The Laws of Magic

an excerpt from

Authentic Thaumaturgy

Copyright © 1979, 1998, 2001 c.e., Isaac Bonewits

Here’s an excerpt from the Second Edition of Authentic Thaumaturgy, my book on magic and religion for players of fantasy games such as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons®, G.U.R.P.S.®, and Magic: The Gathering®, etc. “A.T.” is published by Steve Jackson Games and is available from them, from, or from your local game store. Those of you already familiar with my discussion of the Laws of Magic in my first book, Real Magic, may find the new material here (especially the new version of the chart) interesting.

The Nature of these Laws and vice versa

We are now ready to go into a description of the basic ways in which magical phenomena seem to behave. The Laws of Magic are not legislative laws but, like those of physics or of musical harmony, are practical observations that have been accumulating over the course of thousands of years, with remarkable similarity in almost every known human culture. Those of you who prefer to remain skeptical as to the reality of psychic phenomena and the systems of magic developed to control them will at least find these Laws an interesting and detailed guide to what psychologists and anthropologists so patronizingly refer to as “magical thinking.”

Those of you who play magicians as characters will find these Laws a remarkably concise guide to the ways in which most magicians, at least on this world, believe magic to work. Most of the technical motivations of magic-using characters, before, during and after using magic, will be based on these laws. Because I really can’t rewrite my first book all over again in this slim text, I’m not going to give the long explanation of each law. You can consult the works in the Bibliography (especially Real Magic and its Bibliography) for details if you wish.

Along with each Law listed, I’ll include “key words” to help in memorization. These phrases are gross generalizations, but have the advantage of being brief and easy to remember.

It’s entirely possible that there are other Laws of Magic, however, I’m currently unaware of any that are held to by most magicians on this planet. Individual game designers and referees are free to invent new ones for their game universes, but they will probably give the most accurate magic simulations if they are congruent to these ones listed.

Laws of Magic chart

The Law of Knowledge

Essence: Understanding brings control; the more that is known about a subject, the easier it is to exercise control over it.

Remarks: This Law is so fundamental that hardly any work on magic has ever been published without mentioning it. The comments in Chivalry & Sorcery are quite appropriate here: “The Magick User might be compared to a combination philosopher-sage-research scientist only those activities which directly aim at increasing one’s mastery of Magick itself can give the magician any ‘experience’ worthwhile to him.” These comments are most accurate for intellectual magicians of the theurgical sort but are more or less true of most other magic users as well.

Keywords: “Knowledge is power.”

The Law of Self-Knowledge

Essence: The most important kind of magical knowledge is about oneself; familiarity with one’s own strengths and weaknesses is vital to success as a magician.

Remarks: Most magicians quickly discover their own flairs and flaws. After all, this is a large part of what Apprenticeship is all about. This is also why “Evil Magicians” are comparatively rare in the real world (especially in the “higher ranks”) because a dedication to “Evil for Evil’s sake” is almost always due to a lack of introspection and self-awareness.

Keywords: “Know thyself.”

The Law of Cause & Effect

Essence: if exactly the same actions are done under exactly the same conditions, they will usually be associated with exactly the same “results;” similar strings of events produce similar outcomes.

Remarks: Magicians have at least as much belief in cause and effect as modern physicists do — they just know that a good ritual, like a good poem or a good bread recipe, isn’t always absolutely predictable.

Keywords: “Control every variable and you control every change — lotsa luck!”

The Law of Synchronicity

Essence: Two or more events happening at the same time are likely to have more associations in common than the merely temporal; very few events ever really happen in isolation from nearby events.

Remarks: If you manage to pin a professional debunker against a wall (be careful, they get nasty when cornered) you’ll find that the word “coincidence” is a Scientistic term of exorcism, used to banish the demons of non-material, and therefore “unscientific,” causality.

Keywords: “Coincidence is seldom mere.”

The Law of Association

Essence: if any two or more patterns have elements in common, the patterns interact “through” those common elements, and control of one pattern facilitates control over the other(s), depending (among other factors) upon the number, type and duration of common elements involved.

Remarks: This is probably one of the most important of the magical Laws and is directly connected to most of the others.

Keywords: “Commonality controls.”

The Law of Similarity

Essence: Effects are liable to have an outward physical or mental “appearance” similar to their causes.

Remarks: Having an accurate image/sound/smell of an object or being facilitates control over it or them.

Keywords: “Look-alikes are alike.”

The Law of Contagion

Essence: Objects or beings in physical or psychic contact with each other continue to interact after separation.

Remarks: Everyone your character has ever touched has a psychic link with him, though it is (probably) pretty weak unless the contact was intense and/or repeated frequently. Naturally having a part of someone’s body (nails, hair, spit, blood, etc.) gives the best contagion link. Almost as good are objects of clothing, handkerchiefs, bedsheets, etc., that have absorbed sweat or other bodily fluids from the being your character wishes to magically influence.

Keywords: “Magic is contagious.”

The Law of Positive Attraction

Essence: Like attracts like; to create a particular reality you must put out energy of a similar sort.

Remarks: This Law is often used in attraction spells, by saturating the aura of the magician or client with symbols and energies similar to those wanted. It’s also commonly cited for moralistic purposes to discourage unwanted magical behavior (see Chapter 11), on the grounds that behaving badly will attract evil or bad luck. This Law may refer to “morphic resonances;” the tendency for energy shapes to complete themselves, or perhaps “wave entrainment,” which is the ability of particular vibrations to set up matching vibrations in nearby energy patterns. If either of these phenomena happen with psychic energy fields, they could easily cause the effects usually referred to by this Law.

Keywords: “That which is sent, returns.”

The Law of Negative Attraction

Essence: Like attracts unlike; energy and actions often attract their “opposites.”

Remarks: People say that like attracts like, but they also say that opposites attract. This paradox can be reconciled by contemplating the classic “yin-yang” symbol. The two halves of the yin-yang are opposite in color, but they are identical in shape; thus opposite and similar on two different levels of reality (or universes of discourse). Yet the two halves both attract and repel each other in an eternal circular dance (see the Law of Polarity below).

Any phenomenon more complex than a bacteria can be viewed on several levels, so you can usually find ways in which any two phenomena can be seen as either opposite or similar, depending on which of these Laws of Attraction you are interested in emphasizing.

The reason this hasn’t been clear before is that Western Dualism usually picks one aspect of existence that two phenomena have and insist that it is the only “important” aspect as far as judging the phenomena to be similar or opposite.

Keywords: “Opposites attract.”

[Special note for webviewers: these two laws were not included in previous writings and lectures I have done over the years, precisely because I couldn’t reconcile the conflicting reports about magical attraction until I understood that this area overlaps the Laws of Perversity, Polarity and Attraction in the complex ways symbolized in the new chart of the laws.]

The Law of Names

Essence: Knowing the complete and true name of an object, being or process gives one complete control over it.

Remarks: This works because a name is a definition (yes, even “Harold,” “Marie,” “Xunte,” and “Jasmine” were at one time) as well as a contagion link. Perhaps more importantly, it works because knowing the complete and “true” name of something or someone means that you have achieved a complete understanding of its or his nature. This is why, in most pre-industrial cultures, people are given “secret names” as well as “public names,” and why the sharing of a secret name is such an act of trust — because the secret name is considered to be very close to, if not identical with, the person’s true name.

Keywords: “What’s in a name? — Everything!”

The Law of Words of Power

Essence: There exist certain words that are able to alter the internal and external realities of those uttering them, and their power may rest in the very sounds of the words as much as in their meanings.

Remarks: Many words are names and most have known definitions. Barbarous words of power are (currently, if not originally) nonsense words that nonetheless can release certain psychic phenomena and states. Very many magical tools require words to be in-scribed upon them and/or to be said over them during their creation.

Keywords: “A word to the wise is sufficient.”

The Law of Personification

Essence: Any phenomenon may be considered to be alive and to have a personality, that is, to “be” an entity or being, and may be effectively dealt with thusly.

Remarks: This Law is based on fundamental human thought processes and does make doing magic, especially with abstract concepts, much easier. Most magicians who do weather magic, for example, personify the winds and the clouds, and thus find focusing their APK upon the atmosphere much easier.

Keywords: “Anything can be a person.”

The Law of Invocation

Essence: It is possible to establish internal communication with entities from either inside or outside of oneself, said entities seeming to be inside of oneself during the communication process.

Remarks: Either Invocation or Evocation can control the spirit communication processes known as inspiration, conversation, channeling (mediumship), and temporary possession.

Keywords: “Beings within…”

The Law of Evocation

Essence: It is possible to establish external communication with entities from either inside or outside of oneself, said entities seeming to be outside of oneself during the communication process.

Remarks: Evocation is the Law that controls most summonings.

Keywords: “…Beings without.”

The Law of Identification

Essence: It is possible through maximum association between the elements of oneself and those of another being to actually become that being to the point of sharing its knowledge and weilding its power.

Remarks: This is the Law that controls most lengthy or permanent possession phenomena.

Keywords: “You can become another.”

The Law of Infinite Data

Essence: The number of phenomena to be known is infinite; one will never run out of things to learn.

Remarks: The best possible example of this is the Internet. You could spend 24 hours per day, seven days per week, and still never see 1% of the information that’s out there — and most of human knowledge isn’t on the Net yet (as of 1998, anyway).

Keywords: “There’s always something new.”

The Law of Finite Senses

Essence: Every sense mechanism of every entity is limited by both range and type of data perceived.

Remarks: Many real phenomena exist which may be outside the sensory scanning ability of any given entity.

Keywords: “Nobody can see everything,” or “Just cause it’s invisible don’t mean it ain’t there.”

The Law of Personal Universes

Essence: Every sentient being lives in and quite possibly creates a unique universe which can never be 100% identical to that lived in by another.

Remarks: So-called “reality” is in fact a matter of consensus opinions. There is no single “Reality” that exists whether people like it or not — that odd idea is popular due to monotheistic theologies and the Scientism they spawned — instead there are multiple and frequently contradictory realities all existing simultaneously. This Law may or may not be the same as the Law of Infinite Universes.

Keywords: “You live in your cosmos and I’ll live in mine.”

The Law of Infinite Universes

Essence: The total number of universes into which all possible combinations of existing phenomena could be organized is infinite.

Remarks: Some people consider this Law to refer to the “alternate probability worlds” of science fiction, however, it has a much wider application.

Keywords: “All things are possible, though some are more probable than others.”

The Law of Pragmatism

Essence: If a pattern of belief or behavior enables a being to survive and to accomplish chosen goals, than that belief or behavior is “true” or “real” or “sensible” on whatever levels of reality are involved.

Keywords: “If it works, it’s true.”

The Law of True Falsehoods

Essence: It’s possible for a concept or act to violate the truth patterns of a given universe (including an individual’s or group’s part of a consensus reality) and yet to still be “true,” provided that it “works” in a specific context.

Remarks: A data pattern may be true on one “level of reality” and false on another, depending upon the circumstances involved. For example, on the normal scholarly level of reality the Thunder Gods are parts of the “quaint mythologies of our ignorant ancestors” and therefore “false,” but on the level of reality involved in magical Rain-Making They are very real indeed.

Keywords: “If it’s a paradox it’s probably true.”

The Law of Synthesis

Essence: The synthesis of two or more “opposing” patterns of data will produce a new pattern that will be “truer” than either of the first ones were, that is, it will be applicable to more realities (or “levels of reality”).

Remarks: This new pattern will not necessarily be a compromise but may be something new.

Keywords: “Synthesis reconciles.”

The Law of Polarity

Essence: Any pattern of data can be split into (at least) two patterns with “opposing” characteristics, and each will contain the essence of the other within itself.

Remarks: Polarity should not be confused with dualism, a mistake that Westerners have been making for four thousand years and which has quite possibly led to more all-around misery than any other theological concept in history (see Chapter 11). Dualism assumes that opposites are at war with one another; polarity assumes that they embrace. The creators of D&D did the game world a major favor when they made “neutrality” a part of the political and moral alignments in their game. The “Law vs. Chaos” and “Good vs. Evil” alignment systems so common in fantasy games are dangerous oversimplifications but the addition of “neutrality” and “amorality” (not to mention the new alignments that have been invented by players and referees, such as “hungry,” “weird,” or “whimsical”) have added far more creativity in character creation and play.

Keywords: “Everything contains its opposite.”

The Law of Dynamic Balance

Essence: To survive, let alone to become powerful, one must keep every aspect of one’s universe(s) in a state of dynamic balance with every other one; extremism is dangerous on both the personal and the evolutionary levels of reality.

Keywords: “Dance to the music.”

The Law of Perversity

Essence: also known as “Murphy’s Law,” “Finagle’s Law,” etc.: if anything can go wrong, it will — and in the most annoying manner possible.

Remarks: Magical associations sometimes operate in the reverse of what was wanted; meaningful coincidences are just as likely to be unpleasant as they are to be helpful (especially if a lot of emotion goes into the related situations). Even if “nothing can possibly go wrong,” some element of the universe may change so that things will go wrong anyway.

This Law is probably based on the use of countermagic by one’s own subconscious mind, for whatever devious or even neurotic reasons it may have. My guess is that it also ties in with the Anti-Psi talents. This Law explains why some people’s magic seems to work backwards. Emotionally healthy magicians have less problems with this Law than unhealthy ones do, and once a magician has reached the Master/Mistress rank his “klutz factor” tends to go down accordingly. The klutz factor (or “fumble factor”) is used by many referees to dampen down the effectiveness of high-level magicians who are unbalancing their game universes, but it has a basis in fact as well as in game playability.

Keywords: These can only be, “If anything can go wrong, it will.”

The Law of Unity

Essence: Every phenomenon in existence is linked directly or indirectly to every other one, past, present or future; perceived separations between phenomena are based on incomplete sensing and/or thinking.

Keywords: “All is One.”


Additional Notes on the Laws

Several of these laws are obviously a part of the metaphysical background of magic rather than part of its day-to-day techniques. Some, such as Invocation and Evocation, or Infinite Universes and Personal Universes, may actually be the same principles seen from different viewpoints. A few of the Laws usually seem to be subsets or intersections of other laws, as the chart clearly shows.

Similarity, Contagion &The Golden Bough

The best known of the laws in Western literature are Similarity and Contagion, both of which are subsets of Association, and both of which are famous thanks to the writings of Sir James Frazer, especially the multi-volume Golden Bough. The one-volume edition, edited by T. Gaster and published under the name The New Golden Bough, is well worth reading if you haven’t the steam to go through all 10,000+ pages of the original — but you’ll miss a lot of good stuff. Many fictional and nonfictional works in occultism, fantasy and science fiction (not to mention anthropology) published since Frazer’s time blithely assume that these two are the only laws involved in magic despite the fact that ample evidence for the other laws is often present within these works themselves. Apparently, few scholars care to credit “ignorant savages” and “primitive ancestors” with being able to organize their observations into coherent systems of thought, let alone into complex philosophies.

It should be remembered that similarities do not have to be visual ones, in order to use the Law of Similarity. Sounds, smells, textures, tastes, etc. can certainly be used, as well as abstract similarities that exist only in the mind of the magician. As for Contagion, the phenomena involved do seem to have falling-off patterns, or “half-lives.” The longer it has been since the contact was last made or used, the weaker the contagion link will be. But these sorts of half-lives, unlike the ones we will discuss in Chapters 8 and 9, represent far too delicate of a variable to worry about in game magic, unless an individual referee may care to wing it on such judgements.

These Laws combine frequently. Blood from an aardvark can always be used to control more aardvarks than the original donor, because aardvark blood will always be very similar to aardvark blood. Control spells will work best on the original source of the contagion sample (and parts of the body are usually the best samples) but a body sample can always be used to boost the efficiency of a spell done on any entity with a similar body (and this body does not always have to be organic — a magician having problems with technological devices might choose to carry transistors or wiring samples around).

Invocations & Evocations

The Law of Invocation is the main law used by Shamans and other Mediums because it deals with various types of possessions. The Law of Evocation, however, is used by Goetic Magicians and Necromancers to “summon” various spirits, human or nonhuman, many of which may be parts of the subconscious or superconscious minds of the magicians themselves. However, the various spells used in roleplaying games for Summoning Monsters have nothing to do with evoking them. These spells actually seem to be methods for seeking out (via Telepathy or the Clair-Senses) the nearest “monster” of the sort desired and of either helping or forcing them to Teleport to the “summoner.”

Universe Hopping

The Law of Infinite Universes could be used by magicians attempting to send an object or being (including themselves) to another universe, or to retrieve something or someone from another universe, as in various gateway spells. While it is not mentioned by name, this law is actually the one used by the protagonists to universe-hop in the (In-)Complete Enchanter series by Pratt & de Camp (who may have been the first folks to suggest using symbolic logic equations to describe the Laws of Magic).

Tactical Polarity

The Law of Polarity can be used for tactical purposes in magical combat, since every target is going to have a “weak spot” of some “opposite” characteristic hidden deep within. Even the most stalwartly “Good” magician is going to have a spot of “Evil” somewhere inside, though the higher his rank and the better his emotional health, the weaker that spot will be (not only will it be harder to get to, but it will be less useful to exploit).

The problem in most cases is to figure out just what constitutes “the opposite” of a complex object or being. A “Northern Fire Giant” would have spots of Southernliness, cold and dwarvishness inside his physical and psychic structure, but only the cold spot would make a good flaw to concentrate upon in most cases — unless you could amplify his Southernliness to make him more hospitable!

Perversity & Wishing

The Law of Perversity can provide a number of amusing and infuriating incidents in both real and game magic. In the occult community, one of the most popular sayings around the world is “Always be careful what you ask for — you may get it!” This leads into the subject of backfiring wishes, but wishes themselves are such an irrational and absurd gimmick to throw into game magic systems that it isn’t even worth discussing them. They seem to be used mostly as a way to cheat Fate and thus the game. The only magical excuse, explanation or plausible reason for postulating the reality of the wishing phenomena is to assume that there exist gigantically powerful “mega-gods” (probably of the Whimsical alignment) Who are contacted through the wishing devices and Who delight in performing full-scale miracles for (or to) stupid mortals. For those who insist on wishing their characters out of every mess their bad play has caused, I have only an old occult blessing: “may your every wish come true.”

Combining Laws

As a matter of practical use, the Laws are seldom if ever applied in isolation. Usually two or more are combined. For example: a party of travelers is going through the wilderness when they come upon a hostile dragon. Their only mage, Belinda the Befuddled, decides to try a Command Dragon Spell, so she reaches into her pouch and pulls out a wand made of dragon bone (Similarity) which is carved with the likeness of a dragon (Similarity) and with several runes (Words of Power). One end is capped with a dragon scale (Contagion, since she found it in the woods the previous night and it actually belongs to the dragon in question, but it also works as Similarity) and the other end is tipped with a crystal carved into the likeness of a dog’s paw (Similarity, to the deity about to be invoked). Calling upon the divine name of Mighty Manfred the Dragon Slayer (Names, Invocation) the magician pulls in extra mana from her deity, which she then sends forth with several Words of Power in Auld Wurmish (a dragon language, and therefore more Similarity), Mesmerically sending her commands to the dragon. Snarfblatt the Mighty promptly forgets about his intention to eat the travelers and instead flies away. to look elsewhere for lunch. With great dignity, Belinda faints from relief.


How the Laws Affect Spell Success

There should be a way to add to a character’s chances of success, when the magician uses one or more of the Laws of Magic in the spell design. One way of doing this is shown in Table 6.1: Effects of the Laws of Magic on PoSS, in which particular uses of laws add Possibility Increments or P.I.s to any spell’s Possibility of Spell Success or PoSS. Using that system, Belinda the Befuddled got quite a bit of improvement in her chances for success, with credit for using Similarity five times, Words twice, and Contagion & Invocation & Names once each. Even though she’s only using a single Psi Talent (Mesmerism) and probably couldn’t have done it without help from Mighty Manfred, still her multiple use of the Laws could easily boost her success possibilities to her Magical Luck Limit for her rank. See Chapter 9 for a copy of her “spell recipe.”

Table 6.1: Effects of the Laws of Magic on PoSS (Possibilities of Spell Success)

1: For every usage of a Law of Magic (except those listed below) in the casting of a spell, add 5% to the PoSS. If the same Law is used more than once, add the appropriate percentage for each usage.

2: For every usage of the Law of Similarity: add 3-8%, depending upon the degree of similarity involved.

Example: attempting to cast a spell on a gnome. Having a crude drawing of a dwarf (another type of small humanoid) is barely worth 3%. Having a coffeetable Book of Gnomes is worth 5%. Having a realistic painting of the gnome in question is worth 8%. If photographs are possible in the game universe involved, one might push the bonus up to 10% for having a photo of the gnome.

3: For every usage of the Law of Contagion: add 5-12%, depending upon the degree of contagion involved.

Example: attempting to heal a damaged comrade from a distance. Having shaken hands with her several times is barely worth 5%. Having an item of her clothing or weapons is worth 7%. Having a lock of her hair is worth 10%. Having kissed her a lot recently, or having had more intense contact, may well be worth 15-25% — depending on just how friendly you got!. Being able to touch the target of a spell during the casting period will usually add 8-10%.

4: For every usage of the Law of Names: add 5% for using the target’s “public name,” add 10% for using the target’s “childhood name” or adult “pet name,” add 15% for using the target’s “secret name,” and add 30% for using the target’s “true name.” Target beings will usually know their own names in the first three categories, but only a supernatural entity is liable to know their own or someone else’s “true name.” Note: an Invocation or Evocation bonus cancels out any connected Names bonus.

5: For every usage of the Law of Invocation or the Law of Evocation: add 1-15%, depending on one’s own Piety; 1% for low Piety, 5% for average Piety, 10% for high Piety, 15% for highest Piety. Some referees may prefer to use the character’s “State of Grace” for this. Note: this bonus is only to the PoSS, not to MPs.

6: For every usage of the Law of Perversity: add 15% if and only if Negapsi is one of one’s Talents. Otherwise, subtract 15% or “crock” the results of the spell. If the referee or the player determines that a given magician is suffering a “streak of bad luck,” expect the Law of Perversity (at referee’s option) to start making things even worse.

Copyright © 1979, 1998, 2001 c.e., Isaac Bonewits. Unlike his other sharetext postings, this text file may NOT be freely distributed on the Net, since it is part of a book available for purchase from Steve Jackson Games and/or If you would like to be on one or more of Isaac Bonewits’ emailing lists, click here to get subscription information.

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