Magic is complex and difficult to define. Generally, it refers to ritual activity – usually without institutional supports – the execution of which, through words and actions considered powerful, intends to automatically induce changes of various types. There are good (white magic) or bad (black magic) aims relating to various human and natural events (health, sex life, reproductive activity, climatic events, knowledge of the future, social relationships, etc.) according to the desires of those who use it (magicians or their clients) and those who believe (magic also pre supposes a system of beliefs, apart from rituals), so that the practitioner is able to bend to his or her will the powers on which the various aspects of reality depend.

The concept of magic arose and developed in western civilization and has served to define, polemically, internal mythical ritual expressions (as do most marginalized practices) considered in opposition to religion, science, and reason. This concept was then extended and applied to people other than those of the West, assuming the value of a category which both defines and devalues cultural alterity (religions of higher ancient civilizations – Egypt, Vedic India, etc. – of primitive or colonized peoples).

The expression mageia, from which “magic” derives, has its origin in the name of Persian priests, magoi, who belonged to the Zoroastrian priesthood (Herodotus). Thus, it originally defined an official and prestigious role. But in classical Greek and Roman culture, and later in Christianity and western culture in general, there was a radical change in the meaning of this expression, which acquired a negative and controversial character.

Greek civilization called magoi marginal people. They were surrounded by scorn and considered charlatans. The expression magos was used to define the foreigner, the barbaros. The magus had the same value in Latin culture, and magia was viewed with distrust and as an instrument which threatened the normal order of individual, family, and social life. Magic was evaluated and repressed as a crime beginning with the Law of the Twelve Tables until the Codex of Theodosius and Justinian. Enemies were accused of magic: pagan intellectuals accused Christians of magic and later Christians accused pagans of the same.

It is often ancient and overthrown religions that are accused by the victorious religion of magic and superstition (an idea closely related to that of magic). This happened in the case of the victory of Christianity over the ancient polytheism of the Roman Empire. Christianity added a demonic character to the concept of magic, thus reducing the ancient divinities to the level of demons. This also had far reaching consequences in the long run, such as in the witch hunts of the modern period (fifteenth to seventeenth centuries) where the devil became the cornerstone of the ideology of the witch, and even the most simple act of popular magic was considered as inspired by the devil. In the same way, magic and superstition were associated by European colonizers, in a Christian centered view, with the myths and rituals of the peoples conquered in various continents. Within complex and industrialized societies the practices and beliefs of subordinate social classes, popular religions, and rural communities have been placed by those who hold the reins of cultural and religious power within the devaluing category of magic.

Nevertheless, apart from magic as an expression belonging to dominant groups, there exists also a learned tradition. This is the case of the magia naturalis (natural magic) of Humanism (with precedents in the field of occult medieval sciences, and even earlier within Neoplatonism). This is understood as esoteric knowledge of the elect few, able to penetrate into the secret mechanism of the world in order to act upon it and change it. There one finds Neoplatonic formulations and conceptions of the universe as a complex organism of empathy and consonance, in which man by his intelligence is able to intervene to foresee the future and to change it, dominating it with his knowledge and the actions inspired by it: the reality of man and Nature. Magic appears here to be a type of knowledge of the laws of the universe, as a science not yet divulged. In this sense, the Renaissance magia naturalis of Giambattista Della Porta, Marsilio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, Paracelso, Tommaso Campanella, Giordano Bruno, and Cornelio Agrippa (seen as esoteric knowledge) scorned and condemned ceremonial as base, vile magic and demonic magic. In this case – in which we see a reevaluation of magic – we can also notice how there still exists the characteristic anti magic controversy of the West. The conception of New Science was founded on the acquisition of knowledge based on experiment and – as opposed to the secrecy of knowledge – hoped for the spread of data for the benefit of everyone and refused every kind of magic, including natural magic. The Enlightenment and later positivism considered magic on a par with an irrational and unjustifiable superstition and the fruit of ignorance (Rossi 2004; de Martino 1976). On this basis, the concept of magic – as the fruit of a controversial history – is characterized as the negative half of a binomial whose opposite expression is religion, science, and rationality. Above all, this western category was applied to other civilizations (e.g., primitive peoples) who had not experienced Western alternatives.

Today, the use of magic is widespread: the fruit of urban uneasiness which looks for the short cut of a magical miracle via unconventional operators, but also as the mystifying ability of power (Burdeau et al. 1989). The concept of magic has been the object of many studies, giving life to different interpretive theories, which consider magic from different points of view: as science in embryo, as an inferior religion, as a social function, and as a universal structure.

Anthropological evolutionism, whose major representatives are Tylor (1832-1917) and Frazer (1854—1941), studied magic according to an intellectualistic perspective, as a mode of knowledge, of organization, and of the manipulation of reality. It is considered to be a deceptive cognitive system, typical of the more primitive stages of evolution and still present, as a survival and the result of ignorance, among the lower social strata of civilized Europe, ethnocentrically assumed to be the evolutionary apex and parameter with which to measure the level of other civilizations. Frazer claims that in the evolution of humanity it is possible to identify three principal stages: magic, religion, and science. He places magic in the first and most primitive stage, when it is thought possible to intervene directly in nature through words, deeds, and signs. When one becomes aware of the ineffectiveness of magical actions and the inability to influence nature at will, then one believes it is governed by potent forces, on which man also depends, and towards which one takes an attitude of propitiation and conciliation which is manifested in prayer and sacrifice. Thus, religion is born. Science, the last stage of evolution, allows us to act directly on nature through a correct knowledge of its laws, without the intervention of superior beings. Frazer argues that magic is based on two fundamental principles: (1) the law of similarity, which produces homeopathic magic, according to which similar produces similar, and it is believed possible to produce any effect by simply imitating it (damage or kill an enemy by destroying an image of him; make it rain by pouring water; making pustules drop off by rubbing them while a falling star crosses the sky; seeding a field by a fertile woman in order to fertilize the vegetation, etc.); (2) the law of contact, on which contagious magic is based, founded on the idea that things which were once in contact will always be so, and so it is possible to influence a person even at a distance, by acting on the object with which he had been in contact (his nails or his hair, his clothes, his footprints; one can heal a wound by acting on the arrow which caused it, greasing the weapon, or, in Melanesia, putting it among fresh leaves to cure the inflammation, etc.).

According to Frazer, the magic system is substantially the same, in principle and in practice, at all times and in all places (among the ignorant and superstitious classes of modern Europe, in ancient Egypt, and among aboriginal Australians …), as he tries to demonstrate with a rich illustrative list which refers to indiscriminate and decontextualized comparativism. Frazer distinguishes clearly between magic and religion, and assimilates magic to science, as both are based on cognitive principles of an associative nature. Except that magic, unlike science, applies these principles, which are correct, in the wrong way, believing that things which seem alike are the same and that things which were once in contact continue to be so forever. Thus, he defines magic as ”the bastard sister of science.”

Frazer created, for the study of magic, a truly pioneering point of reference: many theories, even current ones, identify it as a reference or continue some of his points of view, correcting a certain evolutionistic rigidity (e.g., the neo-intellectualism of Robin Horton and John Skorupski, who emphasize the points of contact between magical thought and scientific thought), or disputing Frazer’s statement, as in the symbolist approaches of John H. M. Beattie, Victor Turner, Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah, and Clifford Geertz, who consider magic not as a cognitive instrument to be evaluted in terms of truth/falsity of a scientific type, but as a symbolic system which expresses, also at a subconscious level, collective values, social conflicts, and existential problems (Cunningham 1999).

Freud’s psychoanalytic theory is influenced by evolutionism. Assimilating individual evolution (ontogenesis) and evolution of the species (phylogenesis), magic – which mixes ideal connections and real connections to satisfy the desires which derive from the pleasure principle – would constitute the first stage of the thought of human evolution, corresponding to the narcissistic phase and of omnipotence of thought of individual evolution. Religion corresponds to the stage of attachment to parents. Science would be the stage of maturity and of adapting to reality. The magic rituality of the neurotic, as a form of narcissistic regression, is for Freud assimilated to the primitive man’s and child’s magic forms and to those of folklore and of occultism. He does not distinguish ritual as an individual pathology (which isolates) from ritual as a cultural fact (which socializes) (de Martino 1976).

Differing from the evolutionistic approach, Wilhelm Schmidt considers magic not as an initial moment of human evolution, but as a later and degenerative moment in comparison with an original monotheism of humanity. Research, the result of religious aims, attempts to give a scientific foundation to biblical stories, and is based on data shown as erroneous by Raffaele Pettazzoni.

Beginning with Rudolf Otto (The Idea of the Holy, 1917) and in general within the phenomenological current (Gerardus van der Leeuw, Mircea Eliade), magic has been considered as being connected to religion, since both represent an existential experience of the relationship with the Holy (which Otto calls “numinous,” mysterium fascinans et tremendum). But magic is also defined as the ”vestibule of religion” because it is considered as a primordial moment of the highest forms of religious life.

A notable change with regard to evolution ism is to be found in the functionalist theory of Malinowski. For him, magic, religion, and science do not represent in any way a progressive sequence. They coexist in the same social environment and each provides its own specific contribution (function) toward satisfying individual and social needs. Malinowski abandons the intellectual approach to magic as a logical error of evolutionism. Magic, for him, does not belong to the realm of science, but to that of religion, even though there are differences between them. Magic is used to solve concrete, specific problems. Religion, which is much more complex, is used to give answers to general problems and to those of meaning. However, both intervene beyond the point in which man can control reality, and have their origins in moments of anxiety and emotional tension, which are in that way confronted. Malinowski cites the ideas of Levy Bruhl, who contrasts the rational and scientific worldview of the modern West to the mentality of primitive peoples, which he considers as prelogical. Levy Bruhl thinks that primitives live within a magical dimension indifferent to the principles of identity and of non contradiction. They are seen as obeying a law of mystical participation, which puts in contact the different orders of reality (which for us are distinct) and creates continuous interferences between the visible world and invisible powers, between sleeping and being awake, between the dead and the living. Malinowski, on the other hand, studying the natives of the Trobriand Islands, observed that they knew well how to use the tools of reason and could distinguish between technology and magic. Magic never intervenes when results are certain, but only to deal with anxiety deriving from situations that do not seem to be fully controllable. Magic, in specific contexts, is needed to reestablish psychological and social equilibrium disturbed by the uncertainty of outcome in different areas of human life (love, farming, fishing, etc.).

Durkheim and above all Marcel Mauss stress the character of magic as a social phenomenon. The magician and his magic are expressions of the social environment; they are born and they stand on social consensus, as do religion and the clergy. Like religion, magic is a system of beliefs and practices relative to the sacred (as opposed to the profane). Through its private, individual, secret, and mysterious character, and through its tendency toward the concrete and utilitarian (which links magic to science and technology), Mauss argued, medicine, metallurgy, pharmacology, botany, and astronomy would have arisen. Magic is distinguished from religion. Religion has a public character, tends toward the abstract and metaphysical, and, in Durkheim’s opinion, creates a moral community, called “church,” among those who belong to it. In contrast, there does not exist a magic church (even though the frontiers between the two realms of magic and religion are often imprecise).

A very close connection between social structure and magic was found by Radcliffe Brown (who also suggested giving up the unhelpful dichotomy between religion and magic, and subsuming both under the category of ritual) and by Evans Pritchard. The latter identifies in the Azande of the Sudan a coherent system of mystical thought, which supplements empirical thought. Witchcraft explains misfortunes, while magic provides the means to defend oneself from it or to remedy any damage caused by attacks by witches, which are discovered through oracular techniques. Oracles and magic are two different ways of overcoming witch craft. This magic system works as an instrument of control of behavior and as a safeguard of social and normative equilibrium.

An analysis of the relationship between magic, society, and economy was undertaken by Weber. Examining the origins and developments of religion, he describes the earliest religious forms as essentially magic and characterized by coercive rituals and by material purposes. Later, religion takes on ethical values and provides a sense of individual and social life (even though magi cal elements remain in most religions). The overcoming of magic, or disenchantment with the world, which happens particularly through ascetic Protestantism, leads to the rationalization and moralization of religious practices and beliefs, and constitutes, with theological accentuation of the intra worldliness of the professions, an essential instrument for the birth of modern capitalistic economy and for the development of technology (magic being an obstacle to the rationalized organization of economic activity).

Similar ideas (the influence of ideological dimensions on the economic) are present in the work of Keith Thomas, according to whom the decline of magic that took place in England in the seventeenth century with the success of Protestantism, favored by technical progress and by improvement in the material conditions of life, was due also to decisive factors of an ideological type: to a change of mentality and attitude of confidence in the progress of science, which produced an intellectual atmosphere in which the use of magic was consider ably reduced and lost its credibility. Thomas’s work paints a picture of the beliefs and popular magic practices of divination and witchcraft, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with great attention to the relationships with the social environment in which they operated.

Jeanne Favret Saada undertook research into the contemporary French rural world, studying it in the region of Bocage from the point of view of witchcraft. He analyzed the functional mechanisms used to give symbolic form to misfortune and aggression within the community. According to Levi Stauss’s theory, magic (assimilated to myth and rite) and science represent two different strategies for approaching reality, directed toward its knowledge and its order. Magic is based on perception and intuition in accordance with the criteria of global and integral determinism. Nevertheless, magic thought (or ”savage thought”) is not to be considered as science in embryo, but as a different form of knowledge, in itself complete. Durkeim and Mauss had already stressed the cognitive functions of magical thought, conceiving magic as a primitive form of classification. According to Levi Strauss it was, instead, a form not only belonging to primitive people, but universal and permanent in human intellect, and is an expression of its unconscious structure – savage thought is also present in modern domesticated man.

The Italian historian of religions Ernesto de Martino dedicated several works to the study of magic, from numerous points of view. He believed that magic was primitive man’s first attempt to move away from his natural condition and to become a ”presence” (presenza), a cultural subject able to transcend nature. He studied magic also as an expression of subordinate Euromediterranean cultures and in particular of southern Italy, where conditions of misery favor the rise of magic (this interest led the way for other academics, including his follower Clara Gallini, who wrote about the evil eye in Sardinian traditions, in which she points out the close connection between the system of production and magical ideology). It also represents a traditional device for facing critical situations (an illness, an unreciprocated love, an uncertain future, social oppression, death, etc.) which cannot be realistically solved. The negative emergency is submitted to procedures of ”de historification” (destorificazione) which mythically shape the crisis and mythically produce its solution. It is believed that magic rites, by repeating the myth, resolve in the same way the historically given crisis. Above all, beyond real effectivness (de Martino, like Levi Strauss, Mauss, and others, dwelt on the reality and symbolic effectivness of magic rites), it exercises the function of social reintegration by saving the individual from the risk of remaining entrapped in the traumatizing event without being able to act or to choose according to the codes of her social group. De Martino holds that magic is not different from religion except for the narrowness of values transmitted. Magic is to religion as the abacus is to the calculating machine: they both serve the same purpose, but they differ in complexity. There occur continuous syncretic crossings, such that Angelo Brelich even hoped for the abolition of the expression “magic,” to leave only that of “religion,” noting the need to be fully aware of the conventionality of its use.

Against every liquidating attitude of a positivistic strain, magico-religious symbolism has its internal logic and exercises positive functions. The need to understand the magic world requires that we do not surrender the hegemonic choices of the West (reason and history) and its integral humanism. Magic alterity must be understood, but without irrationally falling within its coils (as critics of Jung allege, for example), and this brings de Martino to that methodological solution which, far from absolute ethnocentrism and absolute relativism, represents an original middle position, called critical ethnocentrism.


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