Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to separate a magical system from the time and place where it was developed. Magical traditions are inherently bound up in the cultural, linguistic and social customs of a given people at a particular point in history. Coming to a magical system as an outsider can pose disorienting challenges such as acquainting oneself with pantheons and mythologies that are wholly unfamiliar to us. What’s a budding magician to do?
First, know that all magical systems are incomplete. There is simply no such thing as a perfectly self-contained magical system. As a modern seeker, you’ll be forced into a syncretic practice where you’ll need to borrow what suits you from various teachings, systems and philosophies to build your own system. No matter how strictly you adhere to a certain school of magic, either your teachings are already influenced by other cultural systems unbeknownst to you, or you will inevitably need to go outside your school’s teachings to further your knowledge.
Second, know that almost all traditions are borrowed from earlier customs and updated for the needs of the times. And even those traditions that developed in isolation—which are few—are surprisingly parallel to the rest. While all magical traditions are unique in their linguistic & cultural development, the reality they describe and the methods by which they interact with that description are more similar than different. Their explanations for phenomena may vary intensely, but the Mystery they are exploring is the same.
So let’s take a look at this genealogy of magical systems.
The origin of all religion is magic. The first magicians were the ancient shamans living among our nomadic ancestral tribes. The shamans were tasked with interacting with the forces of nature to bring or dispel rain, to find herds for the hunters, and to banish sickness from the people. The earliest known cave paintings from nearly 40,000 years ago show drawings of horses and other animals, thought to be for magically increasing the abundance of game. Ultimately, the task of mediating natural forces required that the shamans be fluent with the gods—the personification of the natural forces—and the many spiritual, non-physical beings that populated the world and affected the tribe’s well-being for good or ill.
Eventually, as our ancestors evolved from hunting & gathering to agriculture, the shamans evolved to become the priest classes of early civilization, their role as intermediaries to the gods having become codified. The center of the world then was Sumer & Babylon, ancient Mesopotamia, and their mystical teachings had codified the gods of the shamans into an organized pantheon. As humanity spread across the globe, a common magico-religious understanding prevailed, as evidenced by Proto-Indo-European religion or PIE.
The Proto-Indo-Europeans are the linguistic & cultural ancestors of almost all languages today. In fact, our numeric glyphs are still like the ancient Brahmi numerals.Their religion is still widely practiced today, except now it’s known as Hinduism. The belief in a pantheon of gods symbolizing the personified natural forces, traditions & customs aligned with the movements of Sun, Moon & stars, and the use of statues, images & icons for worship are all Proto-Indo-European religious traits that survive in Hinduism. The magical aspects of Hinduism can be seen in the ancient practice of chanting mantras, magical words of power designed to transform simply through repetition. Mantras are some of the oldest types of magic spells.
The PIE religion spread across the globe, diversifying over the years as different cultures evolved different languages and adapted their religions for their times. So eventually, these religious systems appeared distinct since they were populated by completely different gods, philosophies and dogmas, but in fact, they all share a common ancestor.
Eventually, the Hebrews migrating from Egypt took the magic and mystical teachings of the Egyptians with them. The new monotheistic teachings of Judaism were still very much steeped in Egyptian spirituality and Proto-Indo-European tradition, even as they emphasized the oneness of God rather than the manyness of the gods. Although the gods were all thought to be aspects of a singular, incomprehensible deity, the Jewish movement opted to simplify this theology to reduce the many aspects of the deity back into one, true God. Jesus of Nazareth would later usher in a more mystical approach to monotheist religion in the form of Christianity, which was heavily influenced by the mysticism of the Roman pagans and many other polytheist movements of the time.
Vedic knowledge from India was widespread throughout the world, influencing the magic of pre-Islamic Arabia. Before Islam, Arabia was known for its advanced practitioners of magic. After the advent of Islam, the Sufi mystics saved the Arabian magic by blending it with the new monotheist faith in town. By 1,000 CE, the Jews—inspired by the magic of the Sufi mystics and the pre-Islamic Arab pagans—developed Cabbalah as a mystical interpretation of the sacred Jewish texts. The Cabbala adapted the Arabs’ eight-pointed system into a ten-pointed system, establishing the basis of Cabbalistic thought.
By the Renaissance, there was an explosion of interest in the occult. Christian mystics adopted Cabbalistic ideas, developing the famous occult lodges, such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The Golden Dawn is largely responsible for the revival of occultism in modern times, having inspired many proponents of magical thinking. The occult movements of that time period are the source of most High Magic and Ceremonial Magic today. However, these movements have also given the incorrect impression that Cabbalah is the singular source of all magical knowledge, but history clearly demonstrates that magical wisdom has existed for at least 40,000 years, and every culture & religion is suffused with it.
Between the 16th and 19th centuries, the African slave trade brought magic to the New World. Indigenous African religions were similar in structure to the pagan, polytheist religions that had once dominated the world. The gods of the Yoruba people in western Nigeria came to the Americas then, a pantheon of deities called the Orishas—universal in similarity to the Hindu or Shinto or Greek pantheons. The Orisha were easily disguised as Catholic saints to fit with the religion of the masters. The slaves continued to secretly practice their magical customs, but hid them behind the worship of saints to fool the authorities. This synthesis of Yoruba religion and Catholicism was the basis of Santeria. Other African and Caribbean magical traditions blended around this same time, establishing Hoodoo, Voodoo and similar paths of rootwork and conjure.
In the mid-20th century, literature about witchcraft and Wicca gained popularity before gaining momentum in the 60’s cultural revolutions. The Hippies symbolized the popular yearning to be closer to nature. The post World War II era had been alienating as consumer society expanded exponentially, and the Cold War cast the threat of global annihilation for the first time in human history. Understandably, the youth of that time wanted to return to a more natural way of life. So they turned to shamanism, indigenous Native American beliefs and witchcraft.
While rootwork, shamanism and witchcraft is considered “low magic” compared to the High Magic of ceremonial Cabbalah, this distinction is really just classist and not a comparison of the systems. The ‘low” and “high” referred to here are not about good and bad, but about low class and high class origins. The low class villagers, peasants and tribespeople would practice conjuration & witchcraft with the simple ingredients and tools available to them, while the high class aristocrats, renaissance men and wealthy landowners practiced high, ceremonial magic with elaborate vestments, tools and props as befit their higher status. The major difference in these practices is in rigidity: with ceremonial magic requiring much more structured behavior and ritual, whereas low magic practices are usually loosely structured and creative. But all of these paths get at the same thing: invoking or banishing spirits, calling upon deities for intervention, and reaching divine wisdom.
Nowadays, there are vibrant magical traditions in the US including Santeria, Hoodoo/Voodoo, witchcraft, Native American shamanism/sorcery, and the ceremonial magic of the Cabbalists and the like. There are also atheist paths too. Theravada Buddhism offers spiritual practices that are highly effective for the seeker who rejects deities or spirits. Or you might prefer the movement of Chaos Magick and Psionics—a school of magical practice that treats the subject like any other natural phenomena and approaches the achievement of psychic abilities through rigorous training and practical testing, while avoiding getting tangled up with deities or spirits.
Ultimately, in choosing your magical path you need to understand that all traditions are a creative attempt by earlier people to capture their experience of the Mystery in terms specific to their culture and time period. The magical systems you can learn about today were made by people also taking from what they knew and innovated upon further. Respect the cultures you are borrowing from, but also know that magic is a method that needs to be constantly innovated upon to remain relevant. With some understanding of the greater genealogy of magical traditions, you should choose a path that resonates with you and then work it rigorously until you have mastered it. And if you are forced to create your own syncretic practice, blending various rituals and ideas from many traditions, so be it. In the end, all that matters is that you achieve results.