Magic: a History, by Chris Gosden

How magical thinking created human societies

Theories about the emergence of large-scale civilizations, hierarchy and inequality tend to focus on material conditions—expanding populations, occupational specialization, improved technology, and so on. Or they focus on the social conditions—increasing trade and warfare or a changing climate, for example. But what's missing from all of these materialistic theories is how everyday people related to the world around them in these societies, and how the changing nature or leadership and social institutions reflected that.

I thought of this when reading the Aeon article I linked to last time: The Last Sacred Kings. Divine kingship, for example, seems to pop up in societies all around the world, from ancient Egypt to the remote Pacific, with remarkable consistency. The scholar A. M Hocart wrote a book called Kingship which exhaustively documented these practices all over the world. In it he wrote:

Historians are mostly drawn from the ranks of the Rationalists, men who have an inborn aversion to the supernatural and prefer to trace all things to natural causes. This prejudice has rendered invaluable service to mankind by forcing enquiring spirits to seek out laws in the material world, but in history it has given rise to a fallacy which is one of the greatest obstacles to the discovery of those laws that govern human society. Historians have confounded miracles with belief in miracles; from their opinion that miracles do not affect the course of natural events they have slid unconsciously into the error that a belief in miracles can have no influence to speak of on the course of human affairs.

We hear much in their writings of the wars of kings, their diplomacy, their laws and enactments, but little or nothing of their power to work miracles. Yet we need only glance at the wide distribution of this belief and its persistence through the ages to feel convinced that it must have played a very much greater part in the fortunes of kings and states than our conventional histories suggest. This belief overspreads the whole of our area from Europe along the shores of the Indian Ocean as far as the Pacific. (p. 22)

We can look at material conditions all we want, but we will never truly understand the emergence of hierarchy and centralized power structures unless we have some understanding of how ordinary people thought about the world around them. And the way ancient people thought about the world around them was dictated, for better or worse, by their beliefs about the supernatural. Therefore, it's good that we have book like Chris Gosden's Magic: A History.

While a lot of books about magic either try and bolster its claims or debunk it as nonsense, Gosden fills an important gap: he wishes to categorize and trace magical beliefs over the course of human history using historical archaeological, and anthropological evidence. Gosden comes to the study of magic with a background in archaeology and anthropology, and this allows him to reconstruct various supernatural practices in societies going back thousands of years until the present.

In the opening chapter, he confronts the two most obvious questions: what, exactly, is magic; and how do we distinguish it from other practices such as religion and science?

Gosden's core definition of magic centers around participation. With magical thinking, we are not simply passive observers of the world around us, rather, the world we confront interacts with, and can be affected by, our will and intentions. We are confronted with an intrinsically precarious and unpredictable reality; magic helps us assert some sort of control over the vagaries of life. Magical thinking tells us that we are not just corks bobbing aimlessly in the sea of existence, but rather active participants in shaping our reality. Magical thinking, then, flows from this concept: "The definition [of magic] I will use is one of participation. Human beings participate in the universe directly, and the universe influences and shapes us." (8) It is the participatory nature of magic, then, that distinguishes it from concepts such as science or religion.

With religion, on the other hand, there is some kind of intermediate entity standing between us and reality, typically in the form of a pantheon of gods and goddesses or noncorporeal entities like spirits or demons who possess a will and intention of their own. Religion, too, is a way of trying to shape the unpredictable nature of reality for our own ends; however, direct participation was supplanted by petitioning deities who personified the forces of the universe. The scholar Robert G. Hoyland writes of ancient Near Eastern deities:

Loosely, of course, the gods represented those forces that were important to the lives of their devotees but beyond their control: rain, fertility, health, love, death, and so on. By seeking the favour of the gods, typically making some votive gift, one might thereby influence these forces.

Even though some people were more adept at magic than others, magic tends to have a DIY character about it, whereas numinous religions were controlled by initiates who oversaw rites and rituals in places carved out from the mundane world. With the advent of writing, religious knowledge became concentrated in a specific class of individuals—a priesthood. Eventually, many religions become based around canonical scriptures putting control firmly in the hands of a literate elite alone—an approach very different than that of magic with its participatory nature. The first appearance of what we know as organized religion comes from the Ubaid period in Mesopotamia: "religion takes on a formal quality around 8,000 years ago, probably providing an institutional dimension to existing beliefs of various kinds." (64)

Religion, I argue, has two aspects. First is a belief in a transcendent power or powers beyond the human world, something that we hold in awe or that strikes us with wonder or fear. Secondly, religion really comes into being when it has some institutional and physical structures. People need special places to worship, set apart from everyday life and where a good number of the community can come together.

Religions of later periods also trained some specialist guides for the congregations—priest or priestesses—who are said to to be especially knowledgeable about the canon of belief and the appropriate actions required when worshiping, but may also provide guidance through life itself...(64)

According to science we stand apart from the universe as passive observers. While we can attempt to describe the laws which control its workings to some degree, the universe is not affected or shaped in any way by our intentions or our will. It is a mechanistic "clockwork" view of reality in which we are not active participants—the universe is indifferent to our needs, wants and concerns.

So, for example, praying to God or Jesus to help you pass the test tomorrow is religious belief. A magical belief might be the creation of an amulet or potion to help you do so. A scientific belief would be using proven study techniques to help you remember things better, or spending long hours hitting the books.

Near the beginning of the book, Godsen relates one of my favorite anecdotes about the nature of magic from E. E. Evans- Pritchard's classic book, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande.

In the book Evans-Pritchard tells a story about how a granary in the Azande village he was staying in collapsed, killing someone who was taking shade under it. The cause of the collapse was ultimately deemed by the inhabitants of the village to be some kind of curse or witchcraft. Upon inspecting the supports of the granary, however, Evans-Pritchard found that a kind of carpenter ant or termite had eaten through the wooden supports causing them to rot and weaken. This, it seemed to him, was the actual cause of the granary's collapse, and not occult forces.

He related his findings to the inhabitants of the village. Their response was that of course they knew that the supports had been weakened by carpenter ants. They weren't stupid after all. But why had this particular granary collapsed; why did it collapse when it did; and why did it kill this specific person? To these questions, Evans-Pritchard could provide no answer. Thus, the villagers were not concerned with the proximal cause of the collapse (which was easy to determine), but rather with the ultimate cause of the collapse, which must have been located somehow, somewhere, in human agency. As Pascal Boyer notes in his book on the origins of religion:

For the anthropologist, the house caved in because of the termites. For the Zande, it was quite clear that witchcraft was involved. However, the Zande were also aware that the termites were the proximate cause of the incident. But what they wanted to know was why it happened at that particular time, when particular people were gathered in the house.

The reason I like this story so much is that it demonstrates that, when you look at it this way, magical thinking is not so irrational as it seems at first glance. Does science provide answers to any of these questions? Of course not. When a tornado rips through the South killing all the inhabitants inside a church (which has famously happened), do we have any idea why it struck that particular church on that particular day, killing those particular people? Our knowledge of meteorology and tornado formation provides no answers to such questions. The standard American response is to simply cite "God's will" which "we cannot understand." Is that really so different that the Azande's response? I don't think so. This is an important jumping off point for the study of magical thinking:

In writing Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande, Evens-Pritchard made the point that magic and witchcraft were not irrational but allowed for rational argument based on different premises that those common in the Western intellectual tradition. For the Azande, all misfortune and death had a human cause through witchcraft and magic, and the origins of specific instances of accident or death needed to be sought in human motives and politics.

Dual modes of causality were accepted. If a granary fell on someone sitting in its shade and killed them, it was accepted that the ultimate cause of the granary's collapse was that ants had eaten through its wooden supports. However, the real question was: 'Why had it fallen at that exact moment when someone was sitting under it?' A regular answer to this question was that its collapse was the result of witchcraft, leading to a further urgent set of queries as to who the witch was and what their motives had been. No one doubted that a witch could make a granary collapse, because their will could act on material things, often from a distance... (3-4)

For the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, magic was a humanization of the universe. There is a continuity between the human will or actions and the world around us. The converse is also true: magic allows the universe to enter us, whether this be through the movement of the stars or the messages relayed by moving stones. We exist in a complex mutual interaction with the world, through shared participation. Magical practice dos not just involve an intellectual understanding of the world but brings in fuller aspects of the human being through the emotions, psychological and spiritual states. Anger was often the cause of the witchcraft that brought about the fatal fall of the granary. Fear and awe might derive from the movement of the planets. Magic combines what Western thought has often separated as the physical and the psychological or emotional realms. (9)

Gosden describes what he calls the "triple helix" of magic, religion and science—all three habits of thought interact to some degree and each has shaped and informed the other. All three are different approaches to understanding the world, which is why hard-and-fast divisions between them are hard to make. Like pornography, they are hard to define accurately, but you know them when you see them:

Human history as a whole is made up of a triple helix of magic, religion and science, the boundaries between which are fuzzy and changing, but their mutual tension is creative. A choice between magic, religion and science is unhealthy, and each does have a history.

If we concentrate on magic and science for a moment, magic knits us into a dense skein of connections with all other living things, living or inorganic. Science creates the powerful fiction that we can stand apart from the workings of the universe and contemplate it in a disinterested and objective manner....Although apparently very different, magic and science have much in common. Both strive to understand how the world works and the manner in which people can benefit from its workings. (12)

The relationship between magic, religion and science concerns the balance of power, raising the question of where power exists in the world. Magic sees a direct human relationship with the world. People's words and acts can influence events and processes. Religion takes some of the power out of this magical relationship, placing it with the gods but leaving some room for direct human participation, even if only grudgingly. The mechanical universe of science radically repositions people—the universe works on its own with no need for a god or a person in the main. The universe and its forces are indifferent to people, who live in a state of alienation or anomie if they accept the consequences of a mechanical universe...Magic is older than religion and science, helping to give birth to them. (14)

Furthermore, Gosden says, magic provides several different forms of participation, which he classifies as: transcendence, transformation, and transactions.

"Transcendent relations exist where the universe is influencing people but is beyond their ability to affect it" (9) The classic example here is astrology, where the stars and planets affect people's behavior and how events unfold, but people are powerless to change the orbits of the stars and planets to suit their needs. Even today, many people believe that people go crazy at the full moon (hence the term lunatic). The Hermetic concept of "as above, so below" is a reflection of these transcendent relationships.

Transformation allows for a greater degree of participation. The classic example here is alchemy, where base metals are transformed into gold. In many cultures, shamans are believed to be able to transform themselves into animals during trances, and in many parts of Africa the working of metal into useful objects is a type of transformation intimately bound up with magical practices.

Transactions are essentially bargains with the supernatural forces. Reciprocal relationships are extended from the world of humans to the transcendent world of the gods, spirits, or the universe itself. It is expected that these supernatural entities will return the favor if something of real value is given to them. Sacrifice is an example of such a transaction, for example, Agamemnon's sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia to Artemis to ensure favorable weather to sail to Troy. In ancient China, feasts were regularly given in honor of the ancestors to ensure their continued support in securing prosperity for their living descendants. Gosden describes, for example, the deposition of objects like swords, tools, cauldrons and figurines found in the bogs and wetlands of prehistoric Northern Europe:

First, the care in depositions of carcasses and tools probably derives from an ethic of reciprocity. If people took from the world, they should also give back, so that when a deer was killed and eaten some of it was places into the lake as an acknowledgement to the generative powers of the world, however these were conceived. Secondly, and even more extraordinarily, this ethic of reciprocity and the careful deposition it led to seems to have carried on throughout much of the prehistory and history of north-western Europe, even down into the modern period... (200-201)

Transactions with the spirits of place through the giving of objects can be understood through the Latin phrase Do ut des - 'I give that you might give.' If a spirit, god or power is nourished or honored appropriately, it is expected that they will return the favour by maintaining the fertility of the land of of people, or by helping to guarantee general well-being.

Gift exchange is said to revolve around three obligations: the obligation to give, the obligation to receive and the obligation to repay. If people do not give, no relationship can happen; the refusal to take a gift is the equivalent of refusing the relationship, and once something has been received a form of repayment deemed socially acceptable is absolutely necessary. Moreover, gifts to powerful forces must be an important sacrifice by those giving them; trivial things that will not be missed are not enough. (223-224)

Gosden categorizes the aims of magic as either benign or malign, echoing the traditional division of "black" and "white" magic. Thankfully, he assures us, the benign and beneficial aspects of magic have been far more predominant in most cultures than the use of magic for nefarious or sinister purposes: "It is an interesting question as to why malign magic is not more common, and it is possible that creating and maintaining good relationships have always been more central to life than efforts at harm..." (24). He categorizes the benign aims of magic as:

  • Relationship work

  • Apotropaic/protective magic

  • Foretelling the future

  • Understanding the past

  • Dying, death and the dead

  • Medicine, sickness, health and possession (mental and physical)

  • Understanding and effecting transformation

  • Manipulating desire

Malign magic tends to be more predominant in highly competitive societies like those of ancient Greece and Rome, where, for example, curse tablets turn up in sites all over the Classical world. Gosden classifies the uses of malign magic as:

  • Witches, witchcraft and sorcery

  • Curses

  • Magic as counter-culture (basically Aleister Crowley type stuff—Thelema, Theosophy, Satanism, New Age, etc.)

The most influential figures in the early anthropological study of magic were Edward Burnett Tylor and Sir James George Frazier. Seeking the most basic definition for religion he could find, Tylor described it as "belief in spirits." He called this animism, from the Latin anima, meaning soul, and argued that this was the core belief that all subsequent regions sprang from:

Tylor had published the most widely read and influential book on anthropology of the late nineteenth century in Britain and beyond: Primitive Culture (1871). He synthesized what was known of the customs and beliefs of people across the world living in small-scale societies, which were of interest to anthropologists.

Tylor was especially concerned with belief systems, and at the heart of the book was the idea that human intellectual culture moved from a belief in magic, to a belief in religion, and then to a belief in science. Each successive belief system was more rational, institutionally based and effective than its predecessor. In such a historical scheme people had to choose which belief system they thought best, and sensible ones would choose science—the very opposite of the idea of a triple helix I have been developing here, in which elements of magic, religion and science are all vital, as they resonate with various aspects of human experience… (351-352)

For [Tylor], animism designated an elementary (indeed primitive) more of religious belief in which spirits existed in the world in a more or less diffuse and differentiated manner, such as through the spirit of a tree or place, without being closely defined as having discrete powers, as happened with gods. (31)

Tylor styled himself a scientist and called anthropology an 'emancipatory science', by which he meant that by documenting outmoded and irrational beliefs in other societies, anthropology would allow him and others to spot residual traces of such beliefs in his own and root them out. Magic belonged to an earlier stage of human intellectual history, not to rational, scientific, industrial and imperial Britain of the late nineteenth century. (352)

Frazer collected various religious beliefs throughout the world and attempted to find commonalities between them. He classified magic into two major categories: sympathetic magic, where like affects like—for example, a root shaped like the liver might effect the liver; and contagion, where objects can become entangled with each other even after separation:

The most most monumental and influential work on magic in this period was James Frazer's The Golden Bough (1890-1915)...Influenced by Tylor, Frazer saw in human history a shift from the magic of early fertility cults and the sacrifice of a sacred king, to the instantiation of the world's powers in gods, to be more recently replaced by science. (11)...For Frazer...magic aimed to control nature directly; religion looked to how to intercede with a God or gods; and science developed an understanding of the world in physical terms.

Frazer also put forward two basic principles of magic: contagion, whereby things influenced each other through proximity or contact—your clothing, once in intimate contact with your body, could be used to harm or protect you even at a distance; sympathetic magic played with resemblances or symbolic associations—like produces like—for example, a painting a picture of an animal being speared during a hunt might help to ensure the success of the hunt. Although to professional anthropologists Frazer's work was quickly seen to be based on a limited range of sources and outmoded forms of thought, The Golden Bough influenced a range of writers and thinkers throughout the twentieth century. (29)

Gosden describes describes the changing relationship between the triple helix of magic, science and religion throughout human history as:

-Magic as the dominant force. This was pretty much the standard, as far as we can tell, for all of human history prior to the earliest complex civilizations. Even today magic is the predominant element in tribal societies in places like the Amazon rain forest, Sub-Saharan Africa (and the African diaspora), Siberia, New Guinea and Melanesia, Australia, and Southeast Asia, among other places.

-Magic with an emphasis on human lineages. This is tied to the emergence of clans and lineages based around kinship. China is the exemplar of this, where magic is preoccupied with maintaining relationships with deceased ancestors who live on in a transcendental realm after their death from where they influence events in this reality on an ongoing basis. This form of magic focusing primarily on ancestors can also be seen throughout Sub-Saharan Africa and the Pacific. The early forms of religion in Greek and Roman civilization were also apparently based around ancestral veneration.

-Magic and religion as equals. This occurred with the establishment of formalized religions in large-scale societies centered around temples and other places of worship. People practiced a "double religion" where temples and priests existed alongside magical practices. Often times these early religions themselves incorporated many magical practices such as divination, prophecy, soothsaying, necromancy, exorcism and astrology. Demons and spirits existed alongside the pantheon of gods and could affect the lives of mortals. A modern analogy might be Vietnam, where more formalized religions like Buddhism exist alongside Vietnamese folk religion. These societies included Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt, ancient India, and the states of Central and South America.

-Religion is the dominant force and magic is ambiguous. These were societies where ceremonial religions played the predominant role in mediating people's relationship with transcendent reality, but where "folk beliefs" continued to survive among the common people. Such beliefs were tolerated but not encouraged. These societies include ancient Israel, Classical Greece and Rome, and early medieval Europe.

-Science, religion and magic exist in that order of cultural importance. Science takes the place among the educated elite for describing and interpreting the world; religion continues to play a largely ceremonial role in the lives of average people (in some places more than others), and magic is seen as a sort of anachronistic superstition or fringe belief practiced by a minority of eccentrics. This includes Post-medieval Europe, the European Colonial diaspora and now some elements of the globalized world: "Western culture defines itself negatively through magic. To be modern is to disbelieve in magic...Magic was thought to be the opposite of all the qualifiers of modernity." (28) Max Weber described this process as "the disenchantment of the world," and described its drawbacks along with its benefits.

Gosden's ambitious goal is to provide a "deep history" of magical beliefs. To that end, much of that history relies on the interpretation of archaeological sites and related artifacts, as many of these practices long predate any sort of written word. Other practices come from regions where there are no written sources such as the Eurasian Steppe. More recent practices, such as those of the Classical Mediterranean world and early medieval Europe, are documented to a degree.

Gosden breaks down his history into the following chapters: The Paleolithic world before the existence of agriculture and sedentism; Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, Prehistoric and early Chinese civilization; Magic and shamanism among the Eurasian steppe peoples; Prehistoric Europe; the Classical Mediterranean world; Africa, Australia and the Americas; Medieval and early modern Europe, and finally, magic in the modern world.

The book is vast, at over 400 pages, so I won't go into exhaustive detail. But I would like to highlight some of the things I found interesting about magical practices in various cultures. I'll include links to some of the the archaeological sites he describes which will allow you to research them for yourself. At the end, I'll talk about my belief that these habits of magical thinking are still at the core of our modern world even today—despite our supposed "rationalism"—and how that explains a lot of things which don't seem to make a whole lot of sense.