Magic and religion
This article deals with magic in the context of religion and the anthropology of religion. A belief in magic as a means of influencing the supernatural or natural seems to have been universal to all cultures and all religions prior to the advent of monotheism, and there is significant historical evidence that magic was part of early Judaism and Christianity. However, the influence of Zoroastrianism, which is generally accepted by religious scholars as the source of beliefs in an evil entity engaged in a cosmic battle with God, coincided with a suppression of magical beliefs and practices in the context of monotheism.
The term magic is often used in various other contexts that may be confused with magic in the context of religion. In fact, some anthropologists have asserted that magical thinking is a form of proto-science or pseudoscience rather than a form of religious practice, most notable among them being Sir James George Frazer and Bronisław Malinowski. However, this viewpoint is an ethnocentric one, common to Western culture, which venerates the objectivity of science. In line with this viewpoint, magic in the context of religion is often conflated with magic in the context of the paranormal. Some people also use the term magick, with a spelling that is distinct and different from magic, to distinguish various concepts of magic from the one proposed by Aleister Crowley. Wholly distinct from all of these concepts of magic is magic in the context of stage magic.
Due to waves of monotheistic persecution and the accompanying persistent destruction of art and writing related to magical traditions, magic as it has come to be known in Western culture has generally been reconstructed from secondary, tertiary, or even more remote sources. Members of the Golden Dawn, and especially Aleister Crowley, did much to bring about a resurgence of the western magical tradition in the 20th century. As groups built upon their work, a synthesis of western magick and concepts of ancient paganism and Earth worship began to emerge, resulting in the modern Neo-Pagan movement, perhaps best illustrated by Wicca.
Although some modern practitioners of magic prefer the term ‘Pagan’, Neopaganism is more correct for scholarly reference to current rituals and traditions. Wicca is a more codified form of modern magic than Neopaganism, again owing much to Crowley and his contemporaries.
The basic mechanism of magical practices is the spell, a spoken or written formula which is used in conjunction with a particular set of ingredients. If a spell is properly executed and fails to work, then the spell is a fraud. However, in most instances, the failure of a spell to bring about the desired effect is attributed to the failure of the person executing the spell to follow the magic formula to the letter.
Generally speaking, there are two types of magic: Religious based magic and nature based magic. Religious based magic involves the use of faith by requesting the intervention of major or minor deities to enact spells or weaves, and nature based magic involves modifying the world according to the desires of the spellcaster.
Related religious practices
Closely related to magic is religious ritual, such as prayer. The major difference between magic and ritual is that ritual does not always work, even when it is carried out properly. Rather, the proper performance of a ritual simply increases the likelihood of a desired result coming to pass.
Also closely related to magic is religious supplication. This involves a sacrifice to a supernatural being, such as a god, angel, or demon, who is asked to intervene on behalf of the person performing the sacrifice, usually a priest, a shaman, or a medicine man or woman. Supplication can be considered a particular, specialized form of prayer.
Supplication and sacrifice can take many forms. The most common forms of supplication and sacrifice in pagan and neopagan religious practice involves the burning of oils or incense. Other common forms of supplication may include the offering of personal objects to a deity, offering chants, and the offering of drinks and food. The most rare form of supplication and sacrifice, and one carrying the most negative taboo for the majority of neopagans is blood sacrifice. Most neopagans reject the concept of blood sacrifices. In hoodoo, however, blood rituals, or the giving of one’s own blood in ritual practices, is not entirely uncommon.
Evidence of magical practices in the archaelogical and historical record
Appearing from aboriginal tribes in Australia and New Zealand to rainforest tribes in South America, bush tribes in Africa and pagan tribal groups in Western Europe and Britain (as personified by Merlin), some form of shamanic contact with the spirit world seems to be nearly universal in the early development of human communities. The ancient cave paintings in France are widely speculated to be early magical formulations, intended to produce successful hunts. Much of the Babylonian and Egyptian pictorial writing characters appear derived from the same sources.
Although indigenous magical traditions persist to this day, very early on some communities transitioned from nomadic to agricultural civilizations, and with this shift, the development of spiritual life mirrored that of civic life. Just as tribal elders were consolidated and transformed into kings and bureaucrats, so too were shamans and adepts devolved into priests and a priestly caste.
This shift is by no means in nomenclature alone. While the shaman’s task was to negotiate between the tribe and the spirit world, on behalf of the tribe, as directed by the collective will of the tribe, the priest’s role was to transfer instructions from the deities to the city-state, on behalf of the deities, as directed by the will of those deities. This shift represents the first major usurpation of power by distancing magic from those participating in that magic. It is at this stage of development that highly codified and elaborate rituals, setting the stage for formal religions, began to emerge, such as the funeral rites of the Egyptians and the sacrifice rituals of the Babylonians, Persians, Aztecs and Maya civilizations.