Warning: A Brief Guide On The Difficulty Of Defining Magic (1 of 4)
By user_dd

History of Magic 1/4

Magic is a word that comes up in a lot of moments and places, and everybody seems to mean the same thing, but in a slightly different way. When I started writing this blog post, I immediately thought, “Let’s write out a working definition of magic for the blog,” which then I realized could span an entire blog itself. Instead, I’d like to share three of the many moments in history we’ve tried to define what magic really is.  

One of the most prominent groups in recent history to brush up against “magic” was the Judeo-Christian community in the heart of the Roman empire. In an attempt to stand out from the other Pagan monotheistic movements, early Judeo-Christians drew a line in the sand between Godly miracles and supernatural phenomena. Later, Christianity assumed a major role in modern intellectual history (the last 800 years) and ultimately re-shaped our social conception of the supernatural’s role in our lives: banishing superstition to the realms of irrationality and further distancing the Church from its Pagan cousins. The Enlightenment was one of the many attempts to draw a line between religion and superstition (magic, and other “unchristian” practices).

A second attempt to define magic comes from the annals of western anthropology. For at least a hundred years, anthropologists in the west had attempted to create prescriptive and descriptive cultural models to make sense of the cultures they encountered along the path of colonialism. The concerted effort to create a working definition of religion brought light to exactly how blurry the categories between the mundane, the magical, and the religious really were. The deeper some scholars dug into the question of how to define magic and the supernatural, the more their subject matter and subjects blurred into shades of ambiguity and paradox.

A third worldview that has made attempts at defining magic is the scientific community.  There is a considerable segment of scientific literature that specifically engages and challenges religious pseudoscience and the supernatural. The current milieu of scientific skepticism relate to the supernatural/magical effect on reality as lacking a causative force, thus magic does not exist. Take the James Randi’s prescriptive definition of magic:

“An attempt to supplant natural processes and events by means of incantations, spells and/or offerings. Approximated by conjuring and often attempted by prayer. Magic and science are exact opposites in every way. Magic can be divided into three very general categories: divinatory (determining hidden information), sympathetic (affecting some aspect of nature by performing upon a similar object/person/symbol), and ritual (reciting a prayer, incantation, charm, or carrying out an accepted formality).”

Randi’s definition of magic hinges upon the idea that magic tampers with the “natural” world.  In a sense, Randi’s prescribed types of magic (divinatory, sympathetic, and ritual) all focus on causative “if a then b” changes. There is nothing wrong with Randi’s definition. However, while I cannot speak for the vast diversity of people and schools who work with magic, very few schools of thought can look at Randi’s definition and say “yes, this is what we do and how we do it.”  Prescriptive definitions often struggle to model the phenomena it seeks to study. Considering how slippery and general the term magic is, it only makes the scientific definition, modeling and creation of methods incredibly challenging.

Obviously this post is incredibly brief, and over the next few weeks, you’ll see me exploring these topics in the next three blog posts.  I’d like to put a disclaimer here that I’m learning about these subjects with you, dear reader.  This series of magical history is my way of sharing what I’ve learned but also exposing myself to new interesting sources and theories that cross my path.  Please share interesting historical sources and tidbits of fact you find with me!  

The fields we touch on are vast, with foundations of knowledge beyond a single person’s scope of thought, and as I grow and learn, I’ll do my best to articulate that in future posts.  I think of these posts as foundational musings, a way for me to have a common vocabulary with you in the future.