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  Magic (Greek, magika, ‘what wizards do’) is the blanket term for a whole range of practices and skills supposed to be borrowed from the supernatural world by favoured mortals or, in its less exalted form, for the tricks and sleights of hand used by conjurers, mind-readers and other entertainers. The sceptic might argue that the only difference between them is in degree: that magicians, priests, prophets, shamans and witches merely perform a rather elevated form of sleight of hand, and that their incantations, mystical passes and potions are just as much hokum as the ‘nothing up my sleeve’ patter of the stage magician or card-sharp. Nonetheless, the idea of magic has persisted throughout human history, and our willingness to suspend disbelief in it is perhaps a symptom of our general uneasiness about the super-natural, and our consequent awe in the face of those who profess to understand its mysteries.

‘Magic’ skills seem to lie outside the ordinary laws of Nature. In different societies and different manifestations, they have included divination, hypnotism, mind-reading, numerology, psychokinesis (making objects move by the power of your thought alone), second hearing (the ability to understand the utterance of every creature on Earth, and the sounds of natural phenomena such as wind in the trees or waterfalls), second sight (seeing outside human time, so that the past and future are as clear as the present), trance (the ability to move in and out of the supernatural world at will), and perhaps most awesome, the power to effect change, whether this is averting disaster and ensuring success, working transformations such as turning water to wine (Christ\'s miracle has been duplicated, on a mundane level, a million times) or making a pack of cards appear to move from random order to strict suit-order without touching them. Illusions are the stock-in-trade of stage magicians, and have simple explanations. But it is unclear how other astonishing feats are done—walking on red-hot coals or levitation, for example—and until they are satisfactorily and scientifically explained, they will seem to many people to be magical in exactly the same way as once did herbal healing (the origin of the idea of ‘magic potions’) or palm-reading (in fact a simple process of responding to clues in the subject\'s body-language and verbal responses as you make your ‘analysis’).

The overlap between magic and science has been of particular interest to anthropologists. Their interest stems from the fact that what a given society regards as magic offers major insights into its patterns of life and thought. But in early anthropology, the study of magic was bedevilled by the view that it was an example of a ‘primitive’ and irrational way of thinking based on the false notion that there was a spatial and temporal relationship between entirely separate phenomena. And if magic is placed in an evolutionary schema, the implication is clear: if ideas about it are illogical, then by extension the people who believe in it are ‘primitive’. James Frazer, in The Golden Bough (1890) saw magic as a way of influencing events through ritual actions, and therefore as something which depended on (and seemed to validate) the belief that symbolic actions could affect the relationship between humans and the natural world—a view cognate with that of religion, that symbolic actions affect our relationship with the supernatural. In such a climate of belief, magicians could use sympathetic magic to ensure positive outcomes in the here-and-now drawing a picture of successful childbirth, for example, to influence the outcome of a woman\'s actual labour. Magic, symbolists claimed, was a way of understanding the principle of causality. Through ideas about the way natural and supernatural forces could be influenced, accidents and misfortunes could be explained as outside individual control.

Such a universe, where nothing happens by chance, seems far more deterministic than the one we are familiar with as heirs to scientific thought. The study of magic contributed to the anthropological debate about whether such modes of thought could be regarded as rational. Such ‘primitive’ systems of explanation were illogical and in an entirely different mode of thought from that used by modern science. According to evolutionist models, primitive thought would later evolve into scientific thought presumed to be a much more rational way of thinking.

In the mid-20th century, the structuralist Claude Lévi-Strauss joined the debate. He compared magical thought with Western science, and concluded that they involve comparable systems of classification in making sense of the universe. Magic does not reflect utilitarian ideas or causality. It should be examined in structuralist terms, following Lévi-Strauss\' theory of a universal way of classifying and understanding the world by sorting through the currently available concepts (which he called bricolage). The links are clear between belief in magic and religious faith and ‘belief’ in science can, in these terms, also be viewed as magic, since it has an internal logic which does not necessarily ‘make sense’. Belief in science, in short, involves the taking on faith of basic principles which cannot be proved, and thus involves the same kind of suspension of disbelief required of magical thought a view which puts our ideas on magic (and on science) into an entirely different perspective. CL KMcL

See also animism; rationality; witchcraft.Further reading A. Lehmann and , J. Myers, Magic, Witchcraft and Religion; , Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind; , J. Skorupski, Symbol and Theory.



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