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

NEXT: From the Archives: February 2021

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  1. Obviously written by a white man with his arrogant and oppressive colonialist thinking that there is only one way of divining the truth and the white man's scientific thinking is it. There are other ways of knowing the truth, the ways known by older and wiser and superior cultures. As even he admits, magic has been around for thousands of years, the scientific method has only existed for a few hundred. What sort of person would choose the latter over the former? A white supremacist, that's who. Shame on Reason for even publishing this review, it should be disavowed, retracted and never spoken of again.

    By the way, "magical thinking" extends far beyond the realm of rituals and amulets and potions - ask any socialist how the economy works. Magic is simply a refusal to admit that that the universe doesn't care about your feelings, that you're not only not in control of things but that there's nothing you can do to influence reality in the slightest little bit. No matter how hard you try and no matter how much you wish it were otherwise, ten thousand years from now nobody's ever going to give a shit that you even existed.

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  2. Speaking of magical thinking, the local schools here just announced on Friday that they're going to a "hybrid" scheduling plan starting on Monday where half the kids go to school on M-W-F and the other half T-Th with remote learning on the other days. Seems that there are too many kids sick and they're pretty sure that every single one of them has the coronavirus and not a single one of them has a cold, the flu, or any of the heretofore common sinus or respiratory infections that seem to crop up during the winter time when everybody is spending more time indoors in close proximity. It's quite the coincidence that the recent spike in coronavirus cases exactly matches the precipitous drop in the number of flu cases. I wonder if anybody is tracking the number of common cold cases and if they too have seen a similar decline.

    1. Schools here closed down again. They had been open except for Wednesday for disinfection. The g daughter goes to a pod for the remote classes when school is closed.

      1. Why can't they disinfect on Sundays?

        1. I guess the thinking was after two days was more sanitary then after five.

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    2. Of course flu is down. People are doing more of what we always knew about colds and flu. It could also be due to whatever strains are floating around, immunization.

      Why is Corona spiking anyway? Because it is a vicious badass MF’r and we have never seen it before.

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  3. I recently attended a Protestant (mostly Baptist, I'm told) session of prayer and instruction on how to pray at my friend's Riverlife Church, and I can tell you they're still doing magic, they just don't call it that. I'd rather practice galdor and seither magick, at least as close as people have been trying to reconstruct them lately, or any of various New-Agey mind-matter techniques, than believe in a system of Islam (submission — to a boss of everything), which only one version of Jehovism names that but which really describes all of them. Just look at the universe and it should be obvious nobody is in charge, but that doesn't mean you can't exert your own influence on it.

    1. " one version of Jehovism"
      YHWH-ism. Jehovah is a mispronunciation.

      "than believe in a system of Islam (submission — to a boss of everything)"
      You have been seriously misinformed if you think that historical paganism didn't involve submission and sacrifice to deities. Instead of one "boss" of everything, you had hundreds who had to be placated. From minor household lars to Dyeus Pater's many descendants.

      "I’d rather practice galdor and seither magick, at least as close as people have been trying to reconstruct them lately, or any of various New-Agey mind-matter techniques
      Neo-Druidism was started by a Anglican reverend and is built primarily on Victorian fantasy novels.
      The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (HOGD) was also started by another Anglican parson and a couple of Masons. Their ancient "Cipher Manuscripts" were based off of a children's adventure story.
      Thelema was cribbed from HOGD, with Crowley adding a pile of pseudo-Egyptian iconography that he picked up as a tourist on holiday there.
      A goaty little civil servant named Gerald Gardner invented Wicca in the 1950's, using Thelma and HOGD as a basis, but also claiming to have received his secret knowledge from an old witch. He used his new religion for the purposes of sexually assaulting niave women.
      Practicing "Expecto Patronum" a la the Hogwarts school, might be a more spiritual option.

      1. All I said was that the meal was good enough for jehova!

      2. “YHWH-ism. Jehovah is a mispronunciation“

        Actually both are incorrect since it is Hebrew. Even as an abbreviation since there is nothing comparable to W in Hebrew. In English the letter J is often substituted for the Hebrew letter “yud” which doesn’t have an English counterpart. Jews don’t say it anyway . They say “Adonai” instead. There are other names for god in Hebrew as well.

        I am not sure what is meant by whichever -ism when people say that. Is it supposed to be a sort of pseudo Judaism like Madonna believes?

        1. since there is nothing comparable to W in Hebrew"

          The letter Waw of the Tetragrammaton is transcribed as "W" in the Latin alphabet.
          In old Hebrew it is also pronounced as "waw", but only in modern Hebrew is it pronounced "vav".
          So you're right that modern doesn't have anything comparable to "w", but old Hebrew does.

          1. And yud used to be "yodh", but now I'm just quibbling.

          2. You trying to teach me עִבְרִית?

            תודה רבה לך

            Look when you have different languages things get transliterated. That is normal and no problem. Really modern spoken Hebrew like in Israel contains many words from other languages especially English and Arabic.

            The Hebrew word for television is טֵלֶוִיזִיָה televisiah.

      3. Jedi is becoming a recognized religion now.

  4. Of course people still believe in magic. Some crave a mystical universe, others cannot use logic and reason. Most simply do not understand even basic science and technology. To quote Clarke's third law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic", or the variation "Any technology, no matter how primitive, is magic to those who don't understand it."

    Any person, and especially any organized group, who prays, rubs crystals, pays thousands of dollars for "pure" audio system cables, or passes laws to "regulate" economic activity is a magic practitioner, and not really any better than cargo cultists.

    And of course the winner of the Magical Talisman for 2020 is the cloth face mask.

    1. That's one way to look at it. The other is that magic is technology whose principles aren't understood in detail yet.

      1. No, by definition technology, i.e. applied science, is well understood by at least some people. The fact that our common technology is not understood by most people, and even by most users, is the "magic" problem.

        Some or even most of the knowledge gap certainly comes from the advanced nature of the underlying science. But some must also come from people who deliberately resist understanding. I speculate that the popularity of "new age" thinking reflects a regression of human knowledge.

        1. Or a rejection of that and a spiritual gap as traditional religion and culture doesn’t fit the bill for many people.

      2. Some examples:
        "Open sesame" -- a door operated by remote control voice command. Now we invoke "Alexa" or use the garage door remote control.

        "Crystal ball" -- now we watch TV to see what is happening elsewhere.

        There was one sword and sorcery show where the wizard could send text messages magically across the kingdom. It looked like a fax machine.

        Harry Potter's school newspaper had video clips, like basically every website on a phone or tablet now.

        1. More like a toilet.

          As used in cognitive science investigations into how most people are both over-confident and ignorant, researchers asked people how a toilet works. Not how to operate one (push the lever) but what basic physics and engineering is used. Most people could not answer correctly.

    2. > And of course the winner of the Magical Talisman for 2020 is the cloth face mask.

      That technology too advanced for you?

      1. Misplaced.

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  5. I think magic is distinct from faith or delusion.

    I am Jewish so there has been magic or magical legends in Jewish lore. The golem legend for example. A Frankenstein like creature made of clay through magical power who saves the Jews from danger. But nobody accepts that as a part of the religion. It is just a tale. Kabbalah is not magic it is mysticism which is very distinct.

    Believing that space aliens will one day colonize the earth is a sort of faith. Believing that they are in my closet is a delusion.

    Homeopathy is a sort of magic. It does result in relief of symptoms in some people because of the placebo effect however.

    1. I don't see magical thinking as much different from faith or delusion. All involve embracing ideas that are illogical and unsupported or contradictory to objective facts. And all motivate some people to believe harder when challenged. In fact, many believers will claim that the belief itself is central.

      1. I can tell you from the faith I know best but it is not limited to that one. There are people in religion who will persist in illogical beliefs such as the idea that evolution is a myth. There are others just as devout who embrace science and say “aha is it not wonderful that we have learned something more about our universe”.

        There is a true story about a religious scientist Dr. Velvel Greene, who was working with NASA tasked with exploring the idea of life on Mars. Some of his co religionists castigated him.

        He went to a very wise and learned man, the Lubavitcher Rebbe and told him about it.

        The Rebbe didn’t respond right away. He thought for a while, and then he said this:

        “You should look for life on Mars, and you should keep looking for life on Mars. If you don’t find it, then keep looking elsewhere, and do not stop looking, because to sit here in this world and say there is no life elsewhere is to put a limit around what G‑d can do. And nobody can do that!”

        To have faith that we not not have these amazing abilities to learn and discover the secrets of the universe by accident is not contradictory. We are supposed to do that. That is an article of faith not fact.

  6. MMT is another instance of magical thinking, and maybe the most dangerous one of all.

    1. Like I said above, those who think they can orchestrate reality, including economics, by fiat are no better than cargo cults.

    2. Magical thinking, or just pathological innumeracy?

  7. So you're saying Trump isn't our magical answer to all our problems?

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  8. "Gosden thinks Stonehenge probably started as a cremation cemetery" This is possible Jim

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  10. Indeed, the more "modern" we are, the stronger the pull of magic can get - Yes especially as we move towards the 5D. I wonder how nonprofits feel?

    1. To add I also agree - "spiritual but not religious" has become a common self-description. too often we like to exempt or sit on the fence and make thing more difficult!

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  12. While there are a disturbing number of moderns with mystical beliefs, the given evidence is not really good, as it speaks to aesthetics as much as belief. Just because someone hangs a particular mystical symbol doesn't mean they believe in the mystical trappings. They may like the way it looks, or may enjoy the mystical as an intellectual hobby rather than a belief. (That is, many people enjoy magical stories and symbols as escapism, not a belief about reality).

    Now, membership in a neopagan religious group like asatru or wicca does speak more to belief, or at least willingness to perform belief. But we probably shouldn't discount social pressure. Not everyone who attends church truly believes, and the same is likely true of neopagan groups - they may even claim to believe when they don't really. Ascertaining sincerity of belief is hard - this is an area where people are frequently dishonest with themselves, much less others. (I'd guess the fraction of people in any christian church congregation who actually know their church's doctrine and truly believe it is well below 10%).

    The bigger story here is the willingness to claim membership in a spiritual community without the self-reflection necessary to commit to the nominal beliefs of that faith.

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