Podcast episode

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.

Recommended Reading

  • 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.


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