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Magic: Magic in Indigenous Societies


Magic, in the view of many anthropologists and other scholars of small-scale societiesthose in which effective political control is restricted to a village or group of villagesis the manipulation of enigmatic forces for practical ends. Magical means are said to be extranatural or supernatural, and the objectives of magical intervention, natural. The magician prepares a variety of special objects or "bundles," "spells," "incantations," or "potions," which are thought to bring about, in some mysterious way, real changes in a person, object, or event.

In the simplest foraging societies everyone knows some magic, and a shaman is usually a part-time specialist in healing and divination who may be called on for public religious ritual. In agrarian and other, more complex societies magicians tend to work for private clients in curing illnesses, in ensuring a positive outcome of an intended act, or in modifying the behavior of a third party. Magic in these societies, where there is greater specialization, tends to be practiced in private and, at times, against the public interest.

Some anthropologists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries believed that so-called primitive peoples confused magical causality and natural causality. Today most anthropologists hold that magicians can distinguish the one from the other. Magic is used to coax nature to do its job, not to replace it; that is, the magician tries to engender a desired natural process as opposed to some other natural process, and this he accomplishes principally through the use of metaphorthe "power of words"or other magical formulas. The magician may also deceive the client into imagining that some noxious natural substance "removed" from the client's body is the source of his sickness or whatever supernatural harm has befallen him (when, in fact, the magician comes upon the substance through a trick and does not remove it from the client's body). Magic may be used to supplement natural causality so that no chances are taken. When natural causality is not known, use of magic may still be rational: that is, given that many actual or perceived dangers are beyond human control, one must at least try something.

Typically, magic is contrasted with science and religion. It differs from both in that its purposes are practical, not theoretical or cosmic. It shares with science the desire to obtain a utilitarian understanding of everyday events, and with religion the use of extranatural processes. Thus magic is neither primitive science nor the religion of primitive people, contrary to views prevalent among nineteenth-century theorists; rather it supplements each. In small-scale societies magic may be entwined with science and religion to such a degree that their disengagement is arbitrary. Observers of these societies tend to label communal rituals and beliefs "religion" and private uses of mysterious forces for personal gain "magic." In such societies, applied science is craftthe ability to make utilitarian tools and other objectsor the practical knowledge of planting, hunting, or curing. Here again magic is inexorably tied to science in a supplementary way, in that magical procedures give the craftsperson, gardener, or herbalist a measure of confidence in a risky endeavor: magic can protect a newly built canoe against sinking, keep insects out of gardens, and heal the sick. Magic is never an alternative to practical science or technology; rather it is an attempt to tip the odds in the favor of the practitioner in the likely event that scientific knowledge is limited.

In small-scale societies magic may represent the instrumental aspect of religious belief: the same mythsthe stories that explain a people's origins or an ultimate causevalidate religion and magic. However, in religion the myths are believed to be universally applicable and are used to support the public good or the established order, whereas in magic the myths are fragmented and used for individual purposes. Thus the conflict between the social good and individual need sometimes finds expression as a conflict between religion and magic. As manifested in Europe, that conflict involved the church and the practice of witchcraft. Anthropologists have applied the term witchcraft to practices outside Europe, but the conflict with well-established religion that the use of this term suggests is not necessarily present in simple societies.

The terms sorcery and divination have also been applied to magical traditions outside Europe. Although there is substantial variation from society to society and among scholars who use these terms to describe indigenous beliefs, witchcraft usually refers to the involuntary practice of magic, and sorcery to the deliberate practice of magic. Witchcraft is thought to be involuntary, since at times the witch may be unaware of the condition. Furthermore, a witch may be possessed against his or her own will. Witchcraft receives greater attention in the literature than does sorcery, possibly because witchcraft appears to be more common and because anthropologists are interested in the social implications of accusations of witchcraft. Witchcraft activities may have good intentions ("white" magic), or they may have evil intentions ("black" magic), although here again field data suggest that such a distinction is not always clear. Divination is not identical to magic, as no manipulation of natural events is sought. Yet it is not entirely separate from magic. Divination is the attempt to reveal hidden information by "reading" the mystical symbolism found in otherwise ordinary objects or action. The oracle exposes the probable result of an intended action. The person who consults the oracle may then choose the action if that result is desired, or he may select some other course of action if it is not. Divination may not necessarily involve foretelling the future. An oracle may reveal the cause of some community problem: someone is a witch and so is the source of harm. Identifying the problem suggests its solution: exorcise the witch. Thus the diviner taps the same mystical forces that the magician employs. But, unlike the magician, the diviner does not attempt to change events; rather he seeks to know what has happened or what will happen.

An early interpretation of magic was set forth by James G. Frazer (18541941) in The Golden Bough, a massive study of supernatural practices around the world. In common with many social philosophers of the late nineteenth century, Frazer held that use of magic was typical of early societies. Human thought progressed from magic to religion and thence to science. Magic is like science in that both explain the causality of ordinary events by suggesting that cause A has effect B. However, magic is pseudoscience in that it confuses supernatural efficacy with natural results. Today most anthropologists disagree with Frazer on this point and follow the interpretation of Bronislaw Malinowski (18841942), who held that the magician is well aware of the distinction between the supernatural and natural realms.

Scholars look more kindly upon Frazer's classification of types of magic, if only for the sake of convenience. According to Frazer, magic follows the "law of sympathy": magical causes may have distinct effects through one or the other of two procedures. The first is homeopathic magic: the magician acts out a procedure on models of the intended victim, and what he does is mysteriously transmitted to the victim himself. "Like produces like" is the principle here. A pin stuck in a doll that represents the victim causes harm to the victim himself. The second type of sympathetic magic is contagious magic: items that have been in contact with the victim, such as his hair or nail clippings, may be magically manipulated to produce harm in the victim.

Malinowski best explicated what is today a commonly held view among scholars: that magic and science supplement each other and are not to be confused. In extensive fieldwork among inhabitants of the Trobriand Islands off northeast New Guinea (19141920), Malinowski found that these gardening and seafaring people were highly empirical in their approach to horticulture, canoe building, and sailing. Yet they consistently tempered their pragmatism with magic. In sailing, they ordinarily relied on their craft skills and seamanship, but they understood, too, that native craftsmanship and seamanship were at times insufficient aids in withstanding the unexpected foreboding condition, like a capricious storm on open water. For these possibilities the Trobrianders used magic: it seemed to make the unknown amenable to human action and therefore provided psychological reassurance for a potentially perilous voyage. For Malinowski, then, there is no evolution from magic to religion and ultimately to science; rather these three facets of human behavior must be understood together, as aspects of a cultural system.

In his classic study of a people of Zaire, Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande (1937), E. E. Evans-Pritchard (19021974) took up Malinowski's argument that magic has its own logic. If one accepts the Zande worldview, then belief in magic follows. "Witchcraft, oracles, and magic are like three sides to a triangle," wrote Evans-Pritchard. "Oracles and magic are two different ways of combatting witchcraft" (p. 387). Consultation of oracles in divination can locate the source of witchcraft, and use of magic can combat it. For example, the Zande hold that all human death is caused by witchcraft. True, if a man walks under a cliff, is struck by a rock, and subsequently dies, the Zande would not deny empirical causality: surely the rock caused the death. Yet they would also claim an attendant causality: what, it could be asked, caused that person to walk under the cliff in the first place? Why did the rock fall just as the person was under the cliff? Surely some witch was responsible. To discover the identity of the witch, the Zande would consult the oracles.

The pioneering work of Malinowski and Evans-Pritchard contributed much to the development of the modern anthropological view of magic: specifically, that it has social, cultural, and psychological functions; that it is a rational activity akin to but separate from science; and that its use is not restricted to the so-called primitive peoples but may also be found in complex societies. These scholars emphasized the practical use of magic, as a private act in a social matrix. But there is a related stream of anthropological thought that concerns magic as an individual's ritual or cognitive act.

In his Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, Émile Durkheim (18581917) saw magic and religion as embedded in each other. Both contain beliefs and rites, but whereas religious rites are concerned with the sacred, magical rites are directed toward the utilitarian. Religion works toward communal goals while magic deals with private ends. It is this that explains the abhorrence with which organized religions reject magical practices. Religion involves a church operating in public, while magic involves an individual operating in private.

Marcel Mauss (18721950), Durkheim's son-in-law and intellectual heir, saw magic as "private, secret, mysterious and tending at the margin towards the forbidden rite" (Lukes, in Sills, 1968, p. 80). Like Durkheim, Mauss emphasized the similarity between magic and religion. In Mauss's view, both involve mystical power. Magic is a "social fact," a fundamental unit of society. Every rite that is not communal involves magic. For peoples of Oceania, the supernatural or mystical force in magic is mana, a nonsentient supernatural power. Similar notions are found in many other parts of the world, and anthropologists have labeled them mana as well. Mana may be located in objects or people. It is the power transmitted through the laying on of hands when one is cured of illness. Mana resides in the "ghost shirt," a special garment worn by some nineteenth-century Plains Indians to protect against bullets. And mana is to be found in all lucky charms. The transfer of mana, or the aura given off by an object or person with mana, is at the heart of many magical practices: the transfer is said to ensure supernatural protection.

Central to any discussion of magic are a number of puzzling questions. How can people actually believe that a special garment will protect them against bullets? Why do people let themselves be duped by the hocus-pocus of the magician? Are people so credulous as to believe that placing a photograph of an intended victim in a coffin will actually harm that person?

Lucien Lévi-Bruhl (18571939) provided one answer to these questions. Like Frazer, Lévi-Bruhl developed an evolutionary scheme to account for cultural differences. He focused on human thought, however, not social institutions. For most of his career he held to what was essentially an elaboration of the racist notion that so-called primitive peoples are less fully evolved than "civilized" peoples, and that their thinking, which Lévi-Bruhl labeled "prelogical," is fundamentally childlike. Civilized peoples, in his view, think rationally, logically. Prelogical thinking involves a different order of perception: mystic properties are attached to inanimate objects or to living things. Magic is thus part of prelogical thinking, as are many other aspects of so-called primitive culture: language, enumeration, memory. Toward the end of his career, Lévi-Bruhl modified his position on the inherent difference of certain groups of human beings. Humans taken as a whole, he came to believe, have capacities for the various styles of thought: prelogical mentality is to be found everywhere, but it is emphasized more in primitive societies.

This brings us close to Claude Lévi-Strauss's view of the "savage mind." Magical action is, in his view, a subset of analogical thought, the mental activity emphasized in simple societies. Magic involves an assumption that metaphors work according to physical or natural laws. The case of the Zande peripatetic hit by a falling rock might be solved in this fashion: human intent of harm to that individual was paralleled by the natural event of the falling stone.

Lévi-Strauss formulated his own contrast between magic and religion: religion is "a humanization of natural laws," while magic is "a naturalization of human actionsthe treatment of certain human actions as if they were an integral part of physical determinism" (1962, p. 221). Lévi-Strauss envisages no evolutionary sequence beginning with magic: magic, religion, and science all shade into one another, and each one has a place in human society.

S. J. Tambiah also sees analogy at work in science. Science, however, begins with known causal relationships between phenomena and then, through analogy, discovers the identical causal relations between unknown phenomena. Meaning imbued in the magical act is analogously transferred to the natural activity. This is not, Tambiah argues, faulty science but a normal activity of human thought: magic is a specialized use of analogy and the imputation of meaning from the magical procedure to a natural referent. Thus magic does what science cannot: it helps create a world of meaning. Seemingly bizarre magical behavior is to be understood as an exercise in the exploration of meaning in practical activity, not as a refutation of natural law.

Many anthropologists would argue that magic is part of the normal daily routines of people in modern, complex societies. Clearly magic is involved when a baseball player, in order to get a hit, crosses himself or picks up a bit of dirt before batting. Mana is the "charisma" of the persuasive individual; it is also the "prestige" of the person of high social station. Magical protection is afforded the automobile driver who places the statue of a saint on the dashboard. And magic is involved in the daily ritual of personal ablutions and grooming: "I must always wear this tie with that suit," "If my hair is not styled just so, I won't feel right." The doctor says, "Take two pills and call me if you don't feel better in twenty-four hours," and we take his advice, since, like most laypeople, we tend to see the science of the expert as a form of magic. And this is necessarily so, as we cannot all be experts in everything, yet we still need to reduce our anxiety and gain a sense of order and meaning in our lives.


With the publication of The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, 2 vols. (London, 1890), James Frazer put the study of magic forever on the agenda of anthropologists, folklorists, and all scholars of small-scale societies. Frazer's library study eventually grew to twelve volumes (3d ed., rev. & enl.; London, 19111915) plus an Aftermath (London, 1936). An abridged, single-volume version, entitled The New Golden Bough, edited by Theodor H. Gaster, was published in 1959 (New York).

In a theoretical essay entitled Magic, Science, and Religion (New York, 1948) Bronislaw Malinowski criticized Frazer's armchair scholarship, and it is with Malinowski's Coral Gardens and Their Magic, 2 vols. (Bloomington, Ind., 1935), that the modern anthropological field study of magic really begins. E. E. Evans-Pritchard's Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande, 2d ed. (1937; Oxford, 1950), is a classic field study of magic among a traditional African group. Religion in small-scale societies, especially among the indigenous peoples of Australia, is the subject of Émile Durkheim's The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1915; New York, 1965). Greater depth is given to the Durkheimian approach to magic in Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss's "Esquisse d'une théorie générale de la magie," L'année sociologique 7 (1904). Subsequently translated as A General Theory of Magic (London, 1972), this important essay is quoted by Steven Lukes in his article on Mauss in the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, edited by David L. Sills (New York, 1968), vol. 9, pp. 7882. The racist position that the use of magic is an outcome of "primitive" thought is set forth by Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, especially in his Primitive Mentality (New York, 1923).

The nature of magical thought, as a species of normal human thought, is spelled out by Claude Lévi-Strauss in his classic essay The Savage Mind (Paris, 1962). Summations of anthropological ideas concerning magic and religion in simple societies can be found in Ruth Benedict's "Magic," in the Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences (New York, 1933), vol. 10, pp. 3944; Nur Yalman's "Magic," in the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (New York, 1968), vol. 9, pp. 521527; E. E. Evans-Pritchard's Theories of Primitive Religion (Oxford, 1965); and the various editions of The Reader in Comparative Religion: An Anthropological Approach, edited by William A. Lessa and Evon Z. Vogt. Stanley J. Tambiah's article entitled "The Form and Meaning of Magical Acts: A Point of View" appears in the fourth edition (New York, 1979) of the reader.

Donald R. Hill (1987)

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