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1911 Encyclopedia Britannica

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I (i.e. " art magic "; Lat. ars magica), the general term for the practice and power of wonder-working, as depending on the employment of supposed supernatural agencies. Etymologically the Gr. µayeta meant the science and religion of the magi, or priests of Zoroaster, as known among the Greeks; in this sense it was opposed to yogreia (? necromancy) and ciSapµaKeLa (the use of drugs); but this distinction was not universally recognized, and yoiTEta is often 41sed as a synonym of ,uayeta There is no general agreement as to the proper definition of " magic," which depends on the view taken of " religion." I.-Nature Of Magic Theories of Magic. - Existing theories of magic may be classified as objective or subjective. The objective school regards magic as a thing by itself, entirely distinct from religion, recognizable by certain characteristics, and traceable to a definite psychological origin. Magic, on this view, is a system of savage science based on imaginary laws supposed to operate with the regularity ascribed to natural laws by the science of to-day. If practices prima facie magical form part of the recognized ritual of religion, it is because the older ideas have persisted and at most assumed a veneer of religion. For the subjective school, on the other hand, only those rites are magical which their practitioners qualify with the name of magic; there is no inherent quality which makes a rite magical; practices based on a belief in the law of sympathy may be religious as well as magical; rites may pass from the category of religion to that of magic when public recognition is withdrawn from them.

1 For what is often called " magic," but is really trick-performance, see Conjuring.

a. For E. B. Tylor the distinguishing characteristic of magic is its unreality; it is a confused mass of beliefs and practices, and their unity consists in the absence of the ordinary nexus of natural cause and effect. Under the general head of magic he distinguishes (i) a spiritual and (ii) a non-spiritual element. (i) The former is made up of such rites as involve the intervention of spiritual beings, ghosts of the dead, demons or gods; hence, in Tylor's view, this form of magic is merely an inferior branch of religion. (ii) The nonspiritual part, but for which the category of magic would be unnecessary, depends on imagined powers and correspondences in nature; it is merely imperfect reasoning, the mistaking of an ideal connexion for a real one. When the American Indian medicine man draws the picture of a deer on a piece of bark and expects that shooting at it will cause him to kill a real deer the next day, he mistakes a connexion which exists only in the mind of the sorcerer for a real bond independent of the human mind.

b. In J. G. Frazer's view all magic is based on the law of sympathy - i.e. the assumption that things act on one another at a distance through a secret link, due either to the fact that there is some similarity between them or to the fact that they have at one time been in contact, or that one has formed part of the other. These two branches of " sympathetic magic " Frazer denominates " homoeopathic magic " and " contagious magic." Homoeopathic or imitative (mimetic) magic may be practised by itself, but contagious magic generally involves the application of the imitative principle.

(i) One of the most familiar applications of the former is the belief that an enemy may be destroyed or injured by destroying or injuring an image of him. (ii) Under the head of contagious magic are included such beliefs as that which causes the peasant to anoint the weapon with which he has been injured, which, according to Frazer, is founded on the supposition that the blood on the weapon continues to feel with the blood in the body. (iii) Implicitly Frazer seems to distinguish a third kind of magic; " the rain-charm," he says, " operates partly or wholly through the dead. in Halmahera there is a practice of throwing stones on a grave, in order that the ghost may fall into a passion and avenge the disturbance, as he imagines, by sending heavy rain." Here there is no assumption of an invariable course of nature set in motion by magical rites; save that it is coercive and not propitiatory, the practice does not differ from ordinary religious rites.

In his theory of the origin of magic Frazer follows the associationist school. But, as R. R. Marett has pointed out in a criticism of the associationist position, it is proved beyond question that even in the individual mind association by similarity, contiguity or contrast, is but the passive condition, the important element being interest and attention. Frazer assumes that magic has everywhere preceded religion: man tried to control nature by using what he conceived to be immutable laws; failing in this he carne to believe in the existence of higher powers whom he could propitiate but not coerce; with this transformation religion appeared on the scene; the priest supplanted the magician, at least in part, and the first blows were struck in the perennial warfare of magic and religion. Frazer recognizes, however, that magical and religious rites are at the present day, and have been in historical times, frequently intermingled; it should be noted that for him religion means propitiation and that he does not recognize the existence of anything beyond magic among the aborigines of Australia. His theory is based on a selection of facts, and not on the whole body of beliefs and rites recognized as magical, among which are many wherein spirits figure. Frazer's position appears to be that such rites are relatively late and may be neglected in framing a definition of magic. It may be perfectly true that the idea of magic has been progressively extended; but belief in transformation is also for Dr Frazer magical; this belief is certainly primitive; yet sympathy will not explain it, as it should if Frazer's theory is correct.

c. L. Marillier distinguished three classes of magic: (i) the magic of the word or act; (ii) the magic of the human being, independent of rite or formula, &c.; (iii) the magic which demands at once a human being of special powers (or in a special state) and the use of certain forms. (i) Under the first head he included such rites as mimetic dances, rain-making, disease-making, and sympathetic magic generally. Some of these rites are conceived to affect the course of nature directly, as by influencing winds or the sun, others do so through the intermediary of a god or spirit, who controls the course of nature, and is himself coerced by man with magical acts and incantations. (ii) Other rites cannot be performed by all and sundry: ceremonial purity, initiation or other conditions may be needed to make the charm effective. (iii) Individuals are found who are invested with magical power (mana), whose will rules the universe, whose simple words bring rain or sunshine, and whose presence gives fertility to the fields. Sometimes this power is an attribute of the individual, sometimes it is bound up with the office which he fills. In many cases the magical powers of both men and other objects, animate and inanimate, are put down to the fact that a god resides in them.

d. Hubert and Mauss have made the most complete and systematic study of magic which has yet appeared. They hold that, implicitly at any rate, magic is everywhere distinguished from other systems of social facts; in order to be magical an act or belief must be common to the whole of a society; the acts which the whole of a group does not regard as efficacious are not, for this school of thought, magical: consequently the practices of gamesters, &c., do not come under the head of magic. Magic is essentially traditional; a distinguishing characteristic of primitive thought is that the individual mind is markedly unoriginal; and this feature is as prominent, if not more so, in magic as in technology or any other important element in human life. The correspondence between magic and technology can be traced far; for the gestures of the craftsman are as strictly prescribed as the ritual acts of the magician or priest: but in magic the results of the gestures are not of the same order as the results of the craftsman's movements, and herein lies the distinction between magic and technic. The distinction between magic and religion is to be sought not in the sympathetic character of the former, nor in any supposed necessary sequence of cause and effect, nor yet in its maleficent character. Religion is prescribed, official, an organized cult. Magic is prohibited, secret; at most it is permitted, without being prescribed. Three important laws may be traced in the machinery of magical operations - magical power flows along channels determined by the contiguity, similarity or contrast of the object of the act and the object to be affected; but these laws do not suffice to explain magic: equally insufficient are the demonological theory and the theory of properties inherent in the objects used in magical operations. The underlying idea of magic is dynamical; to this power may be given the name of mana (see below), of which sanctity is a special development. This mana operates in a milieu different from the ordinary material world; distance is no obstacle to contact; wishes are immediately realized; but law reigns in the milieu in question, necessary relations are conceived as existing. The notion of time as it is found in the world of magic is even more alien from European ideas; the notion of sanctity enters into it, but time in magic and religion is qualitative rather than quantitative. The homogeneity of periods of time not depending on their duration, conventional numbers are employed; successive periods of time apparently equal are not so for the primitive consciousness; and both in magic and religion periods are homogeneous by reason of occupying the same position in the calendar.

e. For A. Lehmann magic is the practice of superstitions, and his explanation of magic is purely psychological. Relying mainly on modern spiritualism for his examples, he traces magic back to illusions, prejudices and false precepts due to strained attention. This is ultimately also the view of Hubert and Mauss, who hold that " at the root of magic are states of consciousness which generate illusions; and that these states are not individual but collective and arise from the amalgamation of the ideas of a given person with those current in the society of which he forms a part." The reunion of a group supplies a soil in which illusions flourish readily, and it is important to note that in magic and religion attention is above all necessary for the success of a rite, witness the frequent rule imposing silence; but this concentration of attention is precisely calculated to favour illusions; it is indeed the ordinary condition of successful hypnotism; even in civilized countries collective hallucinations without verbal suggestion are not unknown.

f. R. R. Marett regards religion and magic as two forms of a social phenomenon originally one and indivisible; primitive man had an institution which dealt with the supernatural, and in this institution were the germs of both magic and religion, which were gradually differentiated; magic and religion differ in respectability; religion is always the higher, the accepted cult; but between what is definitely religious and what is definitely magical lies a mass of indeterminate elements, such as " white-magic," which do not attain to the public recognition of religion, nor suffer the condemnation meted out to the indisputably magical. For primitive man the abnormal was the supernormal, and the supernormal was the supernatural, the object of fear; this is especially evident when we consider the case of taboo; it may be regarded as a public scare for which no particular individual is responsible, which becomes traditional along fairly constant lines, growing as it goes. Mana was attributed to taboo objects, among which were men in any way abnormal, whether as geniuses or idiots; and such men were expected to exercise their powers for the good of society; hence came into existence the professional medicine man; man originally argued from cause to effect and not vice versa. Priest and magician were originally one; but the former, learning humility in the face of might greater than his own, discarded the spell for the prayer and prostrated himself before a higher power.

Definition of Magic

To arrive at a definition of magic we may either follow the a priori road mapped out by Frazer and decline to recognize the distinction actually drawn by various societies between magical and religious practices; or we may ask what magic and corresponding terms actually connote. Frazer's method ignores the fact that magic, like religion, is an institution, i.e. a product of society, not of any single individual; there is no more reason to suppose that a child reared in isolation would develop any kind of magical practices than that it would invent for itself a religion; but if this is the case, the associationist account of magic cannot be true. It is therefore by an analysis of actually existing practices that we must define and limit the term magic. There is, however, a serious difficulty in the way of determining the attitude of non-European peoples towards religio-magical practices; general terms are things of slow growth; it is therefore prima facie improbable that peoples in the lower stages of culture will have anything corresponding to our terms " religion " and " magic "; moreover, if we are right in assuming the fundamental unity of the two, it is by no means certain that they have even the consciousness of any distinction. Even when this consciousness is present, it by no means follows that the whole of the field is mapped out according to our categories; there will be a large indeterminate area which is neither magical nor religious. This suggests that the consciousness of the educated Occidental, for which the spheres of magic and religion in civilized society are sharply defined and contrasted, should be the ultimate arbiter; but here again we are confronted by a difficulty, for, to the educated man, the characteristic of magic is its unreality, and this does not help us to distinguish primitive magic and religion.

We must, it appears, determine the relation of magic to religion by an analysis of the conceptions of those who believe in both; but in so doing we must consider that, like all other institutions, magic has a history. Even if we go back to the 16th century and take the view of magic then held by the average European, it is still a complex idea. When we ask what the most primitive races now on the earth regard as magic, we are applying to their ideas a touchstone made for a very different age and culture; as well might we ask what their theory of knowledge is. If, however, we reverse the process and ask what elements of primitive institutions correspond most nearly to later conceptions of magic, we can at once say that the forbidden and private arts are the prototypes of the magic of later times. Magic is therefore the practice of maleficent arts which involve the use of religio-magical power, with perhaps a secondary idea of the use of private arts, which are to benefit, not the community as a whole, but a single individual. Religion in the lower stages of culture is essentially the tribal creed which all practise and in which all believe; if therefore an individual has a cult of his own, even if otherwise indistinguishable from a public cult, it is for this very reason on a lower plane, and probably corresponds in a degree to what is later regarded as magic. But our information as to the attitude of the uncivilized towards magico-religious rites in general is seldom sufficiently clear; our terminology is influenced by the prepossession of alien observers whose accounts cannot be assumed to correspond to the native view of the case.

Magico-religious Force

The mere fact that we cannot draw an exact line between magic and religion suggests that they may have some fundamental feature in common. Both terms have greatly changed their connotation in the course of their existence; religio seems to have meant originally Karab&aµos (magical spell), and Pliny says that µary€ia is a deceptive art compounded of medicine, religion and astrology. Among the Greeks, on the other hand, µay€ia occupied a respectable position. More important is the fact that taboo (q.v.) is both religious and magical. There is a universal tendency to regard as magical the religions of alien races, as well as national religions which have been superseded; Leland tells us that witchcraft in Italy is known as la vecchia religione. An examination of the ideas of primitive peoples shows that there is a widely found notion of a power which manifests itself both in religion and magic. Observers have often been content to describe ceremonies without attempting to penetrate to the fundamental ideas which underlie them; this is particularly the case with magic, and only recently have anthropologists realized that in many primitive societies exists a fairly well-defined idea of magico-religious power, to which the generic name of mana, from the Melanesian word, has been given.

a. Mana in Melanesia is a force, a being, an action, a quality, or a state; it is transmissible and contagious, and is hence associated with taboo; it may be regarded as material and seen in the form of flames or heard; it is the power which is inherent in certain spirits, among which are included such of the dead as are denominated tindalos; it may also be a force inherent in some inanimate object, such as a stone which causes the yams to grow, but it is a spiritual force and does not act mechanically; it is the power of the magician and of the rite; the magic formula is itself mana. There seem to be a variety of manas, but probably the underlying idea is essentially one, though it does not follow that the Melanesians have arrived at the consciousness of this unity. Hubert and Mauss go even further and regard all force as mana; it is a quality added to objects without prejudice to their other qualities, one which supplements without destroying their mechanical action.

b. Similar ideas are found in other areas. (i) The continental Malays have a word Kramtit (hrm), which means sacred or magical; in Indo-China the Bahnars use the word deng; in Madagascar hasina seems to embody in part the same notion. (ii) In Africa the idea is less apparent; perhaps the ngai of the Tanganika tribes comes nearest to the notion of mana; on the Congo nkici has a similar but more restricted sense. (iii) In Australia there are two, or perhaps three, kinds of magical power distinguished by the aborigines; all over the continent we find the maleficent power, boolya in West Australia, arungquiltha in the central tribes, koochie in New South Wales; the central tribes have certain objects termed churinga, to which magical power (which we may term churinga) is attributed; the power of magicians is held to reside in certain stones, called atnongara, and in this we must, provisionally at any rate, see a third kind of magical power: churinga is beneficent and seems to originate with the mythical ancestors, whereas arungquiltha is of immediate origin, created by means of incantations or acquired by contact with certain objects; the power of the magicians seems to proceed from the ancestors in like manner. (iv) In America these ideas are widely found; the orenda of the Hurons has been elaborately described by J. N. B. Hewitt; everything in nature, and particularly all animate objects, have their orenda; so have gods and spirits; and natural phenomena are the product of the orenda of their spirits. Orenda is distinct from the things to which it is attached; the cry of birds, the rustle of the trees, the soughing of the wind, are expressions of their orenda; the voice of the magician is orenda, so are the prayer and the spell, and in fact all rites; orenda is above all the power of the medicine man. Among the Algonquins we find the word manitu, among the Sioux wakanda, mahowa, &c., among the Shoshones pokunt; all of which seem to carry, at least in part, the same signification. In Central America, according to Hubert and Mauss, naual or nagual is the corresponding term. (v) Traces of similar ideas may be found in more advanced nations; the Hindu brahman is identified by Hubert and Mauss as the correlative of mana; in Greece 4uves is possibly the echo of a similar idea; but we are yet far from having adequately fathomed the dynamical theories of pre-scientific days.

Origin of Magic

The associationist theory of magic sets out with the assumption that primitive man began with general conceptions; he started with certain means at his disposal - the law of sympathy - by which he could, in his own belief, influence the outer world. But it is more probable that he argued from concrete instances and arrived little by little at abstract ideas of magical power.

a. Death and disease are universally regarded by uncivilized people as due to so-called " magic," i.e. to non-natural causes. Primitive man was familiar with the wounds and bruises caused by physical means; he would naturally attribute any pain not so caused to the operation of analogous but invisible weapons, and eventually attempt to discover how he himself could apply on his own behalf the forces thus used against him. Similarly he may have asked himself to what causes were to be attributed the superiority of one man over another; he may have decided the problem by referring it to the superior power of the one, and then inquired in what way this power could in individual instances be increased. In fact we may say generally that man probably explained the already existing and happening by reference to the supernormal, and then endeavoured to guide the supernormal for his own benefit, direct or indirect.

b. Ritual, however (the primitive magico-religious plasm), is negative as well as positive. The corpse is uncanny, and man's dread of the corpse may well have been an early development; this dread, become traditional, with accretions of various sorts, crystallized into taboo, the magico-religious prohibition. The notion of the uncanny, once arrived at, may have been exploited positively; psychical abnormalities are present among savage races in very different degrees; but if they were developed at an early stage in human history they doubtless suggested the possibility that man might exploit them for the collective advantage. But it by no means follows that beneficent rites were originally regarded as magical; and it should be noted that the initiator of the so-called magician in Australia is often the god of the tribe or nation. The limits of magic or its correlatives in the lower stages of culture are thus far undecided.

c. Magic as it represents itself to the Occidental mind of the present day, and perhaps to the great part of the inhabitants of the world.

seems to be a thing of gradual growth. (i) In the earlier stages there was probably no animistic feature about magic; it was essentially " the prohibited." (ii) Then with the rise of animistic beliefs and practices came the association of the magician with demons - the spirits of the dead, or of animals, or unattached spirits - upon whose co-operation the powers of the magician are often now held to depend. These spirits were not in the position of gods; such recognition, worship, or cult as they received was often not a social institution, but the work of individuals, liable to fall into desuetude at the death of the individual, if not earlier. (iii) Again, the magical tends to be the less important and eventually the less respectable; therefore ancient cults which are conquered, like the religion of Rome by Christianity, come to be reckoned as within the sphere of magic and witchcraft. (iv) All non-animistic practices tend to become ipso facto magical; many ritual prohibitions fall under the head of negative magic. Religion is predominantly animistic, and with the rise of gods magic and religion become antagonistic. Thus rites of a neutral character, such as leechcraft, and perhaps agricultural ceremonies which are not absorbed by religion, tend to acquire the reputation of being magical, as also do all amulets and talismans, and, in fact, everything not directly associated with religion. We therefore arrive at a period when magic is distinguished as white, i.e. the laudable, or at least permitted form, and black, i.e. the prohibited form.

Magic and Demonology

Primitive psychology tends to anthropomorphize and personify; it is in many of its stages inclined to an animistic philosophy. To this is due in part the difficulty of distinguishing magic from religion. In many rites there is no obvious indication that a spirit or personal being is concerned. A portion of the ceremonies in which the spirits of the dead are concerned falls under the head of religion (see Ancestor Worship), but in the very name " necromancy " (vEKpos, corpse) lies an implication of magic; and dealings with the departed are viewed in this light in many parts of the world, sometimes concurrently with a cult of ancestors. Side by side with the human souls we find demons (see Demonology); but on the whole only a small proportion of the world of spirits is recognized as powerful in magic; others, such as diseasespirits, are objects, not sources, of magical influence. Magic is sometimes made to depend upon the activity of demons and spirits, and it is true that the magician usually if not invariably has a spirit helper, often an animal; but there is no evidence that magical power had ever been confined to those who are thus aided. It is not easy to define the relation of fetishism to magic.

Magic and Science

It is a commonplace that the sciences have developed from non-scientific beginnings; the root of astronomy is to be sought in astrology (q.v.), of chemistry in alchemy, of leechcraft in the practices of the savage magician, who depends for much of his success on suggestion, conscious or unconscious, but also relies on a pharmacopeia of no mean extent. The dynamical theory of magic and religion brings primitive man from one point of view far nearer to the modern man of science than was previously suspected, we may fairly say that the Australians have an idea not unlike that of the transformation and conservation of energy, that this energy they store in accumulators, transmit by means of conductors, and so on. The discovery of these complicated ideas only serves to show how far the present-day peoples in the lower stages of culture have travelled from the primitive man who knew neither magic nor religion. But it is perhaps less in respect of abstract ideas than by its concrete investigations into properties, experiment and otherwise that magic has been the forerunner of science.

Magic and Divination

Magic is an attempt to influence the course of events, divination (q.v.) to foresee them; but divination is frequently regarded as magical. It is certain that a large part of divination is religious, and the knowledge is explained as a message from the gods; but necromancy, the practice of discovering the future by consulting the dead, is in many respects essentially magical. Perhaps the magical character of divination may be in part explained, when we regard it as a group of practices in many varieties of which animism plays no part; for non-animistic ceremonies tend to be regarded as magical (cf. rain-making). Thus, heteroscopic divination seems to involve the idea of what may be termed a return current of magico religious force; the event is not influenced, but itself determines the issue of the diviner's experiment.

II. - Laws And Ritual Of Magic The practice of magic involves the belief in the operation of certain laws, and demands certain conditions. The number of positive rites is not unlimited; a certain rite tends to become stable and is finally used for all sorts of purposes; and each magician tends to specialize in this respect. Just as there are well-marked schools of magic, and the rain-maker is not the same as the fetish-man, so within the school there are various groups, differentiated not by the purposes at which they aim nor by the powers they claim to possess, but by the ceremonies which they practise. Chief among the laws lying at the base of magical practice is that of sympathy.


That the law of sympathy is an essential element of magic is admitted equally by the associationist school and by its critics. Under the head of sympathy are embraced the laws of contiguity or contagion, of similarity or homoeopathy, and of contrariety or antipathy.

a. In its simplest form the law of contiguity asserts that whatever has once formed part of a body continues to form part of it or to represent it for magical purposes; thus, by obtaining possession of the parings of a person's nails, or the clippings of his hair, and by working magic upon them, it is held to be possible to produce on the actual human body the effects which are in reality produced on the object of the magical rite. As is clear by;the well-known case of the " life index," the current of magical power may pass in either direction; if the life of a man is supposed to be bound up with the life of a tree, so that any injury to the tree reacts on the man, it is equally believed that the death of the man will not fail to be manifest by the state of the tree. In particular this sympathetic relation is predicated of wizards or witches and their animal familiars; it is then known by the name of " repercussion." It is not only upon parts of the body that contagious magic can be worked; anything which has been in contact with the body, such as clothes, anything which has been in part assimilated by the body, such as the remains of food, and even representations of the body or of parts of it such as footprints, &c., may be used as objects of magical rites, in order to transmit to the human being some influence, maleficent or otherwise. The contact demanded may be actual, or mediate, for in Australia it suffices to connect the magician and his patient by a thread in order that the disease may be removed. (i) The use of clothes for magical purposes gives us perhaps the clue to the widespread custom of " rag - trees "; in nearly every part of the world it is the practice to suspend wool or rags to trees associated with some spirit, or, in Christian countries, with some saint, in order to reap a benefit; similarly nails are driven into trees or images; pins are dropped into wells, stones are cast upon cairns, and missiles aimed at various holy objects; but it cannot be assumed that the same explanation lies at the root of the whole group of practices. (ii) This law may perhaps be taken as the explanation of the " couvade "; in many parts of the world relatives, and in particular the father of a new-born child, are compelled to practise various abstinences, in order that the health of the child may not be affected, membership of the same family therefore establishes a sympathetic relation. (iii) In this direct transference of qualities ifexemplified another magical process, which may also be referred to the operation of the law of sympathy; it is a world-wide belief that the assimilation of food involves the transference to the eater of the qualities, or of some of them, inherent in the source of the food; a South African warrior, for example, may not eat hedgehog, because the animal is held to be cowardly and the eater would himself become a coward; on the other hand, the flesh of lions is fit meat for brave men, because they at the same time transfer its courage to themselves.

b. The law of homoeopathy takes two forms. (i) The magician. may proceed on the assumption that like produces like; he may, for example, take an image of wax or wood, and subject it to heat or other influences under the belief that it represents the human being against whom his malefice is directed, and that without any contact, real or pretended; so that any results produced on the image, which may be replaced by an animal or a portion of one, are equally produced in the human being. There need not even be any resemblance between the representation and the person or thing represented; a pot may serve to represent a village; hence step by step we pass from the representation to the symbol. (ii) The law of homoeopathy also manifests itself in the formula similia similibus curantur; the Brahman in India treated dropsy with ablutions, not in order to add to, but to subtract from, the quantity of liquid in the patient's body. So, too, the yellow turmeric was held to be a specific for jaundice.

c. Here we approach the third class of sympathetic rites; it is clear that a remedy produces the contrary, when it cures the like; conversely, like by producing like expels its contrary.

Some statements of the law of sympathy suggest that it is absolute in its application. It is true that the current of magical power is sometimes held to be transmitted along lines indicated by the law of sympathy, without the intervention of any volition, human or otherwise; thus, the crow which carries stray hairs away to weave them into the structure of its nest is nowhere supposed to be engaged in a magical process; but it is commonly held that the person whose hair is thus used will suffer from headache or other maladies; this seems to indicate that the law of sympathy operates mechanically in certain directions, though the belief may also be explained as a secondary growth. In general the operation of these laws is limited in the extreme. For example, the medieval doctrine known as the Law of Signatures asserted that the effects of remedies were correlated to their external qualities; bear's grease is good for baldness, because the bear is a hairy animal. But the transference was held to terminate with the acquisition by the man of this single quality; in some magical books powdered mummy is recommended as a means of prolonging life, but it is simply the age of the remedy which is to benefit the patient; the magician who removes a patient's pains or diseases does not transfer them to himself; the child whose parents eat forbidden foods is held to be affected by their transgression, while they themselves come off unharmed. The magical effects are limited by exclusive attention and abstraction; and this is true not only of the kind of effect produced but also as to the direction in which it is held to be produced.

The Magic of Names

For primitive peoples the name is as much a part of the person as a limb; consequently the magical use of names is in some of its aspects assimilable to the processes dependent on the law of sympathy. In some cases the name must be withheld from any one who is likely to make a wrong use of it, and in some parts of the world people have secret names which are never used. Elsewhere the name must not be told by the bearer of it, but any other person may communicate it without giving an opening for the magical use of it. Not only human beings but also spirits can be coerced by the use of their names; hence the names of the dead are forbidden, lest the mention of them act as an evocation, unintentional though it be. Even among more advanced nations it has been the practice to conceal the real name of supreme gods; we may probably explain this as due to the fear that an enemy might by the use of them turn the gods away from those to whom they originally belonged. For the same reason ancient Rome had a secret name.

Magical Rites

The magic of names leads us up to the magic of the spoken word in general. The spell or incantation and the magical act together make up the rite. (a) The manual acts are very frequently symbolic or sympathetic in their nature; sometimes they are mere reversals of a religious rite; such is the marching against the sun (known as widdershins or deisul); sometimes they are purificatory; and magic has its sacrifices just as much as religion. (b) There are many types of oral rites; some of the most curious consist in simply reciting the effect intended to be produced, describing the manual act, or, especially in Europe, telling a mythical narrative in which Christ or the apostles figure, and in which they are represented as producing a similar effect to the one desired; in other cases the " origin " of the disease or maleficent being is recited. Oral rites, which are termed spells or incantations, correspond in many cases to the oral rites of religion; they, like the manual rites, are a heterogeneous mass and hardly lend themselves to classification. Some formulae may be termed sympathetic; it suffices to name the result to be produced in order to produce it; but often an incantation is employed, not to produce a result directly, but to coerce a god or other being and compel him to fulfil the magician's will. The language of the incantations often differs from that of daily life; it may be a survival of archaic forms or may be a special creation for magical purposes. In many languages the word used to express the idea of magic means an act, a deed; and it may be assumed that few if any magical ceremonies consist of formulae only; on the other hand, it is certain that no manual act in magic stands absolutely alone without oral rite; if there is no spoken formula, there is at least an unspoken thought. It is in many cases difficult to discover the relative proportions and importance of manual and oral acts. Not only the words but also the tone are of importance in magic; in fact, the tone may be the more important. Rhythm and repetition are no less necessary in oral than in manual acts. (c) As preliminaries, more seldom as necessary sequels to the central feature of the rite, manual or oral, we usually find a certain number of accessory observances prescribed, which find their parallel in the sacrificial ritual. For example, it is laid down at what time of year, at what period of the month or week, at what hour of the day a rite must be performed; the waxing or waning of the moon must be noted; and certain days must be avoided altogether. Similarly, certain places may be prescribed for the performance of the ritual; often the altar of the god serves magical purposes also; but elsewhere it is precisely the impure sites which are devoted to magical operations - the cemeteries and the cross roads. The instruments of magic are in like manner often the remains of a sacrifice, or otherwise consecrated by religion; sometimes, especially when they belong to the animal or vegetable world, they must be sought at certain seasons, May Day, St George's Day, Midsummer Day, &c. The magician and his client must undergo rites of preparation, and the exit may be marked by similar ceremonies.


Most peoples know the professional worker of magic, or what is regarded as magic. (a) In most if not all societies magic, or certain sorts of it, may be performed by any one, so far as we can see, who has mastered the necessary ritual; in other cases the magician is a specialist who owes his position to an accident of birth (seventh son of a seventh son); to simple inheritance (families of magicians in modern India, rain-makers in New Caledonia); to revelation from the gods or the spirits of the dead (Malays), showing itself in the phenomena of possession; or to initiation by other magicians. (b) From a psychical point of view it may probably be said that the initiation of a magician corresponds to the " development " of the modern spiritualistic medium; that is to say, that it resolves itself into exercises and rites which have for their object the creation or evolution of a secondary personality. From this point of view it is important to notice that certain things are forbidden to magicians under pain of loss of their powers; thus, hot tea is taboo to the Arunta medicine man; and if this seems unlikely to cause the secondary personality to disappear, it must be remembered that to the physiological effects, if any, must be added the effects of suggestion. Of this duplication of personality various explanations are given; in Siberia the soul of the shaman is said to wander into the other world, and this is a widely spread theory; where the magician is supposed to remain on earth, his soul is again believed to wander, but there is an alternative explanation which gives him two or more bodies. Here we reach a point at which the familiar makes its appearance; this is at times a secondary form of the magician, but more often is a sort of life index or animal helper (see Lycanthropy); in fact, the magician's power is sometimes held to depend on the presence - that is, the independence - of his animal auxiliary. Concurrent with this theory is the view that the magician must first enter into a trance before the animal makes its appearance, and this makes it a double of the magician, or, from the psychological point of view, a phase of secondary personality. (c) In many parts of the world magical powers are associated with the membership of secret societies, and elsewhere the magicians form a sort of corporation; in Siberia, for example, they are held to be united by a certain tie of kinship; where this is not the case, they are believed, as in Africa at the present day or in medieval Europe, to hold assemblies, so-called witches Sabbaths; in Europe the meetings of heretics seem to be responsible for the prominence of the idea if not for its origin (see Witchcraft). The magician is often regarded as possessed (see Possession) either by an animal or by a human or super-human spirit. The relations of priest and magician are for various reasons complex; where the initiation of the magician is regarded as the work of the gods, the magician is for obvious reasons likely to develop into a priest, but he may at the same time remain a magician; where a religion has been superseded, the priests of the old cult are, for those who supersede them, one and all magicians; in the medieval church, priests were regarded as especially exposed to the assaults of demons, and were consequently often charged with working magic. The great magicians who are gods rather than men - e.g. kings of Fire and Water in Cambodia - enjoy a reverence and receive a cult which separates them from the common herd, and assimilates them to priests rather than to magicians. The function of the so-called magician is often said to be beneficent; in Africa the witch-doctor's business is to counteract evil magic; in Australia the magician has to protect his own tribe against the assaults of hostile magicians of other tribes; and in Europe " white magic " is the correlative of this beneficent power; but it may be questioned how far the beneficent virtue is regarded as magical outside Europe.

Talismans and Amulets. - Inanimate objects as well as living beings are credited with stores of magical force; when they are regarded as bringing good, i.e. are positive in their action, they may be termed " talismans "; " amulets " are protective or negative in their action, and their function is to avert evil; a single object may serve both purposes. Broadly speaking, the fetish, whose " magical " properties are due to association with a spirit, tends to become a talisman or amulet. The " medicine " of the Red Indian, originally carried as means of union between him and his manito, is perhaps the prototype of many European charms. In other cases it is some specific quality of the object or animal which is desired; the boar's tusk is worn on the Papuan Gulf as a means of imparting courage to the wearer; the Lukungen Indians of Vancouver Island rub the ashes of wasps on the faces of their warriors, in order that they may be pugnacious. Some Bechuanas wear a ferret as a charm, in the belief that it will make them difficult to kill, the animal being very tenacious of life. Among amulets may be mentioned horns and crescents, eyes or their representations, and grotesque figures, all of which are supposed to be powerful against the Evil Eye.

Tylor has shown that the brass objects so often seen on harness were originally amuletic in purpose, and can be traced back to Roman times. Some amulets are supposed to protect from the evil eye simply by attracting the glance from the wearer to themselves, but, as a rule, magical power is ascribed to them.

Evil Magic

The object of " black " magic is to inflict injury, disease, or death on an enemy, and the various methods employed illustrate the general principles dealt with above and emphasize the conclusion that magic is not simply a matter of sympathetic rites, but involves a conception of magical force. (a) It has been mentioned that contagious magic makes use of portions of a person's body; the Cherokee magician follows his victim till he spits on the ground; collecting the spittle mingled with dust on the end of a stick, the magician puts it into a tube made of a poisonous plant together with seven earth worms, beaten into a paste, and splinters of a tree blasted by lightning; the whole is buried with seven yellow stones at the foot of a tree struck by lightning, and a fire is built over the spot; the magician fasts till the ceremony is over. Probably the worms are supposed to feed on the victim's soul, which is said to become " blue " when the charm works; the yellow stones are the emblem of trouble, and lightning-struck trees are reputed powerful in magic. If the charm does not work, the victim survives the critical seven days, and the magician and his employer are themselves in danger, for a charm gone wrong returns upon the head of him who sent it forth. (b) In homoeopathic magic the victim is represented by an image or other object. In the Malay Peninsula the magician makes an image like a corpse, a footstep long. " If you want to cause sickness, you pierce the eye and blindness results; or you pierce the waist and the stomach gets sick. If you want to cause death, you transfix the head with a palm twig; then you enshroud the image as you would a corpse and you pray over it as if you were praying over the dead; then you bury it in the middle of the path which leads to the place of the person whom you wish to charm, so that he may step over it." Sometimes the wizard repeats a form of words signifying that not he but the Archangel Gabriel is burying the victim; sometimes he exclaims, " It is not wax I slay but the liver, heart and spleer y of So-and-so." Finally, the image is buried in front of the victim's doors. (c) Very widespread is the idea that a magician can influence his victim by charming a bone, stick or other object, and then projecting the magical influence from it. It is perhaps the commonest form of evil magic in Australia; in the Arunta tribe a man desirous of using one of these pointing sticks or bones goes away by himself into the bush, puts the bone on the ground and crouches over it, muttering a charm: " May your heart be rent asunder." After a time he brings the irna back to the camp and hides it; then one evening after dark he takes it and creeps near enough to see the features of his victim; he stoops down with the irna in his hand and repeatedly jerks it over his shoulder, muttering curses all the time. The evil magic, arungquiltha., is said to go straight to the victim, who sickens and dies without apparent cause, unless some medicine-man can discover what is wrong and save him by removing the evil magic. The irna is concealed after the ceremony, for the magician would at once be killed if it were known that he had used it. (d) Magicians are often said to be able to assume animal form or to have an animal familiar. They are said to suck the victim's blood or send a messenger to do so; sometimes they are said to steal his soul, thus causing sickness and eventually death. These beliefs bring the magician into close relation with the werwolf (see Lycanthropy).


In the lower stages of culture rain-making assumes rather the appearance of a religious ceremony, and even in higher stages the magical character is by no means invariably felt. It will, however, be well to notice some of the methods here. (a) Among the Dieri of Central Australia the whole tribe takes part in the ceremony; a hole is dug, and over this a hut is built, large enough for the old men; the women are called to look at it and then retire some five hundred yards. Two wizards have their arms bound at the shoulder, the old men huddle in the hut, and the principal wizard bleeds the two men selected by cutting them inside the arm below the elbow. The blood is made to flow on the old men, and the two men throw handfuls of down into the air. The blood symbolizes the rain; the down is the clouds. Then two large stones are placed in the middle of the but; these two represent gathering clouds. The women are again summoned, and then the stones are placed high in a tree; other men pound gypsum and throw it into a water-hole; the ancestral spirits are supposed to see this and to send rain. Then the hut is knocked down, the men butting at it with their heads; this symbolizes the breaking of the clouds, and the fall of the hut is the rain. If no rain comes they say that another tribe has stopped their power or that the Mura-n.ura (ancestors) are angry with them. (b) Rain-making ceremonies are far from uncommon in Europe. Sometimes water is poured on a stone; a row of stepping-stones runs into one of the tarns on Snowdon, and it is said that water thrown upon the last one will cause rain to fall before night. Sometimes the images of saints are carried to a river or a fountain and ducked or sprinkled with water in the belief that rain will follow; sometimes rain is said to ensue when the water of certain springs is troubled; perhaps the idea is that the rain-god is disturbed in his haunts. But perhaps the commonest method is to duck or drench a human figure or puppet, who represents in many instances the vegetation demon. The gipsies of Transylvania celebrate the festival of " Green George at Easter or on St George's Day; a boy dressed up in leaves and blossoms is the principal figure; he throws grass to the cattle of the tribe, and after various other ceremonies a pretence is made of throwing him into the water; but in fact only a puppet is ducked in the stream.

Negative Magic

There is also a negative side to magic, which, together with ritual prohibitions of a religious nature, is often embraced under the name of taboo (q.v.); this extension of meaning is not justified, for taboo is only concerned with sacred things, and the mark of it is that its violation causes the taboo to be transmitted. All taboos are ritual prohibitions, but all ritual prohibitions are not taboos; they include also (a) interdictions of which the sanction is the wrath of a god; these may be termed religious interdictions; (b) interdictions, the violation of which will automatically cause some undesired magico-religious effect; to these the term negative magic should be restricted, and they might conveniently be called " bans "; they correspond in the main to positive rites and are largely based on the same principles.

(a) Certain prohibitions, such as those imposed on totem kins, seem to occupy an intermediate place; they depend on the sanctity of the totem animal without being taboos in the strict sense; to them no positive magical rites correspond, for the totemic prohibition is clearly religious, not magical.

(b) Among cases of negative magic may be mentioned (i.) the couvade, and prohibitions observed by parents and relatives generally; this is most common in the case of young children, but a sympathetic relation is held to exist in other cases also. In Madagascar a son may not eat fallen bananas, for the result would be to cause the death of his own father; the sympathy between father and son establishes a sympathy between the father and objects touched or eaten by the son, and, in addition, the fall of the bananas is equated with the death of a human being. Again, the wife of a Malagasy warrior may not be faithless to him when he is absent; if she is, he will be killed or wounded. Ownership, too, may create a sympathetic relation of this kind, for it is believed in parts of Europe that if a man kills a swallow his cows will give bloody milk. In some cases it is even harder tb see how the sympathetic bond is established; some Indians of Brazil always hamstring animals before bringing them home, in the belief that by so doing they make it easier for themselves and their children to run down their enemies, who are then magically deprived of the use of their legs. These are all examples of negative magic with regard to persons, but things may be equally affected; thus in Borneo men who search for camphor abstain from washing their plates for fear the camphor, which is found crystallized in the crevices of trees, should dissolve and disappear. (ii.) Rules which regulate diet exist not only for the benefit of others but also for that of the eater. Some animals, such as the hare, are forbidden, just as others, like the lion, are prescribed; the one produces cowardice, while the other makes a man's heart bold. (iii.) Words may not be used; Scottish fishermen will not mention the pig at sea; the real names of certain animals, like the bear, may not be used; the names of the dead may not be mentioned; a sacred language must be used, e.g. camphor language in the Malay peninsula, or only words of good omen (cf. Gr. 607 7 ,u€ITE); or absolute silence must be preserved. Personal names are concealed; a man may not mention the names of certain relatives, &c. There are customs of avoidance not only as to (iv.) the names of relatives, but as to the persons themselves; the mother-in-law must avoid the son-in-law, and vice versa; sometimes they may converse at a distance, or in low tones, sometimes not at all, and sometimes they may not even meet. (v.) In addition to these few classes selected at random, we have prohibitions relating to numbers (cf. unlucky thirteen, which is, however, of recent date), the calendar (Friday as an unlucky day, May as an unlucky month for marriage), places, persons, orientation, &c; but it is impossible to enumerate even the main classes. The individual origin of such beliefs, which with us form the superstitions of daily life but in a savage or semi-civilized community play a large part in regulating conduct, is often shrouded in darkness; the meaning of the positive rite is easily forgotten; the negative rite persists, but it is observed merely to avoid some unknown misfortune. Sometimes we can, however, guess at the meaning of our civilized notions of ill luck; it is perhaps as a survival of the savage belief that stepping over a person is injurious to him that many people regard going under a ladder as unlucky; in the one case the luck is taken away by the person stepping over, in the other left behind by the person passing under.

History of Magic

The subject is too vast and our data are too slight to make a general sketch of magic possible. Our knowledge of Assyrian magic, for example, hardly extends beyond the rites of exorcism; the magic of Africa is most inadequately known, and only in recent years have we well-analysed repertories of magical rituals from any part of the world. For certain departments of ancient magic, however, like the Pythagorean philosophy, there is no lack of illustrative material; it depended on mystical speculations based on numbers or analogous principles. The importance of numbers is recognized in the magic of America and other areas, but the science of the Mediterranean area, combined with the art of writing, was needed to develop such mystical ideas to their full extent. Among the neo-Platonists there was a strong tendency to magical speculation, and they sought to impress into their service the demons with which they peopled the universe. Alexandria was the home of many systems of theurgic magic, and gnostic gems afford evidence of the nature of their symbols. In the middle ages the respectable branches of magic, such as astrology and alchemy, included much of the real science of the period; the rise of Christianity introduced a new element, for the Church regarded all the religions of the heathen as dealings with demons and therefore magical (see Witchcraft). In our own day the occult sciences still find devotees among the educated; certain elements have acquired a new interest, in so far as they are the subject matter of psychical research and spiritualism (q.v.). But it is only among what are regarded as the lower classes, and in England especially the rural population, that belief in its efficacy still prevails to any large extent.

Psychology of Magic

The same causes which. operated to produce a belief in witchcraft (q.v.) aided the creed of magic in general. Fortuitous coincidences attract attention; the failures are disregarded or explained away. Probably the magician is never wholly an impostor, and frequently has a whole-hearted belief in himself; in this connexion may be noted the fact that juggling tricks have in all ages been passed off as magical; the name of " conjuring " (q.v.) survives in our own day, though the conjurer no longer claims that his mysterious results are produced by demons. It is interesting to note that magical leechcraft depended for its success on the power of suggestion (q.v.), which is to-day a recognized element in medicine; perhaps other elements may have been instrumental in producing a cure, for there are cases on record in which European patients have been cured by the apparently meaningless pe,Xformances of medicine-men, but an adequate study of savage medicine is still a desideratum.

Bibliography. - For a general discussion of magic with a list of selected works see Hubert and Mauss in Annee sociologique, vii. 1-146; also A. Lehmann, Aberglaube and Zauberei; the article " Religion " in La Grande encyclopedie; K. T. Preuss in Globus, vols. 86, 87; Mauss, L'Origine des pouvoirs magiques, and Hubert, La Representation du temps (Reports of Ecole pratique des hautes etudes, Paris). For general bibliographies see Hauck, Realencyklopadie, s.v. " Magie "; A. C. Haddon, Magic and Fetishism. J. G. T. Graesse's Bibliotheca magica is an exhaustive list of early works dealing with magic and superstition. For Australia see Spencer and Gillen's works, and A. W. Howitt, Native Tribes. For America see Reports of Bureau of Ethnology, vii. xvii. For India see W. Caland, Altindisches Zauber-ritual; and W. Crooke, Popular Religion; also V. Henry, La Magie. For the Malays see W. W. Skeat, Malay Magic. For Babylonia and Assyria see L. W. King's works. For magic in Greece and Rome see Daremberg and Saglio, s.v. " Magia," " Amuletum," &c. For medieval magic see A. Maury, La Magie. For illustrations of magic see J. G. Frazer, The Golden Bough; E. S. Hartland, Legend of Perseus; E. B. Tylor, Primitive Culture; W. G. Black, Folkmedicine. For negative magic see the works of Frazer and Skeat cited above; also Journ. Anthrop. Inst. xxxvi. 92-103; Zeitschrift fir Ethnologie (Verhandlungen) (1905), 153-162; Bulletin trimestriel de l'academie inalgache, iii. 105-159. See also bibliography to Taboo and Witchcraft.

(N. W. T.)

Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Magic'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​bri/​m/magic.html. 1910.
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