The Gods of Greece hid fire on Mount Olympus. Some say they knew we could never use fire without harming ourselves and so, like good parents, they kept it from us. Others say they simply wanted to keep it for themselves. But Prometheus stole fire from the Gods and gave it to humans, for which he was punished cruelly and unjustly.
The practice of magic is, in many ways, stealing fire from the Gods. The near-universal prohibition of witchcraft is not simply the fear that someone might work malicious magic against other people. It’s also the belief that working magic is impious – that it’s claiming for ourselves what belongs to the Gods.
This idea carried over from Greco-Roman paganism into Christianity. The Catholic church says
A sound Christian attitude consists in putting oneself confidently into the hands of Providence for whatever concerns the future, and giving up all unhealthy curiosity about it.
Not that that’s ever stopped anyone from working magic, or paying someone else to work it for them.
Recently I had a magical working that failed. Actually, two-thirds of the working was a brilliant success. But the other third was an abject failure. I went back and looked over the whole working, trying to figure out what went wrong – we learn more from our failures than from our successes. While the working itself was technically sound (thus the successful two-thirds) the failed goal was stated poorly: it was too detailed (making it much harder to achieve) and it was not phrased positively.
More importantly, the goal wasn’t what I really wanted. The details are too personal to share – let’s just say I was fixated on quantity when I what I really want is quality. But because I didn’t really want what I was working for, my magic had to overcome my internal resistance in addition to ordinary inertia. My magic is good, but it’s not that good.
This has been a recurring theme throughout my life: chasing things I think I want, then getting upset because I can’t get them. Or worse, actually getting them and then having to deal with a reality that doesn’t match expectations and brings unpleasant complications.
Fortunately, in this case my error was relatively minor and easily corrected. But it does an excellent job of illustrating the point that magic really is stealing fire from the Gods. Every spell is an act of will. Every working says “I choose this” and in doing so, says “I reject that” to other alternatives.
Are you willing to take that responsibility?
Questions of impiety notwithstanding, this problem is easier for polytheists than for monotheists. Christians argue that their God has a will and a plan for every detail of your life. Polytheists see many Gods with different interests and areas of responsibilities. While there are many times when we are better off deferring to the authority of the Gods, micromanaging our lives isn’t very high on their lists of priorities.
It’s your life – who do you want making your decisions?
Many people want someone else to make their decisions for them. Some have been told they’re stupid and incompetent for so long they believe it – they have no confidence in themselves. Others don’t want the responsibility of deciding. It’s one thing if something bad happens to you at random, but it’s a lot harder if something bad happens and you know it’s your own damn fault.
At some level, I think most of us realize that we don’t know what we really want, at least not early in life. This is complicated by the fact that major decisions aren’t made in isolation. It’s safe to say most people want to be rich. But how many of us want to have the kind of single-minded focus on making and keeping money that it takes to get rich? Magic cannot overcome hard limits – it cannot achieve two mutually exclusive goals at the same time.
The fear of regret often paralyzes us. Say yes to one option and you say no to everything else. What if I don’t like Peanuts! Popcorn! ice cream? I’ll be out the money and my stomach will be full and there will be all those other flavors I didn’t get to eat. I’ll just stick with chocolate – I know I like that.
If choosing ice cream is hard, how much harder is it to choose a religious path, a marriage partner, or a career – you know, something that actually matters?
But choices have to be made. Refusing to choose is a choice. Letting someone else choose for you is a choice. Trusting that some divine being has your best interests at heart is a choice. Passive choices are still choices, but I’d rather choose actively.
We can manage our uncertainty and our fear of regret through a progressive process. Choose a vision and start taking steps in that direction. Accept that you will fail, but fail quickly and fail small, and learn from your mistakes. Review your progress frequently, make necessary adjustments, and keep moving. And whatever you choose, stick with it long enough for it to bear fruit.
When I realized I didn’t want what I had worked magic for, the reality of stealing fire from the Gods hit me. I dared to meddle in the currents of the universe and I was wrong. No eagle is coming to eat my liver, but the results could have been much worse… and at times in the past, the results of my magical errors have been much worse. This was like driving too fast in the rain and losing control, only to spin out in the middle of the road instead of sliding into the ditch.
Risky. Arrogant. Perhaps even impious.
But also, my life. My choice. My responsibility.
My learning and growth – next time I’ll take that curve a little slower and a little more gradually.
I’ve already reworked the spell. I separated the quality I want from the quantity that looks good, and I put some more thought into statement of the goal. We’ll see how it goes.
I started stealing fire from the Gods a long time ago. I still burn myself with it every now and then, but I like the taste of cooked food and I like the warmth of a fire on a cold night. I’ll take the risks… and I’ll keep learning how to manage them.
What will you do? Only you can decide for yourself, and if you choose to leave the fire safely on Mount Olympus I completely understand. Magic isn’t for everyone. It’s not for most people.
But you must choose, and refusing to chose is still a choice.