This post is a revised version of a piece I originally wrote for my old blog. It's a brief exploration of this concept of "energy" all magical practitioners are introduced to in their studies and training, whether they make use of it or not. The post was originally inspired by a conversation I had with some friends whose magical practices could be described as being "energy free". They mainly practice folk magic. Largely Hoodoo – that 19th century African American organically grown system of effective and practical magic that works extensively with herbs and roots and operates from a Christian worldview.
Hoodoo makes use of magical herbal folklore from African, European and Native American traditions. It also has influences from mystical Judaism and European medieval grimoires. Christian prayer and The Holy Bible are used extensively, particularly with the recitation of the psalms (with different psalms being deemed appropriate for different situations) although other Biblical passages are also used (a classic example being “The Song of Solomon” in love workings). Hoodoo has a reputation for working well and bringing successful results, which is probably one of the main reasons for its popularity.
I have practised Hoodoo myself on occasion over the years, but I am by no means an expert, and tend to just make use of a few techniques I know to work well, but it's not a major part of my personal practice. These friends of mine practice their rootwork (one of the many alternative names you hear being used to refer to Hoodoo, other common terms being “Conjure” and often, simply “Spiritual Work”) on a professional basis for clients and I highly recommend you pay a visit to their website The Occult Consultancy. Their oil blends are powerful and gorgeous smelling and their emailed Tarot and other divination readings have knocked the socks off more than a few of their clients. Whilst Hoodoo could be argued to originally be most closely associated with African American folks attending Baptist Churches, there were also many Catholics who started using Hoodoo, often incorporating it in with petitioning saints, and it is this Catholic flavoured Hoodoo that tends to be the practice of my friends. I feel I should point out also, that petitioning saints in folk magic is not just a Hoodoo practice, it's much older than that and has been common in Catholic countries for centuries. If you are interested in Hoodoo, don’t know much about it and would like to know more, the single best online resource for information, hands down, would have to be Lucky Mojo.
To get back to the purpose of this post – the main magical practices of these friends of mine would fall into the categories of Hoodoo and European (and often Catholic) folk magic, with the occasional smattering of grimoiric influence. In other words, my friends don’t do “energy”. It isn’t a thing for them. Their approach to working magic, which has a long historical precedent (see Agrippa’s “Three Books of Occult Philosophy” and probably any grimoire or medieval magical text) is that this stuff works because it works. All the herbs and roots are made by God (because God made everything because he’s God!) and they each have different abilities. It's a case of gathering the suitable ingredients (materia magica) which are in harmony with your intent (the materials themselves are important, again a very classic and old world, traditional approach to magic found in all cultures, none of this “Oh, it’s just a prop or a tool” attitude you find amongst so many today - though I also understand and see some value in this approach too, magic is paradoxical). The ingredients are then worked with in some way: magical oil blends are made with the correct ingredients and prayed over, herbs and roots are stuffed into pouches (mojo bags or gris-gris bags) along with other magical ingredients – animal parts (like a chicken’s foot or raccoon penis bone, for instance) seals or talismans from grimoires (which are regarded as inherently powerful for the symbols and Hebrew names of God that are inscribed on them) and perhaps, a passage from the Bible written on a piece of paper along with a personal petition. All of these activities are done with prayer and intent. There is no “energy” concept, no symbols are traced in the air and visualised, no white (or blue, or green or any colour) of “energy” needs to be raised, felt or visualised emanating from your hands into your working. It’s all about combining the correct or suitable ingredients with strong faith and heartfelt prayer. Much European folk magic in general seems to work in this way.
"Holy Fire, Panel 1" by the psychedelic Alex Grey.
Whilst familiar to a point, with the concept of “energy” that so many magical practitioners of modern Western systems and New Age practices speak of, my friends’ personal dealings with it were little to none. I then discussed some of my personal experiences over the years of the kinds of sensations and feelings of “energy” I experience when I engage in energetic work such as Chakra opening exercises and The Middle Pillar ritual. I mentioned the subtle feelings and tingles I get from crystals and the variations depending on different minerals, the sensations of power flowing through my body when working Craft based magic and how, when being attuned to Reiki Level One a few years ago, I became aware of strong heat and flowing forces circulating about me that were so palpable I could see moving circles in my mind’s eye mimicking the cyclical movement. The feeling of tightness I experienced in my head after the Reiki symbols had been traced in the air over me and that left me for an entire week afterwards with a strong spaced out feeling and that “ear popping” sensation you get when you are in a plane that is about to land.
Whilst I totally appreciate that the concept of a subtle force may well have been completely alien to the magic of many of our medieval European forbears (be they angel summoning magician or folksy down in the dirt cunning men and wise women) there is definitely an historical precedent for working with this “energy” in other parts of the world. Teachings on auras, subtle bodies and currents of invisible force that flow through our bodies in channels and can be controlled and projected from us humans have been in existence for centuries. Many cultures recognise this same “energy” as being found in all natural objects – trees, plants, rocks, rivers and the very earth itself, in flows and currents. In India we have terms such as prana and kundalini. In Hawai, mana (for some reason this particular term became very popular in a lot of sword and sorcery style fantasy role playing video games, as any geeks reading this may well be aware). To the Chinese, it is known as Chi and martial arts students the world over are introduced to this concept. The famous Czech Hermetic magician Franz Bardon was referring to this force when he spoke of “vital power” (“lebenskraft”) and electric and magnetic fluids (not to be confused with the usage of those terms in actual Physics!). In 1939, Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich discovered what he described as life-force or cosmic energy and labelled it Orgone and even went as far as to construct orgone accumulators. If you have a penchant for kooky looking gadgets, I’d definitely recommend googling those!
My knowledge of this subject is limited, but Asia appears to have the most detailed and sophisticated understanding of this topic. Tantric, Hindu, Buddhist, Daoist, Shinto, and undoubtedly many more traditions go into teachings on how to regulate, cultivate and channel this power for all manner of goals from healing to harming.
In the West, I don’t know if Celtic or Norse tribes had an awareness of this energy, but I would not be at all surprised.
So why is there such a huge emphasis on it by so many Magicians, Pagans, Witches and New Agers in the West today? I think that most of it boils down to the early trailblazers of the occult revival in late 19th century England, whose work continues to inspire and inform so many in the Western magical traditions (although I am well aware of a movement away from this material by some modern occultists now that we live in the information age and have access to better translations of magical and mystical texts from around the world) I am of course, referring to the likes of the Golden Dawn magicians, the Theosophists and the infamous Aleister Crowley. The Theosophical Society had a strong Eastern influence which continues today in their philosophy and practice and Crowley had a keen interest in Yoga, Buddhism and Tantric practices. In Victorian England, amongst occultists and I’m sure at least a few spiritualists, opening your Chakras became a thing (it must have been tough in all those corsets and waistcoats they used to wear!).
A little later in history, the aforementioned terms of Reich and Bardon would have gained popularity amongst practitioners familiar with either of these men’s works. Baron Carl Von Reichenbach’s term Odicforce, which is again, described as life force or vital energy (and in this case, named after the Norse god Odin) was also used in some circles.
In terms of modern Witchcraft/Wicca, early Gardnerian and Alexandrian Witches seemed to simply refer to the use of the “power” and the importance of raising a cone of power in coven based magical workings. In his first factual book on the practices and beliefs of modern Witches, “Witchcraft Today“, Gerald Gardner discusses the notion of power emanating from the human body and how ritual nudity in the Craft is necessary so as not to inhibit the flow of this power.
The dreaded “E” word seems to have gained more prominence in Witchcraft, Pagan and Ritual Magic terminologies as a result of the New Age movement. Many today still use the word “energy”, whilst continuing to profess to hate it for it’s pseudo-scientific connotations and vagueness as a term, probably for its convenience and universality. The equally popular pseudo-scientific New Age usage of the terms vibration, frequency and wavelength can also be found to make their way into the speech of some occultists.
No longer purely the domain of the mystical and magical, "Energy", like "Karma" has become a common term used in everyday language for everyone these days. I'm an unapologetic fan of the reality TV show Big Brother (I think it's because I find people fascinating) and people are always talking about the "energy" of their fellow housemates and whether someone has "good energy" or "bad energy" or how they don't like a person's "energy" or how the "energy" in the house has been brought down by negative activities such as gossiping and confrontational arguments.
Terminology aside, I find the concept of life force/Chi/vital power to be a very interesting and necessary aspect of some of my key magical practices and I think it’s a shame that it's met with such derision from some quarters. Not all traditions acknowledge it or seek to work with it, as I have mentioned.
Jason Miller (whose work I greatly admire: Love his books and highly recommend his year long email correspondence Strategic Sorcery course) gives a simplified but pretty nifty way of looking at magical traditions in his book “Sorcerer’s Secrets: Strategies in Practical Magick“. You have three levels. One deals with the physical ingredients and tools, another with all things energetic and the other with the divine and all spiritual beings etc. Some traditions work with all three in their magical process (such as Wicca) others may work with just two, completely bypassing one of the levels, such as is the case with Hoodoo, which deals solely with God, spirits and material ingredients.
I feel ultimately that those interested in magic and mysticism on a global and universal level, keen to explore more than just one or two traditions, will find the study of “energy” and the practice of energetic work to be a fascinating and worthwhile piece of the “Mysteries and Magic of the Universe” puzzle, especially if drawn to some of the Eastern paths of mysticism and sorcery where, quite frankly, it's fundamental.