Dedicant's Work

Study Program











Pagan Student Association

CafePress Shop


Magic 2, Requirement 1

Describe the difference between a "magical" ritual and a "religious" ritual, including if there is a difference and why there is or is not. (min. 300 words)

This is an interesting question indeed, because it relies on the definition of both the terms "religious" and "magical", and forces us to think about whether a difference exists or not.

The modern idea that magic and religion are separate things dates to early Christian writers, but most of us think of Sir James George Frazer's dichotomy. Briefly, this is how Frazer defines his terms:

"Magic" is defined by Frazer as assuming "that in nature one event follows another necessarily and invariably without the intervention of any spiritual or personal agency." (Frazer, 56) By this, he means that if you do the exact same process exactly the same, you will always achieve the same result, and that you will never fail. He compares magic to science, and basically says that magic is bad science. ("The true or golden rules constitute the body of applied science which we call the arts; the false are magic.") (57)

"Religion", Frazer informs us, "consists of two elements, a theoretical and a practical, namely a belief in powers higher than man and an attempt to propitiate and please them." (58) This, he indicates later, means that "we can persuade or induce the mighty beings who control [nature]" to change events from their normal direction. (59) This, he says, is in direct opposition to magic (and science) because these beings can persuaded or threatened to change nature's course. Religion, in Frazer, comes about when man realizes magic doesn't work. (66)

This dichotomy of magic and religion has been very common in many theories of religion, but it doesn't work. This is primarily because it's just not so cut-and-dry as "religion is about doing stuff, and magic is about predicting outcomes."

Many people think of magic as "coercion," and indeed this is a reasonable thought. Many magical texts describe the coercion of beings. Indeed, even in the ancient world, this was recognized as a possible difference.

Graf mentions that "the gap between magic and civic religion exists already in the fifth century B.C." (Graf, 221) Here, he is referring to the difference between "religious prayer" and magic. He defines "religious prayer" as "the ritual act that legitimates the asking for divine favor: to emphasize one's own merits in order to commit the divinity to help, a person mentions the sacrifices or dedications that the person has already offered." (220) "In the magic of the papyri," he informs us, "it is knowledge that makes possible communication with the gods. The person who knows the intimate details of divine nature thereby demonstrates that he or she is close to the god and commits the god to react favorably." (220-221)

So, according to Graf, it is the claiming of intimate knowledge of deity that separates magic and religion. Further, he goes on to inform us that coercion of deity also belongs firmly in the realm of magic. (225)

But they are not as divorced as they may seem. Lucan's Erictho uses prayer in her magic, and Plato speaks of prayers and incantations both being used by begging priests and seers. (Graf, 216) Besides this, the mystery religions also rely on higher knowledge, and the rite of mysteries are obviously religious according to our traditional definitions. (Graf, 221)

I am, though, a greater fan of Apuleius, who indicates that magicians have a communio loquendi, a dialogue with the gods: "magus is properly he who, doing business with the immortal gods, has the power to effect everything he wishes through the mysterious force of certain incantations." (Apology, XXVI.6; Luck, 111) Magic, according to Apuleius, is "a religious tradition dealing with things divine." (Apology, XXV; Luck, 111)

I tend to see the difference between magical ritual and religious ritual as dependent on the audience and focus. Rituals which focus on the individual, whether it is focused on the benefit or the detriment of that individual, tend to be "magical" in my personal conceptualization. Rituals which focus on the community, again whether it is focused on the benefit or detriment of the community, tend to be religious. I take this primarily from the nature of the magician himself, versus the nature of the priest. Priests tend to be members of the community, and they tend to help and aid the community, and be integrated heavily into society. Magicians, on the other hand, tend to be either outcasts or to have a liminal position within the community, particularly in Indo-European societies.

Of course, even this definition isn't perfect. While the classical IE magician may work for the individual, he also works against society, often seen as someone who negatively affects society no matter what he happens to be doing.

Even tactics seem to be the same. A magician may call on deities and try and persuade them, and a priest may call on deities and do the same. A magician might work without resorting to deities or even spirits, and a priest might resort to what we often think of as "godless" magic to obtain results.

Whether there is a difference between a magical ritual and a religious ritual is primarily dependent on the need for terminology associated with a dichotomy: sometimes, it is useful to see a difference between the two, while other times, the dichotomy is moot. To that end, the answer to the question becomes a wishy-washy: "Sometimes there is a difference, and sometimes there simply is not, and it all depends on circumstance."


Apuleius, Apology. 

Betz, Hans Deiter. The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation: Including the Demotic Spells: Texts. University Of Chicago Press; 2nd edition. 1997

Frazer, Sir James George. The Golden Bough

Graf, Fritz. Magic in the Ancient World. trans. Franklin Philip

Luck, Georg. Arcana Mundi.


Content © 2003 - 2007, Michael J Dangler
Updated on 03/09/2007. Site Credits / Email Me!
Basic site design from
(Yes, I stole it!)