For many modern Witches, “gray magic” means walking a neutral path — one that isn’t particularly light or dark, by strict definition. While this definition seems straightforward enough, it isn’t the only one that exists for “gray magic.” Another, wildly different meaning pre-dates it, in fact. It’s probably fallen out of favor because only one or two prominent Witches in a generation seem to master it — and those people tend to make a lot of folks more than a little uneasy.
“Gray” as Neutral
Gray magic as a way to talk about practicing a form of Witchcraft that utilizes both blessing and blasting practices isn’t so hard to understand, from a conceptual standpoint. We might (and, I think, would be wise to) take exception to the use of “white” and “black” color symbolism to define these parent concepts, namely because they have been oversimplified into ideas of “good” and “evil” (which aren’t direct corollaries, at all) and then have been further extrapolated historically onto our perceptions of racial attributes, which is so so SO problematic. But if “white” magic only seeks to bless and bring about results of love, harmony, healing, and prosperity, and “black” magic only seeks to blast and curse, then “gray” magic has the option of doing both — or neither.
Ann Finnin, co-founder of The Roebuck along with her husband Dave, talks about these ideas in her book The Forge of Tubal Cain in a chapter titled “The Two-Edged Sword.” She confirms what I was taught — and what I knew to be true before a teacher could verify it. Energy and Magic are neither black nor white nor even gray. They just are. It is our own applications and actions that we have to grapple with and judge.
“Gray” as … Something Else
Robert Cochrane wrote about “gray magic” (“witch psychological gray magic”, to be precise) in his article “Genuine Witchcraft is Defended” for Psychic News in 1963. In that piece, he describes something very different from the neutrality described above. Cochrane says:
… [Your] opponent should never be allowed to confirm an opinion about you, but should always remain undecided. This gives you a greater power over him, because the undecided is always the weaker. From this attitude much confusion has probably sprung in the long path of history.
Gray magic, in this traditional context then, isn’t really about neutrality the way many are thinking today. Instead, it becomes about shrouding one’s intentions, purposes, and nature from public view in such a way that makes the Witch … slippery. Undefinable. This type of Gray Witch is often disdained and sometimes even feared to the point of having a certain amount of safety and security from their opposition, while being admired and respected (and sometimes adored) by their supporters. When they are public figures, they are controversial ones.
Robert Cochrane himself is actually a good example of this. He was seen as something of an inflammatory figure, poking a stick in the eye of Gardner’s newly published materials on Wicca and dubbing Wicca “Gardnerism” (which eventually led to it being called Gardnerian Wicca), to distinguish it from what Cochrane had known to be more traditional forms of hereditary Craft practiced throughout England. He used the Cornish term “Pellar” (meaning exorcist, wizard, “expeller/repeller”) to describe himself, but within Gardnerian Craft and its descendants, “Pellar” is a pejorative term that has come to mean something like a charlatan — likely because of the animosity that arose between Cochrane and Gardner.
Another notable example of a Gray Witch of this ilk is “Old George” Pickingill. Old George (called so to distinguish from his son of the same name) was a famed Cunning Man of Canewdon in Essex. Rumors abounded regarding Old George’s abilities, escapades, misdeeds, triumphs, and reach. Some of the rumors cast him in a favorable light, such as his gift with healing. Others cast him as a mildly mischievous trouble-maker, able to upset threshing machines with a touch of his ever-present blackthorn walking stick. Some cast him as diabolical, selling his soul to the Devil and encouraging the rise of Satanism in order to overthrow the Church. His reach is reputed to have been very long, as he was acknowledged to be the Magister of nine covens of Witches whose individual identities were mostly kept secret.
My favorite story about Old George says that he and his local coven were largely undisturbed in their churchyard (graveyard) orgiastic rituals by the old and tired vicar who was more than a little afraid of the famed Cunning Man. The new young vicar, though, decided to go have a word one night until he found himself faced, not with the reveling Witches he’d expected, but with thirteen white rabbits peeping out from behind gravestones. Bill Lidell, the Pickingill descendent who shared this story, attests that the rabbit is a Pickingill family familiar — and it is a well-known Witch fetch, as well.
Gray Magic in the Information Age
Robert Cochrane and George Pickingill were able to weave shrouds of disinformation and anonymity around themselves based on truth, rumor, tall-tales, mythic manufacture, dream-walking (quite possibly), and a healthy dose of other people’s assumptions. They were able to create brands for themselves that we might really struggle to recreate today, if we were inclined to try.
Why would it be so hard? The Internet has changed the way we see each other — and the way we relate to each other. All of our personal details exist online and true anonymity is hard to achieve without dedicated tech savvy. Fact-checking is pretty easy. Someone is always ready to help you out with that, in fact! And more than that, we have gotten conditioned over the last couple of decades to want to share.
Starting with personal blogs and platforms like LiveJournal in the late 90’s/early 2000’s, where folks starting pouring out every aspect of their inner lives for public, semi-anonymous consumption and moving into the myriad of social media platforms of today, where so many of us are now conditioned to share every emotion, every meal, every high and low from the day, we just feel strange about not sharing. Our lives and our thoughts are on display, and we consider this at least some level of transparency to be a high and noble virtue. Very few of us could manage to weave an air of mystery around ourselves, let alone the sort of blatant contradiction that the Gray Witch of the past has managed.
The ones who come close (and I can only think of one who is close-ish) are definitely as controversial as their predecessors. I’m thinking here of author and folklorist Robin Artisson. He includes very few personal details in his work or his media presence, in an attempt to preserve a level of privacy. Avoids photos. Built a reputation as a cauldron-stirrer by wading rib-deep into hot-button Craft topics in forums — often with most of the more conventional Craft authors/bloggers opposing him in heated debate. Has a devoted following of readers, and an equally-passionate mob of detractors. And he has built something of a Craft empire for himself on the power of his vision and his writing.
All in all, as a middle path of neutrality, “gray magic” will likely grow in popularity and practice, being the more practical and natural choice. The older usage of the term, though, represents a path that was probably always meant for the special adept — one who had an uncanny blend of disregard for conventional and popular norms on the one hand and something like savant-level marketing instincts on the other, all wrapped in a Devil- and Dame-kissed package of Power.
Finnin, Ann. The Forge of Tubal Cain. Pendraig, 2008.
Cochrane, Robert. “Genuine Witchcraft Is Defended.” Psychic News. retrieved from http://ancientkelticchurch.org/CTubalCain/genuine.html
Coven Oldenwilde. “Avoid Posers and Pellars.” http://www.oldenwilde.org/oldenwilde/teaching/pellars.html
Oates, Shani. The Taper That Lights the Way. Mandrake, 2016.
Howard, Michael. The Pickingill Papers. Capall Bann, 1994.
Robin Artisson — http://www.robinartisson.com/
[Written by Laurelei Black.]