Magic (supernatural)

Magic is a category in Western culture into which have been placed various beliefs and practices considered separate from both religion and science. Historically, the term often had pejorative connotations, with things labelled magical perceived as being primitive, foreign, and Other. The concept has been adopted by scholars in the study of religion and the social sciences, who have proposed various different—and often mutually exclusive—definitions of the term; much contemporary scholarship regards the concept to be so problematic that it is better to reject it altogether as a useful analytic construct.

The term magic derives from the Old Persian magu, a word that applied to a form of religious functionary about which little is known. During the late sixth and early fifth centuries BCE, this term was adopted into Ancient Greek, where it was used with negative connotations, to apply to religious rites that were regarded as fraudulent, unconventional, and dangerous. This meaning of the term was then adopted by Latin in the first century BCE. Via Latin, the concept was incorporated into Christian theology during the first century CE, where magic was associated with demons and thus defined against (Christian) religion. This concept was pervasive throughout the Middle Ages, when Christian authors categorised a diverse range of practices—such as enchantment, witchcraft, incantations, divination, necromancy, and astrology—under the label magic. In early modern Europe, Italian humanists reinterpreted the term in a positive sense to create the idea of natural magic. Both negative and positive understandings of the term were retained in Western culture over the following centuries, with the former largely influencing early academic usages of the word.

Since the nineteenth century, academics in various disciplines have employed the term magic but have defined it in different ways and used it in reference to different things. One approach, associated with the anthropologists Edward Tylor and James G. Frazer, uses the term to describe beliefs in hidden sympathies between objects that allow one to influence the other. Defined in this way, magic is portrayed as the opposite to science. An alternative approach, associated with the sociologists Marcel Mauss and Émile Durkheim, employs the term to describe private rites and ceremonies and contrasts it with religion, which it defines as a communal and organised activity. Many scholars of religion have rejected the utility of the term magic, arguing that it is arbitrary and ethnocentric; it has become increasingly unpopular within scholarship since the 1990s.

Throughout Western history, there have been examples of individuals who engaged in practices that their societies called magic and who sometimes referred to themselves as magicians. Within modern occultism, there are many self-described magicians and people who practice ritual activities that they term magic. In this environment, the concept of magic has again changed, usually being defined as a technique for bringing about changes in the physical world through the force of one’s will. This definition was pioneered largely by the influential British occultist Aleister Crowley.

Candle Illuminated Light Altar Pagan Wiccan Magic


Definition and Etymology

Main article: Magic and religion
See also: New religious movements

The Magician (I), an illustration from the Rider-Waite tarot deck first published in 1910.

The Magician displaying the Hermetic concept of “as above, so below”.

The historian Owen Davies stated that the word magic was “beyond simple definition”. Similarly, the historian Michael D. Bailey characterised magic as “a deeply contested category and a very fraught label”; as a category, he noted, it was “profoundly unstable” given that definitions of the term have “varied dramatically across time and between cultures”. Scholars have engaged in extensive debates as to how to define magic, with such debates resulting in intense dispute. Throughout such debates, the scholarly community has failed to agree on a definition of magic, in a similar manner to how they have failed to agree on a definition of religion. Even among those throughout history who have described themselves as magicians, there has been no common understanding of what magic is.

“Magic has often been dismissed as either primitive and irrational and therefore alien to modern society, as inherently opposed to the Judeo-Christian traditions of the West, or as incompatible with religion in general. These antipathetic sentiments are deeply embedded in Western culture, and the term magic has typically been used to describe non-mainstream beliefs and practices — non-Christians, heretics, non-Westerners, indigenous, ancient or ‘primitive’ cultures — any that might be considered ‘Other.’ The image of magic as inherently linked with the Other has functioned as an important factor in the construction of the self-identity of Western culture, for by defining magic as something alien, exotic, primitive, evil, deviant or even ridiculous, our society also makes a tacit statement as to its self-perceptions.”

– Historian of religion Henrik Bogdan

Concepts of magic generally serve to sharply demarcate certain practices from other, otherwise similar practices in a given society. According to Bailey: “In many cultures and across various historical periods, categories of magic often define and maintain the limits of socially and culturally acceptable actions in respect to numinous or occult entities or forces. Even more basically they serve to delineate arenas of appropriate belief.” In this, he noted that “drawing these distinctions is an exercise in power”. Similarly, the scholar of religion Randall Styers noted that attempting to define magic represents “an act of demarcation” by which it is juxtaposed against “other social practices and modes of knowledge” such as “religion” and “science”. Within Western culture, the term “magic” has been linked to ideas of the Other, foreignness, and primitivism. In Styers’ words, it has become “a powerful marker of cultural difference”. It has also been repeatedly presented as the archetypally non-modern phenomenon. Among Western intellectuals in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, magic was seen as a defining feature of “primitive” mentalities and was commonly attributed to marginal groups, locations, and periods.

The concept and term “magic” developed in European society and thus using it when discussing non-Western cultures or pre-modern forms of Western society raises problems, as it may impose Western categories that are alien to them. While “magic” remains an emic term in the history of Western societies, it remains an etic term when applied to non-Western societies. During the twentieth century, many scholars focusing on Asian and African societies rejected the term “magic”, as well as related concepts like “witchcraft”, in favour of the more precise terms and concepts that existed within these specific societies. A similar approach has been taken by many scholars studying pre-modern societies in Europe, such as Classical antiquity, who find the modern concept of ‘magic’ inappropriate and favour more specific terms originating within the framework of the ancient cultures which they are studying. Alternately, this term implies that all categories of magic are ethnocentric and that such Western preconceptions are an unavoidable component of scholarly research.

Many scholars have argued that the use of the term as an analytical tool within academic scholarship should be rejected altogether. The scholar of religion Jonathan Z. Smith for example argued that it had no utility as an etic term that scholars should use. The historian of religion Wouter Hanegraaff agreed, stating that “the term magic is an important object of historical research, but not intended for doing research.” Bailey noted that, as of the early 21st century, few scholars sought grand definitions of magic but instead focused their attentions on “careful attention to particular contexts”, examining what a term like magic meant to a given society; this approach, he noted, “call[ed] into question the legitimacy of magic as a universal category”. The scholars of religion Berndt-Christian Otto and Michael Stausberg suggested that it would be perfectly possible for scholars to talk about amulets, curses, healing procedures, and other cultural practices often regarded as magical in Western culture without any recourse to the concept of magic itself. The idea that “magic” should be rejected as an analytic term developed in anthropology, before moving into Classical studies and Biblical studies in the 1980s. Since the 1990s, the term’s usage among scholars of religion has declined.

White, Gray and Black Magic

Main articles: White magicGray Magic, and Black magic

White magic has traditionally been understood as the use of magic for selfless or helpful purposes, while black magic was used for selfish, harmful or evil purposes. With respect to the left-hand path and right-hand path dichotomy, black magic is the malicious, left hand counterpart of the benevolent white magic. There is no consensus as to what constitutes White, Gray or Black magic, as Phil Hine says, “like many other aspects of occultism, what is termed to be “black magic” depends very much on who is doing the defining.” Gray magic, also called neutral magic, is magic that is not performed for specifically beneficial reasons, but is also not focused towards completely hostile practices.

High and Low Magic

Historians and anthropologists have distinguished between practitioners who engage in high magic, and those who engage in low magic. In this framework, high magic is seen as more complex, involving lengthy and detailed ceremonies as well as sophisticated, sometimes expensive, paraphernalia. Low magic is associated with peasants and folklore and with simpler rituals such as brief, spoken charms. Greenwood writes that “Since the Renaissance, high magic has been concerned with drawing down forces and energies from heaven” and achieving unity with divinity. High magic is usually performed indoors while witchcraft is often performed outdoors.

History and Conceptual development


See also: Mesopotamian divinationEnmerkar and En-suhgir-anaMaqlû, and Zisurrû

Magic was invoked in many kind of rituals and medical recipes, and with the goal of counteracting evil omens. Defensive or legitimate magic in Mesopotamia (asiputu or masmassutu in the Akkadian language) were incantations and ritual practices intended to alter specific realities. The ancient Mesopotamians believed that magic was the only viable defense against demons, ghosts, and evil sorcerers. To defend themselves against the spirits of those they had wronged, they would leave offerings known as kispu in the person’s tomb in hope of appeasing them. If that failed, they also sometimes took a figurine of the deceased and buried it in the ground, demanding for the gods to eradicate the spirit, or force it to leave the person alone.

The ancient Mesopotamians also used magic with the goal of protecting themselves from evil sorcerers who might place curses on them. Black magic as a category didn’t exist in ancient Mesopotamia, and a person legitimately using magic to defend themselves against illegitimate magic would use exactly the same techniques. The only major difference was the fact that curses were enacted in secret; whereas a defense against sorcery was conducted in the open, in front of an audience if possible. One ritual to punish a sorcerer was known as Maqlû, or “The Burning”. The person viewed as being afflicted by witchcraft would create an effigy of the sorcerer and put it on trial at night. Then, once the nature of the sorcerer’s crimes had been determined, the person would burn the effigy and thereby break the sorcerer’s power over them.

The ancient Mesopotamians also performed magical rituals to purify themselves of sins committed unknowingly. One such ritual was known as the Šurpu, or “Burning”, in which the caster of the spell would transfer the guilt for all their misdeeds onto various objects such as a strip of dates, an onion, and a tuft of wool. The person would then burn the objects and thereby purify themself of all sins that they might have unknowingly committed. A whole genre of love spells existed. Such spells were believed to cause a person to fall in love with another person, restore love which had faded, or cause a male sexual partner to be able to sustain an erection when he had previously been unable. Other spells were used to reconcile a man with his patron deity or to reconcile a wife with a husband who had been neglecting her.

The ancient Mesopotamians had no distinction between rational science and magic. When a person became ill, doctors would proscribe both magical formulas to be recited as well as medicinal treatments. Most magical rituals were intended to be performed by an āšipu, an expert in the magical arts. The profession was generally passed down from generation to generation and was held in extremely high regard and often served as advisors to kings and great leaders. An āšipu probably served not only as a magician, but also as a physician, a priest, a scribe, and a scholar.

The Sumerian god Enki, who was later syncretized with the East Semitic god Ea, was closely associated with magic and incantations; he was the patron god of the bārȗ and the ašipū and was widely regarded as the ultimate source of all arcane knowledge. The ancient Mesopotamians also believed in omens, which could come when solicited or unsolicited. Regardless of how they came, omens were always taken with the utmost seriousness.

Incantation bowls

Main article: Incantation bowl
See also: Jewish magical papyri

Mandaic-language incantation bowl

Mandaic-language incantation bowl

A common set of shared assumptions about the causes of evil and how to avert it are found in a form of early protective magic called incantation bowl or magic bowls. The bowls were produced in the Middle East, particularly in Upper Mesopotamia and Syria, what is now Iraq and Iran, and fairly popular during the sixth to eighth centuries. The bowls were buried face down and were meant to capture demons. They were commonly placed under the threshold, courtyards, in the corner of the homes of the recently deceased and in cemeteries. A subcategory of incantation bowls are those used in Jewish and Christian magical practice. Aramaic incantation bowls are an important source of knowledge about Jewish magical practices.


Magic (personified as the god heka) was an integral part of ancient Egyptian religion and culture which is known to us through a substantial corpus of texts which are products of the Egyptian tradition.

While the category magic has been contentious for modern Egyptology, there is clear support for its applicability from ancient terminology. The Coptic term hik is the descendant of the pharaonic term heka, which, unlike its Coptic counterpart, had no connotation of impiety or illegality, and is attested from the Old Kingdom through to the Roman era. heka was considered morally neutral and was applied to the practices and beliefs of both foreigners and Egyptians alike. The Instructions for Merikare informs us that heka was a beneficence gifted by the creator to humanity “… in order to be weapons to ward off the blow of events”.

Magic was practiced by both the literate priestly hierarchy and by illiterate farmers and herdsmen, and the principle of heka underlay all ritual activity, both in the temples and in private settings.

The main principle of heka is centered on the power of words to bring things into being. Karenga explains the pivotal power of words and their vital ontological role as the primary tool used by the creator to bring the manifest world into being. Because humans were understood to share a divine nature with the gods, snnw ntr (images of the god), the same power to use words creatively that the gods have is shared by humans.

The afterlife and magic

Illustration from The Book of the Dead of Hunefer showing the Opening of the Mouth ceremony being performed before the tomb

Illustration from The Book of the Dead of Hunefer showing the Opening of the Mouth ceremony being performed before the tomb

The interior walls of the pyramid of Unas, the final pharaoh of the Egyptian Fifth Dynasty, are covered in hundreds of magical spells and inscriptions, running from floor to ceiling in vertical columns. These inscriptions are known as the “Pyramid Texts” and they contain spells needed by the pharaoh in order to survive in the Afterlife. The Pyramid Texts were strictly for royalty only; the spells were kept secret from commoners and were written only inside royal tombs. During the chaos and unrest of the First Intermediate Period, however, tomb robbers broke into the pyramids and saw the magical inscriptions. Commoners began learning the spells and, by the beginning of the Middle Kingdom, commoners began inscribing similar writings on the sides of their own coffins, hoping that doing so would ensure their own survival in the afterlife. These writings are known as the “Coffin Texts”.

Eventually, the Coffin Texts became so extensive that they no longer fit on the outside of a coffin. They began to be instead recorded on scrolls of papyrus, which would then be placed inside the coffin with the deceased’s own corpse. The writings on these scrolls were known to the Egyptians as The Book Of Coming Forth By Day, but are now known as The Book of the Dead. There were hundreds of different versions of The Book of the Dead, all of them containing different spells. Egyptologists have identified more than four hundred different spells belonging to The Book of the Dead collectively. Egyptologists have codified and classified these spells, assigning them specific numbers based on their content and purpose.

As books of the dead became more popular, a whole industry of scribes arose for the sole purpose of copying manuscripts so that customers would be able to buy copies of the spells to be buried with them in their tombs. The quality of manuscripts was highly variable. Some editions were ninety feet long and contained beautiful, color illustrations to illuminate the text; others were short with no illustrations whatsoever. The scrolls were copied before they were bought, meaning that the name of the owner was unknown. As such, the scribes would leave the places for the person’s name blank and fill in the person’s name after the scroll was purchased. Sometimes scribes would accidentally misread or miscopy what they were writing. Sometimes the spells would be abbreviated in order to avoid running out of space. Such mistakes could render the texts unintelligible.

After a person died, his or her corpse would be mummified and wrapped in linen bandages in order to ensure that the deceased’s body would survive for as long as possible because the Egyptians believed that a person’s soul could only survive in the afterlife for as long as his or her physical body survived here on earth. The last ceremony before a person’s body was sealed away inside the tomb was known as the “Opening of the Mouth”. In this ritual, the priests would touch various magical instruments to various parts of the deceased’s body, thereby giving the deceased the ability to see, hear, taste, and smell in the afterlife.

Before a dead person was buried their mummified corpse would be protected by magic amulets and protective charms in order to ensure that they would be safe in the next world. The family would also place important grave goods inside the person’s tomb in order to ensure that they had everything they would need in the next life. Among these grave goods were small figurines made of faience or wood known as shabti. The shabti were intended as slaves for the deceased. The ancient Egyptians believed that physical labor was just as necessary in the afterlife as it was in the present one. As such, they believed that the deceased could cast a spell to animate these figurines so that they would be able to order them to perform tasks and chores in the afterlife so that the deceased would not be forced to perform any labor.


The use of amulets, (meket) was widespread among both living and dead ancient Egyptians. They were used for protection and as a means of “…reaffirming the fundamental fairness of the universe”. The oldest amulets found are from the predynastic Badarian Period, and they persisted all the way through to Roman times.

Pregnant women would wear amulets depicting Tauret, the goddess of childbirth, to protect against miscarriage. The god Bes, who had the head of a lion and the body of a dwarf, was believed to be the protector of children. After giving birth, a mother would remove her Tauret amulet and put on a new amulet representing Bes.

Amulets depicted specific symbols, among the most common are the ankh and the Eye of Horus, which represented the new eye given to Horus by the god Thoth as a replacement for his old eye, which had been destroyed during a battle with Horus’s uncle Seth. Amulets were often made to represent gods, animals or hieroglyphs. For example, the common amulet shape the scarab beetle is the emblem of the god Khepri.

The most common material for such amulets was a kind of ceramic known as faience, but amulets were also made of stone, metal, bone, wood and gold. Phylacteries containing texts were another common form of amulet.

Like the Mesopotamians, the ancient Egyptians had no distinction between the categories magic and medicine. Indeed for them “…religion was a potent and legitimate tool fro affecting magical cures”. Each treatment was a complementary combination of practical medicine and magical spells. Magical spells against snakebite are the oldest magical remedies known from Egypt.

The Egyptians believed that diseases stemmed from both supernatural and natural causes  The symptoms of the disease determined which deity the doctor needed to invoke in order to cure it.

Doctors were extremely expensive, so, for most everyday purposes, the average Egyptian would have relied on individuals who were not professional doctors, but who possessed some form of medical training or knowledge. Among these individuals were folk healers and seers, who could set broken bones, aid mothers in giving birth, proscribe herbal remedies for common ailments, and interpret dreams. If a doctor or seer was unavailable, then everyday people would simply cast their spells on their own without assistance. Although most Egyptians were illiterate, it was likely commonplace for individuals to memorize spells and incantations for later use.

The Levant

Halakha (Jewish religious law) forbids divination and other forms of soothsaying, and the Talmud lists many persistent yet condemned divining practices.Practical Kabbalah in historical Judaism, is a branch of the Jewish mystical tradition that concerns the use of magic. It was considered permitted white magic by its practitioners, reserved for the elite, who could separate its spiritual source from Qliphoth realms of evil if performed under circumstances that were holy (Q-D-Š) and pure (טומאה וטהרה, tvmh vthrh). The concern of overstepping Judaism’s strong prohibitions of impure magic ensured it remained a minor tradition in Jewish history. Its teachings include the use of Divine and angelic names for amulets and incantations. These magical practices of Judaic folk religion which became part of practical Kabbalah date from Talmudic times. The Talmud mentions the use of charms for healing, and a wide range of magical cures were sanctioned by rabbis. It was ruled that any practice actually producing a cure was not to be considered superstitious and there has been the widespread practice of medicinal amulets, and folk remedies (segullot) in Jewish societies across time and geography.

Although magic was forbidden by Levitical law in the Hebrew Bible, it was widely practised in the late Second Temple period, and particularly well documented in the period following the destruction of the temple into the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries CE.

Greco-Roman world

Main article: Magic in the Greco-Roman world

The English word magic has its origins in Ancient Greece. During the late sixth and early fifth centuries BCE, the Persian maguš was Graecicized and introduced into the ancient Greek language as μάγος and μαγεία. In doing so it underwent a transformation of meaning, gaining negative connotations, with the magos being regarded as a charlatan whose ritual practices were fraudulent, strange, unconventional, and dangerous. As noted by Davies, for the ancient Greeks—and subsequently for the ancient Romans—”magic was not distinct from religion but rather an unwelcome, improper expression of it—the religion of the other”. The historian Richard Gordon suggested that for the ancient Greeks, being accused of practicing magic was “a form of insult”.

Hecate, the ancient Greek goddess of magic.

Hecate, the ancient Greek goddess of magic.

This change in meaning was influenced by the military conflicts that the Greek city-states were then engaged in against the Persian Empire. In this context, the term makes appearances in such surviving text as Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Hippocrates’ De morbo sacro, and Gorgias’ Encomium of Helen. In Sophocles’ play, for example, the character Oedipus derogatorily refers to the seer Tiresius as a magos—in this context meaning something akin to ‘quack’ or ‘charlatan’—reflecting how this epithet was no longer reserved only for Persians.

In the first century BCE, the Greek concept of the magos was adopted into Latin and used by a number of ancient Roman writers as magus and magia. The earliest known Latin use of the term was in Virgil’s Eclogue, written around 40 BCE, which makes reference to magicis… sacris (magic rites). The Romans already had other terms for the negative use of supernatural powers, such as veneficus and saga. The Roman use of the term was similar to that of the Greeks, but placed greater emphasis on the judicial application of it. Within the Roman Empire, laws would be introduced criminalising things regarded as magic.

In ancient Roman society, magic was associated with societies to the east of the empire; the first century CE writer Pliny the Elder for instance claimed that magic had been created by the Iranian philosopher Zoroaster, and that it had then been brought west into Greece by the magician Osthanes, who accompanied the military campaigns of the Persian King Xerxes.

Ancient Greek scholarship of the 20th century, almost certainly influenced by Christianising preconceptions of the meanings of magic and religion, and the wish to establish Greek culture as the foundation of Western rationality, developed a theory of ancient Greek magic as primitive and insignificant, and thereby essentially separate from Homeric, communal (“polis“) religion. Since the last decade of the century, however, recognising the ubiquity and respectability of acts such as katadesmoi (“binding spells”), described as magic by modern and ancient observers alike, scholars have been compelled to abandon this viewpoint. The Greek word mageuo (“practise magic”) itself derives from the word Magos, originally simply the Greek name for a Persian tribe known for practising religion. Non-civic “mystery cults” have been similarly re-evaluated:

the choices which lay outside the range of cults did not just add additional options to the civic menu, but … sometimes incorporated critiques of the civic cults and Panhellenic myths or were genuine alternatives to them.

— Simon Price, Religions of the Ancient Greeks (1999)

Katadesmoi (Latin: defixiones)), curses inscribed on wax or lead tablets and buried underground, were frequently executed by all strata of Greek society, sometimes to protect the entire polis. Communal curses carried out in public declined after the Greek classical period, but private curses remained common throughout antiquity. They were distinguished as magical by their individualistic, instrumental and sinister qualities. These qualities, and their perceived deviation from inherently mutable cultural constructs of normality, most clearly delineate ancient magic from the religious rituals of which they form a part.

A large number of magical papyri, in Greek, Coptic, and Demotic, have been recovered and translated. They contain early instances of:

  • the use of “magic words” said to have the power to command spirits;
  • the use of mysterious symbols or sigils which are thought to be useful when invoking or evoking spirits.

The practice of magic was banned in the late Roman world, and the Codex Theodosianus (438 AD) states:

If any wizard therefore or person imbued with magical contamination who is called by custom of the people a magician…should be apprehended in my retinue, or in that of the Caesar, he shall not escape punishment and torture by the protection of his rank.

Early Christianity and the Middle Ages

Further information: Medieval European magic

In the first century CE, early Christian authors absorbed the Greco-Roman idea of magic and incorporated it into their developing Christian theology. These Christians retained the Graeco-Roman negative connotations of the term and enhanced them by incorporating conceptual patterns borrowed from Jewish thought. Like earlier Graeco-Roman thinkers, the early Christians attributed the origins of magic to an area to the east of Europe, among the Babylonians, Persians, or Egyptians. The Christians shared with earlier classical culture the idea that magic was something distinct from proper religion, although drew their distinction between the two in different ways.

For early Christian writers like Augustine of Hippo, magic did not merely constitute fraudulent and unsanctioned ritual practices, but was the very opposite of religion because it relied upon cooperation from demons, the henchmen of Satan. In this, Christian ideas of magic were closely linked to the Christian category of paganism, and both magic and paganism were regarded as belonging under the broader category of superstitio (superstition), another term borrowed from pre-Christian Roman culture. This Christian emphasis on the inherent immorality and wrongness of magic as something conflicting with good religion was far starker than the approach in the other large monotheistic religions of the period, Judaism and Islam. For instance, while Christians regarded demons as inherently evil, the jinn—comparable entities in Islamic mythology—were perceived as more ambivalent figures by Muslims.

The model of the magician in Christian thought was provided by Simon Magus, or “Simon the Magician”, a figure who opposed Saint Peter in both the Acts of the Apostles and the apocryphal yet influential Acts of Peter. The historian Michael D. Bailey stated that in medieval Europe, “magic” was a “relatively broad and encompassing category”. Christian theologians believed that there were multiple different forms of magic, the majority of which were types of divination. For instance, Isidore of Seville produced a catalogue of things he regarded as magic in which he listed augury, necromancy, astrology, incantations, horoscopes, amulets, geomancy, hydromancy, aeromancy, pyromancy, enchantment and ligatures. Medieval Europe also saw magic come to be associated with the Old Testament figure of Solomon; various grimoires, or books outlining magical practices, were written that claimed to have been written by Solomon, most notably the Key of Solomon.

In early medieval Europe, magia was a term of condemnation. In medieval Europe, Christians often suspected Muslims and Jews of engaging in magical practices; in certain cases, these perceived magical rites—including the alleged Jewish sacrifice of Christian children—resulted in Christians massacring these religious minorities. Christian groups often also accused other, rival Christian groups—which they regarded as heretical—of engaging in magical activities. Medieval Europe also saw the term maleficium applied to forms of magic that were conducted with the intention of causing harm. The later Middle Ages saw words for these practitioners of harmful magical acts appear in various European languages: sorcière in French, Hexe in German, strega in Italian, and bruja in Spanish. The English term for malevolent practitioners of magic, witch, derived from the earlier Old English term wicce.

Early modern Europe

Further information: Renaissance magic

During the early modern period, the concept of magic underwent a more positive reassessment through the development of the concept of magia naturalis (natural magic). This was a term introduced and developed by two Italian humanists, Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. For them, magia was viewed as an elemental force pervading many natural processes, and thus was fundamentally distinct from the mainstream Christian idea of demonic magic. Their ideas influenced an array of later philosophers and writers, among them Paracelsus, Giordano Bruno, Johannes Reuchlin, and Johannes Trithemius. According to the historian Richard Kieckhefer, the concept of magia naturalis took “firm hold in European culture” during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, attracting the interest of natural philosophers of various theoretical orientations, including Aristotelians, Neoplatonists, and Hermeticists.

Adherents of this position argued that magia could appear in both good and bad forms; in 1625, the French librarian Gabriel Naudé wrote his Apology for all the Wise Men Falsely Suspected of Magic, in which he distinguished “Mosoaicall Magick“—which he claimed came from God and included prophecies, miracles, and speaking in tongues—from “geotick” magic caused by demons. While the proponents of magia naturalis insisted that this did not rely on the actions of demons, critics disagreed, arguing that the demons had simply deceived these magicians. By the seventeenth century the concept of magia naturalis had moved in increasingly ‘naturalistic’ directions, with the distinctions between it and science becoming blurred. The validity of magia naturalisas a concept for understanding the universe then came under increasing criticism during the Age of Enlightenment in the eighteenth century.

Despite the attempt to reclaim the term magia for use in a positive sense, it did not supplant traditional attitudes toward magic in the West, which remained largely negative. At the same time as magia naturalis was attracting interest and was largely tolerated, Europe saw an active persecution of accused witches believed to be guilty of maleficia. Reflecting the term’s continued negative associations, Protestants often sought to denigrate Roman Catholic sacramental and devotional practices as being magical rather than religious. Many Roman Catholics were concerned by this allegation and for several centuries various Roman Catholic writers devoted attention to arguing that their practices were religious rather than magical. At the same time, Protestants often used the accusation of magic against other Protestant groups which they were in contest with. In this way, the concept of magic was used to prescribe what was appropriate as religious belief and practice. Similar claims were also being made in the Islamic world during this period. The Arabian cleric Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab—founder of Wahhabism—for instance condemned a range of customs and practices such as divination and the veneration of spirits as sihr, which he in turn claimed was a form of shirk, the sin of idolatry.

Colonialism and academia

In the sixteenth century, European societies began to conquer and colonise other continents around the world, and as they did so they applied European concepts of “magic” and “witchcraft” to practices found among the peoples whom they encountered. Usually, these European colonialists regarded the natives as primitives and savages whose belief systems were diabolical and needed to be eradicated and replaced by Christianity. Because Europeans typically viewed these non-European peoples as being morally and intellectually inferior to themselves, it was expected that such societies would be more prone to practicing magic. Women who practiced traditional rites were labelled “witches” by the Europeans.

In various cases, these imported European concepts and terms underwent new transformations as they merged with indigenous concepts. In West Africa, for instance, Portuguese travellers introduced their term and concept of the feitiçaria (often translated as sorcery) and the feitiço (spell) to the native population, where it was transformed into the concept of the fetish. When later Europeans encountered these West African societies, they wrongly believed that the fetiche was an indigenous African term rather than the result of earlier inter-continental encounters. Sometimes, colonised populations themselves adopted these European concepts for their own purposes. In the early nineteenth century, the newly independent Haitian government of Jean-Jacques Dessalines began to suppress the practice of Vodou, and in 1835 Haitain law-codes categorised all Vodou practices as sortilège (sorcery/witchcraft), suggesting that it was all conducted with harmful intent, whereas among Vodou practitioners the performance of harmful rites was already given a separate and distinct category, known as maji.

By the nineteenth century, European intellectuals no longer saw the practice of magic through the framework of sin and instead regarded magical practices and beliefs as “an aberrational mode of thought antithetical to the dominant cultural logic – a sign of psychological impairment and marker of racial or cultural inferiority”. As educated elites in Western societies increasingly rejected the efficacy of magical practices, legal systems ceased to threaten practitioners of magical activities with punishment for the crimes of diabolism and witchcraft, and instead threatened them with the accusation that they were defrauding people through promising to provide things which they could not.

This spread of European colonial power across the world influenced how academics would come to frame the concept of magic. In the nineteenth century, a number of scholars adopted the traditional, negative concept of magic. That they chose to do so was not inevitable, for they could have followed the example adopted by prominent esotericists active at the time like Helena Blavatsky who had chosen to use the term and concept of magic in a positive sense. Various writers also used the concept of magic to criticise religion by arguing that the latter still displayed many of the negative traits of the former. An example of this was the American journalist H. L. Mencken in his polemical 1930 work Treatise on the Gods; he sought to critique religion by comparing it to magic, arguing that the division between the two was misplaced.

In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, folklorists examined rural communities across Europe in search of magical practices, which at the time they typically understood as survivals of ancient belief systems. It was only in the 1960s that anthropologists like Jeanne Favret-Saada also began looking in depth at magic in European contexts, having previously focused on examining magic in non-Western contexts.

The scholarly application of magic as a sui generis category that can be applied to any socio-cultural context was linked with the promotion of modernity to both Western and non-Western audiences.

The term magic has become pervasive in the popular imagination and idiom. In contemporary contexts, the word magic is sometimes used to “describe a type of excitement, of wonder, or sudden delight”, and in such a context can be “a term of high praise”. Despite its historical contrast against science, scientists have also adopted the term in application to various concepts, such as magic acid, magic bullets, and magic angles.

Modern Western occultism

LaVey's understanding of magic was influenced by the British occultist Aleister Crowley

Aleister Crowley was not a Satanist, but used rhetoric and imagery considered satanic.

Modern Western magic has challenged widely-held preconceptions about contemporary religion and spirituality. The polemical discourses about magic influenced the self-understanding of modern magicians, a number of whom—such as Aleister Crowley and Julius Evola—were well versed in academic literature on the subject. According to scholar of religion Henrik Bogdan, “arguably the best known emic definition” of the term “magic” was provided by Crowley. Crowley—who favoured the spelling “magick” over “magic” to distinguish it from stage illusionism—was of the view that “Magick is the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will”. Crowley’s definition influenced that of subsequent magicians. Dion Fortune of the Fraternity of the Inner Light for instance stated that “Magic is the art of changing consciousness according to Will”. Gerald Gardner, the founder of Gardnerian Wicca, stated that magic was “attempting to cause the physically unusual”, while Anton LaVey, the founder of LaVeyan Satanism, described magic as “the change in situations or events in accordance with one’s will, which would, using normally acceptable methods, be unchangeable.”

The chaos magic movement emerged during the late 20th century, as an attempt to strip away the symbolic, ritualistic, theological or otherwise ornamental aspects of other occult traditions and distill magic down to a set of basic techniques.

These modern Western concepts of magic rely on a belief in correspondences connected to an unknown occult force that permeates the universe. As noted by Hanegraaff, this operated according to “a new meaning of magic, which could not possibly have existed in earlier periods, precisely because it is elaborated in reaction to the “disenchantment of the world”.” For many, and perhaps most, modern Western magicians, the goal of magic is deemed to be personal spiritual development. The perception of magic as a form of self-development is central to the way that magical practices have been adopted into forms of modern Paganism and the New Age phenomenon. One significant development within modern Western magical practices has been sex magic. This was a practice promoted in the writings of Paschal Beverly Randolph and subsequently exerted a strong interest on occultist magicians like Crowley and Theodor Reuss.

The adoption of the term “magic” by modern occultists can in some instances be a deliberate attempt to champion those areas of Western society which have traditionally been marginalised as a means of subverting dominant systems of power. The influential American Wiccan and author Starhawk for instance stated that “Magic is another word that makes people uneasy, so I use it deliberately, because the words we are comfortable with, the words that sound acceptable, rational, scientific, and intellectually correct, are comfortable precisely because they are the language of estrangement.”

Academic definitions

Modern scholarship has produced various definitions and theories of magic. According to Bailey, “these have typically framed magic in relation to, or more frequently in distinction from, religion and science.” Since the emergence of the study of religion and the social sciences, magic has been a “central theme in the theoretical literature” produced by scholars operating in these academic disciplines. Magic is one of the most heavily theorized concepts in the study of religion, and also played a key role in early theorising within anthropology. Styers believed that it held such a strong appeal for social theorists because it provides “such a rich site for articulating and contesting the nature and boundaries of modernity”. Scholars have commonly used it as a foil for the concept of religion, regarding magic as the “illegitimate (and effeminized) sibling” of religion. Alternately, others have used it as a middle-ground category located between religion and science.

The context in which scholars framed their discussions of magic was informed by the spread of European colonial power across the world in the modern period. These repeated attempts to define magic resonated with broader social concerns, and the pliability of the concept has allowed it to be “readily adaptable as a polemical and ideological tool”. The links that intellectuals made between magic and “primitives” helped to legitimise European and Euro-American imperialism and colonialism, as these Western colonialists expressed the view that those who believed in and practiced magic were unfit to govern themselves and should be governed by those who, rather than believing in magic, believed in science and/or (Christian) religion. In Bailey’s words, “the association of certain peoples [whether non-Europeans or poor, rural Europeans] with magic served to distance and differentiate them from those who ruled over them, and in large part to justify that rule.”

Many different definitions of magic have been offered by scholars, although — according to Hanegraaff — these can be understood as variations of a small number of heavily influential theories.

Intellectualist approach

The intellectualist approach to defining magic is associated with two prominent British anthropologists, Edward Tylor and James G. Frazer. This approach viewed magic as the theoretical opposite of science, and came to preoccupy much anthropological thought on the subject. This approach was situated within the evolutionary models which underpinned thinking in the social sciences during the early 19th century. The first social scientist to present magic as something that predated religion in an evolutionary development was Herbert Spencer; in his A System of Synthetic Philosophy, he used the term magic in reference to sympathetic magic. Spencer regarded both magic and religion as being rooted in false speculation about the nature of objects and their relationship to other things.

Tylor’s understanding of magic was linked to his concept of animism. In his 1871 book Primitive Culture, Tylor characterized magic as beliefs based on “the error of mistaking ideal analogy for real analogy”. In Tylor’s view, “primitive man, having come to associate in thought those things which he found by experience to be connected in fact, proceeded erroneously to invert this action, and to conclude that association in thought must involve similar connection in reality. He thus attempted to discover, to foretell, and to cause events by means of processes which we can now see to have only an ideal significance”. Tylor was dismissive of magic, describing it as “one of the most pernicious delusions that ever vexed mankind”. Tylor’s views proved highly influential, and helped to establish magic as a major topic of anthropological research.

Tylor’s ideas were adopted and simplified by James Frazer. He used the term “magic” to mean sympathetic magic, describing it as a practice relying on the magician’s belief “that things act on each other at a distance through a secret sympathy”, something which he described as “an invisible ether”. He further divided this magic into two forms, the “homeopathic (imitative, mimetic)” and the “contagious”. The former was the idea that “like produces like”, or that the similarity between two objects could result in one influencing the other. The latter was based on the idea that contact between two objects allowed the two to continue to influence one another at a distance. Like Taylor, Frazer viewed magic negatively, describing it as “the bastard sister of science”, arising from “one great disastrous fallacy”.

Where Frazer differed from Tylor was in characterizing a belief in magic as a major stage in humanity’s cultural development, describing it as part of a tripartite division in which “magic” came first, “religion” came second, and eventually “science” came third. For Frazer, all early societies started as believers in magic, with some of them moving away from this and into religion. He believed that both magic and religion involved a belief in spirits but that they differed in the way that they responded to these spirits. For Frazer, magic “constrains or coerces” these spirits while religion focuses on “conciliating or propitiating them”. He acknowledged that their common ground resulted in a cross-over of magical and religious elements in various instances; for instance he claimed that the sacred marriage was a fertility ritual which combined elements from both world-views.

Some scholars retained the evolutionary framework used by Frazer but changed the order of its stages; the German ethnologist Wilhelm Schmidt argued that religion—by which he meant monotheism—was the first stage of human belief, which later degenerated into both magic and polytheism. Others rejected the evolutionary framework entirely. Frazer’s notion that magic had given way to religion as part of an evolutionary framework was later deconstructed by the folklorist and anthropologist Andrew Lang in his essay “Magic and Religion”; Lang did so by highlighting how Frazer’s framework relied upon misrepresenting ethnographic accounts of beliefs and practiced among indigenous Australians to fit his concept of magic.

Functionalist approach

The functionalist approach to defining magic is associated with the French sociologists Marcel Mauss and Emile Durkheim. In this approach, magic is understood as being the theoretical opposite of religion.

Mauss set forth his conception of “magic” in a 1902 essay, “A General Theory of Magic“. Mauss used the term magic in reference to “any rite that is not part of an organized cult: a rite that is private, secret, mysterious, and ultimately tending towards one that is forbidden”. Conversely, he associated religion with organised cult. By saying that magic was inherently non-social, Mauss had been influenced by the traditional Christian understandings of the concept. Mauss deliberately rejected the intellectualist approach promoted by Frazer, believing that it was inappropriate to restrict the term magic to sympathetic magic, as Frazer had done. He expressed the view that “there are not only magical rites which are not sympathetic, but neither is sympathy a prerogative of magic, since there are sympathetic practices in religion”.

Mauss’ ideas were adopted by Durkheim in his 1912 book The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Durkheim was of the view that both magic and religion pertained to “sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden”. Where he saw them as being different was in their social organisation. Durkheim used magic to describe things that were inherently anti-social, existing in contrast to what he referred to as a “Church,” the religious beliefs shared by a social group; in his words, “There is no Church of magic.” Durkheim expressed the view that “there is something inherently anti-religious about the maneuvers of the magician”, and that a belief in magic “does not result in binding together those who adhere to it, nor in uniting them into a group leading a common life.” Durkheim’s definition encounters problems in situations—such as the rites performed by Wiccans—in which acts carried out communally have been regarded, either by practitioners or observers, as being magical.

Scholars have criticized the idea that magic and religion can be differentiated into two distinct, separate categories. The social anthropologist Alfred Radcliffe-Brown suggested that “a simple dichotomy between magic and religion” was unhelpful and thus both should be subsumed under the broader category of ritual. Many later anthropologists followed his example. Nevertheless, this distinction is still often made by scholars discussing this topic.

Emotionalist approach

Further information: Magical thinking and Psychological theories of magic

The emotionalist approach to magic is associated with the English anthropologist Robert Ranulph Marett, the Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud, and the Polish anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski.

Marett viewed magic as a response to stress. In a 1904 article, he argued that magic was a cathartic or stimulating practice designed to relieve feelings of tension. As his thought developed, he increasingly rejected the idea of a division between magic and religion and began to use the term “magico-religious” to describe the early development of both. Malinowski understood magic in a similar manner to Marett, tackling the issue in a 1925 article. He rejected Frazer’s evolutionary hypothesis that magic was followed by religion and then science as a series of distinct stages in societal development, arguing that all three were present in each society. In his view, both magic and religion “arise and function in situations of emotional stress” although whereas religion is primarily expressive, magical is primarily practical. He therefore defined magic as “a practical art consisting of acts which are only means to a definite end expected to follow later on”. For Malinowski, magical acts were to be carried out for a specific end, whereas religious. ones were ends in themselves. He for instance believed that fertility rituals were magical because they were carried out with the intention of meeting a specific need. As part of his functionalist approach, Malinowski saw magic not as irrational but as something that served a useful function, being sensible within the given social and environmental context.

Freud also saw magic as emerging from human emotion but interpreted it very differently to Marett. Freud explains that “the associated theory of magic merely explains the paths along which magic proceeds; it does not explain its true essence, namely the misunderstanding which leads it to replace the laws of nature by psychological ones”. Freud emphasizes that what led primitive men to come up with magic is the power of wishes: “His wishes are accompanied by a motor impulse, the will, which is later destined to alter the whole face of the earth in order to satisfy his wishes. This motor impulse is at first employed to give a representation of the satisfying situation in such a way that it becomes possible to experience the satisfaction by means of what might be described as motor hallucinations. This kind of representation of a satisfied wish is quite comparable to children’s play, which succeeds their earlier purely sensory technique of satisfaction. […] As time goes on, the psychological accent shifts from the motives for the magical act on to the measures by which it is carried out—that is, on to the act itself. […] It thus comes to appear as though it is the magical act itself which, owing to its similarity with the desired result, alone determines the occurrence of that result.”

In the early 1960s, the anthropologists Murray and Rosalie Wax put forward the argument that scholars should look at the “magical worldview” of a given society on its own terms rather than trying to rationalize it in terms of Western ideas about scientific knowledge. Their ideas were heavily criticised by other anthropologists, who argued that they had set up a false dichotomy between non-magical Western worldview and magical non-Western worldviews. The concept of the “magical worldview” nevertheless gained widespread use in history, folkloristics, philosophy, cultural theory, and psychology.

According to Stanley Tambiah, magic, science, and religion all have their own “quality of rationality”, and have been influenced by politics and ideology. As opposed to religion, Tambiah suggests that mankind has a much more personal control over events. Science, according to Tambiah, is “a system of behavior by which man acquires mastery of the environment.”


Many of the practices which have been labelled magic can be performed by anyone. For instance, some charms can be recited by individuals with no specialist knowledge nor any claim to have having a specific power. Others require specialised training in order to perform them. Some of the individuals who performed magical acts on a more than occasional basis came to be identified as magicians, or with related concepts like sorcerers/sorceresses, witches, or cunning folk. Identities as a magician can stem from an individual’s own claims about themselves, or it can be a label placed upon them by others. In the latter case, an individual could embrace such a label, or they could reject it, sometimes vehemently.

There can be economic incentives that encouraged individuals to identify as magicians. In the cases of various forms of traditional healer, as well as the later stage magicians or illusionists, the label of magician could become a job description. Others claim such an identity out of a genuinely held belief that they have specific unusual powers or talents.

Some historians have drawn a differentiation between those practitioners who engage in high magic, and those who engage in low magic. In this framework, high magic is seen as more complex, involving lengthy and detailed ceremonies as well as sophisticated, sometimes expensive, paraphernalia. Low magic is associated with simpler rituals such as brief, spoken charms.

In some cultures, terms such as sorcerersorceresswizardwitch, etc. are applied to specific types of magicians based on their gender, abilities, sources of power, moral standing within the community, etc.

A variety of personal traits may be credited with giving magical power, and frequently they are associated with an unusual birth into the world.

However, the most common method of identifying, differentiating, and establishing magical practitioners from common people is by initiation. By means of rites the magician’s relationship to the supernatural and his entry into a closed professional class is established (often through rituals that simulate death and rebirth into a new life). Mauss argues that the powers of both specialist and common magicians are determined by culturally accepted standards of the sources and the breadth of magic: a magician cannot simply invent or claim new magic. In practice, the magician is only as powerful as his peers believe him to be.

Throughout recorded history, magicians have often faced scepticism regarding their purported powers and abilities. For instance, in sixteenth-century England, the writer Reginald Scot wrote The Discoverie of Witchcraft, in which he argued that many of those accused of witchcraft or otherwise claiming magical capabilities were fooling people using illusionism.

Suspicions and accusations of witchcraft

See also: Witchcraft and Maleficium (sorcery)

Those regarded as being magicians have often faced suspicion from other members of their society. This is particularly the case if these perceived magicians have been associated with social groups already considered morally suspect in a particular society, such as foreigners, women, or the lower classes. In contrast to these negative associations, many practitioners of activities that have been labelled magical have emphasised that their actions are benevolent and beneficial. This conflicted with the common Christian view that all activities categorised as being forms of magic were intrinsically bad regardless of the intent of the magician, because all magical actions relied on the aid of demons. There could be conflicting attitudes regarding the practices of a magician; in European history, authorities often believed that cunning folk and traditional healers were harmful because their practices were regarded as magical and thus stemming from contact with demons, whereas a local community might value and respect these individuals because their skills and services were deemed beneficial.

In Western societies, the practice of magic, especially when harmful, was usually associated with women. For instance, during the witch trials of the early modern period, around three quarters of those executed as witches were female, to only a quarter who were men. That women were more likely to be accused and convicted of witchcraft in this period might have been because their position was more legally vulnerable, with women having little or no legal standing that was independent of their male relatives. The conceptual link between women and magic in Western culture may be because many of the activities regarded as magical—from rites to encourage fertility to potions to induce abortions—were associated with the female sphere. It might also be connected to the fact that Western cultures regularly portrayed women as being inferior to men on an intellectual, moral, spiritual, and physical level.

See also

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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