Natural Magic


The Common Bluebell ( Hyacinthoides non-scripta ).

Natural magic sounds as though it should be compatible with animism.  Marian Green, in her introduction to the subject, writes that Nature, our mother, ‘mistress of arcane alchemy’, has all the answers.  ‘We are the stuff of stars … every tree, plant, animal, jewel, and other person shares this ancient heritage’.  Natural magic reconnects us with natural cycles.  Likewise, Nigel Pennick writes that natural magic teaches us we’re not separate from nature, and that we have no special privileges.  The earth, plants, and animals, have as much right to exist as we do.  ‘To practice natural magic is to respect one’s fellow humans as well as all sentient beings in the Cosmos’.  So far, so very good.  Why then, despite being an astrologer, benefiting from herbal medicine, meditating, working with dreams, dowsing, and so forth, have I never wanted to describe what I do as magic?  Why does Nigel Pennick’s account of natural magic, in particular, not feel more compatible with animism, as I understand it?

Historically, natural magic engaged directly with the powers and properties of substances ( planets, stones, metals, herbs, resins etc ), whereas ceremonial magic called upon the assistance of discarnate spirits.  Natural magic can therefore be seen as a disowned ancestral relative of natural science (think of astrology/astronomy, alchemy/chemistry, herbalism/botany).  Despite attempting to master material circumstances however, Renaissance magic was unambiguously transcendental.  It was preoccupied with spiritual ascent.  Patrick Curry observes, for example, that Pico della Mirandola’s magical philosophy was ‘masculinist, will-oriented, anthropocentric … contemptuous of the dark, the feminine, the ensouled let alone embodied, the earth, and all its limits’.  These values, personified in the figure of the Magus, were a major formative influence on Francis Bacon, and hence early science.

The notion of cosmic sympathy, that all divine and material phenomena are connected by ‘sympathetic’ powers or energies within a ‘Great Chain of Being’, emanated from the Stoics, and appears in Plato and Aristotle.  Within this magical paradigm, each animal, plant, or part of the human body, corresponds to a planet or god that can be invoked in order to influence change.  Nick Campion argues that Marsilio Ficino’s translation of the Corpus Hermeticum (gnostic texts from the 1st and 2nd centuries BCE) turned the Renaissance in a pagan direction and ‘laid the foundations for Western esotericism and occultism’.  Unfortunately, the Hermetic view of humanity was grimly pessimistic.  Salvation entailed focusing on the inner divine, and returning to the Light by means of the planetary spheres.  The material world, the Platonic world of becoming, was regarded as illusory.  Only the absolute, unchanging, disembodied ‘Good’ was real.  How far, then, do neo-Platonic assumptions underpin today’s natural magic?

An Animist Response to Nigel Pennick’s ‘Natural Magic’.

Having liked Nigel Pennick’s Celtic Sacred Landscapes, and noticed that he was once a biologist, I looked forward to reading his Natural Magic.  Because he draws upon the nameless artthe magical tradition of East Anglia, which also happens to be the heartland of contemporary English nature writing, my expectations were perhaps unrealistically high.  This is, after all, a brief introductory guide written over a decade ago.  In the event I found myself arguing with the author’s approach, and provoked into reflecting upon my own ideas and practices.  I therefore want to respond by focusing on differences in perspective, and points of concern.

Chapter One opens with an epigraph from the medieval alchemist Basilius Valentinus.  ‘The Earth is not an inanimate body … All created things draw their strength from the Earth Spirit …’.  For Valentinus, the Earth is maternal because it is animated by a nourishing and sheltering spirit, life.  Nigel Pennick, by contrast, describes a unitary ‘creative force within all things, including us’, which is neutral, and goes on to define natural magic as the right use of this force within nature ‘for the good of all beings, without subverting the free will of others’.  For him, magic is ‘a spiritual, not a material, technology’, whose primary purpose is to ‘uphold our free will and direct it towards personal understanding and spiritual growth’.  It is ‘first and foremost aimed at the spiritual empowerment and development of the individual’.

Like magic, animism is inherently pluralistic, but I suspect that the above differs from most contemporary animism in several respects.  Firstly, this is an emphatically dualist project; the spiritual/material divide is firmly drawn.  Secondly, the emphasis on human will, and intervention based upon human moral agency (stewardship?) rather than dialogue and/or reciprocity, would appear anthropocentric to many ecologists, let alone animists.  How is the natural magician to know what is good for all beings?  Thirdly, the use of magic primarily as a means of personal development is vulnerable to the same critique that has been leveled at therapeutic neo-Shamanism, insofar as the latter internalises and individualises realities that might be more fruitfully understood in social, ecological, and political terms.

Do our working assumptions really matter?  I think they do.  Nigel Pennick’s magical philosophy is inevitably reflected in the content of his book.  I was surprised to find that only fourteen of its ninety pages are devoted to working with plants, birds, or animals.  The difference between ‘magical’ and animist approaches becomes clear in relation to ‘Bird and Animal Magic’.  There is a brief discussion of the process of obtaining an animal helper According to Pennick animal helpers symbolize a part of ourselves that we need in order to survive a crisis, and may already be within us in the form of an inner image.  This can be used to connect with their power, or projected on to real animals as a way of maintaining contact.  An external part of our being, our fetch, ‘a projective spirit’ or guardian angel, may appear as an animal.

Phenomena as complex and subtle as this don’t lend themselves to brief summation, but animist readers will note that Nigel Pennick describes the process of contacting animal helpers entirely in terms of human initiative, and may be surprised that he thinks its ‘not too difficult’.  If you’re on a path of wisdom, for instance, you simply look for a ‘perceptive beast’.  After learning about, and observing, your chosen helper, various spiritual exercises (visualising yourself as the animal, and going on an inner journey in that form) purportedly enable you to become familiar with animal’s inner life.  Judging by the difficulty most humans have understanding domestic cats, I’m somewhat sceptical about this claim.  Anyway, at this point, ‘you will be … able to call upon (your helper’s) power at will when you need it’.

Responding to this from an animist perspective I worry about (i) the focus being entirely on human experience, (ii) the tone being dry and technical; the heart doesn’t appear to be involved, (iii) that a lack of guidance around ethics and etiquette is likely to encourage an exploitative attitude, and (iv) that interaction with flesh and blood other-than-human animals is approached instrumentally, as a mere stepping stone towards acquiring the capacity to undertake implicitly more meaningful magical/psychic work in the service of human need.  These worries are greatly compounded by what comes next; a neo-Platonic sounding injunction about going native.  If, when working with animals, we forget that we are human and regress to ‘a sub-human state’, this may impair our ‘spiritual progress towards a state of higher consciousness’.  In numerous shamanistic and animistic traditions, of course, other-than-human animals offer assistance to humans as spiritual teachers, guides, and messengers.

So to an example of the art.  The Toad, is said to be important in natural magic.  A certain bone from a dead toad is traditionally claimed to confer various superhuman powers.  Well, I’ve just come back from a toading trip.  Last night we rescued sixty of these beautiful little animals from a lane where they were in danger of being run over.  I’m sure Nigel Pennick doesn’t want natural magicians to harvest the grisly remains of road kills, but in contrast with various neo-Shamanic/new animist texts (e.g Gordon ‘the Toad’ MacLellan, 1989), no mention is made of the ethical responsibility incurred when collecting the tools of what, at this point, begins to sound like a very odd trade.  We are not even urged to ask permission for the use of body parts.  Once again there is no sense of dialogue or reciprocity.  No sense of the beauty of other-than-human beings, or affection for them.  They are simply there to be used when we need them.

Another claim that animists are likely to raise an eyebrow at, is that certain kinds of trees are more likely to be enspirited than others.  These turn out to be trees that attract human attention in various ways; by their shape, location, rarity, or ceremonial/folkloric associations.  The Wild Wood is a place we can go to for psychic renewal, without apparently incurring any obligation to reciprocate.  Having heard reports of Pagans stumbling into woods at night, heedless of the needs of non-human residents or the sensibilities of place, in order to conduct loud ceremonies, or seek psychic stimulation, I worry about this too.  There may be a good case for making inner journeys instead.

One of the difficulties I have with the M-word is that it confers a patina of authority on truth claims.  When Robert Bly introduced us to Iron John, the Grimm Brothers’ hairy Wild Man, John Rowan pointed out that for unreconstructed men this was hardly a helpful story.  Rowan argued that because Bly’s Jungian fairy tale says nothing about Iron John’s attitude towards women, he’s not a culturally transformative figure. (see also Robert Connell).  Critical responses notwithstanding, variants of the Wild Man seem to be alive and well in Pagan circles as an image of ‘our natural instincts’.  Nigel Pennick suggests that ‘we’ enter the Wild Wood ‘either in reality or on an inner journey’, in order to contact the ‘Wild Man’ within us, and find our ‘true natural selves’.

From a postmodern animist perspective many question arise here, such as: Who is this all-inclusive ‘we’?  Why should our ‘natural selves’ be more worthwhile than the cultivated selves we have grown through decades of relationship and social participation?  Are we talking about ecological selfhood, and if so wouldn’t that entail relating to other species?  Can there be such a thing as a ‘true’ (pre- or a- social) instinctual response, separate from cultural performance?  Should psychological discourse be dressed up as magic?

As exemplars of ‘the sheer energy of wildness’, Bears and Wolves get a raw deal from Nigel Pennick.  They are only considered in relation to martial arts and the battle frenzy of warrior cults.  The Viking Beserkers, who ‘took their power from the Bear’, apparently often lost control and became ‘possessed’, running amok and killing friends and family.  Likewise, werewolves were said to be more dangerous than real wolves.  Well quite.  I would suggest that stories like this need to be evaluated in the context of a discussion of militaristic masculinities.  The notion that co-operative social animals such as Wolves live lives of unconstrained instinctual spontaneity is surely a product of human discourse, concocted for all-too-human purposes.

No-one has a monopoly on the M-word, of course.  Susan Greenwood, for instance, -who, in contrast to Nigel Pennick illustrates and tests her developing ideas about magic against personal experience- talks about magical consciousness.  She draws upon Lucien Lévy-Bruhl’s participation mystique, as indeed do some of those currently writing about enchantment and divination.  In another post I want to consider whether these ideas offer a conception of magic, enchantment, and divination, that feels more compatible with postmodern animism.

to be continued ….


Marian Green, The Elements of Natural Magic, Element Books, 1989.

Nigel Pennick, Natural Magic, Lear Books 2005.

Roy Willis and Patrick Curry, Astrology, Science, and Culture; Pulling Down the Moon, Berg, 2004.

Nick Campion, The Dawn of Astrology, A Cultural History of Western Astrology, Vol 1: The Ancient and Classical Worlds, Continuum, 2008.

Robert Wallis,  Shamans/Neo-Shamans, Ecstasy, alternative archaeologies and contemporary Pagans, Routledge, 2003.

Gordon MacLellan, Sacred Animals, Capall Bann, 1997.

Robert Bly, Iron John, A Book About Men, Element, 1990.

John Rowan, The Horned God, Feminism and Men as Wounding and Healing, Routledge, 1987.

R.W. Connell, Masculinities, Polity Press, 1995.

Susan Greenwood, The Anthropology of Magic, Berg, 2009.

6 thoughts on “Natural Magic

  1. Hi Brian
    a pitfall I see with ‘how to guides’ (can I call this Pennick book a ‘how to guide’?) is that they seem often to presume a blueprint, a set of techniques to follow….then, outcome magic!
    Interaction, relation with nature then risks the possibility of becoming a robotic act of second hand theory. In addition, sometimes the writer (dont know in this case) doesn’t have any mastery of the particular craft and is really just relating theory.
    Furthermore, I see a myriad different ways to engage with nature (as evidenced by the myriad different shamanic, medicine person, healers, mystics) of myriad different cultures, eras, environments etc.
    For what its worth, I believe time spent in nature engaging, observing, feeling, smelling, tasting, listening to, relating to the beings that comprise the particular locale, and continue to interact on a regular basis, is of far greater value than following theoretical abstractions of others.
    As more and more time is spent interacting with other than human beings, so to ones approach and connection to magic becomes clearer.
    Look forward to reading part 2.
    Kind wishes, J

  2. I think some neo-Platonic ideas can still work- such as correspondences between plants, animals, nature spirits and deities but they have be born from experience and practice and relevant to the ecosystem within which a person lives as well as to the tradition they work with. I guess building a framework that suits both the land and the plurality of beings (‘real’ and spiritual) as well as personal needs is one of the main challenges of modern magical practioners. I’m looking foward to hearing the next piece.

  3. Nicely put Lorna. I’m wondering whether, when ‘grounded’ in the way that you describe, the notion of correspondences might be better understood in terms of the metaphorical mind/s, and regularities, of nature, rather than neo-Platonic fixed ‘ideas’. The same might be said of ‘archetypes’ (a term I’ve tended to avoid) that can be thought of either as Platonic Ideas, or as common images arising out of nature’s propensity for pattern making? There have been debates about this in astrological circles. Either way, I agree that correspondence is a very useful concept.

  4. I think some types of what they call “high magic” is seeing a stone as something to climb up on so one can commune better with the “airy” realms. “Natural magic” is just sitting on that same stone quietly looking and listening and feeling. I teach a formal ritual type of witchcraft, but i tell my students if you really want to connect with the god/ess then go out alone in the woods to contact and learn that way, which is far better than reading books.

  5. Thanks for this great post. You’ve articulated a few things that I was having a hard time putting into words, specifically, how “un” natural most magic derived from Renaissance magic seems to be. Or at least, it has that more transcendental vs. immanent/embodied focus.

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