Foundations of Magic, by J F O'NeillFoundations of Magic: Techniques and Spells That Work, by J F O’Neill
Llewellyn Worldwide, 0738707430, 253 pp. (incl. appendices and index), 2005
Reviewed from an uncorrected proof

Foundations of Magic is presented as an introductory course to non-denominational magic. It has been written with the absolute beginner in mind, even, or perhaps especially, the sceptical beginner. O’Neill’s goal is to teach the reader what he regards as the basic skills required for successful magical workings and provide a mini-grimoire of spells that the student can undertake for their own benefit and to demonstrate that magic does in fact work.

The book is organized into two parts. Part I comprises three chapters, covering the definition and description of Magic, the Psychology of Magic, and lastly, the actual process of casting spells, including a practise spell.

In Chapter 1, O’Neill undertakes the difficult task of defining and describing magic. This task is made difficult by the author’s desire to keep jargon and technical information to a minimum, providing descriptions only—and made even more difficult by his introducing some jargon unnecessarily. For example, he explains that magic can be categorized as either “white” or “black”. Then he acknowledges that the line between white and black magic is not as clear as one would like to believe. Finally, he states that this book is “decidedly a book of white magic”. What is the reader to conclude? Can magic be definitively called one or the other? If so, what are the truly distinguishing markers? “Sinister or questionable practices” is a decidedly insufficient description for black magic, even if one chooses to make such a distinction.

Despite his initial claim that the content of the book is secular in nature, O’Neill acknowledges in Chapter 1 that the magic in it is derived from “Western ritual or ceremonial magic, and contains elements from Hermetic, Wiccan and Qabalistic practises”, which are all tied to religious contexts, a fact that he acknowledges later in the same chapter: “All magic has its roots in traditional religious beliefs and practises.” He does little to resolve this apparent contradiction.

O’Neill further confuses the reader with unexplained statements such as “In many ways magical thinking and a magical view of the world are the antithesis of scientific thinking and a scientific view of the world.” What ways would those happen to be? After muddling through a set of six poorly explicated and wholly unnecessary dichotomies O’Neill begins to cover useful ground: the role of belief in magic, the utility of ritual, the power of words, among others. These topics are discussed to a more appropriate depth, enough to clarify the topic to the beginner without over-complicating the subject and confusing the reader (or even worse, boring them).

Concluding Chapter 1 is a description of six Laws of magic that O’Neill has utilized to craft the spells in Part II: the laws of Will, of Levels, two laws of Association, of Correspondences, and of Prudence. The description of these laws is cursory but sufficient for the purposes of a beginners book.

Having defined and described magic, O’Neill undertakes to describe the psychological factors that affect magical workings. Chapter 2 is devoted to an understanding of the mind’s role. Pretending, the conscious and unconscious mind, visualization, trance, self-hypnosis and “higher states” are all explained, along with seven exercises to provide the reader with practise in leveraging these components of mind to their benefit.

In Chapter 3, O’Neill walks the reader through all of the stages of casting a spell, from formulating intent to following up. These parts of the chapter are well thought out and are highly beneficial to have delineated for the beginner. He then briefly discusses the possible reasons why a spell may not work, helpfully focusing on troubleshooting rather than platitudes. Following this, however, O’Neill stumbles into the ethics of spell-craft and drops the ball entirely. O’Neill’s solitary thought on this front is: “DO NO HARM.” A noble thought, yes, but one that should be accompanied by a discussion of what “harm” itself is—a question which is not as easily answered as one might like. If you do a spell to get a job and are successful, for example, have you caused harm to the other applicants? Even if you conclude that you have, does this matter? If one is going to bother including a section on ethics, one should at least attempt to tease out its nuances, especially since so many of the spells include ‘An it harm none’ caveats.

Part II is comprised of thirty-two spells. Their topic matter varies enormously, but keeps mostly to a few common themes: intimate relationships (e.g., “Attracting Someone for Fun and Lust”, ‘”pell for an Unfaithful Lover”), personal prosperity, health, self-improvement. A couple of oddball spells are mixed in (eg., “Help in Parenting”, weather magic, getting someone that talks to much to shut up). The mix of topics hits most on most of the issues that an individual considering magic is likely to need help with, and it’s refreshing to see a beginner’s book that’s not targeted exclusively at high-schoolers.

The spellwork follows a standard pattern: O’Neill begins with a brief discussion of the issue at hand, advises the reader to do so too as well under the auspice of “Self-Preparation”, then covers the physical preparations along with a script of the ritual itself and any followup procedures necessary. His topical discussions are hit and miss. For example, in his spell “Alleviating Chronic Pain”, he begins with an reminder of the role of pain in the body and how even chronic pain can sometimes still be serving a useful function. The spell itself focuses not on deleting the pain entirely but rather on transmuting it into a form that retains its beneficial aspects while removing the negative experiential component. In contrast, “Spell for an Unfaithful Lover” begins only with the caveat that the spell does not work “by violating free Will however”. He doesn’t bother encouraging the reader to consider the conditions that would lead their partner to be unfaithful, not does the spell itself seek to address any such personality or situational issues. Instead, it commands that “when you plan your next little death … all you will see, is my abiding image encircling you; And all thoughts and feelings will be of me.” This is the solution to unfaithfulness? This facile approach to a complex issue is one that will likely serve only to further confuse the involved parties rather than untangle their true feelings.

As O’Neill mentions in Chapter 1, the rituals themselves are primarily Western Ceremonial magic and Wiccan in flavour, but with explicitly religious references stripped away, along with many of the ceremonial trappings. He also pulls pieces from many other traditions some related to modern Wicca: the four directions and their elemental correspondences are repeatedly utilised; a passage is taken (with full reference) from the Emerald Tablet and used in “Eliminating Depression or the Blues”; High John the Conqueror and Lucky Hand roots—classic hoodoo ingredients—are used in “Luck at Gambling”‘; “Eliminating a Phobia” involves a visit to the “Akashic Records” an astral location first mentioned in Theosophy; Two sefiroth from the Qaballa are explicitly referenced in “Making a Difficult Decision”; a magic square is utilized in “Attracting the Right Love Partner”.

The spells also rely heavily on the visualization techniques O’Neill teaches in Chapter 2 of Part I, and the instructions are on the whole clear and well articulated. The spells are easy to follow, and if one has undertaken the exercises in Part I, simple to perform.

O’Neill also includes six appendices. The first four are summary outlines of procedures found in part one, extracted for easy reference. This is something that more authors should do, for it greatly improves accessibility; there are few things more frustrating about a magical book than having to flip through the entire thing to find a particular exercise. The latter two appendices are dedicated to crafting magical objects: an incense burner and a magical square.

To what extent is O’Neill successful in his aims? Insomuch as the book is designed to guide a rank beginner through the necessary mental preparations to starting a magical practise with a minimum of theory, I believe he’s successful. Most people, after following the exercises in Part I, should experience some success with the spells of Part II.

Although O’Neill emphasizes in Part I that Foundations is secular in nature, his spells contain components of a number of different religiously derived systems. Individuals explicitly seeking a magical practise free of dogma or religious beliefs and symbols should instead seek out chaos magic. The notion that one can practise any other form of magic without implicitly including these components is conceit or self-deception.

Another potential audience, individuals seeking out some form of magical practise but uncertain as to what kind, may find some benefit to this work. It will provide them with the opportunity for magical success before picking a particular system to commit to. The exercises outlined in the first half of the book will benefit anyone regardless of what tradition they end up practising.