The History of Magic reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut’s dictum ‘science is magic that works’. Science has triumphed because its effects are replicable. As soon as magic becomes reliable, it ceases to be magic. But, as Gosden shows, the modern world has been built on a wide range of magical practices that worked. Agriculture, architecture, art, cooking, medicine and so on may all have roots in a kind of thinking that we have effectively othered in intellectual life.
For Gosden, magic is one of a “triple helix” of ways of thinking that have shaped human life. Science distances human beings from the world, removing them to a point where they can gain an abstract understanding of physical processes. In religion the primary human relation is with gods or a god, mediated through priesthoods and places of worship. Distinct from both, and preceding them in its development, magic works through participation in the universe, which is conceived not as purely mechanical but as being animate, even sentient. Magic in Gosden’s account is pre-eminently practical, serving the needs of human beings struggling to survive and prosper. Each part of the triple helix increases or decreases in importance according to historical and cultural conditions, but these three modes of interacting with the world – magic, science and religion – are coterminous with the human animal.
It should be said at once that this is not a book for everyone. For many readers its pages will be full of fascinating discoveries. For others, the same pages will be full of meticulously catalogued nonsense. Knowing which group you belong to is easily checked. At the start of the book Gosden cites the anthropologist EE Evans-Pritchard, who worked among the Azande of central Africa. The Azande believed all misfortune and death to be caused by magic and witchcraft. Evans-Pritchard considered this viewpoint “not irrational”, and Gosden evidently concurs. If you agree with them that it is not irrational to believe all misfortune and death to be caused by magic and witchcraft, then this book is for you. If you disagree, it is probably not, unless you can suspend disbelief completely while you read.
Instead of allowing us to think that this rejection of magic is the sensible norm, Gosden shows in his comprehensive and remarkable book that the recent western rejection is anomalous in millennia of human history. His aim is to rescue magical belief from the enormous condescension of posterity. This might sound relatively simple, but it is not until you spend some time with The History of Magic that you fully appreciate how challenging a task this is, for author and for reader. “Much effort has gone into the construction of a mechanistic universe in western thought,” Gosden notes drily, and his book subverts essentially everything we are meant to believe.
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.
Gosden goes back thousands of years further still and ranges across the world to gather his evidence — Turkey, Iraq, China, Aboriginal Australia and Egypt — establishing that tribes and societies, no matter how disparate, had the common denominator of wanting some means of harnessing human and supernatural powers, so they devised rituals, altars, shrines and figurines, and came up with ‘an active system of magic, full of blood, fear, procreation and death’. That covers most things, I think.