Magic: A History (Book Review)

Magic A History: From Alchemy to Witchcraft, from the Ice Age to the Present,  by Chris Gosden

Photo by Rhett Wesley on Unsplash

Magic is a topic that fits nicely into this blog’s cultoid topic. As Chris Gosden points out, however, throughout most of history, magic was accepted as reality. It’s only in the past few centuries that believers in the super or non-rational are considered deviant or cultlike.

This history of magic is an ambitious, scholarly, and fair-minded look at a fascinating, broad, and contentious topic. Magic, of course, in this context, refers not to illusion or stage magic but to the belief that the universe is animated, that spirits, planets, and other unseen forces influence the world and similar beliefs that are at odds with modern scientific thinking.

The scope of this book is enormous covering, as the subtitle indicates, a period of some 50,000 years and encompassing the entire globe. Thus, even though it’s hardly a short book at over 400 pages, many topics are only covered relatively briefly. Gosden himself apologizes for not sufficiently covering certain areas such as Southern Asia. Still, I’m not sure doubling the length to be more comprehensive would have improved the work, as Gosden seems to be primarily interested in getting us to better understand magic and its place in the world.

Gosden, who is a professor of Archeology at Oxford, takes a much more open-minded view of magic than is typical in academia. He sees it as part of the “triple helix” that has guided humans throughout their history: Magic, Religion, and Science. Giving equal weight and validity to these 3 approaches has, inevitably, offended many readers. Browsing reviews on Goodreads, I saw an outraged rationalist pan the book for legitimizing magic, while at the other end of the spectrum, a practicing Wiccan complained that he gave short shrift to modern magical practices.

Personally, I found his approach a breath of fresh air, free of stodgy academic dogmatism and the unquestioning credulity of many new age and occult authors. He seems to be trying to maintain the view of an anthropologist who remains open to the beliefs of the people he studies. To his credit, Gosden seldom directly tries to justify or refute actual magical beliefs. Rather, he examines them and tells us what they meant/mean to the people who do believe. This makes it a work of scholarship rather than either an anti-supernatural tirade or a handbook on practicing magic.

This is a great book to read if you want to understand the common features of magic around the world and throughout history. The author being an archeologist means that the book has a strong interest in the distant past, eras not explored in much detail, at least in most popular books on topics such as this. Of course, anyone familiar with shamanism knows a little about cave paintings and the like.

This is an example of where Gosden goes deeper and makes us rethink popular assumptions, such as the idea that a cave painting depicting a hunt was meant to help the hunter succeed and kill his prey. Gosden suggests a more complex meaning, one that expressed the intimate relationship humans felt with the animals in their environment. He similarly discusses the idea that, for many prehistoric peoples, homes were living entities rather than inanimate objects. A common theme of magic, in fact, is a blurring of the modern distinction between living and nonliving. There’s also a complex relationship between the living and the dead, as in many cultures, ancestors are often considered part of the living family and are consulted and even worshipped.

He shows how magical beliefs have persevered over the millennia. He gives the example of the English custom of onions used as a supernatural tool in medieval times. Names would be written on paper and pinned to the onions, which were then placed in a sack and in a chimney. As Gosden recounts with an anecdote, this practice survived at least until the 19th century.

Even more recently, Gosden points to polls showing that a high percentage of people in countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom still believe in magical phenomena such as astrology. Some will find this heartening and others disappointing or even frightening. Either way, it’s undeniable that magic has always, and will most likely always, play a major role in human psychology and society. Gosden’s book does a good job at explaining just how universal magic is to human existence.




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