(online lecture by J. Davila on 8 April, 1997)



The word "magic" is probably the most difficult and elusive word we will grapple with in this course. It is open to debate whether it can be defined at all or whether it is a useful term for the critical study of ancient history and religion, but the scholarly discussion about the problem (whether it is insoluable or not) is certainly of great interest for our purposes. In this section I will survey some approaches that have been tried and will make a stab at coming up with a rough working definition. As much as possible I will sidestep the debate about the relationship between magic, science, and religion, since it isn't terribly relevant for the texts we will be looking at.

One approach, exemplified by Daniel O'Keefe's book _Stolen Lightning_, could be called historical. O'Keefe draws on anthropology, psychoanalysis, and history to try to explain the origins of magic in human societies. He defines magic ("in the strict sense") as sacred institutions related to religion but often of an illicit or peripheral nature and mostly based on the relationship between practitioner and client rather than on a community relationship. His thesis is that primitive human beings had (or have) a much weaker sense of self than modern Westerners and magic emerged out of religion, developing to protect this fragile self from potentially fatal social pressures such as "voodo death," "soul loss," and even anxiety. By seizing the offensive and giving the weak self a sense of control, the self was preserved more often and the resulting dialectic between magic and religion actually renews religion.

Now this is an enormous and enormously complicated book and any one-paragraph summary is bound to be an oversimplification, but I think the above is a fair distillation of O'Keefe's main points. The historical approach is fascinating and may well give us insights into the origins of magic and religion, but I have two fundamental criticisms of it. First, to all intents and purposes it is nonfalsifiable. Given our current knowledge of Neolithic and ealier human society we simply don't have the evidence to test this sort of historical theory (and we probably won't have it anytime soon, if ever). Second, I don't find theories about the origins of magic terribly useful for increasing our understanding of the magical texts and traditions from antiquity to the present that we actually have, which is my real interest.

For this reason my preference is for what could be called the functional approach, that is, an attempt to understand how extant magic texts and traditions functioned in their own societies and historical contexts. (I should note that O'Keefe also has a lot to say about functional issues along the way and I find this material in his book very helpful.) The most basic functional definition of magic involves a listing of things usually done by a magician and the contexts in which the are done. An example is John Middleton's comments in his article "Theories of Magic" in the _Encyclopedia of Religion_:

"Magic is usually defined subjectively rather than by any agreed-upon content. But there is a wide consensus as to what this content is. Most peoples in the world perform acts by which they intend to bring about certain events or conditions, whether in nature or among people, that they hold to be the consequences of those acts. If we use Western terms and assumptions, the cause and effect relationship between the act and the consequence is mystical, not scientifically validated. The acts typically comprise behavior such as manipulation of objects and recitation of verbal formulas or spells. In a given society magic may be performed by a specialist." (vol. 9, p. 82)

Thus far it looks as though we're moving toward a possible definition: magic is the manipulation of physical objects or recitation of formulas and incantations by a specialist on behalf of him/herself or a client to bring about action by the divine world. The hitch with this definition is that it can be applied too widely: Is a Catholic priest praying the rosary for a parishoner a magician? How about Lubavitcher Rebbe teaching Kabbalah to his disciple? O'Keefe adds the proviso that magic is illicit or peripheral, and this is an important point. The term magic (in whatever language) has generally meant religious cult whose legitimacy is rejected by the speaker. In other words, it is a theological or confessional term, not an objectively descriptive one. For this reason Jonathan Smith suggests that magic is not a legitimate category for "second order, theoretical, academic discourse" (p. 16) and it should be replaced with more specific and useful terms such as healing, divination, exorcism, etc. Perhaps he is right, but I still think the category magic has some heuristic value, so I'm not quite willing to give it up entirely.

For me the most helpful recent discussion of magic has been the introduction to _Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power_ by Marvin Meyer and Richard Smith (pp. 1-9). They find the center of these magical texts to be their manipulation of power through ritual, ritual whose form is in turn is determined in part by its social function in individualistic Hellenistic society. Sifting through these various insights and caveats, I propose the following very provisional definition of magic for our use as we begin to approach the magical literature of the OT [Old Testiment] Pseudepigrapha.

(Comments on this definition are, as always, welcome.)