I’m Bridget Owens and you're listening to the Waxing Soul podcast where we're adventuring into the world of mindful modern magic and authentic spiritual practice. It's January 6, 2022, and today's topic is the difference between intuitive and traditional witchcraft. Are you ready to grow your soul?
Happy New Year! I don’t know about anyone else, but I feel like the first week of 2022 has gone on literally forever! No complaints here, though, because I like that better than feeling like everything’s going by in a whirlwind and I’m falling behind, right?
So I wanted to start the new year by digging into a topic that pops up in my brain quite a lot but that I haven’t maybe talked about so much. I know I’ve been really clear on here and on social media about my own approach to my magical practice and my spirituality and the ways it’s not traditional. And I’ve mentioned, I’m sure, that when it comes to being part of the pagan community, the witchy community, I’ve always felt like I kind of exist on the fringes because so much of my understanding of magic and spirituality only sort of fits with more, like, established takes. But I don’t think I’ve really dug into the structure of how it’s different, and although I’ve always known there must be others out there whose approaches to their practice are much more closely in line with my own than what you generally see from magical practitioners on social media, it’s only recently that I’ve actually started to run across more and more of them.
Anyway, the real difference between my approach and the more mainstream magical traditions isn’t so much a matter of secular or atheism vs pagan or religious magical practice, it’s not really about urban vs nature-based, it’s not about all of the things that are kind of the key points I usually talk about when I describe my practice. What it really does come down to is the difference between a practice shaped by personal intuition and one shaped by established tradition.
The more I’ve thought about this recently, the more I realized how important this distinction is for those still trying to kind of establish or even flesh out and settle into a practice for themselves. So even if you’re really comfortable in your practice, I think it’s good to give some thought about the foundational dynamics between the two approaches.
So, first, I want to break down the role of intuition in magical practice. Because on some level, every practitioner has to be guided by and comfortable with their intuitive senses. Magical practice exists, just by definition, outside the world of empirical measures and hard facts and predictable systems. Magic runs on a constant flow of perception and judgment calls and best guesses and imagination. So being able to trust that our intuition, our own ability to feel out a situation via gut instinct and trust that way of being led, is crucial to magical practice.
But the contexts in which we let our intuition take the lead can be very different from practitioner to practitioner. I feel safe saying most practitioners rely on their intuition when it comes to when and what kind of workings and spells they need to do. We all generally trust our intuition to parse out a given situation and tell us, like, this is the root of the problem, these are the phenomena or energies at work here, and therefore here is what would make the biggest difference in the situation. Our intuition tells us when we think we need more information and when we have an accurate view of what’s going on.
Now, I’m sure we all have seen practitioners and even ourselves trust our intuition and have that come up false, but that’s… Part of the appeal of magical practice, even when it comes in the form of a structured tradition or religion, is that it leaves our hands on the steering wheel. It’s not like some other, non-magical religious or cultural traditions where it’s not an individual’s place to try and manipulate their reality, they’re supposed to trust in whatever higher power to, like, have the agenda and outcome in hand and to guide things for them.
So every magical practice involves intuition. And mastery of a magical practice involves really engaging with and honing intuition. Getting really good at making those decisions about how to apply your practice and whether the results and the direction you end up going is a desirable one or not. I think that’s just part of the deal.
So if you’re just starting out in your practice, if you’re still working on building the basic skills, no matter what type of practice you’re building, one of the most important things to work on is a relationship with your inner guidance system. Figuring out as you’re going along where the various inner voices, inner feelings come from, how to know what they’re telling you, and learning what is trustworthy and what isn’t about that inner guidance. Which I think maybe I’ll dive into more in a future episode.
Absolutely we first need to become comfortable with our intuitive abilities in general. And I know I’m still working to hone my intuition. Even once you learn to listen to it, learn to trust it, that is a relationship. It’s a relationship with an inner part of yourself, and all relationships need to be worked on, need to be nurtured. Because how useful would a magical practice even be if there wasn’t that trust and sense of reliability with that inner guiding voice? But having a practice which relies on our intuition as part of the toolkit is not the same as having an intuitive practice, and I’ll pick that issue apart next.
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Now back to the episode!
Part of intuition ties into instinct. Instinct and intuition aren’t the same things, but they are related in the sense that instincts are built in programs which have an impact on our motivations and actions and choices.
This is important because of the thing that I talked about back during the series I did on the basics of magic about our ability to do magic being part of modern human consciousness. We’ve evolved the ability to do magic, and a lot of that comes down to the way that humans have learned to react by instinct in certain ways.
Certain aspects of natural human interaction with the world, our way of interpreting and reacting, things like tending to find faces and common patterns in everything or the instinctive senses that tell us something is wrong, those things tie directly into our intuitive inner voices. Our intuition interprets our instincts, among other things.
And we’ve evolved this ability to intuitively interpret our instincts because it is an ability that helps us survive and thrive. That’s… I mean, those things clearly have a lot to do with our magical abilities. Even for humans whose only expression of natural magical tendencies is in the form of little superstitions or unexamined ritual behaviors, those little beliefs and rituals help us navigate the world.
And every single form of magic starts with that. In human history, that’s where our abilities start to develop. It’s… You know, it’s ancient humans noticing patterns, interpreting them based on their experiences and knowledge and intuition, and experimenting with courses of action. Trial and error producing what was likely an individual type of practice.
Now, we have no idea where along the line some of this stuff started to become shared and ritualized and adopted by a larger group. Where it became a cultural tradition, even if we’re talking a very small cultural group. But even after that point, even once we’ve got formal traditions, formal religions even, to create and teach magical systems, there’s always an element of individualized approaches to magic. Individualized forms of ritual observance, personal intuitive magic.
And this is the root of stuff like folk magic. In some circles this is referred to as low magic. It’s the stuff that’s practical, that arises out of basic human survival instinct and need to understand and navigate the challenges of our everyday lives. There’s not, like… There may be folklore, but it’s all based on lived experience and trial and error, stories passed down not to encode some kind of religious truth but to share wisdom and practical advice from one generation to the next. It’s not static. It builds up and changes and adjusts over time to changes in way of life and environment.
And I think it’s especially important to acknowledge that these shifting and changing approaches to our natural magic vary widely over time and across distances. Like, sure, there are common threads, common things that our intuitive approaches address and help us deal with, but the methodologies and details have more to do with what’s available and what has happened in the very localized history than anything else.
So here’s what I want to really get across about this whole thing. Because the biggest difference between my practice and what a lot of magical practitioners shape their practice around is that I still consider myself fully part of this intuitive magical approach and really not part of any traditional magical practice. Which, like, I’ll talk about traditional magic in a few minutes, but there’s a huge different, really, between even the ways in which folk magic has been kind of frozen in time by modern practitioners and encoded into something that looks like traditional magic, between that and modern intuitive magic. Approaching magical practice as something that is individual, rooted in the present understanding of the world and the universe, and guided pretty much entirely by instinct, experience, and our intuitive interpretation. A continued trial and error approach to magically dealing with modern problems, modern life, modern experiences.
Now, to some extent, all practices have some aspect of this in them, whether they acknowledge it or not. Every tradition evolves over time and incorporates modernizing changes, context-based changes. But there are quite a few major differences between a traditional magical practice and an intuitive magical practice, so that’s what I want to dig into next.
Not that there is… I do want to be really clear that this is not about one being better than the other. My preference is a personal one, but I’m sure there are other practitioners, especially beginner practitioners, who have never really been told that it’s okay to do anything other than traditional magic.
So in a moment I want to get into the differences and implications for practitioners of each approach.
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I think pretty much all of us, when we start this journey to actually building a magical practice, are pushed towards traditional magic. We don’t all get pushed towards the same tradition, but just about everything, every resource on magic treats the subject as a traditional system which has rules and agreed upon elements based on a framework or worldview and therefore has to be taught. The rules of magic, the basic principles that people learn and pass on and teach are based in this kind of traditional approach.
Tradition-based magical practices incorporate an agreed upon worldview, a shared cultural understanding and a shared framework on which everything is built. So there is some kind of static truth held within that tradition. I mentioned earlier that in a lot of cases we’ve come to treat older folk magic practices as if they were traditional magic, even though I would argue that they never generally met that standard.
For instance, there might be commonalities shared by individual practitioners within a culture over a set period of time, but that doesn’t mean that there was a generally agreed upon framework or belief system significant enough to really be the basis for a formal tradition. Specifically, there might be common techniques and tools or practical conventions that are shared between individual magic users within a community, but those techniques don’t constitute a religion or a culturally significant ritual tradition.
And really the distinction as I see it comes down to a difference between basing a practice on belief and principle or on function and outcome. Intuitive practice starts with a desire to solve specific problems, gain certain things, make certain changes or adjustments to lived reality and, starting with that jumping off point, set about trial and erroring the way towards a solution that works and makes sense to the practitioner.
But traditional approaches to magic start with an agreed upon set of beliefs or assumptions and build from there. Even if there’s an understanding that the core worldview and system on which the tradition is built isn’t a universal thing, it’s still important to hold that worldview and understand that system if you’re going to practice within that tradition and be part of that group or community. There’s an importance placed on passing on that truth, that framework. And generally speaking that framework goes a long way towards explaining how that particular magical practice works. So, like, the mythology, the dynamics of the pantheon, the set of basic practices and all the rules around what should and shouldn’t be done – it’s vitally important to learn those things, usually before any of the practical part of the magical stuff happens. In fact, jumping in to the use of individual elements of a traditional practice without understanding the traditional framework is essentially how you get cultural appropriation.
But that’s the kind of magical approach most of us are used to. I think it has a lot to do with how much of a role religion has played in more recent history and how we’ve just kind of gotten accustomed to, like, religion just being part of the human experience. If we’re engaging in anything sort of spiritual, we look for a set of beliefs that form the basis for whatever it is. And so that’s how most of us probably assume magic has to be.
But there’s still the intuitive approach to magic. I think what a lot of us kind of don’t think about when we first start out is that, you know, every single magical practice, every technique, every tool, every little detail or idea came from a human being going, like, this seems like a good thing to try, and then trying it and passing it to someone else to try. Which means that, really, we can do the same thing.
In fact, we really should do the same thing because that’s how we get the most relevant and individually practical forms of magical practice.
If we only act as if people in the past had the ability and right to initiate new practices, to innovate and whatever, and that all legitimate magical approaches need to be rooted in some kind of longstanding tradition, we’re really neglecting a huge part of what magic is in the first place. And we end up with the… You know, if you look around at most of the practitioners and guidance you see on social media, most of it is really rooted in this idea that the old stuff is more valuable than any new ideas by default, but that divorces magical practice from current reality in a lot of ways.
And that’s not to say that everyone whose practice is based in an established tradition doesn’t have modernized aspects to their practice, but what they are doing to connect to current reality is just that, an individual adaptation. Other practitioners in that circle, in that tradition or culture don’t tend to all agree on those adaptations, and there’s probably more than one sort of similar adaptation.
And this isn’t a black and white dichotomy. There’s all sorts of gray in there. For instance, eclectic practitioners pulling elements from a lot of different traditional practices and cobbling them together into an individualized practice kind of straddle the line between the two approaches.
But here’s essentially what I want everyone to take away from this discussion: it’s worth knowing and choosing the extent to which you need or want external structure, external guidance in your practice. A lot of people have said and continue to reassure others that magic doesn’t have to be attached to a religion or a set of religion-like beliefs and dogmas, and that nobody’s magical practice needs to be like anyone else’s, but I think it goes a step further than that. Intuitive magic is literally made up on an individual basis and that’s totally legitimate.
Magic doesn’t get its legitimacy solely from the past, from passed on traditions – not that there’s no worth in that, but it’s not the only source of value and legitimacy. There doesn’t have to be some kind of external authority involved. Our ancestors made things up as they went and then shared their knowledge and ideas around, and we can do exactly the same thing.
Not only that, but things that, for instance, I choose to do in my intuitive practice only have to make sense to me. I can dip into my own memories, my own way of referencing the world, my own internal language of symbols and associations and work from that without it having to align with anyone else’s system. That’s the natural magical ability inherent to human consciousness that we all have within us.
Thank you so much for listening. New episodes of the Waxing Soul drop every Thursday. All materials and resources except the music are copyright Bridget Owens. Many thanks to my readers, listeners, friends, mentors, inspirations, and my framily for riding with me into season two. Until next week, blessed be and be good to yourself.