Chopping Off the Golden Bough

The theme of magic is one which the modern mind finds surprisingly attractive. In the West it might seem that science has achieved a definitive ascendancy; the old assumption that the real causes of events were to be sought on the religious plane is visibly fading away. Nowadays few churches dare point to sin as the cause of AIDS, or to denial of a creed as the reason for a person’s death, or to rejection of a God as the explanation of a famine. And yet we need look no further than the magazines that are sold at the supermarket checkout to see that the supernatural, in its most unregenerate forms, is alive and interesting, and that the will to believe in magic is very far from being extinct.

In a recent poll in the United Kingdom, many more Britons claimed to believe in the supernatural—astrology, telepathy, ghosts—than in God. But that poll, and others like it, points up also a cardinal difficulty. A very large number of respondents said they “believed in” astrology; but when they were asked whether they would take astrological factors into account in making a practical decision, the number replying “Yes” to the first question shrank by two thirds. In what sense do people accept the stories they read in magazines like the National Enquirer—“Elvis still alive in outer space,” “Second World War bomber found on the moon”? In what sense do they “believe” in such things as astrology and magic? These questions are even more difficult when they are asked, not about contemporaries, but about people who lived in the distant past.

Professor Fritz Graf, of the University of Basel, is well known for his work on Greek religion. His book on magic in the ancient world first appeared in French, was translated (not without considerable changes) into German, and appears now in English. Graf has studied to good effect the numerous texts found on papyrus and on lead tablets which have come to light in the last hundred years. His book contains a great deal of very interesting material, ably discussed; it is a substantial and controversial contribution to the study of a fascinating and controversial subject.

He begins with an extensive discussion of the word “magic,” as we find it used in Greco-Roman antiquity. That is perhaps a strange place to start. The word is absent from the earliest surviving Greek writings, and it does not appear until about 500 BCE. It is an Eastern word, originally referring to the magoi, a priestly class among the Persians. At first it was applied by the Greeks to wandering religious experts and charlatans, who for money would perform ceremonies that claimed to deliver anxious souls from their sense of guilt or ritual defilement. While the word is often, later on, used to refer to what we call magic, it never lost that original association with the exotic.

The word “magic,” then, is not very early; but the idea is much older in Greece…

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