views updated


Magic is a word with many definitions, an English word that is linked to others in most European languages but for which there may be no precise equivalent elsewhere. In most known societies, magic forms an integral part of the sphere of religious thought and behavior, that is, with the sacred, set apart from the everyday. In some societies, especially in the industrialized West, it is generally accepted as superstition and even as a form of sleight of hand used for entertainment. In addition it has almost always been considered to mark a distinction between Western and so-called primitive societies, or between Christian and non-Christian religions. Therefore it is not really feasible to consider "magic" apart from "religion," with which it often has been contrasted, as many of its defined elements refer to their opposition to what both local adherents and outside observers consider the more orthodox elements of religion.

Magic has usually been without any agreed detailed content of belief and behavior. But there is a general consensus as to what this content is. Most peoples in the world perform acts by which they intend to bring about certain events or conditions, whether in nature or among people, that they hold to be the consequences of these acts. If Western terms and assumptions are used, the cause and effect relationship between the act and the consequence is mystical, not scientifically validated. The acts typically comprise behavior such as manipulation of objects and recitation of verbal formulas or spells. Not everyone in a given society may actually perform magic, which may be done only by a specialist magician. As an example, in parts of Melanesia, it is reported that a man may plant a yam, fertilize it, weed it, and, when the tuber is ripe, harvest it: this is a straightforward technical activity. He may also perform rites or say spells that are thought to help the yam grow and ripen, and perhaps grow larger than those of his neighbors. To a Western farmer, these are magical acts and any link between them and their intended consequences is a mystical one, existing in the mind of the performer and not in any scientifically verifiable actuality. Conversely many Western farmers insist on planting crops during a full moon or other point in the calendar, and consider this to be essentially a technical or scientifically effective act; but the Melanesian would disagree and consider it superstitious, ineffectual, or merely stupid. Two kinds of performance may therefore be distinguished, but whereas external observers may make this distinction, the magical performers may not, regarding both performances as necessarily complementary and effective.

Studies of magic as a superstitious form or aspect of religion, and especially as a "traditional" or "premodern" form of belief and practice, are misleading. It has usually been taken for granted that magic declines in "modern" technologically and scientifically "advanced" societies, becoming a superstition that loses meaning and believed effectiveness. This may be the opinion of Western scholars concerned with religious truth and counter-beliefs, concepts held essentially by adherents of "world" religions with religious books and texts. For them, the religions of peoples without written texts are defined as lacking any ultimate truth; they are considered and defined to include all manner of beliefs in magic, witchcraft, sorcery, and divination (all forming the occult). They typically define "true" religions more narrowly, omitting the occult as outside the religious. Conventional studies of the Old Testament, for example, discuss witchcraft as a sign of early and pre-Christian modes of thought, while orthodox Muslims may deny beliefs in magic or witchcraft as linked to Satanic, unorthodox, and erroneous forms of knowledge that do not merit acceptance as orthodox. In brief, the inclusion of magic as part of a religion generally makes that religion, as viewed from Western eyes, "primitive," theologically untrue, and even as unworthy of serious study by those who consider themselves to be orthodox believers. It may become virtually impossible to consider magic as having any purpose or function that is morally acceptable, socially positive or productive, or efficacious in promoting the common good.

Much of the evidence offered for magic is inaccurate, sensational, and inadmissible, the kind of material to be found in many travelers' tales of mysterious powers by exotic practitioners they have not actually witnessed or in the accusations of conjuring the Devil by accused witches in late medieval Europe. There are, however, two other kinds of evidence. One is exemplified by the accounts of trained anthropological observers, who can speak the local languages and ask questions of the actual practitioners; the other is exemplified by the writings of scholars of past societies where there is reliable documentation from original sources. An example of the first kind is the work of Bronislaw Malinowski (18841942), who witnessed and described yam planting and other magical acts in Melanesia. Another example is in the writing of Edward Evans-Pritchard (19021973), who researched the use of magic in southwestern Sudan. Accounts of this kind have the immense advantage of being placed in the contexts in which the rites are carried out. Examples of the second kind are by G. E. R. Lloyd on the ancient Greeks and Keith V. Thomas on post-seventeenth-century England.

Scholars of many kinds have been writing about magic, its aims, its origins, its methods, and its believed efficacy for centuries, even before the days of the ancient Greeks. It seems sensible here not to attempt a historical survey about magic using as sources those who have accepted its validity for themselves; it is more productive to deal with the writers who have tried to understand the practice of magic among other societies whose systems of thought they have not shared at the outset but that they have come to understand during their research. Relatively little can be gained from the writings of those who could not remain objective observers. For example, the writings of the late medieval inquisitors or of King James I of England are important as data for analysis, but in themselves they throw no more light on theories of magic than would the verbal statements of a Melanesian yam magician.

Certain basic questions that have been asked by writers on magic include those tracing the relationship of magic to science and to religion, and researching its instrumental and technical efficacy, its social and psychological functions, its symbolism, and the nature of its thought. If the once popular concern with magic's evolutionist implicationsthat it marks an archaic stage of cultural evolutionare omitted, these questions essentially concern either the functions and efficacy of magic or the nature and processes of the system of thought that is claimed to lie behind it. It has generally been accepted by those studying magic that magical performances do not "work" in an immediately technical or instrumental sense. Melanesian yams are not affected by magical spells, other than in the indirect sense that a yam farmer might take greater care of magically protected yams and that neighbors might be wary of damaging them. Clearly many cases lie on the borderline; alchemy, which contained much that is generally accepted as magic, did at times stumble onto scientifically correct relations between phenomena and events.

Questions of systems of thought deal with these same problems, but at another level at which arise questions of symbolism, interpretation, and translation between cultures. Perhaps the most long-standing problem is that anthropology (and, to a lesser extent, psychology, history, and philosophy) involves the distinction between the notions of "primitive" and "civilized," a distinction with such pejorative implications that the terms are now rarely used, although there are scholars who use the word "primitive" in the sense of "primal." Theories of magic have essentially been concerned with the problem of the relationship between what are often referred to as "traditional" and "scientific" modes of thought. Other terms that have been used in this context include prelogical/logical, prescientific/scientific, irrational/rational, preliterate/literate, and "closed/open" beliefs in magic, the performance of magical rites being identified with the first term in each of the above pairs. Discussion of whether these are meaningful distinctions that actually exist between societies goes back to the work of Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, discussed below. Much later work has been devoted to refining, refuting, and assessing the worth of his findings, especially once it became clear that if there are indeed two contrasting modes of thought, they are normally found together in any particular society, so that references to a dichotomy between "primitive" and "civilized" are misleading.

At the risk of oversimplification, it may be said that in the history of theories of magic the battle has been between what have been called the "literalists" and the "symbolists." Briefly, the literalists suggest that performance of magical actions is instrumental, so that the thought behind them (depending on the views of the writer) is either similar or dissimilar to that behind scientific experiments. Therefore the world may be divided into those societies whose magicians try to achieve a cause-and-effect relationship in events, whether technical or psychological, and those where the magician's place is taken by the scientist. The symbolists argue that this distinction misses the point. What is important for them is that magicians and scientists may or may not be trying to achieve the same results but are using different conceptual systems. They speak different languages, the one symbolic and the other concrete, and translation or interpretation between them is meaningless until this fact is taken into account. The main questions, therefore, are those of the nature of the different modes of thought and how they may be translated into one another.

Magic in Social and Cultural Evolution

The first important writers on magic whose views retain currencyor at least interestare those nineteenth-century evolutionists generally known as the intellectualists because they based much of their work on their opinions of what prehistoric and archaic peoples might have thought about the world, as imagined from their academic armchairs.

The most influential of these writers were E. B. Tylor (18321917) and James G. Frazer (18541941). Both distinguish magic from religion as distinct modes of thought and ritual performance. Both claim to base their definitions and analyses on ethnographic material, although much of it was in fact erroneous and faulty. Their method, which they rather bizarrely referred to as "comparative," suffered because they failed to place the data in its social and cultural contexts; their approaches were essentially psychological in the sense that they depended upon their own assumptions about what might have been the behavior of other peoples rather than on categories formulated by those peoples themselves.

Tylor defined magical knowledge and performance as "pseudo-science": the magician and his public (Tylor's "savages") postulated a direct cause and effect link between the magical act and the intended result, whereas the link was not scientifically valid but based on the association of ideas only. Tylor considered magic to be "one of the most pernicious delusions that ever vexed mankind" but nevertheless regarded it as based on a rational process of analogy that has been called the symbolic principle of magic.

His predecessors had taken a belief in magic as a sign of the infantile and ignorant thinking of early mankind. To argue that "savages" were capable of rational thought, even in a scientifically unfounded context, was a significant advance. He was also interested in learning why "savages," capable of rationality, accepted magic even though it was clearly ineffective. His views, which have been accepted by most later anthropologists, were that magical and empirical behavior are often coterminous, in that natural processes often achieve what the magician claims to do; that failure can be attributed to hostile magical forces on the part of rival magicians or to the breaking of taboos; that there is great plasticity of definitions of success and failure; and that the weight of cultural tradition and authority validates the practice of magic. Finally Tylor maintained that "magic" and "religion" are complementary parts of a single cultural phenomenon and are thus not merely stages in the evolutionary development of mankind, although he believed that magical belief and practice decreased in the later stages of human history.

The other great evolutionist of the period, Frazer, held rather different views that have long persisted in popular thought on the subject. He built up an evolutionary schema with three main stages of thought, each paramount in turn. He placed magical thought as the most primitive, then religious thought, and finally scientific thought. He contrasted magic with religion and with science, although he discerned certain resemblances between magical and scientific thought. He placed magic at an earlier stage in human development for three reasons: (1) because in his view it was logically simpler; (2) because it persisted as superstition even in industrial societies and so forms an underlying and persistent substratum; and (3) because the Australian Aborigines (at that time taken as the extreme case of an archaic remnant people) believed in magic rather than in religion (in this, Frazer's ethnographic facts were simply incorrect). So in his schema, magic was the earliest form of thought and behavior involving the supernatural. As people came to realize that magical techniques were ineffective, they postulated the existence of omnipotent gods that controlled nature and needed to be supplicated and propitiated. Finally, men began to recognize the existence of empirical natural laws, first by alchemy and later by true science, and religion came to join magic as a superstition. The "evidence" for this development was virtually nonexistent outside Frazer's mind, but he fit a vast amount of data into "proving" his deductive hypothesis.

Frazer defined the magical according to his belief that magical performances are sympathetic rites based upon his Law of Similarity, by which like produces like, and the Law of Contact, by which things that have been in physical contact then act upon one another even at a distance. He defined magic based on similarity as Homeopathic Magic and that based on contact as Contagious Magic, and he added taboo as negative magic acting according to the same "laws." Since much of science seemed to him also to be based on the same premises, he linked it with magic by accepting Tylor's earlier view of the existence of a rational link between cause and effect in the magician's mind. It is easy today to point to the flaws in these intellectualist arguments, citing their authors' projection of their own modes of thought onto other cultures, but at the time, these theories were highly influential.

Tylor and Frazer were followed by many less original scholars who refined their predecessors' somewhat crude schemata of evolution. In England were R. R. Marett (18661943), Andrew Lang (18441912), A. E. Crawley (18691924), and others. Marett maintained that in the earliest stages of human evolution, religion could not be differentiated from magic, because at that prior pre-animistic stage of development, religion did not condemn magic as mere superstition. He coined the term magico-religious, a blanket term that has muddled the issue of the natures of magic and religion for almost a century. Marett held that magic arises from the recourse to make-believe acts that the magician considers symbolic and different from their realization, and as a means of resolving emotional tensions. Magic is a substitute activity that gives courage and confidence, a view later reflected in the work of Malinowski. Crawley, writing less specifically, held that "primitive" peoples' mentalities are totally religious or superstitious, so that magic cannot be differentiated from religion, because both are based on fear in the face of an omnipotent unknown. In the United States, Alexander A. Goldenweiser (18801940) made the point against Frazer that magic and science are in fact not similar, in that only the scientist sees order and the working of regularities in nature, whereas the magician is unaware of them; he suggested that in early societies, magic was closely linked with religion but that later they grew apart, religion becoming more centrally associated with the formal structure of society and magic assuming a place on the fringes of legality and organized religion.

These were not the only psychologically minded scholars to discuss the nature of magic. Another important figure was Wilhelm Wundt (18321920), who held that magical thinking, as the earliest phase in the development of religious thought, was based on emotional processes, the principal one being the fear of nature, which appears as hostile to human well-being and which is conceptualized as an evil force that can be controlled by magic. In the same line of development came Gerardus van der Leeuw (18901950), who maintained that the magician believes that he can control the external world by the use of words and spells, and Sigmund Freud (18561939), whose notion of the omnipotence of thought was basic to his argument. Primitive magical rites and words correspond to the obsessional actions and spell-like speech of neurotics, who believe that they can affect reality by their own thoughts and wishes. Freud accepted the gross evolutionist schema of Frazer as a parallel to the psychological development of the individual. It is tension in the face of the sense of impotence that gives rise to magical thought both in the child and in early man: magic is wish fulfillment. Unfortunately this analogy has no basis in the ethnographic data supplied by anthropologists and must be considered a "just-so story." It puts a pattern of coherence into Freud's psychological work but tells little of the nature of magic and magical thought.

The Sociology of Magic

In the years around 1900, the works of other kinds of thinkers became influential and have continued to be more so than that of the evolutionists and intellectualists. The principal theorists among these more sociologically minded scholars were Émile Durkheim (18581917), Marcel Mauss (18721950), and Lucien Lévy-Bruhl (18571939) in France and Max Weber (18641920) in Germany. All saw the social as more important than the individual or psychological.

The three French writers followed Auguste Comte in substituting sociological explanations of social processes for psychological ones. For them religion, including magic, is a social fact, brought into existence by collective action and then possessing an autonomy of its own; it is not merely an illusion (Durkheim realized that the religious and the magical both persist in "scientifically" based societies). The "religious" is defined as sacred, a realm set apart by the religion's adherents, whose beliefs and rites unite them into a single moral community or church whose members' ritual, linked to the sacred, fortifies their faith as members of a single community. The religious is a collective practice, there being no religion without a church in that sense. Magic, however, is an individual affair in the sense that the magician has a clientele and not a church. In magic, therefore, the function of ritual to fortify the faith of the group is lacking, and instead the magician attempts to bring about certain consequences by the use of magical or sacred objects and words. Durkheim's study of magic formed an unimportant part of his main study of Australian Aboriginal religion and seems to be included mainly for completeness of his treatment of what had conventionally been included under the "religious." However, in a sense the gap had already been filled by Marcel Mauss's essay eight years earlier, wherein he set out his general theory of magic. Both Mauss and Durkheim defined magic not by the structure of its rites but by the circumstances in which these rites occur. Much of Mauss's book is taken up with the relationship of magic to religion and science, the latter being similar to magic by analogy, the former being similar to magic in that both are based on beliefs in mana and the sacred.

Lévy-Bruhl did not present any theories of magic as such, but he was centrally concerned with the associated mode of thought, which he called prelogical or prescientific, that most later writers have associated with belief in magic. He argued that modern Western societies are scientifically oriented in their thought whereas "primitive" societies are mystically oriented toward using the supernatural to explain unexpected and anomalous events. Prescientific "collective representations" inhibit cognitive activities that would contradict them, so that events attributed to causes that are prescientific are not put to objective verification. "Prescientific" or "prelogical" thought (Lévy-Bruhl was later to withdraw the latter term) contravenes the rules of science and Western logic, but otherwise it is rational and builds up into a single coherent system. Examples are beliefs in the effects of witchcraft or of magical rainmaking. It is important that Lévy-Bruhl stressed the content of thought, which is determined by a society's culture, and not the process of thinking, which is not a social phenomenon but a psychological and physical one (a point on which he has often been misunderstood). A person's perceptions are determined by his or her culture's notions of the social and ritual value of those elements of experience that are perceived rather than merely being seen. That is to say, "primitives" do not perceive "mystically" because they are some way mentally inferior but perceive certain phenomena as significant because of the mystical properties given to them by their culture. Lévy-Bruhl called such thought "mystical" because "primitive" thought, unlike Western scientific thought, does not distinguish between the "natural" and the "supernatural" but considers them to be a single system of experience. There is therefore a "mystical participation" between the "primitive" and what Western science would call the natural, the social, and the supernatural, a participation that composes the "primitive's" total social personality.

In Germany the scholar Max Weber was working on somewhat different yet related problems. Particularly interested in the problem of rationality and its relationship to economic and political growth and development, he based his work mainly on comparisons between precapitalist religions in Europe, China, and India. His main argument was that magic had been the most widespread from of popular religion in pre- and proto-industrial societies, and in many parts of the world (especially in Asia, where capitalism might have been expected to develop early but did not), the recourse to magic prevented the rationalization of economic life. The power of magic might be broken by the appearance of prophets (of whom magicians were the precursors) who introduced new and rational schemes of reward and salvation. Much of the significance of Weber's work lies precisely in his views as to the relationship between the decline of magic and advances in technology. For him the former was a necessary forerunner of the latter, a view that has since met with considerable and sustained opposition from more literalist writers.

Magic in Its Social and Cultural Setting

The writers just mentioned were the last of the classic anthropologists and sociologists to have written about magic. Their successors based their findings and hypotheses on their own field research, where the importance of what people who believe in and use magic actually do and say about it and of the social contexts of their actions and statements become evident. The era of armchair scholars, however brilliant, was over. On the other hand, more recent work may be seen at one level to be based largely on proving, disproving, and refining the theories of the classic scholars. The later researchers and reports may usefully be divided into the literalists and the large and more diverse group of "symbolists," although it must be stressed that these labels are only rough and ready ways of identifying them.

The leading literalist was the Polish-born Bronislaw Malinowski, the first important anthropologist to present a coherent theory of magic based upon his own field research in the Trobriand Islands of Melanesia during the First World War. He insisted that among the Trobriand Islanders what is generally defined as magic is quite different from religion as religion refers to the fundamental issues of human existence while magic always regards specific, concrete, and detailed problems. For the Trobriand Islanders, magic was of several kinds and had several functions. First, its use lessened chance and risk and induced confidence in activities where risk was high and/or linked to techniques that may therefore easily be ineffective. His famous example was that of the use of magic when fishing in the open sea but not when fishing in the shallow lagoon. Besides acting as an extension to the technical, magic extended one's abilities into the realm of the miraculous, as with love magic, by which an ugly man attracts beautiful women, old men become rejuvenated, or a clumsy dancer becomes an agile one. And magic can also extend into the super-material or super-moral, as with the use of black or evil magic, or sorcery, that was thought to kill at a distance. Magic was to be expected and generally to be found whenever one came to an unbridgeable gap, a hiatus in his or her knowledge or powers of practical control.

However, Malinowski went further, in an important way. He stressed that the islanders' land was well watered and fertile and their sea rich in fish, so that the use of magic was not merely an extension of technical competence. The production of food provided, in addition to physical nourishment, a means of gift-giving and exchange whereby interpersonal bonds were recognized and prestige made and kept. Magic protected people from failure and enabled them to achieve success in which emotional and social involvement were high. Magic raised the psychological self-confidence of its believers, may have helped them achieve higher stages of technological and moral development, and may have enabled them better to organize their labor and to control the cooperative work on which the well-being of society's members depends. Magic "ritualizes man's optimism" (Malinowski, 1978, p. 70). Malinowski stressed also that among the Trobriand Islanders, the basis of magic lay in the immaculate saying and transmission of words and spells, which were validated by myth that created an inviolable tradition as to the magic's efficacy.

Malinowski projected his findings among the Trobriand Islanders onto all humankind, making their particular cultural beliefs, thoughts, motives, and actions into universals, and he has rightly been criticized for so doing. But at the same time, he did witness and participate in the magical practices of a "primitive" people. He was not adducing the functions of magic from his own thoughts as to what they might do and think but started from the ethnographic experience itself. It is true that, although he came to know the Trobrianders well, he may be suspected of projecting his own thoughts, emotions, and motives onto them when discussing the psychological functions of magic that he considered so central. Nonetheless, Malinowski revolutionized the study of magic.

Malinowski was essentially a successor to Frazer, who wrote the introduction to Malinowski's original book on the Trobriand Islanders in 1922. The first important immediate successor to the writers of the sociological school of Durkheim and Mauss was A. R. Radcliffe-Brown (18811955), who carried out research among the Andaman Islanders of the Bay of Bengal ten years before Malinowski's Trobriand work. Publishing The Andaman Islanders in 1922, Radcliffe-Brown created a book that was a landmark in the development of anthropological studies of religion and magic. In his work he did not rigidly differentiate between religion and magic. The Andamanese recognized certain objects and substances as possessing magical qualities in the sense that a magician may use them to cure sickness, control the weather, and the like. The magician acquired magical power and knowledge by coming into contact with spirits that possessed a mystical power, both dangerous and beneficial, for which Radcliffe-Brown used the Polynesian word mana.

He argued that the power of spirits and the substances and objects in which mana is manifest, or can be made manifest by a magician, was used to mark the importance of social position when it was being changed (e.g., at birth, death, in sickness). When undergoing these transitions, people became vulnerable to the dangers inherent in mana, and so they observed taboos and fears of pollution, which were removed by the use of this power in a magical performance. By this means the community was kept aware of the importance of cooperative ties between its members and, thus, of their sense of interdependence. The rites both gave confidence to the individual and (more importantly, in Radcliffe-Brown's view) demonstrated the importance of the activities magic delineates in this wayfishing for large animals, for example. These were important precisely because they represented communal activities and dangers and so emphasized the importance of members' dependence on one another. In brief, Radcliffe-Brown introduced to theories of magic the new dimension of ritual and social value and played down its relationship to technical knowledge and science.

The Later "Symbolists"

Behind the work of both Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown lay the problem raised by Lévy-Bruhl, that of the nature of the "prelogical" or magical mode of thought and worldview, for which the terms "mythopoeic" and "prescientific" have also been used. Since his work there has been continual discussion on the points that he raised. The most important figure in this context has been E. E. Evans-Pritchard, whose Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande (1937) has been the most influential of all writings on these topics. Evans-Pritchard carried out extensive field research among the Azande people of the southwestern Sudan, largely with the intention of testing Lévy-Bruhl's hypotheses. His book deals with Zande views on mystical causation in the contexts of accusations of witchcraft, of the use and working of oracles and divination to determine the identity of witches, and of the recourse to magic and the performances of magicians. He presented a detailed firsthand account of Zande magical beliefs and practices, setting them in their social contexts and stressing especially the modes of thought and the "collective representations" that lay behind them. Zande magic was based on the use of "medicines," mainly plants and vegetable substances, in which existed magical powers that were inert until activated by the verbal spells of the "owner," the magician, and which may be used for protection, production, and punishment of evildoers. Most magical performances were private, carried out by individuals, but there were also public magicians who performed magic that had consequences such as war, rain, and vengeance for death. Magic was in the hands of men, who were considered more responsible to use these powers than were women.

In an earlier paper, published in 1929, Evans-Pritchard contrasted Zande magic with that of the Trobriand Islanders as described by Malinowski. Among the former, there was no concept akin to that of mana that provided the power of magical objects for the Trobrianders, and the spell was of less importance and used essentially as a directive to the mystical power of the "medicines." Whereas among the Trobrianders, magic was "owned" by clans, as were the myths that validated it, among the Azande, it was spread out among the entire community, the distinction being due to differences in social organization and political authority. Evans-Pritchard emphasized the social context far more than did Malinowski and also stressed that magic could not be understood as an isolated phenomenon but only as part of a "ritual complex" (which one might call the occult), composed of magic, witchcraft, divination, and oracles. Indeed, without belief in witchcraft, Zande magic would have little meaning. Making an important point that went back to one made earlier by Radcliffe-Brown, Evans-Pritchard concluded that the main objective of the use of magic was not to change nature but rather to combat mystical powers and events caused by other people. In his research, the long-argued link between magic and science falls away, replaced with a network of social links, tensions, and conflicts of central importance.

Evans-Pritchard also discussed the reasons that magic persisted despite what would appear to be its frequent failure: believers in magic had a "closed" system of thought that inhibited "scientific" verification. His argument goes back to Lévy-Bruhl and has been taken up by later writers who have contrasted closed and open systems of thought, a dichotomy that has perpetuated the long-standing contrast between magic and science. Lévy-Bruhl had remarked that ignorance is culturally determined, and Evans-Pritchard stressed that what appeared to be failures in magical performances were attributed by the Azande not to their inefficacy in a technical sense but to failure of the magician to perform the magical rites correctly and to the counter-activities of hostile magicians or witches. The system answered its own problems in its own terms.

Later writers, in particular Robin Horton, have enlarged on the contrast between open systems of thought, where efforts are made objectively to prove or disprove hypothesized causal relations between scientific acts and natural consequences, and closed systems of thought, where this kind of verification is not attempted and success and failure are seen in the light of the already culturally accepted world-view. Other writers, especially those in collections of essays edited by Bryan Wilson in 1970 and by Horton and Ruth Finnegan in 1973, enlarged on the social and cultural factors, like literacy or division of labor, associated with this basic distinction between closed and open systems.

The discussion was taken further by suggesting that although the causal links in both magic and science are based on analogy, as had been said by Frazer and all later writers on magic (although using such terms as metaphor, metonymy, homeopathy, and the like), the analogies were of different kinds. Stanley J. Tambiah, for example, distinguishes "scientific" analogy from "persuasive," "rationalizing," or "evocative" analogy. He points out that the Azande themselves recognized the analogical or metaphorical basis of magical performances that have as their aim the transferal of a particular property or quality to a recipient person or object. Because of the similarity and/or difference between two objects, the magical rite transferred the desirable quality of the one to the other. The performance of the magical rites achieved and marked changes of quality or state through the "activation" of the analogy by the "performative" rite of magic.

The implication of these remarks is that the discussion of magic has widened in recent years from its relationships to religion and science to the mode of culturally determined thought behind it and to the social contexts of magical performances. The discussion has relied largely on the pioneering work of Lévy-Bruhl and Evans-Pritchard, but it has not all taken place among their anthropological followers. Important work has been done by philosophers such as Peter Winch and Martin Hollis, classicists such as G. E. R. Lloyd and E. R. Dodds, and others. A historian whose work merits mention here is Keith V. Thomas; his Religion and the Decline of Magic is concerned with the decline of magic in England from the seventeenth century onward. He stresses that, historically, magic cannot be separated from astrology and witchcraft, the relationship between them being both intellectual and practical.

Before the seventeenth century, religion and magic could not easily be distinguished, but with the rise in England of forms of Protestantism, there came a separation between the two, and the importance of magic declined. Thomas follows Weber in seeing this decline as permitting the "rationalization" of economic life, but he analyzes the historical situation with greater subtlety. He suggests that factors that led to the decline of magic included the growth of popular literacy and education, greater individual mobility, the development of forms of banking and insurance, and the rise of the new disciplines of economics, sociology, and statistics that were to remove much chance and uncertainty from everyday life. He also stresses the importance of optimism and aspirations in science and in medicine. Even though available technology had not yet greatly advanced, people considered that it could and would. For the history of English magic, at least, he considers the views of Weber as of more relevance than those of Malinowski. Even if the latter are correct for the Trobriand Islanders, they are not for what have become industrial societies. Malinowski's view, put neatly by Godfrey and Monica Wilson as "magic is dominant when control of the environment is weak," can be shown not to hold for "historical" and industrial societies (1968, p. 95).

A highly influential scholar in this context is Claude Lévi-Strauss, who has been concerned for many years with the nature of the magical worldview. He makes the point that by his performance, the magician is making "additions to the objective order of the universe," filling in links in a chain of causation between events that are distant from each other in space or in time (1966, p. 221). Magic may therefore be seen as a "naturalization of human actionsthe treatment of certain human actions as if they were an integral part of physical determination," whereas in contrast religious rites bring about a "humanization of natural laws" (1966, p. 221). Religion and magic imply each other and are in that sense complementary and inseparable, neither having priority of any kind over the other.

Lévi-Strauss has suggested that the notion is similar to that of mana. Both are subjective notions, used by Westerners to mark off "outside" thought as different from "scientific" thought and by the Azande (for example) to distinguish surrounding peoples as more involved with magic and thus inferior to themselves (much as Westerners might call other cultures "superstitious" rather than "religious"). If magic is a subjective notion in that sense, it can have little or no meaning in cross-cultural analysis and understanding. The concept of magic is in itself empty of meaning and thus susceptible to the recognition of any meaning that one cares to give to it. Following this, Lévi-Strauss has implied that the category of magic must be abandoned.

Lévi-Strauss's observations notwithstanding, magic remains a category that has been and is used in accounts of systems of belief and ritual and so does merit continued discussion. Rather like the notion of totemism, which has also been "dissolved" by Lévi-Strauss, its shadow remains, and to understand most writings on comparative religion, its history as a concept must be analyzed in the wider contexts of differentiation between culturally determined modes of thought and forms of society rather than in the earlier terms of its relationship to religion and science.

Many more recent studies of magic, mainly by anthropologists and based on actual observation of its living believers and practitioners, have been concerned with the questions earlier discussed by Thomas in his work on the decline of magic and its link to modernization. In addition, writers have tended to follow Evans-Pritchard and to see magic as one element in the wider complex of the occult. The occult includes beliefs and practices of witchcraft, sorcery, divination, and sometimes of spirit possession. Unfortunately the word has acquired an implied quality of the uncanny and mysterious. This is an outsider's view and usually not that of local believers and practitioners. The "occult" is in practice part of the "everyday." It is considered normal, sensible, accepted. It may at times be seen as evil, as "black," but evil is everywhere, an accepted aspect of everyday life, even if unwelcome or feared. Like all religion, the occult is intimately linked to power and control of some people or forces over others. Practitioners, whether or good or evil, exert power and control; have to undergo training, acquisition of knowledge, and initiation; are professionals and experts; and can often pervert their skills. The normality of magic and the occult is an essential quality. It is not that everyone can practice professionally nor know much about it. But it is open to all to use it if they wish and can afford it. As with all forms of medicine, the "doctor" is trained and may monopolize the skill needed to make use of the occult, but his or her skills are part of total local knowledge.

In many places magic has indeed declined, but witchcraft, charismatic, and modern "deliverance" Christian cults have flourished and increased in importance. Many societies, throughout the world, undergo processes of modernization, globalization, and industrialization. They witness increases in the ambiguities and contradictions of morality; confusion of good and evil; breakdown of kinship, familial, and community ties and obligations; and greater differences between rich and poor, powerful and weak, and women and men. These factors are reflected in beliefs and practices of the occult that are considered to lie behind and to explain them, and are used to counter them. The occult becomes an important element in rivalry between modern political factions, ethnic groups, and inter-regional religious movements. The weak and poor may use the occult to give themselves some control over the powerful and wealthy; and the latter may use it to keep the former in their inferior place. Although magic may at times decline, its decline cannot be understood in isolation but only as part of the persistence of the entire occult complex, any element of which may rise or fall in importance with changes in the structure and organization of any particular society and community over time. Most earlier analyses of magic failed by merely distinguishing "magic," defined in the observer's own ethnocentric terms, as opposed to "religion."

To see magic as part of the occult (and so perhaps overcome the problem of translation of Eurocentric terms like "witchcraft" and "sorcery"), one may follow Lévi-Strauss in accepting its lack of value as explanatory phenomenon, and to single it out as being in "decline" may miss understanding it. Magic does not stand on its own but is part of the occult, which varies from one society to the next. It is the very normality of magic and the occult, as wide-ranging yet put into action or controlled by ordinary people, as a weapon in everyday relations and competition, that enables them to persist in ever-changing form.

See Also

Miracles; Spells; Superstition; Witchcraft.


Three important studies of theories of religion in general warrant mention here. E. E. Evans-Pritchard's Theories of Primitive Religion (Oxford, 1965) is an excellent summary of anthropological theories of religion and magic, with emphasis on the work of Tylor, Frazer, Durkheim, and Lévy-Bruhl. Rationality, edited by Bryan Wilson, (Oxford, 1970) and Modes of Thought, edited by Robin Horton and Ruth Finnegan, (London, 1973) are valuable collections of essays on the differences between magical and scientific world-views, and Claude Lévi-Strauss's La pensée sauvage (Paris, 1962), translated as The Savage Mind (London, 1966), is a brilliant discussion of the same problem. Other works on the basic problem of thought include J. Goody's The Domestication of the Savage Mind (Cambridge, U.K., 1977) and C. Hallpike's The Foundation of Primitive Thought (Oxford, 1979).

Of the numerous works on magic, five are classic. James G. Frazer's The Golden Bough, abbreviated edition, (London, 1922) is a summary of his twelve-volume third edition, a mass of ill-comprehended data that has had enormous influence far beyond its real importance. Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss's "Esquisse d'une théorie générale de la magie," Année sociologique 7 (1904), translated as A General Theory of Magic (London, 1972)the first sociologically oriented discussion of magicis based on acute analysis of the data then available. Émile Durkheim's Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse (Paris, 1912), translated as The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1915; reprint, New York, 1965), is a highly influential study of Australian totemic religion. Lucien Lévy-Bruhl's Les fonctions mentales dans les societés inferieures (Paris, 1910), translated as How Natives Think (London, 1926), is a seminal work that, although outdated, has led to much fruitful work on the magical worldview. Max Weber's The Sociology of Religion, edited and translated by Talcott Parsons, (Boston, 1963) contains passages on the problems of rationality from several of Weber's original German works.

Later basic anthropological accounts of magic include Bronislaw Malinowski's Coral Gardens and Their Magic, two volumes, (London, 1935), a detailed ethnographic account of Trobriand magic, and Magic, Science, and Religion (New York, 1948), a collection of earlier papers on Trobriand religion and magic. A. R. Radcliffe-Brown's The Andaman Islanders (1922; 3d ed., Glencoe, Ill., 1948) is an ethnographic account that has had great influence. E. E. Evans-Pritchard's Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande (1937; 2d ed., Oxford, 1950), the most important anthropological account yet published on the working of magic, has influenced all later work on the subject. Also noteworthy is his brilliant comparative essay "The Morphology and Function of Magic: A Comparative Study of Trobriand and Zande Ritual and Spell," American Anthropologist 31, (1929): 619641, reprinted in Myth and Cosmos, edited by John Middleton, (Garden City, N.Y., 1967). For a discussion of magic according to Malinowski, see Godfrey and Monica Wilson, The Analysis of Social Change Based on Observations in Central Africa (London, 1968).

Finally, there are two important historical works that deserve mention: Keith V. Thomas's Religion and the Decline of Magic (London, 1971), a historical account of the decline of magic in England since the seventeenth century, and G. E. R. Lloyd's Magic, Reason, and Experience: Studies in the Origins and Development of Greek Science (Cambridge, U.K., 1979), an innovative study of the relationships between magic and science.

John Middleton (1987 and 2005)

About this article

Magic: Theories of Magic

Updated About content Print Article Share Article