At Witchfest, Teresa Moorey, the author of Witchcraft: A Beginners' Guide, gave a talk about spells. I felt what she said encapsulated my own view about how magic works. Here is a summary of her talk:
Spells are a fundamental part of a witch's work and an aspect of the Wiccan spiritual path.
We use spells and raise power in order to change things. The concept that spells work requires a different sense of reality to that of science: the idea that if enough people believe something then it can come true. To a modern way of thinking that seems archaic and weird.
In casting a spell we literally spell out what we want and send that desire into the cosmos, where there are forces that manipulate reality in an unseen manner.
Spellcasting is about desire and intention rather than cause and effect. It involves metaphor, using something material as a symbol of something spiritual. That could be astrological symbolism, it could be gods and goddesses or it could be our own subconscious.
Many self help books use the same technique, although they do not call this spellcasting. For example, a self help book might suggest that you visualise yourself passing your driving test in order to assist you passing it in reality. It is a method of altering things by desire.
Some people are natural spellcasters, especially children. Teresa gave an example of how she was always able to find somewhere to park her car if she had her young son with her and asked him to imagine them finding a space.
Prayer can be similar to a spell. Like many witches, Teresa was Catholic in her childhood and found she could often get what she wanted if she chanted a prayer over and over. There came a point when she felt a mental bubble bursting and would know that her prayer would be answered.
While we might know that our spells work, or our prayers are answered, what we don't really know is what is doing this. It might be a god, it might be our subconscious, it might be some kind of abstract force.
Teresa then gave some examples of spells. These included Irish spells that had been collected and written down by a modern druid, but which had been part of folk tradition for centuries. Many were to do with making cows produce more milk or bringing prosperity to your house. Teresa also described a complex and ancient spell, supposedly by King Solomon, designed to keep huntsmen off your land, and then went on to list a few simple modern examples, such as enchanting a little vanilla essence and sprinkling it on a sexy garment to help you attract a lover.
These spells, old and new, differed in style but were examples of how appropriate symbols could be used with the intention of manipulating reality.
Ethics are an important issue for witches and there are two main standpoints over this. One is that if you can't hex then you can't heal; the other is that if you do something bad using magic, then something bad will happen to you. However, even if you hold the first viewpoint, just because you could hex someone, doesn't mean you should.
Wiccans generally believe that it is wrong to tamper with someone else's life and choices unless they ask you to. However, I agree with Teresa when she said that using magic to defend yourself is no worse than defending yourself by other means.
If you feel that someone is going to harm you, or harm someone you love, then casting a binding spell to prevent them causing trouble might be wise.
Even healing spells should be used cautiously. We might feel an urge to try to help someone who is ill, but sometimes an illness can be necessary. For example, if we catch the flu, it could just be our body telling us we need to rest for a few days. In general, casting a spell for happiness and well being should bring a satisfactory result.
When in doubt, trust your intuition. If it feels wrong to cast a spell, don't do it.