Defining Magic

Defining magic can be problematic since it is hard to pin down concretely. In 1911, Sir James Frazer, attempted a modern definition for magic. Frazer said “Magic attempts to compel the powers of the Universe; religion supplicates them.” Bronislaw Malinowski, a noted anthropologist, refined Frazer’s definition in 1930. He wrote “Magic is a practical art consisting of acts, which are only means to a definite end.” Then Malinowski explained, “religion, in contrast, is a body of self-contained acts being themselves the fulfillment of their purpose.” This approach has become the default for many years.

This separation of magic from religion has been long embedded in Western intellectual thought. When monotheistic religions became dominant in the West, the two became separate. Christianity absorbed positive magic as being “official religion.” Rituals such as prayers for healing or Roman Catholic Mass were religious, since their results were miracles of God.

In contrast, magic, which was focused on the individual, was not about pleasing or placating God. Instead, the individual directs the various spirits to do their bidding. Therefore, magic, in having specific aims, was manipulative. In summary, magic was about achieving venial ends like receiving more money whereas religion was about noble ends such as prayers to end a plague.

The problem with the traditional definition is that it cannot be applied to non-Western cultures or to ancient ones. Noted academic of Greco-Roman magic, Richard Gordon declared that this approach was unusable. He said that people in Roman times regarded magic differently than what Frazer had thought. Gordon observed that the people conducted the rituals did so for their own purposes. These could range such as asking the Gods to look favorably on the State or to have their soldiers achieve victories. He proposed a new approach that he called “ritual power.”

There were still problems with Gordon’s approach as it still assumed that magic was done alone and in secret. Therefore, other scholars proposed a different approach. Expanding on Richard Gordon’s ideas, they said that magic was what ancient and medieval cultures regarded it to be. For example, the Greeks determined magic to be more transgressive, usually to harm other people. In contrast, Egyptians thought of magic in two ways- “heka” which ensured the harmony of the cosmos, while “akha” came from the Beings of the Underworld. Meanwhile, the Romans regarded anything done against the communal good to be magic. Again, the split between magic and religion defaulted to Frazer’s original ideas.

The third alternative to the traditional definition was first suggested by (David) Emile Durkheim, the French sociologist. Considered the “Father of Modern Sociology,” Durkheim wrote that religion was “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things… in one single moral community.” He continued that magic “was not directed towards the gods or sacred things.” Durkheim felt that each society would define what was either magic or religion. Thus, the definition of magic would be made by the culture itself and not by academics.

This approach has problems as well. What each culture decided was transgressive (i.e. magic) differed across time and cultures. What was considered to be magic in Egyptian society of the First Dynasty was changed by the time of Cleopatra. Meanwhile, how could scholars discuss magic across dissimilar cultures? If the definition kept shifting, then the study of magic would be comparing apples with acorns.

Works Used:
Bowie, Fiona, “The Anthropology of Religion: An Introduction.” 2008. PDF.
Davis, Owen, ed. “The Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft & Magic.” Oxford University Press: Oxford. 2017.
Greer, John Michael, “The Occult Book.” Sterling: NY. 2017.
Hutton, Ronald, “The Witch.” Yale University Press: New Haven. 2017.
—, “A Framework for the Study of European Magic.” Grey School of Wizardry Class Materials. Dell.Urgano, Ombra, “The Development of European Magic.”
Moro, Pamela, “Witchcraft, Sorcery, and Magic.” International Library of Anthropology.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s