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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Magic: A History

From Alchemy to Witchcraft, from the Ice Age to the Present

Chris Gosden

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

1. What is Magic and Why is It Important?


For tens of thousands of years, and in all parts of the inhabited world, people have practised magic. Today it is still commonplace, despite many predictions that it would die out, surviving even attempts to eradicate it. When people confront the big issues of life and death, when they desire to know the future or to understand the past, to protect themselves from harm, cure illness or promote well-being, they often turn to magic. In just some of magic’s myriad manifestations, witchcraft is seen to bring harm, the spirits of the dead talk to the living, and the evil eye amulet protects a household. Magic can be scholarly and philosophical, leading on to larger questions about the nature and meaning of reality, or homespun and practical, used to remove warts or cure a sick cow. It is experimental, changeable and inventive.

My definition of magic emphasizes human connections with the universe, so that people are open to the workings of the universe and the universe is responsive to us. Magic is related to, but different from, the other two great strands of history, religion and science: the former focuses on a god or gods, the latter a distanced understanding of physical reality. Magic is one of the oldest world-views and yet is capable of constant renewal, so that a modern magic can help us to explore our physical and ethical connections to the world in a time of profound ecological crisis.

Over the last few centuries, magic has developed a bad reputation, partly as a result of the extravagant claims made by its more shady practitioners. A most successful propaganda campaign has also been waged against magic by its cousins, religion and science. However, any strand of human behaviour that is so widespread and long-lasting must be performing an important role for individuals and cultures. My aim in the pages that follow is to document the strange and compelling variety of magic – and, since magic is found in all times and in all places, this adds a new dimension to the history of the world; and I also aim to explore its positive qualities and to ask: what can magic offer the world today?

One fascinating aspect of magic I will not be looking at might be colloquially called ‘conjuring’ – the skilled misdirection and sleight of hand that can fool even the most attentive observer.1 Sleight of hand magic contradicts and subverts our common-sense ideas of how the world works: people are sawn in half and made whole without harm; things disappear or turn up in unexpected places; and the audience can never tell which of the three cups the ball is hidden under. In this subversion of the senses, techniques of misdirection blend into the sort of magic in which people make more serious claims to be able to change the world; and there is no doubt that some shamans and magical figures helped to develop such techniques over millennia. There is, however, an important distinction between magic practised for entertainment and that which embodies a more rigorous and practical purpose. This is not in any way to cast aspersions on ‘conjuring’ as some second-class activity – I am a great fan. Rather, I make the distinction to concentrate on forms of magic that claim the seriousness of science and the metaphysical aspirations of religion, claims that should not be dismissed but rather subject to serious scrutiny. Magical practice takes many forms, so let us gain an initial sense of what magic can involve through some concrete instances.

Once upon a time, many years ago, I carried out an archaeological excavation of a cave called Matenkupkum, on the island of New Ireland in Papua New Guinea. Matenkupkum turned out to have evidence of human occupation 35,000 years ago, including indications of some of the earliest seafaring in the world. I lived in a village called Hilalon, which was one of a series of coastal villages facing the Pacific Ocean. I went walking with people from the village one day, as I was interested in older village sites where people had lived before the Colonial Era, but were now abandoned. On the way back to Hilalon in the late afternoon, people said they wanted to show me something interesting, but they wouldn’t say what. Intrigued, I followed them off our direct path back to the coast, and after half an hour we found ourselves in a glade in the rainforest, where there was a slight depression covered by grass. The place had an unusual feel, a natural break in the trees and much hotter than the shade of the forest. My friends showed me stones lying in the grass, which looked liked small stalagmites, many pointed at one end, composed of a creamy material. I’m not quite sure how they were formed or how they got to this particular spot. One older man proceeded to tell me about the stones, saying that on certain occasions the stones could fly around, just above the ground, and anyone near them had to be careful, as they were fast and dangerous and could injure you. However, those with the right knowledge can look at the motions of the stones and tell the future from them. I was excited by this possibility and said, ‘I’d love to see them move.’ ‘No,’ my friends replied. ‘They don’t do it if white people are around.’

I encountered various other stories over the years in New Guinea: stones that you could put both hands on and think about a distant place and then find yourself there. Ever adaptable, New Guineans have invented forms of sorcery that are useful in the contemporary world: for example, how to make yourself invisible in order to rob a bank, which involves putting the bones of a black cat in your hair, told with lots of laughter and questions to me as to whether it might really work. Sorcery to get your kids into university or high school is taken more seriously, but people were less forthcoming about that. Sorcery and magic are common in Papua New Guinea, and they require skills to read the world in the right way, whether this be understanding the movement of the stones, or developing magical actions that work in the village, or furthering the emerging middle-class aspirations of some town dwellers.

One of the more famous accounts of magic by a Westerner is that by the anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard, who worked in the 1930s with the Azande, a farming people who live between south Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic. In writing Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande, Evans-Pritchard made the point that magic and witchcraft were not irrational but allowed for rational argument based on different premises than those common in the Western intellectual tradition. For the Azande, all misfortune and death had a human cause through witchcraft and magic, and the origins of specific instances of accident or death needed to be sought in human motives and politics. Dual modes of causality were accepted. If a granary fell on someone sitting in its shade and killed them, it was accepted that the ultimate cause of the granary’s collapse was that ants had eaten through its wooden supports. However, the real question was: ‘Why had it fallen at that exact moment when someone was sitting under it?’ A regular answer to this question was that its collapse was the result of witchcraft, leading to a further urgent set of queries as to who the witch was and what their motives had been. No one doubted that a witch could make a granary collapse, because their will could act on material things, often from a distance. One method of investigating witchcraft was to feed poison to a chicken: information about the witch could be gained from whether or not the chicken survived, and, if so, the nature of its actions thereafter. It was said in earlier times that poison was given directly to a person suspected of witchcraft, who would either live or die, with the latter case the ultimate proof of their guilt, as well as punishment for it.

In working through such enquiries the group probed social motives and tensions, making magic an arena in which social accountability was the ultimate question: who was the witch responsible, what were their motives, and how far could they be brought to account? A dispute over land, a marriage payment, an injury or a suspected breach of trust might all lead to witchcraft. Some such instances were one-offs; others derived from long-standing grievances within the group. Azande detective work into why dangerous events had occurred and who might have caused them aimed to identify the underlying cause of an event. Unless a cause was brought to light and dealt with by the group, it could fester and lead to more argument and danger. Azande magic was rational by any standard. Diagnosis and working out of social tensions and disagreements took place only through magic, which played the part a court system does in many parts of the world. The point here is that a belief in magic does not make people irrational, and that the contrast between magic and science is not between irrationality and rationality; rather, people work with various forms of logic that are argued from radically different premises. We will see more on African divination and magic in Chapter 8.

Magic was, and is, also practised in Europe. In the Bodleian Library of Oxford University are records of around 80,000 astrological consultations, dating from between the end of the reign of Elizabeth I in the early seventeenth century and the accession of Charles II in 1660. Together these constitute the greatest single record of astrological work from Early Modern Europe, demonstrating also the seriousness with which people viewed astrology. As we will see in more detail in Chapter 9, these records were kept by Simon Forman and Richard Napier, the former in London, the latter in Buckinghamshire, where Napier was a rector. Napier also taught his nephew, who became Sir Richard Napier and practised the astrologer’s art well into the seventeenth century. Over 60,000 people came to see them, and some came more than once, and most of their questions concerned medical ailments, although people also made enquiries about their careers, missing persons, lost objects of value and a host of other issues of importance. For each consultation we have an astrological chart, which shows the constellation of astral bodies thought to be influencing the health and destinies of the client. Their question and the resulting diagnosis were also recorded. Life-time horoscopes, which were based on the positions of stars and planets at the moment of birth, could be constructed on demand.

Our three astrologers were all respectable citizens, practising their art openly and receiving payment for it. There is every indication that they took their astrological knowledge seriously, as they made comparisons between cases, wondering whether they had made a correct diagnosis in the past and if such a diagnosis could be refined or improved in the future. These astrological consultations represent one of the largest consistent sets of medical records before the twentieth century, an invaluable record of Early Modern illnesses and attitudes to health, as well as indicating a very different and magical mind-set to that employed by germ theory. Forman and the two Napiers were part of a large network of astrologers, though most of their records have been lost, if they were kept in the first place. Astrology is one of the most important themes of this book; it spread to Europe and the Middle East from ancient Mesopotamia, where there were close observations of the planets, stars, Moon and Sun from at least 5,000 years ago, forming the basis for astronomy as well as astrology. We have incredibly rich archival records of magic from the start of writing around 3200 BCE to the present. A host of specialist scholars – from experts in cuneiform, to ancient Chinese, to complex modern manuscripts – are making a wealth of information available, which I have been fortunate enough to draw on here.

Practitioners of a similar sort to Forman and the Napiers were found in Britain through into the nineteenth century at least. People in Medieval and Early Modern Britain did not resort to astrology: astrologers were the first people they consulted because their methods were seen as tried and trusted (and were probably not as dangerous as early medicine) (see Figure 1.1). Now it is possible to consult your horoscope through an app, although whether all practitioners approach astrology with the same seriousness as was true of earlier generations is questionable. People today regularly engage with astrology and explore many other magical possibilities, with some believing fully in the potentials of magic and many others wondering ‘What if there really is something in this?’ We will follow this latter question and see where it leads us.

I am sure many readers are rightly sceptical about the existence and efficacy of magic. An initial counter to a radical scepticism is that magic does not derive from strange whims or deliberate irrationality. Much effort has gone into the construction of a mechanistic universe in Western thought, in which planets or atoms are moved by forces, and living things are characterized by biochemical reactions or sometimes the firing of neurons. Equal effort in other cultures has gone into denying differences between the animate and the inanimate, the living and non-living, the human and non-human. In everyday life in the Western world such distinctions also break down, and many of us find ourselves talking to the cat or swearing at the printer when it doesn’t work. Beneath the rationalist rhetoric of our culture exist everyday encounters with small forms of magic: numbers and days can be favourable or not, black cats cross our paths and sportspeople can take magic almost as seriously as their training. Small advantages are sought through what we often decry as irrational means, often hard to take totally seriously but also difficult to ignore. The broad distinction made in Western thought between the categories of nature – where the laws of science apply – and culture – where economic, political, emotional or aesthetic conditions hold sway – makes no sense to many. All modes of life make distinctions between categories of things but also posit similarities. Where the lines of difference or connection are drawn is variable, but they are always logical and meaningful to those drawing the lines.

Many people, probably the majority of those who have lived in the past or are still alive today, believe in magic in some manifestation. But lots of people believing in something does not make it true. However, because magic is so pervasive, for a full understanding of human history we cannot simply exclude it. By opening ourselves to the possibilities magic holds, we might also come to see some benefits in a magical mind-set, as I will argue further below.

First, we must tackle problems of definition and question whether magic can be separated from other areas of human action and belief.

What is magic?

One of the first questions to ask of magic is: ‘What is it?’ The definition I will use is one of participation. Human beings participate in the universe directly, and the universe influences and shapes us. For the Azande witch it is possible to make a granary fall without physically impacting on it, perhaps through reciting the correct spell or placing the right substances near it – we are not quite sure about the techniques employed by Azande magic. It is powerful because it is believed in and acted on. Not being Azande myself, at the back of my mind I maintain some scepticism, but that is partly because of having been brought up within a world of criticism and hard proofs. A scientific line of questioning would focus on how could the granary possibly fall without perceptible physical influence. But maybe we should ask what are the consequences, good and bad, of thinking that the witch made the granary fall. The world is complex and multiple, with so many ways of joining up cause and effect, that witchcraft may well form a sensible thread to follow through the many combinations of people and things. In such an instance, there is a continuity between the human will and physical, indeed deadly, effects. For my Papua New Guinean friends a combination of spells and actions might get their kids into university or help them to rob a bank. Skilled reading of the world is also necessary. Only those who know can understand the future from the movement of the stones, but the villagers of Hilalon have no doubt that messages are given and received. The experienced astrologer draws on their personal training to understand how bodies in the sky influence people on the Earth below. Such knowledge is transmitted from one generation to another but also draws on many millennia of observation of the skies and consideration of the influence of what’s above on what’s beneath. The long history of astrology does not mean that people applied traditional knowledge without thought or a critical perspective. Each age and culture has its own astrology, with which it experiments and tinkers. Similar histories exist for alchemy, the attempt to turn base metals into gold (in Europe and the Middle East) or to effect chemical transformations possibly leading to an elixir of eternal life (in China).

For the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, magic was a humanization of the universe. There is a continuity between the human will or actions and the world around us. The converse is also true: magic allows the universe to enter us, whether this be through the movement of the stars or the messages relayed by moving stones. We exist in a complex mutual interaction with the world, through shared participation. Magical practice does not just involve an intellectual understanding of the world but brings in fuller aspects of the human being through the emotions, psychological and spiritual states. Anger was often the cause of the witchcraft that brought about the fatal fall of the granary. Fear and awe might derive from the movement of the planets. Magic combines what Western thought has often separated as the physical and the psychological or emotional realms.

Magic comes in a great range of forms of participation, which it is helpful to break down further. Three forms of participation can be distinguished: transcendence, transformation and transactions. Transcendent relations exist where the universe is influencing people but is beyond their ability to affect it. A classic example of transcendence is astrology, where astral bodies shape human lives, but people do not influence the movement of the stars or planets. The Medieval and Early Modern European maxim concerning astrology was ‘as above, so below’, a clear one-way set of influences. People can understand, navigate and respond appropriately to transcendent effects, but there is nothing they can do to change them.

Transformation is an aspect of participation: for example, alchemical practices might turn lead into gold, or unremarkable chemicals into an elixir of eternal youth. Magic often also surrounds and informs strong transformations: such is the case with metalworking, where, in many African instances, the smith prepares himself by magical means for his work, as we explore in Chapter 8. People also transform themselves. Shamans on the Eurasian Steppe can inhabit another creature, such as a reindeer or bear, or become a spirit to enter the spirit world. The process of initiation as a shaman often involves the person being taken apart and put back together in a new form, with novel powers. For Australian Aboriginal people the landscape was transformed during the Dreamtime by the actions of ancestral spirits, such as the Rainbow Serpent, to give the land a set of powers and dangers that people need to attend to through ceremonies.

Here transformations blend into transactions. In many forms of magic people make bargains with the universe in its many forms. In China the ancestors were given feasts and offerings to ensure their good will towards their living descendants and could be contacted through divination. Divination was common in many other instances, such as in Ancient Greece, when the gods responded to questions put to them at oracles. In some cultures, especially monotheisms, a host of lesser beings, such as demons, angels or saints, received forms of supplication or more aggressive attacks to influence their behaviour in favour of humans. Across prehistoric Europe we will see how carefully placed deposits of important objects and bodies were made to the spirits of the place and the social group over many thousands of years in continuing cosmic bargaining.

Transcendence, transformation and transactions were often all found together in mutual interaction. In Medieval Europe, for example, people believed in astrology, with the influence of the planets paramount, experimented with alchemy in the hope of getting rich and gave offerings to saints to gain their favour. But when transcendent relations were predominant, people could feel alienated and fearful of the universe, lacking control over it. More mutual relations existed through transformation and transaction, in which a moral relationship was often important, motivating people to act with due respect and care.

All cultures wonder how the world works. Magic is embedded in these notions of cause and effect, while helping to form them. All schemes of causality involve at least as many questions as answers, but they also respond to the pervasive aspects of the human condition. Magic is intimately linked to those other two frameworks of enquiry and action: science and religion.

The triple helix: magic, religion and science

Magic works through human participation in the universe. In religion the primary human relationship is with one god or many gods. Science distances people from the world, taking them out of it, which leads to their observing and understanding physical operations in abstract terms, before applying that knowledge for practical ends.

For nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century anthropology the relationship between magic, religion and science was an evolutionary one. Two writers have influenced thought on magic ever since, even though their work is now redolent of the fusty atmosphere of the late-Victorian or Edwardian study: E. B. Tylor and James Frazer. The nineteenth-century anthropologist E. B. Tylor called magic ‘the most pernicious delusion ever to afflict mankind’. For Tylor the main point of the then new anthropology was to act as ‘an emancipatory science’, identifying and rooting out the elements of primitive thought still warping Western rationalism. The movement from magic to religion to science was towards a more empirically correct and institutionally based approach to understanding the world, which lay at the heart of human progress from more primitive to sophisticated thought. The most monumental and influential work on magic in this period was James Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890–1915), which, either in its full twelve-volume edition or abridged single volume, had huge effects on literature and thought. Influenced by Tylor, Frazer saw in human history a shift from the magic of early fertility cults and the sacrifice of a sacred king, to the instantiation of the world’s powers in gods, to be more recently replaced by science.

Rumours of the death of magic have been constantly exaggerated. For Tylor and Frazer, individuals or groups had to choose between magic, religion and science – it was impossible to entertain more than one approach. Tylor in his own life started as a practising Quaker, giving up his Christian belief relatively young and styling himself as a scientist. Furthermore, in Tylor’s view, although both religion and science were seen to have histories, in that they had changed and evolved, magic was an old, inert substrate of belief passed down unchanged from one generation to the next. If magic remained in contemporary Britain, seen to be at the rational and scientific peak of human progress, this was as some fossil, accidently surviving for a while against the tides of history.

Human history as a whole is made up of a triple helix of magic, religion and science, the boundaries between which are fuzzy and changing, but their mutual tension is creative. A choice between magic, religion and science is unhealthy, and each does have a history. If we concentrate on magic and science for a moment, magic knits us into a dense skein of connections with all other things, living or inorganic. Science creates the powerful fiction that we can stand apart from the workings of the universe and contemplate it in a disinterested and objective manner. An important figure in my story is Newton, described by John Maynard Keynes as the last of the magicians rather than as the first of the scientists.

Newton himself never believed in a purely mechanical universe, although he helped to create it. He spent much of his life in biblical prophecy but was also immersed in alchemy, keeping two furnaces going in his rooms in Trinity College, Cambridge. Alchemy and prophecy have been dismissed as the strange eccentricities of a great mind, but recently Newton has been reinterpreted, and such apparently eccentric beliefs can be seen as all connected and part of an attempt at a grand theory of everything, in which the physical operation of the universe is understood together with the human immersion in it and the actions of God animating the whole (see Chapter 9).

Although apparently very different, magic and science have much in common. Both strive to understand how the world works and the manner in which people can benefit from its workings. Science divides the world into matter and energy and seeks the forces that shape them or the chemical and biochemical dynamics that animate all things. Magic sees spirits in the land, considers how people and animals are related, and tries to understand transformations around birth and death. The forces defined by science find echoes in magic’s insistence that spirits animate the world. Beneath our more superficial thoughts and discussions lie deeper intuitions and desires concerning our relationship with the world. Here magic and science diverge. The practices and philosophy of magic come from a sense of kinship with other living things, the landscape and the heavens. Through magic we can explore mutuality: how we are joined to the rest of the universe and the manner in which we can affect things around us through ways of participating, which have as a central element a set of moral concerns. Scientific understanding derives from abstraction, through the quantification of matter, energy and force by means of mathematics, but also through logical reasoning from elementary starting points, such as Newton’s Laws, towards the true profusion of the world. Science separates people from the world, whereas magic immerses us in it, raising also questions of our moral relationship with the universe in a way that science does not.

In the nineteenth century in Europe the benefits of applied science were evident everywhere. New roads and railways crossed the landscape, rivers were spanned by newly designed bridges, tunnels were bored beneath hills; the flush toilet was connected to a sewage system and made cities suddenly more liveable, while the causes of mass diseases were better understood, laying the basis for modern medicine. Europeans had long colonial encounters with groups in Africa, South America, Asia and Oceania. During the nineteenth century anthropology codified varieties of culture and belief in a systematic manner, and many of the most striking beliefs in the Colonial world could be characterized as magic. These groups were wrongly seen as representing an earlier stage in human history, with the result that magical beliefs were connected with that stage. Labelling other ways of life as backward or superstitious became part of Europe’s definition of itself. We can now reject these Victorian views. Magic today is not a fossil remnant of old beliefs but always exists as part of a triple helix with religion and science, and consideration of this conjoined relationship will provide a new sense of global history.

A very brief history of magic

The relationship between magic, religion and science concerns the balance of power, raising the question of where power exists in the world. Magic sees a direct human relationship with the world. People’s words and acts can influence events and processes. Religion takes some of the power out of this magical relationship, placing it with the gods but leaving some room for direct human participation, even if often grudgingly. The mechanical universe of science radically repositions people – the universe works on its own with no need for a god or a person in the main. The universe and its forces are indifferent to people, who live in a state of alienation or anomie if they accept the consequences of a mechanical universe. Many have wrestled with the psychological and emotional consequences of an uncaring universe over the last two centuries. Magic holds the promise of a rich mutual set of connections to the world around us, but many would see such a promise as illusory, dangerous or hopelessly romantic.

Although globally over the last couple of centuries the balance of power has swung away from magic and religion, investing more effective cause and effect in physical phenomena, quite different historical trajectories can be seen in various parts of the world. Too often the histories of magic, religion and science have been written from a Western viewpoint, taking as a starting assumption that science is the only true path to knowledge. In this book we will rebalance our histories by looking at other times and places, which entertain very different assumptions and modes of reasoning in which people are joined to the world in multiple ways and all aspects of the world are sentient, allowing people to thrive within a magical, knowledgeable universe.

Magic is older than religion and science, helping to give birth to them. Such early histories are now forgotten and in need of rediscovery. A pervasive magic was gradually repositioned by an increasingly organized religion in places like the Middle East. It is important to recognize that for a long time organized religion was found only in a small area of the globe: that area between the central Mediterranean and South Asia. It is only in the last two millennia that religions such as Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam have spread. To recognize that these world religions expanded late in the human story is a crucial historical fact and one rarely recognized. Organized religion developed where societies, such as those of Mesopotamia and Egypt, became more hierarchical. This concentration of power in fewer people may have been connected with placing the power of the universe in the gods. In Mesopotamia and Egypt the king or pharaoh was either a god or more closely connected to the gods than anyone else. This connection was the source of their power, so that conceptions of how the powers of the universe worked were linked to power in the human world.

Having said that, many hierarchical societies did not develop in this way. In East Asia, the ruler was the head of the most powerful lineage. An important aspect of their role was to question and intercede with human ancestors, who could, if approached correctly, help to guarantee the well-being of their descendants. Here there was no pantheon of gods, and it is likely that the ultimate divine creative force, such as Di in China, who is sometimes described as a god, might have been seen as the original ancestor. East Asian practices were those of deep participation, where the power of people, living and dead, was an integral part of the flows of energy through the universe. These are worlds of transaction, not transcendence. In other parts of the world human lineages were also crucial means of understanding history and continuity, as well as flows of power. Africa exhibits many different lineage modes of life, but these human chains of being are always important. Magic is a common-sense outcome of this emphasis on human connections.

Across the vast grasslands and forests of the Steppe in Central Asia and west into Europe, the world was animated by spirits, some originally human, others less so. There is great variety across these huge spaces. Linguists talk of dialect chains, sets of related languages, in which adjacent forms of speech are mutually intelligible with some effort, but, as you move along the chain, comprehension decreases. The magical practices of Eurasia are the equivalents of such chains: difference increases with distance, but deep connections exist along the chain. Here the world as a whole was animate, with rocks and trees in some ways equivalent to people. In later periods, at least, and mainly in the East, shamans worked their way between worlds through processes of transformation and transaction. All things, good or bad, derived from the spirit world, and interaction with the spirits was regularly needed by those skilled and brave enough to take the risk.

Human life in the Americas shows huge variety, with shamanic practices in various places; these may have an ultimate historical root in Siberia, the homeland of American populations. Everywhere spirits of place lived beside people. In many areas astrological influences shaped life on Earth, leading to close observation and observance. In the state societies of Central and South America aspects of organized religion evolved, with some named deities, but also with much room for human participation.

The most different part of the world is Australia. Aboriginal people do not so much have a relationship with the land as see themselves as part of the land. Songs, art, dances and indeed culture as a whole all derive from the land, which in turn had been shaped by human ancestors at some point in an unfathomable past. In many senses Aboriginal culture represents the deepest participation of all, states of being that are very hard for people from other cultural backgrounds to truly grasp.

In exploring the historical play between magic, religion and science, this book will be partly geographically ordered, considering various parts of the world but also charting change through time. In bald summary we can distinguish five main sets of relationships.

Magic as a dominant force, including the Middle East and Egypt before the Bronze Age, prehistoric Europe and the Steppe, Aboriginal Australia, North America, and much of South America. In these areas magical practices formed the ether in which all other human customs existed. In some areas, such as Aboriginal Australia and regions of the Americas, this remained the situation until European colonialism. There was little organized religion that we can recognize, and understandings of material properties and forces had not been formalized into anything approaching science. Chapters 2, 5, 6 and 8 explore these worlds of magical dominance.

Magic and an emphasis on human lineages, in China and much of Africa and the Pacific. Human participation has deep historical roots in these areas, deriving from the Glacial Period, and was partially disturbed only by the incursion of new colonial groups and/or novel religions, such as Buddhism in the case of China or Christianity and Islam elsewhere. Human participation in the world was understood through the medium of the ancestors. Contact between the living and dead was maintained through divination, oracles and offerings. Spirits of place were also common, and people needed to transact with them to maintain fertility or avoid harm. Although notions of transcendent powers existed, there were no or few fixed deities prior to the arrival of the world religions. We will look at China in Chapter 4 and other magical lineage systems in Chapter 8.

Magic and religion as equals, in Mesopotamia, Egypt, ancient India, Central and South American states. In these areas it is most difficult to distinguish between the worship of gods and the practices of magic. The former allows some emphasis on transcendence, that is, powers beyond human control. Magical practices insist on human influence and often include interactions with demons, angels or various spirits. Magic and religion were seen as complementary, not mutually exclusive approaches, and it is very difficult to identify a clear boundary between the two. Science starts to emerge through a more abstract and mathematical understanding, especially in Mesopotamia and India. Chapter 3 considers Mesopotamia and Egypt, with Chapter 8 exploring magic in Central and South America.

Religion is dominant and magic ambiguous, including Israel, Greece, Rome and Early Medieval Europe. The rise of monotheism gives religion a more transcendent aspect, investing power in a single God beyond the world. However, the emphasis on angels and demons in Israel and angels, demons and saints in Medieval Europe softens such transcendent powers. Greek and Roman gods can be approached and bargained with, but are capricious and hard for mortals to understand. Magic is commonly and openly practised, but it runs the danger of seeming subversive or being antagonistic to structures of power. Chapter 7 considers Israel, Greece and Rome.

Science, religion and magic exist in that order of cultural importance in Post-Medieval Europe, the European Colonial diaspora and now some elements of the globalized world. The transcendent power of a single God is spread out and applied to the universe of science. Transformations are possible and stressed, when the universe is understood only through science, which is seen as the sole means of grasping reality. There is now a great emphasis on cause and effect, with earlier forms of thought focusing on resemblances, such as famously through the Greek and then Medieval notion of the Humours, in which Earth, Air, Fire and Water were linked to the constitution and condition of the human body. Those who embrace a scientific attitude stand apart from the universe, attempting to understand it in an abstract manner in order to then manipulate it. Magic is marginalized as an activity of the eccentric or as a counter-cultural practice. In Chapter 9 we will look at Medieval and Post-Medieval Europe, with Chapter 10 considering modern forms of magic, before arguing for a contemporary appreciation of magical practices, inspired by recent scientific developments.

Deep history has seen a movement from people feeling they were part of the world, partaking of its powers of creativity and destruction, to the externalizing of such powers into gods and then to the detached universe as described by science. But magic lived alongside these later trends, curating a direct human connection with the cosmos. Societies in which magic was dominant were not harmonious and peaceful, because of their state of oneness with the universe. There was considerable violence, social collapse and disruption. They certainly do not represent a state to which we can return, even if we should wish so. However, magic is a strand in the long-term history of humanity, and it has important work to do in allowing us to explore our closeness with reality, in providing a useful complement and counter-balance to the more distancing attitudes of religion and science. A choice between these three is neither necessary nor desirable.

The aims of magic

The history of magic developed through a range of common practices found across time and space but always in possession of their own cultural nuances.

All who are born die; all who live for any length of time worry about the future, both for themselves and for significant others. People make decisions about what to do next and worry about the influence of past events on the future. People live through difficult or deadly times, caused by war, famine, flood or fire. Why difficulties started and how they might be stopped is of great importance. The aims and methods of magic are many, but certain commonalities occur. In what follows, I have tried to lay out some general categories of magical practice found across time and space. By its nature, such a list is indicative, not exhaustive.


Copyright © 2020 by Chris Gosden