While researching the Salem Witch Trials, early English folk magic, and modern psychic practices for my upcoming dark fantasy series, my world has become a lot more… magical. Despite my best efforts, I can’t bring myself to believe wholly in magic (though I envy those of you who can!), but I’ve started to notice how these practices I’m studying survive in our modern, logical, technology-centered world.
The average skeptic would probably define these “modern magic techniques” as superstitions, childhood silliness, or plain idiocy. For the most part, I agree. I’m not arguing that these practices work as the users intend. Rather, I’m sharing my personal connections between the traditional and the modern to show that, though humanity’s belief in magic has nearly evaporated, the shadows of magic (and perhaps even our deep-rooted desire for it to be true) remain.
Divining Love: Egg Whites to Daisies to MASH
According to many secondary sources, such as Reverend John Hale’s A Modest Enquiry into the Nature of Witchcraft (1697), young girls from Salem experimented with fortune telling. Supposedly with the help of Tituba (Reverend Samuel Parris’ Native American slave and the first individual accused of witchcraft), the girls used egg whites and a mirror to create a “crystal ball.” The shapes formed would reveal the occupations of their future husbands.
However, when one of the girls saw a coffin, she got spooked. Some traditions hold that this scare caused the girls, specifically Betty Parris and Abigail Williams (Rev. Parris’s daughter and niece), to believe themselves (or to act) bewitched and start the witchcraft hysteria. Though the truth of this story remains unclear, the “white magic” described was practiced throughout colonial America and England during this time.
Young girls today still use playful means to divine information about their love lives. Plucking petals from a daisy, alternating between “He loves me” and “He loves me not,” allows the questioner to discover the “truth” about her crush’s feelings. Back in my day (the early 2000s), we used a pencil-and-paper game called MASH to determine our future husbands, occupations, houses, cars, number of children, and other topics of interest. (Learn how to play it here.) The divination methods may have changed, but the “magical” intent remains the same.
(What both of these practices say about heteronormativity and gender stereotypes is a topic for another day…)
Numerology: What’s Your Lucky Number?
In the simplest terms, numerology is the belief that numbers have a divine or magical significance, and that they can reveal truths about the present or future. The most common numerology practice involves your Life Number. By adding the numbers in your birthdate and reducing them to a single digit, you can identify your Life Number. (Example: My birthday is March 11, 1992. So, my Life Number is calculated as 3+1+1+1+9+9+2 = 26 = 2+6 = 8) According to the meaning behind the number 8, my life path will revolve around ambition, goals, and material wealth. (Find your own Life Number here.)
Numerologists can do similar calculations with other dates or words (there are systems that assign numerical values to the letters) to divine the meaning behind them. For instance, if you’re looking for a good day to have a first date with someone, you should pick a date that reduces down to 2 (the number of cooperation, harmony, and love).
Where do we see numerology in everyday life? An obvious example is people who choose their own lottery numbers, based on the number’s significance to them. I’ve noticed a similar pattern on the daytime game show, Let’s Make a Deal. (Yes, I’m an 85-year-old woman in a 25-year-old’s body. Moving on.) At the end of each episode, the big winner is offered a chance to win the Big Deal of the Day by choosing a numbered curtain. Nearly every time, the contestant “justifies” their selection by giving the number meaning. “Curtain 3, because I have three kids.” “Curtain 1, because my birthday is August 1st.”
By assigning meaning to the numbers, and trusting that meaning to perform the magic of helping them win the Big Deal, the contestants participate in the basic tradition of numerology.
Do You Believe in Magic… or Its Remnants?
From magic/religion scholars to humble inquirers like myself, the line between magic and superstition remains blurred and often nonexistent. Though we might not believe in either, we keep both alive by checking our horoscopes (or tweeting about the travesty of Mercury being in retrograde), knocking on wood, playing with Ouija boards, folding “cootie catchers,” and so much more.
Discovering these magical remnants and recognizing them in my own life gives me a strange sense of comfort. The idea that humanity still clings to the hope that we can evoke positive change and control our futures (even if we’re doing it unknowingly) offers a uniquely beautiful form of optimism. And in today’s messed up world – you know what I’m talking about – I’ll take all the magic I can get.
Do you take part in any of these magical or superstitious practices? Do you truly (or want to) believe in magic? Where do you see magic or beauty in your life?