Two Awesome Books on Magic (or the lack thereof)

By October 7, 2010

Randall Styers. Making Magic: Religion, Magic, and Science in the Modern World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Naomi Janowitz. Magic in the Roman World: Pagans, Jews and Christians. London: Routledge, 2001.

Syters begins his book with a quote from Bruno Latour: “Do not trust those who analyze magic. They are usually magicians in search of revenge.” The Pasteurization of France, (Harvard 1988), 212. I’m not sure what that then says about Styers or myself, but fun to think about nonetheless.

In Making Magic, Styers argues that ?magic? is the foil that scholars have used to define ?modernity.? ?Western modernity developed distinctive forms of technical and institutional power that fueled its processes of modernization, but at its heart was this fundamental mode of reflexive differentiation.? The tool was magic. Quoting Gustovo Benavides ??A condition of modernity presupposes an act of self-conscious distancing from a past or a situation regarded as naïve? (4). ?The plasticity of magic, its pliable and permeable nature, has made the concept readily adaptable as a polemical and ideological tool, especially when coupled with the long-standing stigma attached to the notion? (9). Protestant reformers and scholars in the Protestant tradition often called Catholics magical.

Yet regardless of affiliation, ?One of my objectives here will be to demonstrate that, regardless of scholars? personal motives, the dominant theories of magic have functioned to delimit religion in a manner that renders it increasingly extraneous to modern culture. Whether framed as a policy against all beliefs in the supernatural or merely as a polemic advocating certain narrow religious norms, scholarly arguments against magic have commonly prescribed an increasingly limited role for religion, leaving it relevant?if at all?only as a tenuous source of private comfort or subjective validation. The dominant theories of magic have regularly served to untether religion from life in the material world, to configure religion as an ungrounded abstraction decidedly irrelevant to pragmatic affairs.? (10-11). ?The dominant theories of magic offer a harmless, rationalized model of religion serviceable for liberal modernity? (12).

Furthermore, argues Styers, ?magic? became a tool of colonialism: ?primitive? non-European societies engaged in it and therefore needed ?modern? Europeans to rule them. To the chagrin of these scholars, magic still persisted on the margins in Europe. ?The scholarly discourses on magic have regularly conformed to the interests of the dominant classes of Europe and America seeking to regulate and control both their colonial possessions and their domestic populations, especially the troublesome groups on the margins of society? (16). Ultimately, says Styers, ?Magic has held great appeal for scholars because of its capacity both to reinscribe and to subvert the self-representations of the modern world? (226).

Styers then goes through the history of late nineteenth and early twentieth century scholarship on magic (Tylor, Frazer et al.) showing how scholars sought to define magic as primitive and backward in opposition to what was proper and modern. One of the first tasks was the evolutionary theory of religion: how what the primitives did evolved into what the Europeans did. Throughout these narratives, magic is always what was left behind as cultures advanced to less material, ideological views of religion. ?With religion cordoned away in pious abstraction, the material world is ceded to the unbridled control of modern science? (119). Science was also seen as developing along similar lines of rationality over and against magic.

Citing David Hume, Styers argues that magic (or “irrational” behavior) was seen as a threat to commerce or the interests of the bourgeois class. Styers argues for money being a kind of magic and concludes ?the most potent magic may well be found not where we have been told to expect it?the social margins?but rather among the intellectual and cultural elites, even among scholars of magic? (207). I found this use of ?magic? unhelpful since Styers spends so much time attacking definitions of magic and since Styers himself makes no attempt at his own definition. Earlier, Styers quotes G. R. Quaife ??Magic is a label applied to phenomena which have certain characteristics in common. There is little agreement on the phenomena or the characteristics.?? ?This difficulty,? states Styers, ?is evident even in one of the most substantative and influential scholarly works on the witchcraft persecutions, Keith Thomas?s Religion and the Decline of Magic. While Thomas?s work provides invaluable historical insight, numerous scholars have properly pointed out that Thomas himself sometimes lapses into an uncritical use of the notion of ?magic?, paying insufficient attention to the ways in which our modern understanding of the term is itself a product of the very social conflicts he is excavating.? Thomas, says Styers, is ?hardly alone? (29).

The irony is that Styers himself ?sometimes lapses into an uncritical use of the notion of ?magic.?? Thus I think it best not to use ?magic? at all as a scholarly category. While the critique of modern systems of rationality is worthwhile, labeling them ?magic? seems to defeat Styers purposes. ?Systems of belief? or ?rationality? seem better. Styers cites Edmund Leach approvingly: ??After a lifetimes? career as a professional anthropologist, I have almost reached the conclusion that the word has no meaning whatsoever?? (8). Styers and Leach need to remove the ?almost.?

The problem is that “magic” is an incredibly meaningful word when used by particular cultures. Scholars need to distinguish between the descriptive terms that they use (etic categories) and the terms their subjects use (emic categories). That is, people talk about magic all the time but the definition is all over the map so scholars should not use it as a descriptive (etic) category.

The best book that I have read so far at making these distinctions is Naomi Janowitz, Magic in the Roman World. ?I ask the reader to explore a variety of once-maligned rituals without using the word ?magic?? (ix). Like Styers, Janowitz attacks the scholarly tradition of defining magic. In James Frazer’s Golden Bough, ?All these exemplary rituals were taken out of their theological and social contexts. This was the key to building a synthetic picture of ?magic.? Since the theological explanations were missing, the practices looked nonsensical and silly. They were then contrasted to other more familiar religious practices of Protestant Christians? ?Ultimately Frazer?s discussion did not establish a coherent category of magical rituals distinct from religious ones, based on either the methods employed or the goals sought” (4). ?Despite its increasingly contested status, ?magic? still lingers on as a substantive category in scholarly discourse,” however, ?the label ?magic,? in short, was too closely intertwined with polemics in the ancient world to easily, or even with a great deal of contortion, fall into a neat scholarly category? (5). Ultimately, says Janowitz, ?Despite our desire to see ourselves as direct heirs of late antique beliefs, we must develop a sense of being visitors to this world. And most of all we must be willing to look at rituals which might seem familiar with new eyes lest we too easily join the polemical wars of an ancient world? (8).

Janowitz then systematically goes through classical definitions of magic. First she notes that many of the charges had no basis in reality. ?In Christian, Jewish and Greco-Roman sources,” she explains “the terms we translate as ?magic? and ?magicians? were associated with human sacrifices, perverse sexual practices and all sorts of antisocial and misanthropic activities.? Yet these charges usually bogus; the Jews were often accused of it. ?Charges of magic reveal social tensions, internecine battles, competition for power, and fear that other people have special powers? (1). “Charges of witchcraft represented socially-acceptable modes of attack against political enemies when other modes of asserting rivalry were not an option?. In these attacks we see people trying, at best, to produce exciting literature, or at worst, to eliminate enemies and opponents.” There was a very real fear of harmful magic, but very little practice of such things. ?We must not confuse these attacks with sober presentations of facts; simply put, when someone calls someone else a magician, we should not take the charge at face value? (2).

At the simplest level,” explains Janowitz “magic was the term used for other people?s religious rituals. Christian and Greco-Roman writers denounced as magic Jewish practices of fasting, food restrictions and Sabbath observance.? Jesus was also denounced as a magician (16-17).

On the other hand, ?Many of the people labeled ?magicians? in the first three centuries were simply practicing traditional forms of their religious practice. ? The ancient practitioners would be horrified to be lumped together with ?witches? and ?warlocks.?? They too believe that certain other practices were witchcraft and condemned the practitioners as magicians” (3). Modern scholars have gone so far as to find practices that they deem magic in ancient texts and label them so in their translations. For instance scholars have termed the Jewish Book of Secrets “magic” even though ?Hebrew terms for magic do not occur anywhere in the Book of Secrets? (48). This is because it contains what we might call “love magic.” Explains Janowitz, ?In terms of goals, mundane concerns such as making a woman fall in love with a man appear too petty or not spiritual enough to be part of religion. So too cursing rituals do not seem to fit into the proper bounds of religion. These are, or course, highly selective notions of religion. Looking for material gain, cursing, condemning and generally thwarting enemies were all part and parcel of ancient religious practices. The intimate and inseparable connection between curses and blessings is demonstrated in the Hebrew Scriptures where the two are a special category of speech. Both types of speech work automatically and cannot be taken back since they have automatic efficacy.? (Deut 27-28, Gen 27, Num 22). ?Just as legal language sounds like nonsense to the uninitiated, people outside of the implicit social contract can intentionally or accidentally malign any of these rites. It is easy to impute that the amulet?s user thinks that the amulet itself really is the god, and thus to accuse him or her of idolatry or magic? (58).

Thus, instead of “love magic,” Janowitz uses the term “love rites.” She also gives a very useful explanation of how alchemy fit within the belief system. Janowitz has a really awesome chapter on deification in the ancient world, but thats for another time.

Janowitz concludes by noting, ?Pagan practices adopted by Christians are still often mis-characterized as the ?magical? component of Christianity (Flint 1991)” (99). ?The more we understand those imaginings,” says Janowitz “the better we are able to trace their lingering impacts today and decide if these are imaginings we wish to embrace” (100).

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews


  1. Great post. Care to apply the reasoning to Quinn’s magic book which seemed most undermined by the nebulous “magic” category?

    Comment by Clark — October 7, 2010 @ 4:33 pm

  2. Clark, I think you said it best. In fairness to Quinn, those were assumptions that most scholars had at the time he wrote the book and many still have now. Still, though, I have never seen a scholar successful use magic as an analytic category. Even Religion and the Decline of Magic, which I argued was the best book ever written, couldn’t manage it.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — October 7, 2010 @ 5:49 pm

  3. Thanks for the write-up Steve. I’m considering an article on medical practice and healing liturgy among the Latter-day Saints, in which I trace some magical elements. I’m not sure yet the best way to frame it, but you have given me a lot to think about.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 7, 2010 @ 9:00 pm

  4. “Charges of magic reveal social tensions, internecine battles, competition for power…”

    Too true. From the perspective of the present, it’s really amusing to watch rival 16th-century astrologers denounce each other as necromancers. Today it’s all hocus-pocus, but at the time they were quite insistent that they were engaged in a rigorous academic undertaking (while that guy up the road was clearly consorting with demons).

    Comment by Jonathan Green — October 8, 2010 @ 9:53 am

  5. Sounds like the old exocannibalism debates (everyone else does it, but we don’t, we swear). When the dust finally settled, as I recall, there was a lot less exocannibalism than once thought, but there actually was some.

    Steve, do these authors do a better job on this than Jonathan Z. Smith?

    Comment by smb — October 8, 2010 @ 2:40 pm

  6. Nice write-up as usual Steve. I read Styers in graduate school and was turned off by what I thought was his overwrought and exalted sense of self. In my own recent work, I have found that using various typologies of ritual helps to solve the magic question–it’s not perfect, to be sure, but it makes the problem manageable for me.

    Comment by SC Taysom — October 9, 2010 @ 9:59 am

  7. Sam, oops, haven’t read JZ Smith yet. Still a lot to get to.

    J., the category is tough to get totally away from. Related to Jonathan’s point is that although such charges were often bogus we do have evidence that people really did engage in what was called “necromancy” or consorting with demons. It was demon-binding, using rituals to bind demons and then forcing them to reveal their special knowledge to you. That combined with the fact that what people were after in such rituals were deemed totally impious (love magic, money, harming enemies) made demon binding seem totally wicked at the time as it does now. So “magic” seems like a pretty apt title for such activities. The things is, I think this is related to what SC says, you’re better off describing the actual ritual and its rationale. Lumping a bunch of practices under the heading “magic” creates problems because few people define it exactly the same way. So instead of trying to figure what category certain folk rituals belong in, I thinks it’s better to leave off such categories and focus on trying to understand the rituals.

    SC, for me Styers started out great but didn’t really point to what direction one ought to take from there. That’s why I also put up the review of Janowitz who I thought did a great job of showing how to apply certain methods. These become trickier in a Christian context though, because love, curing, and material gain in such activities as demon-biding were generally frowned upon by Christians then and now. As was talking to demons. So Christianity adds a further layer. But I still found Janowitz very helpful.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — October 9, 2010 @ 3:04 pm

  8. we read styers in a class last year. don’t remember any of it though. so this review is great. thanks.

    we also read christopher lehrich’s the occult mind. can’t recall that one either.

    Comment by g.wesley — October 9, 2010 @ 5:12 pm

  9. “Trading Places” is in Relating Religion, 215ff. Quick and insightful read.

    Comment by smb — October 9, 2010 @ 8:44 pm


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