The World of Magic
In everyday usage, magic refers to a trick or a clever illusion. But the term has a more serious connotation in the framework of ancient science. It refers to practices whose aim is to influence people and events without direct or obvious means. Magic has a rich history. It was an intrinsic component of ancient science. Many theories have been proposed to explain the origin and persistence of this powerful element in human culture.
Magic is based on a few simple beliefs, questionable from modern scientific perspectives. The first is that invisible forces of good and evil permeate the world. Like us, our distant ancestors recognized that some people and animals, some weather changes and natural occurrences are helpful, while others are harmful and hurtful. Thus, rain and sun are useful and necessary, but lightning and hurricane are frightening and destructive. This led to a broad classification of things into good and evil. These were believed to enter into human beings and operate through them. That some people are useful and friendly, while others are unfriendly and mischievous, fits into this theory. We see here an unconscious extrapolation from observed facts that characterized ancient science.
Another magical belief is that an object or person can be affected by manipulating an image or symbol. Perhaps this arose from frustrations of not being able to bring about a desired effect on something, and from wishful thinking. When we wish to harm someone who is stronger than ourselves, or control someone beyond our reach, we get some satisfaction by imagining we are actually harming the person by inflicting fantasy harm upon a picture. On the political plane, there is considerable emotional release when people burn leaders in effigy or flags of countries they deeply hate.
In the magical world one believes that all can be influenced through words, motions, and emotions. In fact, words do much more than communication. They perpetuate knowledge and memory, they convey feelings and moods, they evoke love and laughter, tear and fear. Early humans probably recognized these powers of words more than we do. The ability to give command through words rather than with grunts and grumbles, and seeing them obeyed, must have led to the idea that words can accomplish such effects on things as well. Vestiges of this belief are with us when we say, “Good morning!” or “Good bye!” or, “Go to hell!” which actually mean, “May you have a good morning,” “May God be with you,” and “May you have all sorts of unpleasant experiences!”
The world of phenomena finds symbolic expression in numerous ways. The capacity for symbolism is one of the most powerful of human faculties. It is at the root of much of culture. Language is the most effective use of symbols. So the ancients saw symbols in everything. This led to some extraordinary extrapolations in magic. If an initiated person can read the symbols, he should be able to foretell events, and have control over them.
Unlike with astrology, a number of parallels may be drawn between magic and modern science with respect to attitudes and assumptions. Both accept the existence of fundamental entities which are ultimately responsible for natural phenomena. In both, these are invisible, although one might become aware of them indirectly. In magic, these are the good and evil forces; in science, these are the fundamental particles and their interactions. Explanations in terms of the hidden are common to both magic and science.
Again, in magic, as in science, one tries to put the knowledge of fundamental entities and forces to practical use. It is not enough to know that there are good and evil forces, that there are friendly spirits and mischievous agents of Satan. One should learn to encourage and manipulate them to act in our interest. So too, one of the goals of science is to turn to our advantage our understanding of the laws of physics and chemistry.
To accomplish this, one must adopt well-defined procedures. This again is as true in magic as in modern science. In magic such procedures are referred to as rituals. It is very important that rituals be performed meticulously for harnessing and controlling the magical forces. Likewise, in the world of science unless one follows precisely the procedures in a laboratory, the facts and fruits of science cannot come under our sway.
If and when it happens that after carefully following well-established procedures, one doesn’t obtain the expected results, one seldom questions the validity of the accepted principles. Rather, one is inclined to think that the fault lay with the practitioner: his or her inadequacy caused the failure. This is why one must be trained by an expert in magic as in science. Rigorous training under a specialist is absolutely essential before one can hope to take full advantage of the knowledge, both in magic and in science.
We also see a parallel between science and magic in the attitude of the public towards the practitioners. In former times, the magician used to be held in high esteem, respected and even feared because, with the extraordinary powers arising from a profound knowledge about the earth and the heavens, the magician could influence people and events in significant ways. The same is true of scientists in our own times. They are the know-alls, and on their expertise depend the foundations of civilization. Their words must therefore be listened to with attention, even if one doesn’t always understand them.
Magic and science emerged from our unique capacity to think in symbolic terms. Were it not for this ability, magic could not have developed in human culture; and neither could science. Abstract thought and the play of symbols is present in both. The magician interacts with all sorts of unseen and invisible forces which reign supreme in the world through chants and rituals. For this, he develops instruments which range from twigs and sacred grass to candles and incense. In the world of modern science, the abstract entities consist of concepts, while at the concrete level the instruments which are essential for scientific activity range from the thermometer and the Geiger counter to mammoth radio telescopes and the large laboratories of high energy physics.
Our beliefs have far greater impact on our behavior and sense of security than our understanding of any so-called objective fact. As a result, the tenets of magic have often influenced human behavior in more tangible ways than scientific information. Rituals in places of worship, the parades for the birthday of this leader or that revolution, the breaking of the champagne bottle when a new ship is launched, the waving of flags on important occasions, the sending of get-well cards to friends in the hospital, and the wishing with closed eyes before blowing birthday candles: all these are vestiges of magical practices. Failure to recognize this is the reason why we tend to look upon magic as being associated with only primitive cultures.
True, one should never write off any set of beliefs or practices as being baseless or untrue simply because they do not conform to the framework and assumptions of the current scientific enterprise. At the same time, it is good to remember some aspects of life and society when magic was taken seriously. It was not uncommon in the good old days to torture helpless animals in magical practices: skinning pigs alive or decapitating buffaloes was all part of magical rituals. Indeed, the idea of sacrificial animals, and even humans, has its roots in magical thought, for it was one way of propitiating the supernatural forces to win favors. In certain magical traditions ritual intercourse was an element of the practice. Some of those rituals developed into obscenities of the painful sort causing more harm and pain than excitement and pleasure.