Re-imagining magic

I am reading Chris Gosdens remarkable The History of Magic: From Alchemy to Witchcraft from the Ice Age to the Present (2020) and already in the beginning there is an amazing remark that I think is worth thinking about. Gosden retells the story of the Azande, as studied by Evans-Pritchard, and how they viewed magic. If someone happened to be crushed by a granary collapsing over them, they would readily agree that the granary had collapsed because of long neglect and the lack of any fixing, but they would as readily point out that there was a reason it collapsed at the time it did and killed the man it killed.

This reminded me of the fact that we simplify earlier beliefs at our peril. The Azande are not dispensing with causality and science, they are just adding a layer of causality – the direct cause, the neglect, is recognised but only as an intermediate cause. The direct cause was somebody cursing or harboring bad will towards the person who died.

The Azande belief in magic is a belief in a much more complex model of causality than ours, positing extra causes where we rely on Occam’s razor.

But that view of causality may be much more interesting than our very simplistic view. What if there are separate causal chains that lead back to someone disliking the person, perhaps “cursing” them? Why would that be less of a cause just because it is not a direct cause? We need not believe in magic to recognise that the reality we live in is a complex causal web.

Magic, then, is an invitation to understand the many causes that create our future and reality, and as such it may end up being quite useful.

Why do things happen? There is no simple answer to that question and if magic is reimagined as the recognition of complex causal webs we would do well to examine its premises more closely.

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