Magic or Pharmacology?

One of the problems with defining witchcraft is where to start. If we look back into history we see a mixture of superstition, herb lore, psychology and general wisdom as well as what might be called Magic.

All of these things went into what we call the ‘craft’, but can we isolate and consider the ‘magical’ elements of these things? And what do these things look like?

There are aspects of witchcraft that I think most of us would agree are full within the realm of magic, the high magic workings described by Idries Shah [1] But also, and perhaps surprisingly to some, I would include folk charms.

Both ‘High’ Magic and Folk Charms rely on creating and focusing ‘power’ and then the focused release of the power. For example:

A charm has a bipartite structure. That is to say it has two parts. In the first part of the charm the power of the spell is built up, focused and contained. This is usually done by either addressing the charm to, or in the name of, some supernatural deity or by naming, and thus taking the power of, some natural phenomena.

The second part of the charm consists of the focused discharge of the power that has been built up in the first part. This usually consists of naming or describing the event or outcome the person wishes to come about. [2]

But what of other elements? Often, and particularly relating to healing, potions are created as part of the magical working. Do these fall within the realm of magic’? Well perhaps not fully. Many potions, we now know, really worked and we now would explain that effect both in terms of their active ingredient, if any, and what is known as the placebo effect.

For example a potion that might be brewed to give to relieve a headache or to reduce the swelling of a sprain. Such a potion may include the bark of the willow tree. We would now ascribe these effects to the fact that the willow produces a very similar chemical to modern aspirin.

In explaining the effectiveness of the potion we would also introduce the concept of the placebo effect. Here confidence in the witch to be able to help would result in the patient not only feeling better but actually recovering faster than would be the case with no ‘treatment’, even if the potion was plain water. This effect is well documented but still poorly understood.

So would the traditional potion brewed by our Witch of times past be considered an expression of Magic, pharmacology or psychology?

Now I accept that for many this question is of little interest, but I feel that if we are to not only understand how we individually approach and internalise magic and witchcraft but to engage with the wider world and expect understanding and acceptance by the wider world then we need to at least have thought about where Magic and Witchcraft sits within the experience and perceptions of that wider world.


[1] The Secret Lore of Magic. Pub 1957 Frederick Muller


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