Book review: The History Of Magic, by Chris Gosden

Christ Gosden offers a spellbinding journey through the history of magic, writes Stuart Kelly

Conjuror Signor Martino performs a levitation on stage c.1900

It is rare for me to criticise a book for not being long enough. Written by Chris Gosden, the Oxford Professor of European Archaeology and a former curator at the Pitt-Rivers Museum, The History of Magic is erudite, accessible and expansive. Subtitled “From Alchemy to Witchcraft, from the Ice Age to the Present” it is without an unfascinating page.

The main text, runs to 432 pages. I would happily have read another 216 or more. I have some caveats, but that does not take away from a quite remarkable and endlessly interesting volume.

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Gosden sets out his stall by making a distinction between three keys of thought: science, religion and magic. Traditionally, this is figured as a kind of evolution. At first we are so gullible we think that so-and-so looking at us in a funny manner meant it was an unsuccessful hunt. Then we create hierarchies of temples and pantheons of incorporeal powers, culminating in monotheism. Finally we realise analysis, logic and proof are the “real” real.

Godsen proposes instead what he called the “triple helix”, and argues that all three have always been interconnected and inter-reliant. There are, however, significant differences. Magic is about human participation in the universe (sometimes in the form of, as Einstein said “spooky action at a distance”). In religion, the vector of relationship is with God, or gods, and causes or enforces change below. Science takes us away from the world, the better to anatomise it.

It might be summarised as working with, working for and working out. One of the primary insights is that by and large magic has been worked for beneficial purposes – wishes, if you wish – rather than malign intentions.

The word “animism” is often used in terms of magic, and Gosden uses a neat analogy for the etiolated persistence of animist beliefs – if you say “work you, stupid thing” to your computer, you are behaving as if it has both agency and intention. You are basically treating it as a nomad on the Steppe might treat a rock. This is not to belittle. But he is equally persuasive that some terms, such as animism and more problematically shamanism, are not global and ubiquitous categories, but are nuanced by both place and time.

It may be because we are in the Anthropocene, but when he recounts a story such as the 17th century pub, where onions skewered with metal and paper switches with a local temperance advocate’s name on them were found up the chimney, perhaps the least useful question is “but did they believe it?” In the village where I live we had a recent example: a desiccated hand found during the rethatching of a roof. Was this a gypsy “hand of power” that stunned the inhabitants? Or was it an accident involving knives?

The reason I say this book ought to be longer is some sections feel thin given the material. The section on the Abrahamic religions could have been extended; there is no discussion, for example, of King Saul visiting the Witch of Endor, despite Saul having made sorcery illegal. Nor is there a distinction drawn between miracles and magic (my rough idea: miracles are believed to be performed by God, not instigated by humans). At other points, further examples might have deepened the story.

I did not know, and now am glad to, about Depati Parbo, a Sumatran who had magical protection in his fight against the colonial Dutch at the beginning of the 20th century. But I did know about the Sioux Ghost Dancers and the Yìhéquán – aka the Society of Harmonious Righteous Fists – both of whom had a similar belief in invulnerability. Given his sensitive reading of colonialism and magic, this seems a missed opportunity.

Though, as we approach the modern, we do get the bald charlatan Aleister Crowley, the romantic Bruce Chatwin who did not invent but elaborated song lines, and Carlos Castaneda, who popularised a North American Indian form of magic but around whom there is a whiff of imposture. But there is so much in this book, from the shuddersome baked skulls in Turkey to a very intelligent description of magic art – from Siberia to Ireland – and the way in which you are not supposed to “pick out” a particular form within the swirls and whirls that it is forgivable.

The section on the future of magic seems tacked on to an extent. Ecology, networked sentience in fungi, plants and machines, and quantum physics are all interesting, but I am unsure what magic might reveal as a better way to deal with the paradoxes and problems they raise. I go back to Marvel Comics and their injunction about using magic in stories: if you want something for free, there’s a price to pay.

The History Of Magic, by Chris Gosden, Penguin Viking, £25

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