When you think of magic, do you picture a wizard standing in a circle of art and commanding a demon, trapped within a magical symbol, to do his bidding? Then you’re thinking of ceremonial magic. If you imagine a sorcerer intoning mysterious words of power and tapping into a vast source of occult energy, you’re also thinking of ceremonial magic.
According to Donald Michael Kraig, a modern writer on the subject, “ceremonial magick is one of the most complicated systems of spiritual attainment in the world. It is a mixture of Jewish, Christian and ancient Egyptian philosophy mixed with ancient Indian and Chaldean ideas spiced with a hint of earlier Paganism. This is mixed with the ceremonial aspects of Catholicism and Masonry.” Lot of mixing going on there.
Magicians tend to be syncretists–they take bits and pieces of various belief systems and ritual systems to create their own system. Sometimes this is purely personal, unique to one particular magician. At other times, the system is codified and used by a group such as the Golden Dawn.
Kraig divides magic into three basic categories:
White: the goal is union with an angel or the divine itself. It doesn’t seek material benefits.
Grey: seeks to help someone in a material way–either the magician or a person on whose behalf the magician is working. It never harms. Divination (reading an oracle) should be used to determine whether a potential working will be harmful or beneficial.
Black: magic that seeks to hurt the self (the magician) or others.
Not all magicians divide magic into these categories, and there are many who would use different words to label them. Some find the use of white to indicate good and black to indicate bad to be racist. Others simply think it lacks imagination to use only a black/white spectrum when there are so many other colors available. But the black/white spectrum is well-known and most people will understand more or less what you mean if you use it.
Systems: There are a number of different schools or systems of magic, including Golden Dawn, Thelema, Enochian, and more. Each system has its own unique combination of symbols, language, rituals, and values.
Ceremonial magic can be cumbersome because it requires elaborate ritual and preparation, including many tools of specific materials and colors. Some of the workings can take months.
In The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage, instructions are given for a complicated ritual whose aim is to allow conversation with one’s holy guardian angel. The ritual lasts eighteen months and involves building a special enclosure, plus many days of fasting, sexual celibacy, and prayer. You would have to withdraw from the world in order to complete the ritual as given, which makes it out of reach for most people, who have to work for a living and take care of families.
According to a Wikipedia article on Abramelin, the book was an important influence in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (usually shortened to Golden Dawn). This was a British magical order founded in the late nineteenth century, which had a profound influence on modern magic.
For example, the Rider-Waite Tarot, which is the deck most modern Tarot designers use as inspiration, was designed by Arthur Edward Waite (illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith), who joined the Golden Dawn in 1891.
Tarot decks are used by all kinds of people, not just ceremonial magicians. However, it was ceremonial magic that brought the cards into the modern magical tradition. Besides that, magicians use the cards somewhat differently from non-magicians. In magic, cards can be used in many ways that have nothing to do with telling the future, including meditation and drawing on the symbolic energy in particular cards.
When most non-initiates think of magic, they imagine the magician performing workings designed to increase his or her personal power, wealth, and prestige. To some extent, this is true. But there is another side to ceremonial magic that is more concerned with expanding the magician’s capacity to perceive other realms and to participate in wonder.
This is one place where magic of all kinds really intersects with fiction, especially speculative fiction. Wonder and fiction go hand in hand. Readers are always looking for the next story that will blow their minds, fill them with wonder, awe, perhaps joy. Magic has the same essential goal.