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2.3.6 Magic

The Thinking of Primitive Peoples

Today primitive people of Africa, Australia and the Pacific Islands still have their own forms of religion adapted to their needs. They have a kind of magical way of thinking that goes back a long way, certainly before the 6th century BC. However, there are no fundamental differences between primitive logic and our own. The precursor of rational consciousness has been called magic or Magical Thinking. Today we can think in species and in generalities, whereas primitive people were not able to do it, but they could see relationships where we do not. For us, a bird and a tree are two different things but to primitive people, if the bird always nests on the same tree, then they believe that this bird and this tree belong together and will identify them with the same word. Similarly, most primitives believe that there exists an identity between a living being and inanimate things that belong to him. A snipped nail, or a hair, are identical with the person to whom they belonged, and what happens to the nail, or the hair, happens to the person. This explains why these primitive people hid or burned their nails, hair, etc. If a girl has a lock of hair of her sweetheart she has power over him and if he leaves her, she can burn his hair and he will die.

Primitives have the same feeling about their own names because in it they see their whole ego. Someone who knows somebody else’s name acquires power over him by using magic spells. As a result they do not let strangers know their name, or they give them false ones. They also hide the names of their gods so that strangers will not acquire power over them too. In Ancient Israel, for instance, only the High Priest knew the name of God and he whispered it in the ear of his successor. Even today we do not know how it was pronounced and the Jews still use “Lord” or “the Name” and not YHWH that is the real name. In magical thinking, the soul is identified with the life-force. All of nature -animals, mountains, plants, rivers, and etc.- are regarded as animated and all natural events are filled with natural forces. The soul is present in all parts of the body. The substance of the life-force can be transmitted by the spoken word, and this is why blessings are so important in their culture. The case of curses is similar and dooms the person accursed. Mythic-magical thinking is based on the principle of effect by similarity. For instance, water has to be poured out if rain is to fall.

Magic as Precursor to Religion

Magic is seen, by some people, as the precursor to religion. This is incorrect, magic has nothing to do with religion; it belongs to an earlier view of the world. Magic is a primitive effort to practice science by reversing the principle of causality in an attempt to influence natural forces. Religion arose out of the failure of magic to master these natural phenomena of the world. However this theory cannot be reconciled with the history of religion, as magic never transformed itself into religion. Magic begins where religious worship finishes, and man use magic to cure people for instance. The magician has supernatural secrets but he does not venerate them, he uses them to solve practical problems like illness. In religion man venerates the deity, while in magic he tries to direct the divine principle for his own purposes. In religion deity is the master but in magic man is the master. Magic can also deals with spirits and gods but the deity is regarded as an instrument in the hand of the magician, not as a power above man. Religion and magic are magnitudes of different qualities even if they were interlaced in antiquity. Later on magic became pure sorcery and religion tried to suppress it, but without success. The main contrast between magic and religion became clear when religion evolved with time and saw magic as its most dangerous enemy. Religion is humility and trust while magic is bold self-glorification and megalomania, as the magician sees himself capable of making rain fall, changing the courses of heavenly bodies, … just like God. Religion begins when man feels his full insufficiency in the face of a power that fills him with fear and reverence, and when recognises his own faults and sins. Magic is an ideology and no religion can come out of an ideology. Magic may have been the framework within which the oldest religions evolved, but it is neither a preliminary stage nor the “root of religion. However religion and magic often overlap, resulting into a degeneration of religion into magic. The rituals and prayers tend to become impious means of coercing the gods. The distinction between magic and religion can be described as follow:

– In religion, man “encounters” a power that stands above him and summons him.
– In magic man seeks to dominate reality, and believes in coercive effects and influence.

The religious magic of primitives was done by specialists, usually wise old men: medicine men, priests, and shamans. As shaman has “manna” at his disposal, he can command spirits with magic instruments (a drum among the Lapps attract the spirits inside it). Usually the shaman transports himself by wild dance into an artificial ecstasy, a kind of self-hypnosis, and in trance travels through hells and heavens where he collects information from the ghosts of ancestors. The dances that lead to the point of collapse are often the indication of an epileptic disposition that is transmitted hereditarily to his successor. This disposition can be enhanced by training, practice of asceticism, and by drugs. The capacity for visions, hallucinations, and trances may be psychopathic in nature and the shaman develops a high degree of alienation from his ego. In ecstasy, he feels that a god or a demon is saying something to him, and for this a good deal of cunning and shrewdness is often mingling with the magical arts. Sherman generally knows the properties of medicinal herbs. With the evolution of religion to a higher stage in which the cult of god becomes dominant, the shaman or magician develops into a seer and priest who has knowledge of rituals and dogma. Usually he becomes a prophet. The priest, on the other hand, is more a leader of public worship who knows how to venerates the gods, and how to celebrate their rituals.

White and Black Magic

On the primitive level of magic and sorcery one must distinguish between white and black magic. White magic deals with fertility, rainmaking, hunting success, and spells to cure illnesses and attract love. Black magic is concerned with war, revenge, harm, and killing. Both make the supernatural powers to obey the will of man, either for the benefit or the injury of the community.

Initiation Ceremonies

Among primitive peoples, reception in the community of the tribe goes through some kinds of ceremonies. Male maturity is confirmed by symbolic or realistic ceremonies: test of courage, circumcision, and magical acts. It often includes symbolic death and resurrection as a new man, often with a new name, and physically changed by minor mutilation. The groups of initiates form so-called age-classes within the tribe, and in herding, hunting and agricultural tribes these classes may band together into the leagues of men. If un-initiates are the majority, the league becomes a secret society where secret knowledge and magical procedures are transmitted to members only. These cults are magical and religious at the same time. Fertility and ability to induce rain are particularly important in these leagues.


The intimate connection between man and nature is better expressed in totemism that occurs principally among hunting and herding people and symbolises the close relation of man with nature, which is often represented on the totem by an animal, and more rarely by a plant or natural object. Among the red Indians of America, the members of the tribe did not kill the animal represented on their totem that was seen as their guardian spirits. The totem is the symbol of the social group to which the man belongs. In individual totemism, each person has his own totem from puberty on. In tribal totemism, each tribe has their totem. Other kinds of totemism are also known: half-tribal totemism divides the tribe into two half (men and women), territorial totemism (that rules over a region), cult totemism, etc. In tribal and half-tribal totemism, the totem is generally inherited through the mother, who symbolises participation in the communal life, while in the others the father’s totem passed to his sons. The origins of totemism are unknown but they are not to be seen as deities, as they have nothing to do with religion or animal worship. Totemism creates alliance and kinship between a clan and specific species of animals that are considered part of the clan.

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