For those who are new to wicca and other pagan faiths, perhaps the element that is most intriguing is the use and practice of magic. Most wiccan practice some magic, especially witchcraft. There are several different "kinds of magic"
and more... several of these overlap, and most are not mutually exclusive of each other.
However, all in all magic is an act meant to create change in the universe using your own will OR by petitioning a god to employ THEIR will and create change. Magic is not exclusive to pagan and indigenous faiths, but is a widespread phenomena. Any faith that used ceremonies or rituals meant to bestow a blessing on a person, or change the nature of a substance, are using magic.
For example, in the catholic church, the priest blesses the sacrement (the offering of unleavened bread and wine and he spiritually imbues it with the body and blood of christ) this religious ritual is in essence, magic. The catholic church claims that a priest acts as a vessel through which "GOD" actually enacts the blessing... but as I said, magic includes those acts that petition the divine to act as well.
Baptisms are another form of magical ceremony. There is also simple magic like the wearing of charms or talismans... luck rabbit's foots, hamsas, four leaf clovers, charm bracelets... etc.
So is magic a part of religion, or something else? Actually, magic is its own separate entity. Magic presupposes that there is some sort of inherent invisible link between what we DO physically AND spiritually, and what goes on in the universe. Magic does not require that one believes in deities, spirits, and afterlife, destiny or any of the concepts related mostly to theology and the basis of faith. All one MUST believe is that some invisible force exists that can be controlled or influenced with our thoughts.
However magic is one of the threads woven in and out of our cultures worldwide. A few hundred years ago, nearly every person on the planet probably believed in a supernatural realm of some sort. It was the explaination for those things we couldn't grasp... like why a healthy person could go into town for an afternoon and suddenly come home sick. To these people, with no way to see, smell, taste or otherwise know of bacteria or viruses, the easiest explanation was usually... magic. If you got th flu... perhaps a neighbor or enemy cast a hex on you. If you were REALLY sick, it could even be a demon that had possessed your body!
We now live in a time where the causes of illness are far better understood, yet, we still practice magic. our views on the nature of magic have changed. We now realize that we pull strings to cause events to happen- but those events take place along with the natural order of things. We cannot flu (without an airplane), we cannot shapeshift physically, we cannot turn people into toads.
The positive side of this is that we live in a world where we can be semi-certain our neighbors and friends aren't all secret sorcerers casting spells on each other or us. We understand that a spell probably didn't give us e. coli- but the culprit may be in our refrigerator. Rather than looking suspiciously to the supernatural every time bad luck falls upon us, we think practically, in the physical world where things are far easier to deal with.
The downside is that a lot of the mystery is not there like it used to seem. Imagine the wonder of a plains inhabitant when after weeks of doing rain dance ceremonies, finally over the horizon the dark clouds of "salvation" arrive to make the earth fertile. Today, we would turn on the weather channel and find out if rain was coming... but most of us won't be singing, chanting and dancing around a moonlit bonfire. We KNOW that the sun will come up without a ceremony to call it. We are certain that all objects we drop that don't have wings, will ALWAYS fall to the ground.
Religious magic is the most common type anymore. It works on a spiritual level, and helps us grow in spiritual ways. It works within the order of nature. A lot of new wiccans are disappointed by the fact that spells dont make objects poof out of thin air into your hands, or make fireballs blast down on your enemies, or anything "really cool happen". Magic is subtle, and in some ways its silent shifts are beautiful. It has an understated nature that can be emulated in our own lives, carving its path slowly, yet deliberately... taking the path of least resistance to accomplish its goal. Magic is the direct connection to the energy of the supernatural... the energy that powers our soul, our collective consciousness, and the divine. We generally access it when we are in trance- whether during ritual, prayer or meditation.
Wicca is one of the religions that allows access to this energy for all. In the catholic church, magical act are essentially reserved for the Priesthood. Any practice of magical acts by laity would be considered heresy. This is not limited to them, many christian, jewish and other religion's sects have this same prohibition.
Intrestingly, many people are VERY AFRAID to enter into the state in which magic is practiced. My aunt, who I love dearly, will under no circumstances meditate, practice yoga or martial arts, be hypnotised or do anything whatsoever that could cause her to have an "altered state of consciousness." Her reasoning is that she is afraid that if she clears her mind "anything" could "get in"... such as evil. It may sound a little over-suspicious, however I think that in religions that strongly prohibit the esoteric, this mindset is the norm. Ironically, the boisterous and exciting chanting, gospel singing and mass ritual of evangelical churches (like my aunt's) induce a very similar trance-state through active participation... exciting the senses and opening one to a spiritual "revelation" of god.
We see these same states in all sorts of ceremonies worldwide. Dance, rhythm, pattern, chanting, group action, and visual focus can quickly induce "altered states". Energy charges and buzzes through any large group focused on a common purpose. This can be not only in a religious context, but also in the secular world.
Think of an airport. The energy in these spaces is generally, stressed, unfocused, erratic. Although a person may be in a calm mood the space is charged with energies that have no focal point in particular. A similar feeling can be found in large grocery stores, and sometimes in malls or office buildings.
Next, contrast the feeling of a large concert, or the opening to a hit movie. The energy is usually very charged and exciting... positive. The stressed energy is not near as intense as in an airport. Instead, all of the group is in a good mood, connected with the same goal, the same purpose. When you are at a concert and you hear the music, you can often catch the synergetic motion of bodies swaying to the beat, the energetic pulse of the group in connected and empowered.
If only that energy were collected and directed upward and outward to a common goal...
This is what we want with religious magic. That same intense, buzzing, flowing, contagious energy- but with a purpose. Unfortunately, it is easy to create with an amphitheater of 2000 people, but more difficult with a group of six or three or one. The energy has less motion and fewer "batteries" from which to charge. However magic is a huge part of who we ARE as people, as animals (in my opinion).
Have you ever seen a cat chase a mouse in a field? You can see that can transition from casually strolling... to hyper focused. The cat crouches down, perhaps "visualizes" the hunt. She becomes one with the earth, stepping softly and deliberately, attuning to speed and rhythm of it, and feeling for the heartbeat of her prey. In an instant she pounces with all her capability and hopes (maybe prays) she made the right move. There is a zen that animals can maintain that is absolutely awe-inspiring.
So to my question; What is the ROLE of magic in religion? Magic is the active participation in belief. Not only does one have faith, but they act on that faith with full awareness of the fact. Whether the act is in prayer, ritual, or spellwork... Magic takes one from a role of passive agreement, to active participation. It makes us more than just "in theory" and allows us to work with those energies and deities that we worship, so that instead of a subservient role to the divine, we can have a respectful collaboration.