by Christopher Penczak, Edited by Tina Whittle
Recently I was speaking with an old friend about cursing and the state of the world. She was very angry. I had such empathy. I’m often upset about the state of the world. What she said didn’t take me by surprise, as we have known each other for years, but it did get me thinking about magick, effectiveness, and the realization I had long ago that I couldn’t run my life on continual anger and outrage. I understand it, and at times it’s been necessary—even useful—or simply something I had to reckon with, but over time, I’ve had to shift. My anger was a curse against myself more than anyone else, justified or not. Some people can use it effectively, and some people need to do other things to transmute it.
She told me about her magickal group working on these problems, and she explained that they weren’t playing around. They were willing to do, in her words, “nasty shit” not “little candle spells.” She talked about her repeated daydreams of violence to stop those in power. Again I empathized. And this isn’t the first time I’ve had a conversation like this. Nor will it be the last, I’m sure. I’ve had those same dreams at times in my life, wondering if more good would be done through harm.
The problem with that thinking is that if it’s okay for you to do it, then it is okay for everyone to do it, based on their own view of good. That can fundamentally destroy a society. Those who go on violent rampages feel justified. The extremes of the Pro-Life movement advocate assassination of doctors who perform abortions, and its members feel morally justified in that position. Does such a breakdown lead to something better, or does a breakdown lead to further harm of the most vulnerable in society? I’m of the mind that worsening conditions won’t catalyze the needed changes. If that were true, I think something better would have happened in many places in the world already, including the U.S. When you are in a survivalist state of panic or trauma, you are not thoughtfully dismantling old structures and creating new systems that serve all. I think groups, coalitions, and networks of care and community are needed for that.
Another friend in a governmental job facing the monolith of the injustice built into the government told me she now understands why characters in comic books become super-villains, that for some people, it’s a rational choice to the circumstances before them. And this is someone who has dedicated her life to the ideals of the rule of law. It’s somewhat the same idea as the fantasies of violence, though her takeaway was a desire to withdraw as much as possible from society. I’ve been there too, and visit that idea often, yet my own magickal patterns draw me into community again and again. When the mechanisms of voting, peaceful protest, and engaging with your representatives don’t seem to be effective, it is easy to want to withdraw or take extreme actions. Both are quite understandable.
I thought about the people in the cursing group, many of whom were the least engaged in community, the least involved in direct relationships where problems are worked out on a small scale in meaningful and personal ways. Yet here they were seeking to tackle large-scale global problems with magick. It got me wondering how effective such a response is, and in general, what it says about our magickal approach to such things. What is the deeper paradigm behind it, and is it effective?
Often we have to get a level of mastery in the small and personal, both magickally and mundanely, before we try to tackle the larger issues. Unless we have this foundation, those larger forces can be crushing to us, creating a backlash we might not be prepared to experience, or leaving us unable to reach those larger patterns, making whatever we do ineffective at best.
I wholeheartedly believe in the principles of blessing and blasting, waxing and withering, and the Witch’s cause to bless and curse. There are times we build and times we dismantle. Curing is often cursing the illness. There are things in the world that need to be stopped. The universe is catabolic and anabolic. Things grow and must decay. Uncontrolled growth is cancerous. Much of what I’ve done that others would consider a curse I have always framed as justice magick, but it gets slippery as one Witch’s definition of justice is not the same as another’s. People have their own sense of magickal will, of individual true will, and how can I judge another’s will in any given moment, as each moment is a step in a longer path unfolding?
When I learned spellcasting, it certainly was from a theurgistic bent. You attuned yourself to the All, sometimes through personal deity, but always as part of the greater whole. It was rooted in a Neo-Hermetic worldview. You wove your intention into the whole pattern, making a portion of the pattern conform to your will in some way. You bent and shaped forces to the intention, and often they manifested with a level of synchronicity that once experienced left you unable to quite believe in coincidence anymore. There was correspondence in the universe from your ritual to manifestation. You focused on the ultimate outcome you wanted and didn’t try to control the details that got you there. You trusted the universe to be wiser, seeing more paths to your goal than what you currently saw, though you might put a caveat into the spell such as “completely acceptable to me” or “for the good of all involved” or “harming none.” The magick was what we often call today “one and done.” A specific intention didn’t require upkeep or repetition. You let it go. In some ways the method cultivated a perspective of detachment amid the environment of desire and will. The whole process helped align you towards your true will. It was from the top down, the outer inward, from the subtlest plane down into manifestation.
Some magick, however, works from the bottom up, and often requires repetition and return. It’s great for issues where you can’t let it go, so if you are going to obsess, obsess on creating the reality you want. Use that energy. But realize it is really rooted in the needs, wants, desires, and force of will of the practitioner, not really the true will. Some might align with God, in the Christian folkloric traditions, but it’s not quite the same as the mystical exploration of True Will in conjunction with Divine Will. It’s pushing something into manifestation, often through obstacles, rather than planting a seed to let it unfold over time. Often this magick is worked in steps, controlling every step of the way towards manifestation, seeking a specific path of manifestation, rather than focusing on the outcome alone.
Other systems work through the relationship with the spirits, and is often transactional. They are rooted in deeper traditions of devotion and culture, but often the odds and ends of a system make it into eclectic practices in a very transactional nature, much like the fears Christians have had about Witches making pacts with devils and demons. Most often they are in exchange for offerings and attention, not souls, but they are transactions nonetheless. Many who use this approach don’t have the original context of the culture or system, yet the spirit will accept the offering, and often do the work.
Today a lot of different magick is taught without much of the metaphysics and underlying philosophy behind it. I love eclectic mixes of symbols, tools, and techniques. I’m a firm believer in using what works, what speaks to you, but a hard part of being an educator of magick today is there are many different paradigms operating in many different systems, and people don’t necessarily know it. There was the crossover in the old occult stores of the 70s and 80s (and some are still kicking today) that catered to Wiccans, folkloric Witches, African Traditional Religions, Ceremonial Magicians, Rosicrucians, Satanists, and eclectic magickal individuals. Witches started using seven-day jar candles, and a lot of different herbs and formulas started to crosspollinate into what was dominated by the British Occultism of the Witch, but usually whatever crossed was used in the philosophical paradigm of that Witch.
Many today can be switching paradigms and not know it, or just following instructions with little understanding of the metaphysical mechanism behind it. They may adopt parts from different paradigms that are actually contradictory, without realizing it at all. We each have to find the ways that work best for us, but we should also understand them. And if we are practicing magick as part of a spiritual path, then our magick should probably be in harmony with, not contrary to, our spiritual paradigm, let alone our ethical frameworks. If working with tools outside of your paradigm, how do you frame it to work within your understanding of, and approach to, the cosmos? Some people are fine holding dual paradigms that contradict, and don’t seek resolution. They might even hold a dual faith. Others need a theory that can hold the paradox. I encourage people to embrace the threefold path advocated by Dion Fortune, learning three different traditions.
Often the desire to curse, when not born of pettiness, is rooted in frustration, anger, and grief for the way things are and the deep desire to change them. It’s an action chosen when there appears to be little recourse. And that is often how magick works. One school of thought looks at magick as the last resort when all mundane actions have been taken.
Another view says that magick permeates all things and all things should be started with a magickal intention, with ritual and alignment with the cosmos, then followed up with plans and real-world actions. I tend to favor this latter school of thought because I believe that if you cast a spell when all else has failed, you are putting your magick under a terrible strain due to poor planning on your part. Divining short-term, but casting long-term gives the cosmos some breathing room to manifest your intention into the greater pattern. Casting a spell for a sunny day six months from now gives a lot of room to set up the conditions for success with minimum harm or strain. Casting a spell for a sunny day the day you want it, even as thunderclouds are rolling in, can work, but it is far more destructive to the pattern and really requires a level of force, a potential breaking, rather than bending and shaping. Usually though, if all else has failed, your magick will probably fail too, no matter how powerful you might think yourself. I see that in political magick that is responding to the immediate crisis. Still do it if it’s your will, but start thinking of the overall patterns.
When there is a deep desire to change, and the frustration that things are getting worse rather than better, what is your ultimate intention? What is the outcome you want? Can you start the intent for the future crisis now? Avert it before it manifests?
When we can, we are looking at the bigger picture beyond the local manifestation. When we are responding to an immediate crisis, we are starting at the personal and pushing something driven by our own needs into manifestation, often against the current reality. Such workings can require continual feeding, and because we can’t let them go, cannot always fully manifest.
Unfortunately since life is so personal, we get personal in our magick. When feeling powerless, we seek to express power over those expressing power over us. Such curse work often targets individuals or groups in power, some of which have pretty strong built-in protection.
Despite our wishes to the contrary, prayer is psychic power, and many religions direct their prayers to those in office agreeing with their religiously inspired social policies. Some are prayers directly for specific mandates to be enforced law. Do not discount it. Any one prayer might be lacking, but fervent blind faith is like a psychic mob mentality when harnessed in the astral. Most Witches and Magicians outside of a cohesive traditional coven lack the group mind and are both too individualistic and too questioning, even of themselves, to get into such group thinking.
Some are protected by the structure of an institution, including the sacred alignments and geometries, intended or imagined, that can shield and empower that office. Many are strong-willed individuals themselves, or they would not have gotten as far as they did, and have learned to harness their public power. And some might even have hired their own occult practitioners. Every one of us worth our salt has been at least offered, if not taken, a consulting job for some famous person. Hollywood hiring magick workers is not new, and some politicians might have as well. Everyone remembers Nancy Reagan and her astrologer brilliantly timing bad news to not stick as it might have otherwise.
I think of how many powerful individual Witches and groups of powerful Witches have cursed political figures and what little success they have had in terms of any meaningful tangible results. Those casting death have not resulted in death, nor even removal from office in most cases. Perhaps they had a headache, a bad day, or might secretly be getting ill, but not quickly enough to enact the social change desired. My only exception was some of the very public bindings. At the time, I was mad their result was not immediate cessation of harm. Someone later said to me, knowing what we know now, “Imagine all the things that were bound and stopped that we never saw.”
I once acted against a corporation that was doing specific local harm via threatening a lawsuit to extort money. The next day after the “curse” the corporation was sued for seven million dollars for a very public error they made. The threat of local lawsuit was dropped and never mentioned again, but they settled their own lawsuit, and it was not like my magick bankrupted them and neutralized their overall harm. The immediacy of the result pleasantly stunned me, but while it was helpful, it was not a long-term solution to the evils of this corporation.
So is this kind of spellcasting an effective action? It can feel empowering. It can have a psychological effect for a time. It can stoke the fire for real world action. But it usually doesn’t seem like the most effective expenditure of life force if you don’t need catharsis or inspiration. For some, it will serve as motivation to follow things up with actions. Just as prayer is not enough, spells and even curses are not enough alone, usually, though sometimes they are. The follow-up will happen through other channels, not necessarily through the spellcasters themselves. They have become a magickal catalyst.
This is not to say that magick doesn’t effectively work on a smaller scale for good or ill. I’ve gained a lot of students who decided on a lark to place a curse they read in a book—a therapeutic release to get their anger about someone out, thinking it was unreal—and then the curse worked. They often, but not always, felt bad and wanted to better understand and control their magick, leading to a consultation or lesson. I think that is wise, as I might encourage the beginner to do a simple candle spell to experience magick, I wouldn’t encourage a beginner to do justice magick on a large scale. If magick is real, you have to learn it and be prepared for the entire process, and I certainly do believe magick is real.
Even if it is effective in the larger scale, does not the removal of one individual in a broken and corrupt system usually result in someone else who is a variation of the problem filling the vacuum? Even someone good only lasts so long before they are corrupted or displaced by someone equally as awful as the original problem official. It’s a short-term solution for a long-term problem.
Going after an individual who has done harm is certainly satisfying, and I do believe in holding those accountable for their harm through legal means. I am not sure I’m wise enough to be meting out cosmic justice on a personal level. I think about the patterns that the individuals are responding to, the ancestral wounds, the misalignments and the parasitical entities overshadowing our institutions, and while not ignoring my own part in real world action, I think my magickal efforts might be better served there.
Areas that repeatedly vote for candidates against your best interests usually don’t change quickly. Revealing a politician’s corruption is satisfying, but sometimes that doesn’t even remove them from office. Cursing the individuals in question doesn’t often result in any real change as the voter base hasn’t changed. It doesn’t change the minds and hearts of those that disagree. It doesn’t change the system. It doesn’t resolve any problem.
And I’m not sure what will, but I would rather spend my magick and life force in seeking those actions which do bring about change, rather than get entangled in a pattern of angry force. My magick is focused on the longer vision and supporting this, nationally and locally, with actions that align closest with it, but also as an invocation to those currently outside to enter and win to make change. While the divinations in the short-term might be dire, there is little effect in focusing on them magickally, so I’m aiming to cast long with my spells and follow a vision of what I want the future to be.