According to The Golden Bough by Sir James Frazer, humans understand the natural world through science, religion and magic. Before the Scientific Revolution, the latter two were the lenses through which most saw existance.
Magic is the belief that one can influence the natural world through ritual and incantation. Like science, it assumes an immutable natural law; unlike science, it reaches such conclusions through received wisdom rather than investigation. By working within these laws, a magic-user can harness invisible forces to manipulate matter from a distance. Such belief systems were once universal and still existed in Frazer’s time. Superstitions and taboos persist to this day.
There are two types of magic: homoeopathic and contagious.
Homoeopathic magic assumes that an effect will always resemble its cause – the Law of Similarity. Ruthenian burglars used to throw human bones over a house to induce its inhabitants into a deathlike sleep. While fighting, Malagasy soldiers avoided eating animals killed by spears for fear they would share their fate. Effigies and voodoo dolls use homoeopathic magic.
Contagious magic assumes invisible forces bind things that were once a part of one another. By stabbing a person’s footprints, for example, one could harm their feet. People put baby teeth by mouse holes so new ones would be strong as a mouse’s. One could hurt a person by burning or beating their garments. In many cultures, a placenta’s resting place determined its owner’s fate.
‘The fatal flaw of magic’, writes Frazer ‘lies not in its general assumption of a sequence of events determined by law, but in its total misconception of the nature of the particular laws which govern that sequence.’ Belief in magic held because there was no way to refute it. If a rain dance, or a killing curse, appears to fail, for example, a magician needs only wait for the inevitable as proof. Such was the reverence and fear of magic, few were willing to refute it.
Many societies believed magic works through an invisible spiritual world. Spirits of nature and the dead can be manipulated or compelled to do one’s bidding through spells and ritual. Ancient Egyptian sorcerers claimed to manipulate the gods themselves to do their will.
As human societies grew larger and more complicated, so too did their understanding of the world. Rather than see themselves as the centre of the universe, able to manipulate it to their will, they realised human futility and recognised the spirits as not merely magical, but all-powerful and divine. Thus religion superseded magic.
Religion is the belief in a higher spiritual power which humans can call on through prayer, sacrifice or conciliation. While magic imposes human will on the divine, religion supplicates oneself to it. People can gain supernatural aid not through coercion or spells, but by seeking divine favour. Christianity, in particular, claims the divine is all-powerful and above human whims, making magic antithetical. Pagan deities were cast out as demons or assimilated as saints. The Aztec Empire believed the sun would not rise unless they sacrificed human hearts to Huitzilopochtli.
Religion and magic often intertwined. When praying for rain failed, Cypriot and Siamese peasants cast holy icons into the sunshine to punish them for not heeding their calls. Exposure to harsh sunlight forced the saint or spirit to call the rain. French peasants believed certain priests could perform the mass of Saint Sécaire, a forbidden ritual which compelled the Holy Spirit to kill a designated person.
Science and magic share a belief in natural law. Thus, in Europe, it was not theology but alchemy and Rennaisance magic which made way for the Scientific Revolution.
‘Its fundamental conception is identical with that of modern science; underlying the whole system is a faith, implicit but real and firm, in the order and uniformity of nature.’
Sources: Sir James Frazer – The Golden Bough (1890)