Lesson 7) Alternative Magical Practices
The students enter the History of Magic classroom, and are a bit bewildered to see that the professor is nowhere to be found. Whispers begin to filter through the room as students settle into their respective seats and wait for him to appear.
The bells chime, indicating the start of class and Professor Becker jumps out from behind his desk with a roaring shout. She chuckles at the looks on some of the students’ faces before smoothing her robes and moving to the front of the classroom. “Sorry for the scare, but I thought it a fitting bit of fun as we’ll be talking about ghosts here in just a bit.”
I hope everyone is well, and welcome back to the seventh lesson of History of Magic. I have been quite busy lately, but I am glad to see such enthusiasm at the prospect of another lesson and I apologize for the delay! Thank you all for your patience, it is much appreciated. Now then, let’s get on to the long awaited lesson. Today we will be discussing some of the alternative magic of Asia... or that is to say, practices more prominent in the Eastern word when compared to ours.
Now obviously, Asia is an incredibly vibrant country with many varied practices, so we are not even coming close to exhausting the different kinds of magic used (or not used) throughout all of the continent. Instead, there is a selection here of the most prevalent, most well known, or the practices shared throughout the greatest number of countries.
But, enough qualifying; let’s dive right in!
Before we go on to discuss true magical practices in Asia, we need to briefly touch upon some common misconceptions. Some incorrect perceptions and ideas about magic in the east have been perpetuated by Muggle culture, folklore, or history, just as Professor Morgan mentioned in Lesson Two. Some of these are based on a seed of truth, while others are simply wild guesses.
The first thing on our list is what is known as ancestral magic. Ancestral magic, or the ability for one’s ancestors to use supernatural powers to manipulate the environment, is something a fair amount of Asian Muggles, specifically East Asians, believe in. This belief of Muggles is based on the idea that their ancestors are watching over them, protecting them, and that by invoking them, the Muggle might receive aid. While it is certainly a comforting thought to imagine a pseudo-army of familial angels watching over you, we know this is, sadly, not possible. Most people do not occupy space on our planet or plane after their death, instead finding rest beyond the veil. Few magical folk end up as ghosts, and no Muggles are able to continue on as spirits. To complicate and further make impossible the idea of ancestral magic, even those few ghosts that remain in our world are unable to affect it apart from the most insignificant ways, such as causing a sudden drop in temperature or changing the color of flames through which they pass. Unfortunately, since Muggles know nothing of the true forms and limitations of ghosts, this belief in ancestral magic has spread far and wide, even to non-eastern areas.
Next, we have something you may be familiar with if you have taken any of our various courses surrounding ancient Egypt, the idea of the “Evil Eye.” This phenomenon has been most popular in West Asia, including the modern-day areas of Turkey, Iran and Iraq, though it is observed in nearly all Asian countries, including Russia, and even in some countries outside of Asia. In Muggle superstitions and cultures, the “Evil Eye” is simply a catch-all phrase used to describe all curses -- or, at least the vast majority. While curses are obviously quite real, the problem lies with the fact that Muggles believe all of these curses stem from a single look directed at the target. Obviously, there are very few individuals with such an exemplary control over magic (to be able to cast a spell both nonverbally and wandlessly), and even fewer who can cast complex curses this way. This is, of course, more Muggle misinterpretation: few would be aware of being drugged with potions or notice someone muttering a spell under their breath, so to the untrained Muggle eye it does look as though curses are coming out of nowhere. This phenomena gives us an insight into why Muggles, particularly in earlier times before we hid ourselves away, were so terrified of magical folk.
While not a magical practice per se, another interesting difference between Eastern and Western magic is the high prevalence of hedge witches (and wizards). Practitioners of hedge magic -- incredibly rare in our Western society -- are, simply put, people who attempt to use magic who have not received any formal training, education, or apprenticeship and instead are self-taught. However, while this is the technical definition, the more accurate definition influenced by society has been changing with the times. With the popularity of magical institutions of education more popular than they have ever been, the majority of these so-called “hedge witches” are no more than Muggles, some of whom are actually aware they are not able to use magic, and others who truly believe they have special powers.
The effects of the high concentration of hedge witches are twofold. Firstly, it is a large contributor to the cultural acceptance that Eastern witches and wizards experience, which, as we’ve covered, is a wonderful thing. However, it also accounts for a large amount of “magical” malpractice. Take, for example, the love potion. Love potions are the proverbial “bread and butter” of many hedge practitioners; this is the most common request from their clients to whom they sell their services. However, since the vast majority of hedge witches are not truly magical (though due to the Eastern philosophy of education being a journey set at your own pace, there are certainly a few real ones that slip through the cracks) their spells are useless and their potions are ineffective at best. In fact, even today, false love potions are being passed around -- including, unfortunately, potentially poisonous versions -- making saddening headlines due to botched batches
A more delightful, but still no less incorrect, idea that Muggles have about magic in parts of Asia is the concept of the kitsune. Most prominent in East Asia, kitsune are believed to be fox “spirits” -- more loosely, a fox that has been touched by the alternate world of magic and changed -- and is often in possession of additional tails. They possess varying magical powers that increase with age. Most commonly, they are credited with the ability to shapeshift into humans, but also have general “magic” that causes supernatural things to happen as well as divinatory abilities.
These shapeshifters, though, are in fact no more than a misunderstanding. Around the seventh century CE, a Japanese witch and Animagus, Ono Hisashi1 was observed by a Muggle. Unaware of non-magical eyes on her at the time, she transformed into her Animagus form. Yes, you guessed it: a fox. Even more interestingly, her identifying trait to distinguish her from other foxes was an additional tail, as Hisashi had suffered a potions accident as a girl which caused her to grow an extra leg. The leg, unable to be completely removed, had been shrunk to be nearly unnoticeable, but remained as a reminder in her animal form. From this woman, myths about many-tailed, magical, shape-shifting foxes grew into the popularity that they experience now. This misconception has been helped along by a large number of Asian witches and wizards whose Animagus form is a fox (though of the one-tailed variety). This overrepresentation is thought to be due to the cultural belief subtly influencing its citizens (despite witches and wizards knowing the belief is not actually true), resulting in a higher frequency of self-association and self-identification with the animal.
Lastly, we must travel far across the expanse of Asia to the opposite side of the continent and focus on Western Asia, namely Yemen, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq as well as others. Here we find our first mentions of the jinn. This creature has gone by many names over the years including djinn, jinni, djinni, the anglicized genie, and many more. However, in Muggle mythology, a jinn has crucial differences when compared to the genie. Firstly, it is not necessarily benevolent; they can be characterized as demons. However, it is pertinent to note that these demons have varying moral compasses and do not always seek to cause harm. Interestingly, jinn are also viewed as corporeal and able to be touched unlike their smoky, gas-like genie counterparts. One thing both have in common, though, is their incredible proficiency in magic. Now, as this is a section devoted to times where Muggles got it wrong, you may be expecting me to say that these creatures do not exist. However, these creatures are in fact real, if not quite in the way Muggles imagine them. Without delving too much into the realm of Care of Magical Creatures, suffice it to say that they are a particularly rare and violent off-shoot of ghouls!
Next, I would like to cover the areas of magic in Asia that might strike Westerners as “strange” or “different,” particularly the most common forms over the history of the continent.
One such example would be the use of alternative foci. As you might know if you have taken Ancient Studies and discussed Orpheus, or even the ancient Egyptians and Sumerians, wands are not the only tools with which we can focus and direct our magic. An excellent example of this can be found in the witches and wizards of the Tang Dynasty of China.
The Tang, unlike the European magicians of today, did not channel their magic through wooden wands; or any type of wand at all! They implemented talismans: various coin-like charms, common objects that would not have garnered as much attention. The practice of using these charms originally started during the Qin Dynasty, but was carried over by the wizarding society into Tang rule. These charms were among the more popular of talismans. Each differently shaped charm had an specific use in magic, whether for healing, defense, disguise, or any number of other purposes. These charms, sometimes called Open Work Charms due to the physical nature (and open, latticed, patterns) of the majority of them, were not the sources of magic themselves. Contrary to the once popular Muggle belief that charms such as these would bring luck to the bearers, we know that the true source of any magic was the wizard or witch themselves.
The talisman could be carried on the person without raising anyone's suspicion. They could be worn around the neck, hidden among mundane coins, tucked into a shoe or a sleeve; all ways of avoiding suspicious looks and unwanted questions when traveling on trade routes or between towns.
Next, we have another alternative practice very closely related to the use of foci: the practicing of magic through song. Particularly in Japan -- though it is practiced elsewhere on the continent -- spells are set to music or song, sometimes even accompanied by dance. These songs are often quite long and complicated when compared to contemporary spells. This more traditional form of magic is often a popular choice when attempting to affect nature (such as with weather spells), the layering of protection on tombs and resting places, or to assist with the accuracy of divination.
Lastly, we have the complicated topic of “white magic” versus “black magic.” This practice is actually quite fundamental to many Asian societies and the idea of this dichotomy of magic exists all over the world. However, Eastern countries’ conception of “black magic” has some notable differences to what we at Hogwarts would consider Dark magic. While we might expect them to line up neatly, they don’t.
That does not mean that magic is inherently different, and black magic is magic that follows different laws or rules of what is physically possible, as some young, naive students misbelieve. All natural laws of magic still apply, such as the inability to create food or love out of thin air or properly bring people back to life. It is simply expressed via different means, categorized differently, and has different nuances. Owing to the fact that Asia is made up of many different countries, cultures, and languages, black magic in Asia is known by many names, such as Sihr (in the Middle East), Gong Tau (in the Southeast) Kala Jadoo (in India) as well as others. We will not be going over all kinds, but specifically the ones that seem most different to our own conception of the dark arts here in the United Kingdom.
Gong Tau is a particularly nasty practice native to Southeast Asia, though its popularity has spread to bring it to most corners of the continent in some way. The thing that truly sets Gong Tau apart from our dark arts is its reliance on emotions to fuel it. While any witch or wizard may simply brew up a dark potion with cold, detached ease, this is not possible with Gong Tau. Most often, this particular form of black magic is practiced with revenge or pure hatred in mind. This tapping into one’s emotions often results in strong but unpredictable and wild magic and so practitioners fall back on highly ritualistic practices in an attempt to control it. In some ways, this is not too different from our own Dark Arts use, as the Unforgivable Curses require strong emotions to work correctly and many of the darker aspects of magic are highly ritualized. However, as a whole sub-genre of magic, the differences are marked.
While I will not go into extreme detail of any of the various practices of Gong Tau (just as I would not divulge the details of some of the nastier rituals and spells related to our own Dark Arts), I would like to give you a brief overview. Some of the chilling, though not necessarily unfamiliar, practices include necromancy, the brewing of poisonous concoctions (if you ever have a moment, ask Professor Draekon about Asian poisons-- the continent has such a wide variety), a practice called "soul magic" (in which the target is manipulated, even from miles away, to do the caster’s bidding), and blood magic. The last is, fortunately, quite rare but equally horrifying should you observe it, as the blood does need to be fresh.
Next we will briefly cover something on the opposite side of the spectrum: Kala Jadoo. In India, there exists a subculture of magical practitioners called Tantriks. Of course, not all Tantriks are actually magical, some simply claim the title despite their non-magical origins and lack of ability. However, we are not concerned with that minority. Black magic in India is, if you’ll forgive the pun, a bit of a grey area. Technically speaking, Tantriks simply practice magic. In the practicing of magic, though, they cause harm. Essentially, they hold the belief that someone must be harmed to make someone else profit. Another significant difference between our own Dark Arts and Kala Jadoo, is that sacrifices are commonly included. These are rarely human sacrifices, but the existence of this practice still is quite different from contemporary Western magic.2 Frequently, these Tantriks lend their services to others, sometimes for a fee, though they practice the magic for their own benefit as well. Common services provided include: the creation of love potions, or charms to predict the future, or ensure financial success or fertility.
Before we wrap up this lesson entirely, it does bear mentioning that many of the magical practices we have outlined in this class as “specific” to the East are not truly found only in Asia. There is far more to magic in Asia than just these few practices. I do not want you to come away from this lesson thinking that Western magic and Eastern magic are entirely different and incompatible. Over the millennia, Asian witches and wizards have practiced astronomy, divination, and alchemy, just as we have (and in some cases, if you’ve taken Alchemy, you may be of the opinion that they are in fact much more advanced in their alchemical studies). This lesson simply focuses on the small distinctions between our culture of magic and theirs.
I hope this lesson, though long, has not been too difficult to digest! If you find yourself with any questions, please contact my team of professor’s assistants, or myself.
- An interesting cultural note: while many Western traditions have been adopted in Asia, one has not. Traditionally, in Asian countries, the surname of a person is listed before their given name. Therefore “John Smith” would be written “Smith John.”
- Please do note that I said “contemporary.” There were, naturally, sacrifices (human and otherwise) used in various ancient European magics, but on the whole they have not persisted into this century, or even most of this millennia.