Practical magic

"Understanding a culture’s magic is as important as understanding its religion or science. It can bring us closer to the mindset of a people that might otherwise seem completely alien to us now"

Fiona Lensvelt

When you hear the word “magic”, what comes to mind? Perhaps you think of sleight-of-hand conjuring tricks or occultists or alchemists from the Middle Ages. Maybe you think of boy wizards. These are all very modern ideas of magic. Delve into the subject and you’ll realise that its history stretches further back than you might assume.

For tens of thousands of years, humans have used magical practices as a way of understanding their existence. For much of that time magic involved treating the universe as an entity with which to communicate or to be subject to. Where modern man might see the world around him filled with largely inanimate objects, to our ancestors, the trees, wind and stars were alive and possessed of a spirit.

In The History of Magic, Chris Gosden, Professor of European Archaeology at the University of Oxford, explores how magical practices were part of everyday life for humans across an incredible span of places and cultures.

His journey through magic begins around 27,000 BCE with what is thought to be the earliest record of astronomical observation, and moves through the work of the magic healers of Mesopotamia, Chinese cosmology, shamanism on the Eurasian Steppe, alchemy of the Renaissance, links between psychoanalysis and Spiritualism, through to the present day. While there have been many accounts of the history of various aspects of magic, there hasn’t been one quite so wide-ranging as this.

Time and time again, we see that magic was not marginal but central to many cultures. Yet we are only just starting to uncover the significance of seeing these cultures through these very practices. In China around 1200 BCE, for example, the tombs of the dead reveal much about the late Shang dynasty’s worship of the ancestors. Portals were believed to exist between the living and the world of the dead. Through magic, people appealed to their ancestors for help with all sorts of issues from fertility to well-being and this involved sacrifices. We’re told about the relatively modest tomb of Fu Hao—Lady Hao—which included the bodies of six dogs and sixteen people, presumably servants, killed on the death of their mistress. The Shang placed as much store on life after death as on life before it. Pleasing royal ancestors was key not just to immediate descendants but to the kingdom as a whole.

For Gosden, understanding a culture’s magic is as important as understanding its religion or science. It can bring us closer to the mindset of a people that might otherwise seem completely alien to us now. He shares a spell from late second millennium Egypt, which is used for dislodging a bone from a throat. This involved an incantation over a cake, which was then eaten. Efforts would also be made to work out what events or traumas might have caused such a thing to happen. What is significant here is the stress on the psychological dimension of illness. “We too are also slowly realising the importance of the psychological dimensions of diagnosis and treatments,” Gosden writes.

He has a great knack for detail and anecdote. For example in 17th-century England, people took their horoscope as solemn forecast. Astrology was a first, not a last, resort for many when they were ill, facing difficulties or about to make an important decision. Two prominent practitioners were Simon Forman (1552–1611) and Richard Napier (1559–1634), who was also a rector.

The pair kept records of their consultations (such as with John Aubrey, who sought help because “his knees were horny from praying”). Sometimes an astrological chart, calculated with great mathematical precision, would be combined with other methods, such as divination through the throwing of dice or the consultation of archangels. In about 25 per cent of the cases, the patient’s urine was also sampled and described. More than 60,000 people consulted the pair.

Gosden makes the point that magic isn’t a relic of the past: today around 75 per cent of the adult population of the Western world hold some belief in magic or the paranormal (although the source for this isn’t made clear). Recently, we’ve seen a resurgence of interest in the tarot and witchcraft. “Magic is a technology for recognising that life exists in every nook and cranny,” Gosden writes. “At the heart of the most profound magical world-views we can see an ethics of care. Custodianship is crucial, centred on the desire to pass to future generations a world that is in a beneficial condition, rather than one that is damaged.” What could be more relevant? In an age where we are confronting inequality and ecological disaster, such a perspective has something to teach us.


The History of Magic: From Alchemy
to Witchcraft, from the Ice Age to the Present
By Chris Gosden
Viking, 512pp, £25

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