Some people distinguish 'high' and 'low' magic by the degree of ritual required. 'High' magic is often described as extremely ritualistic in its orientation where as 'low' magic has very minimal ritual requirements. Modern witchcraft's 'high' ritual magic owes a great deal of its structure to the ceremonial magicians of the 19th century. The use of a ritual circle to 'contain' the magical energy did not become a commonly accepted practice until the Victorian revival and romanticism of the pagan practices of their ancestors.
Prior to this, such practices were restricted to ceremonial magicians and those who would attempt to engage in demonolatry . It is the conflation of demonolatry , ceremonial magic, and the practices that were known as 'low' magic later that were poured forth in the Malleus Maleficarum that laid the groundwork of what developed into what we recognize today as codified magical systems. Before the period commonly known as the "Burning Times," written record of magical practice was infrequent and predominantly limited to that which was preserved from antiquity.
With the rise of interest in the occult and pagan systems of the past, a rough ritual format became standardized. Some variant of this ritual format has been in practice in most of the modern pagan systems that are employed within Western society, with the exception of a few specific areas. Upon examination, this 'basic' ritual format can be found to resemble the ritual format of the Catholic mass. I do not believe this is a coincidental thing. Indeed, the Catholic mass is one of the oldest rituals surviving in Western society.
A ritual can be understood as something of a private (typically) drama that serves to recreate the universe in microcosm and allow the practitioner(s) to adjust their situation. The changes enacted in ritual creates an effect upon the universe at large by a process that is described in classical Western metaphysics by the axiom:
As above, so below. As below, so above.Most rituals can be broken down into a simple format. The ritual opens with a recognition of the necessity of the ritual. Some do this by way of a declaration of intent. Using my morning coffee example, my ritual begins by stating "I need some coffee." Then the practitioner uses the tools assembled to enact the steps of the ritual. Often, to make the ritual simpler, practitioners will gather their supplies before hand.
In the example that I present, I have already gathered my tools. I boil the water and put my instant coffee into my mug of choice. I then pour the water into my mug and mix the contents together with three counter clockwise turns. (Just because I feel like it and it's habit.) If I were charging my coffee to assist me in my writing, at the time of mixing the contents together, I would intone my charm, directing my spiritual energy down the spoon and into the beverage I am making.
My little ritual of making coffee complete, I would then clean up my work area and enjoy the results. Because, a hot cup of coffee in the morning is well worth enjoying, even if it is instant. The same process of recognizing the necessity of the ritual and stating objective can be found in various other places. Ritual magic is not the only place that uses this format. Indeed, if one were to conduct a science experiment, many of the steps are quite the same.
- Form a hypothesis
- Design an experiment to test hypothesis
- Observe experiment and record results
- Determine if hypothesis is proven valid by testing
- Re-test as required
- Determine objective of spell craft
- Design a ritual to accomplish objective
- Observe ritual and record results
- Determine success of ritual
- Re-cast spell as required
1. Please see my previous post discussing Sympathetic Magic.
2. It is for this purpose that ciphers were developed as were magical alphabets. Encrypting one's book of shadows (as the popular name for this kind of record is known) is a very old practice. The majority of spell craft that was practiced by the people in the past was not written down for two reasons. The primary reason was illiteracy. Instead, other means were used to pass the knowledge on. The second reason was because amongst those who were literate, it became quite dangerous to possess occult knowledge with the rise of the strong church and secular influences of the era.
Witchcraft became a byword for undesirable people. As such, people who did not fit the social mold, held dissident political, cultural, or social views, or were otherwise undesireable in this era of the past (the Burning Times) were accused of witchcraft and punished. Contrary to popular opinion, the most frequent punishment of witchcraft accusation was not burning at the stake but rather fines. The accusations became a means of redistributing wealth. A large amount of the difficulty during the 'Burning Times' came as a result of socio-political stresses within European culture. I will discuss this period in history in greater detail in its own post.