Some words are so emotive, so rich, you feel you can dissolve them on your tongue. They have a resonance which might lead you somewhere new – if you could only grasp it fully. For me, that word magic is one of them.
I like magic: the concept, the word and its roots. It seems to me that the skill of traditional healers and wise-women is historically related to the craft of the hypnotherapist. Trance, perceived as the ability to enter a metaphoric “spirit world” at will and recover the lost soul of a patient, is common to many ancient healing practices. And maybe trance plumbs the pre-nominal depths of the 150 million-year-old limbic system, where concepts evolve in a kind of organic, multisensory architecture.
We are all familiar with this level of our consciousness, since we all dream. You have also probably noticed the way a complicated, waking idea can first present itself to you as an image or metaphor. It can look like a subtly attractive design which invites curiosity. It takes practice and skill to get to the heart of it, like peeling an orange and laying out each segment. And then it takes delicacy to find the shades of meaning that convey your exact idea to another human mind. The metaphors arising from these mythic levels are not just figures of speech. Fresh and complex, they well up from a younger, imaginal mind.
I was listening to the blackbirds singing, early in the morning before the dawn began to lighten the sky. It was strange and lovely to hear a genuine exchange going on: one blackbird sang a phrase which its neighbour not only copied, but embellished. They say that human speech began with song: songtones, carrying across distance, echoed and answered by our earliest ancestors until the repetition of ages refined those sounds into words and common meaning.
Fascinating to speculate how the heard note was a signal for our 500 million-year-old reptilian brain; and then picked up emotional meaning and became an icon, interpretable in the limbic system; and finally those sounds become words and convey symbols analysable by the modern (2 or 3 million-year-old) neo-cortex. It isn’t surprising that a phrase of music can summarise an emotion more perfectly than words. But words have struggled out of song and every word we speak is a beautiful little relic of the remote past.
When we use the simple, worn-down relationship-names, such as daughter, brother, mother, father, a vista opens up, if you care to look. The first human group we glimpse designating those sounds to mean those personal relationships lived somewhere in the Caucasus, about 10,000 years ago. This is where we must go to search for the sound and concept of magic.
Our words imagine, image, magus, magic intertwine. Our words make, machine share a similar root. Does it tell us anything of the human psyche when we look at their history? If the words are traced back ( just a short walk through Middle English, Old French, Latin, Greek and Old Persian) we come to a prehistoric language called Proto-Indo-European: linguists have to guess at the form the words took. But we can glean from *magh- and *maghan- a number of meanings around the sense of contrive a device, make happen, form an image.
What can this ancient connection be telling us? The word at the very root of our modern machine, make and the word at the root of magic, imagine, image spring up from somewhere even deeper: a remote time when making something happen, designing something and causing it to be, involved a kind of concrete magic. I’m not trying to depict an impossible world: I think ancient people were like modern people, with just as little – or as much – power to influence matter by thought. But there is evidence to suggest that our ancestors understood and utilised the creative processes of the unconscious with finesse and vigour.
Old cave paintings can take us back 30,000 years to the age of the Hunter. Impelled by the need to trap and kill for food, artists at over 300 surviving sites, such as those at Lascaux or Altamira, depicted their prey with skill and accuracy. Was it simply a desire to illustrate the correct beasts to kill that motivated the painters? Were they commissioned to celebrate a particularly good day at the hunt? The caves at Magura show women dancing, men and animals, stars and suns: complex, multi-layered images. Were they moved to paint these scenes in bat guano after a particularly enjoyable party?
Deep underground, right down in the belly of the earth, the artists painted by smoky torchlight. They might paint over pre-existing figures as they searched for the right space on the uneven surface. This indicates that the act of painting was of prime importance, not the finished composition. Maybe the painting was accompanied with ritual theatre, music and story telling. The entire procedure could have been an evocative act of sympathetic magic, designed to call up every sensory association, to involve the artists and possibly an audience in a trance-state in which they could rehearse the next hunt before it happened.
Hypnotherapy utilises this same age-old ability to ensure a successful outcome. Entering deep trance and rehearsing an event which has not yet taken place lays down a memory, a real one. It’s far more than the power of positive thinking. It slips past critical analysis. The immense complexity of the creative unconscious, where things always happen in the present, makes no differentiation between a real memory and a created one. In fact, only third party perspective can verify the truth of your recollections.
In the remote past, our minds would have perceived and stored all data in a metaphorical way. That way is alive and well in our creative unconscious minds now. It’s the pre-verbal imaginal world that we access and work with in trance. Do we over-value the ability to deconstruct, explain and analyse ourselves and our environment? Our modern world with its technological devices depends on reasoned knowledge, the logical and the linear; but without the synthesising comprehension which arises dream-like from the inner mind, logic and reason lack heart. In other words, they lack the harmony of true understanding – and magic depends on that.