The following (text only) is taken from Chapter 6 of my book The Secret Garden of the Soul: An introduction to the Kabbalah, an exploration of Practical Kabbalah from a mystical perspective; covering magic and related disciplines.
[The subject of] Kabbalah is so immense that an in-depth exploration of the material it encompasses could never be addressed in a single volume. There are many aspects to this subject, one of which falls under the heading of “Practical Kabbalah”, which many today believe deals with ceremonial and talismanic magic and related disciplines. However, Magic and Practical Kabbalah do not necessarily mean the same thing to a traditional student of the Kabbalah as they do to the majority of aspiring magicians. Indeed, strictly speaking, in traditional Kabbalistic schools there is no such thing as magic. Practical Kabbalah is looked upon as an exercise in practical mysticism rather than an exercise in magic. This distinction is important, because to the Kabbalist the central teachings of Kabbalah are the scriptures, and therein many elements of magic are forbidden, for example:
“There shall not be found among you anyone who practises witchcraft, or a soothsayer, or one who interprets omens or a sorcerer or one who conjures spells, or a medium or a spiritist or one who calls up the dead. For all who do these things are an abomination to the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 18: 10-12)
Not a popular text in the modern world, yet many traditional Kabbalists would denounce the popular understanding of Practical Kabbalah on this passage alone.
In some respects the term “Practical Kabbalah” is misleading for it implies that in Kabbalah there are separate departments. But this is simply not the case as all Kabbalah is “practical” in its own way. Indeed, one would do well to remember that the divisions described by different authors of Kabbalistic books are arbitrary divisions that have been employed to rationalise the complex material of Kabbalah, much of which, since the late Middle Ages, has been appropriated by enterprising magicians and adapted to serve their own purposes. A lot of this material is claimed to be “pure Kabbalah”, but in reality has little connection with it or any understanding of its traditions. Furthermore, a great deal of material from the late medieval period onward, which has been classified under the heading of Practical Kabbalah, derives from non-Kabbalistic sources. For example, most of the material from the work of the 16th-century magicians, John Dee and Edward Kelly, has little to do with Kabbalah, practical or otherwise.
Over the course of the last century Practical Kabbalah has attracted the attention of so many aspiring magicians that today the words “Kabbalah” and “Magic” have become synonymous. It may then be pertinent at this point to ask the question, what is magic, what does the word actually mean? The simple answer is that the word “Magic” has meant, and continues to mean, many things to many people. There is nothing new in this; it has been the subject of a great deal of debate over the centuries and there is as yet no consensus as to its meaning; in fact the meaning of the word has been a matter of uncertainty since classical times.
What is known is that the word Magic is generally accepted as being derived from the Greek mageia, a word that the Greeks derived from the word Magu or Magi, a title of the sacerdotal caste of ancient Persia and Media, who were followers of the prophet Zoroaster and priests of the god Ahuramazda. The word Magi signifies those who are “wise”, not only in the ways of the world, but also in the ways of God, and because of their wisdom the Magi commanded great respect throughout the ancient world. Plato felt comfortable using them as exemplars of the highest virtue when discussing statesmanship in Alcibiades I, where he describes how a royal prince of ancient Persia, upon reaching the age of fourteen years, was put in the care of four carefully selected schoolmasters (magians). These masters were “reputed to be the best among the Persians of a certain age; and one of them is the wisest, another the most just, the third the most temperate, and the fourth the most valiant. The first instructs him in the magianism of Zoroaster, the son of Ahuramazda, which is the worship of the gods, and teaches him also the duties of his royal office.” Thus Plato held the Magi in the highest esteem, and furthermore, informs us that the work of a magus, or magician, is the worship of the gods (Theurgy).
The Classical world came to an end with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, to be followed by the Dark Ages and then the medieval era, throughout which magic generally fell under three main headings: Natural Magic, Goetia and Theurgy.
Natural Magic is concerned with the hidden workings of nature; its properties, powers, qualities, substances and virtues. It was held to be the noblest part of the physical sciences, and as such was not forbidden by faith and was therefore not legislated against. For many students of the magical art it was the consummation of Natural Philosophy. The study of Alchemy, Medicine, Astrology, and the manipulation of Nature’s “finer forces” were considered to be the proper domain of Natural Magic.
[for example] One of the greatest exponents of Natural Magic was Paracelsus, a renowned healer of the 16th century who became famous for his Doctrine of Signatures, in which he proposed that natural objects suggest by their external appearance the complaints for which they were cures; thus, some plants may be seen as representing parts of the body, whilst others suggest diseases for which they may be used as remedies. A “signature” was therefore any distinctive feature or quality that indicated a connection between remedy and malady.Natural Magic was understood to be the application of true and natural causes to produce rare and unusual effects by means that were neither superstitious nor diabolical. It follows then, that there is a fundamental distinction between the field of Natural Magic and those of Goetia and Theurgy, for Natural Magic does not involve engaging with spirits or gods, be they good or bad; rather, it is a discipline of enquiring into the workings of Nature, whereas Goetia and Theurgy are essentially disciplines that do engage with spirits and gods, and indeed, with a vast hierarchy of other supernatural beings.
Goetia To the ancient Greeks, what we in our time might generally understand by the terms sorcerer, witch and witchcraft, was known by the name Goës or Goëtes, from which the term Goetia and Goetic are derived. Indeed, from the earliest times the term Goetia has been employed in a sinister and disreputable sense. Goetia has invariably been linked with magical ceremonies devised to control and manipulate spirits for questionable reasons, often to the detriment of others.
Today Goetia is usually associated with the 17th century Grimoire, Lemegeton Clavicula Solomonis, otherwise known as The Lesser Key of Solomon, around which a vast amount of fanciful myth and legend has accumulated. Indeed, Goetia has long been considered to be synonymous with Black Magic. Historically, Goës (sorcerers, witches etc.) were often seen as a threat to the social order and there were many occasions when the laws against them were vigorously enforced, particularly in the Roman Empire. Almost from the beginning Rome introduced laws against the exponents of sorcery and witchcraft, and the earliest Roman code of Law, the Twelve Tablets, introduced in the mid 5th century BC, and so named because they were publicly displayed in the Forum on twelve tablets of Bronze, forbade people from using magic to harm others, the punishment for such a crime being severe. In the first century BC the Patrician, Felix Lucius Cornelius Sulla, reformed these laws. Part of the reformed laws, the Lex Cornelia de sicariis et veneficis, (the Cornelian Law Concerning Assassins and Poisoners) includes the following statements with regard to magic:
Persons who celebrate, or cause to be celebrated, impious or nocturnal rites, so as to enchant, bewitch, or bind anyone, shall be crucified, or thrown to wild beasts.
Persons who are addicted to the art of magic, shall suffer extreme punishment; that is to say they shall be thrown to wild beasts, or crucified. Magicians themselves shall be burned alive.
No one shall be permitted to have books on the art of magic in his possession, and when they are found with anyone, they shall be publicly burnt, and those who have them, after being deprived of their property, if they are of superior rank shall be deported to an island, and if they are of inferior station shall be put to death; for not only is the practice of this art prohibited, but also the knowledge of the same.” (Sentences of Paulus in Stephen Benko’s Pagan Rome & the Early Christians)
Obviously, the ancient world was no bed of spiritual roses, for society then, just like today, had its share of unscrupulous people who were prepared to use both natural and supernatural forces to take advantage of, and or intimidate their neighbours. However, in Plato or Sulla’s time it would have been unlikely that a sorcerer or witch would have been mistaken for being a member of the Magi, for the Magi, whether from Persia, ancient Egypt, Greece or Rome, were the elite of their civilisation. They were extremely learned, not only in spiritual sciences such as Theology and Psychology, but in all of the known empirical sciences, including Astronomy, Mathematics, Metallurgy, Philosophy, Medicine and Physiology, and as such were highly respected. As Plato so eloquently put it, the work of the Magi was the worship of the gods; work that is formally known as Theurgy.
Theurgy The word ‘theurgy’ is based upon the Greek words Theos (God) and Ergos (work), from which is derived the word theourgia – which means “works of God” or “Divine Workings”. These Divine Workings were the sacramental rites or mysteries that were central to the spiritual life of the ancient world. One of the main exponents of Theurgy in the ancient world was Iamblichus, who was born in Syria in the middle of the 3rd century. He was a pupil of Porphyry and the author of several books, most of which are now lost. Fortunately one book, entitled De Mysteriis survived. It is an account of a lengthy correspondence about Theurgy between an Egyptian High Priest called Abammon, and Iamblichus’s teacher, Porphyry. It is perhaps the most significant work concerning ancient theurgic principles and dynamics still in existence.
Over the course of time the ancient rites of Theurgy were absorbed into the sacramental system of the Church, and have since fallen into disuse. They are no longer valued either by the Church or the State; indeed, our society has barely any knowledge of the sacred rites of spiritual regeneration that were so important to the ancient world. This is hardly surprising as the secular world views the spiritual dimension of life as a pot-pourri of primitive beliefs, practices and superstitions promoted by the unscrupulous with the intention of fleecing the naïve and the incredulous, or by the misguided and the irrational as a delusory mystical science that rests more on hopes, dreams and misconceptions than on any objective truth or observation.
Even the majority of those who are knowledgeable perceive Theurgy and Goetia to be by and large one and the same thing. Unfortunately it is a potentially hazardous perception in the sense that the objectives and dynamics of both are very different: on their own terms they are diametrically opposed. Eliphas Levi says of Goetic Magic:
“This torrent of universal life, it is this which brings to our evocations and to the conjurations of our Goëtic Magic such swarms of larvæ and phantoms. Therein are preserved all the fantastic and fortuitous assemblages of forms which people our nightmares with such abominable monstrosities.” (Eliphas Levi, Transcendental Magic, A.E. Waite, Trans. London, Rider & Co, 1923, p. 95)
Herein we may perceive the distinction between Goetia and Theurgy, for in Goetia the magician seeks to control the forces of nature and the spirits that abound in creation, to take heaven by storm, to become as a god; ‘Let my Will be done’ is the rule, whereas the Theurgist seeks purification, liberation, and salvation of the soul, following a path of “Thy Will be done” as opposed to “My Will be done”. This is best summed up by Iamblichus himself, who wrote:
From the beginning, it is necessary to divide ecstasy into two species: one is turned towards the inferior, filled with foolishness and delirium, but the other imparts goods more honourable than human wisdom.
The former is unstable, the latter unchangeable; the first is counter to nature, the latter is beyond nature; the former makes the soul descend, the latter raises it up; and while the former entirely separates the soul from participation in the divine, the latter connects the soul with the divine. (Secret Garden of the Soul by Allan Armstrong, p. 161)
From the foregoing it becomes obvious that describing what is meant by “Magic” is at best a little tricky. As mentioned above, magic has meant different things to different people at different times but if there is a common theme that runs throughout the history of magic it is control. In all systems of magic throughout history people have sought to control both their material and spiritual environments and all things in it through magic. In material terms such mysticism is seen in today’s world as a delusory pseudo-science, and so it might be, but in spiritual terms magic is a term for the inevitable technology that emerges from theology. However, as we have seen, there is magic and there is magic. Broadly speaking, Natural Magic was traditionally concerned with exploring the natural world, and over the course of time has naturally evolved into the sciences, but there is a system of magic that falls either under the banner of “Divine Workings” or under the banner of the diabolical.
In Kabbalah the Divine Workings are not magic and the Kabbalist is neither a magician nor seeks to become a magician. It may be difficult for an impartial observer to grasp the significance of this point, but it may become clear if one understands that to the Kabbalist, Practical Kabbalah is concerned only with the Divine Names of God as derived from the scriptures and their mysterious workings as unfolded in Kabbalistic processes. The Divine Names are intimately connected with the Sephirotic world and its emanation thus, to engage with the Divine Names is to engage in a sacred process, not a magical process. To the Kabbalist, such processes are geared only to the regeneration of the soul, not to its elevation, aggrandisement, or for intellectual curiosity. From the time of the Sepher Yetzirah, and probably before, a complex and sophisticated system evolved concerning the application and use of the Divine Names. For the Kabbalist this system constitutes the essence of Practical Kabbalah. However, in the late Middle Ages, this system passed into the realms of ceremonial magic from which a degraded form of Practical Kabbalah emerged, and many scholars and magicians have never really seen the two as separate entities. Concerning this, A.E. Waite states:
The White and Black Magic of the Middle Ages constitutes a kind of spurious practical Kabbalah which represents Jewish esoteric doctrine debased to the purposes of the sorcerer, and it is necessary that we should estimate it at its true worth, because it has been the subject of misconception not only among uninstructed persons but even professed expositors. A study of Zoharistic writings, their developments and commentaries will shew the ends proposed by the Speculative Kabbalah are very different from evocations of spirits, the raising of ghosts, discovery of concealed treasures, the bewitchments and other mummeries of Ceremonial Magic. The Kabbalah does, however, countenance, as we have seen, the doctrine of a power resident in Divine Names, and it is in fact one of the burdens of its inheritance. ( Waite, The Holy Kabbalah pp. 518-519)
published by Imagier Publishing in 2008.