The History of Magic

The word ‘magic’ derives from the Latin, the Greek, the Old Persian, and, ultimately, the Proto-Indo-European magh, ‘to help, to be able, to be powerful’, from which also derive the words ‘almighty’, ‘maharaja’, ‘main’, ‘may’, and… ‘machine’. We come full circle with Clarke’s Third Law, which states: ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’

Magic, like religion, is deeply embedded into the human psyche. Though it has, effectively, been banished from the land, still it surfaces in thought and language, in phrases such as ‘I must be cursed’ and ‘He’s under your spell’; in children’s stories and other fiction; and in psychological processes such as undoing, which involves thinking a thought or carrying out an act in an attempt to negate a previous, uncomfortable thought or act.

Examples of undoing include the absent father who periodically returns to spoil and smother his children, and the angry wife who throws a plate at her husband and then tries to ‘make it up’ by smothering him in kisses. The absent father and angry wife are not merely trying to make amends for their behaviour, but also, as if by magic, to ‘erase it from the record’.

Another example of undoing is the man who damages a friend’s prospects and then, a few days later, turns up at his door bearing a small gift. Rituals such as confession and penitence are, at least on some level, socially condoned and codified forms of undoing.

‘Magic’ is difficult to define, and its definition remains a matter of debate and controversy. One way of understanding it is by comparing and contrasting it to religion on the one hand and to science on the other.

Historically, the priest, the physician, the magician, and the scholar might have been one and the same person: the shaman, the sorcerer.

In the West, pre-Socratics such as Pythagoras and Empedocles moonlighted as mystics and miracle workers—or perhaps, since the term ‘philosophy’ is held to have been invented by Pythagoras, moonlighted as philosophers. Pythagoras claimed to have lived four lives and to remember them all in great detail, and once recognized the cry of his dead friend in the yelping of a puppy. After his death, the Pythagoreans deified him, and attributed him with a golden thigh and the gift of bilocation.

In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates argues that there are, in fact, two kinds of madness: one resulting from human illness, but the other arising from a divinely inspired release from normally accepted behaviour. This divine form of madness, says Socrates, has four parts: love, poetry, inspiration, and mysticism, which is the particular gift of Dionysus.

While Socrates, in some sense the father of logic, seldom claimed any real knowledge, he did claim to have a daimonion or ‘divine something’, an inner voice or intuition that prevented him from making grave mistakes such as getting involved in politics, or fleeing Athens: ‘This is the voice which I seem to hear murmuring in my ears, like the sound of the flute in the ears of the mystic…’

Far from being a thing of the distant past, this trope of the philosopher-sorcerer outlived the sack of Athens and the fall of Rome, and perdured well into the Enlightenment. The economist John Maynard Keynes, upon buying a trove of Isaac Newton’s papers, observed that Newton and the physicists of his time were ‘not the first of the scientists, but the last of the sorcerers’. Other notable later occultists include: Giordano Bruno, Nostradamus, Paracelsus, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, and Arthur Conan Doyle, yes, the father of Sherlock Holmes.

Yet since antiquity, the West has had an uncomfortable relationship with magic, usually regarding it as something foreign and ‘Eastern’. In Plato’s Meno, Meno compares Socrates to the flat torpedo fish, which torpifies or numbs all those who come near it: ‘And I think that you are very wise in not [leaving Athens], for if you did in other places as you do in Athens, you would be cast into prison as a magician.’

For the Greeks as for the Romans, magic represented as improper and potentially subversive expression of religion. After centuries of contra-legislation, in 357 CE, the Christian Roman emperor Constantius II finally banned it outright:

No one shall consult a haruspex, a diviner, or a soothsayer, and wicked confessions made to augurs and prophets must cease. Chaldeans, magicians, and others who are commonly called malefactors on account of the enormity of their crimes shall no longer practice their infamous arts.

The Bible, too, inveighs against magic, in more than a hundred places, for example, picked almost at random:

  • Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live. —Exodus 22:18 (KJV)
  • Regard not them that have familiar spirits, neither seek after wizards, to be defiled by them: I am the Lord your God. —Leviticus 19:31 (KJV)
  • But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death. —Revelation 21:8 (KJV)

Early Christians, perhaps unconsciously, associated magic with mythopoeic thought, in which all of nature is full of gods and spirits, and therefore with paganism and, by extension, with demons. During the Reformation, Protestants accused the Church of Rome, with its superstitions, relics, and exorcisms, of being more magic than religion—a charge that transferred all the more to non-Christian peoples, and that, notoriously, served as a justification for large-scale persecution, colonization, and Christianization.

Today, magic, like mythopoeic thought, is seen as ‘primitive’, and has largely been relegated to fiction and illusionism. But as a result, people have come to associate magic with delight and wonder; and with the retreat of Christianity, at least from Europe, a growing number are returning to some form of paganism as a path to personal and spiritual development.

So, what exactly is the difference between magic and religion? It is often held that magic is older than religion, or that religion was born out of magic, but it may be that they co-existed, and were not distinguished.

Both magic and religion pertain to the sacred sphere, to things removed from everyday life. But, compared to religion, magic does not split so sharply between the natural and the supernatural, the earthly and the divine, the fallen and the blessed. And whereas magic involves harnessing the world to the will, religion involves subjugating the will to the world. In the words of the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (d. 2009), ‘religion consists in a humanization of natural laws, and magic in a naturalization of human actions.’

Hence, magic tends to be about specific problems, and to involve private rites and rituals. Religion, in contrast, tends towards the bigger picture, and to involve communal worship and belonging. ‘Magic’ said the sociologist Emile Durkheim (d. 1917), ‘does not result in binding together those who adhere to it, nor in uniting them into a group leading a common life. There is no Church of magic.’

So, one hypothesis is that, as man gained increasing control over nature, magic, as it came to be called, lost ground to religion, which, being communal and centralized, evolved a hierarchy that sought to suppress those practices that threatened its dogma and dominance.

But now religion is, in its turn, on the decline—in favour of science. What is science? Within academia, there are, in fact, no clear or reliable criteria for distinguishing a science from a non-science. What might be said is that all sciences share certain assumptions which underpin the scientific method—in particular, that there is an objective reality governed by uniform laws, and that this reality can be discovered by systematic observation.

But, as I argue in my book, Hypersanity: Thinking Beyond Thinking, every scientific paradigm that has come and gone is now deemed to have been false, inaccurate, or incomplete, and it would be ignorant or arrogant to assume that our current ones might amount to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

The philosopher Paul Feyerabend (d. 1994) went so far as to claim that there is no such thing as ‘a’ or ‘the’ scientific method: behind the facade, ‘anything goes’, and, as a form of knowledge, science is no more privileged than magic or religion.

More than that, science has come to occupy the same place in the human psyche as religion once did. Although science began as a liberating movement, it grew dogmatic and repressive, more of an ideology than a rational method that leads to ineluctable progress.

To quote Feyerabend:

Knowledge is not a series of self-consistent theories that converges toward an ideal view; it is rather an ever increasing ocean of mutually incompatible (and perhaps even incommensurable) alternatives, each single theory, each fairy tale, each myth that is part of the collection forcing the others into greater articulation and all of them contributing, via this process of competition, to the development of our consciousness.

A common trope in fantasy fiction is the ‘thinning’ of magic: magic is fading, or has been banished, from the land, which is caught in a perpetual winter or otherwise in deathly or depressive decline, and the hero is called upon to rescue and restore the life-giving forces of old.

It is easy to draw the parallel with our own world, in which magic has been progressively driven out, first by religion, which over the centuries, became increasingly repressive of magic, and latterly by science with its zero tolerance.

When we read fantasy fiction, it is for the side of the old magic, always, that we root, for a time when the world, when life, had meaning in itself.

In my next article, I will look at the psychology and philosophy of magic.