Book Reviews

Miracles and Magic

The desire to know one's fortune seems to be an instinctive human urge.


"We can see no easy origin to magic," Chris Gosden writes in Magic—A History, "because it has always been with us." Every culture that we know of has had magical beliefs and practices. Sometimes, as with divination or astrology, those practices aim to reveal hidden truths; sometimes, as with spells and curses, they aim to shape the world.

Gosden is an archaeologist, so his book takes us back thousands of years. But it extends into the present too, challenging the idea that to be modern is to disbelieve in magic. Most modern Americans may not believe in actual sorcery, but as many as three-quarters believe in some aspect of the paranormal. And if we define magic broadly enough to include a belief in luck—well, more than half the country buys lottery tickets.

Indeed, the more "modern" we are, the stronger the pull of magic can get. In the wake of the Industrial Revolution, Europe saw various revivals of folk customs, including pagan beliefs. This was reflected in high as well as low culture—Bellini's Norma is set among druids in Gaul. In Britain, middle-class counterculturalists of the 1890s were joining occult societies such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, swapping business suits for "Egyptian" costumes and coded rituals. As rail travel allowed Stonehenge and other ancient sites to draw new visitors, the tourists included neopagans trying to claim continuity with the druids.

Such continuity is largely imagined or affected. (The "Ancient" Druid Order was founded in 1909.) Our understanding of what was really practiced a thousand years before Christ is necessarily hazy. Gosden thinks Stonehenge probably started as a cremation cemetery. But the site was redeveloped over centuries, so that by the time it was last worked on, "any memory of the original builders and their intentions would have been long lost." Nonetheless, people turn to the stones for insight to our ancestors' understandings of the world—and to seek proof of magical ideas, such as ley lines (lines allegedly meant to mark "Earth energies," an idea serious scholars regard as nonsense).

The desire to know one's fortune seems to be an instinctive human urge, and we have records of divination and oracles in the classical world. Haruspices would examine the entrails of animals to foretell the future. The first known horoscope was cast in 410 BCE. Astrologers and soothsayers influenced major events, with leaders looking to omens while deciding battle plans or alliances. The first Chinese emperor, Qin Shi Huang, used astrology and believed in immortality. Alexander the Great regularly visited oracles to guide his ambitions—and his death was supposedly foretold by Babylonian astrologers.

Alexander, like many of his period, didn't draw a line between his religion and that of others. On his journeys, he would visit the temples of whatever gods the locals worshipped. As the boundaries of different faiths emerged, the idea of miracles still complicated the relationship (and indeed blurred the distinction) between magic and religion. In the monotheistic tradition, prophets and later saints were believed to perform miracles. Converts to Christianity often brought with them their own folk beliefs, which they held in tandem with their new faith.

Though the Bible condemned the occult, magical beliefs persisted and indeed grew with Christianity in Europe. Medieval magic seekers would steal the Communion host or holy water to use in casting spells. The power of religion was something they sought to harness for pagan ends. Clergymen often tolerated, and sometimes even participated in, such magical practices.

"Magic had an ambiguous, close, dangerous but productive relationship with Christianity," Gosden suggests. "Where miracles stopped and magic started was always contentious, the role of the priest was never straightforward, and the conjuring of demons or angels combined Christian and ancient thought with contemporary practices." Some forms of passive magic, such as horoscope reading, were tolerated. But active magic—casting spells—was potentially heretical and criminal.

That didn't stop people from trying to use magic in personal ways. Curses have been popular for millennia. It was probably five minutes after hominids first developed words that someone said, "I wish you'd drop dead." That someone probably wanted that wish to have some force. What's the point of spiritual power if it can't be directed at those who have wronged you? The afterlife sounds nice, but most of us want more immediate rewards.

Indeed, curse making seems to be one of the most widespread forms of magic belief. In many cultures, a particular person would be tasked with writing or casting the curse: "Writing a curse required a four-fold relationship," Gosden explains, "comprising the client who commissioned the curse, the specialist who composed the curse, often drawing on established formulae, the god (or sometimes the spirit of a dead person) who enforced the curse and the victim who suffered from the curse. The causal agents behind the curse were either the gods (who themselves could not be bound for any length of time) or the unburied dead, angrily roaming the world hoping for mischief." In some places, a middleman was not necessary: Evidence from post-Roman Britain suggests that people composed their own curses there.

You might assume that magical beliefs fell away with the scientific revolution, yet Isaac Newton himself was a firm believer in alchemy. At the same time, in the wider world, witch hunts were taking place. Europe's witch hunts were part of the great social upheaval of the Reformation, and Gosden suggests it is no accident that many of the accusations of witchcraft were cross-denominational. Counter-Reformation Germany had a higher rate of witch executions than the rest of Europe, and witch trials were more common in places with religious competition, either between Catholics and Protestants or between different Protestant denominations. Early Modern Christians believed magic was not just real but real enough to be a threat.

Like all mass panics, the witch fever eventually faded. But the fear of witches cast a long shadow. The last woman in Britain to be imprisoned under the Witchcraft Act of 1735 was Helen Duncan, a Scottish medium, in 1944.

The 20th century brought its own developments in magic, such as the creation of Wicca. It also brought a new wave of scammers and a brisk market in table tappers and fake mediums, offering false hope to grieving families after the First World War. Our desire to control events through supernatural means has not faded: Moderns pray for loved ones, and curses persist in Mediterranean cultures and other parts of the world.

Since the 1960s, Westerners have had their pick of different cultures' magical beliefs, from Carlos Castaneda to reiki, and "spiritual but not religious" has become a common self-description. Globalization and immigration have also brought exchanges in magical cultures. A household may have a horseshoe over the door, a nazar hanging in the window, and furniture arranged according to the principles of feng shui. The magical side of older religions has also been revived. Gosden notes that Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition, "is most famous when practised by non-Jewish celebrities; shorn of almost all its cultural context, it is truly a magic for the modern age."

"Magic today is not a fossil remnant of old beliefs but always exists as part of a triple helix with religion and science," Gosden concludes. Especially in times of crisis, we look for any way to control our fate. The pandemic has produced new magical coronavirus remedies, from red soap in Sri Lanka to cocaine in France to violet oil on the anus in Iran. The human desire to believe has never faded.

Magic—A History: From Alchemy to Witchcraft, From the Ice Age to the Present, by Chris Gosden, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 512 pages, $30