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Student ID : 1451

English Composition II

Research Paper

Magic is the art of influencing the course of events or gaining knowledge by supernatural means. Magic is linked to alchemy, occultism, spiritualism, superstition, and witchcraft. The term is derived from the ancient Persian magi, whose priestly occupations included dealing with the occult. The ancient Greeks and Romans also practiced magic. According to anthropologists, magical beliefs and practices exist in most less-sophisticated cultures. Moreover, magical beliefs and practices, such as fortune-telling, communication with the dead, astrology, and belief in lucky numbers and charms, survive even in the most advanced cultures.

Magic in simple societies utilizes nearly all knowledge, including scientific and medical knowledge and practices. The modern sciences trace their origins from practices and beliefs that were originally magical. Thus, medieval alchemy led to the development of modern chemistry and physics, and astrology led to modern astronomy.

Magic is divided into two main categories: white (or good) magic and black (or evil) magic. White magic is used to heal and to counteract the effects of black magic; the latter is invoked to kill or to injure, or for selfish gain. During the Middle Ages black magic consisted of witchcraft, sorcery, and the invocation of demons; white magic consisted of the tolerated forms, such as astrology, hypnosis, and herbalism.

Magic is the art of influencing the course of events or gaining knowledge by supernatural means. Magic is linked to alchemy, occultism, spiritualism, superstition, and witchcraft. The term is derived from the ancient Persian magi, whose priestly occupations included dealing with the occult. The ancient Greeks and Romans also practiced magic. According to anthropologists, magical beliefs and practices exist in most less-sophisticated cultures. Moreover, magical beliefs and practices, such as fortune-telling, communication with the dead, astrology, and belief in lucky numbers and charms, survive even in the most advanced cultures. In the occult, magic comprises a wide range of phenomena, from the elaborate ritual beliefs and practices that are at the core of many religious systems, to acts of conjuring and sleight of hand for entertainment. Used in the former sense magic is a social and cultural phenomenon found in all places and at all periods, with varying degrees of importance.

Magic in one form or other appears to be a part of all known religious systems, at all levels of historical development, although the degree of importance given to it varies considerably. The term has been used loosely by many writers, especially when discussing European magic. Also the ethnographic accounts of small-scale preliterate societies vary in the degree to which they contain detailed descriptions even when magic is important in a particular culture. Thus the analyses of magic in its total cultural setting are remarkably few.

Knowledge of magic in prehistory is limited by lack of reliable data. Many cave paintings and engravings, from all parts of the world, have been claimed to represent figures practicing hunting magic and sorcery, but this is only conjecture. More certain information about magical phenomena is available for the ancient Middle Eastern and Greco-Roman cultures, Christian Europe, and contemporary preliterate societies.

There are many recorded texts of what appear to be magic spells and formulas from ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. Most accounts of these cultures class almost all records of ritual as forms of magic and as examples of magical or mythopoeic ways of thought. This is usually because the writers themselves assumed that these cultures were examples of “prelogical” thought (as compared with the thought of civilized man), and so took any religious record as evidence of this. The pharaohs of Egypt, for example, were what are usually called “divine kings,” and as such were believed to have the power to control nature and fertility. Many writers refer to their powers as magical, but the evidence is rather that they were expressions of royal omnipotence and contingent on their divine status. Examples of true magical spells and formulas are recorded from both Mesopotamia and Egypt. Spells addressed to gods, to fire, to salt, and to grain are recorded from Mesopotamia and Egypt, as are spells uttered by sorcerers and including necromancy or invocation of the spirits of the dead, who were referred to as a last resort against evil magic. Excellent examples of spells are recorded from the earliest times,. They include both magical recipes involving animals and animal substances, and also instructions for the ritual preparations and purification necessary to ensure the efficacy of the spells. In ancient Roman culture much importance was given to sorcery and counter-sorcery. These seem to have been associated with the development of new urban classes whose members had to rely on their own efforts in both material and magical terms to defeat their rivals and attain success. Spells are recorded to ensure victory in love as well as in business, games, and oratory. Along with these are counter-spells to defeat rival sorcerers.

For the European Middle Ages and later periods there is a vast corpus of written records. As is known from recent anthropological and historical work on witchcraft, magic, and religious syncretism, magic is specially prevalent during periods of rapid social change and mobility, when new personal relations and conflicts assume greater importance than the traditional kin and family relations more typical of times of social stability. Europe appears to have been no exception, particularly when the church, struggling to assert or maintain hegemony, leveled accusations of magic against its opponents. There are three main aspects to the history of European magic, much of which is ill-described and almost always without adequate accounts of the full cultural setting. One is that of magic and sorcery in everyday relationships at the community level from the end of the classical world until recently, when beliefs in magic have in general become weakened. In most cases these beliefs were part of the culture of lowly rural people and records are scant. An exception was sorcery used by wealthier and urban people, especially in Italy and Spain from the 14th century onward, a concomitant of increased social mobility and growth of class hierarchies. A second aspect is the better known but frequently misunderstood belief in magic defined by the church as the heretical practice of making pacts with the devil and evil spirits. St. Augustine and other early Christian writers had considered magic to be a relic of paganism and removable by conversion and education. After a papal bull in 1320, magic, regarded as synonymous with witchcraft, came to be defined as heresy, and the Inquisition’s records began to mention the Witches’ Sabbath (midnight assembly in fealty to the devil) and the Black Mass (a travesty of the Christian mass) as forms of magic and witchcraft. They were defined as magic because of the supposed use of material objects, philtres, spells, and poisons. The spells included the perverted use of prayers and the use of sacred writings and objects for diabolical ends. This aspect of European magic has persisted into recent times in the activities of self-styled satanists.

Whereas these forms of magic were regarded as evil and tantamount to heresy, the third aspect has usually been considered as good, or “white,” in intent. This is the use of magic as part of the Hermetic tradition. Followers of this tradition, who often practiced alchemy rather than magic, were sometimes considered to be evil magicians, acquiring their knowledge by a pact with the devil (as in the Faust legends), but most of them were tolerated in society because their practices, however strange, were perceived as being within the main Judaic and Christian Hermetic tradition. When their magical activities proved, or appeared, to be antisocial, the results were more often put down to simple trickery–as in the case of the 18th-century charlatan Alessandro, conte di Cagliostro (Giuseppe Balsamo)–than to supernatural agency.

Most knowledge of magic in its social setting is derived from anthropological accounts of people of the non-Western world who today believe in magic. The importance of firsthand anthropological accounts, even though many anthropologists tend to make use of the ethnocentric distinction between religion and magic, is that they show how the people themselves actually regard magic and what they actually do with it and against it, rather than relying on the records of inquisitors and missionaries whose aim it was to stamp out magic. Detailed descriptions of magic come mostly from accounts of societies in Oceania and Africa; magic is also frequently reported from many Muslim societies where pre-Islamic beliefs still exist, as in Malaysia and Indonesia. A difficulty in this respect is that accounts only rarely distinguish magic from witchcraft and divination, both of which are found in virtually every known Oriental society.

The term magic essentially refers to a ritual performance or activity that is thought to lead to the influencing of human or natural events by an external and impersonal mystical force beyond the ordinary human sphere. The performance involves the use of special objects or the recitation of spells (words with an innate power or essence) or both by the magician. The nature of magic is frequently misunderstood because of uncertainty as to its definition, its relationship to other religious behaviour and institutions, and its social and psychological functions. This uncertainty is largely a consequence of 19th-century views on cultural and historical evolution that set magic apart from other religious phenomena as being especially prevalent in archaic and primitive societies and as merely a form of superstition without cultural or theological significance. This view has led to magic’s being considered as different and distinct from other religious rites and beliefs and the overlooking of its essential similarity and connection with them, since both magical and non-magical rites and beliefs are concerned with the effects on human existence of outside mystical forces. The frequently held view that magical acts lack the intrinsically spiritual nature of religious acts, comprising external manipulation rather than supplication or inner grace, and that they are therefore of a simpler and lower kind in theological terms, has compounded the misunderstanding. The definition given above recognizes a main point of distinction between magic and other religious phenomena, in that the latter are concerned with a direct relationship between men and spiritual forces, whereas magic is regarded as rather an impersonal or technical act in which the personal link is not so important or is absent, even though the ultimate force behind both religious and magical acts is believed to be the same. The distinction made by ?mile Durkheim, a seminal French sociologist of religion, that a religious practitioner has a congregation whereas a magician has a clientele, is also a meaningful one. The difficulty in defining magic and distinguishing it from religion is due largely to Western ethnocentric views. In Judeo-Christian belief it has been distinguished from other religious acts, but this distinction is not always found in other religious systems and in fact would appear to be unusual. Many writers have referred to “magico-religious” phenomena, a convenient blanket term. Magic is often confused with witchcraft, especially in the history of European religions. Modern anthropologists, however, make the useful distinction between magic as the manipulation of an external power by mechanical or behavioral means to affect others, and witchcraft as an inherent personal quality motivated to the same ends. In this classification, the word sorcery is used for magic that aims to harm other people; that is, sorcery is “black” magic, whereas magic used for beneficent ends is “white” magic. This distinction does not always hold for specific societies but is a useful one in analysis. Divination, the skill of understanding mystical agents that affect people and events, should be distinguished from magic in that its purpose is not to influence events but rather to understand them. The ultimate mystical power of diviners, however, may be thought to be the same as that behind the forces of magic. In some societies, magicians act as diviners, but the two skills should be distinguished. Magicians are often confused with priests, shamans, and prophets, mainly because many of these practitioners’ activities include acts that are traditionally defined as “magical”; i.e., while essentially they are regarded as intermediaries between men and gods or spirits, in the sense of acting in a direct personal relationship, some of their acts are also impersonal or “magical.” It is often, perhaps usually, impossible clearly to distinguish between priests and magicians; any distinction lies in the kind of actions they perform in particular situations rather than in any true distinction between the kinds of practitioners themselves.

Magical practices may be grouped under four headings


a)Sympathetic Magic




Sympathetic magic, is based on symbolism and wish fulfilment. Desired effects are accomplished by imitation or by making use of associated objects. Thus, it is thought, one may injure enemies by sticking pins into images of them, by mentioning their names in a spell, or by burning hair or nail parings from their bodies. Similarly, the strength, fleetness, or skill of an animal may be acquired by eating its flesh or by using tools made from its skin, horns, or bones. The practice of cannibalism is based on the belief that by eating the flesh of an enemy one will acquire the qualities of that person.

Divination, pronounced dihv uh NAY shun, is the practice of trying to learn about the unknown by magical or supernatural means OR the acquisition of secret knowledge by sortilege (casting lots), augury (interpreting omens or portents), astrology (interpreting the positions and conjunctions of the stars and planets), and tongues (inspired utterances by people in a state of trance, by oracular priests, or by mediums).

Throughout history people have believed in the powers of divination. In ancient Greece and Rome, prophets known as Oracles foretold events.

The third form of magic is thaumaturgy, or wonder-working, which includes alchemy, witchcraft, and sorcery.

i. Alchemy

ii. Witchcraft

iii. Sorcery.

Alchemy’s an ancient art practised especially in the Middle Ages, devoted chiefly to discovering a substance that would transmute the more common metals into gold or silver and to finding a means of indefinitely prolonging human life. Although its purposes and techniques were dubious and often illusory, alchemy was in many ways the predecessor of modern science, especially the science of chemistry.

The birthplace of alchemy was ancient Egypt, simultaneously, a school of alchemy was developing in China. The writings of some of the early Greek philosophers might be considered to contain the first chemical theories-that all things are composed of air, earth, fire, and water-was influential in alchemy.

Witchcraft, term for the principal means by which humans have been thought to work magic, that is, to bring about practical changes by their own will and employing supernatural means. Witchcraft needs to be distinguished from religion, in which humans are totally dependent upon divine beings to grant their wishes, and sorcery, in which supernatural skills are acquired by a process of study, usually involving books and apprenticeship to a master. Witchcraft was regarded partly as an innate power, and partly as something that was handed on, by a wholly or largely unwritten tradition.

Traditionally, people have treated witchcraft in two very different ways. On the one hand they have resorted to specialists in it for their benefit: to be freed from suffering, to injure enemies, or to obtain what they desire. On the other, they have blamed it for their own misfortunes, and set out to identify and punish the witch responsible for using the power against them.

The fourth form of magic is incantation, or the chanting of spells, verses, or formulas that contain the names of supernatural beings or of people who are to be helped or injured. Magic rituals are generally a combination of these forms.


2)Material Objects or “Medicines”

3)The Rite

4)Condition Of The Performer

There are usually considered to be three main elements in magic: the spell, the rite itself, and the ritual condition of the performer. This was first stated by the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski in his study of the Trobriand Islanders of Melanesia. With the spell may be included the use of material objects or “medicines.”


b)Material Objects or “Medicines”

c)The Rite

d)Condition Of The Performer

The importance of the spell or incantation is now thought to have been somewhat exaggerated by the influence of Malinowski’s work. Among the Trobriand Islanders this aspect is extremely important: using the right words in the right way is regarded as essential to the efficacy of the rite. Among the Maori of New Zealand this element is thought so important that a mistake in the recitation of a spell would lead to the magician’s own death. Frequently spells have an archaic or esoteric vocabulary that adds to the respect in which the rite is held. But in many societies the spell is of minimal importance, the magician using his own words and regarding the content as more significant.

Equally widespread–perhaps more so than the use of spells–is the use of material objects, often known in the literature as “medicines” (hence the popular use of the term medicine man for magician). The nature of the medicines varies greatly. In some cases, medicines intended to cause harm are genuine poisons (some African people place poisons in rivers to stun and catch fish, but regard them as they do any other, less genuinely efficacious medicines). More usually the medicines do not empirically bring about the effect but in some way represent it; for example, it is common practice for a magician to try to harm another person by destroying something from his body (e.g., hair or nail parings), or something that has been in contact with him (e.g., a piece of clothing or other personal possession). Another kind of symbolism is exemplified by the Trobriand use of light vegetable leaves in rites to ensure a canoe’s speed, symbolizing the ease with which it will glide over the water; the Azande of The Sudan place a stone in a tree fork to postpone the setting of the Sun; many Balkan people used to swallow gold to cure jaundice.

The significance of the magical rite itself is often overlooked by those who hold the view that magic is something apart from religion. But it seems universal that magic is practiced only in formal and carefully defined ritual situations. The rite itself may be symbolic, as with the sprinkling of water on the ground to make rain or the destruction of a waxen image to harm a victim.

The ritual nature of magical performances may also be seen in a third element, that of the condition of the performer. Even though regarded as an everyday and “natural” phenomenon, magic is nonetheless considered as potentially dangerous and polluting, as is any sacred or religious object or activity. Both the magician and the rite itself are typically surrounded by the observance of taboos, by the purification of the participants, and so on. The magician may observe restrictions on certain foods or on sexual activity, and he may be regarded as polluting to other people at these times. There are two obvious reasons: failure to observe such precautions nullifies the magic, and taking precautions indicates to the participants and others the importance of the rite itself and the ends desired. The precautions mark off the rite from ordinary and profane activities and invest it with sanctity.

A general point to be made is that the frequent tales of people living in fear of evil magicians and black magic are merely fanciful travelers’ stories. Magic is normally regarded as an everyday aspect of religion used to explain certain kinds of events and to help bring about desired eventualities. Like most religious phenomena, magic may be regarded with some sense of awe and mystery, but this is more often a sign of the importance given to it than of fear or terror. Typically people perform magical acts themselves or they go to a magician, an expert who knows how to observe the necessary ritual precautions and taboos, and who may be a professional consulted for a fee. Depending upon the beliefs of the particular culture, the skill may be transmitted by inheritance or bought from other magicians, or may be invented by the magician for himself. Magicians may be consulted for nefarious purposes, to protect a client from the evil magic of others, or for purely benevolent reasons. It seems universal that magic is morally neutral, although the emphasis in any particular society may be on either its good or its evil use.

In some religions, especially those of small-scale nonliterate societies, magic may be considered as important and even central to religious belief; whereas in others, especially in the main world religions, it may be unimportant, and often regarded as a mere superstition that is not acceptable to official dogma. It has often been maintained that magic is important in societies that possess a particular worldview or cosmology, in which a scientifically or empirically correct cause-effect relationship between human and natural phenomena is seen as a symbolic one. This view, which is associated particularly with the British anthropologist Sir James Frazer (1854-1941), is now viewed as being based on a misunderstanding of patterns of thought in prescientific cultures. It is true that these cultures may lack the scientifically accurate knowledge of Western industrial societies; they may use magical techniques (for example, rainmaking), whereas in an industrial society it is known that such techniques are instrumentally ineffective. But magic is also performed for expressive purposes; i.e., stating and maintaining the formal culture and organization of the society, so that rainmaking magic has also the function of stressing the importance of rain and the farming activities associated with it.

The functions of magic are several, but there are two main aspects i.e.,

1) The Instrumental

2) The Expressive

A basic feature of magical rites and beliefs is that the practitioners believe that these are instrumental; i.e., they are designed to achieve certain ends in nature or in the behaviour of other people. This is usually the aspect most important for the people concerned as well as for past writers on the subject. The symbolic or expressive aspect is always present, however; it is because of its symbolic content that magic may best be understood as a part of a religious system.

Malinowski and his followers have distinguished three main instrumental functions:

a)Productive Magic

b)Protective Magic

c)Destructive Magic

Productive magic is used to ensure a successful outcome to some creative or productive activity in terms of both human labour and natural bounty, such as a good harvest or hunt. Malinowski showed clearly how it may foster confidence where technology is weak or uncertain; his example of the Trobriand Islanders making magic when fishing in the open sea but not doing so when fishing in a calm and protected lagoon makes the point clearly. In addition, productive magic may also assist the efficient organization of labour and give greater incentive to those who feel confident of success.

Protective magic aims to prevent or remove danger, to cure sickness, and to protect an individual or community from the vagaries of nature and the evil acts of others. Again, it may give people confidence to continue their normal activities.

Destructive magic is sorcery, directed specifically to harm other people. The fear of this form of magic may reduce individual initiative since a successful or wealthy person in an egalitarian society may fear the sorcery of the envious. On the other hand, the use of counter-magic against sorcery rids a community of its internal fears and tensions.

The expressive functions of magic are symbolic and usually latent in the sense that the performers may not themselves be immediately aware of them. They have largely to do with the effects of individual acts upon society at large. It is there that the part played by magic in a total system of religion may be seen.

The relationship of magic to other religious activities depends on three main considerations. The first is the nature of the power toward which the rites are directed. The eminent British anthropologist Sir Edward Burnett Tylor and his successors distinguished a personal, conscious, and omnipotent spiritual being as the object of religious ritual; magical performances have no power in themselves but are usually thought by believers to be an expression of an external, impersonal force in nature, for which the Melanesian-Polynesian term mana has typically been used. A second consideration is the participants: the magician and those who go to him. As noted above, Durkheim pointed out that a priest has a congregation whereas the magician has a clientele. A religious ritual has as its principal function (in sociological terms) the maintenance of a sense of cohesion among the members of the church, whereas the magical rite lacks this function. This view has been influential in the past and has by now become part of general anthropological thinking, although some of its details have been rejected by recent researchers.

The third consideration is that of the function of magic and of other religious activities. The magician may see the overt function of his action as instrumental, as geared to a specific end; the external observer may accept this but also see a latent function. Malinowski, for example, maintained that much of Trobriand magic was performed as an extension of human ability, as a power beyond the normal or understood. It had as its most important function the instillation of confidence in situations where human knowledge and competence cease. In addition, the rite helps to throw the importance of a given activity and the cooperation needed for it into relief and thus helps maintain the high social value of cooperation in a small community beset by disruptive jealousies and competition over scarce and difficult resources. A.R. Radcliffe-Brown pointed out in his work on the Andaman Islanders that their magical rites and precautions at childbirth and death may comfort those concerned, although they are also irksome, but that their main function is to highlight the social importance of birth and death and to bring to public notice the changes in patterns of local and kinship organization that follow them. Some of the hypotheses of Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown are today regarded as questionable, but they have influenced subsequent studies in that they were concerned not only with the individual’s belief in magic but also with the function of magic in the total social system.

In brief, it may be said that religious rites are ways of acting out beliefs about the relationships of man to God, man to man, and man to nature. In contrast, magic is a way of achieving certain ends beyond the knowledge and competence of ordinary people, especially in technologically limited societies, and of expressing their desires symbolically. Certain functions are common to both: the provision of explanation for the otherwise inexplicable; a means of coping with the unusual and mysterious; the enhancement of the social values of certain activities and situations and the coordination of socially valuable activities.

The problem of the relationship of magic to technical and scientific knowledge has concerned most writers on the subject. Magical rites have at least superficial similarities to nonmagical technical activities. In each the actor performs an action that he expects will have a certain consequence. The distinction between the two processes made by Tylor and Frazer (see below) was that the magician assumes a direct cause-effect relationship between the action and the subsequent event, whereas in empirical fact the relationship is one of the association of ideas only. Many writers have pointed out that magic is used when technical knowledge is missing or uncertain. This is not to say that magic is a substitute for technical knowledge but that its performance gives confidence to people aware of their technical limitations. The magician does not regard his magic as being the same kind of activity as weeding a field or sharpening a knife; the magical rite is of a different order, dealing with external and mystical forces.

To the scientific mind it is puzzling that people continue to believe in magic when it seems clear that there is empirically no cause-effect relationship between a magical rite and the desired consequence. The main purpose of magic, however, is not so much to achieve a certain technical end as to perform an act that has symbolic or psychological value. It is thus pointless to test it, in the same sense that a Christian does not test the efficacy of prayer. The proble

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