Every society throughout history has cultivated over time its own, perennially shifting, definition of what constitutes magic, and America, that bastard offspring of millennia-old European, Near Eastern, African and native (and various other infusions along the way) traditions, has its own as well. But if I may be permitted to generalize the show’s mise-en-scÃ¨ne, I’d like to quote from the introduction of Witchcraft and Magic In Europe: The Middle Ages:
Oh, don’t scoff, it’ll all make sense in the end. And if not, I only wasted a few minutes of your life.
The core of those medieval, predominantly Christian concepts of magic, let’s begin there. The first step is differentiating between “high” and “low” magic. The former is a theoretical system to affect the universe, and requires both knowledge of proper ritual and a purity that often took the form of avoiding certain foods or, even worse, sexual activity. Yes, that goes even for us potential Manwitches. Dammit. Anyway, the latter can thus be considered practical or applied, a magic that doesn’t require intense, hermetic study in order to effect change.
The question before us is, does this generalization apply to Supernatural? Tune in next paragraph (and subsequent ones) for the exciting conclusion!
High as a Kite
When most of us think of magic, at least those of us well versed in geekdom, we immediately conjure vistas of flash n’ dash, Tolkien-esque high fantasy and its creative predecessors and antecedents such as the witch of Endor, Merlin, Elric, Mordenkainen, Bigbyâ€™s Interposing Hand, the students of Hogwarts, and so on and so forth. Despite the occasional bits of bombast and rockets’ red glare, Supernatural is generally devoid of lightning bolt legerdemain. There are however hints, and the occasional glimpse, into this world of ritual theory.
The, er, high point of high magic commenced with the “rediscovery” of ancient texts during the Renaissance, the most important of which were Greek and Arabic magical treatises carried to the West in the aftermath of the Byzantine Empire’s collapse and ultimate defeat by the Ottomans. Coupled with a renewed emphasis on Roman law â€“ even the pre-Christian installment of the empire publicly frowned upon private consumption of such practices â€“ one better understands the proliferation of witch hunts and the works that fueled them: Jean Bodinâ€™s De la demonomanie des sorciers, George Giffordâ€™s Dialogue Concerning Witches and Witchcraftes, and, most famous of all among the hundreds of works, Heinrich Kramer and Johann Sprengerâ€™s Malleus Maleficarum.
Who, you say? Where do you think “Old Enochian” came from?
In time, polemics against witch hunting began appearing, such as the De praestigiis daemonum of Agrippa student Johann Weyer, a work which, according to William E. Burns in Witch Hunts in Europe and America,
Of course it does, and even if it didn’t, you know I’d simply make some up to prove my point. Just kidding. Ahem. The most obvious example is Ruby’s never-attempted spell during Jus In Bello. Ostensibly a white hat at the time â€“ for the sake of argument, letâ€™s pretend as much â€“ we can infer even from the lack of explicit detail that this magic would require a bit more than simply the heart of a virgin. If the end result, besides the hoped-for success, is the immolation of the caster, then some program of specific demands, trials, whatnot must have been met beforehand, although in the world of Supernatural, one can plausibly assume that whichever gender is the spellcaster, avoiding sex is probably not on the menu.