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The concept and elements of Magic

I deal with Magic from the point of view of anthropology. In this way we shall not approach the practice of magic from the criterion of biblical theology or even form a moral judgment. My desire is that only to observe the magic act in an emic approach, starting from the worldview of those that practice it.
 
Magic and the denial of an evolutionary state
 
Magic, religion and science are subjects treated many times linked together in anthropology, by the clear connection between their concepts and normally described in an evolutionary way. That is, while religion would be a stage evolved from magic, science would be the stage evolved from religion. For some magic is the embryonic solution for the conflicts of life by being based on the manipulation of elements known to or made by man to order to create the desired effects. Malinowsky based his contribution in the remote epochs of mankind, and so proposing the concept of their development.[1] In this way religion would be the development from magic, process of magic, an elaboration more organized and logical of the search for the divine or the control of life. Eliade believes that human religiosity is associated with the desire to control life, the search for this passed through magic, religiosity and science. For these men the answers sought earlier in magic are treated in religion and the solutions sought in religion have their solution in scientific propositions.[2]
 
I think it is hardly likely that magic, religion and science could be results of a social evolutionary state. Firstly, by the constancy of its appearances and practices; magic cultures do not develop into non-magical religiosity. Scientific societies do not in a general stop to practice magic, and often we see science and magic responding to different questions within the same human group. The process of the development of thought of modern society that passed from religiosity to the veneration of science, cannot be attributed to social evolutionary state, but to the influence of philosophy and social environment. Secondly, by the clear link between the utilitarian value of magic, religion and science formed by existing culture pattern. All three systems are in fact utilitarian and propose to solve the conflicts of life, by different approaches. I perceive that in existential and ceremonial cultures, concentrated on man and his conflicts of today, there is a grave incidence of magic that in a certain way places man in the center of his universe. In spiritist and totemic cultures in which mythical beings populates and govern the universe, religion tends to be the proposed reply to solve the problems of life. In humanistic and progressive cultures science is in the ascendency with a chain of solutions for human life. It appears to me that the cultural levels, therefore determines what type of reply is sought or what develops, so making magic, religion and science share the same scene of ideas, but are not by themselves the results of an evolutionary state.
 
Concept of Magic
 
The study of magic covers the development of the theme starting with Tylor who recorded it in an embryonic form in his work ‘Primitive Civilization,’ propounding the concept of sympathetic magic, always linked to the resemblance of the things manipulated.  Frazer and Lehmann developed the theme defending the idea that all magical rites are sympathetic, with the resemblance between the total and a part, between the manipulated object and the target of the magic. Lehmann calls our attention to the fact that magic is utilitarian, that is, it possesses a specific objective and a technique that is also specific. Mauss makes the difference between magic and religion by suggesting that the latter has an invocatory structure not conducive to magic.
How are we able, therefore, to conceptualize magic? I believe that it consists of practices, coordinated by an individual, or beginning with him, involving the manipulation of natural elements, not centralized on the invocation of a personified spiritual being, but based on the belief that such manipulation according to the determined technique or covered by a certain power will be able to produce, therefore the desired result. In spite of the nature of magic being sympathetic, based on resemblance to the image of the effect or object to be produced, not all forms of magic can be classified as sympathetic.[3] To be practical we shall study some categories of magic such as white and black magic, imitative and allegorical magic, and sympathetic magic. However, we must understand that every magical practice results from the belief in the existence of a force that governs life, even if only partially, and that this force can be manipulated. Because of this it is not practical for us to distinguish so strongly magic from the act of worship, as Mauss does, for it is possible to have a clear correlation between these different practices.   We find worship services with acts of magic and magic with the invocation of a personalized spiritual being, which can be manipulated. It appears to me that magic and worship share the idea of a relationship with the supernatural, although by different means.
 
The utilitarian value of magic
 
It is necessary for us to have in mind the utilitarian value of magic, for it inserts man into the context of universal decisions, that is, it makes him a co-participant in the solution of life’s problems. In this way the groups where magic is accentuated and universal tend to be more man-centered and develop all their social, religious and mythological organization based on the utilitarian value of the belief. Melatti tells of this utilitarian value when he describes to us how it is among the Craôs: ‘the magic that helps the hunter kill a pampas deer shows us the presence of other ways to classify it. He who wants to kill pampas deer, must only eat the meat of animals that are about in the day time and avoid that of those who are nocturnal, because the pampas deer moves only in the daytime. There is therefore a classification of animals according which part of the day they are active. The hunter must also avoid eating the meat of animals that are easily frightened.’[4]In this aspect the magic is organized, intentional and utilitarian.
 
To understand the concepts about magic it becomes important for us to analyze the magical processes. The idea of magic must be understood as a institution based on the belief in a supernatural force regulated by the tradition of practices, rites and ceremonies that appeal to the hidden forces and seek to give man dominion over nature. Already the description of magic shows us that it is impersonal, repetitive, and manipulatable and has social as well as ceremonial implications. It can be produced, simply possessed or bought as an amulet or talisman.[5]
 
In 1891 Codrington lectured about the invisible element ‘Mana’ and defined it as being ‘an impersonal force that is always linked to a person that directs this force.[6] Therefore Mana is probably the best term that we have anthropologically to define the enormous variety of forces and powers manipulable by man and expressed by different terms. The Iroquois call it ‘wokonda’, the Algonquians call it ‘manitu.’ The African Pigmies call it ‘megbe’ and the Bantus ‘ndoki.’ Mana can be good or evil with degrees and variations of control by man. The ‘mana’ of a lance, claims Käser ‘is defined by the fact that it can hit its target with greater frequency than other lances, or because it kills bigger fish.[7]So we are able to conclude that the concept of ‘mana’ is at the root of the anthropological process designated as magic, and the manipulation of impersonal elements (that are covered by the ‘force’) in a way that causes an extraordinary effect. Therefore in a certain way magic is centralized on the man and answering his desires.
 
The elements of Magic
 
We will now think about the elements of Magic. Some clear elements will help us to identify and analyze it in its presentable form.
 
 
The first element is the thought or belief. In this case the belief in the existence and presence of a supernatural force that can be manipulated. This might be impersonal, mechanical or even a personal force that can be manipulated through mechanical and visible elements. In animistic cultures the clear perception that the natural world is animated by the supernatural creates in itself the ideal conditions for the practice of magic. We must not, however, reduce the practice of magic to only the environments where there may be an organized belief in the supernatural. Many times the force manipulated is unknown, or little explained, and the effort of magic is focused not on the supernatural, but on the way to manipulate it by means of the natural world. We understand therefore the human character of magic as manipulative and utilitarian.
 
The second element is the individual. This person can be called magician, witch, shaman and so on. However it is the one who (with or without titles of recognition as a practitioner) coordinates the magical act. In hierarchical cultures it is easy to find specific persons with this ability and responsibility. The one we call here ‘magician.’ In leaderless or decentralized cultures the magic is ’horizontalized’ and practiced by almost everyone. But even those that do not practice, who do not have the knowledge or ability can arrive at a stage in which magic is accessible and not a specialty. Eliade and Mauss claimed that the category of ‘witch’, the person that controls or advocates the magical act, is distinguished, and cannot be anyone who wants to be one. This person would have peculiarities of kinship or definition by the clan, or with special skills, or were trained or initiated in the art by others.[8] From my observation this is an evaluation applicable only in certain types of cultures, such as the more hierarchical. Irrespective of the restrictive configuration of the coordinator of magical acts, the person has attributed to them certain characteristics. Normally it is a person recognized as having such a power, ability or knowledge. Also they dedicate themselves, among other things, to the practice of magic, being sought out for this by the community. The person can be identified by age (the old one) or by some permanent physical defect. The greater the mystery connected with the individual that practices magic, the greater their power of enchantment before the population. At times it can be associated with an official role in society.   Among the Azande[9] of the S.W. Sudan, C.A.R. and N.E. Congo the guardian of religious ceremonies of the royal family is also responsible for the magical acts. Among the Konkombas, the ‘magicians’ are those who were initiated to this art, by choice of the others that already practice it.
 
The third element is the preparation. Magic and the one who practices it require a special preparation. The choices of objects, their separation and preparation, as well as the preparation of the individual himself, normally by revising his knowledge or seeking to enter in trance to potentialize his ability, or even by means of invocation and fasting, are acts commonly found in the practice of magic. Among the Tariana Indians on the Upper Rio Negro, Amazonia, Brazil, the practice of protection magic begins with the preparation of the elements, consisting of certain stones, pitch and leaves that are used to create smoke that might purify and protect the persons that participate in the ceremony. Thinking of sympathetic magic (based on resemblance) it is normal that the separated or collected elements resemble or appear like the target of the magic. The use of smoke is associated with purification and protection in magical acts in diverse cultures, due to its fluid, diffuse form similar to the spirit.   So when the Tariana uses it to bless, protect or heal, a certain child who very ill, the association of the smoke with life, with its spirit, is clear. Other elements also can be associated with the life force and be used for this purpose because of their resemblance. Water, earth, air, fire, smoke, breath, root and bark of trees are very common elements associated with the life force.   Therefore these are universal elements. There are also private elements. In this case magic occurs through representations that require something that appears objectively like the target of the magic. Among the Ewe of Ghana a strand of hair is the primordial element for the preparation of the magic, whether black or white magic. Among the Konkombas finger nails and river water, from where the person bathed, are required.[10] Among the Yanomami, Brazil, the footprints where a person passed by are important. Among the Aborigines of Australia the marks of a hand on the ground, and the soil is collected and separated for the magical act. Such elements go through a ‘preparation’ that spiritualizes them. They begin to represent their targets (persons, families, communities, beginning of a hunt, social projects, etc.) and the ‘treatment’ they undergo, will result (make effective) on the target.[11] The preparation, however, is not restricted to the collected elements or the individual who will manipulate them. It can include the place where the magical ritual takes place, with a special preparation and also the person who requested the magic or the community which would benefit from it.
 
The fourth element is the magical rite. This rite possesses in general a static form of development. It has an specific order or treatment with the manipulated elements that do not change. If there are acts of invocation these are always the same too. In this way the elements of invocation such as music, musical instruments, songs, dance, clothes and ornaments, the elements of process such as stones, roots, leaves and the sympathetic elements such as strands of hair, nails, clothes, bath water, etc., follow a pattern preconceived before their collection, preparation and ritual. The magical rite has normally the elaborate way of proceeding.   When the Konkombas manipulate the bath water of someone they want to harm, this takes place in an environment prepared for this purpose, under an Itooh tree with its many leaves, during a clear moonlit night in a place distant from the community where the invocatory acts are not heard. The name of the target person is repeated many times, generically with the name of his clan, but never his personal name.   Therefore it is clear only to certain persons, who are the target of that magical practice. The river water in this case is placed in a gourd bowl and in that moment, after the acts of invocation the rummaging of the manipulative elements (water, bowl, leafy tree, words, names, etc.), the mixture of earth with the water (that represents the force of life) would produce and obstacle on the person’s life, making that person ‘heavy’, with short and slow movements, because the soil is heavier than the water. A mixture of blood with the water would produce cuts, scratches, infections and even hemorrhages. At times this could be involved with falls and broken bones. The mixture of the saliva with the water would produce broken relationships, internal illnesses or very commonly incest, because the saliva is an impure part of the body, that should never be put outside or never inside.[12]
 
These elements and their results, however, are able to show clear associations of meaning (earth, blood, saliva) or simply to be covered by the tradition of magic practice. In this second case, they are used and believed although the original reason for association given by the fathers has already been lost. Away it is right to think that a good part of magic acts possess in their origin a sympathetic form (by association or resemblance) with the target of the magic. In every magical act open or private, the participants will be able to point out the expected results.
 
The categories of magic
 
We are able to categorize magic as white, black, allegorical and imitative.
 
White Magic is that which produces or collaborates with healing, protection and prosperity. White magic is a practice that aims at benefiting in an objective way, above all, the manipulator of the elements, or someone who he serves at that moment. This is normally associated with voluntary magic asked for by the one needing it. The processes of white magic to benefit the community through blessing are always open and collective. It has also the broad characteristic of not only dealing with the immediate problem but with others within its range. When the Tariana, for example, hold the magical act of blessing, seeking protection and healing for the community, they permit the smoke also to be ventilated towards the nearest river for the purification of the environment, showing a not-too-exact perception of the cause of their ills. Quite often after the blessing aimed at healing or protection, it is commented that the river also was providing poor fish, demonstrating an important factor in the process of magic in animist groups: The connection between the elements of life. As a western urban culture tends to see the acts of life, its conflicts and solutions as an archive, with separate catalogued compartments; an animist groups sees them as one aturá, a large Brazilian Indian basket, whose fibers are interwoven, without it being known where one begins or ends.   
 
Marcelo Carvalho told us that for the Hupdah Indians of the Upper Rio Negro, Amazonia, the place most protected against all the spiritual forces is the house and afterwards the community. The plantations in the forest clearings and rivers are not secure. There are blessings for purification and protection of the house as well as the whole community renewing the security of the environment.
 
Another example of White Magic as simple and domestic we can quote the Quechuas of the Andes, that arrange llama bones behind the doors of their houses, in order and specific sizes, to provide abundance to that home. There is a need of specific knowledge of the elements and their manipulation; knowledge that comes from the past of the old men to the present younger generation. In this case it is a open community magic, because everyone can observe, learn and practice it.
 
Black Magic is feared for bringing destruction and death. It is able to be practiced by a magician or sorcerer, or a rare type of witch. Normally black magic is more specialized and restrictive, because only a few are able to learn it or achieve it. In some cases is can be inherited. It is learnt from the initiative of introducing a young man by an old man who already practices it. ‘Witch’ we use here anthropologically to designate a man or woman recluse, who perfects the art of dominating, killing or destroying by magical or invocatory acts, therefore is not limited only to the practice of magic. A reoccurring belief is that there is a link between the practice of black magic and the development of physical problems in those that practice it. Among the Hupdah of the Upper Rio negro, Brazil, the shaman believes he can transform himself into a jaguar so as to spiritually attack and eat the heart of the enemy, killing him.   Marcelo Carvalho explains that the diagnosis for these sudden deaths is Hãwäg sú – heart seizure.
 
Among the Konkombas of Ghana Black Magic is practiced by the sorcerer who gains the role of guardian of fetishes. His familiarity with the fetishes confirms his knowledge by practical experience and is not inherited or learned. The use of blood split in a special way into a gourd bowl and mixed in proportion with water and soil (in which is the life force of infants while the water represents the life force of adults), is necessary for the practice of this magic because it can cause illness, desolation, death and disenchantment with life. The blood, therefore, would be a separate and specific element for black magic, not being used for purposes of healing and protection. Similarly the sympathetic understanding of magic is also encountered in black magic. A strand of hair, therefore, that can be manipulated with the intention to produce prosperity for the target person, can also equally be used for a manipulation of the elements (with other variations) in order to cause illness or death in its owner. For this reason we frequently find in animistic groups a meticulous care to protect parts of the body that might be collected very easily such as hair or nails. They are very often guarded very carefully and afterwards thrown away in distant places.
 
Imitative Magic refers to the love and hatred motives and a classic example is voodoo that imitates the target object, but is much more extensive than we see in the most well-known form. In Haiti the imitative magic is made popular through dolls made and manipulated to resemble the persons they want to reach. In the case of voodoo it is necessary that there be something belonging to the target person, in the right environment for the magical act. And if it is believed that there is sufficient resemblance between the doll and the person through a preconceived and learnt manipulation, the act done to the doll will have effect on the person who the doll represents. One of the varieties can be the manipulation of plantations, houses, natural environments, etc. This involves stealing a representative element (such as rice, from the plantation that is desired to affect, for example) carrying it home or to the special place for manipulation. In this case it can be burnt in order to obtain a fire in the plantation and the lost of production of the crop.
 
Sympathetic Magic involves fertility, protection and passion. Generally it is presupposed that all magic is sympathetic, however we use the term here to designate magical procedures for procreation, protection and passion, like white and imitative magic but with the added characteristic to be open and not hidden, available to be bought or practiced, in a simple and community way. This sympathetic magic is associated with taboos and talismans and proposes to control chance and not to produce a particular result. In Brazil we could be able to classify as sympathetic magic the use of white clothes on New Year’s Day to produce happiness and abundance, or the use of ribbons of Our Lord of Bonfim on the wrists for protection.[13]  Popularly they are called ‘sympathies.’
 
Allegorical Magic produce gains and losses with specific things that in certain circumstances produce gain or in their absence produce loss, such as holy water sold in certain churches. It resembles imitative magic and main difference is the belief. While the first is more associated with chance, undefined forces, the second is associated to personal forces defined by invocations, prophecies and visions. Among the Aborigines of Australia dreams reveal elements that are able to be used in magic. In this case the magic is not an act produced but a happening, resulting from the power and desire of the divine to the individual that dreams the sacred. In this form the dream is in itself a magical process with supernatural effect and the unconscious participation of the dreamer. The telling of the dream allegorizes life, and the events in the dream reveal themselves in daily life that brings this allegorical aspect to magic met is with in many societies.
 
Finally, I would like to mention the connection between the elements and the forms of magic practice. The problems are related to the solutions; and the environment with individuals that practice the magic. The objects used in magic are related to those that request the magic or their targets. The form of practice is related to the result to be produced.   The technique is linked to the person that manipulates the elements and so on.
 
This demonstrates: Firstly that magic is a central social act in the cultures that widely practice it. So it becomes important, especially for the researcher, to observe magical practice as being a way to the center of the religiosity of the people. Secondly, it is important because of its broad practice in the animist context. This is explained by the fact that animism already produces in itself a platform for the idea of the supernatural over the natural that is helpful to magic. Magic is present also in the collective and organized invocatory acts of worship, like witchcraft, and so we must not reduce it only to environment of purely mechanical, impersonal forces. Thirdly, it is important because of its utilitarian character. How magic aims to organize life, solve possible problems; magic is a religious act and a social regulator. Perhaps this might be the principal motive that makes it so popular, feared and used.
 
[1] Malinowski, Bronislaw. Magic, Science and Religion and Other Essays. Free Press, Glencoe 1948.
[2]Eliade, Mircea. Rites and Symbols of Initiation, New York: Harper and Row, 1958.
[3] See Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. Structure and Function in Primitive Society, London: Cohen andWest, 1952
[4]Julio Melatti - Published 1975 in Informativo FUNAI, ano IV, n° 14, pp. 13-20. The Krahô have 5 villages in Maranhão, south-eastern Pará and Tocantins, Brazil (Ethnologue 2006).
[5] The difference normally between an amulet and a talisman is that the first serves to keep away undesirable things, while the second attracts luck.
[6]Codrington, R. H. The Melanesians. Studies in their anthropology and their folk-lore (1891), reprint New York Dover, 1972.
[7]Käser, Lothar. Diferentes culturas – Uma introdução à etnologia. Londrina: Descoberta, 2004 or Fremde Kulturen: Eine Einführung in die Ethnologie, Erlangen: VLM1997 and Lahr: Liebenzeller Mission.
[8]Eliade, Mircea. Images and Symbols – Studies in Religious Symbolism. Princeton University Press , 1991.
[9]Eliade, Mircea. ibid.
[10]See the article Religous Phenomenology among the Konkomba People of Ghana - Ronaldo Lidório
[11] See Mauss, Marcel, with Robert Brain, D.F. Pocock: A General Theory of Magic, Translated by Robert Brain, London: Routledge, 2001
 
[12]Ronaldo Lidório: Cultural identity and religious phenomenology – The impact of the gospel in a Konkomba worldview. Dissertation in Ethnology – 2001.
[13] Our Lord of Bomfim (Good End) involves depictions of Christ on the moment of dying, a Catholic tradition brought to Brazil from Portugal 300 years ago, with a special January festival at the church of that name in Salvador, but also in many other places in Brazil. It involves Yoruba songs and other African elements and the idol of ‘Our Lord of Good End’ is linked to Oxalá, father of the Afrospiritist gods and creator of humanity in the Afrospiritist cults.
 
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