September 20, 2017
Episode 5: Methodologies for the Study of Magic
Magic is at the heart of western esotericism. Since the earliest times, magic has been generally defined as ‘bad ritual’, the ceremonial practice of suspect outsiders, and the opposite of the ‘good’, legitimate rituals practiced by mainstream religions. But in the course of the SHWEP series we will see esoteric thinkers return again and again to the idea that, not only can human beings change reality and gain knowledge by manipulating the secret forces of the universe, but that to do so is not illicit, illegal, or wrong, but is in fact one of the highest forms of human activity. But how can we use a single term – ‘magic’ – to cover all the different claims and counter-claims involved in these debates?
Be warned: if the thought of a discussion full of academic methodological considerations doesn’t strike you as very … well, magical, then you might want to skip this episode. It is probably not the most exciting one in the SHWEP canon, but, when dealing with a concept as important as magic, we should do our best to define what it is we are talking about at the outset, or at least point out the danger for muddled thinking when we use a slippery concept like ‘magic’. This episode tries to give some tools for navigating the study of magic in a clear-headed and rigorous way. We come to the conclusion that the term ‘magic’ is highly suspect, and probably should be abandoned when we are speaking about the phenomenon of ‘ritual acts of power’ as a whole. However, there is probably no escaping from the charged and ubiquitous term ‘magic’.
Some of the specifics covered are:
- The Greek and Latin origins of the terms ‘magic’ and ‘mage’, our most useful, but also our most problematic, terms for discussing … well, for discussing ‘magic’.
- What we mean by the academic concepts of first- and second-order terms, and ‘emic’ and ‘etic’. As a special bonus, we also cover the term ‘heuristic’.
- The religion vs. magic debate, as exemplified by Sir James George Frazer’s gargantuan (and deeply misleading) book The Golden Bough.
- Sex, death, and language, three of the basic facts of human existence, are essential ingredients of magic traditions, and when we try to think clearly about magic, we have to face some primordial human stuff.
Works Discussed In This Episode
- ABBA, 1977, single release 1978. ‘Take a Chance on Me’.
- Frazer, Sir J.G., 1900. The Golden Bough (2nd ed.), London. For Frazer’s notorious magic vs. religion distinction developed at considerable length, see vol. 1 pp. 7-128.
- Janowitz, N., 2002. Magic in the Roman World: Pagans, Jews and Christians. Routledge, London.
- Said, E. W., 2003. Orientalism. Penguin, London.
- D.F. Aberle. Religio-Magical Phenomena and Power, Prediction and Control. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, pages 221–30, 1966.
- Bernd-Christian Otto and Michael Stausberg, eds. (2014). Defining Magic: A Reader. Routledge, London / New York, NY.
- Hanegraaff, W. (2012). Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge and Western Culture. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 164-6 gives a short and interesting survey of scholarly approaches to magic.
- K.E. Rosengren. Malinowski’s Magic: The Riddle of the Empty Cell. Current Anthropology, 17:667–85, 1976.
- Styers, R. (2004). Making Magic: Religion, Magic, and Science in the Modern World. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
- M. & R. Wax. The Notion of Magic. Current Anthropology, 4: 495–518, 1963
For some strong arguments against drawing a serious, essentialised distinction between religion and magic, see e.g.
- W.J. Goode. Magic and Religion: A Continuum. Ethnos, 14:172–82, 1949.
- Kingsley, P., 1995. Ancient Philosophy, Mystery, and Magic: Empedocles and Pythagorean Tradition. Clarendon Press, Oxford, pp. 306-316.
- Mazur, Z. (2003). ‘Unio Magica: Part One: On the Magical Origins of Plotinus’ Mysticism’, Dionysius New Series, 21 : 23-52, p. 55.
For a forceful and witty dismemberment of The Golden Bough and the whole ‘Frazer paradigm’, check out
- Smith, J. Z. (1973). ‘When the Bough Breaks’, History of Religions 12 : 342-371.
Aleister Crowley, Historiography, Magic, Methodology, Natural Magic, Rupert and Steve, Theurgy
July 30, 2020
I got to hang out with Zeke Mazur and his family one lovely afternoon in Berkeley. What a provocative scholar and such a loss.
July 30, 2020
Agreed. I never met the guy, but I like his work.
Zeke’s PhD thesis is being edited for publication and will soon see the light of day. We also have his posthumous Introduction and Commentary to Plotinus’ Treatise 33 (II.9) Against the Gnostics and Related Studies (Canada: Presses de l’Université Laval 2019). So the legacy is alive and well.
Travis Wade ZINN
September 14, 2020
Very helpful episode, it’s good that you’ve provided these introductory talks for folks like me who are not scholars. I have Kingsley’s book on magic that you list in the references on my desk to read after I finish Cataphalque.
December 22, 2022
Have you finally read Kingsley’s Catafalque and Ancient Philosophy? What’s your take on them? (If our podcaster thinks this is entirely off-topic, he may send you my private email address so you can answer there.) Kingsley is an interesting case because he started off as a decent classical scholar and, from his Dark Places onwards, he went off to a completely different direction beyond the bounds of rational scholarly discourse, becoming perhaps a bit too esoteric (to my taste at least). I wonder if Earl has considered interviewing him for any of these podcasts…
December 22, 2022
I did indeed ask Kingsley to do an interview on Parmenides way back in the day, and he said sort of yes, but we never could make it work. But I was well aware of his sort of ‘initiated turn’ after his first couple of books, so I was sceptical as to whether we could make it work anyway in the SHWEP context.
As you rightly allude to, he has consciously left behind the kind of thing we do here at the SHWEP (i.e. fairly-boring, etic scholarship) for a kind of mystical path, for lack of a better way of putting it. There are a lot of interesting methodological lessons and questions in the Peter Kinsley story, for sure.
But that first book, that was a doozy! Great stuff.
In terms of his current work, he would be an ideal person to interview on roughly post-Jungian, neo-Sufi perennialism, but as an anthropological fieldwork interview, not as a scholar who studies the stuff from outside.