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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 than the use of the word. Already in the Odyssey of Homer we meet the alarming figure of Circe, who gives Odysseus’ men food, then touches them with her wand and transforms them into swine. The hero Odysseus himself is protected from sharing this squalid fate by a god, who gives him a talisman to hold: a special plant, hard to find, called moly. Circe’s spell has no effect on him, but her reaction, interestingly enough, is not to comment on his talisman but to say, “You must be Odysseus! I knew you would come one day. The mind in your breast is proof against enchantment.” Not counter-magic, then, but the hero’s own nature is what protects him. The episode (which Graf does not mention) is thus an ambiguous one, as magical encounters often are. Was it a counter-spell that guarded him, or was it his own mental quality?

The other great magician of early myth is Medea, who fell in love with the dashing hero Jason and assisted him by her magical arts to win the Golden Fleece. She made him proof against the flames snorted forth by fire-breathing bulls, and she lulled to sleep the dragon that guarded the tree on which the Fleece hung. Later on she turned her powers against the hero himself, a story unforgettably dramatized by Euripides in his Medea. That play raises a problem not fully faced in Graf’s book. In it Medea destroys her rival, a princess for whose hand Jason has rejected her, by sending her a headdress impregnated with a deadly stuff, a drug. It burns her flesh and kills both her and her father, when he tries to help his daughter and gets stuck to her disintegrating body. It is never made clear, though, whether the means which Medea uses are to be thought of as magical, or simply as exotic substances, unknown in Greece, but known and exploited by a clever and formidable foreigner.

The same can be said about another scene in the Odyssey. No less a person than Helen, back from Troy and living respectably with her husband Menelaus, knows what to do when the conversation turns maudlin and the people she is with start to cry. She slips into the drink a potion which she picked up in Egypt: a drug so powerful, we read, that those who have taken it would sit, smiling happily, even if their own brothers were being killed before their eyes. Supernatural? Or just consciousness-changing? Probably the latter, though the point is not explicitly clarified. Helen, like Medea, is the sort of person (exotic, glamorous, traveled) who might well be expected to have in her suitcase some exotic things of that kind. We may not be so far from the world of Sherlock Holmes, where there is no magic but people can be killed by poisons from Sumatra and the Amazon jungle: poisons impressively declared to be “unknown to medical science.”

When are we faced with something frankly magical, and when is it an attempt, however misguided, at a rational procedure? The distinction is hard to draw. It goes with our general view of what sort of place the world is. A wounded man is treated by giving him rest, washing his body, preparing for him special food; we also croon an incantation over his wound; he recovers. Is it then rational to include the incantation in our treatment of the next man to be hurt? Does there exist a “sympathy” between things that are in some way similar, although they are apparently unconnected, so that (for instance) when I stick a pin in this voodoo doll, that produces a pain in your chest? Are there, as a matter of fact, unseen nonhuman agents, whose names are talismans of power, which if spoken will produce drastic effects? It is not obvious that these hypotheses are fantasies, and that those who try to act on them are doomed to frustration, while such phenomena as electricity and X-rays (at least as astonishing to the uninitiated) are perfectly natural, part of the furniture of the scientifically verifiable and manageable universe. Might it not just as easily have been the other way around?

Scholarship has had its fashions, in the field of magic no less than in others. A hundred years ago scholars in countries like Britain, France, and the United States were serenely confident in the supremacy of their own society, not only in its power but also in its sophistication; and so they looked with conscious superiority on the superstitions of less happy breeds. Lucien Lévy-Bruehl described them, in the 1930s, as having a “primitive mentality,” which was different from ours in being naively tolerant of contradictions. That, like the word “primitive” itself, is now a matter of embarrassment for his anthropological successors.

Even worse, because much better known and more influential, is Sir James Frazer, author of the celebrated Golden Bough (first published 1890), whom Graf discusses at some length. Frazer distinguished religion, science, and magic. Magic, he wrote, was clearly distinct from religion because of its attitude toward the gods—it did not approach them with submission and prayer, but with an assertion of mastery and an attempt to force the gods to obey the will of the sorcerer. Magic was in fact an attempt at science, but a mistaken one. Modern writers are careful to distance themselves from anything that seems to imply, as Frazer’s book did, that some forms of religion are superior to others, or that some beliefs or practices are less rational, or less sophisticated; and denunciations of Frazer are de rigueur for modern anthropological writers. Sometimes, indeed, one could feel that these writers form a kind of tribe—we might call them the Anthropologi—for whom Frazer is a kind of evil spirit, whose influence must be kept away by constant ritual utterances: in fact by what is sometimes called apotropaic magic.

Graf fully shares this tribal dread of Sir James. Not only does he speak of “inveterate Frazerians” and of “Frazerian dogma”; we actually find him saying that “there are always spirits to be exorcised, notably Frazerian spirits.” Dare one suggest that this really is what many Anthropologi feel, and that it may help them to understand the thoughts, superstitions, and rituals of the remote peoples they study? Themselves hagridden by malign spirits, they can empathize naturally with spirit-haunted peoples.

In ancient Greece itself, however, the attempt was made very early to distinguish magic from religion on the one hand and science on the other. The oldest works in the medical tradition were written in the fifth century BCE, and they draw a sharp distinction between “natural” causes of disease and the intervention of spirits. The medical writers, struggling self-consciously toward rationality, denied that spirits had intervened to cause illness. Practitioners who prescribed cures of a supernatural kind were seen as charlatans from the point of view of science and as blasphemous from the point of view of religion, since they claimed not to influence the divine agents by prayer, but to constrain them to obey their commands by force. The classic statement of this view is in the treatise On the Sacred Disease, ascribed to Hippocrates, composed about 430 BCE. This work insists that epilepsy (called the sacred disease because its onset was so unpredictable that it seemed supernatural) is no more, and no less, sacred than any other disease; forms of “treatment” which professed to compel gods or demons to obey were a waste of time, and worse.

The attentive reader may think that this, surely, is very like what Frazer said, and what he is constantly criticized for saying. And indeed the same distinctions are made by other, non-medical writers. Graf must admit that “the dichotomy between religion and magic, which is constitutive of the Frazerian approach, is already present in Heraclitus and in Plato”: that is to say, in the very earliest discussions we have of these questions by actual Greek writers. That fact he faces, or faces down, with striking composure. Graf simply looks us in the eye and tells us that not only was the

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