Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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A general term that covers any attempt to control the environment or the self by means that are either untested or untestable, such as charms or spells.

Magical beliefs are those that survive because they have not been subject to any attempt to disprove them. Usually some other explanation—other than that the belief is false—is invoked to account for those occasions when practices based on such beliefs fail to produce the desired result, for example, that countermagic was employed or that there was a failure to recite the spell correctly. If the unwarranted presumption of validity is what distinguishes magical beliefs about the world from scientific ones, then it is the practical aim of gaining control over the environment that principally distinguishes them from religious ones. For, like religion, magic can be said to consist of nonempirical beliefs, but while religion is oriented primarily to the worship of supernatural beings that are either propitiated or worshiped, magic deals primarily with the manipulation of impersonal forces. In addition, magic is usually only employed to achieve the ends of individuals, while religion also usually addresses the needs of communities.

Malinowski's "theory of the gap" is probably the best known and most influential of all theories of magic. He claimed that magic serves to reduce anxiety, to fill the void of the unknown, especially for people at a low level of technological development. Thus, although human beings will employ technology to achieve their aims wherever possible, some situations contain unpredictability and uncertainty. Consequently,

man, engaged in a series of practical activities, comes to a gap; the hunter is disappointed by his quarry, the sailor misses propitious winds, the canoe builder has to deal with some material which he is never certain that it will stand the strain, or the healthy person suddenly finds his strength failing . . . his anxiety, his fears and hopes, induce tension in his organism which drives him to some sort of activity. . . . His nervous system and his whole organism drive him to some substitute activity. . . . His organism reproduces the acts suggested by the anticipation of hope. (1948 [1925]: 79-81)

It should be observed that although, as Malinowski pointed out, the natives of the Trobriand Islands could distinguish magic from technology, this is not true of all practitioners of magic, and on some occasions magical means may be employed for nonutilitarian ends. Yet, most critically, Malinowski failed to recognize the extent to which believing in magic can create the tension and anxiety that the practice is itself intended to alleviate.

Witchcraft and sorcery are both forms of magic. The term sorcery is usually employed to refer to that specialized branch of magic in which the aim is to harm others. Witchcraft , on the other hand, once one sets aside the distinctive meanings that this term has acquired within Christian-dominated societies, is commonly used to refer to the possession by individuals of special magical powers—ones that may be used for good or ill.

Very often practitioners assume that, for their magical practices to be effective, the knowledge upon which they are based must be kept secret—in which case, it approximates the occult. Traditionally, occultism has referred to theories and practices concerned with the attainment of secret powers of mind and spirit, especially those believed to derive from an essential wisdom that was known to a greater extent among the ancient civilizations of the East than it is today. Sociologists, however, have come to use the term occult to refer to deviant, or at least variant, aspects of the religious phenomena that cannot be included under the more conventional "sectarian" banner (Galbreath 1983).

The practice of magic is commonly associated with traditional and nonliterate societies rather than the modern, developed world. Yet most definitions of magic, such as Leech's "believing in the control over objects or events by verbal or nonverbal gestures (words or actions) where there is no empirical . . . connection between the gesture as cause and the object or event as effect" (1964:397), embrace what in contemporary society is known as "superstition." Thus individuals commonly cross their fingers, avoid walking under ladders, knock on wood, or throw salt over their shoulders, all to deflect bad luck or to attract good. Studies show that at least one-third, and possibly between one-half and three-quarters, of adults in contemporary industrial societies admit to engaging in such practices (Abercrombie et al. 1970, Jarvis 1980)—the most common being avoiding walking under ladders, knocking on wood, and throwing salt over one's shoulder—while a majority admit that they would feel uneasy if they failed to do these things in those situations where they deemed such action appropriate. There is no evidence to suggest that these practices are dying out, although there is evidence to suggest that each generation is characterized by a somewhat different pattern of superstition from that which preceded it (Opie and Tatum 1989). The fact that many individuals deny, when questioned, that they "believe" in these practices does not seem a sufficient basis for excluding them from the category of magic.

There are some people, however, even in contemporary society, who not only engage in "superstitious" practices but are prepared to state that they believe in magic. Luhrmann notes that in contemporary England, "several thousand people—possibly far more—practice magic as a serious activity" (1989:4). These people are those who "find magic persuasive," to use Luhrmann's phrase, and, as such, are the exception and not the rule among those who engage in superstitious practices. Unlike the vast majority of people, this small group of dedicated "magicians" not only take magic seriously but are also prepared to defend their beliefs. These defenses are often very sophisticated and bear witness to the time and energy that some individuals, even in the modern world, are prepared to devote to magic.

See also Bronislaw Malinowski

Colin Campbell


N. Abercrombie et al., "Superstition and Religion," Sociological Yearbook of Religion in Britain 3(1970): 93-129

R. Galbreath, "Explaining Modern Occultism," in The Occult in America , ed. H. Kerr and C. L. Crow (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983): 11-37

P. Jarvis, "Toward a Sociological Understanding of Superstition," Social Compass 27(1980):285-295

E. Leech, "Magic," in A Dictionary of the Social Sciences , ed. J. Gould and W. L. Kolb (New York: Free Press, 1964): 388-399

T. M. Luhrmann, Persuasions of the Witch's Craft (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989)

B. Malinowski, Magic, Science and Religion (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1948 [1925])

I. Opie and M. Tatum, A Dictionary of Superstitions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).

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