Magic: A History: From Alchemy to Witchcraft, from the Ice Age to the Present

Magic: A History: From Alchemy to Witchcraft, from the Ice Age to the Present by Chris GosdenMagic: A History: From Alchemy to Witchcraft, from the Ice Age to the Present by Chris GosdenMagic: A History: From Alchemy to Witchcraft, from the Ice Age to the Present by Chris Gosden

Chris Gosden takes on a lot in Magic: A History: From Alchemy to Witchcraft, from the Ice Age to the Present (2020) — a history of magic through time and space, skipping across millennia and the continents. Though “history” might be a tad misleading, in that Gosden includes our current age in his survey and then makes a call for magic to, if not “return” (he would argue it never left), to at least reclaim its equal position beside its younger siblings in what he calls the triple helix of magic, religion, and science. Such an ambitious project in terms of scale necessarily makes some sacrifice when it comes to specificity, and one might wish for a more focused exploration of cultural magic or find fault with some generalizations, but there’s certainly merit in the exploration despite the pitfalls, and Gosden offers up a broadly informative, thoughtful, and fascinating journey in the telling.

As one might expect, Gosden opens with definitions and separations, explaining how he views magic and what separates it from its two siblings:

Magic sees a direct human relationship with the world. People’s words and acts can influence events and processes. Religion takes some of the power out of this magical relationship, placing it with the gods but leaving some room for direct human participation, even if often grudgingly. The mechanical universe of science radically repositions people — the universe works on its own … indifferent to people.

This “kinship with the universe” is a theme Gosden returns to frequently, and it’s perhaps his most important argument at the end for magic reclaiming its former place of prominence.

Following the definitions, the book generally runs chronologically, both overall and within particular sections. The earliest point predates Homo sapiens, with several references to Neanderthals. From there we work our way through early hunter-gatherer cultures, into the rise of agriculture and cities, through the Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages, on into the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, into the Victorian Era, the 19th and 20th centuries, with Spiritualism and Wicca, and up to (and a bit farther than) today. Geographically, we hit, at various times, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome, Europe, China, parts of Africa, Russia, Israel, South and North America, and Australia.

Within those geographies we journey to several sites in some detailed fashion (at least, detailed enough given the broad survey Gosden is undertaking), such as the absolutely fascinating construction (dated at roughly 9000 BCE) at Gobekli Tepe in Turkey, with its tall pillars carved “with a variety of animals, many of them fierce and dangerous”; Stonehenge, one of the most famous and mysterious sites in the world; several Chinese tombs, including the well-known terracotta warrior tomb; mound cities in North America , such as Cahokia; Newgrange in Ireland, or lesser known (at least to me) sites in Mongolia, large burial mounds with the bodies of humans and horses entombed together.

The deep dives into various cultural practices are all interesting in both their differences and the overlaps. The power of words, for instance. The use of amulets (I confess, I love the idea of “mass-produced” magical amulets.) Or the various broad types of magic that keep cropping up: divination (using sometimes similar, sometimes distinct methods), transformation, healing magic, and the like. Within that vein, he points out several times that despite its prevalence in modern media, malevolent magic is actually relatively insignificant in comparison to benevolent magic.

As interesting as the details are (and I highlighted many), I often found my favorite parts were when Gosden used the specific as a jumping off point for more expansive and usually deeply thoughtful explorations about what those specifics revealed about culture and basic humanity, whether at a particular time and place or, as a contrast to our own, or as a thread of commonality from those distance in time or space from us.

I wouldn’t call this an academic work — it’s not meant for the journals — but it is a scholarly work, strongly based in anthropology, archaeology, history, and other disciplines. While absolutely accessible to the general public, it does help to know some of the references, though it isn’t at all essential to understanding. Gosden does an excellent job of summarizing or paraphrasing important texts or arguments. Recognizing his lay audience, he also includes a liberal amount of illustrations and tables of historical events to keep things in context for the reader who may not, say, easily recall just which Chinese dynasty ruled during which years, or exactly where the line is drawn between pre-pottery Neolithic and Neolithic.

The ending call for magic’s return (or at least the idea behind it) went a bit long I thought, and felt a little tacked on, not because there weren’t good points made but because it felt like it was rehashing points made earlier in the text, and even if one wanted to make them again in more focused fashion (as a call), I felt it could have been done more succinctly. And some of it felt a bit of a stretch. But it was hardly burdensome. And as noted, there were times one might have wished for a bit more of a deep dive into a particular area, time, culture, but there are other books more focused. As a general survey, it’s hard to imagine one doing a better job than what Gosden has done here.

Published in November 2020. An Oxford professor of archaeology explores the unique history of magic—the oldest and most neglected strand of human behavior and its resurgence today. Three great strands of belief run through human history: Religion is the relationship with one god or many gods, masters of our lives and destinies. Science distances us from the world, turning us into observers and collectors of knowledge. And magic is direct human participation in the universe: we have influence on the world around us, and the world has influence on us. Over the last few centuries, magic has developed a bad reputation—thanks to the unsavory tactics of shady practitioners, and to a successful propaganda campaign on the part of religion and science, which denigrated magic as backward, irrational, and “primitive.” In Magic, however, the Oxford professor of archaeology Chris Gosden restores magic to its essential place in the history of the world—revealing it to be an enduring element of human behavior that plays an important role for individuals and cultures. From the curses and charms of ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish magic, to the shamanistic traditions of Eurasia, indigenous America, and Africa; from the alchemy of the Renaissance to the condemnation of magic in the colonial period and the mysteries of modern quantum physics—Gosden’s startling, fun, and colorful history supplies a missing chapter of the story of our civilization. Drawing on decades of research around the world—touching on the first known horoscope, a statue ordered into exile, and the mystical power of tattoos—Gosden shows what magic can offer us today, and how we might use it to rethink our relationship with the world. Magic is an original, singular, and sweeping work of scholarship, and its revelations will leave a spell on the reader.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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6 comments

  1. “This “kinship with the universe” is a theme Gosden returns to frequently, and it’s perhaps his most important argument at the end for magic reclaiming its former place of prominence”

    His referring to the “kinship with the universe” is interesting. For example, Reiki is called “universal life energy” and has become more popular in the last decade. I wonder if there’s a connection between that and the new interest in magic. I’ve seen a lot of it lately.) I’ll put this one on my to read list. Thank you.

  2. Another book to put on the gift list! Thanks, Bill.

    • wonder if the modern sense of personal disconnection combined with the modern ease of technological connection is creating a greater desire/belief in a larger connection

      • Hmmmmmm. That’s a good point. Plus, isolation during covid and being separated if/when they are no longer with us.

  3. Paul Connelly /

    “Religion takes some of the power out of this magical relationship, placing it with the gods but leaving some room for direct human participation, even if often grudgingly.” Not sure I totally buy that. Religion originates from more of an emotional base, although in its organized or institutional forms it can do what he is describing. Magic has always seemed to have more of a rationalizing base, an attempt to systematize practices that let one manipulate the world. So it resembles science to some degree, but science without the purely materialistic rationale of recent centuries. It’s not hard to see why transitional figures like Isaac Newton could believe in both science and magic.

    • Metaphysis combines science and religion, in that it gives scientific reasons for miracles.

      Other than that, I was looking for Jewish mythology. It’s basically, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religion. Makes me look at Greek, African, Roman mythology differently. At any rate, I prefer metaphysics. It includes everything.

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