A sweeping history of magic – from witchcraft to shamanism

Chris Gosden tells Ellie Cawthorne about his sweeping new history of magic, which spans 40,000 years of magical beliefs across the globe, from witchcraft and astrology to shamanism

Magic stone in Laraibina village in New Ireland, Papua New Guinea on September 27, 2009. This magic stone is hidden in a tree in Laraibina village. It is very useful to call the rain or to make some magic actions on people. It is forbidden to touch it, only the witch doctor can hold it. The same kind of stones exists in Vanuatu. (Photo by Eric LAFFORGUE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Ellie Cawthorne: Your new book surveys a vast array of magical beliefs throughout human history. How do you define magic?

Chris Gosden: My definition of magic is a human openness to the universe. And a universe’s openness to people.

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Let me give you some examples. In Oxford’s Bodleian Library, there are 80,000 astrological diagnoses, dating from between the late 16th century and about 1660. Around 60,000 people visited three astrologers and asked questions about a whole range of things, from health and career choices to lost children. The astrologers were highly methodical in how they recorded these consultations – they made a note of the question, drew an astrological chart of where various bodies were in the heavens at the time a particular event occurred, and recorded a diagnosis. In astrology, the assumption is that the movement of the planets, the moon, the sun, the stars could influence our health, our well-being, our careers.

My second example comes from my own experience. When I worked as an archaeologist in Papua New Guinea, a group of people from the village I lived in took me out to a little area in the rainforest where a bunch of stones were lying in the grass. They said: “You see these stones? At certain times, they can fly around just above the ground. And if you know how to read them, they will tell you the future.” I said that I’d love to see the stones fly, but the group responded that it wouldn’t happen if a white person was present.

In both these cases, the people involved believed that the universe was communicating with them. And if you were skilled enough – and in both cases you did have to be quite skilled – you would be able to use the information provided to work out what the universe was telling you and how it was influencing you.

Throughout history, people have used magic in its various forms to influence and address all the major questions of life and death – from birth and well-being to what happens after we die. The whole spectrum of human life is there.

One of the central tenets of your book is about magic’s relationship to science and religion, which you describe as a triple helix. What do you mean by that?

In the 19th century, anthropologists argued that humans transitioned from a belief in magic to a belief in religion and then on to a belief in science. And you gave up the previous set of beliefs as you became more rational and more enlightened. But I don’t think that’s true. I think that through a lot of human history people have believed in a mixture of all three.

There’s no reason to choose one or two over all three of them, because they each offer different things. Religion gives us a sense of something beyond the human: a sense of awe, of something to be taken account of or worshipped. Science offers a much more objective view of the world. You try to stand back and appreciate the forces of the universe in a way that could be rendered in rational terms. Whereas magic connects you to the world in a way that makes you feel like part of the broader universe. I think all of us feel a bit of each of those things at different times. I’m not particularly religious, for instance, but there have been occasions when I can understand why people are. And certainly, you wouldn’t want to diss science – nobody would want to go back to medieval dentistry. So it’s not about choosing one option over the others – it’s about accepting a combination of the three and learning how we can use those different strands of experience and engagement in different ways.

And I don’t think there have necessarily been fine dividing lines between the three – magic, religion and science have blended into one another through history. In his seminal book Religion and the Decline of Magic, the historian Keith Thomas described the Catholic church as an enormous mechanism for the production of magic. He described how people would give holy water to a sick cow in the hope of curing it. That’s an example of religious beliefs being mixed together with magical beliefs.

The same goes for science. Take the astrologers I discussed earlier. They were deadly serious about what they were doing – treating their diagnoses almost as a medical doctor would. And there’s no hint that these astrologers were practising their skills secretly. One was a vicar making money on the side. People didn’t have the same rigid categories we do today – they didn’t worry about whether they were practising magic or practising science.

You suggest that as well as highlighting our connection to the universe, magical beliefs place an emphasis on human agency and actions. How so?

There’s a group of people in central Africa called the Azande, who believe that all accidents and deaths occur due to witchcraft. A famous analogy used to describe the Azande’s relationship with witchcraft tells of someone sitting under a granary up on stilts, when the granary falls over and crushes them to death. The Azande understood that the granary had fallen down because the legs were rotten. But their question was why it had fallen down when that particular person was underneath it. They would believe that it was a person who had caused this accident to happen – not by pushing over the granary, but by using a spell. For the Azande, seeing incidents like this as a result of witchcraft – and therefore human actions – was an important way of learning about tensions within their community.

What do you think has led to some societies embracing magic, while others have denigrated or rejected it?

It’s broadly western society that has denigrated it. Nineteenth-century thinkers argued that western society was moving towards rationalism and an empirical understanding of the world. As such, magic was seen as irrational and primitive. To become modern was to give up magic. But I think that the real antagonism towards magic is relatively recent and relatively historically unusual. It’s only in the last couple of centuries in Europe that magic received a really bad press and was driven underground. And even then it was embraced by the counterculture. People like Aleister Crowley turned to magic because it offered a way to invert the values of polite society.

I think that part of the reason that we’re quite down on magic now is because it’s become associated with black magic – curses intended to do people harm or cause something bad to happen. But actually, magic has more often been used for positive purposes than negative. A lot of magic is protective of people and animals. It’s to do with beneficial transformations, like getting plants to grow.

How do you reconstruct the magical belief systems of cultures that lived before written records?

Archaeology prior to written records is often a balance between the evidence and what we think it might tell us. When studying the deep past, you inevitably have to engage in some degree of imaginative reconstruction.

One of the earliest examples I’ve studied is a little carved figurine found in Germany. This thing is about 40,000 years old, and although it is a broadly human figure, it’s got the head of a lion. It’s certainly not an object with a practical purpose – you didn’t bash sabre tooth tigers on the head with it or anything. So I’m pretty sure that you could discuss this thing in terms of magical properties.

And this is where the imaginative reconstruction comes in. It’s made out of a mammoth tusk, so it combines three different things – human, lion and mammoth. Maybe some of the powers of those three animals were seen to be combined in some way. And its genitalia are detachable, so it could have appeared male at some points and female at others – maybe it was about playing with gender as well. So it’s a figure with quite complex meanings.

Can you tell us about some of the other magical objects that you encountered?

For many years I worked as a curator in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, and there’s loads of magical stuff in there. One of my favourites is an onion – one of four that fell out of a pub chimney in Somerset, when a bunch of people were drinking there in 1872. These onions each had pieces of paper pinned to them with names on. It turns out that those were the names of temperance campaigners who were trying to get the pub closed down. The landlord of the pub had a bit of a reputation as a wizard. It seems that he was in some sort of battle with the temperance campaigners. But instead of taking them to court, he fought them by sticking onions up his chimney. We’re guessing he hoped that, as the onions dried out, the people whose names were attached to them would also come to some sort of harm, maybe shrivel up or become less powerful.

What I love about this onion is how the magical transformation of something so ordinary can reveal a slice of village politics – of middle-class reformers trying to shut down a working-class establishment. Magic has been described as a weapon of the weak, and I think that you can see that here. Sticking onions up chimneys isn’t something you would bother to do if you feel powerful, but if you believe that it’s your only recourse, then it might offer some hope – it could help your pub stay open, and keep you in a living.

You also write about how magic has been used as a weapon for the powerless in colonial settings. How so?

Resisting imperialism was incredibly hard, because the colonialists generally had better weapons and were followed by waves of disease. So people experimented with other means of fighting back. When the Dutch invaded Sumatra (in present-day Indonesia) in 1903, locals created protective magic to prevent Dutch bullets piercing their skin. They believed in the power of this sincerely. Those spells could be seen as part of a broader type of magic from that area of the world, known as ilmu kebal, which confers invulnerability on a person, meaning they could walk on fire or dance on swords. But in this case, that magic was repurposed in order to fight against colonisation.

You reconstruct the experience of shamanism on the Eurasian Steppe – what can you tell us about the role of the shaman?

People have invoked the figure of the shaman across many times and places, but the term comes from Siberian languages and refers to a figure who is able to deal more or less safely with the spirit world. Indigenous Siberian people believe that if something goes wrong – your reindeer start dying, for example – it’s because something has gone wrong in the spirit world. The shaman is the one member of the community who has the ability and strength to enter the spirit world in order to negotiate – or battle – with the spirits. In this case, to stop them making the reindeer sick. The shaman can also transform themselves into an animal spirit and journey into other realms of reality. But like any area of life, they’re not always successful, and they don’t always return from the spirit world.

In belief systems like this, the distinction between humans, plants, animals or rocks is often blurred. For many North American cultures, the whole universe is seen in some way as human, so you negotiate with those elements as you would with a human being. Sometimes that can be quite dangerous – it’s not easy to negotiate with a bear. But perhaps if you’re a shaman and you can enter the body of a bear, then you could engage with the bear spirit in a bear-like way. Of course, this is a very different view of the universe to ours, where we draw clear lines between animate and inanimate, human and non-human.

Another group that has a closely integrated relationship with nature is Aboriginal Australians. How does magic feature in their culture?

For Aboriginal people, they don’t live on the land. They are the land and the land is them. So their culture isn’t so much about the land as it comes from the land. Aboriginal people have a notion of a past in which the land was formed by ancestral spirits, moving across the land, forming water holes, rocks, outcrops, hills and valleys.

One aspect of this relationship that is quite hard for Europeans to grasp (and nobody’s quite sure how far we have indeed grasped it) is the concept of songlines. These are lines stretching for thousands of kilometres across Australia where people can evoke the landscape. In Aboriginal culture, songs come from the land. And, by singing, you’re evoking the land, not just in its physical sense, but more importantly, in its spiritual sense. The rhythm of the song evokes or reproduces the structure and topography of the landscape. People can sing about parts of Australia that they’ve never been to, but they can still understand through song, dance and mythology. It’s a totally different conception of the world.

Is magic a thing of the past?

Far from it. The death of magic has been constantly exaggerated. In surveys, up to three-quarters of people in places like the US and Britain still admit to believing in some form of magic – whether ghosts, possession or psychic healing. Recently, I think we’ve become slightly less enamoured of rationalism as the only way to think about the world. As more concerns have been raised about what western approaches are doing to the planet, more people have started to explore a whole range of different approaches, like Wicca or Druidism.

The death of magic has been constantly exaggerated. In surveys, up to three-quarters of people in Britain and the US still admit to believing in some form of magic

And magic is still part of the toolkit for everyday life in many non-western societies. In Papua New Guinea today, people have forms of sorcery for getting their kids into university, which they use alongside filling in the application forms. One of the great things about magic is that it is constantly being reinvented. It’s not some sort of past substrate of a bygone belief – people are developing new forms of magic all the time.

What can looking at magical beliefs tell us about different societies across global history?

Magic is global and all-pervasive, so if you miss it out of the story of human history, you lose a really important strand of what it has meant to be human. We’ve written lots of religious histories and histories of science and rational thought, but by and large, our histories of magic are very partial or lacking. If we accept that magical beliefs are a dimension of what it means to be human, we have to include them in global history.

I also think that we need to be more positive in how we approach magic. Broadly speaking, it’s not irrational or primitive, it’s not something that should be consigned to the past. It’s part of human inventiveness. A crucial question that all humans face is: how does the universe work and how do I position myself within that universe? Magic is one of the ways in which people have puzzled their way through the world.

Chris Godsen is the author of The History of Magic: From Alchemy to Witchcraft, from the Ice Age to the Present (Viking, 512 pages, £25)

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This article was first published in the August 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine