The concept of identity in magic first fascinated me when I encountered the subculture of Otherkin. My perception of that subculture was the people in it were primarily obsessed with proving that they were something that wasn't human, whether it was an angel, dragon, elf, coyote, etc. More specifically, while they acknowledged they had a human body, they felt that their soul and identity was not human. What I found so fascinating was the fixation on identity itself, which I'd never seen focused on so explicitly. I wanted to know how proving the identity of one's self as an Otherkin made a difference in that person's daily interactions or what s/he did, which from what I could ascertain was not something really addressed by the Otherkin subculture. I also wanted to know what made someone being an Otherkin any different from being a human in terms of what a person could do.
I never really got any answers to those questions, but what I did get was an awareness that any definition of magic seems to treat the concept of identity as an implicit part of the process, never really exploring the concept to any great degree of depth. Identity just is, now move along. Don't get me wrong, there is some writing in chaos magic texts about faking it until you make it, donning a suit or something else and pretending to be what you want to become, but even that concept doesn't really explore where identity fits into the process of magic.
Even the writing on the magical techniques of evocation and invocation don't really address identity and where identity fits into being able to do those acts. It wasn't until I wrote Inner Alchemy and Multi-Media Magic that I started to explore the concept of identity and its relationship to techniques or magic itself. There is only one other author, whom I'm aware of, that addresses the concept of identity and magic in an explicit manner and that is William G. Gray, in his book Modern Ritual Methods.
In Multi-Media Magic, I suggested that identity is constantly changed by the media we interact with and that even an act of invocation is a permanent change of identity, because when a person ceases the invocation, that person has still voluntarily changed the identity s/he had before the invocation. The act of invocation changes who the person is and that change continues to influence the person after the invocation is done, simply because the invocation leaves an energetic/psychological/spiritual imprint on the identity of the person, from the entity that was invoked.
While I don't think it is necessary for magicians to have identity crises or start questioning who or what they really are, I do think a more explicit exploration of identity, as it applies to magic, is in order. One of the main reasons that this exploration of identity and its role in magic hasn't occurred is because the definition of magic that is usually relied upon is hopelessly outmoded, which isn't surprising given that it's about a century old. The definition I refer to is Crowley's, "Magick is the Art and Science of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will." While some might say "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," I don't believe we can lightly afford to dismiss the relevance of adapting our definitions to the times and culture we live in.
It is, of course, important to acknowledge the past and its influence on our practices and beliefs, but it's equally important to consider the context of the present and how our concepts of magic have changed as a result of innovation, experimentation, and changes in the cultural consciousness. Just as psychologists rely on more contemporary theories of psychology than Freud's theories, we need to develop more contemporary theories and approaches, while still acknowledging the past and its role in helping to shape the practices we utilize in magic.
Oddly enough, when it comes to identity, one reason it perhaps is only considered implicit is because of the mistaken belief that identity is the antithesis of magical practice. This belief, however, is a mistake, and one that ultimately limits the magician. Identity is both a tool in the magician's toolbox, and an integral part of the process of magic. While a magician should never be limited to a particular identity, the use of identity as a concept and tool of magic is worth exploring in terms of making magical practice more efficacious.
Gray succinctly expresses the role of identity in magic when he notes: "We become what we identify ourselves with." Identity is a mutable concept. It's not something set in stone, but changes from moment to moment. The context of a given situation also informs the identity used within that context. For instance, the identity a person uses at work will differ from the identity that person has at home. In fact, the identity at work can actually be multiple identities, so that the identity you share with your boss is different from the identity you share with your co-workers. This concept of multiple identities also is present in any other environment and context we are in. The people, environment, purpose for being in the environment, etc., are all factors that influence the identity a person uses at a given moment. It should be clear that at any given moment, identity is not fixed in stone, nor for that matter is it antithetical to magical practice.
In fact, identity is essential to the process of magic. Identity functions as a reference point for where a person is and where the person wants to be, as well as who the person wants to be. Identity is the basis by which a person forms an agreement with the universe as to hir place within it, but magic is the means by which we change that place by changing the identity. Identity is not ego, but does supersede the concept of the ego. Identity is something which can be simultaneously conscious and unconscious, or can be multiple forms of consciousness that a person operates with at a given moment. We can apply a variety of psychological and neuroscience paradigms to identity and we will find that identity encapsulates those paradigms, while allowing us to enfold magic into them.
For the purposes of this article, identity is used in the magical process to establish two important principles that inform the effectiveness of a given magical process. The first principle is that identity acts as a baseline or reference point for a person. This means that identity anchors a person into reality, but it also means that the situations or exigencies that impact identity inform the need for a magical act to occur. If your identity involves unemployment, then that situation will not only anchor you into reality, but also provide a need to take mundane actions and possibly magical actions in order to change that identity.
We should not make Crowley's mistake and conflate magical and mundane acts together, because while intention does inform any action we take, not all actions are magical, nor is intent or even will a good enough standard to determine if a magical act has been performed. The main difference between a mundane and magical act is that a mundane act occurs mainly through the physical actions a person takes. A magical act employs mental and spiritual resources which increase the potential for a particular possibility to manifest. The magician usually cannot manifest this possibility through mundane efforts, and so employs magical resources or alternate ways of knowing which enable that possibility to occur. These spiritual resources can come from the magician, or can be external to the magician, and usually can't be explained by science, per se, but can be explained from a magical perspective.
Identity, in and of itself, is not magic. Even the multiplicity of identity is not essentially magical, though we can perform magical acts drawing on that multiplicity. The first principle of identity that I mentioned above is a principle that occurs outside of magical theory and practice. However that principle does inform how magic works, because it shows the necessity of having both a reference point from which to begin the process of a magical act, and a cause or need for the magical act to occur. The same is true of the second principle of identity.
The second principle of identity recognizes that for a change in identity to occur, a sympathetic resonance must be created between the identity of the person as s/he is, and the desired state of identity s/he wishes to assume. This sympathetic resonance may or may not be a magical act. For instance filling out an application to get a job is not an overt magical act. It can however create a sympathetic resonance between the identity of being unemployed and the identity of being employed. Sympathetic resonance is the means for a change to identity to occur that allows for the manifestation of a possibility.
Sympathetic resonance becomes part of a magical act when a magical process or technique is used to bridge the gap between the identity of the person as s/he is and the identity of who s/he wants to become. For instance, if I do a sigil to attract more clients, I am not just attracting those clients, but also creating a sympathetic resonance between my current identity and an identity where I have more clients. The sigil acts as the medium for the sympathetic resonance between my current identity and the identity I want to connect to. By giving the future identity a medium through which to connect with me, I allow it to influence my current identity to take actions that will eventually produce the future identity I connected with (the implications for space/time magic should be obvious).
Even an act of magic such as invocation, where I invoke a deity or spirit, also involves creating sympathetic resonance between my identity before the invocation, my identity during the invocation, and the identity that is created after the invocation is done. The words I chant, the ceremonial tools I use, and the actions that I take are part of how I connect to not only the entity I am invoking, but the future identities of myself, i.e., the identity I have during the ritual and the identity that occurs after the ritual, but also as a result of the invocation. This brings up an important aspect of the second principle of identity, namely that for a change in identity to occur a change in consciousness also needs to occur. That change of consciousness can be subtle or overt.
An altered state of consciousness is an overt example. A person uses ritual, entheogens, or some other mechanism to alter hir consciousness and make hir receptive to the future identity s/he wants to merge with. The altered state of consciousness is the enabler of the sympathetic resonance, because it allows the current identity of the magician to be subsumed by the future identity of who s/he wants to become, which also represents the ideal change that will manifest to reality as a result of doing the act.
A subtle example of changing consciousness is recognizing a behavior that sabotages your efforts to manifest a possibility and choosing to consciously change that behavior. The behavior can be changed through meditation or other methods that allow you to reflectively explore the origin of the behavior as well imprint new behavior that allows you to manifest your goals. This entire process is a good example of the two principles of identity. The magician recognizes the behavior (and identity) that currently sabotages hir effort. S/he also recognizes the behavior (and identity) s/he wants to use in order to manifest hir goals. S/he creates sympathetic resonance by using a method such as meditation to go in and change the current behavior/identity into a better behavior/identity that will allow hir to manifest the possibility s/he seeks.
It should be evident now that identity is an essential dynamic of the process of magic, even as intent and will are. We ignore identity's role in magic at our own risk, if we argue that identity is antithetical to magic. In fact, identity can never be escaped or destroyed. It can, however, be changed and that is what makes a magician successful, i.e., recognizing how to take a concept like identity and make it work for you instead of trying to destroy it. Using the two principles I've discussed above can help you explore how to use identity in magical practice, as well as considering how it can be applied to mundane activities. More importantly, I hope this article illustrates the need to continue to refine our definitions of magic, by recognizing the need to question previous definitions, while also using our own hard-earned experience to guide us in determining how to make magic work in our own lives.
Image by EugeniusD80, courtesy of Creative Commons license.