Magic
General term for ‘‘magic art,’’ believed to derive from the
Greek magein, the science and religion of the priests of Zoroaster
(see Magi), or, according to philologist Skeat, from Greek
megas (great), thus signifying ‘‘the great science.’’ It commonly
refers to the ability to cause change to occur by supernatural or
mysterious powers and abilities. In the twentieth century,
magic has been more stringently defined as the ability to create
change by an act of the will and the use of the cosmic power believed
to underpin physical existence. Contemporary magicians
also distinguish between high magic and low magic. The
latter refers to using magic to make changes in the mundane
world, from concocting love potions to drawing money to oneself.
The former refers to disciplined change of the self, and
practitioners of high magic compare it to yoga.
Early History
Until a few centuries ago, most people lived in what they
considered a magical universe, and evidence of the practice of
magic is found as far back as human prehistory. Among the earliest
traces of magic practice are paintings found in the European
caves of the middle Paleolithic period. These belong to the
last interglacial period of the Pleistocene epoch, named the
Aurignacian after the cave dwellers of Aurignac (southern
France), whose skeletons, artifacts, and drawings link them
with the Bushmen of South Africa.
In the cave of Gargas, near Bagnères de Luchon, there are,
in addition to spirited and realistic drawings of animals, numerous
imprints of human hands in various stages of mutilation.
Some hands were apparently first smeared with a sticky
substance and then pressed onto the rock; others were held in
position to be dusted around with red ocher or black pigment.
Most of the imprinted hands have mutilated fingers; in some
cases the first and second joints of one or more fingers are missing;
in others only the stumps of all fingers remain.
A close study of the hand imprints shows that they are not
those of lepers. There can be little doubt that the joints were
removed for a specific purpose; on this point there is general
agreement among anthropologists.
A clue to the mystery is provided by a similar custom among
the Bushmen. G. W. Stow, in his book The Native Races of South
Africa (1905), refers to this strange form of sacrifice. He once
came into contact with a number of Bushmen who ‘‘had all lost
the first joint of the little finger,’’ which had been removed with
a ‘‘stone knife’’ for the purpose of ensuring a safe journey to the
spirit world. Another writer told of an old Bushman woman
whose little fingers of both hands had been mutilated, three
joints in all having been removed. She explained that each joint
had been sacrificed to express her sorrow as each one of three
daughters died.
In his Report on the Northwestern Tribes of the Dominion of Canada
(1889), Franz Boas gives evidence of the custom among
these peoples. When many deaths resulted from disease, the
Canadian Indians sacrificed the joints of their little fingers in
order to (they explained) ‘‘cut off the deaths.’’
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Among the Indian Madigas (Telugu pariahs), the evil eye
was averted by sacrificers who dipped their hands in the blood
of goats or sheep and impressed them on either side of a house
door. This custom was also known to the Brahmans of India.
Impressions of hands were also occasionally seen on the
walls of Muslim mosques in India. As among the northwest Canadian
tribes, the hand ceremony was most frequently practiced
in India when epidemics took a heavy toll of lives. The
Bushmen also removed finger joints when stricken with sickness.
In Australia, where during initiation ceremonies the
young Aborigine men had teeth knocked out and bodies
scarred, the women of some tribes mutilated the little fingers
of daughters in order to influence their future lives.
Apparently the finger-chopping customs of Paleolithic
times had a magical significance. On some of the paintings in
the Aurignacian caves appear symbols that suggest the slaying
and butchering of animals. Other symbols are enigmatic. Of
special interest are the figures of animal-headed demons, some
with hands upraised in the Egyptian posture of adoration; others
posed like the animal-headed dancing gods of the Bushmen.
In the Marsonlas Paleolithic cave, there are humanlike faces
of angry demons with staring eyes and monstrous noses. In the
Spanish Cave at Cogul, several figures of women wearing halflength
skirts and shoulder shawls are represented dancing
around a nude male. These females so closely resemble those
of Bushman paintings that they might, if not for their location,
be credited to this interesting people. Religious dances among
the Bushman tribes were associated with marriage, birth, and
burial ceremonies; they were also performed to exorcise demons
in cases of sickness. ‘‘Dances are to us what prayers are
to you,’’ an elderly Bushman once informed a European.
Whether the cave drawings and wood, bone, and ivory carvings
of the Magdalenian or late Paleolithic period at the close
of the last ice age are related to magic is a question on which
there is no general agreement. It is significant, however, that
several carved ornaments bearing animal figures or enigmatic
symbols are perforated as if worn as charms. On a piece of horn
found at Lorthet, Hautes-Pyrénées, are beautiful, incised drawings
of reindeer and salmon, above which appear mystical symbols.
An ape-like demon carved on bone was found at Mas d’Azil.
Etched on a reindeer horn from Laugerie Basse is a prostrate
man with a tail, creeping on all fours toward a grazing bison.
These artifacts strengthen the theory that late Paleolithic art
had its origin in magic beliefs and practices—that hunters
carved on the handles of weapons and implements, or
scratched on cave walls, the images of the animals they desired
to capture—sometimes with the secured cooperation of demons
and sometimes with the aid of magic spells.
A highly developed magic system existed in ancient Egypt,
as in Babylonian (see Semites) and other early cultures. From
these cultures the medieval European system of magic is believed
to have evolved. Greece and Rome also possessed distinct
magic systems that were integrated into their religious
practice and thus, like the Egyptian and Babylonian rituals,
were preserves of the priesthood.
Magic in early Europe was integral to the various religious
systems that prevailed throughout that continent and survived
into the Middle Ages as witchcraft. Christians regarded the
practice of magic, at least the popular forms practiced in the
Pagan culture competing with their religion, as foreign to the
spirit of their faith. Thus the Thirty-Sixth Canon of the Ecumenical
Council held at Laodicea in 364 C.E. forbade clerks and
priests to become magicians, enchanters, mathematicians, or
astrologers. It ordered, moreover, that the church should expel
those who employed ligatures or phylacteries, because, it said,
phylacteries were the prisons of the soul. The Fourth Canon of
the Council of Oxia in 525 C.E. prohibited the consultation of
sorcerers, augurs, and diviners, and condemned divinations
made with wood or bread, while the Sixteenth Canon of the
Council of Constantinople in 692 C.E. excommunicated for a
period of six years diviners and those who had recourse to
them. The prohibition was repeated by the Council of Rome in
721. The Forty-Second Canon of the Council of Tours in 613
said priests should teach people the inefficacy of magic to restore
the health of men or animals, and later councils endorsed
the church’s earlier views.
Medieval Magic
It does not appear that what may be called ‘‘medieval
magic’’ took final and definite shape until about the twelfth
century. Modeled after the systems in vogue among the Byzantines
and Moors of Spain, which evolved from the Alexandrian
system (see Neoplatonism), what might be called ‘‘Oriental’’
magic gained footing in Europe and superseded the earlier
magic based on paganistic practice and ritual. There is evidence
that Eastern magic was imported into Europe by persons
returning from the Crusades, and magic was disseminated
from Constantinople throughout Europe, along with other sciences.
Witches and wizards and professors of lesser magic clung to
paganism, whereas among the disciples of Oriental magic were
the magicians, necromancers (fortune-tellers), and sorcerers
(practitioners of malevolent magic).
The tenets of the higher branches of magic changed little
from the eighth to the thirteenth century. There also appears
to have been little persecution of the professors of magic. After
that period, however, the opinions of the church underwent a
radical change, and the life of the magus was fraught with considerable
danger. Paracelsus, for instance, was not victimized
in the same manner as the sorcerers and wizards, but he was
consistently baited by the medical profession of his day. Agrippa
was also continually persecuted, and even mystics like Jakob
Boehme were imprisoned and mistreated. (Magicians were
subject to persecution both for possible acts of sorcery and for
allegiance to a heretical religious system.)
It is difficult to estimate the enormous popularity that magic
experienced, whether for good or evil, during the Middle Ages.
Although severely punished if discovered—or if its professors
became notorious enough to court persecution—the power it
seems to have conferred upon the practitioner was coveted by
scores of people.
Two great names in the history of European magic are those
of Paracelsus and Agrippa, who outlined the science of medieval
magic. They were also the greatest practical magicians of
the Middle Ages—apart from pure mystics, alchemists, and
others—and their thaumaturgic and necromantic experiences
were probably never surpassed.
Theories Regarding the Nature of Magic
According to Sir James George Frazer, author of The Golden
Bough (1890), magic and religion are one and the same thing,
or at least are so closely allied as to be almost identical.
Frazer’s anthropologist successors in the early twentieth
century, most notably Malinowski and Marcel Mauss, regarded
magic as entirely distinct from religion. Magic possessed certain
well-marked attributes that could be traced to mental processes
differing from those from which the religious idea
springs, they said. The two had become fused by the superimposition
of religious rites upon magic practice.
It has also been said that religion consists of an appeal to the
gods, whereas magic is the attempt to force their compliance.
Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss, in Greatness and Decline of the
Celts (1934), argue that magic is essentially traditional. Holding
that the primitive mind is markedly unoriginal, they explain
magic as an art that did not exhibit frequent changes among
primitive peoples, and was fixed by its own laws. Religion, they
claim, was official and organized; magic, prohibited and secret.
Frazer believed all magic was based on the law of sympathy—the
assumption that things act on one another at a distance
because of their being secretly linked by invisible bonds.
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He divided sympathetic magic into homeopathic magic and
contagious magic. The first is imitative or mimetic and may be
practiced by itself, but the second usually necessitates the application
of the imitative principle. Well-known instances of mimetic
magic are the forming of wax figures in the likeness of
an enemy, which are then destroyed in the hope that he will
perish. This belief persisted in European witchcraft into relatively
modern times. Contagious magic can be seen in the
primitive warrior’s anointing the weapon that caused a wound
instead of the wound itself, believing that the blood on the
weapon continues to feel part of the blood on the body. (See
also Powder of Sympathy)
L. Marillier divided magic into three classes the magic of
the word or act; the magic of the human being independent of
rite or formula; and the magic that demands a person of special
powers and the use of ritual. A. Lehmann believed magic to be
a practice of superstition, founded in illusion.
The Magic Force
Many peoples have spoken of the operation of a magic cosmic
force—something that impinged upon the thought of man
from outside. Many tribal cultures postulated the existence of
a great reservoir of magic power, the exact nature of which they
were not prepared to specify.
Certain American Indian tribes believed in a force called
orenda, or spirit force. Among the ancient Peruvians everything
sacred was huaca and possessed magic power. In Melanesia a
force called mana, transmissible and contagious, could be seen
in the form of flames or could even be heard. The Malays used
the word kramat to signify the same thing, and the Malagasy
used the term hasma. Some tribes around Lake Tanganyika believed
in such a force, which they called ngai, and Australian
tribes had similar terms, such as churinga and boolya. In Mexico
there was a strange creed named nagualism that held the same
concept—everything nagual was magic or possessed an inherent
spiritual force of its own.
The Dynamics of Magic
Earlier practitioners of magic believed that it is governed by
a few well-defined laws. Chief among these is that of sympathy,
which can be subdivided into the laws of similarity, antipathy,
and contiguity.
The law of similarity and homeopathy is divisible into two
tenets (1) the assumption that like produces like—an illustration
of which is the destruction of a doll in the form of an
enemy; and (2) the idea that like cures like—for instance, that
the stone called bloodstone can staunch the flow of blood.
The law dealing with antipathy rests on the assumption that
the application of a certain object or drug expels its contrary.
The idea of contiguity assumes that whatever has once
formed part of an object continues to form part of it. Thus, if
a magician can obtain a portion of a person’s hair, he can work
harm upon that person through the invisible bonds that are believed
to extend between the individual and the hair in the magician’s
possession. It was commonly believed that if the animal
familiar of a witch is wounded, the wound will manifest on the
witch herself (see werewolf). This is called ‘‘repercussion.’’
It was also widely assumed that if the magician procures the
name of a person he can gain dominion over that person. This
arose from the idea that the name of an individual is the same
as the person himself. The doctrine of the ‘‘incommunicable
name,’’ the hidden name of the god or magician, has many examples
in Egyptian legend, usually the deity taking extraordinary
care to keep his name secret so that no one might gain
power over him. The spell or incantation is connected with this
concept.
Associated with these, to a lesser degree, is magic gesture,
usually introduced for the purpose of accentuating the spoken
word. Gesture is often symbolic or sympathetic; it is sometimes
the reversal of a religious rite, such as marching against the
sun, which is known as walking ‘‘widdershins.’’ The method of
pronouncing rites is also of great importance. Archaic or foreign
expressions are usually found in spells both ancient and
modern, and the tone in which the incantation is spoken is no
less important than its exactness. Rhythm is often employed to
aid memory. (See also Mantra)
The Magician
In early society the magic practitioner, a term that includes
the shaman, medicine man, piagé, and witch doctor, held his
or her position by hereditary right; by an accident of birth, like
being the seventh son of a seventh son; through revelation
from the gods; or through his mastery of ritual.
The shaman operated like a medium, for instead of summoning
the powers of the air at his bidding, as did the magicians
of medieval days, he found it necessary to throw himself
into a trance and seek them in their own sphere. (The magician
is also often regarded as possessed by an animal or supernatural
being.)
The duties of the priest and magician were often combined
in tribal society. When one religion was superseded, however,
the priests of the old cult were considered, in the eyes of the
leaders and believers of the new, nothing but evil or misguided
magicians.
Medieval Definition of Magic
The definitions of magic given by the great magicians of medieval
and modern times naturally differ greatly from those of
anthropologists. For example, nineteenth-century magician
Éliphas Lévi states in his History of Magic (1913)
‘‘Magic, therefore, combines in a single science that which
is most certain in philosophy which is eternal and infallible in
religion. It reconciles perfectly and incontestably those two
terms so opposed on the first view—faith and reason, science
and belief, authority and liberty. It furnishes the human mind
with an instrument of philosophical and religious certainty
were as exact as mathematics, and even accounting for the infallibility
of mathematics themselves. . . . There is an incontestable
truth; there is an infallible method of knowing that truth;
while those who attain this knowledge and adopt it as a rule of
life, can endow their life with a sovereign power which can
make them masters of all inferior things, all wandering spirits,
or, in other words, arbiters and kings of the world.’’
Paracelsus, writing in the sixteenth century, stated
‘‘The magical is a great hidden wisdom, and reason is a
great open folly. No armour shields against magic for it strikes
at the inward spirit of life. Of this we may rest assured, that
through full and powerful imagination only can we bring the
spirit of any man into an image. No conjuration, no rites are
needful; circle-making and the scattering of incense are mere
humbug and jugglery. The human spirit is so great a thing that
no man can express it; eternal and unchangeable as God Himself
is the mind of man; and could we rightly comprehend the
mind of man, nothing would be impossible to us upon the
earth. Through faith the imagination is invigorated and completed,
for it really happens that every doubt mars its perfection.
Faith must strengthen imagination, for faith establishes
the will. Because man did not perfectly believe and imagine,
the result is that arts are uncertain when they might be wholly
certain.’’
Agrippa also regarded magic as the true road to communion
with God, thus linking it with mysticism.
Later Magic
With the death of Agrippa in 1535, the old school of magicians
ended. But the traditions of magic were handed down to
others who were equally capable of preserving them, or were
later revived by persons interested in the art. There was a great
distinction between those practitioners of magic whose minds
were illuminated by a high mystical ideal and those persons of
doubtful occult position, like the Comte de Saint Germain and
others.
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At the beginning of the seventeenth century there were
many great alchemists in practice who were also devoted to research
on transcendental magic, which they carefully and successfully
concealed under the veil of hermetic investigation.
These included Michael Maier, Robert Fludd, Cosmopolite,
Jean D’Espagnet, Samuel Norton (see Thomas Norton), Baron
de Beausoleil, J. Van Helmont, and Eirenaeus Philalethes
(see also alchemy). The eighteenth century was rich in occult
personalities, for example, the alchemists Lascaris Martines
de Pasqually and Louis Claude de Saint-Martin, who founded
the Martinist school, which was continued by ‘‘Papus’’ (Gérard
Encausse).
By the end of the eighteenth century, magic practice had
reached its lowest ebb as emphasis on the exploration of causative
agents centered on the physical world and supernatural explanations
were pushed aside. It was not until the nineteenth
century that a spreading mesmerist philosophy offered philosophical
underpinnings for a scientific worldview. Magic
merged for the moment with mesmerism, and many of the secret
magic societies that abounded in Europe about this period
practiced animal magnetism experiments as well as astrology,
Kabbalism, and ceremonial magic.
Mesmerism powerfully influenced mystic life in the time of
its chief advocates, and the mesmerists of the first era were in
direct line with the Martinists and the mystical magicians of the
late eighteenth century. Indeed mysticism and magnetism were
one and the same thing to some of these occultists (see Secret
Tradition), the most celebrated of which were Cazotte, Ganneau,
Comte, Wronski, Baron Du Potet de Sennevoy, Hennequin,
Comte d’Ourches, Baron de Guldenstubbé, and Éliphas
Lévi.
Modern Revivals of Magic
During the 1890s there was a revival of interest in ritual
magic in Europe among both intellectuals and traditional occultists.
This ‘‘occult underground’’ permeated much of the intellectual
life and progressive movements in Europe, in contrast
to the more popular preoccupation with Spiritualism and
table turning.
Symbolic of this magic revival was the founding of the famous
Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which numbered
among its members such individuals as Annie Horniman
(sponsor of the Abbey Theatre, Dublin), Florence Farr (mistress
of George Bernard Shaw), S. L. MacGregor Mathers, William
Butler Yeats, Arthur Machen, and Arthur Edward
Waite. Another famous member was the magician Aleister
Crowley, who left the order to found his own organization,
A?A?, and then become head of the German-based Ordo
Templi Orientis. Crowley’s more psychologically sophisticated
presentation of magic came to dominate twentieth-century
thought on magic, even among those who rejected various portions
of it, such as its emphasis on sex, mind-altering drugs,
and egocentricity. A more sinister aspect of magic was the current
of occult thought that flowed into and undergirded Adolf
Hitler and Nazism.
During the 1930s there was an outbreak of public interest
in the occult in Britain and Europe, and a number of significant
books on magic were published. Their influence was limited
only by the relatively smaller influence of mass media at that
time and by the conservatism of intellectual life. Exceptional
individuals like Aleister Crowley flourished in the 1920s and
1930s, but were deplored by polite society, which regarded
such occultists as scandalous misfits.
A second wave of popular occultism flared up in the 1950s
in Britain and North America, fueled largely by reprints of key
books published during the 1930s. This modern interest in
magic, however, had little in common with the outlook and
ideals of medieval magicians and followers of the hermetic art.
It stemmed largely from the trendiness of postwar affluence
and the desire for sensationalist indulgence. The occult explosion
led in the 1960s to Satanism and black magic cults. Much
of modern occultism has been influenced by the use of mindaltering
drugs.
During this modern period, one long-kept secret of occultism
became generally discussed—that of the importance of sexual
energy in dynamizing the processes of magic. Although this
factor was well known to some occultists in Persia, China, and
India, it was rediscovered in the early twentieth century and increasingly
and openly discussed in the writings of Aleister
Crowley and his disciples.
Throughout this century practitioners of magic have made
some extraordinary claims about achieving desired ends.
There are still two opinions among occultists as to how such
feats are achieved. One is that desired effects in the physical
world are produced through the operator’s willpower, assisted
by various ritual practices. The other opinion, still held by a minority,
is that desired effects are achieved by means of spirit entities
evoked during rituals. (Among skeptics there are various
mundane explanations for the seemingly positive results of
magic activity.)
Conjuring Tricks and Stage Magic
Today the term magic normally denotes the performance of
conjuring, legerdemain, or illusion, although the term conjuring
was originally used to indicate the evocation of spirits. Conjuring
tricks have been used by priests for thousands of years
to create the illusion of miracles. The astonishing and skillful
illusions of modern stage magicians show that special caution
is necessary in evaluating many apparently paranormal feats of
magic, and stage magicians have also performed a valuable service
in exposing fraudulent ‘‘psychic’’ feats. Because of their
history of exposing fraud and their knowledge of the many
techniques for creating illusions, stage magicians tend to be
skeptical of all claimed paranormal feats.
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