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Sorcery and witchcraft

Cultural and structural approaches

Magic and social change


The article under this heading discusses witchcraft and sorcery as well as magic. Related material will be found under Pollution; Ritual; and in the articles mentioned in the guide to Religion. The biographies of Durkheim; Frazer; Kluckhohn; Malinowski; Mauss; and NADEL should also be consulted.

The relation of magic to religion and to science provided fuel for early anthropological speculation. All students of primitive religion have had to face the question in some form or other. It has proved difficult to circumscribe the subject of magic with any degree of precision. If, as is often the case, the subjects of mana, taboo, totemism, and ritual are included, the discussion of magic easily dissolves into comparative religion.

In recent years, apart from a notable work on taboo (Steiner 1956), there has been a lack of interest in magic, although the work of Levi-Strauss on primitive thought (1962; 1964) promises to revive discussion. In the past 30 years anthropologists have concentrated on describing and analyzing the moral and religious ideas and institutions of particular peoples in great detail. In these studies the great philosophical issues of magic, science, and religion, which exercised thinkers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, have receded into the background. There has been great interest in specific institutions, such as sorcery and witchcraft, which may be regarded as the social dimensions of magic. Although theoretical formulations in these fields have not kept pace with the greatly increased area of knowledge, such contributions as those of Evans-Pritchard (1937), Kluckhohn (1944), and Nadel (1952) have had important repercussions.

In historical terms, there can be seen a development from attempts to single out isolated and exotic instances of belief or practice in order to but-tress a highly abstract philosophical position (such as Frazer’s work) to an effort to place all magical acts in their proper context within the totality of moral and religious ideas, institutions, and practices of a culture.

For nineteenth-century thinkers like Tylor (1871), McLennan (1865–1876), Spencer (1876–1896), and Lang (1901), the question of greatest interest was the origins of magic as related to the origins of religion. Their works were attempts to understand how early man was led in the direction of superstition by faulty observation and reasoning. This line of inquiry led to Levy-Bruhl’s famous work on primitive mentality (1910). Frazer (1890) was also working on evolutionary premises. Theories regarding the evolution of religion or science from magic are no longer in vogue, but Frazer’s work will remain one of the most sustained efforts to penetrate the difficulties of the subject. Frazer regarded magic as an earlier, primitive form of both religion and science. He observed rightly that primitive practice is often based on excellent observation of natural phenomena and involves a theory of causality. He therefore felt that there was a basic similarity between magic and science. The only difference was that for a variety of reasons the mistaken assumptions and erroneous conclusions of magic were veiled from the observer and did not shake his beliefs.

The basic principles of magic, according to Frazer, were two: the law of similarity and the law of contagion. According to the first principle, like produces like, so that sticking pins into a doll is like sticking arrows into the enemy; and according to the law of contagion, prolonged or intimate contact produces identity, so that the enemy’s nail parings and hair can be treated as if they represented him.

Evans-Pritchard (1933) has remarked that if Frazer had observed what the natives did rather than what they thought, he would have been less inclined to draw similarities between scientists and witch doctors. He would also have seen the difference between scientific methods and traditional arts.

While anthropologists were skeptical about the attempt to reduce the exuberant complexity of primitive ritual and magic to two principles of thought, the initial impact of Frazer’s ideas was considerable, especially beyond the circles of academic anthropology. In retrospect, Frazer’s work is generally regarded as having one crippling difficulty: similar customs and practices from all cultures of the world were collected and examined under common labels. Since the labels and their relations exemplified Frazer’s own thinking on the subject, the data merely filled the preconceived receptacles and did not add to the analysis of the phenomena in any one culture (Leach 1961).

Since Frazer, every major writer on primitive religion has struggled with “magic” and every major monograph has provided more material on this elusive subject. Durkheim (1912), for instance, distinguished magic and religion on the assumption that religion presupposed a church or a congregation, while the magician worked alone and merely had a clientele.

Malinowski wrote in a different vein. In his article “Magic, Science and Religion” (1925), he argued, in Frazerian terms, for the necessity of distinguishing among these fields, but on a non-evolutionary basis. Magic, he suggested, is related to anxiety. In ordinary, everyday economic pursuits there is no magic. But when the outcome of the enterprise is uncertain and there is danger involved, the native has recourse to magic. Moreover, magic is directed to specific ends and differs from religion in not being concerned with the worship of spiritual beings.

As Malinowski pointed out, the natives of the Trobriand Islands are perfectly able to distinguish the sphere of magic from that of technology. Thus, although every step of the cultivation process is marked by magical rites, there is no question of giving up one’s own efforts to cultivate gardens and attempting to grow the food by magic alone. On the contrary, they know that even after having spent their best efforts on cultivation, some unpredictable act of nature may destroy their crops. Thus, argued Malinowski, the native has his “scientific technology” clearly distinguished from the sphere of magic. It is against the unpredictable that magic is utilized. Natives would consider it laughable to do otherwise.

This pragmatic point of view expressed by Malinowski has had many supporters. (We may observe also that the relation which he posits between anxiety and ritual harks back to psychoanalytic theory.) But the utilitarian basis of these theories has recently been severely questioned. It has become clear that the facts of ethnography do not fall into place as neatly as Malinowski had thought. Some features of magic, of Australian increase ceremonies, or of totemism don’t make sense in simple utilitarian terms. Malinowski wrote, for instance, that “.. . food is the primary link between the primitive and providence.. .. The road from the wilderness to the savage’s belly and consequently to his mind is very short” ([1925] 1948, pp. 26-27). But in the magical repertoire of aboriginal Australians there are “increase ceremonies” for all kinds of nonutilitarian categories—for instance, mosquitoes—and simple pragmatic explanations for such complicated facts would be naive.

Malinowski had specifically dismissed the views of Mauss, who had argued (see Levi-Strauss 1950) that magic is a special application of the forces of sacred powers, like mana, some conception of which is found in every society. For Mauss, mana was, in fact, a connection between religion and magic. Magic comes from religion into the realm of everyday life, where its end is action.

Malinowski, in denying the role of mana, attempted to place the emphasis again on pragmatic functions. He asked, “.. . what is mana, this im-personal force of magic supposed to dominate all forms of early belief? Is it a fundamental idea, an innate category of the primitive mind, or can it be explained by still simpler and more fundamental elements of human psychology. .. ?” These fundamental elements turn out to be merely “a blend of utilitarian anxiety about the most necessary objects of his surroundings.. .. With our knowledge of what could be called the totemic attitude of mind, primitive religion is seen to be nearer to reality and to the immediate practical life interests of the savage” ([1925] 1948, pp. 4-5).

Lévi-Strauss (1950) upholds Mauss and is concerned to redress the balance in favor of an argument that the inner logic of religious ideas is not utilitarian and that their logic has to be understood in their own terms. Features of primitive beHef must be examined not by imputing our materialist viewpoint to the idealized native but in terms of the position of such ideas and symbols in the total tapestry of customary belief and practice. Thus, Levi-Strauss agrees with Mauss and notes that the concept of mana is truly like a common denominator for concepts of the “sacred” and is, indeed, intimately related to magic. The conclusion here is that to understand magic, we must understand the refractions of the concept of the sacred in the culture.

Magic, then, is not a uniform class of practices and beliefs which can be immediately discerned in every society. On the contrary, it is best regarded as an aspect of religious belief and practice that takes its special force from the antecedent and deeply rooted recognition in many societies of supernatural or divine power. The place given to the practical use of such powers for everyday purposes such as healing or assuring luck and fertility —which in very general terms we may refer to as magic—differs from society to society.

Witchcraft and sorcery also involve the belief in supernatural powers, and sorcery in particular may be regarded as a specialized branch of offensive magic. What is said about magic and religion holds true for witchcraft and sorcery as well: it is imperative to place these beliefs and practices within the context of the total supernatural belief system of the culture in question. It Will then be feasible to raise the question of whether there is logic in this madness and to what extent the different parts of the supernatural system show structure, division of labor, and specialization of function.

Sorcery and witchcraft

The terms “sorcery” and “witchcraft” refer to practices and supernatural beings which are part and parcel of the European Christian tradition. Their use in anthropology involves an essential widening of their meaning to cover a great many beliefs and practices from other cultures which have proved difficult to classify. The conceptual categories involved in such supernatural beings and practices are sometimes so unique to particular peoples that the translation of concepts from one cultural idiom into another becomes a difficulty of the first magnitude. Is “witchcraft” similar to the “evil eye”? Is a European witch the “same” as an Islamic djinn or a Hindu yaksa? These questions about the similarities and differences between belief systems of different cultures remain largely unresolved.

With the above general reservations, it may be noted that in the area of witchcraft and sorcery, the empirical and theoretical distinctions made by Evans-Pritchard (1937) in his analysis of the ideas of the Azande have won general acceptance. The conceptual distinction made by the Azande has been observed in numerous other African cultures. The distinction turns on the nature of witches. According to Azande theories, “witches “are ordinary members of society who have inherited special supernatural powers to harm others and who may be completely unconscious of their evil potentialities. The Azande have consistent and developed physiological theories to explain just where in the human body such powers lie. They also have their special ways of consulting oracles to discover who among them carries the power, the reason for the attack, and how the danger is to be averted. Among the Azande these witches who are singled out by their fellow men are sharply distinguished from “sorcerers.” Sorcerers are men who have learned the particular techniques of handling special substances and charms whereby they can affect others. While the witches’ supernatural powers are innate and unconscious, sorcery is an acquired technique and is conscious. In one case a person fully unconscious of his guilt may be publicly accused as a “witch” and by the use of oracles may be confirmed as such, whereas in the other case, at least in theory, there is a conscious agent responsible for certain incidents who may or may not be accused of evil intentions.

These distinctions have thrown light upon anthropological field information beyond the Azande material from which they were developed. Sorcery theory and practice are evidently very widespread on all continents; but witchcraft, with its direct accusations of certain individuals who may be totally unaware of what they are accused of, is a more remarkable and less widespread phenomenon. Apart from the celebrated medieval European and New England examples, cases of witchcraft accusation from parts of Middle America (Nash 1960) and central and east Africa also have been described. On the whole, the term “witchcraft,” in the narrow sense, has not been used to describe related phenomena in the Near East and south Asia.

The above definitions make it possible to distinguish a gradation of witchcraft belief ranging from the fully developed dogmas that certain people become witches in some form (which may be embellished with detailed stories of their secret meetings and activities) to vague feelings that certain people might possess occult powers (such as the evil eye) to cause some harm, even though they may not be directly accused. The latter fear, in various degrees, is very widespread in the Mediterranean region as well as the Near East and south Asia, even though these powers are not usually described as “witchcraft.”.

It should be underlined that this distinction between sorcery and witchcraft lies entirely within the region of ideas and that there may be no “objective “basis to either set of beliefs. In other words, although it should be theoretically possible to ob-serve the sorcerer at his work, and although external evidence could be produced in the form of magical substances, special bundles, and the like, it is also quite possible that while there may be wide-spread fear of sorcery, it may in fact never be practiced by anybody. In this sense, in the study of both sorcery and witchcraft we are almost entirely concerned with the analysis of supernatural beliefs.

Cultural and structural approaches

Although descriptive works of high quality are now numerous, little progress has been made by anthropologists into the systematic analysis of customary belief systems. The dilemma has remained: how far are belief systems to be related to and analyzed in terms of the economic and social structures of the groups in question? Or if such systems are not directly related to economic and social structures, are there internal logical and categorical features which produce consistency and form in belief systems? The differences between these approaches have made themselves felt in the emphasis placed on the cultural or structural aspects of these phenomena.

Internal features of belief systems

The cultural approach to witchcraft and sorcery has underlined the consistency or logical closure of such systems: thus witchcraft and sorcery ideas are theories of causation concerning good and evil in human society. When a misfortune takes place, it can be explained by witchcraft or sorcery. This explanation in turn involves the necessity of discovering the agents of causation, i.e., those witches and sorcerers responsible. Thus, beginning with a theory of causation, one is led to techniques of divination. These, in turn, necessitate the development of the arts of healing and defense. Hence, ideas regarding witchcraft and sorcery become part of a coherent and consistent set of ideas regarding the nature of events in the world. Since these ideas have very wide ramifications and are inextricably related to the thought, language, and customary behavior of the societies in question, convictions regarding witches, sorcerers, and magic cannot be contradicted on simple rational or empirical grounds. They are rooted deep in the nature of social life.

There has been little analysis of the total “design” of supernatural belief systems, even though witnesses in the field have generally taken their coherence for granted. The “design” means here the characteristics, roles, rights and obligations of supernatural beings, their organization and relations with each other and with human society at large. It also includes the methods whereby they may be approached, communicated with, appeased, angered, or utilized. It seems clear that all societies have a design of this nature whereby a division of labor between different sections of the supernatural is effected.

An example of the operation of such a system is to be seen among the Sinhalese villagers of Ceylon. In these communities the world of supernatural beings has both Buddhist and Hindu features. The Buddha and his monks, who are held in high esteem, are seen to help man’s prospects in the next existence or in eternity, whereas the Hindu-influenced pantheon of supernatural beings is seen to hold sway over the present life and worldly prospects of men. Within this general framework, However, the supernatural beings who deal with this world are divided into gods and goddesses who are thought to ensure long life, well-being, and fertility, on the one hand, and demons and demonesses who are thought to wreak havoc and to bring infertility, suffering, and death, on the other. Oversimplifying, their relations can be seen as the forces of light and darkness, or those of good and evil.

The place of magic in this picture becomes clear when we observe the elaborate precautions which are taken on the threshing floors at harvest time. The threshing floor is treated as the temple—residence of the gods and goddesses who try to increase the yield. The small circle becomes the battleground for the gods and demons over the fertility of the lands and the yield of the harvest. The demons and demonesses are feared to be hovering outside its borders, aiming to attack the grain on the threshing floor and to steal it. Special magical pre-cautions are taken to please the gods and repulse the demons. Indeed, until recently Sinhalese peasants in the interior spoke a special language, which the demons could not comprehend, when they entered the sacred precincts of their threshing floors.

It is in this context that the role of sorcery is also seen most clearly. Just as there are elaborately developed techniques of communicating with the supernatural in the threshing floor to appease the gods and hold the demons at bay, there are also techniques, said to be very dangerous, to achieve the opposite. Logically, if the achievement of the good is within the bounds of human influence, so is the working of evil. Hence, Sinhalese villagers fully believe that some people can activate the demons against them by special offerings and incantations. Thus, sorcery is part of the very foundations of the total belief system of the villagers. And further, if there is sorcery, and if there are demons who are active, then men must seek magical protection. Indeed, the great theatrical art of ritual healing—directed specifically against sorcery —is one of the most noteworthy and developed aspects of folk culture among the Sinhalese (Wirz 1954; Yalman 1964).

Such precise linking of supernatural cause and effect, white magic and sorcery, sorcery and ritual healing is not always clearly visible in the detailed description of supernatural designs, but it appears likely that further analysis will reveal similar logical interlinkages in most primitive religions. As Evans-Pritchard observes for the Azande, “witchcraft, oracles and magic are like three sides of a triangle” (1937, p. 387).

The attempt to understand fully the inner workings of the mind of even the most primitive peoples is an obvious prerequisite to the analysis of their supernatural beliefs, behavior, and rituals. Without such penetration into what appear to be irrational and alien mentalities, all observations are bound to be superficial, rash, or wrong. The process of understanding the minds of others is partly a matter of insight and freedom from prejudice, and although the discipline of anthropology has gone far in this direction, there is much room for improvement. In any case, the objective and respectful attempt to understand the inner logic in what superficially appears meaningless or illogical cannot be taken for granted. But the further question must also be raised of whether the linked and orderly system of ideas presented to us is really that of the native, or whether the order is artificially imposed on the phenomena by the mind of the anthropological observer. This issue is a difficult one, resting near the precipice of metaphysics, but its difficulty does not prevent the observation that the heuristic assumption of “system” in primitive ideologies has proved to be very fruitful. The claim regarding the systematic nature of primitive ideas is always open to further verification, but as yet no anthropologist has been able to sustain an argument based on the senselessness or illogicality of primitive beliefs.

In the meantime, further developments toward the understanding of belief systems have derived from structural linguistics. These are based on the desire not only to understand belief systems in a general way but also to go beyond the generalities and analyze the detailed features of belief systems on the model of communication systems (Levi-Strauss 1964). Proponents of this approach maintain that belief and ritual systems have elements of order and internal structure because they form the framework for human communication. Levi-Strauss (1955) has recommended examining the most minute details of primitive myths, as if they were literary texts. Other anthropologists have suggested that the sequences of ritual may be susceptible to the type of analysis that is applied to sequences of sounds in modern linguistics (Yalman 1964). These developments in the fields of mythology and ritual have an important bearing on magic, witchcraft, and sorcery; but as yet they remain promising methods rather than well-rounded and well-supported theoretical and analytic positions (Leach 1964). Their aim is the clarification of the structure of the language of mythology and ritual. Thus, they are formal analyses divorced both from Marxist opinions regarding the primacy of the social structure over systems of ideas and from the Freudian assumptions concerning the effects of the unconscious. Whether this line of inquiry will prove effective remains to be seen (Levi-Strauss 1963).

Structural aspects

We turn now to the effect of the beliefs in sorcery and witchcraft on social relations. The direct or veiled accusation of a person or a group is a critical element in the sorcery and witchcraft complex. Wherever these beliefs occur, we may expect a great elaboration of super-natural weapons of offense and defense against sorcerers and witches and these accusations.

There have been attempts to relate overt accusations of witchcraft and sorcery to the morphology of kinship or social groups. It is suggested that such accusation of evil intent of one person by another must run along the lines of stress in the structure of social groups. There is undoubtedly much truth in this statement, and it is confirmed by the widespread feeling among people of many cultures that institutions such as the evil eye, witches, and sorcery spring directly from one of the most powerful human sentiments, jealousy. This is merely a different way of expressing the strained social relations between the accuser and the accused. This is why jealousy and envy are so often given as the reason for the supernatural attack (Wilson 1951a). Witchcraft accusations that reveal both secret and unconscious envy as well as overt suspicions may be regarded as particularly clear symptoms of strain in the social structure.

One of the most interesting studies of this problem is by Nadel (1952). For purposes of precise comparison he selects two pairs of societies: the Nupe and Gwari of Nigeria, and the Korongo and Mesakin of the Sudan. Each pair is similar in most cultural respects but differs in a few critical structural features. Thus, in the Nigerian pair Nupe women are often traders, and their economic interest and activities put a well-recognized strain on husband-wife relations. Among the Gwari, the economic problems do not exist, and the strains are absent. Accordingly, although both cultures firmly believe in witchcraft, among the Nupe witches are conceived of as women, and witch associations are said to resemble women’s trade associations. The Gwari, on the other hand, conceive of their witches as being both male and female.

In the second pair there is greater contrast. According to Nadel, the Korongo have no witchcraft beliefs at all, whereas the Mesakin are said to be totally obsessed by witchcraft. In general structural form the two groups are similar, except for some critical features which are singled out by Nadel. Both groups are matrilineal. Among the Korongo the age-class system permits easy mobility through the numerous classes for young men, whereas among the Mesakin there are fewer grades and they remain closed and rigid. Among the latter, mobility is curtailed and is replaced by competition and hostility between the generations. The Korongo have no witch problems, whereas among the Mesakin most witchcraft accusations occur among maternal kin—more specifically, between mother’s brother and sister’s son, who are placed in positions of the most intense competition in the age-grade system.

In such theories the ideology and practice of witchcraft are related with some precision to areas of anxiety and stress in the social fabric. All these theories are based on the incidence of witchcraft accusations between individuals in certain specific social roles. But, for obvious reasons, statistical evidence of sufficient depth and range in connection with such highly charged issues is difficult to collect and evaluate.

Middleton and Winter (1963) have raised some important questions regarding both the coherence of dogma and the structural aspects of witchcraft and sorcery. Accepting the notion that witchcraft and sorcery have coherent doctrines which explain events in social life, they argue that sorcery and witchcraft beliefs are exhaustive systems of super-natural explanation. When found in the same society, moreover, they are opposed explanations. Theoretically, then, one set should be redundant; but in fact most African societies, they argue, have both systems of dogma. If so, they suggest, witchcraft and sorcery must fit in with different aspects of the social structure, and this hypothesis is related to the different natures of witchcraft and sorcery.

Since sorcery is a voluntary matter and merely a technique which can be learned, anybody may be in a position to use it for offense or defense. Moreover, depending upon the motives of the sorcerer, it is not innately evil. On the other hand, witchcraft is by definition an innate matter, usually evil, in which the alleged witch has no choice. For this reason Middleton and Winter suggest that witchcraft accusations are more characteristically made against persons who are in ascribed roles, such as involuntary membership in unilineal descent groups where the individual acquires his position by virtue of his birth, whereas sorcery accusations tend to be made against persons in achieved statuses and are more characteristic of the nonunilineal aspects of societies.

Thus, among Lugbara lineages, the women who come in as wives are incorporated into their husbands’ patrilineages and become full members. Even if they leave the husband, their future children legally continue to belong to his patrilineage. In this context the elaborate ideology of witchcraft is linked to women, and witches are always said to be females. Among the Nyoro, on the other hand, people live in mixed nonunilineal neighborhoods, the women are not incorporated into patrilineages, most social positions are voluntary, and there is a developed technology of sorcery rather than witchcraft.

Even though the specific application of these ideas is illuminating, it is difficult to generalize from them to witchcraft beliefs at large. For there is always an ascribed aspect to social status, and it appears difficult to evaluate the witchcraft of complex communities in early New England, medieval Europe, or present-day Indian communities of Middle America and South America in these terms.

Apart from the question of tension in social relations, the psychological aspects of witchcraft beliefs are another dimension of the facts. If witchcraft beliefs are regarded as unrealistic fantasies—a weak theoretical position from the point of view of anthropology—then some similarity and connection may be seen between witchcraft, sorcery, and infantile fantasies. But since these ideas, however unrealistic, are collective fantasies, their explanation can be related in any meaningful fashion only to collective infantile experiences. The question remains interesting but open.

The dogmas of witchcraft, sorcery, and magic are also relevant to the social control and inheritance systems of certain societies. Among the Trobriand Islanders the power of sorcery was an important weapon which buttressed the position of the chief. Although commoners had access to sorcerers, the chief could call upon the services of many in different districts and thereby extend his authority. Frazer has reported similar instances of the use of supernatural means to secure extensive reinforcement of traditional political organizations. The divine kingship of the Shilluk is one of the well-known instances (Evans-Pritchard 1948).

In some societies where witchcraft is regarded as an innate quality in certain individuals, there are theories of its inheritance. In some cases when the main line of descent, for purposes of family organization, is in the male line, witchcraft is thought to run in the female line.

Magic and social change

Ideas about magic and supernatural creatures play a vital explanatory role as organized and institutionalized systems of public belief in traditional societies. They explain disease, injustice, misfortune, and death. Social reformers often feel that education may be used as the most potent weapon against such superstitions. It is true that modern education attacks these customary systems by providing alternative explanations for events and, probably more important, by undermining the authority of the spokesmen for the traditional system.

However, it is ironic that the fundamental changes in traditional society which permit the establishment of modern educational systems also bring about greater insecurity and increased tensions in social relations. Under such conditions, there is an even greater urge to turn to such super-natural weapons and beliefs as are available. It is notorious that modern governments in parts of Africa which have forbidden such practices as divination, the poison oracles, and similar traditional observances as being mere superstitions have naturally been seen as aligned with the forces of evil. For if the government prevents the use of appropriate traditional antiwitchcraft defensive weapons, they in effect frustrate the witch hunters and thereby materially contribute to the increase of witches. Hence, at least for parts of Africa, observers note that notwithstanding modernization, witches are felt to be more active and there is increased interest in modern movements of witch finders.

Magic, witchcraft, and sorcery are rooted in traditional customary ideas whereby cultures categorize and order the universe around them. As such, they not only are intertwined with every aspect of culture, thought, and language but also provide coherent and systematic means to influence the world in which man lives. For the anthropologist such belief systems provide essential material for the understanding of the metaphysics of non-Western cultures. They may also lead to a better understanding of the structured aspects of customary thought.

Ideas regarding witchcraft and sorcery appear strange in a rationalist period such as ours, but we should recall what immense sway such beliefs have held over very sophisticated and highly intelligent men. We must be guarded in our haste to dismiss these ideas of the supernatural. Rather, we must understand the very roots which provide the strength of conviction for such beliefs.

All knowledge rests on some degree of trust and respect. In modern societies the specialized task of developing knowledge and examining the basis of knowledge is given to thinkers and scientists in institutions of learning. Those not directly involved with a particular branch of investigation—if they understand its language at all—take their conclusions on trust. The respect in which the institution is held is an important aspect of this trust. Similarly, the knowledge of supernatural powers, of gods and goddesses, of demons and demonesses, of sorcerers and witches in all primitive societies derives from respected traditions and institutions and from men who have proved themselves worthy of trust. Commonly shared beliefs are at the basis of communal sentiments, and hence beliefs which appear primitive and totally illogical to the Western observer not only rest on dogma but also take added strength from the fact that they are part of the moral foundations of the society in which they are found.

Nur Yalman


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Magic is the performance of acts or rites that are intended to influence a person, object, or event. It can also be performed to counter other magic. Magical acts or rites are usually performed with the assistance of mystical power. People who engage in the different activities magic encompasses can be called magicians, shamans, healers, sorcerers, or priests/priestesses. In some societies the knowledge required and the ability to perform magic are restricted to specialists who have undergone extensive training, while in other societies they are available to the common person and are learned as part of the enculturation process. In early-twenty-first-century anthropological discourse magic is generally considered to be a dimension of religious thought and practice and to be an aspect of culturally influenced understandings about causality, while in popular culture magic is often associated with superstition and used to refer to ideas and practices considered to be false and inferior. Divination is frequently identified with magic. It concerns the attempt to learn or discover information that is not accessible to most human beings through acts of skilled interpretation and the use of mystical power. The information discovered can be used to inform an act of magic but divination is not itself the act of influencing people, objects, or events.

Since the early twentieth century, scholars writing on magic have been interested in a variety of issues that concern its instrumental effects, social functions, psychological functions, symbolic attributes, and the forms of thought that characterize it. Their inquiries and theories have offered a range of ways to approach the study of magic, have made important contributions to the development of the disciplines of philosophy and anthropology, and continue to raise central questions about the limitations of language and culturally influenced perception in the interpretation of less familiar ideas and practices. The study of magic presents contemporary scholarship with a rich history on which to build theories of intersubjective understanding. An analysis of the intellectual and epistemological history of Western thought about magic reveals patterns of ethnocentrism. Awareness of these constructions offers the possibility of advancing methods of cross-cultural and cross-society comparison in addition to the creation of theories that more fully address the range of ideas and practices that can be considered in magic.

Vocabularies used to describe the practitioners, outcomes, and qualities of magic seem to gain popularity for certain periods of time, evolve in ways that reflect the concerns of particular disciplines, and come to be associated with specific geographic areas of the world. Witchcraft and sorcery, for example, have been used predominantly in the social sciences to refer to harmful or destructive uses of magic. Another example is the relatively limited use of the term shamanism in anthropological literature to practitioners of magic in Northern Europe and the Americas. In addition, shamanism assumes that magical acts can have both harmful and helpful consequences. Anthropological literature that concerns practitioners of magic in Africa has often relied on the term healing to refer to helpful magic, and witchcraft to refer to harmful magic. In an attempt to develop a more universal vocabulary and to avoid some of the topical and regional associations carried by the terms witchcraft and sorcery, some scholars prefer only to use the term magic.

Magic, Religion, and Science

Of particular interest to intellectual history is the way that the terms magic and religion have been used in a social evolutionary framework to mark differences between the Western and non-Western, the advanced and backward, civilized and primitive cultures, and to characterize Christian and non-Christian religions. Many scholarly ideas are based on a set of assumptions about the differences between magic and religion, placing greater importance on the achievements of religion and greater value on its truth claims. These ideas bear some similarity to distinctions offered in the Old Testament and in early Christian theology. Some scholarly ideas address the difference between magic and science, where the latter is viewed in more positive terms. In the nineteenth and part of the twentieth century anthropological discussions of magic, religion, and science were heavily influenced by evolutionary theories and debates about the nature of scientific reasoning and practice. They also tended to rely on the understanding that magic involved the manipulation of mystical forces and beings, was used to achieve practical goals, and was intended to affect the natural world.

E. B. Tylor (18321917) and James G. Frazer (18541941) made some of the most important early contributions to the study of magic and religion, although both relied on ethnographic information that was limited in geographic scope and lacked extensive contextualization.

In contrast to a number of previous ideas holding that magic is an undeveloped and primitive form of thought, Tylor found that magic required a rational process of analogy based on understanding the links between cause and effect. He was also interested in its symbolic properties. He did, however, emphasize the differences between thought in magic and thought in science, for he called magic a "pseudoscience" that was incorrect and deluded. His point was that people involved in magic could not differentiate between causal relationships achieved through magic, and causal relationships that occur in nature. Although he thought that both magic and religion could exist together in any given society, he proposed that magic diminished as human institutions advanced and therefore associated scientific thought with more noteworthy human achievements.

Frazier's understanding of the relationship between magic and religion was structured according to a linear evolutionary framework composed of three forms of thought: magical, religious, and scientific. He postulated that magical thought, the earliest stage of human development, was replaced by religious thought as people observed its failures and came to believe that they could propitiate gods in order to control nature. Religious thought was then replaced by scientific thought as human beings understood natural laws.

Frazier is also noted for his insights about the thought processes that magic involves. His ideas about causality in magical thought continue to be important to arguments about differences in forms, or systems, of thought in various cultures. He observed that magic was based on two sets of assumptions about the way magic worked, which he called laws. The first was the law of similarity (characterized by homeopathic or imitative magic) and the second was the law of contact (characterized by contagious magic). In homeopathic magic he stated that "like produced like," where a thing with a property or quality similar to another thing was thought to be able to influence it. In contagious magic, a thing in physical contact with another thing was thought to be able to influence it later and at a physical distance. He observed that scientific reasoning involved a comparable thinking process, or "association of ideas," and for that reason viewed magic and science as fundamentally different from religion, which involved human beings' propitiation of superior powers.

By the turn of the century the writings of scholars with a sociological orientation increasingly became more important. They based the distinction between magic and religion on its function and on the context of its performance. For Marcel Mauss (18721950), magic was private and secret, and did not contribute to group activities and organizations. Émile Durkheim (18581917) similarly viewed magic as an individual practice in contrast to religion, which he saw to be collective. Max Weber (18641920) was interested in comparing the practice of magic and religion in precapitalist and capitalist societies. He observed that magic was dominant in precapitalist societies, and was on the decline in capitalist societies along with what he called the increased "rationalization of economic life."

The Functions and Effects of Magic in Classic
Anthropological Works

The early contributions of Wilhelm Wundt (18321920) and R. R. Marett (18661943) drew attention to the psychological motivations and effects of magic. Wundt, who viewed magic as a stage in the development of religion, found that the impetus to practice magic came from human beings' fear of nature and efforts to influence it. Marett saw magic as a way for humans to address emotions stemming from insecurity and to gain courage and confidence.

Beginning with the work of Bronislaw Malinowski (18841942) in the Trobriand Islands of Melanesia during World War I, the insights that anthropologists brought to the study of magic were based on long-term field observations and were undertaken by the writers themselves. Along with the work of his contemporary, Alfred Radcliffe-Brown (18811955), he greatly contributed to anthropology's developing body of thought on methods and standards for fieldwork. With extensive examples from his study, Malinowski found that magic in the Trobriand Islands addressed particular kinds of problems that were specific and practical. These he distinguished from the larger concerns of human life that he identified with religion.

For Malinowski, the many functions of magic included human beings' attempts to increase the probability of success in important activities, and increase confidence to undertake them. Magic opened up possibilities for human action. He did not view magic as a characteristic of particular kinds of societies, but thought that it could be found when human beings were confronted with a lack of knowledge or ability to control something important to their lives. Malinowski also observed that magic had social and moral functions that led to better cooperation among group members. In addition, it gave people access to what he referred to as "miracles," events that were unexpected or unlikely, thus giving them hope.

Addressing the question of the difference between magical and natural causality, Malinowski showed that the Andamanese used magic to supplement the actions of the natural world. In their horticultural and sailing activities they both relied on their own knowledge and skills, and used magic to assist them to handle unexpected events. Malinowski did not present magic, religion, and science in an evolutionary framework, but considered them as aspects of cultural systems. His approach acknowledged that the Andamanese had empirical knowledge and did not assume that magic was apart from, or a replacement for, effective activity in the world.

The work of Radcliffe-Brown among the Andamanese also provided new standards of research for the study of magic and religion. Like Malinowski, he was able to demonstrate the many social functions of magic. One of his greatest contributions was to elaborate on the term mana, the word for magical knowledge and power that has the potential to be both dangerous and beneficial. Objects and substances possess mana, and human beings acquire mana through their relationship with spirits.

Radcliffe-Brown observed that the Andamanese used mana as a way of distinguishing transformations in social positions. During times of transition, the dangerous aspects of mana are dominant, requiring people to observe taboos. Radcliffe-Brown stressed that the function of these ideas and the rituals associated with them was to support group collaboration and interdependence. Compared to Malinowski, he placed even greater emphasis on the social value of ritual rather than on its instrumental effects.

E. E. Evans-Pritchard (19021973) extended the study of the social and political context of magic. His research among the Azande of the Sudan was published in Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande (1937), a work that continues to stimulate scholarly debate and reinterpretation. His analysis of magic and witchcraft not only acknowledged their strategic uses, but permitted a more complex understanding of the relationship of witchcraft and magic to social and political institutions. He reveals that it was only men and members of the elite in Azande society who were authorized to use certain forms of magic and oracles that could identify those responsible for witchcraft. While these issues were not his central concern, his detailed and comprehensive description of Azande life allows readers to identify the implications of magic for gender relations and to support political and economic power.

One of his greatest contributions was to present magic as part of a "ritual complex" and stress their relationship rather than to focus attention on categorical distinctions. For Evans-Pritchard, magic, witchcraft, oracles, and divination worked as an integral whole and could not be understood alone. In his account of Azande ideas and practices, he showed that magic, oracles, and divination were used to address witchcraft. Oracles and divination provided information about the source of witchcraft, and magic was employed to counter it. Because the Azande used magic primarily in response to the mystical power of other human beings, and not to change nature, Evans-Pritchard did not consider the comparison of magic with science to be relevant.

One of the results of Evans-Pritchard's detailed ethnographic work was to convey the pervasive uses of magic and witchcraft in the everyday lives of the Azande. Including both the act of engaging in rituals and ways of apprehending their world, magic and witchcraft were presented as an integral part of Azande culture. Evans-Pritchard also provided information about the contents of magical acts that could be similarly compared to those in European magic. He described how the plant and animal substances used in magic were considered to be inert until activated by the verbal spells of the owner, and explained that the Azande called these substances medicines. He contested the established notion that magic was primarily used to change the natural world with his discovery that, for the Azande, magic was used to counter the magic of others, and was therefore an activity that was largely identified with protection. He also pointed out that it was used to punish people who misused magic, a function that was considered moral.

Thought, Logic, and Rationality in Magic

Early-twenty-first-century discussions that attempt to characterize the forms, or modes of thought in different cultures, as well as their reliance on magic, often retrace debates around the work of Lucien Levy-Bruhl (18571939). His ideas have implications for a series of complex questions concerning the way culture can shape thought, providing an individual with either limitations or extended possibilities. Levi-Bruhl proposed that there was a major distinction between the thought of European and preliterate people, which he termed "primitive mentality." He stressed that the difference was due to the content of the ideas and causal understandings in culture, and was not the product of different mental capacity. He termed the modes of thought that characterized each as scientific and prescientific (or prelogical), respectively. He proposed that "primitive" societies tended to use mystical or supernatural explanations for unexpected occurrences. He contended that this form of thought does not permit a kind of logic that challenges or tests it. The thought process has an internal consistency and rationality, but does not follow the rules of scientific thinking and does not differentiate between what Levi-Bruhl called the natural and supernatural.

Some of Evans-Pritchard's most important contributions followed from an attempt to address Levi-Bruhl's distinction between forms of thought. Evans-Pritchard associated Azande common sense with empirical observation and science. This allowed him to contrast what he called "empirical thought" and "mystical thought," which included magic. A central point in his discussion of magic and witchcraft was that Azande thought is founded on rational processes and empirical knowledge of their world.

His ideas offered a radical departure from the preoccupation of previous literature with the dichotomy between magic and science, and between thought that either was or was not scientific. Following Levi-Bruhl's observation that the body of collective representations in cultures with prescientific thought limited possibilities for the thought system's self-critical appraisal, Evans-Pritchard used examples from his Azande material to explain how this took place. Azande responses to the failure of magic to achieve the desired result were not to question their technique or knowledge, but to question the specific acts of the magician and to assume that other magic conducted to counter theirs was stronger. These and other explanations, which Evans-Pritchard termed "secondary elaborations of belief," did not require the Azande to confront the failure of their explanation, nor the failure of their entire system of thought. This, he said, was responsible for the continuation of the belief in magic despite evidence that it was fallacious. Evans-Pritchard characterized these systems as "closed systems of thought." He observed that they were only able to operate in limited ways that did not extend beyond their own parameters. Certain forms of scientific reasoning therefore would be outside the paradigm.

Robin Horton elaborated on this issue by contrasting open and closed systems of thought. He offered that open systems had the ability to either prove or disprove particular causal relationships between acts and natural consequences. Closed systems did not encourage the verification of what was hypothesized, and the result was that the thought system continually supplied ways of accounting for particular successes or failures.

The Role of Analogy and Metaphor

Returning to the question of how thought can be similarly compared from one culture to another, and the notion that forms of thought that appear to display differences might have underlying similarities, the contributions of Claude Lévi-Strauss (b. 1908) and Stanley Tambiah (b. 1929) are particularly useful. Accepting Frazer's observation that in both magic and science relationships of cause and effect are based on analogies, Lévi-Strauss proposed that magic could be understood as a subcategory of analogical thought, and worked on the assumption that a metaphor follows natural laws. Like most early twenty-first-century scholars, he views magic, science, and religion to occupy aspects of thought and practice in all societies.

Tambiah has taken the study of magic and analogy much farther than any other scholar. Tambiah finds that analogical reasoning is a quality of both magic and science, but claims that they involve different kinds of analogies. Science, he argues, makes an analogy between known causal relationships and unknown causal relationships. Following Lévi-Strauss, he finds that magic relies on the use of a particular kind of analogy, but he emphasizes the importance of the transfer of meaning from the physical procedures in magic to a referent in the natural world. Magic offers human beings something that science does not: creative possibilities. He also observes that magic extends meaning into practical activity. The meanings produced through ideas and practices of magic are therefore central to an understanding of the workings of culture and society.

Lévi-Strauss made another important observation about the differences between magic and religion. Taking both to be categories of thought, rather than terms that referred to different contents, he proposed that the terms were used by Western thinkers to make distinctions between their own thought and what he called "outside" thought. This outside thought was designated as inferior to domestic thought. Emphasizing that neither have particular contents or meanings, and that Western thought arbitrarily provides its own subject matter, Lévi-Strauss advocated the dissolution of the category known as magic.

Magic and Modernity

Early-twenty-first-century scholarship has expanded its views on how to study magic and how to frame its object of analysis. Peter Pels (2003) observes that the practice of scholars to frame magic as the opposite of modernity has had effects that are just now being addressed. As modern discourses work to distinguish magic from the modern they also create what he calls "correspondences and nostalgias." He and other scholars such as Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff (1993) and Michael Taussig (1997) have been increasingly interested in elaborating on the specific forms that magic takes in modernity. Taussig addresses the question of how state power is experienced and understood by citizens of Columbia, where he conducted research. He finds that state power relies on different forms of magic to not only inspire awe from citizenry, but to conceal its deceits and violence.


A central concern in the intellectual history of magic and religion is modernity. This requires an understanding of how Western scholarship has created grand narratives that present Western societies and their political projects, notably colonialism, in a favorable light. It is clear that one of the most distinctive elements of Europe's construction or imagination of itself has been its self-designation as civilized and progressive. The simultaneous construction of other groups of people as the oppositebackward, primitive, and undevelopedwas assisted by discourses in the social sciences, philosophy, and religious studies.

The theories and assumptions about magic that scholars have used, particularly in writings prior to the work of Lévi-Strauss, demonstrate particular patterns. The ways that they chose to contrast and compare material from different cultures and societies often created an opposition between Western and non-Western, advanced and backward, and civilized and primitive cultures. When magic was contrasted with religion, it was viewed to be less comprehensive and focused on practical ends, rather than ontological or existential ones. When placed in contrast to science it was seen to be either limited or incorrect, since it did not contain a logic that could test its propositions nor question its own premises. In early-twenty-first-century analyses, magic has been compared favorably to science, and there is a general assumption that it works toward an understanding of the natural world and relies on analogical reasoning. Most scholars view magic as an aspect of religion that exists in all societies. It can be viewed as part of everyday life, guiding thought and action.

People in societies across the globe have been influenced by Western thought on magic, with its attending characterizations of culture. Magic has been present in the discourses of colonial rule, Christian conversion, educational institutions, state administrative organizations, and development policies. Whether the thought comes from popular culture or scholarly investigations, the production and reproduction of dichotomies, that according to Levi-Strauss present what is "outside" as inferior, continue to present problems for scholarship. Despite the relative lack of theoretical reflections and ethnographic works on magic prior, early-twenty-first-century scholarship is poised to extend the terrain of what can be considered to be magical and to conceptualize the new forms that magic takes in modernity.

See also Demonology ; Miracles ; Superstition ; Witchcraft .



Evans-Pritchard, E. E. Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 1950.

Durkheim, Émile. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Edited and translated by Karen Fields. New York: Free Press, 1995.

Frazer, James. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. Abr. and rev. ed. Old Tappan, N.J.: Macmillan, 1985.

Levi-Bruhl, Lucien. Primitive Mentality. Translated by Lilian Clare. London: Macmillan, 1923.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Savage Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. Magic, Science and Religion and Other Essays. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1954.

Mauss, Marcel. A General Theory of Magic. Translated by Robert Brain. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. 1972.

Radcliffe-Brown, Alfred Reginald. The Andaman Islanders: A Study in Social Anthropology. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1922.

Tambiah, Stanley Jeyaraja. Magic, Science, Religion, and the Scope of Rationality. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Taussig, Michael T. The Magic of the State. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Thomas, Keith. Religion and the Decline of Magic. New York: Scribners, 1971.

Tylor, Edward Burnett. Religion in Primitive Culture. Vol. 2. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1970.


Bowie, Fiona. The Anthropology of Religion: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.

Lehmann, Arthur C., and James E. Myers, eds. Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion: An Anthropological Study of the Supernatural. 4th ed. Mountain View, Calif.: Mayfield, 1997.

Morris, Brian. Anthropological Studies of Religion: An Introductory Text. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Pels, Peter. "Introduction: Magic and Modernity." In Magic and Modernity: Interfaces of Revelation and Concealment, edited by Birgit Meyer and Peter Pels. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2003.

Diane Ciekawy

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MAGIC. The English term "magic" (magie in French, Magie in German, and magija in Russian) comes from the Greek magikos, a term that referred to a class of priests in ancient Persia and Greece. Later the word was taken over by Christianity and applied to the kings ("magi") who traveled to pay their respects to the infant Jesus. It was not until the Middle Ages that the word "magic" took on negative connotations. In modern times, magic refers to witchcraft, sorcery, and the casting of spells. Magic is also part of rites and ceremonies that are connected with the belief in a supernatural influence on nature, animals, and human beings. The field of ethnology uses the term "magic" very widely, but the meaning of the term is not always clear. Witchcraft was opposed by official religions from ancient times, as, for example, the Indian "Laws of Manu" (sixth to fifth centuries b.c.e.) and the Roman "Laws of 12 Tables" (mid-fifth century b.c.e.). The position of Christianity was shown in the Codex of the Emperor Justinian (529). Among the East Slavs, witchcraft was considered a superstition and a relic of paganism and therefore a sin. There is a tradition of identifying magic with witchcraft and distinguishing "white magic" from "black magic." Around the turn of the twentieth century, A. Lemann and others associated magic with sorcery. Lemann formulated the most popular definition of magic: "Magic or witchcraft is every action provoked by superstitions." B. Malinovsky wrote that magic was from ancient times the province of specialists and that witchcraft or healing was the first profession.

The connection of magic with religion and religious rites has also been interpreted in many ways. Sir James George Frazer thought that magic was founded on men and women's belief in their own potential to influence nature; this stands in contrast to the concept of religion, which is built on a belief in supernatural beings (gods, spirits, ghosts) that control natural phenomena. Other theories assert that religion is inseparably linked with magic. S. A. Tokarev gave a description of religious rites that can be classified as magic rites, depending on their form and function. The division of magic by form proceeds from the psychological mechanism behind the use of magic forces, including establishing contact, initial (beginning), imitative magic, apotropaic magic (to avert evil), cleansing, and verbal magic. The division of magic according to function is linked to real-world or practical roots of magical beliefs: for example, medical magic is connected with folk medicine, love magic is connected with courting, trade magic is associated with hunting techniques, and agrarian magic is linked to primitive agronomics.

Food is associated with almost every kind of magic. Magic rites connected with food production, processing, and presentation reflected ancient beliefs and motifs that had lost their primary mythological meanings over time and had become inalienable elements of different religions. For example, it is no coincidence that figures from Slavic mythology were identified with Christian saints, such as Peroun, the god of rain, or in India Pardjanja, Pirva (Hettish), Perkons (Lettish), with St. Eliash; Veles, the god of cattle and wealth, with St. Vlasij; and Yarila, the god of fertility, with St. George. The roles of these figures are reflected in folklore, and especially in demonology. Traces of this type of folklore can still be found in modern times. For example, the Orthodox Church does not deny the presence of evil and other evil spirits in everyday life, but it does not support the spreading of superstitions among its followers. Nevertheless, such beliefs still exist and are reflected in ceremonies surrounding food production.

Beyond its main role of satisfying one of the vital requirements of the human organism, food plays a large symbolic role in every culture. Group meals and specific types of food are obligatory components of any festivity or event in most cultures. Depending on the societal and cultural context, food can be viewed as ritualistic, festive, sacred, funereal, prestigious, and non-prestigious. For example, many sacred rites are connected with the production of bread. It was common in many cultures to bless and to pray during bread baking and to put a cross on the bread before it was eaten. In Georgian beliefs, bread protected a child from evil spirits. Depending on the situation, a different number of loaves (accounts tell of anywhere from three to twenty-nine) could be used during magic actions. In Armenia, in order to protect her child from evil, a mother collected flour from seven families, baked bread (lavash in Armenian) in the shape of human being, put it under the pillow of the child, and on a certain day buried the bread. If a child became ill during the first forty days of life, he or she was passed through the hole made in a large loaf of bread. In Armenia bread was also seen as a form of sustenance in the afterlife: this belief was observed in a ceremony where fresh bread was offered for the deceased. The Udmurts often used similar magic. To return her child to health a mother baked bread three times in a day: the first time she baked five small loaves; the second time she baked seven loaves; and the third time, nine loaves. To strengthen the magic influence she formed dough on a kneading trough and hid herself from the daylight under a shawl.

In some rituals, bread was used to protect the human world from another one. Among eastern Slavs it was a custom to keep bread on the table that was in the "red" corner (red in Russia means beautiful) or iconostasis, a shelf on which icons were kept, regarded as a sacred place. Bread has upper and bottom sections; thus, turning bread over was forbidden, as it was believed that the bread could be "offended" by that act. Bread and salt were the obligatory foodstuffs involved in the Russian ritual of entering a new house. Among Russians, Ukrainians, and Belorussians (White Russians), only men could first enter a new house, with icons and bread in their arms as the main symbols of a new living space. They might also carry a pot of porridge or kneading trough with dough, which symbolized prosperity, abundance, and fertility. Over time these items were supplemented with such cultural symbols as poppy seeds, thistle, burdock, garlic, and religious texts, which were supposed to protect a house from evil spirits and witches. In northern Russia, peasants invited friends and neighbors to enter a new home and treated them to a good meal to protect the house from undesirable people.

Magic and magical acts, such as the casting of spells, have traditionally been connected with health. Thus, many rites included actions and language that were supposed to help maintain or attain a state of good health. Rites such as these stood in opposition to illness, death, and misfortune. The main elements of water, fire, earth, plants, and animals were considered symbols of health and played a prominent role in different magical ceremonies.

World folklore provides evidence of a close correlation between the universe and human beings. According to the the cosmological beliefs of the people of the Caucasian region, there is a Tree of Life at the back of beyond that connects with three vertical levels: a sky (the upper world), Earth (the middle world), and an underground kingdom (the lower world). The upper world is populated with gods, deities, birds, and fantastic beings. Earth is populated with people, animals, and plants, and the underground kingdom is a world of the dead, as well as devils, dragons, and deep waters. Fantastic horses, eagles, devils, dragons, animals, birds, and others beings were seen as means of communication among different levels or worlds. For example, in Caucasian-Iberian mythology there is an image of a deer with a large antler that holds up or supports the upper world.

Baking rituals in different countries reflected some of the beliefs about communication between the lower world, the human (middle) world, and the upper world. In one ritual, the Belorussians baked three pies as symbols of the three parts of the structure of the world; in modern times, these pies have taken on different religious significance. These pies can be either round, three-cornered, or oval in shape. One never cuts three-cornered and oval pies with a knife; rather, one divides them by hand into arbitrarily sized parts. Only the round pie, which in more recent times is dedicated to the Christian savior, is cut into sections with a knife in accordance with ancient rules. The final form or figure of the sliced pie is a circle divided into an eight-segment circle or mandala a cosmological symbol of the universe. Thus, these three pies reflect in a symbolic form the vertical structure of mythological space.

Religious symbolism very often stems from magic practice, which supposed a transfer of symbolic qualities from one object to another. For example, eggs, rice, and pomegranates are traditional symbols of fertility and prosperity. An egg, as a symbol of life, was used for Easter festivities and also for many other ceremonies connected with food production. Russians, Ukrainians, and Belorussians prepared special pies or chicken with an egg inside for weddings. In Daghestan, women always baked fancy cakes with eggs inside in the springtime as a symbol of the revival of life. There is a tradition among the Crimean Karaims (Karais) of putting magic patterns of sun, moon, stars, and fish on Easter bread, which is made in the form of a sun.

Magic stemming from the upper world was thought to provide a possibility of survival in difficult situations, such as finding food when one is faced with starvation. An example is the fairy tale "Jack and the Beanstalk," which tells a story of the magical properties of three fava beans (Vicia faba ). A. C. Andrews pointed out an abundance of bean stories and superstitions and attempted to explain these as being an adjunct of an original Indo-European totemism. He drew almost exclusively on classical sources from the Greeks, Romans, and other closely related Mediterranean peoples.

The earliest and most abundant mentions of bean superstitions came from Greek city-states. Literature from ancient Rome contains similar references. R. Rowlett and J. Mori analyzed the work of their predecessors, including A. C. Andrews, and discovered that "favistic" folktales about beans were not always connected with favism (1971, pp. 98100).

The motif of communication with the upper world can be seen in the calendar ceremonies of eastern Slavs, who bake special bread with forty stripes, which recall Jesus's footsteps on the Day of Ascension (forty days after Easter). The eastern Slavs bake another type of breadonoochkee that represents the cloth wrapped around Jesus' feet. Russian peasants put such bread in the rye field, believing that grain would provide strength. People in southern Russia baked similar bread on the fortieth day after an individual's death. Mourners put bread on the bench by the gate of the house, and people later ate it with honey. On that day some people ate pancakes at the nearest crossroads to prevent the deceased from returning home.

Magical food has been involved in many burial customs and rites that confirm a constant link between the living and the dead. For example, in many cultures magic rituals involved feeding deceased people, or more specifically, feeding their souls. Such symbolic actions were often performed on the stove in the home. Food was thrown about the house near the body of the deceased. Sometimes people placed food in the deceased's mouth, such as in the traditions of the Nganasans of Taymyr, Russia. Closely associated with these rites are the ceremonies that occurred after burial, because they include the same feeding of the souls. In addition to traditional funereal meals, many religions have ceremonies on special days that involve food and the deceased. Such celebrations are popular in Latin America. Mexicans have celebrations in August and November that involve the notion of spirits enjoying the smell of food. Persians put food on houses and roofs in the middle of March to encourage prosperity in the next year. B. Propp retraced the great role of the cult of ancestors in Russian agrarian festivals. Eastern Slavs celebrate "Parents' Saturdays" in accordance with the Orthodox calendar (Dzjady in White Russia) and the Japanese celebrate a Bon' Day. Russians always put out a glass of spirits with a piece of bread on the day of a funeral and on subsequent anniversaries. It is still a rule in Ukraine to have breakfast together with the deceased at the cemetery on the next morning after the funeral and to eat bread, sweets, and cakes and drink spirits. In Russia, visiting the cemetery on the second day after Easter (radunitsa ) and sharing a meal with the deceased also became a custom: the meal was a painted Easter egg and sweet bread that were placed in the tomb.

Eastern Slav celebrations at Shrovetide and at Christmas were both devoted to the memory of the deceased. These days were observed by the preparation of such obligatory ritual dishes as bliny (pancakes) and kissel, made from oat, fruits, or berries. This tradition still exists among Russians. Ukrainians have a custom of preparing compote and small sweet pies with jam at funerals.

An example of using verbal cliché with magic purpose can be found in the texts of the Apocrypha, biblical books of dubious authenticity that are excluded from the Jewish and Protestant versions of the Old Testament. Nevertheless, apart from the fasts on Fridays established by the Orthodox Church, there was a tradition of fasting on the twelve "Temporary" Fridays, or "Vow" or "Big" Fridays, that were very popular among Orthodox adherents. Fasting on Fridays was a well-known practice of the use of the apocryphal texts as amulets, which was widespread in many cultures. The main role of the Apocrypha was to protect people from different troubles but only under the condition of fasting. Orthodox Christians kept fasts on these days to prevent unexpected misfortunes such as drought, bad harvests, infestations, and diseases.

The apocryphal Twelve Fridays were widespread in Russia in the guise of legends, spiritual verses, and tales dating from the eleventh century. Wandering (usually blind) minstrels sang the verses and advised followers to respect Fridays by "saint fasting and praying, faith and love, gentleness and humility." The verses warned that anybody who committed a breach of Fridays would be punished for generations to come.

In Russia the texts about the Twelve Fridays (as the texts "Dream of Our Lady") were also used for magical purposes and were worn on the body and used as amulets. However, such texts were not just magical; they were manifestations of piety in many provinces where they were distributed in the form of manuscript copies, apocryphas, and spiritual songs.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the texts of the Twelve Fridays could be found in many Russian provinces. They were dedicated to the main feasts of the Church calendar, and people fasted on Fridays before these holidays. Every Friday had a special grace and promised special preferences. The Twelve Fridays manuscript is still popular. People still believe that keeping fasts on these Fridays protects them against diseases and disasters.

See also Feasts, Festivals, and Fasts; Folklore, Food in; Religion and Food; Russia.


Afanasjev, Alexander N. Poeticheskiye vozzreniya slavjan na prirodu [Poetical views of Slavs on nature]. 3 vols. Moscow, 18651869.

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Andrews, A. C. "The Bean and Indo-European Totemism." American Anthropologist 51 (1949): 274292.

Anikin, V. P. Russkaya narodnaya skazka [Russian folk tales]. Moscow: Prosveshcheniye, 1978.

Domotor, Tekla. Hungarian Folk Beliefs. Budapest: Athenaeum Printing House, 1982.

Frazer, J. G. The Golden Bough. A Study in Magic and Religion. London: 1925.

Gerber, A. Great Russian Animal Tales. Baltimore, Md.: 1891.

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Rowlett, Ralph M., and Joyce Mori. "The Fava Bean in English Folklore." In Ethnologia Europaea. vol. 4, pp. 98102. Arnhem, 1971.

Ryan, W. F. The Bathhouse: A Historical Survey of Magic and Divination in Russia. London: Sutton Publishing, 1999.

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Tokarev, Sergej A. "Suchshnost i proishozhdeniye magii" [The nature and origin of magic]. In The Studies and Materials on Religious Beliefs in Primitive Society. The Works of the Institute of Ethnography. Moscow: Nauka, 1959.

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Veselovsky, A. "Opyty po istotii razvitija Christianskoj legendy. IV. skazanie o 12 pjatnitsah. [The essays on the history of the evolution of the Christian legend, part IV, A story about 12 Fridays]." Magazine of the Ministry of Folk Population Part 185, department X, 1876.

Zelenin, Dmitry K. Russische (ostslavische) Volkskunde. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1927.

Tatiana Voronina

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MAGIC. Modern historians have reclaimed the term magic from anthropologists and social scientists who question its utility as a category and its existence as a phenomenon. Although an admittedly ambiguous and elastic term, magic was used by early modern Europeans to describe a complex of thought and practice involving the apparently disparate fields of religion, science, and language. Many of the most sophisticated intellectuals and theologians of the early modern period include magic in their discussions about the nature of physical reality, the causes of suffering and misfortune, the rationale of history, the foundations of political authority, the institutions of the church, and the basis of morality and ethics. Consequently, magic is a legitimate and important field of study, and understanding such pivotal events as the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Counter-Reformation, the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment, and Romanticism will remain incomplete until historians investigate the complex and varied attitudes toward magic that emerged between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries.


Magic is best defined as a form of esotericism based on a view of the world as an integral whole composed of interacting spiritual and material forces that human beings can understand and manipulate for good or evil purposes. It encompassed a wide range of activities, such as astrology, alchemy, medicine, divination, necromancy, and conjuring. While this definition holds true for magic over the millennia, only during the early modern period was "black" magic equated with demonic witchcraft and made into a serious criminal offense. At the same time there was a growing interest in and respect for "natural," or "spiritual," magic that began in the twelfth century, reaching its apogee during the Renaissance and early modern period. Scholars agree that this type of elite magic contributed to developments in science, although they disagree about the nature and extent of these contributions. The traditional idea that magic disappeared with the triumph of science overlooks the fact that the decline in witchcraft prosecutions occurred in the mid-to-late seventeenth century, before Enlightenment thinkers embraced the new science and while a magical worldview was still valid for most people. Magistrates and judges, not philosophers and scientists, were the first to doubt the reality of demonic magic and to put a stop to witch prosecutions. While it is true that demonic magic lost its credibility among most European intellectuals and professionals, ordinary Europeans continued to explain misfortune in terms of the evil acts (maleficia) of evil individuals. Furthermore, alchemy and astrology appealed to many intellectuals throughout the eighteenth century, and new forms of occult and esoteric thought (mesmerism, phrenology, physiognomy) emerged to answer questions mechanical and atomic scientific theories could not.

Much of early modern magic represented a continuation of traditions and practices that developed in the medieval period from a synthesis of classical, Jewish, Islamic, and Christian concepts of magic with indigenous Celtic, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Slavic traditions as these groups were converted to Christianity. It is difficultthough in some cases possibleto separate these various strands because they were so thoroughly mixed with Christian elements. Although some scholars continue to distinguish magic from religion on the grounds that magic attempts to manipulate supernatural forces, while religion is directed at divine entities who can be supplicated but not controlled, this distinction is untenable. Saints' prayers often have coercive force, while magical charms and rituals have a supplicatory element. Furthermore, Christianity shared many assumptions that were basic to a magical worldview. Foremost among these was that of a vitalistic universe divided into three levels, the super-celestial, celestial, and terrestrial, each of which was intimately linked to the others through a series of correspondences, sympathies, and antipathies that might be hidden (occult) but that were regular, rational, and discoverable. Christianity and magic also agreed on the existence of invisible, spiritual entities (angels, demons, devils), who interacted with humans in many ways, including sexually. Christianity and magic both emphasized the power and efficacy of words, a belief that was intensified by the Christian reliance on the spoken and written word and by the notion of Christ as the incarnate word of God. Many magical prayers and formulas were simply adaptations of Christian formulations. A further link between Christianity and magic was the belief that hidden powers and virtues existed in natural objects (amulets, talismans, relics, holy water, the sign of the cross, the Eucharist, church bells), which could be tapped for human use. Given these similarities, one can conclude that "[a]cross Europe, throughout the centuries . . . magic often seems indistinguishable from religion" (Clark, p. 110).


On a popular level, magic was practiced extensively to deal with problematic events or situations from childbirth and childcare to animal husbandry, sickness, misfortune, lost or stolen objects, divination, business affairs, traveling, falling in or out of love, counteracting witchcraft, and even such mundane activities as shutting windows at night. Magical remedies, rituals, and formulas can be found in necromancer manuals, medical textbooks, scientific texts, the lives of saints, and courtly romances. Since magical practices were so varied, one way of categorizing them is by their intended results: healing, protection, divination, obtaining a desired object, the acquisition of occult knowledge, or simply entertainment. While astrology was a recognized part of academic medicine, magical healing was reserved primarily for diseases that were considered "unnatural" (madness, possession, nightmares) or whose causes were unknown (sudden strokes, heart attacks, seizures) and consequently attributed to the evil machinations of sorcerers, witches, demons, elves, or dwarfs. In these cases, magicians and healers patterned their actions after those of Jesus and the saints and conjured spiritual forces by ritual actions, prayers, blessings, exorcisms, and the use of amulets, talismans, relics, the sign of the cross, holy water, and nostrums made variously from herbs, animal parts, stones, or gems. Next to healing, the most popular form of magic was divination, a practice emphatically rejected by Christian authorities. Charts and manuals existed for reading signs about the future in the sky or in animals, plants, parts of the human body, and dreams. Love magic was used both to seduce and to cause impotency, a common theme in both courtly romances and inquisitor's manuals.

Like popular magic, "spiritual" and "natural" magic were concerned with issues of healing, protection, and divination, but there was a greater emphasis on the acquisition of occult knowledge as a prerequisite to successful magical practices. Broadly, one can say that "spiritual" magic was a form of religiosity whose goal was to attract beneficial divine and spiritual forces into the soul of the operator. Marsilio Ficino (14331499) was the most famous Renaissance practitioner of this kind of magic. Language was an important element in Ficino's magic because he believed words had intrinsic powers. A similar emphasis on the power of words appears in the work of Jewish Cabbalists like Abraham Abulafia (1240after 1291) and Joseph Gikatilla (1248after 1305) and their Christian counterparts, Pico della Mirandola (14631494) and Johannes Reuchlin (14551522), who believed that Hebrew was a repository of secret wisdom. In his De Verbo Mirifico (1494), Reuchlin claimed that Jesus' name in Hebrew had the power to revive the dead, cure the sick, exorcise demons, turn rivers into wine, feed the hungry, repulse pirates, and tame camels. A similar kind of magical power was attributed to Egyptian hieroglyphs by Athanasius Kircher (16011680). It is not always easy to distinguish between "spiritual" and "natural" magic, nor between "spiritual" and "demonic" magic, for all three were concerned with the spiritual state of the practitioner and were thought to have transitive effects. Necromancy and black magic were an established part of medieval magic and continued throughout the early modern period. The Picatrix, derived from an Arabic source, mixed spiritual and demonic magic with astrology and was widely influential. This kind of synthesis comes out clearly in the work of Cornelius Agrippa (14861535), whose De Occulta Philosophia (enlarged edition 1533) discusses astrology, mathematics, mechanical marvels, numerology, universal harmony, the power of music and incantations, images for talismans, and the occult virtues in natural things. Agrippa claims that whoever wishes to be proficient in magic must study natural philosophy, mathematics, astrology, and theology. Only when he has mastered these disciplines will he attain the highest level of understanding through an act of mystical illumination and become a true magus. A characteristic feature of this kind of magic is its "intense religiosity and sense of piety" (Clark, p. 150). Giambattista Della Porta's Magia Naturalis (1588) was another popular work on natural magic that described procedures for such diverse things as transmuting metals; producing exotic plants and animals through grafting and cross-breeding; cutting, conserving, and cooking meat; staving off baldness; eliminating wrinkles; and engendering beautiful children.


Around 1400 there was a radical change in attitudes toward magic on the part of religious and secular authorities. No longer seen as a body of superstitious and largely illusory practices that could be eradicated through a combination of missionary activity and the counter-use of Christian rituala view characteristic of the Middle Agesmagic and magicians came to be viewed as a demonic fifth column threatening the very existence of Christian civilization. This negative view of magic was reinforced by the Protestant attack on Catholic sacraments, rituals, and miracles as demonic. For the most part, however, Catholic and Protestant authorities distinguished between "popular" magic, whose practitioners were prosecuted as witches and sorcerers in league with the devil, and "learned" or "spiritual" magic, which was generally tolerated and widely practiced at European courts because of its promise of wealth and prestige and its sheer entertainment value. But even when tolerated, magicians inspired ambivalent attitudes, for beneficent "white" magic might easily be perverted into "black" magic. For this reason, two of the foremost demonologists of the sixteenth century, Jean Bodin (15301596) and Martin Del Rio (15511608), condemned all magic as demonic.

The increased concern with demonology and witchcraft in the early modern period has been attributed to the religious conflicts stirred up by the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Recent research has shown, however, that it was not religious conflict per se that encouraged witch hunts but the new age of "confessionalism" that accompanied reform movements, heightening religious fervor and the concern with eradicating religious deviance. In more general terms, the increased fear of magic and sorcery was a response to increasing political and religious insecurity and social unrest. The Black Death, the Great Schism, the proliferation of heretical movements in the high Middle Ages, the discovery and dissemination of new texts, printing, trade, travel, and the discovery of the New World all undermined established truths and called into question the idea of divine providence and God's omniscience and benevolence. Misfortune, uncertainty, and insecurity called for a new theodicy, and this was supplied by demonologists and witch theorists. Neither irrational nor unscientific, they deployed all the resources available from natural philosophy and theology to vindicate the goodness of God and the truth of the Bible. Witchcraft theory was a kind of "theological damage control" (Stephens, p. 366) that let God off the hook for seeming injustice by attributing evil and misfortune to the activities of men and women in league with the devil.

The fact that the fear of sorcerers and witches was most intense during the period of the so-called scientific revolution (1570 to 1680) undermines the idea proposed by Enlightenment thinkers (Comte, Condorcet) and nineteenth- and twentieth-century social anthropologists (Edward Tylor, James Frazer, Bronislaw Malinowski) that magic represented an early stage of human development superceded first by religion and finally by science. Modern scholars reject this progressive view in favor of a conceptual history of magic that emphasizes it as an inextricable element in the religious, political, and scientific discourse of various time periods. In the early modern period, attitudes toward magic and witchcraft have been shown to correlate with political and religious views. For example, those committed to the divine right of kings and Tridentine Catholicism had a greater tendency to support the persecution of magicians and witches than humanists, libertines, and skeptics, who took the Machiavellian position that the magic and witchcraft were delusions manipulated for the benefit of those in power.


There was also a correlation between magic and science. The argument that magic was a substitute for real science and technology is simply wrong. The widespread practice of magic suggests that it was considered effective, and the lively debate about the efficacy of magic is now recognized as a contributing factor to the development of science. Lynn Thorndike described magicians as the first experimental scientists. Frances Yates emphasized the role played by "occult" philosophy in stimulating science. Although her claims have been modified, it is clear that the natural magic tradition influenced important scientific figures such as Paracelsus (14931541), Daniel Sennert, Jean Baptiste van Helmont (15791644), Girolamo Cardano (15011576), Francis Bacon (15611626), John Dee (15271608), and members of England's Royal Society. The paradox was that as demonologists debated with their critics about whether the effects of witchcraft, sorcery, and magic were natural or diabolical, they promoted the very skepticism they were at pains to allay. Among the skeptics were Pietro Pomponazzi (14621525), who offered naturalistic explanations for the power of incantations; Johann Weyer (15151588), who turned to medicine, arguing that witches were simply insane old women; and Reginald Scot (15381599), who denied that incorporeal spirits could have contact with humans. Even more damaging were those like John Wagstaffe (16331677), who concluded that witchcraft was simply a politically useful tool, an idea that led Francis Hutchinson to conclude in 1718 that beliefs about witches and sorcerers were products of their historical contexts. Witch-hunting was therefore not an anomaly in the age of the socalled scientific revolution but a constituent part of it. Underlying the debate over magic and witchcraft were fundamental issues concerning the authority and credibility of the Christian revelation; the physical constitution of the created world; the nature of causality; and the basis of politics, ethics, and morality. Every one of these involved the more general problem of what constitutes valid evidence and how knowledge may be obtained. But however beneficial this kind of scientific questioning and skepticism was in the long term, it was not immediately responsible for the decline of witch-hunting. That fell to the judicial skepticismcreated largely by the excesses of witch-huntingwhich led those in charge of witch trials to demand more restraint in the use of torture and stricter standards of evidence. As a result of changes in judicial procedures, mass panics ended, more of the accused were acquitted, and courts became increasingly reluctant to initiate prosecutions. This did not happen because judges, magistrates, and inquisitors denied the reality or possibility of witchcraft but because they increasingly came to believe that witchcraft was not a crime that could be proven by law.

See also Astrology ; Catholicism ; Occult Philosophy ; Reformation, Protestant ; Ritual, Religious ; Scientific Revolution ; Witchcraft .


Ankarloo, Bengt, and Stuart Clark, eds. Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The Middle Ages. Philadelphia, 2002.

. Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The Period of the Witch Trials. Philadelphia, 2002.

Geertz, H. "An Anthropology of Religion and Magic." Journal of Interdisciplinary History 6 (1975): 7189.

Idel, Moshe. "On Judaism, Jewish Mysticism and Magic." In Envisioning Magic, edited by Peter Schafter and Hans G. Kippenberg, pp. 195214. Leiden, 1997.

Malinowski, B. Magic, Science and Religion and Other Essays. New York, 1954.

Moran, Bruce T. Patronage and Institutions: Science, Technology, and Medicine at the European Courts, 15001750. Woodbridge, U.K., 1991.

Rossi, Paolo. Francis Bacon: From Magic to Science. Translated by S. Rabinovitch. London, 1968.

Stephens, Walter. Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex, and the Crisis of Belief. Chicago, 2002.

Thomas, Keith. "An Anthropology of Religion and Magic, II." Journal of Interdisciplinary History 6 (1975): 91109.

. Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century England. London, 1975.

Thorndike, Lynn. A History of Magic and Experimental Science. 8 vols. New York, 19231958.

Trevor-Roper, H. R. The European Witchcraze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries and Other Essays. New York, 1969.

Walker, D. P. Spiritual and Demonic Magic from Ficino to Campanella. London, 1958.

Wilson, Stephen. The Magical Universe: Everyday Ritual and Magic in Pre-Modern Europe. London and New York, 2000.

Allison P. Coudert, John Sewell

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Black Magic

Black Magic

Black magic as practiced in medieval times may be defined as the use of the supernatural knowledge of magic for evil purposes; the invocation of diabolic and infernal powers to blind them as slaves and emissaries to man's will; in short, a perversion of legitimate mystical science. While black magicians certainly existed, there is every reason to believe that the majority of the reports of the spread of black magic were simply polemics against idealogical and personal enemies. Thus, members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn accused Aleister Crowley of practicing black magic while Crowley complained that black magicians had perverted his system.

The existence of the black art and its attendant practices can be traced from the time of the ancient Egyptians and Persians, from the Greeks and Hebrews, to the period when reports of black magic were most numerous, during the Middle Ages, thus forming an unbroken chain. In medieval magic may be found a degraded form of popular pagan ritesthe ancient gods had become devils, their mysteries orgies, their worship sorcery.

Some historians have tried to trace the areas in Europe most affected by these devilish practices. Spain is said to have excelled all in infamy, to have plumbed the depths of the abyss. The south of France next became a hotbed of sorcery, branching northward to Paris and the countries and islands beyond, southward to Italy, finally extending into the Tyrol and Germany.

Many diseases, including catalepsy, somnambulism, hysteria, and insanity, were attributed to black magic. It followed that curative medicine was also a branch of magic, not a rational science, the suggested cures being such fantastic treatments as incantations and exorcisms, amulets and talismans of precious stones, medicines rendered powerful by spells and philters and enchanted drinks. The use of herbs and chemicals, which later became the foundation of modern curative science, then had more enchanted and symbolic significance when they were first prescribed by magicians.

Folk history surely exaggerated its intimations that the followers of the black art swarmed everywhere. The fraternity had grades from the pretenders, charlatans, and diviners of the common people to the various secret societies and orders of initiates, among whom were kings, queens, popes, and dignitaries of church and state. In these advanced levels, knowledge and ritual were carefully cherished and preserved in manuscripts, some of which still exist. These ancient grimoires, variously termed the Black, the Red, the Great Grimoire, are full of weird rites, formulas, conjurations, and evocations of evil malice and lust in the names of barbaric deities; charms and bewitchments clothed in incomprehensible jargon; and ceremonial processes for the fulfillment of imprecations of misfortune, calamity, sin, and death.

The deity who was worshiped and whose powers were invoked in the practice of black magic had many names: the Source and Creator of Evil, Satanas, Belial, the evil, a debased descendent of the Egyptian Set, the Persian Ahriman, the Python of the Greeks, the Jewish Serpent, Baphomet of the Templars, the Goat-deity of the Witches' Sabbat. He was said to have the head and legs of a goat and the breasts of a woman.

His followers called him by the names of forgotten deities as well as the Black One, the Black He-goat, the Black Raven, the Dog, the Wolf and Snake, the Dragon, the Hell-hound, Hell-hand, and Hell-bolt. His transformations were unlimited, as is indicated by many of his names; other favorite and familiar forms were a cat, a mouse, a toad, or worm, or again, the human form, especially a young and handsome man as he would appear on his amorous adventures. The signs by which he might be identified, though not invariably, were the cloven hoof, the goat's beard, cock's feathers, or the ox's tail.

In the Devil are embedded ancient mysteries and their symbols, the detritus of dead faiths and faded civilizations. The Greek Pan with the goat limbs masquerades as the Devil, also the goat as emblematic of fire and symbol of generation, and perhaps traces of the Jewish tradition where two goats were taken, one pure, the other impure, the first offered as sacrifice in expiation of sin, the other, the impure burdened with sins by imprecation and driven into the wilderness, in short, the scapegoat. In the Hebrew Kabala, Satan's name is Jehovah reversed. He is not a devil, but the negation of deity.

Beneath the Devil's sway were innumerable hordes and legions of demons and spirits, ready and able to procure and work any and every evil or disaster the mind of man might conceive and desire. In one grimoire, as presented in Francis Barrett's The Magus, it tells of nine orders of evil spirits, these being False Gods, Lying Spirits, Vessels of Iniquity, Revenge led by Asmodeus, Deluders by the Serpent, Turbulents by Merigum, Furies by Apollyon, Calumniators by Astaroth, and Tempters by Mammon. These demons again are named separately, the meaning of each name indicating the possessor's capacity, such as destroyer, devastator, tumult, ravage, and so forth.

Each earthly vice and calamity was personified by a demonMoloch, who devours infants; Nisroch, god of hatred, despair, fatality; Astarte, Lilith, and Astaroth, deities of debauchery and abortion; Adramelek, of murder, and Belial, of red anarchy.

According to the grimoires, the rites and rules are multifarious, each demon demanding special invocation and procedure. The ends that might be obtained by performing the rites are indicated in such chapter headings as these: "to take possession of all kinds of treasure," "to live in opulence," "to ruin possessions," "to demolish buildings and strongholds," "to cause armed men to appear," "to excite every description of hatred, discord, failure, and vengeance," "to excite tempest," "to excite love in a virgin, or in a married person," "to procure adulteries," "to cause enchanted music and lascivious dances to appear," "to learn all secrets from those of Venus to Mars," "to render oneself invisible," "to fly in the air and travel," "to operate underwater for twenty-four hours," "to open every kind of lock without a key, without noise, and thus gain entrance to prison, larder, or charnel-house," "to innoculate the walls of houses with plague and diseases," "to bind familiar spirits," "to cause a dead body to revive," "to transform one's self," "to transform men into animals or animals into men."

These rites were classified as divination, bewitchments, and necromancy. Divination was carried out by magical readings of fire, smoke, water, or blood; by letters of names, numbers, symbols, or arrangements of dots; by lines of hand or fingernails; by birds and their flight or their entrails; by dice, cards, rings, or mirrors. Bewitchments were carried out by means of nails, animals, toads, or waxen figures and mostly to bring about suffering or death. Necromancy was the raising of the dead by evocations and sacrilegious rites, for the customary purposes of evil. These rites might take place around pits filled with blood, in a darkened and suffocating room, in a churchyard, or beneath swinging gibbets, and the number of ghosts so summoned and galvanized into life might be one of legion.

Regardless of desired outcome the procedure usually included profanation of Christian ritual, such as diabolical masses and administration of polluted sacraments to animals and reptiles; bloody sacrifices of animals, often of children; of orgiastic dances, generally of circular formation, such as that of the Witches' Sabbat.

For paraphernalia and accessories the sorcerers scoured the world and the imagination and mind of man and bent all things, beautiful or horrible, to their service. Because different planets were believed to rule over certain objects and states and invocations, such would be of great potency if delivered under the planets' auspices. Mars favored wars and strife, Venus love, Jupiter ambition and intrigue, Saturn malediction and death.

Vestments and symbols proper to the occasion were donned. The furs of the panther, lynx, and cat added their quota of influence to the ceremonies. Colors were also observed and suitable ornaments. For operations of vengeance, the robe had to be the hue of leaping flame, or rust and blood, with belt and bracelets of steel, and crown of rue and wormwood. Blue, green, and rose were the colors for amorous incantations; black for encompassing death, with belt of lead and wreath of cypress, amid loathsome incense of sulphur and assafoetida.

Precious stones and metals also influenced spells. Geometrical figures, stars, pentagrams, columns, and triangles were used; also herbs, such as belladonna and assafoetida; flowers, honeysuckle, being the witches' ladder, the arum, deadly nightshade, and black poppies; distillations and philters composed of the virus of loathsome diseases, venom of reptiles, secretions of animals, and poisonous sap, fungi, and fruits, such as the fatal manchineel, pulverized flint, impure ashes, and human blood. Amulets and talismans were made of the skins of criminals wrought from the skulls of hanged men, ornaments rifled from corpses and thus of special virtue, or the pared nails of an executed thief.

To make themselves invisible, it is said that sorcerers used an unguent compounded from the incinerated bodies of newborn infants mixed with the blood of nightbirds. For personal preparation, the sorceror fasted for 15 days, then got drunk every five days, after sundown, on wine in which poppies and hemp had been steeped.

For the actual rites the light came from candles made from the fat of corpses and fashioned in the form of a cross; the bowls were made from skulls, those of parricides being of greatest virtue; the fires were fed with cypress branches, with the wood of desecrated crucifixes and bloodstained gibbets; the magic fork was fashioned of hazel or almond, severed at one blow; the ceremonial cloth, was to be woven by a prostitute, and around the mystic circle were the embers of a polluted cross. Another potent instrument of magic was the mandragora, unearthed from beneath gallows where corpses were suspended, tied to a dog. The dog was then killed by a mortal blow, after which its soul was to pass into the fantastic root, attracting also that of the hanged man.

Widespread belief in black magic pervaded the Middle Ages. Machinations and counter-machinations engaged church and state, rich and poor, learned and ignorant. In persecutions and prosecutions, the persecutor and judge often met the same fate they dealt to the victim and condemned. In this dreadful phantasmagoria and procession can be found the haughty Templars, the blood-stained Gilles de Laval, the original of Bluebeard, Catherine de Medici the Marshals of France, as well as popes, princes, and priests. Literature divulges traces of black magic in weird legends and monstrous tales, in stories of spells and enchantments. The tale of Dr. Faustus recounts his pact with the Devil, his pleasures and their penalty when he must forfeit his soul to Hell. Traces exist in lewd verses and songs. Infernal influence is seen in pictures, sculptures, and carvings decorating palaces and cathedrals; the Devil's likeness peeps out from carven screen and stall, and his demons appear in gargoyles grinning and leering from niche and corner and clustering beneath the eaves.

The atmosphere of superstition and fevered imagination coexisted with religious dogma and repression. The great witchcraft manias flourished from the Middle Ages onward. The thousands of innocent men, women, and children who were brutally tortured and executed have left a deep stain on the church.

(See also Black Mass ; Evocation )


Cavendish, Richard. The Black Arts. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1967.

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MAGIC. By the late summer of 1940, American cryptanalysts managed to break some of Japan's most secret diplomatic codes. This remarkable achievement was designated MAGIC. Although American officials frequently used the same cover name referring to later successes against Japanese military and naval codes, which were called ULTRA, the MAGIC operation dealt primarily with Japanese diplomatic communications. The road to the major breakthrough, however, was long and uneven.

In the mid‐1930s, the U.S. Navy concentrated on Japanese naval cryptographic systems while the U.S. Army Signal Intelligence Service (SIS), under the direction of William F. Friedman, tackled Japanese diplomatic codes. By 1935, the SIS managed to crack Japanese diplomatic messages encrypted by the sophisticated “Red Machine,” which was put into use in the early 1930s. The accomplishments of Friedman and his team were short‐lived because in late 1938, the Japanese foreign ministry introduced a new and more secure cipher machine, the “Purple Machine,” for its top‐secret messages. By the spring of 1939, the new Purple Machine replaced much of the Red Machine traffic. As a result, the SIS found that its vital source of intelligence on Japanese intentions and developments dried up completely. Immediately, Friedman and a group of SIS colleagues focused their attention on unraveling this setback. Friedman benefited immensely from the input of his team, including mathematicians, cryptanalysts, and linguists. They worked laboriously for the next eighteen months to solve Purple and also to construct a Purple Machine.

The breaking of Purple was such a daunting and seemingly unachievable endeavor that Brig. Gen. Joseph O. Mauborgne, chief signal officer, referred to the cryptanalysts as “magicians” and to their results as “magic.” From then onward, the codeword MAGIC was given to the solution of Japanese diplomatic messages that were encrypted by the Purple Machine.

After the initial breakthrough in the fall of 1940, the Americans swiftly found that they had access to a huge volume of radio traffic between Tokyo and its diplomatic representatives throughout the world. Cryptanalysts were soon processing fifty to seventy‐five Japanese messages a day. The increase in workload strained the resources of the understaffed SIS. Consequently, the U.S. Army and the U.S. Navy made an agreement to share responsibility for MAGIC whereby the army was in charge of decrypting and translating materials on odd days while the navy was given even days. This arrangement between both services continued until early 1942.

The United States realized that MAGIC provided invaluable insights into the inner workings of the foreign ministry in Tokyo. In order to protect this secret source of intelligence, American authorities adopted stringent security measures for the dissemination of MAGIC reports. Distribution of the highly sensitive materials was intentionally limited to a select group of the highest‐ranking officials. Neither the secretary of state nor President Franklin D. Roosevelt was permitted to retain copies of MAGIC. The army, and the navy later, even took President Roosevelt off the list of authorized personnel for a short time when it was discovered that a copy of MAGIC found its way into the wastebasket of a senior official at the White House.

In early 1941, Friedman and his group managed to recreate several duplicate copies of the machine that enciphered Purple. By the end of the year, eight of these machines had been built. Four remained in Washington (two each for the army and navy), three were given to the British, and one was sent to intelligence headquarters of Gen. Douglas MacArthur on Corregidor Island in the Philippines.

A staggering amount of Japanese messages became available to American intelligence agencies by 1941 because MAGIC included diplomatic communications between Tokyo and all its consular and embassy representatives throughout the world. Given the limited number of personnel, especially experienced linguists, working on this secret program, Washington had to make a choice from among the flood of despatches that were being intercepted. Since crucial negotiations between the United States and Japan were taking place in 1941, priority was given to the Tokyo/Washington circuit. Working under pressure and tight schedules, the MAGIC team of codebreakers made outstanding progress. As the historian David Kahn, a leading authority on code and codebreaking, has noted, from March until December 1941, only 4 messages out of 227 relating to the talks between Secretary of State Cordell Hull and Ambassador Kichisaburo Nomura failed to be picked up by the United States.

MAGIC revealed only what the foreign ministry discussed with its diplomats and what these representatives reported back to Tokyo. Accordingly, the U.S. government did not obtain a complete picture of Japanese military planning, which was often not passed along to their diplomats until matters had proceeded well along course. In fact, the United States had been unable to break high‐level Japanese Army and naval codes until after the attack on Pearl Harbor, especially since each Japanese agency utilized systems entirely different systems from the foreign ministry.

Unexpectedly, MAGIC turned out to be an excellent source of military and diplomatic intelligence on the war in Europe, especially on German plans and intentions. While serving his second tour as Japanese ambassador to Germany from February 1941 to May 1945, Hiroshi Oshima, who had direct access to Adolf Hitler and his closest advisers, sent to Tokyo detailed reports on his conversations with German officials and also his observations while touring the German front lines. Even Gen. George C. Marshall, U.S. army chief of staff, acknowledged privately in 1944 that Oshima's despatches were one of the most important sources of intelligence on Germany during World War II. The United States had forewarning and details of Hitler's planned invasion of the Soviet Union in spring 1941 because of reports from Oshima. Another vital piece of intelligence surfaced in May 1944, when the Japanese ambassador informed Tokyo that Hitler remained convinced that the main Allied invasion of France would take place near Calais and that operations against Normandy were diversionary.

Despite strenuous measures to conceal MAGIC, certain aspects of the operation became public knowledge in late 1945 during the joint congressional investigations into the Pearl Harbor attack. In response to a determined national quest to find blame for one of America's worst military and naval disasters, President Harry S. Truman reluctantly reversed his initial decision and authorized the release of limited MAGIC messages dealing with U.S.‐Japan relations prior to 7 December 1941. The revelation immediately generated sensational headlines and commentaries. No further materials on MAGIC were released until 1977, when the Department of Defense published a five‐volume history of communication intelligence and the Pearl Harbor attack. Since then, the U.S. government has periodically declassified its records on MAGIC and continues to do so.

Ever since MAGIC was made public, historians have drawn upon the vast collection of translated messages to reevaluate certain aspects of American history between 1940 and 1945. These despatches have provided fuel for both proponents and opponents of the theory that the United States had prior warning of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. To this day, no specific evidence shows that there were definite indications within the messages that referred to the Japanese plans for the attack. However, a careful and thorough analysis could have shown that Japan in late 1941 was determined to confront the United States and that plans for an attack on U.S. forces somewhere in the Pacific were underway.

The MAGIC materials have also been used to justify or deny the successful efforts by Japanese Americans during the 1980s to obtain redress from the U.S. government for the wartime internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry. Opponents pointed out that several communications from the West Coast Japanese consulates and the embassy in Washington in 1941 reported that they were attempting to recruit second‐generation Japanese Americans for propaganda and espionage purposes. On the other hand, Japanese Americans have argued that there has never been a documented case of any disloyalty among them.

In recent years, MAGIC intercepts helped fuel the heated controversy over the American decision to order the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Indeed, intercepted messages confirmed that the Japanese government was deeply divided over whether to accept the Allied ultimatum for an unconditional surrender. Critics of the bombing emphasized that in 1945, strong elements within the government of Japan desperately sought the mediation of the Soviet Union so that the war could be ended without the termination of the emperor system and the imperial household. Proponents of the atomic bomb, however, suggested that these MAGIC messages indicated that Japan would not have agreed to the unconditional surrender if nuclear weapons had not been used.

In the final analysis, contrary to popular belief, MAGIC did not provide any specific indications of Japan's surprise air attack on Pearl Harbor, nor—unlike the breaking of the Japanese Navy and Army codes in 1942 through ULTRA—did it have any significant impact on operations during the Pacific War.
[See also Coding and Decoding; Intelligence, Military and Political; Japanese‐American Internment Cases; World War II: Military and Diplomatic Course; World War II: Changing Interpretations.]


Roberta Wohlstetter , Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision, 1962.
Ronald W. Clark , The Man Who Broke Purple: The Life of Colonel William F. Friedman, Who Deciphered the Japanese Code in World War II, 1977.
U.S. Department of Defense , The “Magic” Background of Pearl Harbor, 1977–78.
Ronald Lewin , The American Magic: Codes, Ciphers and the Defeat of Japan, 1982.
Carl Boyd , Hitler's Japanese Confidant: General Oshima Hiroshi and MAGIC Intelligence, 1941–1945, 1993.
David Kahn , The Codebreakers: The Comprehensive History of Secret Communication from Ancient Times to the Internet, 1996.

Pedro Loureiro

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In ancient times, the term magic referred to the doctrines and practices of the magi, a Zoroastrian caste of priests centered in Persia. The term meant gift of God in its original language, but as individuals claiming to be magi contacted Mediterranean cultures, it came to mean any itinerant specialist in fortune-telling or other forms of the occult. Europeans looked positively upon the magi because in the New Testament the magi were celebrated in Matthews account of the nativity of Jesus. But by 500 BCE the term magi also had a pejorative sense as many impostors made a living by pretending to possess supernatural powers gained in the mysterious East. The ars magica, or the practices of would-be magi, usually meant the tricks of showmen, a sense that followed the word magic when it entered English. For this reason, in the most popular usage, a magic trick performed by a magician typically means an illusion performed on stage as contrived entertainment.

In a more objective ethnographic sense, however, the concept of magic is useful in describing a common form of vernacular belief, as well as an important emphasis in a variety of new religions. The twentieth century occult revivalist Aleister Crowley (18741947) defined magic in a quasi-objective sense as the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with will (Adler 1986, p. 8). His practice, however, involved the use of rituals intended to cause change through the use of occult forces. Folklorists and anthropologists have likewise seen similar tendencies in a variety of cultures, and so magic could be defined more precisely as any traditional ritual that seeks to protect or benefit an individual through the private appropriation of supernatural forces.

During his research among Micronesian fishers (19141920), British anthropologist Bronislaw Mali-nowski found that magical practices were based on practical, utilitarian needs of those engaging in professions with high degrees of personal risk, particularly open-sea fishing. Malinowski argued that where man can rely completely upon his knowledge and skill, magic does not exist, while in activities full of danger and uncertainty, there is extensive magical ritual to secure safety and good results (Malinowski 1954, pp. 3031). Subsequently, ethnographers found similar practices among other cultures with a high degree of personal risk (such as fishing, mining, or lumbering) or where success is largely due to unpredictable factors (gambling, sports competitions, or the law).

Most common forms of magic are simple, including watching for omens of a lucky or unlucky venture, preparing and carrying amulets intended to bring fortune, or engaging in simple rituals at the start of an activity. Folklorist Don Yoder saw many of these as forms of folk religion and argued that they included any religious or quasi-religious practice observed but not positively prescribed by the institutionalized sect to which one belonged. However, more elaborate, privately maintained magic-religious traditions have also survived in ethnic communities alongside these common omens and rituals. These traditions are often termed ceremonial magic, and involve complicated rituals and magical paraphernalia. The rituals are similar in structure to blessings and prayers carried out in religion, but as Malinowski noted, they are often pragmatic in intent, serving to ensure success in an individuals economic or private matters.

Practitioners of such rituals normally define their art as natural or white magic because the forces that they use are the same as those honored in their dominant religion and their functions are supportive of their communities core ethics. In addition, as sociologist Hans Sebald found in a 1978 study of witchcraft traditions in Franconia (a region in southern Germany), magic often served as a convenient alternative in complex family disputes where calling in legal or religious officials would have caused a scandal. Nevertheless, such traditions are viewed with considerable suspicion by mainstream religious authorities.

The conventional distinction between black and white magic derives from this longstanding tension between vernacular practitioners and the law. In fact, scholars agree that few explicitly satanic or explicitly evil magicians ever existed. Prosecutors of the early modern (15001700) witch trials obtained confessions describing explicit devil worship and evil magic, but these descriptions were certainly obtained by coercion and torture. Sound ethnographic studies show that virtually all practicing magicians claimed to be white witches whose rituals supported the religious and ethical values of their communities.

Jealous religious authorities considered all private magic rituals, however, to be unnecessary (the literal meaning of superstitious), foolish, and at worst, a potentially dangerous form of black magic. There is Mention of Creatures that they call White Witches, which do only Good-Turns for their Neighbours, the Massachusetts Puritan minister Cotton Mather said shortly before the outbreak of the Salem Witch Trials (1692), adding, I suspect that there are none of that sort; but If they do good, it is only that they may do hurt (Mather 1689, p. 4). To be truly divine, that is, the exercise of supernatural powers needed to be limited strictly to institutionally approved specialists. Any use of allegedly good magic outside of orthodox religion was often defined as black magic for that reason alone. In addition, magical rituals that cast misfortune on an individual, or which explicitly call on demonic powers are the most strongly proscribed as dark arts by mainstream religions and, at times, by civil authorities as well.

The more elaborate traditions involve a belief that an unexplained illness or misfortune could be explained in terms of a curse cast by another person, deliberately or inadvertently. Hence the magic users first task was to diagnose the source of the inquirers problem, then to conduct a ritual intended to remove its influence and frequently, turn the curse back against the one who cast it. Such magical specialists also fabricate and sell fetishes intended to protect its purchaser. Often these traditions are complex enough that they need to be preserved in writing, either privately maintained manuscripts passed down in a family or circle of practitioners, or in print editions available from specialists. Among these magic books, the most notorious include the Germanic Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses and the Jewish qabbalist Key of Solomon.

A further development in magic occurred in England during the 1890s when a group of academics revived the medieval European traditions of ceremonial magic as a new religious movement. The Order of the Golden Dawn attracted many followers, chief among them the Irish poet William Butler Yeats (18651939), whose writings include frequent references to magical rituals that he performed. Crowleys Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.) was another influential faction in this movement. Predictably, Crowley was repeatedly denounced by religious authorities as a black magician who dabbled in Satanism. Although Crowley, a vocal critic of orthodox Christianity, at times encouraged this image, the rituals he practiced were in fact not diabolical in nature or intent. Nevertheless, the popular image of an evil black magician whose powers are countered by a benevolent white magician has become a cliché in popular fantasy and childrens literature.

More influentially, in 1954 Briton Gerald Gardner published a manuscript titled Ye Bok of ye Art Magical, supposedly the record of rituals preserved by a secret coven of English witches. In fact, the manuscript was based on publications of the Golden Dawn circles, but Gardners writings inspired the growth of a vigorous Neo-Pagan religious movement that has developed into a strong alternative religion in both Great Britain and North America. A number of ethnographic studies of contemporary witchcraft revival (particularly anthropologist Sabina Maglioccos 2004 study) show that the use of magic has had profound impact on its followers. Magic, Magliocco argues, is not simple make-believe but a powerful means of inducing spiritually transformative experiences.

The common perception of magic in terms of illusion or ignorance is therefore simplistic. Magical beliefs need to be seen in the larger context of their practitioners social and religious worldviews. Only by seeing a magical tradition as an integral part of a cultures definition of reality can we understand why it attracts and maintains followers

SEE ALSO Anthropology; Ethnography; Ethnology and Folklore; Luck; Malinowski, Bronislaw; Religion; Risk; Rituals; Taboos


Adler, Margot. 1986. Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers and Other Pagans in America Today. 2nd ed. Boston: Beacon.

Davies, Owen. 2003. Cunning-Folk: Popular Magic in English History. London: Hambledon and London

Ellis, Bill. 2003. Lucifer Ascending: The Occult in Folklore and Popular Culture. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press.

King, Francis. 1989. Modern Ritual Magic: The Rise of Western Occultism. Rev. ed. New York: Avery.

Magliocco, Sabina. 2004. Witching Culture: Folklore and Neo-Paganism in America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. [1925] 1954. Magic, Science and Religion. Garden City, New York: Doubleday.

Mather, Cotton. [1689] 2002. Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions. The Internet Sacred Text Archive.

Sebald, Hans. 1978. Witchcraft: The Heritage of a Heresy. New York: Elsevier.

Yoder, Don. 1974. Toward a Definition of Folk Religion. Western Folklore 33: 215.

Bill Ellis

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magic During its long history as a European and Western concept, magic has had two principal meanings. (Its use as a label to describe non-European and non-Western beliefs and practices has been seriously misleading and is now usually avoided.) Firstly, it has signified the pursuit by adepts of a highly elevated and esoteric form of wisdom based on the perceived presence in the world of mystical patterns and intelligences, possessing real efficacy in nature and in human affairs. Secondly, it has been applied as a term of disapproval by theologians and other intellectuals and professionals wishing to condemn various popular practices and techniques because of their perceived inefficacy in nature and human affairs. In the first context, important from antiquity down to the high Renaissance, magic was magia, the highest form of (natural) philosophy; in the second, important from medieval times through to the nineteenth century, it was tantamount to superstition.

In magia the human body, as material substance, was something to be transcended. Even when the Renaissance Neoplatonist Marsilio Ficino talked about the health of the scholar he meant to refer to the state of his spiritus. Nevertheless, in this tradition man was thought of as a microcosm and the proportions and harmony of his body were therefore assumed to resemble those of the universe. Hence the well-known depictions of the human frame with the arms and legs outstretched to meet the circumference of a perfect circle. Another Renaissance magus, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, wrote that every part of the human body corresponded to ‘some sign, some star, some intelligence, some divine name.’ This tied medicine closely to the practice of astrology, with body parts linked to the various zodiacal signs. By correspondence too the hand or face might indicate the whole person, providing the basis for palmistry and physiognomy. A further derivation from magia was natural magic, the study of nature's most hidden and secret processes. Among the ‘occult qualities’ that, in medieval and early modern medicine, were thought to govern the workings of the body, were those to do with the spread of contagions, the effects of poisons and their antidotes, the properties of narcotics, the behaviour of allergies, and the relief of ailments by purgatives. Many diseases were thought to have ‘occult’ causes, and many other aspects of the body's behaviour could be explained in terms of the appetitive aspects of natural action known as ‘sympathies’ and ‘antipathies’. The doctrine of ‘signatures’ also provided the physician with magical remedies — substances derived from plants and minerals that had their properties and uses stamped on them by heavenly influence. In all these various contexts, however, the magical aspects of the human body and of medical practice were thought of in what were then regarded as naturalistic terms — as part of the workings of nature. Thus, for a practitioner like Paracelsus, magic represented the highest level of medical efficacy.

This was not the case with the ‘magic’ condemned by disapproving intellectuals and professionals faced with the vast array of traditional ‘folk’ practices to do with healing, protecting, and preserving the body (many of which Paracelsus himself admired). The practitioners concerned presumably did think that they worked in a straightforward causal way: that they were not magical at all, but were simply techniques. But from the time of St Augustine onwards it was usual for them to be dismissed as having no natural efficacy. As long as such judgements were tied to religion, this type of magic remained irreligious, even demonic; when they were secularized, it became bad science or just foolishness. A great many types of popular diagnosis and treatment fell into this category, as well as traditional notions of how the body worked, how it might be harmed and how that harm might be avoided. Typical instances are diagnosis by measuring a person's belt or girdle; healing by charms or other forms of words or by symbols (especially the misuse of religious words or symbols); healing by wearing amulets; the belief in the ‘evil eye’ and in illness by bewitchment or by being touched; the attribution of various powers to body parts or substances (notably blood and semen); many practices to do with determining the sex of a child during conception; the opening of chests or doors to relieve labour pains; and the curing of a wound by treating the weapon that inflicted it. Such practices were popular among all social groups in pre-modern times; it was religious doctrine, then scientific orthodoxy, together with the professional and institutional interests these served, that deemed that they should be disallowed as spurious. In this sense too, the magic of the human body has been culturally constructed, there being nothing in our attitudes to it or ways of dealing with it that is inherently magical.

Stuart Clark


Thomas, K. V. (1971). Religion and the decline of magic, chapter 7. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London.
Wilson, S. (2000). The Magical Universe: Everyday Ritual and Magic in Pre-Modern Europe, parts II–III. Hambledon and London, London.

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252. Magic


a reliance upon incantations or charms, often inscribed upon amulets, to ward off calamity. abracadabra , n.
the acting out of magic rites or the recital of incantatory formulas to ward off evil. apotropaic , adj.
Obsolete. forms of magic that require the invocation or assistance of demons.
a conjurer or magician who creates illusions, as by sleight of hand.
an African variety of magical fetishism characterized by the wearing of an exotic amulet called a juju. jujuist , n.
skill in or practice of feats of dexterity that create a magical illusion. legerdemainist , n.
1. change in form, structure, appearance, etc.
2. magical transformation. metamorphic, metamorphous , adj.
1. a kind of sorcery practiced by the black people of Africa, the West Indies, and elsewhere. Also called obi, obism .
2. the wearing of an obeah, a fetish or charm. Also called obi .
the belief among American Indians that a ceremony characterized by magic, feasting, and dancing can cure disease, ensure the success of a hunt or battle, etc. powwow , n.
the art of legerdemain; sleight of hand. prestidigitator , n. prestidigitatorial, prestidigitatory , adj.
a condition of being exceptional or bizarre, beyond the realm of the ordinary course of nature. preternatural , adj.
the art, practices, or spells of a person who is supposed to exercise supernatural powers through the aid of evil spirits; black magic; witchery. sorcerer , n. sorcerous , adj.
a form of divination involving drawing lots.
1. the condition or quality of existing outside the known experience of man or caused by forces beyond those of nature.
2. belief in supernatural events or forces. Also supranaturalism . supernaturalist , n., adj. supernatural, supernaturalistic , adj.
supematuralism. supranaturalist , n., adj. supranatural, supranaturalistic , adj.
the belief that a part of a person or object can act in place of the whole and thus that anything done to the part will equally affect the whole.
the quality of being able to perform magie. thaumaturgist , n. thaumaturgic , adj. thaumaturgy , n.
a magician who persuades or compels a supernatural being to do or refrain from doing something. theurgy , n. theurgic, theurgical , adj.
voodooism, voudouism
1. the religious rites or practices, including magie or sorcery, of certain West Indian black people.
2. the practice of sorcery. voodooist , n.
Archaic. sorcery; the craft or practice of a warlock.
witchcraft or sorcery.
the art or practice of a wizard; sorcery; magic. wizard , n., adj.
Middle East. 1. the practice of atheism.
2. the practice of heretical magie, especially with fire. Zendic, Zendik , n. Zendaic , adj.

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magic (in religion and superstition)

magic, in religion and superstition, the practice of manipulating and controlling the course of nature by preternatural means. Magic is based upon the belief that the universe is populated by unseen forces or spirits that permeate all things. Because these supernatural forces are thought to govern the course of natural events, control of these forces gives humans control over nature. The practice of magic is held to depend on the proper use of both the ritual and the spell. The spell, or incantation, is the core of the magical ceremony; it unlocks the full power of the ritual. The practice of magic, in seeking its desired end, may combines within its scope elements of religion and science. In alchemy, for example, the process of transmuting a base metal into gold requires precise weights and volumes of acids, bases, and catalysts as well as the reciting of holy passages and prayers.

Anthropologists often distinguish between two forms of magic, the sympathetic and the contiguous. Sympathetic magic works on the principle that like produces like. The Ojibwa of North America would make a wooden image of an enemy and then stick pins into it. Because the doll represented the enemy, harm done to the doll was believed to harm the enemy. Contiguous magic operates on the belief that things that have been in contact will continue to act on each other after the physical contact has ceased. The aborigines of Australia believe that they can lame a person by placing sharp pieces of quartz, glass, bone, or charcoal in that person's footprints. Sometimes both sympathetic and contiguous magic are used in conjunction; certain African tribespeople will build a clay effigy around nail clippings, hairs, or bits of cloth belonging to the enemy and roast the completed image slowly in a fire.

Not all magic is performed in order to harm or destroy, and for this reason a distinction is made between black magic and white magic. White magic is characterized by those rites and spells designed to produce beneficial effects for the community (see fertility rites) or for the individual, particularly in those cases where an illness is considered to be the result of evil demons or of black magic.

See also voodoo; witchcraft.

See J. Frazer, The Golden Bough (12 vol., 1907–15); L. Thorndike, History of Magic and Experimental Science (8 vol., 1923–58); B. Malinowski, Magic, Science, and Religion (1948); M. Bouisson, Magic: Its History and Principal Rites (tr. 1961); J. Middleton, comp., Magic, Witchcraft, and Curing (1967); M. Marwick, Witchcraft and Sorcery (1970); M. Christopher, The Illustrated History of Magic (1973).

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magic is a phenomenon whose reality has been accepted in most societies. Differentiating it entirely from witchcraft is difficult, the generally accepted distinction being that whereas the ability to perform witchcraft is innate or inherited, magic involves the use of techniques and skills which can be learned.

Magical beliefs and practices existed at all social levels in the medieval and early modern periods, and were enmeshed in medical and scientific thought and techniques. The acceptance of astrology and alchemy as serious intellectual activities, the influence of hermetic writings and Neoplatonism, all of them accepting the reality of mystic forces, were symptomatic of widespread magical beliefs. It is instructive that, during the 15th cent., both the Scottish and English royal houses thought themselves to be threatened by plots involving the use of occult powers.

The interconnection between magic and what the modern mind accepts as legitimate intellectual activity is demonstrated by the career of John Dee (1527–1608), a mathematician of European repute, who while still young was offered the professorship of mathematics at the University of Paris. Later he travelled to eastern Europe, and resided in Prague, then an important intellectual centre. In between, he became virtual astrologer-royal to Elizabeth I. His advice was called for when fears arose of a plot to kill her by witchcraft and when the court was debating the deeper significance of the appearance of a new comet in 1577. From 1584, however, he became increasingly involved in attempts to make contacts with angels, and raise spirits. He was popularly regarded as a witch, although Dee and others like him regarded their activities as lawful.

That body of intellectual changes which is known as the scientific revolution downgraded magic as a serious area of study or means of explanation among the educated, although the interest of Newton and Boyle in alchemy demonstrates that the process was not straightforward. Among the lower orders, however, belief in magic continued well into the 19th cent. The medical advice and other services offered by cunning men and women were more readily and cheaply available than those of middle-class professionals, were more culturally familiar, were frequently as effective, and provided psychological comfort.

J. A. Sharpe

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"magic." The Oxford Companion to British History. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

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428. Magic (See also Enchantment.)

  1. Aladdins lamp when rubbed, genie appears, grants possessors wishes. [Arab. Lit.: Arabian Nights ]
  2. Armidas girdle enabled the enchantress to know and do whatever she willed. [Ital. Lit.: Jerusalem Delivered ]
  3. Bleys magician who taught Merlin arts of sorcery. [Arthurian Legend: Walsh Classical, 57]
  4. Gandalf wizard with special control over fire. [Br. Lit.: J. R. R. Tolkien Lord of the Rings ]
  5. Houdini, Harry (18741926) famous turn of century American magician and escape artist. [Am. Hist.: NCE, 1275]
  6. magic carpet flew King Solomon and his court wherever he commanded the wind to take it. [Moslem Legend: Brewer Dictionary, 177]
  7. Magus, The millionaire living on a Greek island magically manipulates an unhappy young Englishman through bewildering experiences into self-awareness. [Br. Lit.: Fowles The Magus in Weiss, 279]
  8. Merlin prince of magicians. [Br. Lit.: Le Morte dArthur ]
  9. Open, Sesame! formula that opens the door to the robbers cave. [Arab. Lit.: Arabian Nights ]
  10. Prospero uses magic to achieve ends. [Br. Lit.: The Tempest ]
  11. Skidbladnir ship large enough to hold all the gods and their possessions, yet so skillfully wrought by dwarves that it could be folded and pocketed. [Scand. Myth.: Bulfinch]
  12. wild asss skin assures the fulfillment of its possessors wishes, but with a fatal result. [Fr. Lit.: Balzac The Wild Asss Skin in Magill II, 1133]

Magnificence (See SPLENDOR .)

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"Magic." Allusions--Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

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Magic. The production of effects in the world by actions, often ritualized, whose source of power is not open to observation; or by words, especially by incantation: chants of formulae, which may sound nonsensical to the outsider, may summon the relevant power, or may themselves effect the consequence: they may also be apotropaic. Attempts to define the relation of magic to religion have formed part of the modern study of religion since its inception at the end of the 19th cent., often utilizing the Melanesian concept of mana, power of a supremely effective kind—not simply ‘cause’, but the reason why particular things happen. Thus E. Evans-Pritchard (Witchcraft, Magic and Oracles among the Azande, 1937) held that magic belonged to an interactive world in which it is possible to ask questions which a Westerner would not ask. Thus the Azande are interested in ‘cause-and-effect’, but also ask why events have happened to one person rather than another: magic is a means of interrogation as well as of finding answers.

More recently, this view has been developed further, seeing magic as embedded in religion, where it acts as an organization of context and meaning. In this perspective, magic offers the transformation of circumstances without guaranteeing effects: one consequence or its opposite will still be a demonstration that magic ‘works’, because it confirms the entire context in which a person lives.

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"Magic." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

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magic magic bullet a medicine or other remedy with wonderful or highly specific properties, especially one that has not yet been discovered. Recorded from the mid 20th century, the term may come from German Zauberkugel, attributed to Paul Ehrlich (1854–1915), German medical scientist, in connection with his search for a cure for syphilis.

German folklore includes a number of stories in which magic bullets of supernatural accuracy play a prominent role. The best-known is the legend of a marksman or ‘freeshooter’ who makes a pact with the powers of evil to obtain bullets which will go wherever he chooses; the story forms the basis for the opera Die Freischütz (1821) by Carl Maria von Weber (1784–1824).
magic carpet especially in stories set in Arabia, a mythical carpet that is able to transport people through the air.
magic circle an inner group of politicians viewed as choosing the leader of the Conservative Party before this became an electoral matter. The phrase was coined by Iain Macleod in a critical article in the Spectator of 17 January 1964 on the ‘emergence’ of Alec Douglas-Home in succession to Harold Macmillan in 1963.
magic realism a literary or artistic genre in which realistic narrative and naturalistic technique are combined with surreal elements of dream or fantasy.

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"magic." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

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magic Use (or apparent use) of natural or spirit forces to produce results that are logically impossible. Belief in magic is associated mainly with ‘primitive’ societies, although traces can still be found (such as superstitions) in developed countries. There are two main types of magic: black magic (which makes use of evil spirits) and white magic (used to good purpose and to counteract black magic). See also witchcraft

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magic sb. XIV. — OF. magique (superseded by magie) — late L. magica — Gr. magikḗ, f. magikós adj., f. mágos MAGUS.
So magic adj. XIV, magical XVI, magician XIV.

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"magic." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

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black magic

black mag·ic • n. magic involving the supposed invocation of evil spirits for evil purposes.

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"black magic." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

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magicbathypelagic, magic, tragic •neuralgic, nostalgic •lethargic, Tajik •Belgic •paraplegic, quadriplegic, strategic •dialogic, ethnologic, hydrologic, isagogic, logic, monologic, mythologic, pathologic, pedagogic, teleologic •georgic • muzhik •allergic, dramaturgic •anarchic, heptarchic, hierarchic, monarchic, oligarchic •psychic • sidekick • dropkick •synecdochic • Turkic •Alec, cephalic, encephalic, Gallic, intervallic, italic, medallic, mesocephalic, metallic, phallic, Salic, tantalic, Uralic, Vandalic •catlick • garlic •angelic, archangelic, evangelic, melic, melick, philatelic, psychedelic, relic •Ehrlich • Gaelic •acrylic, bibliophilic, Cyrillic, dactylic, exilic, idyllic, imbecilic, necrophilic •niblick • skinflick •acyclic, cyclic, polycyclic •alcoholic, anabolic, apostolic, bucolic, carbolic, chocoholic, colic, diabolic, embolic, frolic, hydraulic, hyperbolic, melancholic, metabolic, parabolic, rollick, shambolic, shopaholic, symbolic, vitriolic, workaholic •saltlick • cowlick • souslik • gemütlich •public • Catholic

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"magic." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

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