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Cultural Traditions in North American Magic and Their Ramifications

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Cultural Traditions in North American Magic and their Ramifications


The purpose of this paper is to explore the various cultural traditions of magic on the North American continent, a rough outline of their origins, and their influence on the modern practice and understanding of magic in the United States. Due to the nature of the topic, some effort will be made to address general theories on the nature of magic itself as a force, and the implications that the various approaches these cultural traditions have taken will have for future theories on magic. I will also argue that the generally held opinion that the study of alternate traditions of magic has no place in modern American magic is, to put it bluntly, dangerously ill-advised, including as partial basis for that argument some personal experiences of modern street magic, and indeed some reports from magical law enforcement intimating that ignoring pertinent elements in street magic leaves dangerous gaps in on-the-ground knowledge, making it difficult to effectively police magical practitioners, particularly in our cities.


General Theories of Magic:

There have been any number of general theories of magic over the past few centuries, discussing whether magic exists as a natural force, like gravity or electricity (Lowen, 1992), or as some external force granted by spiritual beings (Rosenberg, 1974). Or, conversely to the latter theory, whether magic as a natural force, in interaction with human will and superstition, may have actually created spiritual beings. Barston's controversial 1987 paper in Ars Potentia, and Tuer's answering paper in October of the same year, give an excellent overview of both sides of that debate. The complex interaction of magical, scientific and religious studies over the past few centuries (and earlier, if one counts the early struggles of alchemists in Christian Europe, or the surprisingly long negotiations in wider Chinese society between magicians and the state - see Neehlus's 19th century Land of Paper, Gunpowder and Dragons for a firsthand account) has caused a great many upheavals and debates in magical theory. A debate which, at present, shows no real sign of being decided.

The role of cultural traditions in this debate is actually considerable. Given the wide variety of individual cultural approaches to magic, their integration into the religions and prevailing belief systems of their times, and indeed the many fundamental differences in their basic interaction with magic while still remaining equally effective across systems, I would argue that the sheer variety and effectiveness of the many different schools of magic actually gives some weight to Lowen's contention that magic is a neutral, natural force, manipulable primarily on a metaphysical level, and therefore its interactions with people are decided primarily by their mental and spiritual states while using it. I might also, given the breadth of traditions, and connections to the spiritual and religious practices of their cultures of origin, perhaps give some weight to Barston's contention of spiritual creation over Tuer's opposing argument. However, those contentions fall outside the primary scope of this paper.

It does need to be said, in studying these traditions, that they occupy a very broad range of magical principles, and engage with that common force in a wide variety of often mutually exclusive ways. Some may operate under the assumption of magic extending from a higher power or series of higher powers, some may interact with it as though manipulating a natural resource. In the first category, each tradition holds its own view of which powers grant the practitioner his magic, which of the other powers, if any, also exist, and usually which powers (and therefore which magics) may be considered 'moral'. In the second category, the models of interaction many systems work on may be considered mutually exclusive, and often operating in direct and flagrant violation of each other's principles. And yet, by all appearances, each system has a roughly equal rate of success in effecting magical change on the environment: see White et al's 1993 study of magical subcultures in the Miami area.

The major point, here, is that regardless of the culture of origin, and regardless of the principles on which each tradition appears to operate, and how well they agree with wider theories on magic, each of these traditional schools of magic works, and appears to be equally valid in the practical sense of effecting recognisable magical change on the practitioner's environment. While the reasons and causes of this phenomenon are a matter for other studies, this paper will be dealing with the practical consequences of that fact in the current magical community.


The Major Cultural Traditions of Magic Involved in the Construction of the Modern American Magical Community:

The dominant tradition in American magic has, over the years, actually changed perhaps more than many modern practitioners realise. There has, of course, been a certain tendency for governmental and socially elite practitioners to be trained in a handful of schools of thought broadly relating to the central European, alchemically derived traditions of medieval France and England in particular (see Margaret & Peter David's History of Ivy League Magics for an overview). Ironically enough, many such practitioners may fail to realise that such traditions actually drew strongly from both the medieval Christian, and medieval Arabic alchemical traditions, and therefore actually draw many of their founding principles from 'oriental' traditions.

There has also been a strong focus since the 1950s remote sensing and physical sciences boom towards the more magic-as-natural-force, hard results end of magical theory, resulting in some small conflicts in many institutions between the more traditionally faith-orientated strands of magic, and the more atheistic/agnostic effects-orientated strands developing out of the scientific arm of magical academia. Tthe history of rival journals Rational Magic (1965-ongoing) and the more mainstream and all-inclusive Ars Potentia (1887-ongoing) illustrates these conflicts, particularly in the years between 1967 and 1974.

In most cases, the study of alternate traditions of magic altogether has been largely ignored, or even actively discouraged in many institutions, leading to something of a dearth of information and academic papers on the alternate strands of magical tradition that exist in our cities and on our streets. I will attempt, in this paper, to outline some of the general origins and locations of alternate streams of magical tradition in America. I will, however, leave the actual details and functions of those traditions for more specific papers and studies.

Firstly, we have the controversial and recently revived influence of the original pre-colonial magics of the continent. The so-called Native American Tradition of Magic (which is something of a misnomer, as there are in fact any number of functionally separate traditions operating under that umbrella, depending on the specific cultures and geographical locations being dealt with in each case) has always had some small impact on wider magical theory, usually through the battlefield magics of the colonial era, and later from the specialist curse-breaking academics dealing with extant hotspots of non-colonial magic: see the 1989-1994 run of Magica Archeologica for practical examples. June Winters' Curse-Breaking in Meso-America is also useful in this area (Winters, 1982).

Recently, however, as the scientific arm of magical study has gained ground, and some tentative quantitative studies into ambient and natural magical fields have progressed, the role the pre-colonial peoples may have taken in shaping the broad underlying currents of ambient magic has pushed the area back into academic focus (see the March and June issues of Rational Magic, 1996, for a number of relevant articles). Depending on where the individual academic comes down on the issues of general magical theory, this influence could be considered anywhere from mildly interesting to potentially apocalyptic to a long overdue realisation, depending on whether you believe magic is a force shaped primarily by its practitioners, or independently evolving in response to environmental factors.

However, regardless of the academic stance on this issue, the basic understanding of the range and still-extant influence of the pre-colonial magics is starting to re-emerge as a field of study. Not before time, really. Although pre-colonial traditions are still considered to have minimal impact on the on-the-ground magical community and the general practitioners outside of certain areas, the wider impact of the traditions is starting to be recognised once more.

The post-colonial strands are, despite long-standing academic tradition, equally as varied, and span a far wider range of origins and a far wider influence on the current magical community than is usually realised. Definitive territories of broad alternate influence may be defined on any map of magical America, and within the cities the variance of tradition and its immediate influence on magical interaction among practitioners is more readily identifiable again.

Generally, the strongest traditions maintaining an active influence on current magical society in America are, depending on the location:

- The European schools, ranging from the classical alchemic schools of France and England, to the Germanic and Scandinavian schools with their relative focuses on wordmagic, shapeshifting and wizardic magics, to the strongly polytheistic-influenced Mediterranean and Celtic schools.

- The Hispanic schools, carrying strong Christian and Moorish elements, and a range of influences from medieval North African and Middle-Eastern traditions, as well as widespread hybridisation with multiple pre-colonial traditions.

- A wide variety of African and African diasporic schools, including strongly hybridised polytheistic/Christian traditions with very strong thaumaturgical and sympathetic magic elements.

- A similar variety of East and South Asian schools, particularly strong in urban areas and along the west coast. These schools are usually relatively pure and isolationist, however there are a number of surprising hybrid traditions emerging.

Very broadly speaking, the country may be divided into three rough geographical areas of magical traditions, based more or less on the historic points of origin of the major influxes of magical practitioners. Of course, each tradition has broader application in the years since the original influxes, as people and practitioners moved within the country, and there are many traditions that are not mentioned in this overview at all, due to simple time constraints. In each of these areas, and others beyond them, the spread and endurance of each of the traditions seems to be strongly related to the clustering of ethnic groups, but also to the nature and extent of the traditions' interactions with each other. Magic, as the saying goes, thrives in adversity. That certainly appears to be true in this case.

The three geographical areas are as follows:

- North-East and Central United States, drawing many traditions primarily from the European streams of thought, particularly the medieval and early modern French, Anglo-saxon and Germanic traditions, with influence from the Scandinavian and Celtic traditions, and Rabbinic and Christian medieval schools. On the ground practice of magic is subject to a lot more internal variation than is usually considered acceptable, even here.

- South-East and Southern United States, drawing strong influences from a number of traditions including African, Christian, Caribbean, French and modern Hispanic traditions. Although the elite schools in this area are mostly the usual medieval alchemical schools, a very large number of street practitioners are borrowing from multiple traditions, particularly in urban areas. This area is currently considered one of the primary reasons for expanding the study of varying traditions, particularly in the enforcement and regulation arm of the magical community. The University of Miami is the strongest proponent of re-opening the field of study in the current academic scene (White et al, 1993).

- South-West and Western United States, drawing major Hispanic influences from both the initial colonisation era, and current neighbours to the south. The area also has considerable influence from Asian and Pacific traditions of magic, and a surprisingly strong Celtic tradition, including multiple hybrid traditions joining elements of Irish and Asian magics (see May Fang's 1996 Magic in Chinatown, a study of magical practitioners in San Francisco's Chinatown district over the decade between 1985 and 1995). This may be related to the construction of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads in the 1860s, and the predominantly Irish and Chinese contingents of workers involved in their construction, but a closer study would need to be done to verify this.

Beyond the general trends over large geographic areas, it has also become apparent that the range and interaction of traditions tends to be much more varied, and much more volatile, in urban centers. Cities such as New York, Miami, Los Angeles, New Orleans and Houston have some of the most vigorously and actively policed magical communities in the country, and reports from the Regulatory Boards in all five repeatedly mention that classically trained practitioners in the purely European schools often have considerable trouble adapting to (and surviving) magical conflicts on the streets of these cities, particularly in areas of heavily mixed traditions, or areas of open and slow-burning conflict between two or more specific traditions.

It is also in urban areas that one of the major implications of the widespread use and interaction of alternate magical traditions in America becomes apparent: hybridisation and evolution of new traditions emerging from conflicts or interactions between older ones. Although certain strands of magical tradition have always been prone to absorption and assimilation of similar schools from other areas (generally, magics with similar philosophical frameworks will lend to each other, and magics with heavily specific fields of application will tend towards similarity regardless of background - a fire spell is a fire spell is a fire spell), rapid application and interaction in the relatively enclosed spaces of urban areas is leading to very rapid evolution of hybrid techniques borrowing from a variety of traditions (often at the expense of the theoretical and cultural frameworks of those techniques - pragmatic adaptation is the name of the game).


Current State of the Magical Community:

By this stage, it should have become apparent that there are far more, and far more varied, magical traditions and techniques in active use in the magical communities of this country than are allowed for by the usual academic models of Modern American Magic. State sponsored and regulated magic, and the institutions that provide the higher training in its use, are only the proverbial tip of the iceberg, and there are any number of very, very pressing ramifications of that.

On the long term scales, the existence of so many varied and mutually exclusive forms and traditions of magic has very powerful implications for the long term study of magic, and the greater resolution of the overarching theories of its functioning and nature. Of equal import are the implications, as highlighted in the resurgence of the fields relating to pre-colonial magics, for the long-term evolution and development of the background ambient magic of the continent, and the worries that we may be inadvertently shaping those background fields in ways we currently do not understand and cannot predict the eventual consequences of (and in fact, given the many catastrophic or major upheavals in the general use and interactions with the ambient magic over the past six hundred years, we may already have caused changes that cannot be reversed). These are very heavy and very important fields of study, and the general academic distaste for even acknowledging alternate traditions as more than 'primitive and clumsy alternates to real magic' is greatly hampering our ability to explore them.

Of more immediate concern, however, is the fact that these magics are not simple 'primitive alternatives' that may be defeated as soon as a 'real' practitioner comes on the scene, but real and fully-functioning systems of magic that are in active and current use in our cities and our streets, by practitioners more than capable of holding their own. The fact is that our Regulatory Boards and internal policing, trained as they are primarily in that narrow range of schools, are having trouble dealing with the realities of those traditions on the ground and in active conflicts between members of the magical communities across the States.

In a recent experiment by the Regulatory Board of the City of Miami, run over the course of ten years (1991-2001, the initial reports have been published as of March this year), involving the hiring and training of several officers from alternate traditions alongside more classically-trained officers, it was found that highest success rate of active intervention in on-the-ground conflicts was achieved by regulatory practitioners of mixed or versatile traditions, with specific focuses on the general assault, defense, slow-fused assault (curse), ward and ward-breaking capabilities of various magical traditions.

Practitioners with backgrounds in the scientific arms of magical theory showed relatively consistent success, regardless of specific traditional training, as did practitioners from schools with heavy focus on use and interaction with ambient as opposed to internal magics. A number of practitioners involved in the program had no state-sponsored formal training at all, having been raised in their native traditions and/or self-taught, often in the course of active involvement in some of the longer-running conflicts among the local magical community. Generally speaking, these were among the practitioners with the highest levels of success (though unfortunately also the practitioners with the most problems integrating into the overarching infrastructure of the Regulatory Board, and also the most likely to draw fire on the ground).

The overall results, however, during the run of the program, seem so far to indicate that the force as a whole, with its more versatile and varied approaches, had a far more reaching and consistent success rate than any previous incarnation of the Board has managed. There has been a significant reduction of injuries and fatalities in the line of duty (particularly over the last three years of the program), and a better overall coverage of the local zones of conflict. Despite significant internal tensions in the early stages of the program, gradually the practitioners from the different traditions appear to have found a method of cooperation and compensation, and in general the experiment appears to have been a success, to the extent that the program has been renewed for an additional ten years, with options and potential restructuring over the Regulatory Board as a whole.

On the backs of the Miami Experiment, several of the other cities, particularly Houston and Los Angeles, are looking to launch similar programs of their own, with New York beginning to tentatively look at similar options. There is a move in the wider communities, wholly independent of any need for academic or Establishment agreement, that the criteria for regulation and intervention in magical conflicts needs to be revised, and the training of government-sponsored practitioners drastically overhauled.



The Regulatory and Academic Institutions of Magic in this country are, in essence, woefully behind the times, and have been, in fact, for more than the past century. While the Institutions have focused almost exclusively on a relatively narrow range of schools of magical practice and thought, and the Regulatory Boards have almost exclusively hired practitioners from those schools and only a handful of others, the actual magical communities of the United States have been interacting and adapting a very wide range of traditions and schools, engaging with family and local teachers, or self-teaching on the fly in very, very active magical conflicts and interaction zones. In some of our urban areas, magic is very literally changing day by day, and although the hybridisation and absorption of different traditions has always been an element of magical interaction the world over, the speed at which elements of different traditions are being integrated and adapted into new and often lethal street techniques is far too rapidly outpacing our Regulatory system's ability to combat them.

We need to start catching up. We need to re-examine the biases of our education and training systems. We need to start examining the hiring practices of our Regulatory bodies, and adapting them to suit the actual current situation, rather than the biases of a doddering view of magic that more properly belongs in the last century. We need to start acknowledging the existence and effectiveness of systems of magic outside the classically 'acceptable' ones, and understand both their validity and their long-term consequences in interaction with our own and each other.

In short? We need to start acting, rather than ignoring the facts that have been under our nose for the past two hundred years, and which any ten year old practitioner on the street could tell you in minutes.

Magic is not the sole domain and preserve of the social elite. It never has been, and it never will be. And it's about time the Establishment figured that out, don't you think?


Professor Karen Dietrich, University of San Francisco, September 2002



- Barston, 1987, 'Man Maketh The Gods', paper on the potential creation of spiritual beings via magic (advancing theory)

- David & David, 1987, History of Ivy League Magics, an examination of the dominance of European alchemically-based schools of magic among American social elite

- Fang, 1996, Magic in Chinatown, a ten-year study of magic in San Francisco's Chinatown district between 1985-95

- Lowen, 1992, 'The Clash of Titans: Magic and Science in American Academia', a discussion of the interactions of science and magic in academia

- Neehlus, 1865, Land of Paper, Gunpowder and Dragons, a first-hand account by a Dutch trader of the history of Chinese magic and the state

- Rosenberg, 1974, 'The Gift of Gods', a discussion of magic as force granted by spiritual beings

- Tuer, 1987, 'The Promethean Delusions', a response to and criticism of Barston's paper

- White et al, 1993, 'Magic Between the Lines', a study of magical subcultures in the Miami area

- White et al, 2002, 'Report on the Introduction of Practitioners of Alternate Schools of Magic into the ranks of the Board of the Regulation of Magic of the City of Miami', the initial reports from the Miami Experiment

- Winters, 1979, Curse Breaking in Meso-America, a personal study of magical archaeology and curse-breaking in Meso-America