At first glance, "magic" and "spirituality" hardly appear to belong together. The words "magic" or "magician" in the modern world are widely employed to refer to entertainers at children's birthday parties, colorful antics of the clown and card shark, splendid moments in life, and beliefs both good and bad. Modern thinking about magic conjures up images of smoke and mirrors, masters of illusion and the sleight of hand of nimble-fingered performers that have little connection with spirituality. In order to flesh out an understanding of magic that permits spirituality, these modern expectations must be set aside, and the world of ancient magic and spirituality must be entered. Before doing so, however, it is important to note that a spirituality informed by magic is practiced by young and old in almost all religions of the world. From the Dionysian cults of ancient Rome to Haitian voodoo, Christian, Sufi, Jewish, and Buddhist mysticism to shamanic ritual, the continuing significance and vitality of magic and spirituality is alive and well in the modern world. Historically, cultures have universally recognized the power inherent in magic with fear and ambivalence, but also mindful that its power must be harnessed for their benefit. Not surprisingly, ancient Greek and Roman literature record some ambivalence and credulity toward magic and its practitioners, but both were nevertheless required because of the openended nature of life at the whim of forces beyond human control. Credulity was registered not because magic was perceived the trade of fraudulent tricksters and cunning performers, but because the art was dangerous and powerful. Magic worked and had serious consequences if incorrectly employed. The Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament offer an example of the early world of magic and its connection to the religious/spiritual, recording the story of the seven sons of Sceva who, as itinerant exorcists, invoke the name of Jesus to drive a demon out of a possessed person. Summoning the name of Jesus backfires on them, and the evil spirit "leaps on them, masters them all, and so overpowers them that they flee out of the house naked and wounded" (Acts 19:13-16). These human practitioners had tried to gain control over the demon but were overcome themselves.
In the ancient world of the Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Judeans, and early Christians, magic was the very fabric through which the universe was perceived and magicians were the mediators between the mundane and celestial powers that made up the fabric. Definitions of magic abound, but one that holds up defines magic as rituals of power and practitioners as mediators of that power. Rituals of power empower humans by giving them a measure of control over various hostile forces operating in the universe, both mundane and heavenly, and with knowledge to secure access to these powers. In other words, these rituals help people gain control of a variety of good and bad celestial energies, and the forces of death that impinge on their daily lives. Sicknesses, personal disasters, memory loss, baldness, death, and being possessed were thought to be the result of these forces directly interfering in the lives of humans. Similarly, knowledge of the future, acquisition of love, wealth, health, fame, and union with the gods was also thought to be in the purview of these heavenly forces.
These invisible energies sometimes were hostile and created difficulties for humans and at other times were friendly and showered kind gifts upon them. The question for humans then was of how best to manipulate and tap into the power that these hidden forces represented. Not only was gaining control an issue but also appealing to them for help when disasters struck. As such, these rituals of magic were deeply spiritual for people of antiquity. It involved humans actively seeking to achieve personal communication or union with divine beings who were central to the ongoing success of their lives. Magic, as a form of religious expression and piety, was about humans taking seriously their dependence on the invisible energies of the universe capable of either harming or helping them.
It was clear to ancients that experiencing success or failure in life was the result of Chance (Tyche) or Fortune (Fortuna). In the Greek and Roman world, the highly regarded goddesses Tyche and Fortuna were worshipped and honored as patron deities of luck or fortune. It was in their hands that human destiny, good fortune, and long life rested. In addition, to improve the odds for success, humans also negotiated with underworld deities, the demons and spirits of the dead and the star deities, the constellation of the Bear, and gods such as Apollo Helios, and abstract deities such as the All (Aion), Time (Chronos), Destiny (Moirai), and Nature (Physis). Popular Egyptian deities (Isis and Osiris) and the god of the Jewish people (Iao, Adonai) and early Christians were similarly invoked to achieve life's goals. Given that humans were blown about by the invisible winds of the universe, where security, hope, comfort, and stability were tenuous at best, summoning these powerful forces for help was a necessity.
A multiplicity of religious groups, guilds, associations, and ritual experts made use of these rituals of power. For example, the Therapeutae of Upper Egypt were renowned for their healing arts and knowledge of medicinal plants and herbs. Magicians, healers, diviners, exorcists, wise women, prophetesses, shamans, holy people, priests, prophets, pharaohs, emperors, kings, and conjure doctors appealed to the divine powers on behalf of their human clients. Indeed, these ritual experts worked within communities familiar to them, often inheriting their powers from previous family members of the community.