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Defining Magic

Defining magic isn’t as simple as it sounds. It’s a word that’s loaded with connotations and hidden meanings. Everyone has a definition that they have created from a myriad of sources over the course of their lives. We know, from context, what someone means when they call something “magic,” but at the same time, we can only really define it in very vague terms.

So what is it?

Is it inherently different from religion? Not really. I’d almost argue that it’s an applied form of religion, but that definition doesn’t hold up.

So how do we begin to define it? We could start with etymology since that can sometimes reveal meanings in words. But almost immediately, we run into a problem. The word ‘magic’ comes from a Greek word, and the meanings are varied and not particularly amiable. It’s mageia, μαγεία and :

From the very beginning, mageía was not a word that objectively referred to ancient Near Eastern practices; rather it is a term that carries a value judgment prompted by Greek perceptions of their neighbors to the East. The origins of “magic” may well be regarded therefore as an early example of “Orientalism,” reflecting a blend of fascination, contempt, and misunderstanding that has accompanied the concept of magic ever since its inception( Schwemer, 17)

In the past, it was en vogue for scholars to argue that magic was a primitive form of religion, but that doesn’t really work. Magic doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Magical beliefs have to be based on SOMETHING. Usually, they seem to be a way of interacting with various aspects of the dominant religion, but the line between religion and magic is very blurry. What distinguishes a magic ritual from a religious ritual?

The answer is not much. Scholars have made different claims over the decades:

  • Magic tends to be private, while religion is public (Durkheim)
  • Magic tries to command where religion aims to supplicate (Frazier)
  • Magic tries to achieve an immediate effect while religious rituals are ends in themselves (Malinowski)

However, as Michael Bailey points out, “none of these definitions, or others like them, have proven entirely sufficient for all circumstances and contexts “(4).

There’s even been debate about whether the concept of magic even exists. The argument is that “the distinction between magic and religion is thus a modern one imposed on ancient practitioners and does not reflect their own state of mind or perceptions of their practices.” (Stratton, 85)

For our purposes, let’s assume the concept exists.

So what is it? That’s hard to say. The word has so many connotations in English that it’s almost easier to start by explaining what it ISN’T.

It isn’t evil.

Though more religious people in the west often define magic as simply some evil force, this idea doesn’t really have a historical basis. The concept of magic itself has been with us since at least as far back as recorded history goes, likely longer. Magic could be protective or malevolent in all cultures, but it was rarely considered inherently either. A very good example is ancient Egypt. Magic was simply a force that could be used for good or ill. Things called “spells,” as we understand it, were openly part of everyday life.

It doesn’t necessarily equate to witchcraft

Again, we get into the issue of what words really mean. In English, witchcraft has so many connotations and meanings after centuries of use and misuse that it can almost be applied to anything, good or bad. But as a term, it has more to do with culture than anything else. What another culture thinks of as the equivalent of magic or witchcraft might be completely different from our understanding. Actually defining witchcraft is outside the scope of this post, but the basic idea is that some people who identify as witches practice magic, but not everyone who practices magic is a witch.

It isn’t necessarily distinct from religion

In The Golden Bough, James Frazer wrote that magic was about controlling spiritual forces while religion was about asking for their help. This conjecture influenced scholars for decades in trying to pin down a definition of magic, but it’s inaccurate. Religion can just as easily try to command spiritual forces. See exorcisms, for example. And a magical practice doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with control. A spell can function similarly to a prayer in that it asks a spirit for help but doesn’t seek to command anything. And something specifically religious can still have uses that, under any other circumstances, would constitute magic. Peter Rushton notes that “the medieval church encouraged or at least tolerated the use of tokens of faith to provide magical protection for their owners (115). These are amulets. There’s no other way of describing them.

In reality, magic and religion are more like two sides of the same coin. Durkheim drew a distinction between magic and religion as well but even for Durkheim, “magic and religion shared similar beliefs, rites, and dogmas; It was their respective social function that divided them(Davies, 18). Davies also notes:

magic is inextricably intertwined with the development of religion as a process of cultural negotiation. What looks like magic from the outside is understood, by those being studied or condemned, as the legitimate, practical application of religious worship – the everyday employment of religion for reasons other than spiritual enlightenment or salvation. (13)

Whether or not magic should be understood as distinct from religion has more to do with socio-historical context than anything else. By this, I mean, what did the culture in which magic was being used think, and how did they treat it? Regarding ancient Greek magic, Fowler notes, “any attempt to distinguish magic from religion in curses and prayers flounders at once” (5).

It isn’t necessarily an aspect of religion

So, magic has several branches, at least as modern scholars understand. While, historically, some were considered inherently demonic in western European cultures, others were much more benign. In these instances, objects (stones, plants, metals, places, etc.) were thought to have properties that we would regard as ‘magic’ but to them were simply thought of as being hidden/unknown aspects of what the things were. It was called “natural magic,” and it didn’t necessarily have anything to do with any religion.

It isn’t uniform

Even in the same religion, what’s regarded as magic can have vastly different definitions across geographical regions. Richard Kieckhefer has an entire article devoted to different classes of witchcraft mythology in the 1400s, his overarching point being “mythologies of witchcraft functioned differently under different circumstances” (80). In analyzing trial records from Switzerland and Italy, he notes that there’s no real overlap in the understanding of what exactly constitutes witchcraft, saying “the witchcraft of the documents from Perugia bear almost no resemblance to that of the manuscript from Lausanne.” (81) Inquisitors tried to enforce a generic narrative, but each place had its own local flavor. Also worth noting that certain protestants consider Catholic practices “magical” while the Catholics would be highly offended by the suggestion.

It isn’t primitive

This one goes back to the early days of anthropology, where influential scholars like Frazer posited that magic is the first step of society, followed by religion, and then science, where the society is ‘advanced.’ This doesn’t work. Aside from the fact that societies and cultures don’t have developmental levels, you can still find magic in any ‘advanced’ culture.

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Conclusion

So, where does that leave us? What is magic? Well, that’s the bad news. I dunno. Bailey states, “There is and probably can be no simple methodological solution to the definition or study of magic” (22-23). That may or may not be the case. I’ve told you what it isn’t, but that leaves a lot of room for what it can be, which comes down to culture and individual perceptions. Decide for yourself.

Bibliography

Bailey, Michael D. “The Meanings of Magic.” Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft, vol. 1 no. 1, 2006, p. 1-23. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/mrw.0.0052.

Davies, Owen. Magic: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) OUP. Oxford.

Fowler, Robert, L.. “Greek Magic, Greek Religion.” Illinois Classical Studies, vol. 20, 1995, pp. 1–22. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23065394.

Kieckhefer, Richard. “Mythologies of Witchcraft in the Fifteenth Century.” Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft, vol. 1 no. 1, 2006, p. 79-108. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/mrw.0.0080.

Rushton, Peter. “A Note on the Survival of Popular Christian Magic.” Folklore, vol. 91, no. 1, 1980, pp. 115–118. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1259824.

Schwemer, David “The Ancient Near East” in The Cambridge History of Magic and Witchcraft in the West. (2015). ed. S. J., David J. Collins. Cambridge University Press.

Stratton, Kimberly, “Early Greco-Roman Antiquity”. In The Cambridge History of Magic and Witchcraft in the West. (2015). ed. S. J., David J. Collins. Cambridge University Press.

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