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Are There Witches Where You Live?: A Brief Look At The Magical Mindset

April 26, 2012

In one of my courses in college, the professor shared with us a question that was once posed to him by a man in Tanzania, “Are there witches where you live?”

Most of the class, like he was when asked the question, were somewhat perplexed. After all, in Western society the idea that there is magic has been largely stamped out by other prevailing world views. He then proceeded to add the extra questions that the Tanzanian man believed qualified someone as a witch, “Are there rich people where you live? Are there ever politicians who can win elections despite being unpopular? Do people do things that you cannot explain, and find it hard to get explanations for?”

When you think about it in that context, that a witch is someone possessed of secret knowledge that they then use to their advantage, then yes there are certainly witches where I live. After all, even though I’ve tried to study how hedge funds work, why they’re barely regulated, and where the money they actually make comes from, I have rarely been able to gain any suitable explanations. As far as I can tell, hedge fund managers are pretty much witches. They are possessed of secret knowledge, they move in social circles foreign and distant to my own, and they use this knowledge to gain power. They’re witches.

I bring all of this up, because I’m sure to most readers this whole notion might sound silly. To say that a hedge fund manager, or an unpopular incumbent that continues to be elected, is a witch or that they have access to magic sounds like a shaky foundation for a trashy urban fantasy novel. Of course, this is because we’re wrapped up in the notion that when we call something “magic” that we are saying that we can not comprehend an explanation for it.

I can’t say I have direct evidence for why we think this, but I have theories. We probably feel this way because of how Western society has viewed education and science since the Enlightenment. Hell, the simple notion that we refer to the period in which philosophical ideas moved away from superstition and religion and toward science as “The Enlightenment,” is a large indicator. When one becomes educated, we learn that our superstitions were myths created as analogies to explain certain things. It is, for example, no coincidence that the signs of a corpse actually being a vampire are just the signs of a corpse going through decay (normally somewhat accelerated due to improper burial). Magic, and similar explanations, were made by people who “didn’t know any better.”

Surely as Mighty Future Men we know better than our peasant ancestors, who had no explanations for the problems that faced them and used the best tools at their disposal to do so. Science, is merely a more accurate tool to explain many phenomena we encounter. Yet, this disdain for our “unenlightened,” forebears or the “noble savages,” that still roost in the untouched parts of the world has caused us to miss out on something important in understanding the magical mind, and why magic is sometimes a good explanation for things.
First, the idea that magic is a lack of an explanation for something is quite simply bunk. Magic, particularly magic as arcane knowledge, is a very good explanation. I use the word arcane, because of the association it has gained over time within fantasy circles as a synonym for magic. Yet, the definition of arcane means understood by few, secretive, or mysterious. Certainly hedge funds, and the strange policies that allow incumbents to promote themselves on the state’s dime, count as something understood by few. From this reasoning it becomes plausible to say that it is magic. I don’t lack an explanation, I have a very good explanation: they have knowledge the average person doesn’t possess and they are using it to further their own agenda.

Magic in practice, is rarely wand waving solutions or nonsensical gibberish to achieve a goal. Magic is systematic, it is a carefully guarded series of rituals and events that must be performed in very particular ways to achieve desired affects. Some magic is kept secret, some isn’t, depending on the culture but the one constant is that there are rules. Even when you don’t know all the rules, because magic can be secretive, you know there are rules. Or perhaps, sometimes the ability to break rules (certainly a most potent magic).

The thing is, that magic is still a good way to sometimes explain things, at least as a shorthand. I often find myself expressing my disdain for, “magical shotguns,” in online shooters. I’m not trying to say that there is some sort of +1 870 Combat Shotgun ala Dungeons and Dragons in Call of Duty or Battlefield, but that there are people who have hacked the game and used some knowledge they’ve gleaned, or ritual they obtained (e.g. aim bot, range hack, etc), to gain an edge in the game. In the process of opening my restaurant, we’ve had to hire people who have dedicated their lives to understanding the process of obtaining various licenses and filling out particular paperwork. These modern day sages have knowledge that most mortals, not even learned men and women of the court, possess. As always, I do not lack an explanation, and in some situations I can even use more precise terms, but sometimes it’s easier, as well as a bit more fun, to say it’s magic.

That, at least to me, is a great benefit to the magical mindset. It’s a good way to remind ourselves that there are things we just don’t know, because we are not part of a certain arcane order. Magic is humbling, without the existential crisis of comparing oneself to the cosmos. At the same time though, magic is not necessarily undemocratic, for as long as you possess knowledge that others don’t, you have magic at your disposal…


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