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Early Magic

Broadly defined, magic is a system of non-canonical ritual practices aiming at changing reality. In early Jewish magic this system was based on the use of powerful verbal performative formulae – incantations – whose oral or written expression was realized in the framework of a ceremony. The purpose of the magical act was generally to compel metaphysical entities such as demons, angels, stars and celestial bodies, holy names, and even God Himself, to bring about for the user the reality he desired. Early Jewish magical literature is evidenced in magical writings and objects from the Land of Israel, Babylonia, and North Africa, dating from the third century until the 12th (prior to the development of the Kabbalah and the change it effected in Jewish magic in the direction of practical Kabbalah). This literature enables us to trace the verbal elements of the adjuration as a magical text, such as the employment of the verbal root, šbʿ, addressing the metaphysical forces in the first person singular, the utilization of expressions of urgency, and threats towards them, indicating the client mentioned in the magical object by his first name and the name of his mother, and more. On this basis we can establish that as more of these textual characteristics are found in any given Jewish text, its magical tendency increases. From here we can also define all the Jewish magical cultural products. Texts that include adjurations, such as books of guidance for sorcery, are magic texts in a broader sense, and those that express beliefs and customs commonly found in texts of both these categories are magic texts in the broadest sense; objects upon which adjuration texts are found such as sheets of paper, leather, cloth or metal, or clay bowls are magic objects (amulets, magic bowls), and in the wider circle are included objects that serve as a means of ritual power in the context of the outlook expressed in the magical literature; ceremonies where adjuration texts are written or uttered, or where use is made of magical objects, are considered as ceremonies of magical character. This manner of definition of magic allows a flexible relationship between it and the other components of Jewish culture, and in particular the religion. Instead of an a priori culture-dependent dictionary distinction that strives to distinguish between what is magic and what is not viewed as such, one finds a dynamic system of phenomena characterized as possessing a greater or lesser magical essence, but not necessarily related to their place in the overall socio-cultural system of ritual power. Relinquishing the apposition of magic to religion in the phenomenological dimension allows us to divert the distinction between them to the social plane where the non-canonical position of magic finds expression. Texts, magical objects, and ceremonies generally do not have a routine place in the Jewish canonical system of practice for attaining ritual power. At the same time it is not impossible that portions of the latter, such as the biblical examination of the suspected adulteress, the recitation of the *Shema before going to sleep, and the *mezuzah, be defined as possessing a magical character. In this manner the cultural products of early Judaism itself testify to the gap between the official and explicit perception (in the Bible and the Mishnah) that prohibits sorcery and considers it as a capital sin and its firm place in the day-to-day lives of the people. Recognition of the existence of this gap is naturally related to the recognition of the distance between the inner-cultural definition of magic as an illegitimate form of ritual activity by its very essence, andits external, academic definition, based on sociological notions of religion, that views it as the non-canonical, marginal, and in most cases prohibited part of the overall activity aimed at attaining ritual power (which also includes a legitimate-canonical side, i.e., religion), repressed by the ruling religious center of society as concerns its struggle over power and control.

The sources documenting early Jewish magic may be divided into two kinds: primary sources, those originating in magical culture itself, and secondary sources, those found in texts that are not, in essence, magical. Primary sources from the biblical era are rare. Noteworthy among them are silver amulets from the end of the seventh century b.c.e., found in a burial network in the Hinnom valley in Jerusalem, and upon which the priestly blessing is inscribed. In the Bible itself, sorcery and divination are prohibited and those who dealt in them were persecuted. It would appear, however, that this prohibition, closely tied in the Bible to the religious-ethical uniqueness of the people of Israel and its distinctiveness from the surrounding nations, well testifies to the perpetuation of these ritual practices that priestly and prophetic circles aspired to marginalize in favor of those that they themselves offered and to which they attributed canonical status. Nevertheless, at least in one outstanding case, that of the ordeal for examination of the suspected adulteress (Num. 5:11–31), one suspects the acquisition of a magical practice (which underwent an intercultural, priestly, oicotypification) by the religious establishment. The result bears testimony to the belief in the performative power of curses among both that priestly establishment and the people as a whole. Metaphysical beings central to magical practice such as angels, Satan, and demons are indeed mentioned in the biblical literature, however in a way that is unconnected to the overall system of typical magical beliefs and practices in which they were to function later. First and foremost, they are not introduced as being under any kind of vigorous human manipulation. In the only case where Satan is mentioned as being expelled by words that may reflect an exorcistic formula, it is by God Himself, and from His presence (Zech. 3:2). Human power to manipulate concrete reality is admitted in the bible in both the hands of foreign sorcerers, such as the Egyptians, or Balaam, and God's prophets. In any case, it is always subservient to God's will and force. Even the marvels manifested time and again by God's prophets are not performed on account of their own power. Being men of the one and only omnipotent God, their miracles are viewed mainly as a didactic performance of what He Himself executes.

The apocryphal literature in general, and particularly the writings of the Dead Sea sect, increased immeasurably the angelological and demonological deliberations and well reflect the metaphysical expansion of society within Judaism in this period. The figure of Satan (also called Belial or Mastema) has evolved into the head of an army of evil spirits and the lord of the demons. The origin of these demons, imageless and highly harmful spiritual beings, was perceived as the product of the impure hybrid coupling of rebellious angels with the daughters of Adam (a tradition alluded to in Genesis 6:1–4, and expanded in I Enoch and in the Book of Jubilees). At that time, it is told, sorcery was brought down to the world and given to women. Alongside it the Book of Remedies was delivered to Noah, according to God's command, for protection against the wicked demons that had attacked his children. The Qumran scrolls reveal to us a well-developed demonological perception. Qumranic Psalm fragments testify to apotropaic ritual practices against demons. The works of Josephus and the New Testament reflect a similar reality in the first century c.e. Demons were perceived as the cause of both corporal and mental disorders and their removal through rituals that featured magical objects, roots, and verbal formulae was a common method of healing. Comparing the depictions of exorcism and healing performed by Jesus according to the New Testament with the Greek magical papyri reveals his place as a Jewish magician within the intercultural tradition of Late Antiquity as well as his uniqueness within that tradition (both in terms of his actions of healing and exorcising, and in utilizing them as a means of his religious mission). According to the testimony of the Gospels, Jesus was accused by his Jewish opponents of using the power of Beelzebub, the prince of the demons. In other words, he was accused of being a sorcerer, i.e., possessing considerable supernatural power, but that this power was derived from an impure source and was therefore illegitimate. His followers naturally saw him as a holy man who was performing miracles through divine power.

The apocryphal literature and the Dead Sea sect literature also demonstrate the considerable angelological expansion of social reality; only here human magical power visàvis the angels is not yet reflected. Their assistance to men is judged a gesture of good will, a divine mission, or preordained reality, but not the result of their compulsion to act in this way through human efforts. This notion appears in full force in the primary sources of early Jewish magic: amulets and incantation bowls that were geared primarily for protection, healing, and success and which document actual magical activity for the clients mentioned in them by name, and magical recipes collected in compositions and books of recipes. The magical recipe literature presents to us the notion that magic is a part of normal life. It is hard to imagine an area of life for which no magical assistance is offered in this literature. The amulets and magic bowls connect this theoretical literature to the actual day-to-day lives of the Jews of Late Antiquity.

Ancient Jewish magical praxis was based on a system of beliefs that concerned the connection between physical and metaphysical reality and the manner by which language is capable of connecting between them for human profit. Social reality was expanded to include metaphysical beings that were divided into four categories: (a) God; (b) celestial beings such as angels, stars and planets, divine names, etc.; (c) various demons and evil spirits (including personifications of harmful sorcery); (d) the dead. The correct use of an adjuration (mostly by a suitable person within a well-defined ceremony) was viewed as being able to subordinate any one of the above to obey the adjurer's will. Generally the adjurations were aimed at activating the celestial beings, principally angels or demons. The magical use of God or the dead is rarely documented. Magical compositions such as the Book of Mysteries (Sefer ha-Razim) or the Sword of Moses (Ḥarba de-Moshe) reveal to us a highly developed angelological perception. The names of the angels, their order and relative powers are placed at the disposal of whosoever wishes to manipulate them. Divine aid, in the form of a command that God sent to his angels, is what allows man to take power over them through the use of incantations and divine names and to manipulate them at will. Magical practice is therefore portrayed in these works as a part of the Jewish monotheistic belief and not as anomalous to it. Alongside this angelology a rich demonology is also revealed in the magical literature. Demons were perceived as responsible for every misfortune in human life and in particular when it affected the body. Protection from them and their removal from the moment they penetrated someone's life space was a central purpose of Jewish magical activity. However, the magical literature testifies to the use of magical means for dealing with many other matters. These include the relations between people such as marriage and sexual relations, success in litigation, control over one's fellow being, injuring someone, protection from injury, victory in battle, and so on. They appear to be further used in such daily cares as improving the products of labor and agricultural produce, fishing, trade, and even minor objectives such as kindling an oven in winter or the expulsion of crickets or mice from the house. Besides all this, another area of great importance was served by magic: knowledge. Angels, demons, and the dead functioned in the Jewish magic culture as agents of almost limitless knowledge that could be adjured to reveal to man whatever he desired toknow. Summoning angels for this purpose was associated on occasion with the practice of the dream request. Thus, while divination is not identical to magic, there is much evidence of Jewish magical divination practices based on utilizing adjurations as well as other magical means.

As noted, the basis of early Jewish sorcery was in the use of adjurations. These verbal formulae, which were defined with precision and adapted individually for their specific objectives, were mostly uttered or written in a ceremonial framework. The ritual state of all the participants in the ceremony was also well defined and almost always entailed the purity (in halakhic terms) of the performer. The conditions of the performance of the ceremony and its verbal, material, and behavioral components varied with each case. On more than one occasion they were borrowed from Hellenistic magic. Professional terms loaned from the Hellenistic magical jargon testify, too, to the intercultural relationship in this field, the other expression of which was the penetration by indubitably Jewish elements into Hellenistic magical practice. It is not easy to chart with precision the elements of the magic ceremony. However, beyond the variety of means one central mechanism, which constitutes a system, stands out: the sympathetic mechanism. In early Jewish magic it is usual to find attempts to bring about a reality by means of juxtaposing it to another based on the principle: "Just as A, so B." The depiction of one reality (A) may be done simply and freely, or it may be through similitude (for example, "Just as the sky is suppressed before God and the Earth is suppressed before people… so may the inhabitants of this town be suppressed and broken and fallen before Yose son of Zenobia"). Often, serving this purpose are biblical verses whose meaning, or words appearing in them, are relevant for the desired effect (for example, "Noah found favor with the Lord" (Gen. 6:8) is quoted for attaining "grace and favor"; "I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians" (Ex. 15:26) is quoted for healing). The choice of magic materials necessary for the sorcery may also reflect this aim (for example, a round bowl would serve for protection from all sides, a heart of a young lion for attaining courage). Often, the ceremony includes the preparation of a magical object, that is, an object which has adjuration texts on it. This will serve the client over a length of time. Amulets were worn on the body or were buried in the house or even in the synagogue. Incantation bowls were buried in the corners of rooms or below the threshold, dwelling places of demons against whom the bowls were intended. Occasionally the verbal adjuration was sunken into a piece of food or a liquid that the client would have to swallow or to rub over his body. In this way the magical quality of the words passed into the client's body and strengthened him from within.

The secondary magical sources, the rabbinic literature, and early Jewish mystical works demonstrate that the magic outlook was not confined to the more boorish classes of society. The early Jewish mystical literature testifies to the central place of performative ritual power in two areas: (a) as a means to overcome the hostile angels in the course of a mystical journey to God's Throne of Honor; (b) as a social advantage in the possession of the mystic in this world following his return from his heavenly journey. The magical matter is so pronounced in the early Jewish mystical literature that some of the scholars judge this aspect (and not the experiences of the ascent to the higher realm and the sight of God) as the kernel unifying all the writings that constitute this literature. Rabbinic literature, too, indicates the place of the magical and demonological outlook, and the accompanying practices, in the social-religious elite. Three approaches are reflected in it alongside each other (as is typical of this polyphonic literature), and all are founded on the very recognition of the efficacy of sorcery: (a) an official halakhic position that associates sorcery with the "Ways of the Amorite," meaning the gentile customs prohibited for Jews on account of the Jews' distinctiveness from them, prohibits it in every way, and punishes those who dabble in it by stoning (while distinguishing the real acts of magic from acts of deception that are not judged as the sin of sorcery); (b) a pragmatic approach that permits the use of those magic objects and verbal means (that are not, of course, denoted as such) whose benefit has been proven (primarily for medicinal purposes), permits the study of sorcery (as opposed to its operation), and even requires of those taking a seat in the Sanhedrin to be "masters of sorcery"; (c) a narrative approach that uses, in the manner of the talmudic homiletic story, magical motifs for didactic purposes. Here a dual tendency is noticeable whereby on the one hand the ritual-magical powers of the sages themselves (which naturally are not identified with sorcery but rather with holiness based on a life of Torah and observance of the divine commandments) are extolled, while on the other hand accusations are leveled at the "other," primarily women and heretics, for acts of sorcery. This labeling is intended to mark out these "others" as dangerous people who act with illegitimate power, and to marginalize them, placing them far from the desirable-legitimate focus of power, that of the sages themselves, who are both the narrators and the heroes of the narratives. The climax of this dual tendency is found in the stories that describe struggles between sages and sorcerers or sorceresses, which, as is to be expected, end in the sages' victory, and in this way exemplify their worthy socio-religious model. It would appear therefore that the contradiction between the halakhic and narrative approaches toward magic is not to be resolved through distinguishing between the "rabbis' genuine viewpoint," which was negative and deprecatory by virtue of their religious beliefs and the laws deriving from them, on the one hand, and their "lip service" to the beliefs of the ignorant masses (which originated in the penetration of foreign influences), through lack of choice, and for didactic purposes, on the other hand, as was done in the past, but by recognizing the aspirations of the rabbis for a social monopoly over ritual power. The rabbinic demonological stories are to be understood in a similar way. They, too, should be seen as a narrative shaping of motifs that rest upon popular beliefs in both their own circles as well as amongst the masses, with a didactic objective. More than the stories are concerned with demonic reality in itself, they are about the relations between this reality and that of the sages, and more specifically the relative superiority of the sages and their disciples over all that affects the ways of the demons. This includes protection from them and control over them by the power of their holiness, their legal authority, and ritual-magical means. Thus, the demonological stories join the magical and mystical ones in revealing a ramified system of beliefs and ritual practices relating to angels, demons, and sorcery in the Jewish culture of Late Antiquity. Primary magical evidence completes the picture by tying the literary testimony to day-to-day experience and exposing the actual praxis of ancient Jewish magic.

[Yuval Harari (2nd ed.)]

In Medieval Hebrew Literature


The terms "magic" (kishuf), "magician" (mekha shef), and "witch" (mekhashefah) are relatively rare in medieval Hebrew literature, especially when compared with the frequency with which magic practices are mentioned. The underlying reason is undoubtedly the explicit biblical prohibition against the practice of magic (repeatedly dwelt upon in medieval Hebrew literature) and the Bible's abhorrence of magicians and soothsayers. There is, therefore, no favorable allusion to magic practices in medieval literature, and they are rarely dealt with in a purely informative manner, although the numerous texts of the Genizah dealing with this topic allow us to understand in how many ways magic was present in Jewish life during the Middle Ages. Such terms as kishuf, mekhashef, and mekhashefah were descriptive of the wicked, sinners, and non-Jews. Magic was discussed in medieval Hebrew literature, but surreptitiously, under the guise of different names, such as segullot ("remedies" or "charms"), kame'ot ("amulets"), refu'ot ("cures"), goralot ("destinies" or "fortunes"), simanim ("signs" or "omens"), and refafot ("bodily itches as a portent"). The medieval writer thus was able to circumvent the term "magic" and eschew a direct confrontation with the biblical prohibition. In fact, the practice of magic was very popular and widespread among medieval Jews, and the number of texts including magical elements is very striking.

sources and dissemination

Literature on magic is universal in its character, its methods, and its structure. Each society, each language, and every period contributed toward magic literature, enriching it or modifying it in the light of the particular characteristics of the society, the culture, and the times. The main themes and methods in magic were, however, transmitted from country to country, from language to language throughout the ages without any basic changes being wrought. In the Middle Ages, Jewish magic literature differs very little from the magic literature of other nations. Magical practices were very widespread during the Middle Ages not only in Jewish communities but also among Muslims and Christians. Textbooks of magic circulated in the three cultures, although theoretical considerations were less frequent. Hebrew works on magic quote extensively from non-Jewish magic literature, citing especially sources that medieval scholarship attributed to ancient Greek authors. The basic terminology and methods found in Hebrew works are similar to those dominant in non-Jewish works. In some Hebrew works a term may be used which was originally Hebrew but is applied in such a way as to show that it was copied from a non-Hebrew work; its Hebrew origin had apparently been unknown to the Hebrew writer, for example, the term Elo'i Sabaot derived from the Hebrew Elohei Zeva'ot. Angelology and magic formulas in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin of the Hellenistic period were basic to the development of medieval magic literature. Since this period led to the fusion of Hebrew and non-Hebrew formulas, the process continued throughout the Middle Ages when terms and formulas from Arabic, German, French, Slavic, and other languages were added to medieval Hebrew magic literature. To date there is no serious study on the sources on which medieval Hebrew magic works drew. The various influences have neither been defined nor classified and no clear distinction can therefore be made between the following sources: the Assyrian and Babylonian (which apparently also influenced the Talmud), the Hellenistic (Jewish-Hellenistic and Greek), the ancient Egyptian and their later adaptations during the syncretistic periods of the Roman Empire, the original Arabic and their fusion with the Persian and Indian, and the European which were intermingled with Arabic and other sources. Principally, however, there is as yet no way to distinguish in every case between traditional Hebrew magic, derived from the biblical and talmudic periods, and the magic elements which reached Jewish writers from foreign sources. An example is a Greek and Arabic traditional connection between Saturn and magic; in Jewish medieval thought both magic and Saturn, who is in charge of the Jewish people, are also connected with the Sabbath day (Idel). We know today that Jewish magic in the Middle Ages was strongly influenced by two Arabic treatises, al-Kindi's De radiis and al-Majariti's Picatrix, which were translated into Latin and Hebrew, but their actual degree of influence has not been sufficiently studied. Until such studies are made, only impressions and generalizations can serve as basis for any assumption as to the nature of medieval Hebrew magic works.

Though there are no detailed studies on hand, there is no doubt that Jewish medieval magic drew on all the abovementioned sources. Some medieval Hebrew works correspond very closely to non-Jewish magic writings. Others, for example a number of 18th-century collections of Hebrew magic formulas, differ little from magic formulas which survived from the geonic period. Collections which originated in North Africa are very similar to works on magic by Jews in Germany. There is thus no essential difference in the basic magic formulas and the attitude toward magic between the various nations, countries, and periods. The same fusion of ancient and medieval sources is to be found in each of these works, all of which contain Arab, European, and authentic Jewish elements.

the character of hebrew magic literature

The character of Hebrew magic literature was influenced not only by the biblical prohibition on witchcraft but by the nature of this literature. Works on magic neither use nor are identified by terms denoting magic, but were written under the guise of concepts which neither reveal their special character nor their contents. There are hundreds of collections on magic, in print and in manuscripts, appearing under such names as simanim, refafot, refu'ot, goralot, and segullot. These works are usually not devoted only to one branch of magic or popular superstition, but to a variety of practices such as dream interpretation, popular medicine, and amulets. Unfortunately, the complete typology of magic literature has not yet been seriously studied.

Many of these works are anonymous; in others the name of the editor or compiler appears in the introduction. (The term "author" is not applicable to such works, which are nothing but collections drawn from various sources.) Rarely is there anything known of them from other sources; most of them were obscure writers who did not engage in scholarly activities. This may be the underlying reason for the low level of the language and literary merit of most of these works. Some of the writings on magic are attributed to ancient sages and scholars; thus, for example, works which are partly devoted to the interpretation of dreams are often ascribed to the biblical figures Daniel or Joseph; works on goralot ("destinies" or "fortunes") are attributed to the wise *Ahithophel the Gilonite, etc. Babylonian geonim and early scholars, from Saadiah b. Joseph Gaon to Nahmanides, have had works on magic ascribed to them. Though widely disseminated, works on magic were mostly not written within the framework of medieval and early modern scholarly Hebrew literature. In any case, the corpus of Jewish magic, including complete books and fragments, is very large. Some of the better known works that discuss magic are Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed and Mishneh Torah, including sorcery and magic among the forbidden practices; the commentaries on the Pentateuch by Nahmanides (13th century); the responsa of Solomon ben *Adret and the sermons of Nissim *Gerondi in the 14th century; Nishmat Hayyim by *Manasseh Ben Israel, in which the author devotes a long chapter to the description of magical practices; Derekh ha-Shem by Moses Hayyim *Luzzatto, has a section on magic; and Shalshelet ha-Kabbalah, an important historical work in which the author, Gedaliah b. Joseph *Ibn Yahya, a Renaissance scholar, also discusses magic.

The literature of the *Hasidei Ashkenaz, probably more than any other medieval corpus of Hebrew scholarly writings, is a source on medieval magic (12th and 13 centuries), especiallySefer Hasidim and the esoteric works of *Judah b. Samuel ha-Hasid of Regensburg and of his disciples, of which Hokhmat ha-Nefesh, a work on psychology by *Eleazar b. Judah of Worms, is a prime example. The concern of the Ashkenazi Hasidim with magic practices and phenomena has its roots in some of their theological ideas.

magic and medieval disciplines

Medieval man, as reflected in the literature on magic, did not clearly differentiate between magic and other branches of knowledge, especially between medicine, astrology, and magic. There were very different kinds of magic, some of them of a high cultural level, and other more popular types. Cultural magic was considered a branch of medieval science, at the same level as medicine or astrology. Many times, this magic was a kind of alternative medicine. Most of the collections dealing mainly with magic do not distinguish between the treatment of an ailment according to the accepted norms of popular medicine, such as the application of heat, herbs, and certain foods, and magic means, calling for the help of angels and demons to heal the patient. This failure of distinction was not only due to the lack of a scientific framework but to the desire to lend authority and legitimacy to magic formulas when combined with medical practice. These works also do not clearly distinguish between astrology and magic. Works on goralot ("destinies" or "fortunes") include astrological calculations which portend the fate of a man according to the constellations at his birth, and determine his character traits and religious, economic, and social status. The same works also contain magic instructions on how to use the auguries of the constellations for other purposes and how to change a man's fate through incantations and amulets, etc.

Most of the magic in the extant collections is devoted to simanim which derives from the fact that the Talmud, contrary to its injunction against the practice of magic, allows the practice of "signs." This literature describes various events, feelings, or even the itching of various parts of the human body (refafot), which are indicative of an oncoming event. Incantations are often chanted and charms used in an attempt either to nullify an ominous portent or to enhance a benign prophecy. To this category also belongs the literature of "dream interpretation" which describes in detail various occurrences within dreams thought to reveal the future to the dreamer. Sometimes advice is tendered in the use of magical means to prevent the bad dreams from being realized. Compilations of popular medical literature, such as The Book of Women's Love (perhaps 13th century), contained many magic (mainly love magic) elements and formulas; most of these practices, reflected in the written materials or transmitted in oral form, were current during the Middle Ages. Their main goal was to manipulate sexuality, intervening in human relationships. Some of these formulas are taken from the tradition of the "practical Kabbalah."

The segullah is basic to all magic formulas and is the main magic means used by the person himself. Knowledge of many charms is the professional distinction of the expert magician. The central element in the segullah is a name or a series of names which is considered holy. The common appellation of a magician in Eastern Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries as Ba'al Shem or Ba'al Shem Tov ("owner of the Holy Name" or "owner of the Holy Good Name") is rooted in this practice. The name used is most frequently that of an angel, or, sometimes, one of the many names of God. Sometimes even the name of a demon is resorted to which would seem tomake this form of magic "black magic." The demon invoked in such charms is, however, thought to be a "bad angel" (malakh habbalah) who should be addressed when the magician intends to harm someone, kill an enemy, cause damage, find the whereabouts of a thief and make him return his loot, etc. Some of the names in the segullah are common biblical or talmudic-midrashic names, mostly polysyllabic so as to awe the hearer and to seem as strange as possible. Many of the names were culled from Heikhalot and Merkabah writings, the Hebrew mystical literature of the talmudic and geonic period from which the major part of Hebrew medieval angelology is derived; sometimes even from non-Hebrew sources; others were created anagrammatically according to a definite system, either from other known names or from biblical verses.

The name, which is the essence of the segullah, is supplemented with various elements which differ from book to book and even from page to page in the same work. The segullah, or the petition for magical intercession (of a supernatural power), must be written in a clear form or enunciated clearly and loudly. Sometimes the time at which the deed should occur (a certain hour of the day or night or a certain day of the month) is also given; an astrological element was thus added to the magical charm. Certain substantive elements are also added, such as bits of flesh, bone, or skin from various animals (or even the human body), or certain herbs or plants. In the classic cases of sympathetic magic sometimes the performer of the act of magic, when he directs an incantation against a certain person, draws a picture of the latter or writes his name, or even molds his likeness in clay. These means were especially resorted to in the case of a thief. The suffering inflicted by sympathetic magic on the thief caused him to reveal the cache of the stolen goods and give them back. Through these means demons could also be compelled to serve man, when an incantation with the name of the culprit proved ineffective.

The segullah is used both as a direct magic act to attain a certain aim and as an auxiliary to medical aid, to reveal a man's fate, to appease or prompt the auguries of a "sign," or to interpret a dream. An amulet, for instance, is usually nothing more than a segullah written in a certain form, so that a person could carry it with him always. Such a charm is usually protective, invoking the heavenly powers to safeguard the wearer against any harm.

The contents of works on segullot are arranged according to their purposes. A title states the function of the charm after which there is a description of the charm including the holy names and the other necessary elements. Another type of segullot literature, sometimes called shimmushim ("uses"), is arranged according to the holy names indicating the purpose and uses to which each name can be put. Thus, for instance, Sefer ha-Heshek lists 70 names of the archangel *Metatron, after each of which the author gives the use that it can be put to and what magical purpose can best be served by using one particular appellation of this angel. The holy divine names, composed either of 42 letters or 72 letters, which are comprised of units of three or six letters, serve many magic purposes; each name can be the means of achieving a specific magic goal. Treatises on the magic use of the Psalms (Sefer Shimmush Tehillim) and on the properties of the members of animals were very common in Jewish houses. Some form of magic was even practiced by rabbis who did not see them as opposed to Judaism (Barkai). "Shimmushei Tehillim" ("The Uses of the Psalms"), a body of magic writings, describes the magic power inherent in certain verses and chapters in the Psalms and in some other Scriptures. The Bible was also used for the purpose of "sign" magic, i.e., prophecies. A person practicing this magic would open the Bible, put his finger at random on a certain verse and the content of this verse would reveal the attitude of the Divine Powers to the question or request of the person inquiring.

relationship between mystic and magic literatures

Scholars believe that the extent of the influence of magic on Jewish mysticism has not yet been sufficiently studied. Historical circumstances rather than literary or conceptual affinities have created an impression, especially in modern times, that there is a similarity or even identity between mystic literature and magic in Jewish life and thought. One expression of this view is the term "kabbalah ma'asit" ("practical tradition"), which is magic, and "kabbalah iyyunit" ("theoretical tradition"), which is mysticism. "Kabbalah" in this context means nothing more than tradition and does not denote any special mystical system. Nineteenth-century scholars of Jewish studies who were fiercely opposed to *Hasidism, which is one derivation of the Kabbalah proper (the mystical ideology), saw Hasidism and Kabbalah as representing medieval superstition, and did not try to differentiate between mystical thought and magic practice, which to them seemed to derive from the same source. Their ideas were accepted even bysome 20th-century scholars.

Still, there is some connection between the development of magic literature and mystical literature. In talmudic times there undoubtedly existed a unique magic literature to which such works as Sefer ha-Razim, published in a scholarly edition (by M. Margalioth, 1966; there is an English translation by M.A. Morgan, 1983), clearly testify. The book is an example of early Jewish magic which did not have any mystic tendency, and which is influenced mainly by non-Hebrew sources.

If the magic elements are not very dominant in this kind of rabbinic literature, the writings of the Heikhalot and the Merkabah have a strong magical component. Included are works of a clear magical character, e.g., Hakkarat Panim ve-Sidrei Sirtutim, a work on chiromancy. Even major works of this literature, such as Sefer Heikhalot Rabbati, include some material concerning prophecies, signs, and even incantations. According to the conceptual view of Heikhalot and Merkabah literature, when the angels revealed heavenly mysteries (revelations which constitute the body of this literature) to the talmudic sages they also made esoteric magic disclosures in which they described the divine worlds and eschatological secrets. These texts of early Jewish mysticism include many adjurations of magical character asking the angels to come down and reveal to man the mysteries of heaven and earth, including the complete knowledge of the Torah, and sometimes alluding to the necessary rituals for the heavenly journey of the mystic. The means of achieving the goals of this mysticism is magic; the authors of this literature "attempted to integrate magic into Judaism" (Schaefer). The magical view of the Hebrew language, combining letters for forming divine names, is one of the bases of this form of Jewish mysticism. Medieval scholars, the Hasidei Ashkenaz, and the kabbalists who resorted to Heikhalot and Merkabah literature in their esoteric and mystical speculations also accepted the magic tradition that it embraced and sometimes even practiced it.

Magic is relatively little treated in theoretical Kabbalah writings, especially in works which concentrated on matters concerning the structure of the divine worlds, the Sefirot, and the developments within the divine realm (themes central to kabbalistic literature). Many kabbalists, from those in the Gerona circle (13th century) on, did not practice magic at all. The doctrines of medicine and astrology are undoubtedly nearer to that of magic than the doctrines of Jewish mysticism. A detailed examination of magic literature clearly shows that most of those who practiced magic, or the authors of works on magic, did not know anything about mysticism in general, or Kabbalah in particular. It is therefore very unlikely that kabbalistic symbolism of the holy Sefirot, or the kabbalistic concept of evil, would appear in magic charms. When the Zohar became part of the holy literature and widely known, it was used for magic purposes, but no more than the Book of Psalms. The use that both works were put to does not reflect their original content. Supernatural knowledge and powers were, however, attributed to many kabbalists. Even Isaac the Blind, one of the earliest kabbalists who lived in Provence, was described as having the power to distinguish between a new soul, which appeared for the first time in the world, and an old soul, which had been reincarnated. This tradition of magic and supernatural hagiography of prominent kabbalists developed continually up to the times of Isaac *Luria and *Israel Ba'al Shem Tov. The writings of Moshe *Cordovero (16th century), the kabbalist of Safed, are also full of magical views, since he adopted a type of Kabbalah very close to astral magic.

Based on a tradition preserved in a talmudic text on the creation of an artificial man, unable to speak, and using techniques found in the Sefer Yezirah (combination of letters), medieval kabbalists and hasidic circles developed the idea of the golem, which was from the very beginning replete with magic content. There were different modalities of this idea in Franco-Ashkenazi and Sephardic centers, going from the purely material being to the fully spiritual one. Zoharic and Lurianic kabbalists were not interested in the topic, while ecstatic kabbalists and Cordovero paid attention to it. In particular, the Ashkenazi texts dealing with the golem were basically magical, as shown by Idel.

Magic in Kabbalah literature is touched upon in discussion of earthly or demonological matters, but even in this literature it was cautiously treated and circumscribed. Few magic elements are found in the Zohar, and in the writings of other early kabbalists there are even less. The case of the ecstatic Kabbalah, the school of Abraham *Abulafia, is very different: for him, magical techniques like the combination of letters can be a help in attaining the personal mystical experience that endows the mystic with magical powers.

Later magic literature and kabbalistic doctrine were also seldom fused. Hayyim *Vital describes some magic practices in his autobiographical work Sefer ha-Hezyonot ("Book of Visions"), which, however, he does not relate to the special kabbalistic doctrine of his teacher, Isaac Luria. In his theological works, magic is a marginal theme. Though he accepted magic, it did not impinge on his innermost spiritual beliefs expressed in the kabbalistic myth which he set down in many books. The same applies to the writings of many other kabbalists.

The Hasidei Ashkenaz discussed magic in their works at length and also had some magic works attributed to them. The relationship they established between esoteric theology and magic speculation was rooted in a peculiar theological development. The Ashkenazi hasidic theology is based on the concept that God, far away from the natural world and the laws that govern it, is revealed, according to these laws, within the world of man in specific, well-defined phenomena which confirm to man His existence. Such phenomena, miraculous in character, including magic, witchcraft, and demonology, defy the laws of nature and reveal the power of the hidden Godhead. The Hasidei Ashkenaz consequently tried to collect in their writings as many descriptions of such phenomena as possible which they analyzed and on which they commented in the light of their own esoteric doctrine. The inference, however, cannot be drawn that they dealt in practical magic more or less than other scholars of that period. Theimplication is merely that they were theologically interested in such matters more than others, and therefore included them in their literature.

The Hasidei Ashkenaz thus became famous as scholars possessed of magic knowledge, and many legends revolved around them, such as the story about a competition in magic between *Samuel b. Kalonymus he-Hasid, and three non-Jewish magicians; the story about the ability of Eleazar b. Judah of Worms to get very quickly from place to place (kefizat haderekh) by the power of a magical formula; the tale of Judah b. Samuel he-Hasid who overpowered an evil magician; and many others. How far the legends woven about scholars were removed from the actual lives of these scholars may be seen by the fact that Abraham *Ibn Ezra, the Spanish Jewish philosopher and commentator, became the hero of many magic stories (probably because of his astrological works).

Some 19th-century scholars described modern Hasidism, founded by Israel Ba'al Shem Tov, as a prime example of magic and superstition. While many leaders of the hasidic movement believed in magic and practiced it, especially in giving amulets (the Ba'al Shem Tov himself dealt in magic and probably made his living as a popular healer and magician), hasidic theoretical literature, the vast homiletic literature which describes its ideology, is devoid of all magic elements. Hasidic tales might contain elements of the use of magic or of overcoming magic deeds performed by evil non-Jews, but hasidic doctrines eschewed magic elements even more than the kabbalistic literature which the Hasidim had inherited and developed. The difference between the "practical tradition" of Hasidism, which practiced magic, and the "ideological (theoretical) tradition" of the movement is probably more pronounced in modern Hasidism than in any other mystic movement.

medieval jewish magicians

The terms mekhashef ("magician") and mekhashefah ("witch") in medieval literature designate two very different categories. A mekhashef is a person possessed of secret knowledge in magic which he uses for his own profit or to help others. He is considered a professional and is paid for his services. While in medieval Hebrew literature there are few records of a Jew being described as a mekhashef, in the early modern period the usage is much more frequent but under the name *Ba'al Shem (i.e., "owner of the Holy Name").

Mekhashef designates a certain psycho-pathological state, often connected with cannibalism. The term alludes to women and men who wander in forests, singly or in groups, or sometimes live in a community and kidnap babies or even grownups in order to eat them or suck their blood. While the term mekhashefah frequently recurs in medieval Hebrew literature, the actual phenomenon it represents seems to have been rare. In the 12th and 13th centuries in Central Europe these vampires were called "shtria" for the female (from the Latin strix, striga) and werewolf for the male. Such vampires do not necessarily possess any supernatural powers or secret knowledge. In Sefer *Hasidim, a 13th-century ethical work, there is a description of a baby born with teeth and a tail. The rabbi of the community advised that these be cut, so that when he grew up he would not eat people. This seems to testify to a case where a child was considered to have been born a werewolf, and could be cured naturally. No supernatural elements seem to be involved either in the birth of the werewolf or the proposed cure. A community where women ate children is also described in Sefer Hasidim. When threatened that if they continued their practice their teeth would be ground on the stones of the well, they stopped. The story is told as a clinical fact (which it probably was) and there seems to be neither any supernatural nor religious connotation or implication. On the other hand, in other stories from 13th-century Central Europe such creatures are immortal. They never die naturally but are killed in a prescribed manner. In one case, a witch was offered divine forgiveness if she were to reveal the secret of how she might be killed. Thus the person who committed the sin of cannibalism could religiously be saved. The phenomenon, apparently pathological in nature, was, in some cases, explained supernaturally – as if such cases were already dead, and therefore could not be killed. The mekhashefah does not belong to magic in the strict sense but designates a species of abominable creatures who form a category in themselves to which should be added the beliefs associated with them such as the belief in the "mare," a woman who strangles men in their sleep (hence the word "nightmare"). Other unnatural creatures who do not fit into either of the above categories should be classed somewhere between demons and magicians, or demons and witches. The term mekhashefah and the literature that evolved around it had relatively little influence on the development of medieval Jewish culture; the term mekhashef, however, is much more prominent.

In the 17th and 18th centuries in Eastern Europe the position of magicians ("ba'alei Shem") began to emerge on the Jewish social scene. The ba'alei Shem practiced magic and popular medicine, used amulets, drove away demons, and prophesied. Owing to the power inherent in the names they knew to use, they could discover thieves, retrieve lost articles, purify houses from evil spirits, etc. From the historical point of view, however, these magicians were of special significance in that many of them disseminated Shabbatean ideas throughout Eastern Europe; magicians were also instrumental in the development of the hasidic movement.

magic in medieval jewish society

In the opinion of some scholars, a negative attitude in respect to magic has relegated the study of magic, and its role in medieval Jewish society, to the margins of Jewish studies. The existing materials, in particular the fragments of the Genizah, have not yet been adequately studied, and we still lack today good monographs on medieval Jewish magic and divination. For that reason, it is not easy to attain an accurate picture of the social role of magic during these centuries. Jewish intellectuals did not consider magic either as an ideological or social challenge which had to be dealt with. But the texts of the Genizah show that magic was familiar at both the elite and popular levels of culture (Wasserstrom). The belief in the power of magic was apparently universal in Jewish society, both in the East and in the West, from the beginning of the Middle Ages up to early modern times. Opposition to magic was voiced by but a few which, when expressed in writing, formed a minor element within their work. While Maimonides, like some other Jewish philosophers, rejected magic and the use of amulets, he was not deeply concerned with it and only devoted a few passages to the problem in Guide of the Perplexed, much less, for instance, than to his argument with astrology on which he wrote a special treatise. Among others who repudiated magic were Saadiah Gaon (who rejected it in the same way as astrology) and Hai Gaon; they too, however, did not stress the question in their writings. As a consequence belief in magic hardly ever called forth any defenders in Hebrew literature. In the great 13th-century controversy the rabbis of France in their criticism also denounced Maimonides for his opposition to magic; it was, however, a very minor point. Menahem Ziyyoni's short treatise on the defense of magic and the belief in demons, Zefunei Ziyyoni (in Ms.), is written from a kabbalistic point of view as were similar treatises by other kabbalists.

The practice of magic (which is quite different from a belief in magic) was also not a major problem in Judaism, though magic as such was condemned outright because of the biblical prohibition and it therefore was practiced under the guise of different names. The practice of "signs," "charms," amulets, astrology, and popular medicine was never a subject of serious scholarly discussion. Magic was employed without deep discussion in many areas of life: for influencing people's feelings and opinions, for healing all kinds of illness, for incantations, for mystical trance-inducement, for apotropaic charms, and even for finding hidden treasures. Some halakhists tried to accept the situation, distinguishing between magical practices that were directly forbidden and other practices that could be seen as not properly magic and were allowed. It was not strange that some magical practices, connected first of all with popular medicine or with human relations, or even with mystical traditions, were explained as something natural, and as such were not forbidden. Other kinds of magical practices, performed with the intention of influencing astral forces, or related to black magic, were usually prohibited. Owing to the biblical prohibition on magic the most vulgar and "black" forms of magic did not become common in Judaism and such practices as necromancy were very rare. While some books on magic contain formulas for killing an enemy by magic means, for love potions, etc., there is no evidence that these were practiced. These formulas were probably copied from non-Jewish sources. Sorcery was many times identified with black magic, and while some jurists did not see in it any real danger, others saw it in the context of demons or destructive angels and considered it forbidden as contrary to God's will.

As a result the practice of some kinds of magic was not a legitimate and commonly accepted profession in medieval Jewish society and the religious convictions of a man who practiced magic were suspect. Formulas were thus written down since there was no oral transmission within a special class of practitioners of magic. Many Jews, especially in the East, usually consulted non-Jewish magicians rather than Jewish magicians.

The Christian injunctions against magic and witchcraft and the fierce persecutions against those who practiced magic, which started around the end of the 15th century, affected in a particular way many *Conversos, but also old Christian families that had to face similar charges. Jews and Conversos were accused of ritual crimes and were persecuted by the Inquisition, as in the case of "the holy child of La Guardia" at the end of the 15th century which was considered a case of black magic. This kind of attitude does not have parallel in Judaism. There are few examples in Judaism of Jews persecuting Jews because of magic practices. In those rare cases where there is evidence of such persecutions, the accusation served as a camouflage for more fundamental reasons. Thus the accusations of the rabbis of Venice against Moses Hayyim Luzzatto for dealing in magic were a guise for their suspicion that he had Shabbatean tendencies. In those Jewish communities where Christian anti-witchcraft persecutions had an influence, such as Italy, the relationship between Jews and non-Jews was closer than elsewhere.

The only social sphere of Jewish life in which magic practice attained legitimacy was in the formulas of the herem ("excommunication"). Many herem texts have incantations with a clear magic undertone.

The untranscendental purposes of most magical practices were probably one of the reasons why magic played such a minor role in cultivated medieval Jewish literature. There are few records of major significance in which magic featured, such as *Joseph della Reina's attempt to hasten the redemption through magic means. Magic literature centers around such minor matters as toothaches and lost articles, and some attempt at prophecy of private persons' destiny. It thus did not always relate to the major historical and ideological problems of medieval Jewish society. The private character of the practice rendered it unimportant in the eyes of both its supporters and opponents so that it never became a major issue of dispute.

In spite of the relatively small influence that magic had on medieval Jewish thought, some scholars consider that the widespread use of magical practices among Jews made the members of other communities see magic as a Jewish specialization. This can in no way justify the fact that Jewish magic became a cause for antisemitism and hatred toward the Jews in the Middle Ages. The belief that every Jew was an evil magician, possessed of supernatural evil powers, was very widespread among certain popular groups of Christians in the Middle Ages and early modern times. In some uncultivated ambiances Jews were believed to be the people of Satan and they thus possessed supernatural secrets. This concept was one of the major sources of persecutions and blood libels throughout that period. Jewish reality in the Middle Ages hardly gave any substance to such accusations or to such an impression of the Jewish people. The basis for it was Christian theology, which in ecclesiastical circles described the Jews as deicides, therefore Satanic, and therefore possessors of magic.

[Joseph Dan /

Angel Saenz-Badillos (2nd ed.)]


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41 (1990), 75–91; idem, "Merkavah Mysticism and Magic," in: P. Schaefer and J. Dan (eds.), Gershom Scholem's "Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism," 50 Years After (1993), 59–83; idem, "Magic and Religion in Ancient Judaism," in: P. Schaefer and H.G. Kippenberg, Envisioning Magic (1997), 19–43; J. Seidel, "Charming Criminals: Classification of Magic in the Babylonian Talmud," in: M. Meyer and P. Mirecki (eds.), Ancient Magic and Ritual Power (1995), 145–66; S. Shaked, "Bagdana, King of the Demons, and Other Iranian Terms in Babylonian Aramaic Magic," in: Acta Iranica, 24 (1985), 511–25; idem, "'Peace Be Upon You, Exalted Angels': On Hekhalot, Liturgy and Incantation Bowls," in: Jewish Studies Quarterly, 2 (1995), 197–219; idem, "Popular Religion in Sasanian Babylonia," in: Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam,21 (1997), 103–17; idem, "Jews, Christians, and Pagans in the Aramaic Incantation Bowls of the Sasanian Period," in: A. Destro and M. Pesce (eds.), Religions and Cultures (First International Conference of Mediterraneum) (2002), 61–89; M. Smith, Jesus the Magician (1981); M. Swartz, "Magical Piety in Ancient and Medieval Judaism," in: M. Meyer and P. Mirecki (eds.), Ancient Magic and Ritual Power (1995), 167–83; idem, Scholastic Magic: Ritual and Revelation in Early Jewish Mysticism (1996); J. Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition (1970); G.T. Twelftree, Jesus the Exorcist (1993); G. Veltri, Magie und Halakha: Ansätze zu einem empirischen Wissenschatbegriff im spätantiken und frühmittelalterlichen Judentum (1997); idem, "The Meal of the Spirits, the Three Parcae and Lilith: Apotropaic Strategies for Coping with Birth Anxieties and Child Mortality," in: Henoch, 23 (2001), 343–59; E.E. Urbach, The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs, tr. I. Abrahams (1975), 97–134; E.R. Wolfson, "Phantasmagoria: The Image of the Image in Jewish Magic from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages," in: Review of Rabbinic Judaism, 4 (2001), 78–120; E. Yassif, The Hebrew Folktale: History, Genre, Meaning, tr. J.S. Teitelbaum (1999), 144–66.


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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


views updated May 17 2018


Stuart Clark

The word "magic" has been in widespread use throughout modern European history as a label to designate social phenomena. Precisely what it designates, however, remains elusive, for neither social scientists nor social historians have succeeded in defining it. This is partly because what magic has signified has varied from age to age and context to context; it is a classic example of a concept whose meaning and application are always a function of local circumstances. For late-twentieth-century historians, though not for many in the past, this makes any attempt to define it in a transhistorical manner not merely difficult but undesirable. Partly, too, magic has most often been something disapproved of, and "magical" a term of refusal. This is especially true in the sphere of religion, where magic has invariably been a concept employed either to stigmatize competitor faiths or to proscribe beliefs or behavior deemed to be irreligious. It is in this sense that magic has been the "other" of Judeo-Christian religious tradition from biblical times through to the present day. Western science has also had a major part in investing magic with oppositional meanings, in this case between the cogency and rationality of orthodox scientific or medical practice on the one hand and the error and irrationality of the magician on the other. Here magic has mostly been bad or pseudo science, as defined by the scientific establishment of the day.

One striking consequence of this for the social historian is that it can be difficult to find anyone in the past who accepted "magic" as a correct description of what they thought or did, let alone any who called themselves "magicians." A glaring example comes from the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. The two major leaders of Protestantism, Martin Luther and John Calvin, along with all their colleagues and successors, argued that Catholicism itself was merely a form of magic, with its many miracles, its exorcisms and votive prayers for the dead, and the transubstantiations of the Mass as the most prominent examples. One could hardly expect their Catholic contemporaries—or, indeed, Catholic historians of the Reformation since—to agree with this. But such has been the power behind this particular piece of labeling that only in the late twentieth century do we realize that to talk about pre-Reformation religion as "magical" is to use an essentially Protestant vocabulary.

There are some important exceptions to this principle, as we shall see; the Renaissance magus, the ceremonial magicians of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, and even the magical healers and diviners of the European countryside have not lacked self-recognition or been solely defined by those hostile to them. Nevertheless, magic has mostly been a term of attribution and its social history must, in consequence, be a history of how that attribution came to be made and how it has been contested. Some people have indeed been magicians and have practiced a magic they themselves have defined and developed. Usually, however, it is a question of which individuals or groups have used the concept of magic to label other individuals or groups and for what reasons.

Naturally, scholars too have indulged in the same labeling. The early academic history of anthropology in Europe, for example, was marked by the adoption, under the influence of the two traditions already mentioned, of distinctions between magic and religion and between magic and science that were almost entirely stipulative and dismissive of the magical practices of other cultures. Pioneer anthropologists like James Frazer and Edward Tylor tended to conceive of magic in terms of ignorance of natural causes and fear of inexplicable phenomena and to call any practice "magical" if it appeared, in their eyes, to control by supernatural means what could not be controlled by technological ones. Some historians of preindustrial European society and its culture have taken the same view, interpreting popular festivals, for instance, as attempts to cope magically with technological inadequacy and its consequent emotional tensions. Historians of science, too, have not always been careful to avoid the Whiggish sentiment that many aspects of medieval and early modern science were magical in nature. By the 1990s, however, to describe an aspect of any culture, past or present, as magical was thought to beg serious questions. Indeed, magic has come to be seen as a cultural construction, there being nothing in our attitudes to ourselves or to the world that is inherently magical. Once again, then, the task of social history becomes that of understanding how this construction came about and how it has been utilized and discussed in various sociocultural settings.


The intellectuals of the Renaissance are the most significant of those who very definitely enunciated their own theory of magic. Indeed, they had a very highly developed notion of the seriousness and importance of magic, which they called magia. With an illustrious pedigree stretching back to ancient Persia and to the mythical Egyptian philosopher Hermes Trismegistus, it 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. In the cases of the Italian Neoplatonist Marsilio Ficino and the German occultist Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, causation was seen in terms of an organically related hierarchy of powers. Influences descended from the angelic or intellectual world of spirits to the stellar and planetary world of the heavens, which in turn governed the behavior of earthly things and their physical changes. The magician was, in consequence, someone who sought to ascend to a knowledge of these superior powers and then accentuate their normal workings by drawing them down artificially to produce wonderful effects. This conception of magic was reinforced by the further idea that man was a microcosm and that the proportions and harmony of his body therefore resembled 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.

There is no doubt that men like Ficino and Agrippa, and other magicians of this kind, like the Italian Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and the Welshman John Dee, thought of their studies as the highest form of natural philosophy. For them magic had only positive connotations. But it is also easy to see why they aroused the hostility of churchmen, who often saw their work as demonic. Magia was as much an act of mystical illumination as a piece of science; here the magician aimed at a priestlike role and his wonders competed with the miracles of religion. In the early sixteenth century the Paduan philosopher Pietro Pomponazzi even argued that the secret forces studied by the magicians could explain away such miracles in naturalistic terms. Theologians and clergymen suspected that magical wonders were beyond nature altogether and, knowing that they could not be God's work, attributed them to the collaborative power of demons. Here is a good example, therefore, of the turning of a word with positive associations into a pejorative; magia became mere magic. Nevertheless, the three occult sciences that made up the practical applications of magia—astrology, alchemy, and natural magic, together with their derivatives in the field of medicine—enjoyed a great vogue in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Indeed, these were often considered the most demanding, most innovative, and most rewarding kinds of science to practice. Their concentration on hidden causes made them intellectually challenging, and their promise of marvelous effects made them exciting as observational and empirical practice and offered material and political rewards, as well as renown.


Magick is a faculty of wonderfull vertue, full of most high mysteries, containing the most profound contemplation of most secret things, together with the nature, power, quality, substance, and vertues thereof, as also the knowledge of whole nature, and it doth instruct us concerning the differing, and agreement of things amongst themselves, whence it produceth its wonderfull effects, by uniting the vertues of things through the application of them one to the other, and to their inferior sutable subjects, joyning and knitting them together thoroughly by the powers, and vertues of the superior Bodies. This is the most perfect, and chief science, that sacred and sublimer kind of phylosophy, and lastly the most absolute perfection of all most excellent philosophy.

—From Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, Three Books of Occult Philosophy, first published in 1533. —

It was once normal to assume that Renaissance magia was inimical to proper science and that astrology, alchemy, and the like were pseudosciences that had to be swept away before modern science could develop. But this was to accept at face value the retrospective judgments made by modern scientists themselves, once magia had become outmoded and depreciated. Late-twentieth-century historians were much more likely to avoid this anachronism by recognizing the vital contribution the occult sciences made to natural philosophy throughout the early modern period and even to the kind that developed in later-seventeenth-century Europe. John Dee was the first major English exponent of Euclidean mathematics; Francis Bacon, the great propagandist for scientific reform on empirical lines, wished to make magia a central part of his program, once he had purged it of what he regarded as its more fanciful and esoteric practices; and Isaac Newton, it is now well known, pursued alchemy no less fervently than physics or optics. More fundamentally, historians are also far more aware of the difficulty in making any conceptual distinction between science and magic in this context. Throughout the early modern period, the concept of magic encouraged researchers in many disciplines to see their activity in the empirical and interventionist terms that defined science from the eighteenth century onward.

A good individual example of how magia had a crucial role in what we now think of as a classic scientific "revolution" comes from the field of astronomy. The heliocentricism of Copernicus, announced in his De revolutionibus orbium coelestium of 1543, was heavily influenced by a traditional magical reverence for the sun as a symbol of the divinity and of knowledge. During the Renaissance, this tradition found expression, above all, in the writings of Ficino, whose enthusiastic follower Domenico Maria da Novara was professor of astronomy at Bologna and an associate of Copernicus. Copernicus himself described the sun as "enthroned" in the heavens and as "the lamp, the mind, the ruler of the universe," citing Hermes Trismegistus on the same theme, and Neoplatonists like Giordano Bruno were among the keenest early supporters of the Copernican system.

Of particular significance for social history, historians in the late twentieth century were also becoming increasingly aware of the great significance of the occult sciences in the political circles in which many magicians then moved and received patronage, notably those of monarchical courts and aristocratic households. Magic offered a vocabulary for rulership and the exercise of authority, just as it provided a pattern for science. The powers of rulers were often seen in divine and mystical terms in Renaissance Europe and their ability to provide solutions to political problems was regarded as thaumaturgical and charismatic. Magic provided a way of conceptualizing these ideals. It also worked in secret ways, as did princes in the realm of arcana imperii (secrets of state). The processes of alchemy, in particular, were often applied allegorically to the problems of maintaining order and harmony in societies divided by religious and other conflicts. Natural magic likewise helped to promote the keen interest in marvels and the setting up of Wunderkammern (cabinets of curiosities) that typified courtly and aristocratic notions of power and knowledge in this period. An example of the application of magic to government can be seen in Bacon's utopian work New Atlantis, which appeared in eight editions between 1626 and 1658. It contains the vision of a society ruled by men who combine the functions of politicians, priests, and natural philosophers. Another illustration is the sustained interest shown in the magical or "occult" sciences at the court of the emperor Rudolf II in Prague between 1583 and 1612. Above all, perhaps, it is the figure of Prospero in Shakespeare's last play, The Tempest, that best captures the relationship, ambivalent at times, between the art of ruling and the practice of magic. In some respects, Prospero is a Baconian figure, a natural magician seeking knowledge and control of nature's secret powers; he nevertheless renounces magic before returning to power as the duke of Milan.


Whatever their differences, the religious Reformations of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—Protestant and Catholic alike—were fundamentally concerned to improve lay piety and morality. What historians now see as the social impact of religious change in this period consisted chiefly in this—getting ordinary men and women to take religious values and solutions more seriously in every aspect of their individual and communal lives. This applied in particular to the trials and tribulations of everyday life in the preindustrial countryside and to the more concrete steps often taken to prevent misfortune and alleviate distress. Study after study has shown how, all over Europe, ordinary people regularly appealed not to their own consciences or to the collective conscience of the church, as their priests urged them to do. Instead they turned to local practitioners skilled in healing, divination, exorcism, and astrology to help solve their everyday problems. They did this frequently in cases of suspected witchcraft but any kind of misfortune, anticipated or experienced, could justify a visit to the "cunning" man or woman. Alternatively, they might use their own traditional folk remedies, since the techniques employed by the specialists were, in principle, accessible to all.

Those who practiced these techniques presumably thought that they worked in a straightforward causal way; they were simply techniques for dealing with an illness, a bad crop, a theft, or an unrequited love. Although they themselves sometimes called them "magic"—and, indeed, "good" or "white" magic—they did so without any implication of inefficacy. Churchmen, by contrast, were convinced not only that they diverted attention from concepts like providence, sin, and repentance, but that they were also empty of all effect, appearing to work only because the devil intervened to make them do so. They were suspicious, too, of the scraps of real religion often mixed up in these folk techniques, especially religious objects and words (like holy water or candle wax, saints' names, and prayerlike incantations). Universally, they were known as "superstitions" by the orthodox, but "magic"—now "evil" or "black" magic—was also the label used to denounce them. By the end of the sixteenth century, vast areas of lay culture were, in principle, susceptible to the charge. It was made in countless sermons, catechisms, confessors' manuals, works of casuistry, and specialist books about witchcraft and demonism, and it could be applied to many popular forms of agriculture and domestic production; behavior to do with marriages and parenting; attempts to find lost goods or hidden treasure, or to be lucky in gambling; the widespread belief in omens and propitiousness; foretelling the future; the interpretation of dreams; and the casting of lots. Particularly prominent was the accusation that popular medicine was full of magic. For two centuries and more, disapproving clerics, and other intellectuals and professionals, condemned a vast array of traditional folk practices to do with protecting and preserving the body because they were irreligious and deemed not to work.


This definition of magic was offered by the Lutheran preacher and writer Bernhard Albrecht in a book denouncing popular magic, published in 1628: Magic occurs "when anyone uses something in God's creation, such as herbs, wood, stones, words, times, hours, gestures and the like, or seeks to bring about some effect, other than God has decreed, with the assistance and support of devils, either to reveal hidden or future things, or to obtain unnatural things, supposedly to help a neighbor."

Intellectually, then, the two Reformations were an attempt to reinforce the boundary between what was deemed to be religion and what was deemed to be magic (although as we saw earlier, religious enemies accused each other of performing magic, too). The social consequences associated with this campaign have been the subject of many studies of early modern communities going through what can only be described as a process of acculturation. Some experts, like the French historian Robert Muchembled, have attributed the upsurge in witchcraft trials to the social strains that resulted. The European countryside became divided by commitment to the new religious ideals, projecting onto witches the fears, anxieties, and guilty feelings aroused by the cultural revolution being imposed from above; thus, witches were creations of the attack on magic. Other historians have concentrated on the issue of whether this revolution actually succeeded in changing lay behavior and eradicating magic from people's lives. The most pessimistic verdict in this debate was that of Jean Delumeau, who argued controversially that even in France the population had not become fully Christianized on the eve of the Revolution in 1789. Whatever its successes or failures, however, the attack on popular magic between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries was a crucial part of probably the most sustained attempt ever made in European history to change fundamentally the beliefs and behavior of the general population.

Easily the most authoritative and influential attempt to absorb the whole subject of magic into the mainstream social history of early modern England was Keith Thomas's Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971). By borrowing the method of thick ethnographical description from social anthropology Thomas was able to show the embeddedness of magical practices, especially those to do with personal fortune and misfortune, in the daily lives of ordinary men and women in the period. The book provided an immensely rich panorama on the subjects of magical healing, the work of the "cunning men" and other magic professionals, the popularity of astrology, and the fears about witchcraft. More than this, Thomas juxtaposed the history of popular culture in these areas with the Protestant Reformation in England, showing how deeply interrelated the two were and how concerned the religious reformers were to take every suggestion of magic out of religious belief and practice. Most controversially Thomas offered an account of the decline of magic not solely in terms of intellectual criticism, or in relation to technological improvements that made contemporaries gradually less vulnerable to an environment they had hitherto had difficulty in managing, but as an aspect of the development of the notion of self-reliance and of faith in unaided human capacities.


Typical instances of traditional folk practices 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 gestation; the opening of chests or doors to relieve labor pains; and the curing of a wound by treating the weapon that inflicted it.


Partly as a result of Keith Thomas's thesis, evidence that popular faith in magic has continued down to the present is often presented as a case of the "survival" of superstition after it was supposed to have disappeared under the influence of better religion, better education, and better insurance policies. This is a further instance of the labeling that invariably accompanies the concept of magic. Even in Judith Devlin's pioneering study, The Superstitious Mind, where the peasants of nineteenth-century rural France were reported to have beliefs in magical healing, apparitions, witchcraft, possession, and prophecy that were scarcely different from those of their medieval predecessors, magic was still associated with intellectual irrationality and confusion and with emotional trauma. During the twentieth century it was sensationalized and exoticized in newspaper reports, collected and treated as an archaeological relic by folklorists, and explained away by rationalist and functionalist anthropologists. Once again, however, what the social historian has to recognize is that magic has gone on being appealing not as an archaism or a substitute for better solutions but as applicable to specific situations deemed to be directly relevant to it. This is especially true of the misfortunes associated with witchcraft and of the management of health, love, and money.

Witchcraft has been a continuous presence in modern European societies even though the last legally sanctioned executions of witches took place in the eighteenth century. Communities have gone on fearing the witch's malice, have gone on identifying witches in their midst, and, in consequence, have gone on resorting to counterwitchcraft. Magic, always a powerful apotropaic in this area, has thus retained its relevance, and "unwitchers," cunning men and women, "witch doctors," and other magical specialists have kept their clients. In the Netherlands, in the province of Drenthe, both the church and civil authorities took action against magicians of this sort long after they had ceased to punish witches. In France, the studies of historians like Matthew Ramsey and Bernard Traimond have shown how crucial to the moral and social economy of rural communities were the devins and other healers who diagnosed illness by witchcraft and treated its symptoms. Traimond looks, in particular, at the stories of a Basque barber-surgeon in Bayonne around 1750 and of three unwitching specialists, two of whom were unfrocked priests, in Bordeaux in the 1800s. The folk magic and rural superstitions of Germany in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have likewise been the subject of the studies of the social historian Eva Labouvie.

Counterwitchcraft by no means exhausted the repertoire of magic in these and other countries. Treasure seeking (a male preserve), divination, and techniques for enhancing love also figured prominently. But a diminution in the role and scope of witchcraft cases and their narrowing social complexion—they became restricted to the countryside, to the lower socioeconomic classes, to nonprofessionals, and to women—did mean a corresponding reduction in the importance of magical remedies. Even so, and whatever its precise form, or the sex or social position of those involved, popular magic has proved to be a rich resource for the historian interested in the social and cultural dynamics of modern communities.

Twentieth-century versions of magic of this sort were certainly not lacking. Unwitchers were still practicing their skills virtually everywhere in Europe, well-integrated in witchcraft "systems" and, indeed, occupying a key position in them. This was nowhere more dramatically shown than in the Bocage in the 1970s, when the French anthropologist Jeanne Favret-Saada found herself "caught" so personally in the witchcraft episodes she was studying that she came herself to be seen as both bewitched and an unwitcher. A witchcraft case in the Dutch town of Sliedrecht in 1926 involved a prominent and widely consulted witch doctor, Lambertus Lelie, and in 1954 in Sarzbüttel, northwest of Hamburg, a witch doctor named Waldemar Eberling who had been seeing clients for decades was put on trial accused of illegal medical practice.


In Drenthe in 1862 newspaper accounts of a witch doctor named Sjoerd Brouwers reported that he recommended that an eighteen-year-old girl suffering from nausea, headaches, backache, and stomachache should rub her toes between twelve and one o'clock at night with pig's blood in which a cock's head had been boiled. After this her father had to ride her around the house three times in a wheelbarrow. The medicines were to be buried and every other day before sunrise they were to be smelled. Two weeks after this report, the newspaper announced that the girl had been delivered of a chubby boy. (Gijswijt-Hofstra, 1999, p. 111)


Eventually the occult sciences of the Renaissance were overtaken in the scientific mainstream by different assumptions about nature and different styles of natural inquiry. Astrology, alchemy, and natural magic decisively lost ground, the first not least through its seventeenth-century links with radicalism. Most of the natural effects previously ascribed to magical or occult causation were explained away by eighteenth-century physics and chemistry. It became customary in "enlightened" circles to ridicule the magic of previous eras as the product of superstition, irrationality, and ignorance. The French philosopher and historian Voltaire declared magic to be "an impossible thing" and thought that magicians were mostly imposters. It is important to see this disparagement as a social and ideological phenomenon, as well as an intellectual one, with magic becoming a point of reference for a whole set of assumptions about modernity and progress. It was said to be the product of "enthusiasm" and deception—precisely the sorts of things most troublesome to increasingly commercialized societies. Denouncing magic was a way of establishing the values of order and politeness and other cultural boundaries appropriate to such societies. In effect, it was an aspect of ideological changes driven by conflict. Above all, it was a way of making a social distinction between the classes thought to be most and least committed to the new enlightened values.

On the other hand, we should not be misled by the language used by the "enlightened" crusaders against magic into thinking that the European elites could not continue to mix what were proclaimed to be incompatible beliefs. The occult and the supernatural had a posthumous life in the art and literature of this period. Suppressed, they returned, migrating into the world of the Gothic and into romanticism, where the supernatural could be made sublime and its terrors enjoyed without risk. The "decline of magic" is also seriously compromised by the presence in European high culture of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries of new forms of occult science—labeled "pseudo" sciences by the dominant Newtonianism. Alchemy and astrology survived enough to continue to appeal, alongside new studies like animal magnetism, physiognomy, and phrenology. Franz Anton Mesmer, whose "mesmerism" resembled the magnetic theories of the Renaissance natural magicians, for whom magnetism was always the classic occult quality, behaved like a magus and even a shaman, though always protesting scientific respectability. The physiognomical teachings of the Swiss pastor Johann Kaspar Lavater were likewise reminiscent of the magical traditions of the past.

At the same time, ceremonial or ritual magic, another former ingredient of Renaissance neo-Platonism, enjoyed a fresh popularity, especially among the members of the secret societies and benefit clubs that flourished to an extraordinary extent from the eighteenth century onward. Freemasonry, in particular, was committed to magical rites derived from the wisdom of ancient civilizations and the transmission of secret skills and crafts down the ages, and designed to initiate members. Its key symbols included the pentagram, the five-pointed star central to magical tradition. Ronald Hutton writes that "it is difficult to overvalue the importance of Freemasonry in nineteenth-century British culture. It was patronized by royalty, existed in every part of the nation and in town and countryside alike, and was an accepted part of local life" (p. 5). Magic also appealed strongly to the antirationalist trends in nineteenth-century society, and a revival of learned interest in it occurred in the final decades, notably around the French enthusiast Alphonse Constant ("Eliphas Levi"), the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia (founded in 1866), and, from 1888 until about 1900, the Hermetic Order of the the Golden Dawn, which actually practiced a ritual magic based on Greek, Hebrew (cabalistic), and Christian traditions. Among the best known members of this last order was the Irish poet W. B. Yeats.

One other aspect of the nineteenth century's interest in magic should be noted, though it has nothing to do with the practice of magic. This is the emergence of many attempts to explain the place of magic in human thought and society, and not simply to condemn it as wrongheaded as the eighteenth-century thinkers had done. Magic became more and more the subject of academic investigation—by theorists of cultural change and secularization, by folklorists, antiquarians, and anthropologists, even by psychopathologists. Chief among the sociological theories that emerged was that of the "positivists" Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer, both of whom argued that human consciousness had progressed through successive stages in which first theology, then metaphysics, and finally science had a dominating influence. This kind of metanarrative historicized magic by giving it a historical role at an appropriate moment of human development, much as Émile Durkheim later suggested a social-functional role for it. Such scholarly explanations have in fact had a profound effect on the historiography of magic ever since; they testify to magic's power to resonate in the minds of Europeans even when they neither believe in it nor seek to perform it.


Twentieth-century Britain saw a remarkable development of pagan witchcraft, known as Wicca, in which magical elements are prominent. As Ronald Hutton has shown, these elements stem partly from the traditions of ceremonial magic already discussed and partly from the continued practice of magic into the modern age in its popular form by cunning folk, conjurers, charmers, and users of "natural medicine." This last tradition bequeathed to modern pagan religion not only a store of operative magical techniques but a number of those who practiced them as well. From the first, Wicca was portrayed by its followers as a vehicle for magical powers and with rituals designed to release and manipulate them. It was inspired in part by Aleister Crowley's Magick in Theory and Practice (1929), the most important exposition of the techniques of ritual magic from the early part of the century, but it also included elements from traditional grimoires, descriptions of witchcraft practices by the anthropologist Margaret Murray, and initiation ceremonies borrowed from Freemasonry and from the Golden Dawn. During the 1950s the leading Wiccan, Gerald Gardner, was continuously revising its rituals by drawing on these and other sources. The second main branch of the movement, the Alexandrian, after Alex Sanders, was likewise based on cabalistic and other forms of ritual magical working. More recently still, pagans have looked more critically at the sense in which Wicca continues the practices of an "Old Religion," but still its magical core remains. As Hutton has said, "at the heart of its mysteries lies a particular notion, and experience, of the transformative power of something which is called magic" (p. 71).

The central aim of this magic is not just personal development and self-knowledge but concrete powers—powers to see and know, to create and move, and to heal. These are acquired both by releasing and expanding abilities thought to lie hidden in each individual and by tapping into the workings of the cosmos, much as magic has always been conceived to operate by synchronisms between the microcosmic and macrocosmic levels of things. In Hutton's view, Wicca is thus a religion that negotiates with supernatural beings in a way normally reserved for magicians; that is, by seeking to direct forces that would in conventional religious contexts be seen as beyond human control. For this purpose deities are drawn by ritual means to join with the individual, who is seen both as a priestess or priest, passively serving and praising the divine, and as a witch, constraining the divine to cooperate. In social terms the practice of magic by modern Wiccans reveals the capacity for independence and organization characteristic of the small group of religious enthusiasts, while also exemplifying what Hutton calls the "privatization" of religion in the mid- to late twentieth century. However, unlike other manifestations of the phenomenon known to sociologists of religion as New Religious Movements, pagan witchcraft does not, according to Hutton, "depend heavily upon one or a few charismatic leaders. It does not appeal overwhelmingly to a particular age group or cultural group. It does not offer a radical break with existing family and social relationships; and it does not challenge the wider culture as a whole" (pp. 77–78).


The second part of the twentieth century also saw the creation of groups who call themselves "satanists." A huge mythology concerning their supposed devil worship also arose, but it bore no resemblance to the actual beliefs and behavior of satanists. Among these groups magic has had a role as both practice and ideology, though the numbers involved make this a marginal social phenomenon. Ironically, it is the mythology that has been of greater interest and significance to social historians and anthropologists of religion. A leading analyst of both the American and British manifestations of satanism is Jean La Fontaine, who said that modern satanists are yet further practitioners—if self-taught—of the learned and ceremonial (or ritual) magic that we have seen to be so crucial to the European Renaissance, the development of Freemasonry, the nineteenth-century occult revival, and twentieth-century enthusiasts like Aleister Crowley (for whom magic was "magick" and a way of rescuing the self, in both its spiritual and bodily manifestations, from the burdens of social convention). The Church of Satan founded in California in 1966 by Anton Szandor LaVey, for instance, proclaimed a threefold magical power in its rituals—the power to attract love and desire, the power to give help, and the power to destroy—while the rituals themselves depended heavily on the magical symbol of the pentagram and the magical god Baphomet. Its offshoot, the Temple of Set, as its name makes clear, has proclaimed strong links with ancient Egyptian magic and its beliefs include the magical idea of the transformative power of the subjective will aided by rituals.


Theosophy, a movement founded in 1875 and inspired by the Russian noblewoman Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, was popular in North America, Europe, and India. Its main belief, like that of the pansophical claims of the Renaissance magi, was that a single wisdom lay behind the differences in world religions and philosophies. Blavatsky herself also practiced magic, in the sense of attempting to make voices and objects appear from nothing (psychokinesis), and also popularized the notion of reincarnation in the West. (Hutton, 1999, p. 10)

The mythology surrounding satanism crystallized in the modern world in accusations of devil worship accompanied by child abuse and led to well-publicized cases of intervention by social work professionals and would-be prosecutors. What is of interest to social historians here, once again, cannot be an actual magical practice since no independent evidence to corroborate the accusations has been found. Instead, it is the social phenomenon of such accusations that is itself under scrutiny, preeminently so in La Fontaine's authoritative study of the subject, Speak of the Devil (1998). Mainly, the analysis has fallen on the emergence in recent decades of revivalist and fundamentalist "New Christian" movements, anxious, like their Reformation predecessors, to brand all other religions as unbiblical and satanic. For these movements devil worship has always been a historical reality rather than what it is for historians—a social and cultural construction extending back through the ages to embrace medieval heresy, early modern witchcraft, and modern Freemasonry, and now active again in the form of all sorts of supposed modern depravities. First in the United States and then in Europe, these have come to include the ritual sexual abuse of children, accusations being fueled by the testimony of new converts remembering their own satanic pasts, by other adults "satanically" abused in childhood, and by children suggestively interviewed by "experts." The uncanny resemblance between these sources of "evidence" and those that led to the witch-hunts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries has now become apparent. We return, then, to the distinction that has been constitutive of the social history of magic in the modern world, the distinction we started with—between actual practice and the allegation of practice.

See alsoThe Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Reformation (volume 1); and other articles in this section.


Clark, Stuart. "French Historians and Early Modern Popular Culture." Past andPresent 100 (1983): 62–99.

Delumeau, Jean. Catholicism between Luther and Voltaire: A New View of the CounterReformation. Translated by Jeremy Moiser, with an introduction by John Bossy. London, 1977. Translation of Le catholicisme entre Luther et Voltaire.

Devlin, Judith. The Superstitious Mind: French Peasants and the Supernatural in theNineteenth Century. New Haven, Conn., 1987. Argues that the escapism and anxiety evident in the magic of rural France are not incompatible with cultural modernity.

Favret-Saada, Jeanne. Deadly Words: Witchcraft in the Bocage. Translated by Catherine Cullen. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1980. Translation of Mots, la mort, les sorts.

Gijswijt-Hofstra, Marijke. "Witchcraft after the Witch-trials." In Marijke Gijswijt-Hofstra, Brian P. Levack, and Roy Porter. Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. The Athlone History of Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, 5. London, 1999. Pages 95–189.

Hutton, Ronald. "Modern Pagan Witchcraft." In Willem De Blécourt, Ronald Hutton, and Jean La Fontaine. Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The Twentieth Century. The Athlone History of Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, 6. London, 1999.

Labouvie, Eva. Verbotene Kunste: Volksmagie und landlicher Aberglaube in den Dorfgemeinden des Saarraumes (16.–19. Jahrhundert). St. Ingbert, Germany, 1992.

La Fontaine, Jean. "Satanism and Satanic Abuse Mythology." In Willem De Blécourt, Ronald Hutton, and Jean La Fontaine. Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The Twentieth Century. The Athlone History of Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, 6. London, 1999.

La Fontaine, Jean. Speak of the Devil: Tales of Satanic Abuse in Contemporary England. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1998.

Luhrmann, Tanya M. Persuasions of the Witch's Craft: Ritual Magic and Witchcraft in Present-Day England. Oxford, 1989.

Ramsey, Matthew. Professional and Popular Medicine in France, 1770–1830: TheSocial World of Medical Practice. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1988. Pages 229–276. Considers folk healers, magia, and witches.

Tambiah, Stanley Jeyaraja. Magic, Science, Religion, and the Scope of Rationality. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1990. Examines magic as a concept in the intellectual history of Western thought.

Thomas, Keith. Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England. London and New York, 1971. A magisterial study of the changing relationship between religion and magic that transformed the social history of popular beliefs.

Traimond, Bernard. Le pouvoir de la maladie: Magie et politique dans les Landes deGascogne, 1750–1826. Bordeaux, France, 1988.


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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


Durkheim, Émile (1912)1954 The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. London: Allen & Unwin; New York: Macmillan. → A paperback edition was published in 1961 by Collier.

Evans-pritchard, E. E. 1933 The Intellectualist (English) Interpretation of Magic. Cairo, J̄mi’at al-Q̄hirah, Kullryat al-̄d̄b, Bulletin of the Faculty of Arts 1:282–311.

Evans-pritchard, E. E. (1937) 1965 Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande. Oxford: Clarendon.

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Fortune, Reo F. (1932) 1963 Sorcerers of Dobu: The Social Anthropology of the Dobu Islanders of the Western Pacific. Rev. ed. London: Routledge.

Frazer, James (1890) 1955 The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. 3d ed., rev. & enl. 13 vols. New York: St. Martins; London: Macmillan. → An abridged edition was published in 1922 and reprinted in 1955.

Guiteras-holmes, Calixta 1961 Perils of the Soul: The World View of a Tzotzil Indian. New York: Free Press.

Hubert, Henri; and MAUSS, MARCEL (1904) 1960 Esquisse d’une theorie generate de la magie. Pages 1-141 in Marcel Mauss,Sociologie et anthropologie. 2d ed. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. → First published in Volume 7 of Annee sociologique. KLUCKHOHN, CLYDE 1944 Navaho Witchcraft. Harvard University, Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Papers, Vol. 22, No. 2. Cambridge, Mass.: The Museum.

Kluckhohn, Clyde; and Leighton, Dorothea [CROSS] (1946) 1951 The Navaho. Oxford Univ. Press.

Lang, Andrew 1901 Magic and Religion. London: Longmans.

Leach, Edmund R. 1961 Golden Bough or Gilded Twig? Daedalus 90:371–387.

Leach, Edmund R. 1964 Telstar et les aborigenes, ou La pensee sauvage. Annales; economies, societes, civilisations 19:1100–1116.

Levi-strauss, Claude (1950) 1960 Introduction a 1’oeuvre de Marcel Mauss. Pages ix-lii in Marcel Mauss, Sociologie et anthropologie. 2d ed. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Levi-strauss, Claude (1955) 1963 The Structural Study of Myth. Pages 206–231 in Claude Levi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology. New York: Basic Books. → A revision of an article first published in English in Volume 68 of the Journal of American Folklore.

Levi-strauss, Claude (1962) 1966 The Savage Mind. Univ. of Chicago Press. → First published in French. LEVI-STRAUSS, CLAUDE 1963 Reponse a quelques questions.Esprit 31:628–653.

Levi-strauss, Claude 1964 Le cru et le cuit. Paris: Plon.

Levy-bruhl, Lucien (1910) 1951 Les fonctions men-tales dans les societes inferieures. 9th ed. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Mclennan, John Ferguson (1865–1876)1886 Studies in Ancient History. New York: Macmillan. → Includes Primitive Marriage (1865).

Malinowski, Bronislaw (1925) 1948 Magic, Science and Religion. Pages 1-71 in Bronislaw Malinowski, Magic, Science and Religion, and Other Essays. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.

Marwick, M. G. 1950 Another Modern Anti-witchcraft Movement in East Central Africa.Africa 20:100–112. MARWICK, M. G. 1952 The Social Context of Cewa Witch Beliefs.Africa 22:120–135, 215-233.

Metraux, Alfred (1958) 1959 Voodoo in Haiti. New York: Oxford Univ. Press. → First published as Le voudou ha’itien.

Middleton, John; and Winter, Edward H. (editors) 1963 Witchcraft and Sorcery in East Africa. London: Routledge.

Nadel, S. F. 1952 Witchcraft in Four African Societies: An Essay in Comparison. American Anthropologist New Series 54:18-29.

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Steiner, franz 1956 Taboo. New York: Philosophical Library.

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Wilson, Monica H. 1951a Good Company: A Study of Nyakyusa Age-villages. Published for the Internationa] African Institute. Oxford Univ. Press.

Wilson, Monica H. 1951k Witch Beliefs and Social Structure. American Journal of Sociology 56:307–313.

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views updated May 29 2018



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


views updated May 18 2018


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


views updated May 23 2018


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.


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Afanasjev, Alexander N. Narodnye russkie skazkee [Russian folk tales]. 3 vols., edited by E. V. Pomerantseva and K. V. Chistov. Moscow: Nauka, 19841985.

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.

Ivanitsky, Nickolaj A. "Materials on Ethnography of Vologda Province." News of the Society of Amateurs of Natural History, Archeology, Ethnography LXIX (1980).

Kalinsky, J. A. "Tserkovno-Narodny mesjatseslov na Rusi [A church-folk monthly calendar in Russia]." Notes of the Imperial Russian Geographical Society, Ethnographical Department 7 (1877).

Lemann, A. Illustrirovannaya istorija sueverij i volshebstva ot drevnosti do nashih dney [Illustrated history of superstitions and sorcery from ancient times to the present]. Moscow, 1900; Kiev, 1991.

Maksimov, S. V. Nechistaya, Nevedomaya i Krestnaya sila [Evil spirit, mysterious and christened forces ]. Saint Petersburg: 1994.

Malinovsky, Boris. Magic, Science, and Religion and Other Essays. Boston, 1948.

Pomerantseva, Erna V. Myfologicheskye Personazhy v russkom folklore [Mythological personages in Russian folklore]. Moscow, 1975.

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.

Rybakov, Boris A. Yazychestvo drevnyh Slavjan [Paganism of the ancient Slavs]. Moscow: Science, 1987.

Thompson, Stith, trans. The Types of the Folktales. A Classification and Bibliography/Antti Aarne's Verzeichnis der Märchentypen. 2d rev. Helsinki, 1964.

Tokarev, Sergej A. Religioznye vozrenija vostochnyh Slavjan [Religious beliefs of the East Slavs in the 19th and early 20th centuries]. Moscow: Nauka, 1957.

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.

Tokarev, Sergej A., ed. Mify Narodov Mira [Myths of the peoples of the world]. Vols. III. Moscow: Sovetskaya Encyclopedia, 19871988.

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


views updated May 23 2018


On the basis of its appearance and manifestations the phenomenon of magic (from Greek μαγία, witchcraft)

falls primarily in the realm of human thought and action. The man concerned with magic wishes to overcome the threatening powers of nature and to enlist the help of the good or favorable forces. Above all he wants to be master over earthly life by being able, apparently, to banish uncertainty and to meet the unforeseen. Magic accordingly appears in a causal connection (cause-effect relation) with practical daily life as a special manner of "dominating" it.

Since the powers and forces in question are beyond visible control and its efficacy, it is necessary for the causal sequence to have its own special character. Hence, its beginning extends to the whole scale of possible symbols, from concrete manipulation in things magical, to rites and knowledge, insofar as the cause producing the effect is seen in them.

Both the idea of magical causal connection and the symbolism of its domination signify an implicit assumption of a transcendent dimension of invisible reality, an assumption based immediately on intellectual and religious conviction. Accordingly, magic may be understood very broadly as an actualization of transcendence, in the sense that transcendence is drawn into causal-empirical existence and that the latter is carried over into the former. Magic, therefore, is nondifferentiating and leveling delivery of the invisible, spiritual, and hidden into the power of the dominant pragmatism and automatism of everyday life, or the attempt to control without distinction or difference the transcendent reality in the interests and purposes of a visibly pragmatic conduct and fulfillment of life. In this sense, it is "a kind of mechancial compulsion of power" (E. S. Brightman). If one wishes to give a precise definition of the phenomenon from the ideological point of view, magic ideology is present when it is believed that life can be ordered or controlled by the help of certain manipulations, incantations, prayerlike practices, amulets, and rites, or through special knowledge.

Magic is not restricted to specific levels of culture or to specific peoples, but exists as a possibility in all cultures and among all peoples, although in different ways. For this reason, it is absurd to see magic as a preliminary stage leading to religion (J. G. Frazer) or as the source of religion (E. durkheim). However, the boundaries between magic and religion are often fluid in concrete instances.

Magic and Religion. They have a certain connection, and in a given case it is often difficult to determine whether an action or attitude is magical or religious. The explanation is this: on the one hand, there is transcendent reality that is more or less identical with that of religious experience and is implicitly assumed as a postulate for giving actuality to magical actions; on the other hand, even the religious man, in accordance with his nature and existence, needs tangible or concrete signs (cult, rites, symbols, prayers, knowledge) in order to establish himself in actual relation with God and the Divine.

In the first case, it depends essentially on the determination and understanding of the spiritual-dynamic dimension whether the attitude or action based upon it is to be spoken of as magical or religious. The highest being may be worshiped, for example, as the "greatest magician." The vital energy coming from him, as in a sense the megbe of the Bambuti Pygmies, the wakanda of the Sioux, or the manitu of the Algonquins, may be experienced and employed in such a way thatas among the Algonquinsthe highest being is identified with the name of the power itself. In such a case, the structural difference that is essential for religion (God is the holy one, who is free in His giving and taking and cannot be compelled or forced) is thought of concomitantly in some way and enters, accordingly, more or less as a religio-mythical element into the magical action. The situation is different if, as in the instance of the mana of the Melanesians, the power is regarded as independenta phenomenon that is found especially in disintegrating cultures. This power, or control, like that over an extremely fine material, can be possessed and used, provided that one knows the proper techniques. The procedure built upon it is entirely under the control of man's "knowledge" and "capability," of human machinations, and is ipso facto magical.

In the second case, it is the given attitude of man at a given time that determines whether there is religion or magic. Thus, the wearing of an amulet or the veneration of any object whatever (for example, a relic) can be a symbol for a religious idea or attitude, but it can also become an effective magical means of protection, or, if the "power" in the object is thought of as vital and real in itself, a form of fetishism. Among the Semang-Negrito, a blood sacrifice silences a violent storm, but only if the angry divinity is reconciled. Their neighbors, the Senoi, on the other hand, believe that the storm dragon is put to flight by the pouring out of a blood mixture in six places. In the first instance the rite reveals a symbolism that expresses a definite religious conviction, while in the second it becomes a necessarily effective cause. However, the Semang also, in the given situation, may think very much as the Senoi do.

Official and Private Magic. It is a characteristic feature of magic everywhere that it is employed not only to produce tangible results through automatically effective rites, but also to order and determine every last detail in the life of the individual.

Official Magic. Insofar as it is concerned with things that affect either the community as a whole or only the individual, a distinction can be made between official and private magic. Official magic is presentand in this case the boundaries between religion and magic are quite fluidwhen public affairs are conducted in accordance with a magically effective ritual. This happens when, e.g., in a region of South Africa, public ceremonies are held in time of drought and those present give effectiveness to their wishes by means of imitative magic (in this instance by the sprinkling of water) or when public fertility ceremonies of a magic character are performed to guarantee better crops.

Such ceremonies are conducted by the community and also by an official priesthood or a professional magician (a medicine man). The latter can be called to his office by spirits or dreams without shamanism proper necessarily being already present or without shamanism being identical with magic. The one qualified to serve in this capacity is usually trained according to rules so that he can carry out his function publicly. Institutions of this kind are found where certain callings have a special significance for the community (e.g., smiths) or where the community has a primarily religious organization. It is natural in the case of the sacred kingship, actually founded on a religious basis, that the king himself is thought of in terms of magic. The king or chief is endowed with power and is responsible for the weal or woe of his subjects. He, or persons designated by him, fulfills this responsibility in the community by magically effective practices and rites. Not only actions of an institutional nature, but also those that through general use are regarded as more or less public and with which every one is naturally concerned, may be designated as official magic. The individual examples are legion. It is enough to think merely of the actions of hunters or planters, which each individual can perform or with which he must be concerned, within the framework of traditional usage.

Private Magic. In contrast to public magic there is private magic, which is employed in a secret manner by individuals (magicians) or groups, whether for exclusive personal use or to harm others (witchcraft). In extreme cases and in contrast to the white magic described above, one also finds black magic, which can be fittingly designated by the Bantu word bulozi. The term signifies the employment of magical knowledge completely separated from any connection with religion for the purpose of harming others by destroying their magico-divine vitality, and it is regarded as the worst of sins in the Bantu area. Bulozi therefore is no longer like magic, in a kind of neutrality outside religion, but is brought into religion as its contradiction (sin).

Anyone can practice private magic. Since, however, secret knowledge is assumed, special traditions (schools or families) arise in connection with it. Very often parapsychological factors may also play a role in it; or, insofar as there is question of bulozi, even something like the "compact with the devil" is found.

Kinds and Forms of Magic. The universal diffusion of magic exhibits basic ways in which magic intent is active. On the basis of the degree and clarity of the symbolism employed in magic and its manner of operation, the following successive stages can be worked out. Symbolism as such must always be present, since there is always a question of a transcendent form of reality. The boundaries between types are again very fluid.

Object Magic. This is based on the idea that the part serves for the whole and operates of itself and immediately by means of power-laden objects (human bones, hair, and nails, but also stones, tools, fetishes, etc.). If a man possesses anything at all belonging to anotherin Australia even a footprint sufficeshe has the other in his power. Object magic is employed especially in bulozi.

Contagious Magic. Magical effect is attained by the touching of power-laden objects. The immediate command over the power itself gives way to an indirect mastery. Magic objects can be stones, animals, plants, etc. Mythical ideas are often present in the background, and these create a magic interest respecting individual objects. Such transfers of power can also take place from man to man, an idea that is not without importance for the phenomenon of cannibalism. As distinguished from object magic, contagious magic is closer to symbolism. Thus the power of the lion is concealed in the lion's tooth worn as an amulet, or the strength of bast is concealed in rings made of this material (in Papua). The power, which in the last analysis possesses a certain independence and unavailability of its own, is not only received, but by means of contact for the purpose, can also be employed, for example, to carry offerings placed upon a stone to one's ancestors (as among the Corumba in West Africa).

Sympathetic Magic. Magical causal sequence is thought of here in its parallel relation to the sympathetic capacity of man. When once the sympathetic analogue is established, the desired effect is attained or the conditio sine qua non is fulfilled, without which the effect cannot take place. The analogue itself ranges from the picture-like setting (J. G. Frazer's "magic by similarity") to the imageless, but sense-fixed magic word of expression (see curse; blessing). When the hunter strikes the animal drawn in the sand, he effects the presumption of a successful hunt. Likewise is the belief that a man can kill another by looking down on the wateras is done among the Ovambo (S.W. Africa)until he sees the image of his enemy; he then spits at it and curses it. Conversely, one obtains the presence of the divine or of the divinity when in the possession of a pertinent image or picture. In ancient Egypt, usebtis (little figurines) were buried with the dead. By means of magic formulas, which were written for the dead, the usebtis could be summoned to work in their place. The use of curse figurines or "dolls" is also common. They represent human beings upon whom the magic work is to take effect (tight and intricate tying of the "doll," strangulation; and pricking of the "doll," death). Here too belongs every kind of fear in respect to pictures.

Gnosiological Magic. In this kind of magic one no longer attains his results primarily by the performance of object-related or of sympathetico-analogous actions. Rather it is in the intellectual sphere, in the knowledge of the magical constellations connected with the universe and of the actions harmonized with them, that he sees the sound and appropriate establishment of existence guaranteed. It is also possible to speak under this head of negative, or passive, magic. Here belongs the setting of an action at the right time (e.g., at the waxing or waning of the moon), and likewise the discovery of in what manner the favor and blessing of the gods can be obtained (see divination; astrology). Worship, which is religious in origin, and religious (ascetico-mystical) conduct, under the influence of automatism and the object itself of the given rite, slip thereby imperceptibly into the magical, as for example in the use of the meaningless repetitions and heaping up of prayers in the belief that this makes prayers themselves more efficacious.

This phenomenon is to be noted especially in the syncretistic combining and mutual acceptances of different religions. Thus, in Hellenistic-Roman syncretism, as well as in that of the Far East, existence is ruled and ordered in a certain measure by one's knowing to what god he must turn (deus certus ) and what appertains in particular to each god. Cicero speaks appropriately of the iustitia adversus deos. The sacred in the strict sense sinks, in the syncretistic process and under the influence of magic, into a state of impersonal anonymity and loses much of its transcendent character.

Magic and Science. The gnosiological form of magic, which ranges in time from the teachings and practices of the ancient brahmans to modern theosophy, has not been without influence on the development of science. The magical attitude or outlook not only shaped those presuppositions that were the foundation for the elaboration and use of logical thinking and that exhibited the inherent possibility of employment for the domination of nature; but also, running parallel with the development of quasi-magical knowledge (the invention and use of writing, the use of numbers and measuring methods in the observation of the stars), it helped to make possible the external crystallization of knowledge as knowledge. Naturally, the further progress of knowledge by the recognition of causal-empirical relations signifies at the same time the discovery of the laws of science. However, a belief in gnosiological magic can only be vanquished by knowledge if that knowledge is combined with a positive faith.

See Also: horoscopes; superstition; alchemy; shaman and medicine man.

Bibliography: g. lanczkowski et al., Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiberg 195765) 6:127480. a. bertholet and c. m. edsman, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart (Tübingen 195765) 4:595601. r. r. marett et al., j. hastings, ed. Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics (Edinburgh 190827) 8:245321, a systematic world survey. h. webster, Magic: A Sociological Study (Stanford 1947). w. goode, "Magic and Religion: A Continum," Ethnos 14 (1949) 172182. c. h. ratschow, Magie und Religion (2d ed. Gütersloh 1955). b. malinowski, Magic, Science and Religion (New York 1955). g. b. vetter, Magic and Religion (New York 1958). r. allier, Magie et Religion (Paris 1935). a. e. jensen, Myth and Cult among Primitive Peoples, tr. m. t. choldin and w. weissleder (Chicago 1963). g. van der leeuw, Religion in Essence and Manifestation, tr. j. e. turner (London 1938). l. thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science (New York 192358). m. eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion, tr. r. sheed (New York 1958), Index s.v. "Magic, Magico-religious powers."

[w. duprÉ]


views updated May 18 2018


Until fairly recently European and North American scholars continued the ancient and widespread practice of defining magic as something other people do, reserving the more exalted category of religion for their own culture and a few other high cultures. One example of this is the demonization of classical paganism and the religious practices of colonized subjects. An earlier example involves the etymology of the English word magic, which comes from the Latin magice and the Greek magike, both of which derive from the Persian word magi, meaning a Zoroastrian priest. This was an expression of the ancient Greek and Roman belief that magic was something foreign or at least marginal. Other examples include famous characters from myth and literature, such as the foreigner Medea, and Circe on her faraway island. Those two figures call attention to the widespread association of magic with women or as being achieved through the agency of goddesses such as Diana, Hekate, and Isis.


The association of women with magic is so pervasive that in some societies, such as Nepal, male magicians dress and wear their hair like women. However, many religions present vivid portrayals of male magicians such as Zoroaster, Moses, Solomon, and Jesus, whose activities are described in relationship to the "true" god and characterized as theurgy, or philosophically grounded magic, especially as the concept was developed by Neoplatonists such as Plotinus (c. 205–270) and Porphyry (c. 232–304). Despite the fact that Proclus (c. 410–485), the head of the Platonic school in Athens, learned theurgy from Plutarch's daughter, Asclepigeneia (Dickie 2001), female magicians are described in more sinister terms. The positioning of women as practitioners of lesser or malevolent forms of magic parallels their exclusion from the most sacred aspects of male-dominated religions, a situation that holds in diverse cultures such as the Hellenistic world and modern Nepal (Levine 1982). Magic is mainly about obtaining power, and whether it is spiritual or secular power, it is illegitimate for women to have it unless they use it to serve men.

Hekate was an important goddess to theurgists as well as to less sophisticated magicians. Both invoked Hekate to gain access to and control over wandering ghosts known as daemons who could carry out their wishes. For theurgists Hekate took on increasingly celestial and benevolent characteristics, commanding as she did celestial daemons, whereas for more common magicians she maintained her earlier role as the goddess of the underworld whose daemons could be put to malevolent uses.

The fact that the tensions between high and low forms of magic often were categorized by gender can be observed in the many magical contests in world literature in which men easily defeat women. For instance, Saint Symeon tricked a woman magician into wearing an amulet that he said would protect her from the evil eye, but he wrote on it "Let God render you ineffective and let him stop you turning men away from himself to yourself" (Dickie 2001, p. 306). As soon as she started wearing it, the woman lost all her magical powers. In a South Asian folk tale the male hero, Gopi Chand, went to Bengal, one of the Indian equivalents of Thessaly, the land of witches and magic, where he successfully battled a band of female magicians by using his superior male religious powers. Rabbis also were believed to have superior powers with which to combat female sorcery; when necessary, rabbis could exhibit greater supernatural powers. In one tale two rabbis were about to start a journey by ship when a woman asked them to take her along, but they would not. She then pronounced a spell, and the ship was held fast. They then pronounced a spell, and it was freed.


Historically sexual or love magic always has been associated with women, especially courtesans and prostitutes (Dickie 2001, Golomb 1993), who are believed to introduce substances such as hemlock and menstrual blood into men's food. Inevitably this is connected to the belief that women are poisoners, as when Deianira accidentally poisons her husband Hercules through the potion she concocts to regain his love. In other tales love potions are deadly in their consequences rather than their contents, such as the potion Queen Grimhilde gives Sigurd to make him forget Brunilde in the Nibelungenleid and the one made by Isolde's mother that dooms Tristan and Isolde.

In his amusing second-century ce novel The Golden Ass, Apuleius describes the many adventures of an eager but hapless student of sexual magic and the association of magic with the goddess Isis. Ironically, in his own life, after he married an older wealthy woman who later died, Apuleius was accused by his former in-laws of having won her love by magic. He was put on trial but defended himself successfully. This brings out the legal sanctions that could be brought against practitioners in the ancient world and is an important indicator of the widespread belief in the power of magic to bewitch or harm people.

The power of menstrual blood in sexual magic derives from pollution beliefs that assert that contact with a menstruating woman can render a man incapable of communicating with the sacred and thus make him vulnerable to the demonic. Such ideas are found all over the world and express belief in the power of women, accidentally or on purpose, to control men, a power that is turned against them to justify men's actual control of women. The antinomian practices of Tantric Buddhism and Hinduism reify ideas about women as polluters and utilize them for the benefit of men by advocating contact with menstrual blood as a path to supernatural power. They also positively incorporate the connections between women and magic in the figure of the dakini, semidivine women who can confer magical powers, though they do so mostly for the benefit of male practitioners (Sanford 1991).

Despite male anxiety about female pollution and magical powers, the archaeological evidence in tablets that contain spells and surviving magical texts in Egypt from the Hellenistic period reveals that sexual magic was done predominantly for and by men, as do the practices recommended in the appendix of the Kama Sutra. This does not mean that women did not practice magic or hire those who could, but such evidence undermines the idea of their predominance in this area, especially when added to the widespread use by men of binding spells carved on sheets of lead that were buried in the hippodrome to influence the outcome of chariot races. In other words in the Hellenistic period men appear to have resorted to magic more often than women did.

A relevant contrast comes from modern Thailand where both women and men are heavy consumers of magic but women are the primary customers for love magic. Louis Golomb attributes women's precarious marital status to their use of magic. In Thailand polygamy is officially illegal but widely practiced with impunity, and this leaves a deserted wife with few legal rights and second wives and their children with none (Golomb 1993). As a result women believe the only control they have comes through magic.


Jewish magic had great currency in the Hellenistic world and later periods among both Jews and non-Jews. Two major biblical figures are the locus of magical practices: Moses and Solomon. The association of Moses with magic is represented most clearly in his contest with the magicians of the Pharaoh (Exodus 7-10, especially 7:11-13), who can do some of the things Moses can, such as turning staffs into snakes and water into blood. The distinction is clearly not a matter of what is done but of who is doing it and/or what the source of their supernatural power is. It was reasoned that Moses had God's sponsorship; therefore, the magicians must have had a demon's. It is also a matter of miracles. Moses and the Jewish sages who followed, in their mastery of the Torah and with God's help, can perform miracles. Women, in contrast, partly because they were excluded from Torah study and were deemed incapable of any direct experience of the divine, were considered incapable of performing miracles. Consequently, if they showed supernatural powers, they had to be practicing sorcery. The Talmud also contains examples of male sorcerers, but they are fewer in number, reinforcing the idea that magic is a female preoccupation.

The association of magic and healing is found frequently in Jewish sources and is claimed to be one of the special benefits of extraordinary Torah learning. For centuries Christians resorted to Jews because of their supposed magical powers of healing, as is attested to by John Chrysostam's fourth-century sermons against Christians who went to synagogues to be cured of illness (Dickie 2001).

In Judaism and Christianity the connections between magic and healing can be traced back to Solomon, whose renowned wisdom came to include knowledge of magic and healing, whereas his prodigious literary output easily subsumed his authorship of magical texts, such as the widely circulated Testament of Solomon. In it Solomon uses a ring given to him by God to bind various demons and make them help build the temple at Jerusalem. However, it is questionable whether this is a Jewish or a Christian text. The biblical citations in it could have been made as easily by Christians as by Jews, especially in light of the syncretic nature of magic in the Hellenistic period.


Nineteenth-century Europe saw a revival of interest in occult and magical practices, and organizations such as the Order of the Golden Dawn in England, which attracted prominent women and men, had a lasting impact on the practice of magic. In the 1960s the upsurge of interest in the occult met with the women's movement. An offshoot of this is modern feminist magic, which is represented most popularly by Starhawk, who defines magic as "changing consciousness at will" (Star-hawk 1997, pp. xiv-xvi) and has utilized ritual and magic in political demonstrations for the rights of women and the protection of the environment.

Throughout America and Europe mostly middle-class women have embraced magic as a form of spirituality that affirms and empowers women (Luhrmann 1989, Pahnke 1995). Donate Pahnke's thoughtful analysis of Starhawk's writings, as well as that of Heide Göttner-Abendroth, a leading figure in the women's spirituality movement in German-speaking countries, illustrates the illusory distinction between religion and magic. Both Starhawk and Göttner-Abendroth conflate those terms, most often in their references to ancient goddess religions, although both are opposed to patriarchal religions, and in representing magic as a spiritual path for women. Pahnke makes the point that these remain politically loaded terms that must be used with a fuller understanding of their complexity and history.

see also Witchcraft.


Adler, Margot. 1986. Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today. Rev. edition. Boston: Beacon Press.

Dickie, Matthew W. 2001. Magic and Magicians in the Greco-Roman World. London and New York: Routledge.

Fishbane, Simcha. 1993. "Most Women Engage in Sorcery": An Analysis of Sorceresses in the Babylonian Talmud." Jewish History 7(1): 27-42.

Frazer, Sir James George. 1922. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. New York: Macmillan.

Gold, Ann Grodzins. 1991. "Gender and Illusion in a Rajasthani Yogic Tradition." In Gender, Genre, and Power in South Asian Expressive Traditions, ed. Arjun Appadurai, Frank J. Korom, and Margaret A. Mills. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Gold, Ann Grodzins. 1994."Devotional Power or Dangerous Magic? The Jungli Rani's Case." In Listen to the Heron's Words: Reimagining Gender and Kinship in North India, ed. Gloria Goodwin Raheja, and Ann Grodzins Gold. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Golomb, Louis. 1993. "The Relativity of Magical Malevolence in Urban Thailand." In Understanding Witchcraft and Sorcery in Southeast Asia, ed. C. W. Watson, and Roy Ellen. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Gonzalez-Wippler, Migene. 1973. Santería: African Magic in Latin America. New York: Julian Press.

Levine, Nancy E. 1982. "Belief and Explanation in Nyinba Women's Witchcraft." Man 17(2): 259-274.

Lighstone, Jack N. 1978–1985. "Magicians, Holy Men and Rabbis: Patterns of the Sacred in Late Antique Judaism." In Vol. 5 of Approaches to Ancient Judaism: Theory and Practice, ed. William Scott Green. Missoula, MT: Scholars Press.

Luck, George, trans., ed., and intro. 1985. Arcana Mundi: Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds: A Collection of Ancient Texts. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Luhrmann, T. M. 1989. Persuasions of the Witch's Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Pahnke, Donate. 1995. "Religion and Magic in the Modern Cult of the Great Goddess." In Religion and Gender, ed. Ursula King. Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Sanford, James H. 1991. "The Abominable Tachikawa Skull Ritual." Monumenta Nipponica 46(1): 1-20.

Siegel, Lee. 1991. Net of Magic: Wonders and Deceptions in India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Starhawk. 1997. Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex, and Politics. Boston: Beacon Press.

Thorndike, Lynn. 1923–1958. A History of Magic and Experimental Science. 8 vols. New York: Macmillan.

Trachtenberg, Joshua. 1939. Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion. New York: Behrman's Jewish Book House.

                                           Serinity Young


views updated Jun 11 2018

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