Skip to content

3.3.6 Magic

Magic has been a part of all known religious systems, at all levels of historical development, although the degree of importance given to it varies considerably. Thus the analyses of magic in its total cultural setting are remarkably few. Knowledge of magic in prehistory is limited by lack of reliable data. Many cave paintings and engravings, from all parts of the world, have been claimed to represent figures practicing magic and sorcery, but this is only conjecture. More certain information about magical phenomena is available for the ancient Middle Eastern and Greco-Roman cultures, Christian Europe, and contemporary preliterate societies. Magic is any activity that attempts to influence events by resorting to a mystical force. It ranges from the elaborate ritual beliefs and practices that are at the core of many religious systems, to acts of conjuring and sleight of hand for entertainment. In the former sense magic is a social and cultural phenomenon found in all places and at all periods of time.

Magic as a Ritual
The word Magic describes a ritual performance, or activity, that aims to influence human or natural events by a mystical force. The performance involves the use of special objects or the recitation of spells, or both by the magician. The nature of magic is frequently misunderstood. This is largely a consequence of 19th-century views on cultural and historical evolution that set magic apart from other religious phenomena, or as a form of superstition without cultural or theological significance. As a result magic was considered to be different and distinct from other religious rites and beliefs, ignoring the similarities. The frequently held view that magical acts lack the intrinsically spiritual nature of religious acts has increased the misunderstanding. Religions are concerned with a direct relationship between men and spiritual forces, whereas magic is seen as an impersonal, or technical act in which the personal link is not so important or is absent. In addition a religious cleric has a congregation, whereas a magician has a clientele. Magic is often confused with witchcraft. The word sorcery is often used for magic that aims to harm other people, that is, sorcery is “black” magic, whereas magic used for beneficent ends is “white” magic. Divination, the skill of understanding mystical agents that affect people and events, should be distinguished from magic in that its purpose is not to influence events but rather to understand them. However, the mystical power of diviners is the same as that behind the forces of magic. Magicians are often confused with priests, shamans, and prophets, mainly because many of these practitioners’ activities include acts that are traditionally defined as “magical.

Magic as a Technique
Magic is normally regarded as an everyday aspect of religion used to explain certain kinds of events, and to help bring about desired eventualities. Like most religious phenomena, magic may be regarded with some sense of awe and mystery, but this is more often a sign of the importance given to it than fear or terror. Typically, people perform magical acts themselves or they go to a magician, an expert who knows how to observe the necessary ritual precautions and taboos, and who may be a professional consulted for a fee. Depending upon the beliefs of the particular culture, the skill may be transmitted by inheritance, bought from other magicians, or may be invented by the magician for himself. Magicians may be consulted for nefarious purposes, to protect a client from the evil magic of others, or for purely benevolent reasons. It seems universal that magic is morally neutral, although the emphasis in any particular society may be on either its good or its evil use. In some small religions, magic may be considered as important, and even central to religious belief. For the main world religions, Magic is unimportant, and often regarded as a mere superstition that is not recognised in the official dogma. Magic may be important in societies that have a cosmology in which the relationship between human and natural phenomena is seen as a symbolic one. It is true that these cultures may lack the scientific knowledge of Western industrial societies; they may use magical techniques (for example, rainmaking), whereas in an industrial society it is known that such techniques are ineffective. But magic is also performed to remind people of their culture and organization of the society. In this context rainmaking magic has the function of stressing the importance of rain, and the farming activities associated with it. Three main elements usually considered in magic: the spell, the rite itself, and the ritual condition of the performer. With the spell may be included the use of material objects or “medicines.”

Magic and Religions
The relationship of magic to other religious activities depends on three main considerations.

  • The first is the nature of the power toward which the rites are directed. The eminent British anthropologist Sir Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917) and his successors distinguished a personal, conscious, and omnipotent spiritual being as the object of religious ritual. Magical performances have no power in themselves, but are usually thought by believers to be an expression of an external, impersonal force in nature
  • A second consideration is the participants: the magician and those who go to him. A religious ritual has as its principal function the maintenance of a sense of cohesion among the members of the church, whereas the magical rite lacks this function
  • The third consideration is that of the function of magic and of other religious activities. The magician see the function of his action as instrumental, geared to a specific end. The external observer may accept this, but also see a latent function, for example that magic is performed as an extension of human ability, as a power beyond the normal or understood


In addition, the rite helps to maintain the high social value of cooperation in a small community disrupted by internal strife and competition over scarce and difficult resources. Some magical rites and ceremonies at childbirth and death may comfort those concerned by highlighting the social importance of birth and death.  In brief, it may be said that religious rites are ways of acting out beliefs about the relationships of man to God, man to man, and man to nature. In contrast, magic is a way of achieving certain ends beyond the knowledge and competence of ordinary people, and of expressing their desires symbolically. Certain functions are common to both: to provide explanation for the otherwise inexplicable; a means of coping with the unusual and mysterious; the enhancement of the social values of certain activities and situations.

Study of Magic
The earliest studies on magic were those of Judaic and Christian scholars concerned with the relationship of magic to their faiths, both as relics of paganism and as heresy.

  • The first important figure in the anthropological consideration of the subject was Tylor, who, in his Primitive Culture (1871), regarded magic as a “pseudo-science” in which the “savage” incorrectly postulated a direct cause-effect relationship between the magical act and the desired event. He studied it not as a superstition or heresy, but as a phenomenon based on the “symbolic principle of magic”. He also faced the question of why the believer in magic did not realize its inefficacy. He also realized that magic and religion are parts of a total system of thought; they are not alternatives but complementary
  • In The Golden Bough (1890) Frazer refined Tylor’s views on magical thought, discussed the relationship of magic to religion and science, and placed them all in a grandiose evolutionary scheme. He saw magic and religion as belonging to different stages in the development of human thought. Magic was there first because it seemed to him to be logically simpler. According to Frazer, individuals in the earliest cultures came to realize the inefficacy of magic and the powerlessness of men to control nature; from this, they postulated the existence of omnipotent spiritual beings who required prayers to direct nature as wanted. Thus religion came into existence
  • The final stage in this schema began with the recognition of the existence of empirical natural laws, aided by the discoveries of alchemy, and then of science. With this final development religion joined magic as superstition. Durkheim, in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, considered that magical rites comprised the manipulation of sacred objects by the magician on behalf of individual clients; the socially cohesive significance of religious rites proper, by the priests, was therefore largely lacking.

European Magic
Magic is especially prevalent during periods of rapid social change and mobility, when new personal relations and conflicts assume greater importance. Europe appears to have been no exception, particularly when the church, struggling to assert or maintain hegemony, levelled accusations of magic against its opponents. There are three main aspects to the history of European magic:

  • One is that of magic and sorcery in everyday relationships at the community level from the end of the classical world until recently, when beliefs in magic have in general become weakened. These beliefs were part of the culture of lowly rural people with the exception of sorcery used by wealthier and urban people
  • A second aspect is the belief in magic defined by the church as the heretical practice of making pacts with the devil and evil spirits. Early Christians had considered magic to be a relic of paganism. After a papal bull in 1320, magic, regarded as synonymous with witchcraft, became officially a heresy. The Inquisition’s records began to mention the Witches’ Sabbath and the Black Mass as forms of magic and witchcraft. They were defined as magic because of the supposed use of material objects, philtres, spells, and poisons. The spells included the perverted use of prayers and the use of sacred writings and objects for diabolical ends
  • These previous forms of magic were regarded as evil and heresy. Followers of the tradition of “White magic”, the use of magic as part of the Hermetic tradition, who often practiced alchemy rather than magic, were sometimes considered to be evil magicians, acquiring their knowledge by a pact with the devil. Most of them were tolerated in society because their practices were perceived as being within the main Judaic and Christian Hermetic tradition.