Magic involves the use of rituals, symbols, actions, and gestures to interact with and manipulate non-ordinary reality. Many such non-ordinary realities exist, particularly within our perception.
#Varieties of magic
An emic perspective tries to explain the world from the point of view of those living in it — the way that people in the Fifth World see it and experience it. An etic perspective tries to explain it from an outsider's point of view. From either perspective, magic covers a wide range of topics. For each of these broad categories, we’ll discuss it in terms of both emic and etic perspectives.
#Sleight of Hand
From an etic perspective, we might think of sleight of hand as tricks or illusions — a cunning performance that might entertain, but only a fool would consider truly magical. This owes much to the particular patterns of thought trained by literacy, though, with its emphasis on categorizing things. Under this logic, we try to categorize an act as either magical or mundane. Sleight of hand might seem magical, but when we learn the trick we correctly classify it as mundane. Orality trains different patterns of thought, though, prioritizing direct experience. Under this logic, we experience sleight of hand as a momentary suspension of the rules of the normal world — as magical. Learning how to accomplish this effect does not diminish that experience. The experience still occurred, and how one achieves it does not change that.
Wizards learn sleight of hand and use it in rituals and other contexts. Many of them excel at holding several competing opinions on the subject simultaneously, considering them tricks and illusions, instructional methods for helping others (and themselves) consider unlikely possibilities or seeming paradoxes, and true magic, all at once.
Magic can heal, and quite effectively. From an etic perspective, we can see that this often relies on the distinction between disease (the physical phenomenon, involving biology), illness (the subjective phenomenon, involving psychology), and sickness (the social phenomenon, involving anthropology). People in the Fifth World employ a wide range of medicines with a varying range of effectiveness at treating disease and injury, but magic and ceremony excel at treating illness and sickness. Such healing magic excels at activating and strengthening the placebo effect, which can have a very powerful impact. Thus, healing magic does help many people recover.
In the days of civilization, the ancients could apparently shape metal at their whim. During the Rusting Age much of this art slipped away, but some still remember it. Most people in the Fifth World consider this a very powerful and potent kind of magic. Metal tools can last for generations, particularly when properly taken care of. Not only do these tools have significant advantages over other tools that can seem magical all by themselves, they also might tie together generation after generation. When you cook and eat from the same pot as your great-grandparents, it binds you to them in a direct, tactile way. Some smiths speak of such items “waking up” as they accumulate life and magic over their long years, until they became members of the family in their own right — and even ancestors.
While mass production of iron, steel, or other metal tools became impractical after the Rusting Age, some smiths do still keep the knowledge of how to work iron alive. They collect bog iron and use it to create new items. Because it takes so much time and labor to collect bog iron, they tend to make items that use a little bit of metal for the most effective result, for example, making an axe head rather than trying to make a sword.
Many communities in the Fifth World believe that anyone can journey through other realms, particularly in dreams, but wizards make a particular study of it. They use ecstatic techniques like trance or consuming entheogens to enter an altered state of consciousness.
From an etic perspective, we can understand these techniques as a way to enhance a phenomenon called “thin slicing.” Every adult in the Fifth World has decades of experience closely observing her family’s territory, making her an expert in its ecology, as well as extremely subtle hints and signs that only a skilled tracker might notice. This means that the average person has an enormous amount of ecological data stored in her subconscious mind. “Thin slicing” refers to the ability to derive correct conclusions even from limited observation, without conscious thought, in situations where conscious consideration of all of the factors involved would quickly become overwhelming. This certainly applies to, for example, trying to estimate how many pigs a family can sustainably take from a local herd. With a lifetime of close observation, a wizard can come to a reasonably accurate number. Ecstatic techniques can help wizards do this even more effectively.
From an emic perspective, the wizard may experience this as a journey to the realm of the animals, where she bargains with Pig for how many of his herd her family can take this year. Pig may demand something in return, like the family agreeing not to disturb certain designated wallows, and then name a number, like five or six. The family may kill that many pigs, but any beyond that would count as murder, and risk certain anger and vengeance.
These two perspectives might at first seem quite at odds with one another, with the emic perspective offering a quite naive version of what really happens, but a Fifth World wizard would most likely see the etic perspective as nothing more than a long-winded way of saying the same thing. What does it really matter whether she speaks to Pig in a vision or over a year of close ecological observation, after all, so long as that negotiation takes place and they strike a good accord?
The shift from literacy to orality has meant a shift from nouns to verbs. In terms of nouns, shapeshifting seems like obvious fantasy. One thing cannot become another, after all. In terms of verbs, shapeshifting seems obvious and ordinary. We act differently all the time, from moment to moment. Embodying different patterns of movement and relationship forms the most basic level of shapeshifting.
Those who devote themselves to shapeshifting spend many years closely studying the movements and habits of a particular animal, until watching them becomes a trance in which they project their own sense of self, first in between themselves and the animal, and finally directly into the animal itself. At this point, from an etic perspective, shapeshifting works using the same principles as journeying in trance or under the influence of an entheogen. In this state, the shapeshifter may put together subtle clues that she might not have connected in a normal waking state. This could explain how shapeshifters so often learn things that they wouldn't appear to have any way of knowing except by actually changing shape.
Watching a shapeshifter, one sees only a person in rapt attention or trance. You will not see any physical transformation take place.
Generally anyone in the Fifth World can learn magic, but wizards put the most time and effort into mastering it. Much magic revolves around the practice of animism as a skill which one can grow more proficient at. You might then think of wizards as the most extensively-trained doctors and experts in it. Most wizards use these skills to serve as ambassadors between their own, human communities and the other-than-human communities that surround them, which they depend on utterly for their survival.
The traditional magician, I came to discern, commonly acts as an intermediary between the human collective and the larger ecological field, ensuring that there is an appropriate flow of nourishment, not just from the landscape to the human inhabitants but from the human community back to the local Earth. By their rituals, trances, ecstasies, and ‘journeys,’ magicians ensure that the relation between human society and the larger society of beings is balanced and reciprocal, and that the village never takes more from the living land than it returns to it — not just materially, but with prayers, propitiations, and praise. The scale of a harvest or the size of a hunt is always negotiated between the tribal community and the natural world it inhabits. To some extent every adult in the community is engaged in this process of listening and attuning to the other presences that surround and influence daily life. But the shaman or sorcerer is the exemplary voyager in the intermediate realm between the human and the more-than-human worlds, the primary strategist and negotiator in any dealings with the Others.
David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World