Double review and tribute: Isaac Bonewits, Real Magic and Real Energy, Part Ia

Since I wasn’t feeling well for several days last week, I missed putting up any book reviews. To make up, and in recognition of a prominent member of the Pagan community who died this past year, I offer a double-feature review of Isaac Bonewits’ Real Magic and Real Energy.

Bonewits, Philip Emmons Isaac. Real Magic: an introductory treatise on the principles of yellow magic. First published 1971. Revised edition, 1978, Weiser Books. Paperback, 282 pages.

Bonewits, Phaedra and Isaac. Real Energy: systems, spirits, and substances to heal, change, and grow. New Page Books, 2007. Paperback, 287 pages.

These works represent, in some ways, the bookends of Isaac Bonewits’ life writing for the Pagan community at large. His impressive bibliography is filled with works on specific topics, and his biography with work on the ADF, which he founded and shaped, among many other efforts. But these books are the most widely addressed of all his texts; in fact, one could argue that these aren’t aimed directly at the Pagan community at all, but at the public at large, in an effort to promote interest in, and provide a primer on, the meta-physical forces.

Bonewits’ introduction to the revised edition of Real Magic indicates how much change had taken place in the few years since he had written the first edition: “There are few experiences in the life of an author more embarrassing and sobering than the rereading of a work written by him or her several years previously.” (vii) In an even greater sense, Real Energy is the work written by an Isaac who is older, more sober, and has had a lifetime’s worth of experience with the forces he’s discussing. The contrasts are fascinating, and indicate how much his thinking evolved from the young, brash newly-minted college graduate with a degree in magic, to the wiser, widely-respected teacher and leader he became. Certainly his idealistic focus on theory was tempered by a great deal of practical experience, a process familiar to anyone who has spent more than a few years in any field of study.

His introduction goes on to point up how his initial writing has been revised to become more sensitive to gender and other identity politics and language. He remains, however, ardently defensive of the scientific grounding of his book. Indeed, his original introduction firmly explains his great desire to approach magic in a scientific fashion, and includes some of the experts who reviewed his book. I have not done sufficient research to fully understand how Bonewits’ approach to parapsychology and related fields evolved over his lifetime, including, in particular, the exposes of certain scandals involving physical manipulation to purport parapsychological results. It suffices to say here that his tone was quite tempered by the time Real Energy came into being.

The greatest achievement of this book is the image opposite page 1: Bonewits’ depiction of The Laws of Magic. Available on his website is a lovely version of the chart with key explanations of each law, some of them updated since Real Magic came out. This diagram neatly summarizes several of the ways of thinking that are important to magic and shows where one law is a subset of another, where two overlap, and where things get incredibly tangled, like in the section about how we with finite senses interact with an infinite universe. Anyone who is interested in magic would do well to learn Bonewits’ layout of the laws. This is much, much more important than any table of correspondences you will ever come across. These ideas are the roots of all tables of correspondences, and when you understand the roots, you can grow your own – you can construct your own correspondences that will be the most effective tools for you use. For example, the Law of Similarity states, “Lookalikes are alike.” This is the law (or way of thinking) behind an act like using the color green to represent money. In the US, our money is primarily green, and that has entered our cultural subconscious as a fact of life. Thus, for us, green is very effective at resembling money, and makes a good correspondence. Magically, green is “like” money, according to the Law of Similarity. But for others, another color entirely might be more appropriate; EU money has many shades of blue and purple in it, or someone else might like to think in terms of big gold coins (Galleons, anyone?). The point is, knowing the Law of Similarity lets you get into your own head and figure out what the best tool is because you understand the principle linking the tool and the intent in the real world.

Bonewits then spends a chapter arguing that magic is scientific but hasn’t yet been discovered by science, and another chapter on what parapsychology has investigated, including different kinds of “psi” talents, which he catalogues extensively. After a chapter delving into Tantra, with an attempt to de-sensationalize it, he gets to what may be the second most interesting chapter of the book: “Black Magic, White Magic, and Living Color.” Bonewits dances through a cultural history of color, detours into the history of Wicca, and comments briefly on his experiences with groups supposedly working with “black magic.” (More on that topic can be seen on his site; it suffices to say here that Bonewits had his wild young days and managed to learn from them, which is more than most people do.) He concludes that black magic users and white magic users tend to say exactly the same things about themselves, except for the trappings, when broken down to their core approaches, and stripped of moral overtones or religious theories. Bonewits sums up by concluding that “There is nothing we as scientists (and all magicians are scientists) can label “Black Magic” or “White Magic” just as we cannot as scientists label anything “Good” or “Evil.” That is the job of ethics, not science.” (116)

This focus on the magician as scientist – scientist of the occult, the previously hidden, but definitely a scientist – is Bonewits’ fundamental approach to magic throughout this work. It’s why this work is closely related to another of his titled Authentic Thaumaturgy. Thaumaturgy is magic for the purpose of “wonder-working,” or creating real, measurable change in the physical world. Theurgy is the practice of magic for purposes related to a god or religion; for drawing closer to a god, invoking a god, connecting to one’s higher self, or whatever. Bonewits is quite clear that he has nearly no interest in theurgy, and in fact wants to separate out a scientific approach to magic from any particular religious context. This approach can be liberating or somewhat annoying, depending on the reader’s take on magic and deity. Bonewits’ review of colors proposes that we ought to describe magical work by colors based on the magic’s intended purpose: yellow for rational endeavors, hence the subtitle of his book; green for what we would now call ecology or earth-based work; blue for emotional pursuits and theurgy, etc.

Bonewits’ focus on the scientific roots of magic culminates in his Switchboard Theory. This is a bit like the idea of the Akashic Records, a bit like the idea of the Collective Unconscious, but attempts to be purely materialistic in its methods of explanation. Bonewits’ metaphor, in the great tradition of magical metaphors, draws on one of the more advanced technological systems of his time. He uses the terms “metapattern” for something akin to a person’s state of being, particularly mentally and emotionally, and argues that each metapattern exists within the Switchboard, which is a sort of global pan-unconscious, with particular “circuits” that represent patterns or connections that have been made repeatedly. The connection of money and green in the US could be a simple circuit, for example. Bonewits wants very badly to think that the Switchboard will be validated by scientific research, particularly on ESP as electromagnetic, but accepts that it must be modified if the data do not bear it out. He uses it, provisionally, based on his Law of Pragmatism: if it works, it’s true enough.

His work on ritual I will skip, since it was also more fully developed in another book later, and likewise his brief overview of fortune-telling methods. His conclusion is primarily a plea for more research in the areas of science so that magicians can get on building a framework of theory for understanding magic that is not bound up with religion or mysticism.

Since this is turning out even longer than I expected, I’ll split the two-part review up into two parts, and post this as-is. Part II will be tomorrow!

Edited to fix typo – thanks, Grafton! Also, h/t to my friend Sherrian for background about Isaac Bonewits’ youth and his youthful approach to magic.

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About Literata

Literata is a Wiccan priestess and writer. She edited Crossing the River: An Anthology in Honor of Sacred Journeys, and her poetry, rituals, and nonfiction have appeared in works such as Mandragora, Unto Herself, and Anointed as well as multiple periodicals. Literata has presented rituals and workshops at Sacred Space conference, Fertile Ground Gathering, and other mid-Atlantic venues. Literata offers healing and divination services as well as customized life-cycle rituals. She is currently completing her doctoral dissertation in history with the support of her husband and four cats.
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