On the Shelf Review – The Anthropology of Magic

Magic has always been a troubling area for study.  In our post-Enlightenment world, inquiries into the ultimate nature of reality have been conducted within a scientific method based upon experimentation, verification, and rational inquiry.  Anthropology has been in the unenviable position of trying to take this worldview and make it work for the study of human interaction and belief, and most anthropologists who study magic, religion, and beliefs in spirits have quickly found that they needed other tools.  The fortunate result of this has been a large body of social science theory to grapple with these problems, though the ultimate success thereof is debatable.

Susan Greenwood’s The Anthropology of Magic has been the latest book to discuss the supernatural.  The author’s first work, Magic, Witchcraft, and the Otherworld, described her own experiences within the magic-practicing community in England.  Having read her later book The Nature of Magic: An Anthropology of Consciousness, I was keen on reading this one, and she was kind enough to request a review copy for me.

Greenwood finds the essence of magic in the connectivity and associations that lie outside Western concepts of rationality and causality.    Many readers will be familiar with Frazer’s categories of imitative and contagious magic, but Greenwood follows Stanley Tambiah in drawing this out into a broader look at the web of correspondences, metaphor, and simile that are typical of incantations from many different cultures.   Key to our understanding here is the concept of participation, a temporary sense that no boundary exists between the other and the self.  Both the rationalistic and associative patterns both of these mental states are present in all of us, taking prevalence in our lives in different circumstances, and magic partakes of both worlds.

The concept of participation is intriguing and bears some consideration.   Where do we draw the boundaries?  Is the muttering of one of Hohman’s blood-stopping cures really akin to a full-fledged mystical experience?  Indeed, is the use of an analogy in writing closer to those experiences than logical thought?  This might be an area where cognitive science might be able to point us in fruitful directions.

These discussions are enriched with Greenwood’s own experiences in the field, working with the modern Pagan community.  I have some qualms about this, but not out of any notion that such experiences are not valid and enlightening for an anthropologist.  Nonetheless, I can’t help wondering whether contemporary Paganism reveals much about magic in a cross-cultural sense, as much of it, based upon what I’ve seen, comes about as a dialogue with the same forces that have shaped anthropology – and indeed, with anthropology itself.    Perhaps this is where I display my own biases, but engagement with primary historical sources – texts written by magicians and the like – from other cultures might have given greater weight to her position.

Greenwood goes on to explain the implications of her work for classic anthropological problems, such as the reality of spirits.  Her attitude therein is one of moving back and forth across the boundaries of belief, being able to discuss a spirit in terms of its cultural or psychological impact as well as in the sense of an actual entity itself.  This strikes me as exactly the correct way for a social scientist to handle the problem, though I have not been able to articulate this before now.

As with many modern theories of magic, I have to wonder what role the instrumentality of magic plays within its structure.  Many approaches to the topic tend to gloss rapidly over the disreputable qualities of much magic – its emphasis on wealth, sex, or harm – in order to concentrate on other, more “acceptable” issues.  Although Greenwood does not explicitly engage with instrumentality, her blending of the rational and mystical mindsets provides a means to reintegrate it into our understanding of magic.  It would be interesting to see an ethnography written along these lines grapple with such issues.

One challenge that has come for me is the book’s brevity.  Most of the chapters are hardly ten to twenty pages long, and as they grapple with fundamental questions about anthropology and human spirituality, this often seems insufficient when I want to jump into the system and explore it in all of its theoretical and spiritual messiness.  Nonetheless, The Anthropology of Magic is a solid start to the discussion of these important topics.

Published in: on March 11, 2010 at 9:29 pm  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. There’s probably something to the participation angle, at least for group ceremonies or rituals. On a personal level, the elimination of sense of self has connotations with Zen meditation, and if you want to follow that context a little farther the idea of becoming one with a deity, godhead, nature, etc. or in other ways arriving at a level of understanding not achievable by rational thinking.

    It would be fun to see Ms. Greenwood take a page from the psychologist’s book and try a kind of Kurt Lewin/Chris Argyris Action Research study to a modern magical community. Or, if you want to get all postmodern, she could do an anthropological analysis on how ceremonial magic groups like the OTO or Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn engaged in a prototypical form of action research with their collaborative rituals and research efforts.

    On a more immediately practical note, I think it a very strong component of many magical systems that the participants – magician and subject – both believe in the precepts of the magic in order for it to work. In Hohman’s case, the virtue (real or imagined) of his cures probably had much to do with the faith that both hex-workers and their patients placed in it.

  2. Ancient History,

    I disagree that both participant and practitioner have to believe in it. Take Hoodoo / American folk magic for instance. Many drug stores and mail order merchants sold (and some continue to sell) pre-packaged amulets and charms, oils and incenses, and more, supposedly created using ancient magical formulas, etc etc. Many of the manufacturers of these products have been quoted as not believing in them and only fulfilling market request. Many of these oils are just colored carrier oils with artificial scents added, and incenses are just sawdust with color and scent added. Yet there are many people who have used and continue to use them and claim they work. The book Spiritual Merchants covers some of this ground.

    I think belief by the recipient of magic is all that is necessary for magic to “work.”

  3. I’d counter by saying that the provider of over-the-counter miracles was not an actual practitioner of folk magic, much as you don’t have to be Christian to make and sell crucifixes or any of the manufacturers of New Age paraphanelia actually hold the beliefs they espouse. Though of course I would agree that any effect their charms and oils had would be based on the faith of the recipient.

  4. An interesting thought is that when the magic in question is evocation and the paradigm being worked with is an ontological commitment to objective “spirits”, then in those cases, it shouldn’t matter if the magician or recipient believe in the precepts of the magic. All that should be necessary is that the ‘spirit’ hold beliefs consistent with the ritual in question. Thus both the magician and recipient of the magic, say in an example of sending of a spirit to torment or heal or whatever someone, need not believe, and may perhaps even actively disbelieve in the precepts, yet still encounter success. This being the result of a spirit’s own beliefs concerning the precepts in question. Of course, if this isn’t the case, it would place into question any conceptual scheme including spirits as having psychological continuity over time in regards to their having a belief system.


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