Magic: A Brief (Ongoing) Discussion of the Term

Magic is a Western word, born out of the western context. You can read its semantic use in popular discourse from the Oxford Dictionary Online. Note its common applications: as manipulation of events, as adjective, as verb, etc.

Its use within the larger western discourse of religious studies, though has nuanced definitions. It begins with the Greek encounter with Zoroastrian priests and their perceived esoteric skills, wherein magi comes to mean the foreign, mysterious, and occult. It retains this notion of specialized arcane knowledge to the current day, but has also developed other threads along its journey.

Most relevant to me, is the history of how scholars have studied magic. It begins with a Protestant discourse that retroactively applied the term to all things not Christian. Though the word itself predates the early anthropologists, we, in the academy, are most influenced by the first scholars to study “magic” with a social scientific (not theological) methodology. Magic could be:

    1. “Primitives” in foreign areas. Early anthropologist traveling to exotic places and labelling all indigenous practices as magical. Max Warwick presents an excellent discussion on his cross comparison on how the term is applied in studies in Oceania and Africa. For example, some chroniclers use it to denote malevolent practices, while for other cultures it is considered good. In yet others, magic is neutral, but the intent of the skilled person depends on how it is viewed. As these European writers use western language and discourse to describe the foreign ideas, terms like “magic,” “witchcraft,” “sorcery,” “spells,” and “curses” have a wide-range of meanings and applications, with little to no discussion of nuance, and no systematic standard between and among the European writers. Marwick advocates for scholars to define their terms for each study (For group A “magic” is considered evil; for group B is it not, etc.).
    2. Peasants, and their superstitions, sometimes based on older pagan ideas, or simply viewed as more common, a low culture as opposed to high culture. Much of what was considered not part of the practice of civilized elites was denounced as “magic.”
    3. Rival Christianities: your form of Christianity is clearly inferior to mine, and therefore magical, if not satanic. To which the response is an equally emphatic: No, your form of Christiniaty is clearly “magic,” and thus false.
    4. As early European anthropologists viewed civilization as the pinnacle of an upward trajectory model, they also retroactively applied the term magic to previous monotheistic religions, not solely pagan practices. Under this rubric Judaism (with its “archaic” ritual sacrifice) is magical, as are those funny types of Christians [Catholics]. Echoes of this remain within academic discourse, wherein the assumption that anything “ritualistic” is more base, carnal, and not in keeping with the Protestant ideal of internal, direct communion with god. The implication is that anything done with the body, the material, and the carnal is corrupt and inferior.

That is, for much of contemporary history, “magic” is informed by what Christianity claims it is not. Even as what-it-is-not is ephemeral, contested, and constantly in flux according to the socio-politico-religious influnces. What is considered “Christian” in one time/place/context could be considered heretical in another. No discussion of magic can ignore the history of Christianity and how it self-defines: the two are intertwined.

In the modern context, we have yet another use of the term, with the emphasis on technologies used to create magical illusions that tie into the discourse on science versus religion, with magic taking on this hybrid type of non-status. Magic as illusion by the exceptionally scientific. It is entertainment and wonder for a general population, performed by skilled scientists. To be a stage magician is still to manipulate the natural world, yet with the audience suspending disbelief in order to engage with the wonder and awe of the event.

Still, in the case of stage magic, there is an amphasis that it is not religion, not miracle. To believe that stage magic is miracle puts one in the camp of the delusional, unscientific, and guillible (much like the current anti-religious discourse in the western world). Complicating things further, is that many of the earliest scientists engaged in ideas that modern scientists consider pseudo-science or occult magic (see John Dee). Some of theses sciences were fully endorsed and funded by the Church. Some scientists also fuelled the idea that they held supernatural powers (Nichola Tesla was known to encourage rumours of his magical abilities).

Contemporary self-identified magicians (of which there are many types) also contribute to blurring the categories, by claiming that the effectiveness of magic is a science not yet explained by current methods (echoing Arthur C. Clarke’s statement: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”). Magic, within these groups and individuals, can be anything from harnessing biological and psychological techniques, to manipulation of spirits and/or demons via ritual to do your bidding, to an understading that magic is performative and cathartic in and of itself, without requiring deeper supernatural explanations.

In the convoluted ven diagram of Religion versus Magic versus Science, there was and continues to be much overlap.

How do I, then, propose to study and write a dissertation on magic, a thing that has no clear definition?

Well… stay tuned.

3 thoughts on “Magic: A Brief (Ongoing) Discussion of the Term

  1. Hi Cimminee, I wish I would have known that you were focusing on magic in your dissertation. Did you know that my dissertation focused on Greek magical amulets?! In fact, the magic debate came up at my defense. Someone recently told me that if I wanted to talk about magic, then I either needed to footnote the discussion with a couple readings or make it the subject of a lengthy article or book. Scholars in my field (late antiquity) are now playing with “ritual” as an alternative term. It’s a mess. The old way to look at all this was to completely separate religion and magic, but today it’s more nuanced. Yet, no one really agrees on anything.


    • Hi Brice,

      Yes, I knew about your amulets, and I’m disappointed I wasn’t in town to be at your defence (congrats again, by the way!!).

      My dissertation is on the Church of Satan, but they are a self-identified magical group, and I’m going to use magic as the center for my ethnography.

      But my study fits into the larger discussion of “western esotericism” (an emerging field), which has been working through defining itself, incorporating anything from gnosticism and hermeticism to spiritualism and theosophy to Satanism and Wicca. That is, a broad and unclear field, that gets muddier the more you look at it.

      The fact that magic has been studied separately from religion is one of the major issues, I would say. Not only does it ignore important cross-fertilization of ideas, but also ignores that sometimes they could be THE SAME THING.

      I have read Meyer’s book on Christian magic (which he names ritual power), and you’re right, it’s a mess. Meyer certainly attempts to address the issue, but doesn’t discuss much beyond the introduction. Any lengthy study needs to go much deeper and examine magic in terms of its enveloping dynamics of power (the “foreign”; heretic Christianities; pagan influences; implied denouncements of Judaic and Catholic and their suspiciously bodily “ritual” practices, etc.).

      Modern scholars are challenging the old dynamics (that views things as a binary religion/magic), but how to do that in a way that invites critical advances in the field is an ongoing discussion.


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