A Review of P. E. I. Bonewits’ Real Magic: An Introductory Treatise on the Basic Principles of Yellow Magic (Revised Edition)
-Michael J Dangler
Bonewits, Phillip Emmons Isaac. Real Magic: An Introductory Treatise on the Basic Principles of Yellow Magic (Revised Edition). Samuel Weiser, Inc., York Beach, ME. 1989.
This book was my first introduction to a good, cross-referenced, organized study of Magic. Most Pagans don’t read books like this one. Starhawk’s Spiral Dance and Silver Ravenwolf’s To Ride a Silver Broomstick are the staples of most Pagans’ reading materials as far as creating Magic, and personally I find them horribly lacking.
This essay assumes you understand Magic and its workings. If you don’t, then this review won’t make any sense either. That’s just the way it is going to have to be.
Bonewits begins with definitions first. You will see that that is a very common place for him to start. Bonewits declares his book to be one of thaumaturgy, meaning “the art and science of wonderworking.” Bonewits also makes note that there is no Magical information that might fall into the “wrong hands,” particularly since he isn’t sure who those “wrong hands” are, or what they might do that’s so wrong with the information. Secrets, he also says, are “usually. . . an excuse for tyranny.” (p. xvi)
Chapter 1: The Laws of Magic
Of all the chapters in this book, this one seems to stand out as the most stellar and well organized. The laws themselves are fully complete, drawn mainly from personal experience of the author and from the experience of others who have walked the same path before. Included are the musings of Sir James Fraizer, who defined the law of similarity, showing that the book is better researched than just coming from personal experiences. Bonewits describes his laws much better than I could possibly hope to do, and I’m sorry to disappoint you by not expanding on them, but the graphic included should help to describe them.
One point should be made about this chapter which some people might find problematic. There is no moral law included in the Magical laws presented, and this makes some people uncomfortable. I agree with Bonewits’s point that “Though I personally believe no science should ever be used to destroy human life, I can force my view neither upon the laws of ballistics, if a gun is pointed in my direction, nor upon my readers-who would probably point guns at me if I tried.” (p. 17) Basically, Bonewits sees ethics as something for the Magician alone to decide upon, not for someone outside his Path or his universe to decide for him. I applaud him for this, since so many Pagan authors create such garbage for their own benefit, not for the readers’.
Chapter 2: Fun and Games with Definitions
You’re going to hear me say this a lot, but this was an excellent chapter. Personally, I wish that Bonewits had cited his sources better, but I have a feeling that I would have seen more footnotes than information. Still, while he worked a bit more at citing this chapter than the previous one, I wanted more. On top of that, I checked on one of the citations (p. 26, about Herodotus, Bk 1, ch. 101) and found nothing there related to his source. While this scared me a bit, I do have to reason that my translation of Herodotus is different than his, and that I might have been in the wrong place. It could also be a typo. Otherwise, for a definition of Magic, be absolutely certain to read this entire chapter!
Chapter 3: Parapsychology, the Apologetic Science
And here you will read one of my few dislikes. This entire chapter, in my opinion, is misguided. I don’t like it very much at all, probably because it reduces Magic to something so terribly mundane that I can’t sit still and read the chapter without forcing myself. The one nice thing I find about this chapter is that you can work without it. The book still makes sense.
Anyway, I made very few notes on this chapter, since I don’t really believe in psi or psychic energy. The theories are a useful way of describing what happens to a very scientific person, but I don’t see any reason to worry about them, honestly. Most of the experiments referenced in this work are not cited, and they certainly don’t seem like common knowledge to me. Much of this chapter I wish was cited, just to check and see if the experiments actually took place (which, unfortunately, I find myself questioning).
Chapter 4: Mantra Mandala and Mudra
This chapter is devoted to describing the system of Tantra as a Magical system that is still practiced today in a more or less pure form. Bonewits tends to stay away from the sexy side of Tantra (which is refreshing, since most people tend to only be interested in that side), and sticks to explaining how the system works and what use it is to us as Magicians.
After reading the chapter, I was much more interested in Eastern religion than I had been, and I suggest finding things from his bibliography about Tantra, since almost all of the books out there deal in the sexual garbage which is what Tantra has been reduced to in the West: a good way to get laid.
Chapter 5: Black Magic, White Magic, and Living Color
Here we have an examination of the concept of colour, and how colour has been influenced by cultural bigotry. To call “evil magic” “black magic” is the result of a racist and sexist collection of terms that has been handed down since the middle ages, or even earlier. Be wary of anyone who mentions those terms. Much of the chapter is devoted to classification of Magic in colours, and how silly it is, and ends with associating different types of Magic with different colours, but adding that those associations are for our culture, not for anyone else’s, and that you should “use whatever colors seem right at the time.” (p. 125)
Another part of the chapter is devoted to a kind of “quick history” of witchcraft movements, and is certainly worth a read. While he seems slightly biased in his writing against witchcraft, I think that this stems from his simply not knowing as much as he would like to about it. This lack of knowledge is a bit of a help, though, since he is able to look at them from an academic standpoint, instead of an insider’s biased and probably poorly researched point of view. Bonewits did extensive research into the subject, and this section is apparently much improved over his first edition, which seems to have sent many people screaming at him.
With all this talk about colour, auras and chakras are quick to come up. Bonewits touches on these, but does little else. I’m not sure of my personal position on either phenomenon, but I suppose I’m still open to interpretation.
Chapter 6: Placebo Spells
This is one that gets many people into a tizzy. After all, how can anyone take you seriously if the know you practice placebo magic? Basically, if you tell a person that you cast a spell for them for a desired effect, and they believe that you did, then that spell will have effect, whether you actually cast it or not. It’s like giving a person with a headache a sugar pill and telling them it’s asprin. Their headache goes away, usually.
In this chapter, Bonewits’s theory of the switchboard is presented, as well. The theory is this:
If this sounds like Jung’s ideas or like the Hindu Akasic Records, Bonewits will tell you that, yes, it does sound like that, mostly because he isn’t the first to come up with the idea. It’s called a switchboard because of the ability of a person to “plug in” to the board to find whatever information they feel they need. Honestly, since he can describe it better than I, I’m going to tell you to read about it from him. I’m somewhat doubtful about the whole theory, but then again, I’m not sure I fully understand it. It seems to me that it is a direct refutation of Occam’s Razor, which is so highly praised throughout the book.
Ch. 7: The Fundamental Patterns of Ritual
This chapter gives several examples of rituals from several different religions. Bonewits makes the point that all these rituals follow the same basic pattern, and that thus they are very similar. Personally, I see this as a problem plaguing religious studies professors and students everywhere, because it reduces all religions to a non-unique status, basically saying that every religion is the same, at least in practice. It’s dangerous, but let’s put that aside and see what else he had to say, shall we?
Most of this chapter is focused on what will work in ritual and what will not work. From here, Bonewits puts out a call to us, as Magicians, to have a scientific mind about what we do, to record our processes and our observations of the outcomes, and to seek to repeat those outcomes by doing the same processes. Personally, I take that as a challenge, since I’m bad enough about writing either the process or the results down. His motive here is obviously to make Magic into a respective science. Well, we’ll see if he can, for I know I can’t.
Further into the chapter, he gives us three excellent spells. They aren’t recipes for spells, like you get in some books, but discussions on them. They also have no moral point or compass to guide you with. It’s entirely up to you if you want to do the spell, and there are no warnings about the energy coming back to you three times if you are a bad person and cast his curse.
Ch. 8: Miscellaneous Ologies for Fun and Profit-cy!
Basically, this chapter is all about definitions, and it is one of those chapters that really shines with Bonewits’s writing style. I challenge anyone in modern Paganism today to find such a topic written in such a humorous and fun way. I really enjoyed reading this chapter. I would greatly suggest reading the bit about biblomancy. Aside from that, there’s little to comment on here.
Ch. 9: Conclusions and Suggestions for Future Research
This is an overview of the entire book, and it includes summaries of all the chapters. In fact, it might do you well to read this part first, since that way you can skim what you don’t want to think about (and I assure you the book gives one plenty to think about!). Aside from that, which is to be expected, I should also note that there is a lot of conspiracy theory in this chapter, which makes me wonder even more about his sources for some of those psi things he was mentioning in Ch. 3.
In this final chapter, added some time after the book was written, there are several new additions, presented chapter by chapter. New laws are added to Bonewits’s already fabulous Laws of Magic chapter, and a cautionary note is included in his update to chapter 4, with Bonewits’s Cult Danger Evaluation Frame, which is probably more valuable to someone just starting out in Paganism than anything else Bonewits has ever done. Basically, it gives you a very good idea of how to determine if a group you wish to join is a cult or not, and I find that it works very well. I suggest that you try it yourself sometime on a known cult, or even your local church group, and see how well it reflects what you know.
Personally, I found this book to be thoroughly enlightening and, while at times disagreeable, most enjoyable. I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in Magic, and particularly to those who are science-minded. While some flaws exist, the writing style and the information in the book make it far more worth the read than anything else out there on Magic, assuming that the reader is willing to take theory and turn it into practice, not the other way around. After all, it’s easy to follow someone else’s recipe and to come up with a theory when you need it than it is to understand theory and come up with a recipe when you need it.
This book could by used by just about anyone, and its lack of morals is refreshing (after all, you get morals everywhere else).
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