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Magic, sometimes known as sorcery, is a conceptual system that asserts human ability to control or predict the natural world (including events, objects, people, and physical phenomena) through mystical, paranormal or supernatural means. The term can also refer to the practices employed by a person asserting this ability, and to beliefs that explain various events and phenomena in such terms. In many cultures the concept of magic is under pressure from, and in competition with, scientific and religious conceptual systems. This is particularly the case in the Christian West and the Muslim Middle East where the practice of magic is generally regarded as blasphemous or forbidden by orthodox leadership.

For lessons on the related topic of Superstition, follow this link.


Through late 14th century Old French magique, the word "magic" derives via Latin magicus from the Greek adjective magikos (μαγικός) used in reference to the "magical" arts — in particular divination — of the Magians (Greek: magoi, singular mágos, μάγος), the Zoroastrian astrologer priests. Greek mágos is first attested in Heraclitus (6th century BC, apud. Clement Protrepticus 12) who curses the Magians and others for their "impious rites." Greek magikos is attested from the 1st century Plutarch, typically appearing in the feminine, in μαγική τέχνη (magike techne, Latin ars magica) "magical art."

Likewise, sorcery was taken in ca. 1300 from Old French sorcerie, which is from Vulgar Latin *sortiarius, from sors "fate", apparently meaning "one who influences fate." Sorceress appears also in the late 14th century, while sorcerer is attested only from 1526.


Classical antiquity

The prototypical "magicians" were a class of priests, the Magi of Zoroastrianism, and their reputation together with that of Ancient Egypt shaped the hermeticism of Hellenistic religion. The Greek mystery religions had strongly magical components, and in Egypt, a large number of magical papyri, in Greek, Coptic, and Demotic, have been recovered. These sources contain early instances of much of the magical lore that later became part of Western cultural expectations about the practice of magic, especially ceremonial magic. They contain early instances of:

  • the use of "magic words" said to have the power to command spirits;
  • the use of wands and other ritual tools;
  • the use of a magic circle to defend the magician against the spirits he is invoking or evoking; and
  • the use of mysterious symbols or sigils thought useful to invoke or evoke spirits.

The use of spirit mediums is also documented in these texts; many of the spells call for a child to be brought to the magic circle to act as a conduit for messages from the spirits. The time of the Emperor Julian of Rome, marked by a reaction against the influence of Christianity, saw a revival of magical practices associated with neo-Platonism under the guise of theurgy.

Middle Ages

Several medieval scholars were credited as magicians in popular legend, notably Gerbert d'Aurillac and Albertus Magnus: both men were active in scientific research of their day as well as in ecclesiastical matters, which was enough to attach to them a nimbus of the occult.

Magic practice was actively discouraged by the church, but remained widespread in folk religion throughout the medieval period. Magical thinking became syncretized with Christian dogma, expressing itself in practices like the judicial duel and relic veneration. The relics had become amulets, and various churches strove to purchase scarce or valuable examples, hoping to become places of pilgrimage. As in any other economic endeavor, demand gave rise to supply. Tales of the miracle-working relics of the saints were compiled later into quite popular collections like the Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine or the Dialogus miraculorum of Caesar of Heisterbach.

From the 13th century, the Jewish Kabbalah exerts influence on Christian occultism, giving rise to the first grimoires and the scholarly occultism that would develop into Renaissance magic. The demonology and angellogy contained in the earliest grimoires assume a life surrounded by Christian implements and sacred rituals. The underlying theology in these works of Christian demonology encourages the magician to fortify himself with fasting, prayers, and sacraments, so that by using the holy names of God in the sacred languages, he could use divine power to coerce demons into appearing and serving his usually lustful or avaricious magical goals.

13th century astrologers include Johannes de Sacrobosco and Guido Bonatti.


Renaissance humanism saw resurgence in hermeticism and Neo-Platonic varieties of ceremonial magic. The Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution, on the other hand, saw the rise of scientism, in such forms as the substitution of chemistry for alchemy, the dethronement of the Ptolemaic theory of the universe assumed by astrology, the development of the germ theory of disease, that restricted the scope of applied magic and threatened the belief systems it relied on.

The seven artes magicae or artes prohibitae, arts prohibited by canon law, as expounded by Johannes Hartlieb in 1456, their sevenfold partition reflecting that of the artes liberales and artes mechanicae, were:

  1. nigromancy ("black magic", "demonology", linked by popular etymology with necromancy)
  2. geomancy
  3. hydromancy
  4. aeromancy
  5. pyromancy
  6. chiromancy
  7. scapulimancy

Both bourgeoisie and nobility in the 15th and 16th century showed great fascination with these arts, which exerted an exotic charm by their ascription to Arabic, Jewish, Gypsy and Egyptian sources. There was great uncertainty in distinguishing practices of vain superstition, blasphemous occultism, and perfectly sound scholarly knowledge or pious ritual. The intellectual and spiritual tensions erupted in the Early Modern witch craze, further reinforced by the turmoil of the Protestant Reformation, especially in Germany, England, and Scotland.


Study of the occult arts remained intellectually respectable well into the 17th century, and only gradually divided into the modern categories of natural science vs. occultism or superstition. The 17th century saw the gradual rise of the "age of reason", while belief in witchcraft and sorcery, and consequently the irrational surge of Early Modern witch trials, receded, a process only completed at the end of the Baroque period or circa the 1730s. Christian Thomasius still met opposition as he argued in his 1701 Dissertatio de crimine magiae that it was meaningless to make dealing with the devil a criminal offence, since it was impossible to really commit the crime in the first place. In Britain, the Witchcraft Act of 1735 established that people could not be punished for consorting with spirits, while would-be magicians pretending to be able to invoke spirits could still be fined as con artists.

"Newton was not the first of the age of reason, he was the last of the magicians." - John Maynard Keynes


From 1776 to 1781 AD, Jacob Philadelphia performed feats of magic, sometimes under the guise of scientific exhibitions, throughout Europe and Russia. Baron Carl Reichenbach's experiments with his Odic force appeared to be an attempt to bridge the gap between magic and science. More recent periods of renewed interest in magic occurred around the end of the nineteenth century, where Symbolism and other offshoots of Romanticism cultivated a renewed interest in exotic spiritualities. European colonialism, which put Westerners in contact with India and Egypt, re-introduced exotic beliefs to Europeans at this time. Hindu and Egyptian mythology frequently feature in nineteenth century magical texts. The late 19th century spawned a large number of magical organizations, including the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the Theosophical Society, and specifically magical variants on Freemasonry. The Golden Dawn represented perhaps the peak of this wave of magic, attracting cultural celebrities like William Butler Yeats, Algernon Blackwood, and Arthur Machen to its banner.

20th century

In general, the 20th century has seen a sharp rise in public interest in various forms of magical practice, and the foundation of a number of traditions and organisations, ranging from distinctly religious to the philosophical, following this trend.

In England, a further revival of interest in magic was heralded by the repeal, of the last Witchcraft Act in 1951. This was the cue for Gerald Gardner to publish his first witchcraft-themed book Witchcraft Today, in which he claimed to reveal the existence of a witch-cult that dated back to pre-Christian Europe. Although many of Gardner's claims have since come under intensive criticism from sources both within and without the neopagan community, his works remain the most important founding stone of Wicca. Gardner combined magic and religion in a way that was later to cause people to question the "Enlightenment's" boundaries between the two subjects.

Gardner's newly created religion, and many others, took off in the atmosphere of the 1960s and 1970s, when the counterculture of the hippies also spawned another period of renewed interest in magic, divination, and other occult practices. The various branches of Neopaganism and other Earth religions that have been publicized since Gardner's publication tend to follow a pattern in combining the practice of magic and religion, although this combination is not exclusive to them. Following the trend of magic associated with counterculture, some feminists launched an independent revival of goddess worship. This brought them into contact with the Gardnerian tradition of magical religion (or religious magic), and deeply influenced that tradition in return.

Some people in the West believe in or practice various forms of magic. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Aleister Crowley's Thelema and their subsequent offshots, influenced by Eliphas Levi, are most commonly associated with the resurgence of magical tradition in the English speaking world of the 20th century. Other, similar movements took place at roughly the same time, centered in France and Germany. The western traditions acknowledging the natural elements, the seasons, and the practitioner's relationship with the Earth, Gaia, or a primary Goddess have derived at least in part from these magical groups, and are mostly considered Neopagan. Long-standing indigenous traditions of magic are regarded as Pagan.

Allegedly for gematric reasons Aleister Crowley preferred the spelling magick, defining it as "the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with the will." By this, he included "mundane" acts of change as well as ritual magic. In Magick in Theory and Practice, Chapter XIV, Crowley says:

What is a Magical Operation? It may be defined as any event in nature which is brought to pass by Will. We must not exclude potato-growing or banking from our definition. Let us take a very simple example of a Magical Act: that of a man blowing his nose.

Western magical traditions include hermetic magic and its many offshots predominantly inspired by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, as well as Wicca and some other Neopagan religions. Definitions, concepts and uses of magic tend to vary even within magical traditions and indeed often between individuals.

Wicca is one of the more publicly known traditions within Neopaganism, a magical religion inspired by medieval witchcraft, with influences including the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and Crowley. Ruickbie (2004:193-209) shows that Wiccans and witches define magic in many different ways and use it for a number of different purposes. Despite that diversity of opinion, he concludes that the result upon the practitioner is generally perceived as a positive one.

The belief in Magic is often considered superstitious, although it could be argued some magical practices rely on widely accepted psychological principles and are only intended to promote internal personal changes within the practitioner themselves. Visualization techniques, for instance, widely used by magicians, are also used in somewhat different contexts in fields such as clinical psychology and sports training.

Theories of magic

Anthropological and psychological origins

The belief that one can influence supernatural powers, by prayer, sacrifice or invocation goes back to prehistoric religion, and is consequently present from the earliest records of a cultic nature, including the Egyptian pyramid texts and the Indian Vedas, among which the Atharvaveda in particular addresses magic in the classical sense, and the position of the Vedic Brahmins, like that of any ancient priesthood, can be compared to that of magicians.

James George Frazer believed that magic was a fallacious system and asserted that magical observations are the result of an internal dysfunction: "Men mistook the order of their ideas for the order of nature, and hence imagined that the control which they have, or seem to have, over their thoughts, permitted them to exercise a corresponding control over things."

Others, such as N. W. Thomas and Sigmund Freud have rejected this explanation. Freud explains that "the associated theory of magic merely explains the paths along which magic proceeds; it does not explain its true essence, namely the misunderstanding which leads it to replace the laws of nature by psychological ones". Freud emphasizes that what led primitive men to come up with magic is the power of wishes: "His wishes are accompanied by a motor impulse, the will, which is later destined to alter the whole face of the earth in order to satisfy his wishes. This motor impulse is at first employed to give a representation of the satisfying situation in such a way that it becomes possible to experience the satisfaction by means of what might be described as motor hallucinations. This kind of representation of a satisfied wish is quite comparable to children's play, which succeeds their earlier purely sensory technique of satisfaction. [...] As time goes on, the psychological accent shifts from the motives for the magical act on to the measures by which it is carried out - that is, on to the act itself. [...] It thus comes to appear as though it is the magical act itself which, owing to its similarity with the desired result, alone determines the occurrence of that result."

Theories of adherents

Adherents to magic believe that it may work by one or more of the following basic principles:

  • Intervention of spirits similar to these hypothetical natural forces, but with their own consciousness and intelligence. Believers in spirits will often describe a whole cosmos of beings of many different kinds, sometimes organized into a hierarchy.
  • A mystical power, such as mana or numen, that exists in all things. Sometimes this power is contained in a magical object, such as a ring, a stone, charm, or dehk, which the magician can manipulate.
  • Manipulation of the Elements by using the will of the magician and/or with symbols or objects representative of the element(s). Western practitioners typically use the Classical elements of Earth, Air, Water, and Fire.
  • Manipulation of Energy. Also believed to be the manipulation of energy from the human body. Most commonly referred to by the usage of the hands while the mouth uses a command of power.
  • Manipulation of symbols. Adherents of magical thinking believe that symbols can be used for more than representation: they can magically take on a physical quality of the phenomenon or object that they represent. By manipulating symbols (as well as sigils), one is said to be able to manipulate the reality that this symbol represents.
  • The principles of sympathetic magic of Sir James George Frazer, explicated in his The Golden Bough (third edition, 1911-1915). These principles include the "law of similarity" and the "law of contact" or "contagion." These are systematized versions of the manipulation of symbols. Frazer defined them this way:
If we analyze the principles of thought on which magic is based, they will probably be found to resolve themselves into two: first, that like produces like, or that an effect resembles its cause; and, second, that things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed. The former principle may be called the Law of Similarity, the latter the Law of Contact or Contagion. From the first of these principles, namely the Law of Similarity, the magician infers that he can produce any effect he desires merely by imitating it: from the second he infers that whatever he does to a material object will affect equally the person with whom the object was once in contact, whether it formed part of his body or not.<ref> The Golden Bough (1922) Chapter 3: Sympathetic Magic Part 1: The Principles of Magic</ref>
  • Concentration or meditation. A certain amount of focusing or restricting the mind to some imagined object (or will), according to Aleister Crowley, produces mystical attainment or "an occurrence in the brain characterized essentially by the uniting of subject and object." (Book Four, Part 1: Mysticism) Magic, as defined previously, seeks to aid concentration by constantly recalling the attention to the chosen object (or Will), thereby producing said attainment. For example, if one wishes to concentrate on a God, one might memorize a system of correspondences (perhaps chosen arbitrarily, as this would not affect its usefulness for mystical purposes) and then make every object that one sees "correspond" to said God.
Aleister Crowley wrote that ". . . the exaltation of the mind by means of magickal practices leads (as one may say, in spite of itself) to the same results as occur in straightforward Yoga." Crowley's magick thus becomes a form of mental, mystical, or spiritual discipline, designed to train the mind to achieve greater concentration. Crowley also made claims for the paranormal effects of magick, suggesting a connection with the first principle in this list. However, he defined any attempt to use this power for a purpose other than aiding mental or mystical attainment as "black magick".
  • The magical power of the subconscious mind. To believers who think they need to convince their subconscious mind to make the changes they want, all spirits and energies are projections and symbols that make sense to the subconscious. A variant of this belief is that the subconscious is capable of contacting spirits, who in turn can work magic.
  • A mysterious interconnection in the cosmos that connects and binds all things, above and beyond the natural forces, or in some cases thought to be an as-yet undiscovered or unquantifiable natural force.
  • "The Oneness in All"; based on the fundamental concepts of monism and Non-duality, this philosophy holds that Magic is little more than the application of one's own inherent unity with the Universe. The central idea is that on realizing that the Self is limitless, one may live as such, seeking to preserve the Balance of Nature and live as a servant/extension thereof.

Many more theories exist. Practitioners will often mix these concepts, and sometimes even invent some themselves. In the contemporary current of chaos magic in particular, it is not unusual to believe that any concept of magic works.

Key principles of utilizing Magic are often said to be Concentration and Visualization. Many of those who purportedly cast spells attain a mental state called the "Trance State" to enable the spell. The Trance State is often described as an emptying of the mind, akin to meditation.

Magic, ritual and religion

Viewed from a non-theistic perspective, many religious rituals and beliefs seem similar to, or identical to, magical thinking.

Related to both magic and prayer is religious supplication. This involves a prayer, or even a sacrifice to a supernatural being or god. This god or being is then asked to intervene on behalf of the person offering the prayer.

The difference, in theory, is that prayer requires the assent of a deity with an independent will, who can deny the request. Magic, by contrast is thought to be effective:

  • by virtue of the operation itself;
  • or by the strength of the magician's will;
  • or because the magician believes he can command the spiritual beings addressed by his spells.

In practice, when prayer doesn't work, it means that the god has chosen not to hear nor grant it; when magic fails, it is because of some defect in the casting of the spell itself. Consequently magical rituals tend to place more emphasis on exact formulaic correctness and are less extempore than prayer. Ritual is the magician's failsafe, the key to any hope for success, and the explanation for failure.

A possible exception is the practice of word of faith, where it is often held that it is the exercise of faith in itself that brings about a desired result.

Magic in animism and folk religion

Appearing from aboriginal tribes in Australia and Maori tribes in New Zealand to rainforest tribes in South America, bush tribes in Africa and ancient Pagan tribal groups in Europ, some form of shamanic contact with the spirit world seems to be nearly universal in the early development of human communities. Much of the Babylonian and Egyptian pictorial writing characters appear derived from the same sources.

Although indigenous magical traditions persist to this day, very early on some communities transitioned from nomadic to agricultural civilizations, and with this shift, the development of spiritual life mirrored that of civic life. Just as tribal elders were consolidated and transformed in kings and bureaucrats, so too were shamans and adepts changed into priests and a priestly caste.

This shift is by no means in nomenclature alone. While the shaman's task was to negotiate between the tribe and the spirit world, on behalf of the tribe, as directed by the collective will of the tribe, the priest's role was to transfer instructions from the deities to the city-state, on behalf of the deities, as directed by the will of those deities. This shift represents the first major usurpation of power by distancing magic from those participating in that magic. It is at this stage of development that highly codified and elaborate rituals, setting the stage for formal religions, began to emerge, such as the funeral rites of the Egyptians and the sacrifice rituals of the Babylonians, Persians, Aztecs and Mayans.

In 2003, Sinafasi Makelo, a representative of Mbuti pygmies, told the UN's Indigenous People's Forum that during the Congo Civil War, his people were hunted down and eaten as though they were game animals. Both sides of the war regarded them as "subhuman" and some say their flesh can confer magical powers.DR Congo Pygmies 'exterminated'Pygmies struggle to survive

On April, 2008, Kinshasa, the police arrested 14 suspected victims (of penis snatching) and sorcerers accused of using black magic or witchcraft to steal (make disappear) or shrink men's penises to extort cash for cure, amid a wave of panic.Penis theft panic hits city.., Arrests were made in an effort to avoid bloodshed seen in Ghana a decade ago, when 12 alleged penis snatchers were beaten to death by mobs. 7 killed in Ghana over 'penis-snatching' episodes

Magic in Hinduism

It has been often stated that India is a land of magic, both supernatural and mundane. Hinduism is one of the few religions that has sacred texts like the Vedas that discuss both white and black magic. The Atharva Veda is a veda that deals with mantras that can be used for both good and bad. The word mantrik in India literally means "magician" since the mantrik usually knows mantras, spells, and curses which can be used for or against forms of magic. Many ascetics after long periods of penance and meditation are alleged to attain a state where they may utilize supernatural powers. However, many say that they choose not to use them and instead focus on transcending beyond physical power into the realm of spirituality. Many siddhars are said to have performed miracles that would ordinarily be impossible to perform. The Aghoris consume human flesh in pursuit of immortality and supernatural powers. Indian doc focuses on Hindu cannibal sect, The Aghoris, They distinguish themselves from other Hindu sects and priests by their alcoholic and cannibalistic rituals. Aghoris

Magic and monotheism

Officially, Judaism, Christianity and Islam characterize magic as forbidden witchcraft, and have often prosecuted alleged practitioners of it with varying degrees of severity. Other trends in monotheistic thought have dismissed all such manifestations as trickery and illusion, nothing more than dishonest gimmicks. Some argue that the recent popularity of the prosperity gospel constitutes a return to magical thinking within Christianity. Note also that Gnostic Christianity has a strong mystical current, but shies away from practical magic and focuses more on theurgy.

In Judaism

Medieval Judaism preserved and embellished practices of Greco-Roman magic. Virtually all works of pseudepigraphica claim, or are ascribed, ancient authorship. For example, Sefer Raziel HaMalach, an astro-magical text partly based on a magical manual of late antiquity, Sefer ha-Razim, was, according to the kabbalists, transmitted to Adam by the angel Raziel after he was evicted from Eden.

Another famous work, the Sefer Yetzirah, supposedly dates back to the patriarch Abraham. This tendency toward pseudepigraphy has its roots in Apocalyptic literature, which claims that esoteric knowledge such as magic, divination and astrology was transmitted to humans in the mythic past by the two angels, Aza and Azaz'el (in other places, Azaz'el and Uzaz'el) who 'fell' from heaven (see Genesis 6:4).

In Christianity

Magia was viewed with suspicion by Christianity from the time of the Church fathers. It was, however, never completely settled whether there may be permissible practicies, e.g. involving relics or holy water as opposed to blasphemous necromancy (nigromantia) involving the invocation of demons (goetia).

The distinction became particularly pointed and controversial during the Early Modern witch-hunts, with some learned authors such as Johannes Hartlieb denouncing all magical practice as blasphemous, while others portrayed natural magic as not sinful. The position taken by Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, one of the foremost Renaissance magicians, is notoriously ambiguous. The character of Faustus, likely based on a historical 16th century magician or charlatan, became the prototypical popular tale of a learned magician who succumbs to blasphemy (pact with the devil).

The current Catechism of the Catholic Church discusses divination and magic under the heading of the First Commandment.section It is careful to allow for the possibility of divinely inspired prophecy, but rejects "all forms of divination":

(2116) All forms of divination are to be rejected: recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead or other practices falsely supposed to "unveil" the future. Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums all conceal a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers. They contradict the honor, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone.

The section on "practices of magic or sorcery" is less absolute, specifying "attempts to tame occult powers" in order to "have supernatural power over others". Such are denounced as "gravely contrary to the virtue of religion", notably avoiding a statement on whether such attempts can have any actual effect (that is, attempts to employ occult practices are identified as violating the First Commandment because they in themselves betray a lack of faith, and not because they may or may not result in the desired effect).

The Catechism expresses skepticism towards widespread practices of folk Catholicism without outlawing them explicitly:

(2117) [...] Wearing charms is also reprehensible. Spiritism often implies divination or magical practices; the Church for her part warns the faithful against it. Recourse to so-called traditional cures does not justify either the invocation of evil powers or the exploitation of another's credulity.

In Islam

Any discussion of Muslim magic poses a double set of problems. On the one hand, like its counterpart in predominantly Christian cultures, magic is forbidden by orthodox leaders and legal opinions. However, rather than preventing the practice of magic, this classification has merely forced a more complicated nomenclature in Muslim cultures. Nor has the prohibition of "magic" staved its influence on European magical traditions and the early stages of scientific thought. On the other hand, translating various Arabic terms as ‘magic’ causes another set of problems with no clear answers.

As with any question regarding the behavior of Muslims in relation to authorized practices, theological decisions begin by consulting the Qur’an. The second chapter introduces an explanation for the introduction of magic into the world:

They followed what the evil ones gave out (falsely) against the power of Solomon: the blasphemers were, not Solomon, but the evil ones, teaching men magic, and such things as came down at Babylon to the angels Harut and Marut. But neither of these taught anyone (such things) without saying: “We are only for trial; so do not blaspheme.” They learned from them the means to sow discord between man and wife. But they could not thus harm anyone except by Allah’s permission. And they learned what harmed them, not what profited them. And they knew that the buyers of (magic) would have no share in the happiness of the Hereafter. And vile was the price for which they did sell their souls, if they but knew! (Q 2:102).

Though it presents a generally contemptuous attitude towards magic. It distinguishes between apparent magic (miracles sanctioned by Allah) and real magic. The first is that used by Solomon who, being a prophet of Allah, is assumed to have used miraculous powers by Allah’s blessing.<ref>The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an. Translated by Abdullah Yusuf Ali. Amana Publications. 2001. Ali supports this assumption in his commentary on this passage

“. . . Solomon dealt in no arts of evil” (Q 2:102, note 103) The second form is the magic that was taught by the “evil ones,” or al-shayatin. Al-shayatin has two meanings; the first is similar to the Christian Satan. The second meaning, which is the one used here, refers to a djinn of superior power.<ref>Gibb, H.A.R. and J.H. Kramerst. 1965. Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam. Ithaca: Cornell. pp 523-524. The djinn are intelligent beings, or spirits, created by Allah from fire, as opposed to humans and angels who are created from clay and light (Q 15:26-27 ; 55:15). The al-shayatin taught knowledge of evil and “pretended to force the laws of nature and the will of Allah . . .” According to this belief, those who follow this path turn themselves from Allah and cannot reach heaven.

The Arabic word translated in this passage as “magic” is sihr. The etymological meaning of sihr suggests that “it is the turning . . . of a thing from its true nature . . . or form . . . to something else which is unreal or a mere appearance . . .” However, the seriousness with which the passage treats it reveals that sihr, in the context of the Qur’an, is no mere illusion. Sowing discord between a married couple and harming others with sihr are very real consequences. If one uses sihr for such malevolent purposes, then its assault on marital harmony and social justice probably influenced the contempt for which it is generally viewed in the Qur’an.

By the first millennium C.E., sihr became a fully developed system in Islamic society. Within this system, all magicians “assert[ed] that magic is worked by the obedience of spirits to the magician.” The efficacy of this system comes from the belief that every Arabic letter, every word, verse, and chapter in the Qur’an, every month, day, time and name were created by Allah a priori and each has an angel and a djinn servant. (El-Shamy, Hasan. Unpublished Manuscript. Folk Beliefs and Practices in Egypt. p. 28)

The Sunni and Shia sects of Islam typically forbid all use of magic. The Sufis within these two sects are much more ambiguous about it's use as seen in the concept of "Barakah". If magic is understood in terms of Frazer’s principle of contagion, then barakah is another term that can refer to magic. Barakah, variously defined as “blessing,” or “divine power,” is a quality one possesses rather than a category of activity. According to Muslim conception, the source of barakah is solely from Allah; it is Allah’s direct blessing and intervention conferred upon special, pious Muslims. Barakah has a heavily contagious quality in that one can transfer it by either inheritance or contact. Of all the humans who have ever lived, it is said that the Prophet Muhammad possessed the greatest amount of barakah and that he passed this to his male heirs through his daughter Fatima. Barakah is not just limited to Muhammad’s family line; any person who is considered holy may also possess it and transfer it to virtually anyone. In Morocco, barakah transfer can be accomplished by spitting into another’s mouth or by sharing a piece of bread from which the possessor has eaten because saliva is the vessel of barakah in the human body.However, the transference of barakah may also occur against the will of its possessor through other forms of physical contact such as hand shaking and kissing. The contagious element of barakah is not limited to humans as it can be found in rocks, trees, water, and even some animals, such as horses.

Just how the actor maintained obedience depended upon the benevolence or malevolence of his practice. Malevolent magicians operated by enslaving the spirits through offerings and deeds displeasing to Allah. Benevolent magicians, in contrast, obeyed and appeased Allah so that Allah bore his will upon the spirits. Al-Buni provides the process by which this practice occurs:

First: the practitioner must be of utterly clean soul and garb. Second, when the proper angel is contacted, this angel will first get permission from God to go to the aid of the person who summoned him. Third: the practitioner “must not apply . . .[his power] except to that [i.e. to achieve goals] which would please God.

However, not all Islamic groups accept this explanation of benevolent magic. The Wahhabis particularly view this as shirk, denying the unity of Allah. Consequently, the Wahhabis renounce appellations to intermediaries such as saints, angels, and djinn, and renounce magic, fortune-telling, and divination. This particular brand of magic has also been condemned as forbidden by a fatwā|fatwa issued by Al-Azhar University. Further, Egyptian folklorist Hasan El-Shamy, warns that scholars have often been uncritical in their application of the term sihr to both malevolent and benevolent forms of magic. He argues that in Egypt, sihr only applies to sorcery. A person who practices benevolent magic “is not called saahir or sahhaar (sorcerer, witch), but is normally referred to as shaikh (or shaikha for a female), a title which is normally used to refer to a clergyman or a community notable or elder, and is equal to the English title: ‘Reverend.’”

Varieties of magical practice

The best-known type of magical practice is the spell, a ritualistic formula intended to bring about a specific effect. Spells are often spoken or written or physically constructed using a particular set of ingredients. The failure of a spell to work may be attributed to many causes, such as failure to follow the exact formula, general circumstances being unconducive, lack of magical ability or downright fraud.

Another well-known magical practice is divination, which seeks to reveal information about the past, present or future.

Necromancy is another practice involving the summoning of and conversation with spirits of the dead (necros). This is sometimes done simply to commune with deceased loved ones; it can also be done to gain information from the spirits, as a type of divination; or to command the aid of those spirits in accomplishing some goal, as part of casting a spell.

Varieties of magic can also be categorized by the techniques involved in their operation. One common means of categorization distinguishes between contagious magic and sympathetic magic, one or both of which may be employed in any magical work. Contagious magic involves the use of physical ingredients which were once in contact with the person or thing the practitioner intends to influence. Sympathetic magic involves the use of images or physical objects which in some way resemble the person or thing one hopes to influence; voodoo dolls are an example.

Other common categories given to magic include High and Low Magic (the appeal to divine powers or spirits respectively, with goals lofty or personal as accords the type of magic). Manifest and Subtle magic typically refers to magic of legend rather than what many individuals who practice the Occult claim to use as magic, where Manifest magic is magic that immediately appears with a result, and Subtle magic being magic that gradually and intangibly alters the world.

Medieval historian Richard Kieckhefer divides the category of spells into psychological magic, which seeks to influence other people's minds to do the magician's will, such as with a love spell, and illusionary magic, which seeks to conjure the manifestation of various wonders. A spell that conjured up a banquet, or that conferred invisibility on the magician, would be examples of illusionary magic. Magic that causes objective physical change, in the manner of a miracle, is not accommodated for in Kieckhefer's categories.

Magical traditions

Another method of classifying magic is by "traditions," which in this context typically refer to complexes of magical belief and practice associated with various cultural groups and lineages of transmission. Some of these traditions are highly specific and culturally circumscribed. Others are more eclectic and syncretistic. These traditions can compass both divination and spells.

When dealing with magic in terms of "traditions," it is a common misconception for outsiders to treat any religion in which clergy members make amulets and talismans for their congregants as a "tradition of magic," even though what is being named is actually an organized religion with clergy, laity, and an order of liturgical service. This is most notably the case when Voodoo, Palo, Santeria, Taoism, Wicca, and other contemporary religions and folk religions are mischaracterized as forms of "magic" or even "sorcery."


"The ancients sought a supernatural explanation for all natural phenomena not within the range of their personal comprehension; and many moderns continue to do this. The depersonalization of so-called natural phenomena has required ages, and it is not yet completed. But the frank, honest, and fearless search for true causes gave birth to modern science: It turned astrology into astronomy, alchemy into chemistry, and magic into medicine."[1]


  1. Hutton (2003)
  2. Kiekhefer (1998)
  3. Waite (1913)
  4. Greer (1996)
  5. Hutton (2001)
  6. Adler (1987)
  7. Journal of the American Medical Association THE PSYCHOLOGY OF CHESS. JAMA, October 20, 2004; 292: 1900
  8. magic in ancient India (page 51).
  9. Freud (1950, 83), quoting Frazer (1911, 1, 420).
  10. Thomas (1910–11)
  11. Freud (1950, 83).
  12. Freud (1950, 84).
  13. The Golden Bough (1922) Chapter 3: Sympathetic Magic Part 1: The Principles of Magic
  14. DR Congo Pygmies 'exterminated'
  15. Pygmies struggle to survive
  16. Penis theft panic hits city.., Reuters
  17. 7 killed in Ghana over 'penis-snatching' episodes, CNN, January 18, 1997.
  18. Indian doc focuses on Hindu cannibal sect, MSNBC
  19. The Aghoris, Channel 4
  20. Aghoris, ABC
  21. Catechism of the Catholic Church, English version, section
  22. The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an. Translated by Abdullah Yusuf Ali. Amana Publications. 2001. Ali supports this assumption in his commentary on this passage “. . . Solomon dealt in no arts of evil” (Q 2:102, note 103)
  23. Gibb, H.A.R. and J.H. Kramerst. 1965. Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam. Ithaca: Cornell. pp 523-524. The djinn are intelligent beings, or spirits, created by Allah from fire, as opposed to humans and angels who are created from clay and light (Q 15:26-27 ; 55:15).
  24. Ali, Q 2:102, note 103.
  25. Gibb, p 545.
  26. Gibb, p 546.
  27. This is also a subcategory of Muslim magic called simiya, often translated as natural magic. For a complete discussion of simiya, see ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah: an Introduction to History. Franz Rosenthal, translator. 2nd edition, 1967. Vol. 3 pp 171-227.
  28. El-Shamy, Hasan. Unpublished Manuscript. Folk Beliefs and Practices in Egypt. p. 28.
  29. Westermarck, Edward Alexander. 1926. Ritual and Belief in Morocco. London: Macmillan. p. 35
  30. Westermarck, p. 36. Though Westermarck did not elaborate on this statement, the emphasis on the male lineage through Fatima appears to be of Sufi or Shi’i origin rather than Sunni.
  31. Westermarck, pp. 41-93.
  32. Westermarck, pp. 42-43.
  33. Westermarck, p. 97.
  34. al-Nadim, Muhammad ibn Ishaq. The Fihrist of al-Nadim. Edited and translated by Bayard Dodge. New York: Columbia, 1970. pp. 725-726.
  35. El-Shamy. Folk Beliefs and Practices in Egypt. p. 34.
  36. Doumato, Eleanor Abdella. 2000 Getting God’s Ear: Women, Islam, and Healing in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. New York: Columbia. p. 34.
  37. El-Shamy. Personal communication
  38. El-Shamy. Folk Beliefs and Practices in Egypt. p. 33.


  • Frazer, J. G. (1911). The Magic Art (2 vols.) (The Golden Bough, 3rd ed., Part II). London.
  • Clifton, Dan Salahuddin (1998). Myth Of The Western Magical Tradition. C&GCHE. ISBN 0-393-00143-1.
  • de Givry, Grillot (1954). Witchcraft, Magic, and Alchemy, trans. J. Courtney Locke. Frederick Pub.
  • Hutton, Ronald (2001). The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. Oxford. ISBN 0-19-285449-6.
  • Hutton, Ronald (2003). Witches, Druids, and King Arthur. Hambledon. ISBN 1-85285-397-2
  • Adler, Margot (1987). Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today. ISBN 0-14-019536-X
  • Greer, Mary K. (1996) Women of the Golden Dawn. Llewellyn. ISBN 0-89281-607-4
  • Kampf, Erich (1894). The Plains of Magic. Konte Publishing.
  • Kiekhefer, Richard (1998). Forbidden Rites: A Necromancer's Manual of the Fifteenth Century. Pennsylvania State University. ISBN 0-271-01751-1.
  • Ruickbie, Leo (2004). Witchcraft Out of the Shadows. Robert Hale. ISBN 0-7090-7567-7.
  • Thomas, N. W. (1910–11). "Magic". Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed., vol. 26, p. 337.
  • Thorndike, Lynn (1923-1958) (8 volumes). A History of Magic and Experimental Science. New York: Macmillan.
  • Waite, Arthur E. (1913) The Book of Black Magic and of Pacts, London. J.B. Haze
  • Frazer, J. G. (1911). The Magic Art (2 vols.) (The Golden Bough, 3rd ed., Part II). London.
  • Myth Of The Western Magical Tradition, ISBN 0-393-00143-1
  • Witchcraft, Magic, and Alchemy, trans. J. Courtney Locke. Frederick Pub.
  • The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. Oxford. ISBN 0-19-285449-6.
  • Hutton, Ronald (2003). Witches, Druids, and King Arthur. Hambledon. ISBN 1-85285-397-2
  • Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today. ISBN 0-14-019536-X
  • Women of the Golden Dawn. Llewellyn. ISBN 0-89281-607-4
  • Kampf, Erich (1894). The Plains of Magic. Konte Publishing.
  • Forbidden Rites: A Necromancer's Manual of the Fifteenth Century. Pennsylvania State University. ISBN 0-271-01751-1.
  • 'Witchcraft Out of the Shadows. Robert Hale. ISBN 0-7090-7567-7.
  • "Magic". Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed., vol. 26, p. 337.
  • A History of Magic and Experimental Science|location=New York|authorlink=Lynn Thorndike| publisher=Macmillan|year=1923-1958|format=8 volumes}}
  • Arthur Edward Waite (1913) The Book of Black Magic and of Pacts, London. J.B. Haze

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