maleck, here. You are a right bastard and a child-of-a-bitch.

What is Magic?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines magic as:

1 The power of apparently influencing events by using mysterious or supernatural forces.

“Magic: Definition by Lexcico.” Magic: Definition of MAGIC by Oxford, Oxford, 2021, www.lexico.com/definition/magic

The short version of Aleister Crowley’s definition is:

Magick is the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will.

Crowley, A. (2017, January 22). Chapter I: What is Magick? Magick Without Tears – The Libri of Aleister Crowley – Hermetic Library. https://hermetic.com/crowley/magick-without-tears/mwt_01.

My own could best be summarized as “Changing the weaving or carving of Urðr to an end.” Even simpler “Weaving or carving Urðr to an end.” works. Whether through the application of sympathetic magic, eg the smashing or cutting of a fascimile of a deer with an arrow in order to succesfully hunt the deer, the use of seiðr to bring vaettir to me so we can work on a project, or through galdr with Runes to protect a person, place, or thing, magic seeks to change how things were, are, or will be. I understand magic as natural, accessible to a wide variety of Beings besides ourselves.

Routes to Magic

Magic itself, as I understand it, is not the singular province of any one class, group, culture, tradition, political party, religion, etc. There may be forms of magic, routes to it, that are closed to outsiders, and those boundaries should be respected for many reasons. There may be understandings of magic that do not transend the bounds of a given culture, eg my own definition of magic is specific to Heathenry and may not translate well to others even though it is not closed. Even within open routes of magic there still may be particular routes inside that are closed to folks unless you are brought into or initiate into a mystery, tradition, or teachings with a group of people, culture, or certain Gods, Ancestors, and/or spirits.

The closed routes to magic are often closed for the safety and security of the route itself, and the safety and security of practitioners. This is true both in terms of these closed routes often being in traditions and cultures that were marginalized, persecuted, and/or the victims of genocide, and in terms of the effects the Gods, Ancestors, spirits, and/or the effects of the magic itself can have on the practitioner.

Routes to magic are often linked to specific religions and worldviews. Heathen conceptions of what magic is, looks like, how it is done, and the effects that are expected from certain forms of magic conform to what we read about, experience, and practice within our communities. Seiðr, spá, and Runework are all contained within a Heathen worldview and only make coherent sense within it.

Even forms of magic that are said to be ‘without tradition’ often conform to a worldview, eg Chaos Magic itself as it has come about could be said to be only possible within a post-modernist worldview, as most any other form of magic previous has been linked to a cultural worldview. Unmoored as it is from a single worldview as such, and relying more on the questions around “What does this do? Does it work? Can I replicate this result?”, Chaos Magic is one of the most accessible and easily misunderstood ways of working with magic and in/between/across magical systems.

Magic is Power

Let us be clear: when we ask questions around the use of magic we are asking questions around the use of power. Magic is power. The power to get things done. The power to use, and then, enforce your Will. When we take this understanding and apply it to cultures and traditions to whom a person does not belong, has no standing to partake in, and is an outsider, what a person who is insisting on access or using these closed routes ultimately wants to do is steal power from other cultures, traditions, people, and their Gods, Ancestors, and/or spirits. There are plenty of accessible routes to power by other means, and where you have a far less likelihood of pissing off entire groups of Gods, Ancestors, spirits, and/or communities by trying to take from what you have no right to. This is not even an ethical argument on my part, but a practical one -if what you want is access to power with lower risk to yourself there are plenty of routes in order to study, practice, and effectively use magic that involve far less risk.

Magic is power, and one of the most readily accessible forms in the modern day are sigils and iconography. This is most readily apparent within the advertising industry. Disney, Nike, and McDonald’s feature such powerful figures here that not only are their symbols ubiquitious, they are immediately understood across cultures and can trigger responses in their targets on sight. Especially so since Disney has effectively swallowed entire sections of culture, namely fairy tales and mythologies, as part of its animated features. Jingles and similar pieces of music serve this function as well on an auditory level. This is why I say access to magic is open to any class. Doing magic, gaining and retaining power through it, is accessible to anyone, and few things are quite as powerful as maintaining a stranglehold on the imagination.

Mere sigils and icons are not enough, though. Anyone can design a sigil, draw an icon, or make a logo. Part of what makes these corporate giants so powerful is that they tap into, interact with, and use as fuel the minds that they touch, whether through the imagination or impulses. People will stay up late into the night waiting for the next Disney/Marvel episode to drop, or stay up and shuck out hundreds of dollars on a rare line of shoes from Nike. It is magic that works out handsomely for the companies that know how to work well with it.

Contrasting Religious and Spiritually-Based Magic with Corporate Magic

We have folks of all kinds practicing magic handed down to them, being initiated into traditions and cultures’ magical traditions, or magic being rediscovered, revived, or made new from personal experiences and/or experimentation. Are they somehow less powerful than the magic of Disney? In a sense, yes. However, this is rather like comparing apples to oranges unless you zero in on exactly what it is that Disney’s magic, or any other company, is aiming for.

Disney has a cultural cache and wields power in our society that religious-based magic, for instance, modern Rune magic, does not. However, Disney is not trying to do what Rune magic does, and, generally speaking, Rune magic is not trying to do what Disney does. What Disney does very well is to make good on entertainment and real estate investments, all of which is empowered by the Disney logo, and the collective weight of ‘Disney magic’ they have harvested very carefully over the years through multiple generations. They do this in order to make money, exercise power, and shape law and the markets they are involved with through these means. It is little wonder that Steam Boat Willy’s Mickey Mouse still has not entered public domain with the amount of power they wield.

Religion and spirituality-based magic have different roots they are growing and operating from. Rune magic itself in the Heathen worldview is working with the forces of the cosmos to achieve results through a variety of ways. Some folks are working with the Runes to talk with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir through divination. Some folks are working with the Runes for their own ends, such as healing, protection, or personal empowerment. These methods are effective for these things in part because the effects the particular operant is aiming for involve a lot fewer spheres of influence they need to control for, and Runeworkers are people whereas Disney as a whole is a gigantic corporation. Disney has a hell of a lot of ability to flex power because of this, and yet, because of it structure and how it operates within society, in some ways it has a limited scope within which it can compared to the average operant. Granted, an operant has to take care of their daily needs and find time between working, eating, and sleeping to devote time to honing their skills and then doing magic. However, an operant’s magic can be quite detailed and beautiful. Whether intricate, or simple, an operant’s magic it can be effectivein addressing a range of needs and wants, human and otherwise.

Disney and other corporations’ magic, by contrast, is fairly crude, easy to replicate, and is maintained by staff across tens of divisions involving tens of thousands of people. Corporate magic is employed to build up the bottom line at the cost of all else. Unlike most magic, corporate magic’s aim is incredibly shallow. A story by Disney might bring up a lot of feelings, and it may even cause you to question yourself or bring new light to your life. Frozen 2 was a good story, and one that happens to align with many of my values. In the end Disney is selling a product whether it is to you or investors. The magic is used to get you to buy the Disney+ subscription, or the ticket to Disneyland and increase their share price, not to bring you that experience. I say this as someone who has Disney+, enjoys a lot of their movies and associated products. However, I am very clear and understanding that while I do enjoy the stories, movies, etc they produce, each of these is, in the end, a product. The experience is incidental. If they could sell you a product without that experience that costs millions to produce and still make the same amount of money they would do it. Disney and its magic does not exist to make you feel, do, or experience anything -it is a route to making money, and in order to do so they have to provide at least adequate if not good experiences for the fields they are in.

This is among many areas where Heathen magic is very different from corporate magic. Heathen magic is rooted in the understanding that we are all, the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir, together in Urðr, and that we are co-creating the weaving/carving of that creation as it was/is/will be woven/carved. Engaging in the use of magic, then, is taking an active hand in the weaving/carving whether by our own hand alone or in concert with others’.

In Heathenry magical power, and its gathering, its maintenance, and its use, is seen through a variety of lenses. For certain forms of magic, such as Runework or gandir, gathering power is gaining a number of good, working relationships with vaettir. It is maintained by keeping these relationships well. It can be used to gather information, to harm another, to defend oneself, or most anything else the vaettir will align with the operant on. For others, such as hamfara, gathering power is getting to know and work with your hamr until you can be confident to get to and from where you want to go. Maintaining it can be dedicated time each day to engaging with your hamr. You can use it for the same things as in the example with gandir, and in some cases it may be more effective for you since you are traveling in spirit form to do it. Still, other forms of magic can see gathering power as bringing together different herbs, stones, furs/skins, and a needle together to make a pouch for protection. Maintaining the magical power may be to occasionally changing out, replacing, or adding herbs, stones, or animal pieces.

Commonalities in Heathen Worldviews on Magic

An ethical core to Heathenry would imply there is an ethical framework that fits all of Heathenry. While individual Heathens and even groups may have their own preference, there is no single one that fits. What is common to all Heathens is a worship of and respect for many Gods, Ancestors, and spirits. This animist and polytheist worldview underpins everything within Heathenry, from our relationships with the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits, to how we treat each other, to how we live. Accordingly, this affects how we use our magic as well.

Some Heathens leave magic entirely alone, some do a little bit here or there, some leave entire branches of magic to experts, some study it as a curiosity, and others use or work with it. What is common to all of us is a respect for it as a practice, a way of interacting with, working with, impacting, and manipulating Urðr/Wyrd.

What are commonalities in how Heathens employ magic?

We use magic for many of the same reasons humans have used magic for time out of mind. We use magic to protect ourselves, whether from harmful spirits, other humans, disaster, or sickness. We use magic to give ourselves a leg up on our competition, whether enhancing our abilities or reducing/harming another’s. We use magic to help ourselves, our neighbors, our communities to keep healthy and to heal in physical, mental, and spiritual ways. We use magic to find, take, maintain, build, and use power in a variety of forms. We use magic to build, destroy, transfer, or use luck. We use magic to find, discover, uncover, reveal, or be shown information.

Because so many of us are reconstructing, recovering, rediscovering, experiencing, and developing ways of interacting with and using magic, there are going to be far more differences on how we experience, understanding, and use it than we will have commonalities between us. It is hard to have common practice when the religious movement got started in America back in the late 60s.

Almost every Heathen I know that works with or uses magic is doing so alongside our Gods, Ancestors, and spirits, so even if we find common threads between us a lot of the particular are likely to look different. An example: Cat Heath’s excellent Elves, Witches, and Gods, and my own understanding and experience of seiðr are close enough that everything she writes about translates well to my own experiences. Morgan Daimler called the book essential, and I agree. There are few sources for learning it as well written or well-sourced like this. and were I to have to learn seiðr all over again her book would be among those I would first want to reference and work through. However, I do not connect well at all with fiber arts and cannot spin well, so a good chunk of her book does not ‘click’ with me. My experience of Freyja teaching me seiðr in the ways I experienced are not inherently better or more valid than Heath’s. What and how Freyja taught me just ‘clicked’ better for me, my needs, and where I was when She taught me In the years since I was first taught the work those teachings have continued to serve well.

Developing Heathen Ethical Frameworks of Magic

Rather than presenting ‘the’ Heathen ethical framework of magic I think it is far more interesting to ask questions about what ethical frameworks may look like and push folks to develop their own. I know what my ethical framework looks like, and I have given some insights into it here. What I cannot tell you is what your own looks like. Perhaps you are an Anglo-Saxon Heathen and the kinds of magic you work with are different, or the entities that you can trust to partner in that work are wholly different. Perhaps you are also a primarily Norse/Icelandic Heathen in your culture background and take different cues than I do from the sacred stories we have. Perhaps your experiences with the Gods, Ancestors, and/or spirits have given you different insights than my own.

I would far rather ask questions and maybe be a whetstone to sharpen your own ethical senses on, even if you vehemently disagree with me. A simple question: is cursing ethical?

What does it do? How well does it do it? Are there more effective means of achieving the result? Are there less effective means of achieving the result? This line of questioning may give rise to the idea that I am a consequentialist, and when it comes down to it that is accurate. I care less about the virtues involved with the use of magic than I do about whether or not it works to the end I employ it. Perhaps your own view of the role and use of magic is different. I do not consider this to be inherently better or worse than my own, it is just a different perspective. So, how do we develop these?

Taking Ethical Cues from Cosmology and Myth

What does a given Heathen cosmology and its myths have to say about magic and the use of magic? Is magic wild, dangerous, and/or unpredictable? Is it only the province of wild Gods, dangerous spirits, and/or can anyone learn it?

What do the stories have to say about how magic functions? Is there a cause and effect to it? Is magic a living Being unto Itself, or is it part of everything? Is it both, or neither? What does this imply about the use of magic and the forms it takes? What does it mean to take up and to use magic in these stories?

Are there examples of humans employing magic, and if so, how are these framed? Who is doing the framing, eg is this a Christian perspective? What can we derive from the sources that are definitely informed by Christian bias?

Do concepts around magic have intersection with certain Gods, Ancestors, and/or spirits? If so, what does it say that these Beings teach, initiate folks into, and/or govern the forms that magic can take? Are there ethical frameworks built into magic as it exists within the cosmology and myths?

Taking Ethical Cues from Direct Interaction with Gods, Ancestors, and Spirits

What does magic mean to your relationship with the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits? How does this impact your view of what magic does, how it interacts with the Worlds? Do the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits share the same ethical guides or do They each have Their own?

Does it change your relationship with the Ginnreginn when you hit a certain level of proficiency in magic or with a certain kind? What about your relationships with others in your community through that relationship and its growth/change in learning and experiencing magic?

Do certain Gods, Ancestors, and/or spirits impart some of their viewpoint when teaching magic, and if so, in order to learn a kind of it, will you have to align your ethics or can you still learn it and keep your view on things? Are you willing to set aside your ethical framework to learn, to take on, and to use magic? If you are unwilling, what forms of magic might you bar yourself from learning or using? What changes are you willing to take on in order to learn, experience, or develop your work with magic? What are your priorities and how might they change?

Taking Ethical Cues from Heathen Virtues

What is a virtue? What are Heathen virtues? Are they altogether different from other polytheist virtues? Are they altogether different from non-religious virtue ethics systems? What is most important to a Heathen? Does magic comport with the virtues as you have explored them? Is magic itself or its use virtuous?

Is there flexibility within Heathen virtues, or are these to be solid, unmoving positions from which one’s life is lived? Must there be strict means of using magic or its use becomes without virtue? Is there flexibility in using magic that retains the integrity of virtue?

Are certain forms of magic more or less virtuous? If so, what makes them so? If not, why? Is it ethical to use magic, broadly speaking? If it is, are there occasions where using magic may be out of alignment with Heathen virtues? Would it be unethical from a virtuous perspective to not use magic in the furtherance of a virtue? What would the ideal virtuous operant look like in Heathenry? Would would its opposite be?

Comparing and Contrasting

I could go on at length asking questions of different ethical frameworks and how they may or may not apply to Heathenry for some time and still only get so far. So, I am going to explore my own approach to magic. While I definitely have my own perspective on things, rather than swing you to my point of view, my hope is that exploring my approach to magic may provide you more material to think on how you approach it yourself. We can learn a lot from what does/does not click for us.

My Approach to Magic

I have spent a lot of time building up the background of the conversation to be able to get to the point where I talk about how I work with and understand magic. To refresh my point on what magic is: “Weaving or carving Urðr to an end.”

If that is the whole of magic, then is everything just a matter of technique? Hardly. Anyone can learn to read the Runes; not everyone is going to have a good relationship with Them. Likewise anyone can learn the theory of how to do seiðr, and not everyone is going to be good at gandr or kveldriða. Magic has a lot of factors into whether or not a particular working will go well. The relationships you carry, the health and power at work in your soul matrix, the megin and hamingja you are able to bring to a working, and the vili you can bring to bear to see the working done all play factors. Magic requires practice to get good at and to keep being good at. If you want to specialize in an area that will take time, effort, and work. Even for folks who take to an area of specialty quickly, I find that no matter what natural knack you might have it does not replace consistency of work.

How I Work With Magic

I use more than a few forms of magic. Some of the magic I do is ongoing work, whereas some forms are as-needed. I have a lot of taufr (physical charms) that I have built, both on my own and with help from others. Some taufr I have received as gifts. Some taufr protect, some connect me with certain Beings, some keep certain Beings away, and other taufr enhance what I already have. When it comes to taufr if I feel I need a boost on something or I need a bit more protection, I make one or ask a friend to.

My approach to taufr is a lot of how I approach magic in general. “What does it do? How well does it do it?” are two phrases that I always ask with regards to the approach and use of magic. I use what I need when I need it, and if I foresee a need, then I learn how to do it, or ask someone to work with me on it. That someone could be a God, Ancestor, vaettir, and/or a peer.

If what I need is immediate relief of an issue, say a vaettr has decided it wants to pester me, I will not wait to make a taufr. To start I may talk with the vaettr, unless the pestering is a direct threat to myself or others. In that case I will work with the taufr I already have, employ seiðr, employ galdr, or whatever is necessary, and work with my vörðr to make it stop. If what I am doing magic for is a long-term goal, say getting the resources so a project gets off the ground and succeeds, I do all the physical, mental, and spiritual work necessary so it can, and then look at where best to apply my magic. If you want a good example of what this can look like, look at my 30 Days of Magic Challenge series of posts where I made and worked with the Fehu bindrune.

An Example: Making a Taufr for Protection

What is the taufr for? If it is for protection, I think about what looks and feel protective. I might work with a wood known for its use in the creation of sword hilts, spear shafts, or shields. I may carve or woodburn a sword, spear, shield, and/or protection Runes into the wood. A perfectly good taufr for protection all on its own would be a Mjölnir.

I start with the premise of the magic I am doing, and then build up correspondences. Why use a wood known for its use in weapons? Because if I want to communicate protection, both to myself and others, I do not want to use a punky wood which is brittle and easy to break. The taufr being made of brittle, easy-to-break material would communicate the same thing physically and spiritually to myself and others. If I cannot even look at the wood for the taufr and think “this is strong” or “this is powerful” then there is little point to it. This will make carving it harder if I go that route, but having worked with oak, while it is harder to work it than say basswood, it is very satisfying when it is done.

Would I use a wood such as birch instead of oak or ash for protection? It can work. I tend to associate birch with long term healing rather than straightforward protection like I do the two other woods. However, birch is a hardwood that was used in knife handles and stools.

Now that I know what I am making the taufr for, what wood I want to use and what symbols I will carve into it, we can get to the making of the taufr. How do I ethically make a taufr?

As best as I can I try to source my woodcraft materials from vaettir who have given me permission to work with them. I first try to work with deadfall, and barring that, from living sources of wood I have good connections with. Last would be wood I have no connection with and/or buy. It is not that this wood is ‘less’ in terms of usefulness to the working, but that a piece of wood I buy to make into a taufr was never able to negotiate with me on offerings, the amount of wood that would be taken to make it, or anything else. The personhood and the willingness of the vaettir was never taken into account when it was harvested. Since I am operating out of a polytheist and animist mindset this considering of the vaettir’s wishes is important. They are Beings unto Themselves, and need to be considered such.

Let us say that a given oak tree has denied me the use of their deadfall or living body for this work, but a birch tree has given me permission to use theirs. In this case the ethical choice is to work only with the birch tree’s deadfall that I have permission to work with, make offerings to the birch, and to leave the oak tree, both their deadfall and their living body, entirely alone. If I cannot find a hardwood in my area willing to work with me, or if my circumstances are that working with already-cut and shaped wood is a better option, I will take time out to talk with them when I go to buy them and make offerings for the vaettir.

Another ethical question is one of proportion. Is the protection magic I put into the taufr one that responds to aggression with proportional? Given I firmly believe in the right to defend myself from a threat to myself or others, my ethical stance is that whatever aggression is sent my way I am within my bounds to respond to it proportionally. It would be unethical to make a taufr that sought to kill someone who, metaphorically or literally, stepped on my toes.

Another ethical question I need to answer is one of accuracy. Is the protection magic I put into the taufr going to be an accurate response to aggression/attack? This is less of a concern to me if the magic in the taufr is the equivalent of a shield or generalized protection because the magic is just meant to defend. If you are hitting this piece of protection then you are trying to hurt me and will be stopped. If the magic put into the taufr is a piece of aggressive protection, say I use a spear, a sword, and a shield for the carving and call on on Tiewaz the Rune twice, this taufr needs to be accurate when it responds to a threat. Perhaps I enchant it so the ‘attack’ portion of the taufr activates when I am under active attack, only attacks what is actively attacking me, and ‘sheathes’ when that is no longer the case. When it comes to enchantments this is a far better option than, say, carving a bunch of swords into it and turning the taufr into the spiritual equivalent of a sword tornado at any perceived threat.

The thing to keep in mind when making a taufr, or working with any magic, is that it should not be the only line of defense, attack, mitigation of energies or spirits, or the only thing watching your back. If I walk into a burning building my vörðr is not going to stop me from doing it, though they might give me warnings or directly ask me not to. I have and keep good relationships with many Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, and members of my communities who have a vested interest in me being whole, alive, and able to do the work I have. I do not impugn on those relationships by recklessly or needlessly putting myself in danger, and I do not ignore those relationships when it comes to asking for help to keep myself and others safe. You do not have to just make one taufr or do one kind of magic and that is it. There is nothing stopping folks from enchanting a bunch of taufr to take care of a variety of situations. If your creativity, intuition, and drive lead you to do this, that is fine. There is a lot you can do with that, and there many forms of magic you can apply to work on the same problem.

Magic is not a substitute for good planning, awareness, or doing necessary spiritwork. Especially with regards to Heathen magic you will need them. If you are just beginning your journey into working with magic you should have a good working relationships with at least a God or two, your Ancestors, and at least your landvaettir. Get to know your vörðr if you can. Magic takes work to get results, to get right, to be accurate, and to be proportional to what you want it to do. Sometimes, despite all the careful planning and work, it fails, and being able to troubleshoot why is a skill in and of itself.

Considering Kinds of Magic

Is there an ethical consideration to be had when looking at the kinds of magic I employ? Absolutely. Taufr are physical objects. The thing about making or receiving taufr is that, when I die, whatever of them are left are going to need to be buried/burnt with me, rehomed, or destroyed. Consider the protection taufr above. I have a spear, a sword, a shield, and two Tiewaz Runes carved into it. Is the poor bastard who has to take care of this protection taufr going to have to fight whatever vaettir I have contracted with to be in it or to put Their energies into it as well as whatever work went into the magic I have put into it? Will they have to placate the vaettir, say with offerings or sacrifice? What kind of work am I leaving behind for others to do?

Other kinds of remains can result from the use of magic. If I use sympathetic magic to increase my luck when I hunt deer, eg taking an arrow and destroying a clay representation of a deer, what is my ethical obligation to the deer vaettir? How about the clay that the deer is represented through? Since I have built a link with these objects I need to treat both the ceramic shards, the deer, and the arrow itself, with respect. To be respectful I could bury the shards, or put them in a place of honor, depending on what the deer vaettir want.

Let us set taufr and sympathetic magic aside for a while and look into some of the varieties of seiðr. A good reason for why seiðr was often translated as ‘witchcraft’, was both respected and feared, and still should be today, is because a good chunk of seiðr is straight-up nasty to those who are its targets. Consider the stafsprota, a staff used by a spákona which, according to Price, were used for striking an enemy on the face, used to rob an enemy of their memory and instill minor confusion, and may have been used in divination. A munnriða, a mouth-rider, is a seiðworker whose affected the mouth and its contents. A trollriða, a rider of witchcraft or a troll-rider, could be a seiðworker who performed witchcraft and/or could be working with trolls, or a large variety of rougher vaettir. Consider that the -riða suffix was a form seiðr could take and that it could have sexual connotations. This brings munnriða or trollriða into a whole different light in terms of what the magic is supposed to do to its target or how it gets done.

Seiðr was renowned for being used to affect the mind, will, strength, and power. All of these examples do just that. Are the use of these unethical on their face? No. Not to me.

What I think can make the use of a kind of magic unethical is if its use causes harm for its own sake or if if its use is not proportional to a potential or actual threat or harm. While seiðr, whether in the actual performance of the magic or its affect, may not be conventionally acceptable, it is nonetheless powerful and useful. If a person is spreading harmful gossip or libel then to my mind engaging in munnriða against them can be an ethical use of that form of magic. If a person has threatened or sought to harm family, tribe, community, or one’s own person they open themselves up to action, if not retribution. If magic is power then the use of power should be justified.

Magic and Ethics are Works in Progress

People have been writing on these topics for millenia. We are nowhere near settled on them. Part of the reason for it is that we change. Ethical systems change. They get challenged, and some stay while others fade. They are embedded in our religions, cultures, and politics. That is part of why I find them so fascinating and good to talk and write on. They are part of our lives, are bound up in them as surely as magic is in my understanding and living of Heathenry.

We have been debating and working out our methods of magic and what ethics are and how we apply them to one another throughout all of that time. I think that polytheism’s polycentricity, to borrow the phrase from Dr. Butler, means that we will never find one consensus on anything, much less magic. We are in a beautiful and dynamic period where we are all digging deeper into our paths, the way we do things, and why. I think that as we develop our various religious and magical communities it is good to weigh our ethics, and to being open to change when it is warranted, and standing our ground when that is as well.

Both magic and our ethics are works in progress. They are lived experiences, for all that we can intellectually debate the merits of this action, that spell, this curse, or that working. Given magic are routes to, forms of, and expressions of power we would be remiss not to think on it, but it cannot merely be a thing we think about. In the end what differentiates ethics from head games, idle theorizing, or mental masturbation is that sooner or later those things are lived. They have real, lasting effects on others and ourselves. So let us consider how we will bring in, give form, and use magic in all its forms. Let us consider how we will use power in whatever way it is expressed. Let us talk about them, debate them, consider them, yes, and then? Let us work with our magic and live our ethics well.

2 thoughts on “Patreon Topic 51: On The Ethical Use of Magic

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