is the supposed use of unnatural or superhuman power by a person
to try to control human actions or natural events. Magic often
seems to achieve results, but the results actually have other
causes. For example, a person might cast a magic spell to make an
enemy sick. The enemy may learn about the spell, become
frightened, and actually feel ill.
People throughout the world have practiced magic from the dawn of
history. But beginning in the 1600's, science has provided an
increasingly greater understanding of the true causes of natural
events. This increased scientific knowledge has reduced people's
dependence on magic. But many people in non-industrial societies
still believe in magic. Even in industrial societies, many people
still trust in such forms of magic as astrology and
The word magic also refers to entertainment in which the performer
does tricks of so-called magic. In such entertainment, neither the
magician nor the audience believes that the performer has
supernatural powers. For information on magical performances, see
elements of magic
practice of magic includes special words, actions, and objects.
Most magic involves a person called a magician, who claims to have
Magic words. To work most magic, the magician sings or speaks
special words in a certain order. These words are called
incantations or spells. Some spells form prayers to demons,
spirits, or other supernatural forces. Many societies believe the
magic will not work unless the magician recites the spells
perfectly. Other magic words have no meaning, though they
supposedly possess power when spoken by a magician.
Magic actions accompany the words spoken in performing much magic.
Many of these movements act out the desired effect of the magic.
For example, a magician trying to make rain fall may sprinkle
water on the ground. The magician's combined words and actions
form a ceremony called a rite or ritual.
Magic objects include certain plants, stones, and other things
with supposed supernatural powers. Any such object may be called a
fetish (see FETISH). But this term often refers to an object--for
example, a carving or a dried snake--honored by a tribe for its
magic powers. Many tribes believe fetishes have magic power
because spirits live in these objects.
Many people carry magic objects called amulets, charms, or
talismans to protect themselves from harm (see AMULET). Many
amulets and talismans are stones or rings engraved with magic
The magician. In some societies, nearly everyone knows how to work
some magic. In other societies, only experts practice magic.
Magicians may be called medicine men, medicine women, shamans,
sorcerers, or witch doctors (see SHAMAN). In many societies,
magicians must inherit their powers. In others, any person may
become a magician by studying the magical arts.
Many societies believe magicians must observe certain rules and
taboos (forbidden actions) for their spells to work. For example,
they may be required not to eat various foods or to avoid sexual
activity for a certain period before the ceremony.
kinds of magic
anthropologists classify magic as homeopathic or contagious,
according to its basic principle. The Scottish anthropologist Sir
James G. Frazer first described these types in his book The Golden
Some people divide magic into black magic and white magic. Black
magic harms people, but white magic helps them. Witches usually
practice black magic. But a saint may cure a sick person using
Homeopathic magic is based on the belief that like produces like.
In this type of magic, also called imitative magic, magicians act
out or imitate what they want to happen. They often use a model or
miniature of whatever they want to influence. For example, a
fisherman may make a model of a fish and pretend he is netting it.
He believes this ritual will assure him a good catch. In some
European folk dances, the dancers leap high into the air to make
their crops grow tall. People once believed that yellow flowers
would cure jaundice, a yellowish discoloration of the body.
Many taboos come from homeopathic magic. People avoid certain
harmless things because they resemble various harmful things.
Among the Inuit (Eskimos), for example, parents have traditionally
warned their sons against playing a string game, such as cat's
cradle, in which children loop string around their fingers. They
feared that playing such games might cause the children's fingers
to become tangled in the harpoon lines they will use as adults.
Contagious magic comes from the belief that after a person has had
contact with certain things, they will continue to influence that
person. The most common examples of contagious magic involve parts
of the body that have been removed, such as fingernails, hair, and
teeth. A person's nails and hair supposedly can affect the rest of
that person's body long after they have been cut off. A person can
injure an enemy by damaging a lock of hair or a piece of clothing
from the victim. A magician can even cripple an enemy by placing a
sharp object in that person's footprint.
People who believe in contagious magic fear that an enemy can gain
power over them by obtaining parts of their body. Therefore, they
carefully dispose of their nails, hair, teeth, and even their body
Witches and voodoo magicians often practice a type of homeopathic
magic called envoutement. The magician makes a doll or some other
likeness of an enemy. The magician harms the enemy by sticking
pins into the doll or injuring it in some other way. In some
societies, the doll includes a lock of hair or a piece of clothing
from the enemy. This type of envoutement is a combination of
homeopathic and contagious magic.
why people believe in magic
turn to magic chiefly as a form of insurance--that is, they use it
along with actions that actually bring results. For example,
hunters may use a hunting charm. But they also use their hunting
skills and knowledge of animals. The charm may give hunters the
extra confidence they need to hunt even more successfully than
they would without it. If they shoot a lot of game, they credit
the charm for their success. Many events occur naturally without
magic. Crops grow without it, and sick people get well without it.
But if people use magic to bring a good harvest or to cure a
patient, they may believe the magic was responsible.
People also tend to forget magic's failures and to be impressed by
its apparent successes. They may consider magic successful if it
appears to work only 10 per cent of the time. Even when magic
fails, people often explain the failure without doubting the power
of the magic. They may say that the magician made a mistake in
reciting the spell or that another magician cast a more powerful
spell against the magician.
Many anthropologists believe that people have faith in magic
because they feel a need to believe in it. People may turn to
magic to reduce their fear and uncertainty if they feel they have
no control over the outcome of a situation. For example, farmers
use knowledge and skill when they plant their fields. But they
know that weather, insects, or diseases might ruin the crops. So
farmers in some societies may also plant a charm or perform a
magic rite to ensure a good harvest.
Ancient times. The use of magic goes back at least as far as
50,000 B.C. About that time, prehistoric people buried cave bears,
probably as a magic rite. Scientists believe that much prehistoric
art had magical purposes. Hunters, for example, probably used cave
paintings of animals in rites intended to help them hunt the
Magic was important to the ancient Egyptians, who used amulets,
magic figures, and rites. The ancient Greeks and Romans tried to
tell the future from dreams. They also consulted priests called
oracles, who interpreted advice from the gods (see ORACLE).
According to one legend, the Three Wise Men who visited the baby
Jesus were astrologers who located Him by magic use of the stars
(see MAGI). The Bible has many references to magic, sorcery, and
During the Middle Ages, nearly all Europeans believed in magic.
The clergy considered magic sinful but believed in its power. The
so-called science of alchemy included much magic (see ALCHEMY).
Alchemists hoped to discover the philosopher's stone, a magic
substance that could change iron, lead, and other metals into
gold. They also sought the elixir of life, a miraculous substance
that could cure disease and lengthen life.
Many men joined a secret brotherhood called the Rosicrucians, an
early version of the present-day Rosicrucian Order. The
Rosicrucians studied magic lore and devoted themselves to curing
the sick and helping people in other ways. The Masons, another
secret group, also had elements of magic in their rituals.
From the 1500's to the 1700's, belief in magic continued
widespread. Even highly educated people believed in its power. The
Swiss physician Philippus Paracelsus, for example, experimented
with alchemy and believed in the power of talismans. Sir Isaac
Newton, the famous English astronomer and mathematician, studied
alchemy. Thousands of persons were tried and executed as witches
during this period.
Many forms of magic tried to predict the future. People believed a
person's character could be described or the future foretold in
various ways. These methods included studying the palm of a
person's hand, facial features, or even the moles on a person's
skin. Some people used tarot cards, a set of playing cards with
special pictures, for fortunetelling.
After about 1600, advances in science gradually weakened people's
belief in magic. But as late as the 1700's, the Italian magician
Count Allesandro di Cagliostro won fame for his powers. Cagliostro
traveled through Europe selling love potions and elixirs of life.
Magic today still plays an important role in the life of many
ethnic groups. Even among modern peoples, magic has many followers
with an interest in such subjects as astrology, fortunetelling,
and witchcraft. For example, many people who have faith in
astrology read their daily horoscope in a newspaper.
Countless people believe in superstitions that involve forms of
magic. Some persons carry a fetish, such as a rabbit's foot or a
lucky penny. They believe these articles have magic power to bring
good luck. Homeopathic magic appears in the superstition that a
newborn baby must be carried upstairs before it is carried down.
This act supposedly guarantees that the child will rise in the
world and have a successful life.
Magic also survives in much of today's advertising. The
manufacturers of such products as gasolines and headache remedies
boast of new, secret ingredients. Advertisements may indirectly
suggest that a mouthwash or a toothpaste will magically transform
an unpopular person into a popular one. Many people buy these and
other products for the magic qualities suggested by such
Contributor: Alan Dundes, Ph.D., Professor of Anthropology and
Folklore, University of California, Berkeley.