Magic and religion

Magical thinking in various forms is a cultural universal and an important aspect of religion. Magic is prevalent in all societies, regardless of whether they have organized religion or more general systems of animism or shamanism. Religion and magic became conceptually separated with the development of western monotheism, where the distinction arose between supernatural events sanctioned by mainstream religious doctrine ("miracles") and mere magic rooted in folk belief or occult speculation. In pre-monotheistic religious traditions, there is no fundamental distinction between religious practice and magic; tutelary deities concerned with magic are sometimes called "hermetic deities" or "spirit guides."

Magical practices in prehistory

Main article: Prehistoric religion

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, based on Welsh prophet Myrddin Wyllt), some form of shamanism and belief in a spirit world seems to be common in the early development of human communities. According to Joseph Campbell, the ancient cave paintings in Lascaux may have been associated with "the magic of the hunt."[1] 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 monarchs and bureaucrats, so too did shamans and adepts evolve into a priestly caste.

This shift is not in naming alone. 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 Babylonian, Persian, Aztec, and Maya civilizations.

Anthropological and psychological perspectives

It is a postulate of modern anthropology, at least since early 1930s, that there is complete continuity between magic and religion.[2][3] In the past, there have been many attempts by anthropologists to establish some fundamental distinction between magic and religion, most notably by James George Frazer and Bronisław Malinowski; they tried to demonstrate that "magical thinking" is a form of proto-science or pseudoscience rather than a form of religious practice, and that by this line of thought, early magical beliefs developed through a post-hoc fallacy a supplication was made on the altar, and then it rained shortly afterward. Regardless of whether the supplication was the actual cause, it was credited with the change, and thus magical beliefs could grow.

One magician's response to this is that magic is unconcerned with establishing causality, only repeatability: Ramsey Dukes explains in his book S.S.O.T.B.M.E. that questions such as "Are you sure it was your magic that cured her?" are irrelevant to the magician. "If it was a coincidence, it doesn't matter just so long as he can bring about such coincidences"[4]

Functional differences between religion and magic

Early sociological interpretations of magic by Marcel Mauss and Henri Hubert emphasized the social conditions in which the phenomenon of magic develops.[5] According to them, religion is the expression of a social structure and serves to maintain the cohesion of a community (religion is therefore 'public') and magic is an individualistic action (and therefore 'private').[5]

Ralph Merrifield, the British archaeologist credited as producing the first full-length volume dedicated to a material approach to magic,[6] defined the differences between religion and magic: "'Religion' is used to indicate the belief in supernatural or spiritual beings; 'magic', the use of practices intended to bring occult forces under control and so to influence events; 'ritual', prescribed or customary behaviour that may be religious, if it is intended to placate or win favour of supernatural beings, magical if it is intended to operate through impersonal forces of sympathy or by controlling supernatural beings, or social if its purpose is to reinforce a social organisation or facilitate social intercourse".[7]

In 1991 Henk Versnel argued that 'magic' and 'religion' function in different ways and that these can be broadly defined in four areas: Intention - magic is employed to achieve clear and immediate goals for an individual, whereas religion is less purpose-motivated and has its sights set on longer-term goals; Attitude – magic is manipulative as the process is in the hands of the user, “instrumental coercive manipulation”, opposed to the religious attitude of “personal and supplicative negotiation”; Action – magic is a technical exercise that often requires professional skills to fulfil an action, whereas religion is not dependent upon these factors but the will and sentiment of the gods; Social – the goals of magic run counter to the interests of a society (in that personal gain for an individual gives them an unfair advantage over peers), whereas religion has more benevolent and positive social functions.[8]

This separation of the terms 'religion' and 'magic' in a functional sense is disputed. It has been argued that abandoning the 'term' magic in favour of discussing "belief in spiritual beings" will help to create a more meaningful understanding of all associated ritual practices.[9] However using the word 'magic' alongside 'religion' is one method of trying to understand the supernatural world, even if some other term can eventually take its place.[8]

Religious practices and magic

Closely related to magic are most forms of religious supplication, asking the divine for aid. Perhaps the most famous form is prayer, which is ordained by many religions as a spiritual duty, even apart from any effects on the outside world.

Both magic and religion contain rituals.[7] Typically, there is a recognition that rituals do not always work; rather, it is thought to simply increase the likelihood of the desired result coming to pass. While many rituals focus on personal communion with the divine and spiritual purification, others often seek "magical" favourable results, such as healing or good luck in battle.

Most cultures have or have had in their past some form of magical tradition that recognizes a shamanistic interconnectedness of spirit. This may have been long ago, as a folk tradition that died out with the establishment of a major world religion, such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam or Buddhism, or it may still co-exist with that world religion.[10]

Likewise, both can be divided by the effects they produce into perception and material changes. That is, whether prayer or some type of spell is used, it can either bring about an actual change (material) or a change in the way the subject feels (perception). The same prayer, for something to be "cooler" could therefore either actually raise the temperature, or simply alter the praying subject and any other targets feeling of the temperature. This is not to say that perception changes are not "real" as it could be used in healing to numb the sensation of pain, allowing healing to take place more easily.

Names of the Gods

There is a long-standing belief in the power of "true names;" this often descends from the magical belief that knowing a being's true name grants power over it.[11] This is often seen as a requirement in spiritualism; knowing the identity of a spirit greatly aids in soliciting information from it.

If names have power, then knowing the name of a god regarded as supreme in a religion should grant the greatest power of all. This belief is reflected in traditional Wicca, where the names of the Goddess and the Horned God - the two supreme deities in Wicca - are usually held as a secret to be revealed only to initiates. This belief is also reflected in ancient Judaism, which used the Tetragrammaton (YHWH, usually translated as "Lord" in small caps) to refer to God "safely" in the Tanakh. The same belief is seen in Hinduism, but with different conclusions; rather, attaining transcendence and the power of God is seen as a good thing. Thus, some Hindus chant the name of their favorite deities as often as possible, the most common being Krishna.[12]

Using the names of the god alongside magical pictures or visual literary effects, such as palindromes, are a common feature of the Roman-era Greek Magical Papyri.

Religious artifacts

Some religions believe in transferring holiness to objects and places; this is often seen in even simple things like "christening" or launching ceremonies for a new boat. Churches and certain religiously-minded individuals often consecrate the ground where a building will be constructed.

The practice was common during the Middle Ages, where a large market for spiritual relics existed. Fragments of the true cross and bones of saints were often brought back by Crusaders from the Holy Land, where they were sold to the peasantry as cure-alls. Most scholarly sources agree that the vast majority of these sales were fraudulent and simply a form of supplementary income for the Crusaders. This practice somewhat fell into disrepute during the Reformation; it became associated with idol worship. As a result, this is less seen in Protestantism than Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy.[13]


Main article: Sacrifice

One of the more controversial practices in magic and religion both, 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.

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. Less used is blood sacrifice. In early history, blood sacrifice was common; a goat or calf would be sacrificed. Often, divination would be practiced via reading the entrails (notably in Ancient Rome). Leviticus contains detailed rules for proper blood sacrifice, used in early Judaism. Blood sacrifice has been rejected by most neopagans. In hoodoo, blood ritual, or the giving of one's own blood in ritual practices, is not entirely uncommon. Most strands of modern Judaism believe that with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, there is no place to sacrifice anymore, and thus the need is negated; (modern Samaritans disagree, and maintain the practice). In Christianity, it is believed that Jesus's final sacrifice renders any further sacrifices unnecessary. Some syncretic blends of Islam and native practices in places such as Indonesia feature sacrifice as an element of worship.

The most extreme form of sacrifice, and the one carrying the most negative taboo, is human sacrifice. The moloch is one famous but disputed example of the practice; the Carthaginians seemingly sacrificed young children when circumstances looked grim, hoping to regain divine favor. Some historians attribute this to one reason for their downfall. Other cultures preferred to sacrifice only their enemies, offering up captured prisoners in supplication; the Druids became one of the two religions banned by the Roman Empire due to their practice of (Roman) human sacrifice.[12] The book Genesis contains the famous story of the Binding of Isaac; Abraham is ordered to sacrifice his son Isaac by God, but it turns out that God was only performing a test, and a ram is sent instead. Afterwards, human sacrifice is condemned. The Quran contains strong condemnations of the Arabian pagans who would sacrifice female babies by leaving them in pots in the desert to die of exposure, saying that such practice surely leads to hell.

Magic and Abrahamic religion

Magic and Abrahamic religions have had a somewhat checkered past. The King James Version of the Bible included the famous translation "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" (Exodus 22:18),[14] and Saul is rebuked by God for seeking advice from a diviner who could contact spirits. On the other hand, seemingly magical signs are documented in the Bible: For example, both the staff of Pharaoh's sorcerers as well as the staff of Moses and Aaron could be turned into snakes (Exodus 7:8-13). However, as Scott Noegel points out, the critical difference between the magic of Pharaoh's magicians and the non-magic of Moses is in the means by which the staff becomes a snake. For the Pharaoh's magicians, they employed "their secret arts" whereas Moses merely throws down his staff to turn it into a snake. To an ancient Egyptian, the startling difference would have been that Moses neither employed secret arts nor magical words. In the Torah, Noegel points out that YHWH does not need magical rituals to act.[15]

See also Numbers 21:5-9, in which Moses creates a Bronze Snake in order to heal the Israelites from snake bites. But see the Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 29a, which asserts that it was not the bronze serpent that healed the Israelites, but rather their seeing the snake and submitting themselves to God.

The words "witch" and "witchcraft" appear in some English versions of the Christian Holy Bible. One verse that is probably responsible for more deaths of suspected witches than any other passage from the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) is Exodus 22:18. In the King James Version, this reads: "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." The precise meaning of the Hebrew word kashaph, here translated as 'witch' and in some other modern versions, 'sorceress', is uncertain. In the Septuagint it was translated as pharmakeia, meaning 'pharmacy', and on this basis, Reginald Scot claimed in the 16th century that 'witch' was an incorrect translation and poisoners were intended.[16] His theory still holds some currency, but is not widely accepted, and in Daniel 2:2 kashaph is listed alongside other magic practitioners who could interpret dreams: magicians, astrologers and Chaldeans. It may be noted that the Hebrew word kashaph is in the masculine, and in modern Hebrew usage, kashaph is synonymous with a male sorcerer.

The Judeo-Christian abhorrence of witches was not peculiar to them. The pagan Roman Empire and Babylonian Empire developed laws against malevolent witchcraft. The ancient Code of Hammurabi specifically called for death to witches, and also proscribed false accusations of witchcraft:

If a man has laid a charge of witchcraft and has not justified it, he upon whom the witchcraft is laid shall go to the holy river; he shall plunge into the holy river and if the holy river overcome him, he who accused him shall take to himself his house.

See also


  1. Campbell, Joseph (1991). The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology. Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-019443-6.
  2. Cassirer, Ernst (1944) An Essay On Man, pt.II, ch.7 Myth and Religion, pp.122-3. Quotation:
    It seems to be one of the postulates of modern anthropology that there is complete continuity between magic and religion. [note 35: See, for instance, RR Marett, Faith, Hope, and Charity in Primitive Religion, the Gifford Lectures (Macmillan, 1932), Lecture II, pp. 21 ff.] ... We have no empirical evidence at all that there ever was an age of magic that has been followed and superseded by an age of religion.
  3. Robert Ranulph Marett (1932) Faith, Hope and Charity in Primitive Religion, in Gifford Lectures. Lecture II Hope. Quotation:
    In conclusion, a word must be said on a rather trite subject. Many leading anthropologists, including the author of The Golden Bough, would wholly or in the main refuse the title of religion to these almost inarticulate ceremonies of very humble folk. I am afraid, however, that I cannot follow them. Nay, I would not leave out a whole continent from a survey of the religions of mankind in order to humour the most distinguished of my friends. Now clearly if these observances are not to be regarded as religious, like a wedding in church, so neither can they be classed as civil, like its drab equivalent at a registry office. They are mysteries, and are therefore at least generically akin to religion. Moreover, they are held in the highest public esteem as of infinite worth whether in themselves or for their effects. To label them, then, with the opprobrious name of magic as if they were on a par with the mummeries that enable certain knaves to batten on the nerves of fools is quite unscientific; for it mixes up two things which the student of human culture must keep rigidly apart, namely, a normal development of the social life and one of its morbid by-products. Hence for me they belong to religion, but of course to rudimentary religion—to an early phase of the same world-wide institution that we know by that name among ourselves. I am bound to postulate the strictest continuity between these stages of what I have here undertaken to interpret as a natural growth.
  4. Ramsay Dukes, S.S.O.T.B.M.E. Revised, The Mouse That Spins, England, 2000 ISBN 0-904311-08-2, pp 22-23
  5. 1 2 Pasi, M. 2006. "Magic". in von Stuckrad, K. (ed.) The Brill Dictionary of Ancient Religion. Volume III. M-R. Leiden and Boston, Brill. 1134-1140.
  6. Houlbrook, C. and Armitage, N. 'Introduction: The materiality of the materiality of magic', in Houlbrook, C. and Armitage, N. (eds.) The Materiality of Magic: An artefactual investigation into ritual practices and popular beliefs.Oxford and Philadelphia, Oxbow Books. 1-13.
  7. 1 2 Merrifield, R. 1987. The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic. London, Guild Publishing.
  8. 1 2 Versnel, H. S. 1991. “Some Reflections on the Relationship Magic-Religion.” Numen 38 (2). 177-195.
  9. Otto, B-C. 2013. "Towards Historicizing 'Magic' in Antiquity", Numen 60. 308-347.
  10. Magic and Religion
  11. Fischer, Ernst (1981). The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach. New York, NY: Penguin Books. p. 31.
  12. 1 2 Gonick, Larry. The Cartoon History of the Universe. Doubleday.
  13. Palmer, R. R.; Joel Colton (1995) [1950]. A History of the Modern World (Eighth ed.). McGraw-Hill, Inc.
  14. King James Version of the Bible. 1611.
  16. Scot, Reginald (c. 1580) The Discoverie of Witchcraft Booke VI Ch. 1.
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