Black Magic or Baneful Magic? What Does it Mean?
Sometimes you’ll hear people in the Pagan community—and outside of it—use the term “black magic.” Others will tell you that magic has no color at all. So what does “black magic” really mean?
- The concept of white magic vs. black is a fairly new one—within the past few hundred years—and is rooted in colonialist terminology.
- Many modern practitioners have stopped using “black” and “white” and instead use baneful to describe negative magic.
- Not all magic is good or bad—most of it falls somewhere in between.
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First of all, let’s get one thing out of the way. The use of the terms black and white can be construed as having racist origins—now, you may be screaming Oh yeah well I’m not racist and that’s probably true. But the fact remains that the assignment of black and white to represent good versus bad goes back a long way—a few centuries or so—and has connections to colonialism and oppression.
During the so-called Age of Enlightenment, great European philosophers associated lighter colors with lighter spirituality, while dark colors tied into evil, negativity, and corruption. Brandy Williams at Patheos points out that “White skin color designated people who could think, who bore the true religion, and who had the right to own people with black skin. This mixing of empiricism with colonial exploitation and religious conquest stripped racism into both scientific and esoteric thought.” The indigenous practices of African spirituality were terrifying to white Europeans, who didn’t understand these strange, non-Christian activities.
By the time Europeans began settling the Americas, slavery was already in full swing. During early American witch trials, including those of Salem and Hartford, the devil himself is often described as being “black,” as are his companion animals and familiars. In today’s modern Paganism, there’s a tendency to utilize “white” to describe that which is good and benevolent, and “black” is applied to anything else; many witches are trying to decolonize their practice and terminology, and are mindful of using race-based terms. Instead, many are shifting towards “baneful” to describe negative magic.
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Baneful magic is how many people often describe magic that is done in what’s perceived as a negative manner. This can include, but is not limited to:
- Magical workings that impact the free will of others
- Magic performed to bring about destruction or harm, such as cursing or hexing
- Magic invoking the spirit realm for a negative purpose
- Magical workings that are baneful; i.e., that restrict or eliminate the actions of other people
In some traditions, workings done with negative intent are referred to as “dark magic.” However, bear in mind that not all Pagan traditions divide magic into such simplistic categories as “good” or “bad.” Also, most magic does have some impact on the free will of others, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Doing magic is about changing things. Unless you’re only working magic on yourself—and that’s okay, if that’s what you choose to do—there’s no way to perform magic without influencing something or someone, somehow, somewhere.
When it comes to spirit work, sure, there’s always a possibility that someone’s going to conjure up something they didn’t mean to. But the fact is, if you’re going to put the energy into working with spirits, then failing to put an equal about of energy into protective measures is foolish, to say nothing of lazy.
It’s important to recognize that one person’s “negative intent” is another person’s “getting things done.” There seems to be a trend in the Pagan community, particularly among Neowiccan groups, to frown upon anyone who doesn’t follow a white-light-and-rainbows magical tradition. Sometimes you may also hear the phrase “left hand path” thrown out as a cautionary warning—and you’ll often find that people who self-identify with Left Hand Path traditions don’t especially care what other people think of them. In other words, the person warning you off may have been doing so simply because someone else has a set of standards that doesn’t meet his or her approval.
- Barber, Shannon. “Black Magic, Black Skin: Decolonizing White Witchcraft.” Ravishly, 23 Oct. 2017, https://ravishly.com/black-magic-black-skin-decolonizing-white-witchcraft.
- McMillan, Timothy J. “Black Magic: Witchcraft, Race, and Resistance in Colonial New England.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 25, no. 1, 1994, pp. 99–117. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2784416.