Over the past few weeks, I’ve been making good use of some of my Christmas presents (books on magic, religion, and the like) and heartily absorbing some of the points they make. While many of the texts talk about specific ways to implement ritual practices or the general cultural milieu occult practices take place within, the overarching theme that’s being presented is that it’s really really hard to make clear distinctions between magic and religion based on the evidence we have of ancient cultures. Sure, we might call ourselves “magicians” or “priests” nowadays, but the worldview we have when we apply these labels to ourselves is kinda weird when we consider what the ancients and our ancestors would have done.
For instance, a magician nowadays might set aside some time every day for magical work, but beyond that doesn’t do a damn thing; no prayers, no offerings, no involvement of “magic” beyond their set rituals. Someone we might call devout or religious might go to church every week and occasionally get involved in scripture study with their friends, but outside of that barely involves themselves in religious activity. We basically consider ourselves part-time magicians; part of the time we’re magicians, and the rest we’re just our normal mundane selves. This is such a modern way of thinking, and so prevalent around us, that it’s hard to consider that it might have been any different for the people who have gone before us.
What would the ancients have done? Rather than set aside times for doing magic or being religious, they involved these things literally all the time in everything they did. Not one single thing was separate from magic or the gods or religion; not one single act had explicitly mundane purposes completely detached from the spirits. Every herb picked, every meal served, every trip made, every speech spoken invoked the gods or spirits in some way, or was performed for some spiritual purpose no matter how small. Rather than clearly thinking of something as magical or non-magical, or religious or non-religious, their entire lives were lived by incorporating the spirits in every action. Of course, there were atheists and people with different beliefs doing the same thing as others who might be more canonical or traditional in their works, but that didn’t matter. Everything actually done was the important thing, and even those who didn’t believe in a particular spirit or the efficacy of the spirit still performed the rituals just as everyone else did.
We might call this all the “religion” of ancient peoples, but it’s unclear whether they would have considered it so. To an Athenian, their style of Hellenistic belief was simply what was always done; there was no set reference of texts, no central hierarchy, no canon. The only things that were set were the festivals, the rituals, and the observances of the gods that, as far as they were concerned, sustained them in their livelihood and lives. There was no “religion” beyond daily life itself, and all the observances and stories that gave importance to their lives.
What do we consider “religion” nowadays for ourselves, though? We might consider a set of canonical scriptures, a defined set of beliefs, some sort of priesthood or hierarchy, and regular observances of ritual or significant times. We generally consider religion to follow an orthodox (literally “right teachings”) model, where belief is the core part of religion. After all, given the past 2000 years of Christian development and influence on Western culture and philosophy, where Christians were more concerned with “what is the real word of God” or “what is heretical and against us”, this isn’t too surprising. Christians have had a set of four gospel texts with a number of other texts appended on and deemed canonical by central authorities, with any deviance from these texts considered heretical. A central authority deems whether a particular text is worth studying, or whether a particular person has been initiated into the priesthood, or whether a particular ritual is acceptable or not for use within the church. It’s all very centralized and set in stone, and any deviance from the approval of the authorities is bad. What the authorities believe is “religion”; what they don’t is deemed heretical or magical.
But this sort of central authority simply didn’t exist for most of human history, or even in a majority of world cultures. Take Hinduism for instance; while there are a few central texts crucial to the understanding of Hindu philosophy and beliefs, there is no central hierarchy to determine what’s right and what’s wrong. Local communities might practice their festivals or rituals differently, or might place more emphasis on one practice than another. Different communities might hold different stories or myths to be more important than others. They might add more scriptures, or consider fewer. None of them dispute the correctness of each other, since other practices can augment or reflect one’s own in useful ways depending on need and practice. The ancient Greeks are another good example; they might have had the Odyssey and Iliad to reflect ancient myths, or other bodies of myth and stories, but there was no central hierarchy to determine whether this temple had illegitimate practices or priests initiated incorrectly. Even within the same city, the same god might be worshipped any number of ways, and that was alright.
Rather than following an orthodox model of religion, many cultures place more importance on orthoprax models, literally “right practice”. So long as you do the rituals to spec (whatever that “spec” might have been), you’re in the clear. You might think that the god is really some other god, or that the ritual has this importance and not the one others think is important, but that doesn’t matter so long as you actually get your hands dirty and do the work. Even if the community is just a tightly-knit family with ten people, the rituals and practices and customs done would be considered legit by them, and that’s all that matters. There is no standard to determine which practices or beliefs are right or wrong, beyond what’s done for a good reason.
Partially, this lack of orthodox standard is influenced by the presence of “set texts”. Oral traditions, like the classical Hindu or modern Santería or other religions, don’t have any particular set texts. They’re all spoken aloud, passed down by word from one generation to the next; while the songs may be the same, they’re ephemeral, and require people to memorize them. Changes, especially if the songs are lost or misheard or inappropriate for further use, are organic and allow different communities to develop their own flavors of the original religion that reflect their own cultures and communities. There’s nothing to compare against besides each other, no “canon”, to say that something is right or wrong. If something simply isn’t done anywhere else and contradicts every other surviving practice, it might be weird, but if it works and gets the same stuff done, it’s hardly “wrong”. It might not be acceptable to one group, but if it works within the group in which it developed, there’s nothing “heretical” about it, so long as it pleases their gods and gets the job done.
So what’s the big difference between magic and religion? Honestly, there isn’t one as far as I can see. Even to define the two is difficult enough, but might better both be put under a broader header of “spiritual customs” that a group or individual makes use of to accomplish certain goals. Whether gods are invoked by name or a simple announcement of intent is made, these customs are something “extra” to the purely mundane causes and effects that somehow make the action fit in better with one’s life. It would seem that religion is simply the approved practices of the majority or a central hierarchy, and magic is anything outside that realm within the same culture, but this definition is kinda weak. What would we make of a curse tablet that invokes the gods of the underworld in a purely prayer format? Is that magic, or religion? Many people employed curse tablets, and there’s nothing overly disapproved of the wording. The grey area between magic and religion is so large that it incorporates both magic and religion.
Within a particular pantheon or philosophy, so long as you do what’s done, you’re pretty much set. Just because some central authority detached from your culture and need says that your actions are wrong doesn’t make it so, but not all authorities are completely detached on the matter. For instance, if you try to invoke the Santería orisha Chango in a ceremonial magic working or use symbols and offerings that are more appropriate to the Greek thea Aphrodite, that’s probably not going to end up too good. Why? Because that’s not how Chango has ever been treated, nor how Chango ever grew by those that worship him, and it’s also likely that Chango himself wouldn’t agree with the practices. It’s not bad to innovate, but it’s also not bad to listen to custom and tradition.
Those two words, “custom” and “tradition” have important etymological roots that can clarify and guide our practices. Custom ultimately comes from the Latin word “consuescere”, meaning “to become used to with oneself”. Anything that is done over time that has been adopted or integrated into a community, family, culture, or even individuals is a custom. Tradition comes from the Latin word “tradere”, meaning “to hand across, to hand down”. Anything that we are taught to do, or picked up from others, or passed down from one generation to the next is a tradition. Between these two, we already have a good body of things that can help us build our practice and educate us: the stories we’re told from birth, the tricks and quirks our parents show us in the kitchen or around the house, the polities and courtesies we show others that we were taught to show, all these things are customs and traditions that help us build ourselves into the people we are.
Neither customs nor traditions preclude changes to them or innovations of new practices, but customs and traditions should guide us and offer a sounding board for these new practices. Thus, if a particular kind of fruit offered to Chango in Africa cannot be found in Cuba where he’s also worshipped, a substitute can be made if the new fruit is appropriate (similar color, taste, texture, etc.), or the practice might be eliminated entirely. Offering Chango something entirely different with no connection or relationship to the original offering or anything Chango is known to like, however, may not be recommended unless Chango asks for it. Similarly, if one’s traditions involve calling upon Chango with another set of gods that have been passed down by one’s family or culture (e.g. native American religions or pre-slave trade Caribbean faiths), asking for Chango’s presence with another god can be good if the two gods are known to get along well. On the other hand, asking for Chango’s presence with a Celtic or Slavic god, when these gods are new to the family or culture and no connections between them have been formally made yet, may not end up too well unless one asks Chango and the other god how they might interact with each other. Overall, it’s a respect thing.
In a sense, ritual acts might be considered “wrong” only if they’re disagreeable with the forces that they call upon. If other people don’t like it, they don’t have to practice it or go along with it, especially if their traditions and customs dictate they act in certain ways that don’t agree with this other ritual. If the spirits are okay with something and its continued use, there’s nothing wrong with taking that and passing it on for others to use. If a ritual act gets something done or spiritually completes an act without harm and with benefits, it should be maintained and practiced by those who can use it. That’s really the only difference between “wrong” or “heretical” acts and “right” or “proper” acts when it comes to ritual. Acts that are deemed heretical and magical by central authorities, then, can be of no less use and efficacy than those that are deemed religious and proper, so long as the acts themselves don’t conflict with the customs and traditions that help build someone up into the person they are within the community that was also shaped by those customs and traditions.
So what’s the difference between magic and religion? There isn’t one besides what’s deemed “proper” by someone who probably doesn’t matter. What’s the difference between these and ways of life? There shouldn’t be one for those who are serious about either.