Review: The History of Magic by Chris Gosden

Chris Gosden, The History of Magic: From Alchemy to Witchcraft, from the Ice Age to the Present (London: Viking/Penguin, 2020), 482pp. 

To describe Chris Gosden’s History of Magic as ambitious would be an understatement, as this book attempts to provide a global history of magic across the entire globe and across the entire history of the human species. Indeed, such is the scope of the book that it is less a history of magic than a theory of magic, since it is difficult to tell the story of magic in such a general way without committing oneself pretty boldly to certain interpretations of what magic is. Gosden approaches the subject not as a historian of magic, nor indeed as an intellectual historian, but as an archaeologist grounded in anthropology with a broad experience of global cultural responses to magic. The book is thus very firmly on the anthropological side of the debate about whether magic should primarily be approached historically or anthropologically. As a historian of magic, I find myself instinctively suspicious of the generalising approach of anthropologists (and anthropologically grounded archaeologists) when it comes to magic; I prefer not to generalise at all, and deal with the phenomenon of magic within as specific a cultural and historical context as possible. Yet my methodological preference should not blind me to the value of alternative approaches, and there will be much demand from non-specialist readers for a broad account of magic such as this.

Gosden takes the path of simplicity when approaching the question that bedevils all writing about magic: how do we define what magic is? For Gosden, magic is about a two-way relationship between humans and the world around them: ‘people are open to the workings of the universe and the universe is responsive to us’ (p. 2). Adopting a traditional tripartite division from Sir James Frazer (but little else from that perilous author), Gosden sees magic as the elder cousin of religion and science. The metaphor of a triple helix he adopts for the relationship of these cousins, who are entwined – and even merge into one another – is attractive. While it is always possible to argue, in any individual case, that no meaningful distinction exists between magic and religion (and even between magic and science), these contested categories have remained durable. We continue to make use of the categories, not least in order to challenge them critically; and thus, although no-one is able to give a clear and universally satisfactory definition of what magic is, magic is nonetheless. Few actually stop using the term, however critical of it they may be, and Gosden’s direct and unabashed approach to magic is refreshing – although obviously open to criticism at almost every turn.

Gosden discerns five different relationships between magic, religion and science: magic as a dominant force; magic and an emphasis on human lineages; magic and religion as equals; a situation where religion is dominant and magic is ambiguous; and a situation in which science, religion and magic exist in that order of importance (for example, in the contemporary developed world). Gosden then divides magic into benign and malign – again, a strikingly traditional approach when one considers how many old-fashioned accounts of magic began by distinguishing between ‘white’ and ‘black’ magic. Within benign magic, Gosden recognises the eight categories of relationship work, apotropaic magic, foretelling the future, magic to do with understanding the past, magic to do with dying and the dead, magic to do with health and medicine, magic to do with personal and external transformation, and magic that seeks to manipulate desire. Within malign magic there are only three categories: witchcraft, cursing, and the use of magic as countercultural protest.

The structure of The History of Magic is broadly chronological, with four of the ten chapters dealing with largely non-written cultures (deep prehistory; Shamanism; prehistoric Europe; and the indigenous cultures of Africa, Australia and the Americas). The literate cultures dealt with in the book include Mesopotamia, Egypt, ancient China, ancient Israel, Greece, Rome and medieval Europe. Finally, the book deals with modern and contemporary magic. Gosden makes the case for giving equal weight to archaeological, anthropological and historical evidence in the story of magic, while also cautioning against the very real danger of interpreting scanty and ambiguous evidence for pre-literate and non-literate societies. The author brings to the analysis of the archaeological material, in particular, his wealth of experience as an archaeologist and curator of global standing. Again and again, Gosden returns to the material evidence (and, in some cases, his coverage of magic from the perspective of intellectual and textual history is correspondingly cursory). This book is very much an archaeologist’s history of magic.

One of the major benefits of a broad global study such as this is that it gives us perspective on the relative importance of strands of magic that may not be as dominant as we think they are. For example, Gosden notes that, in spite of the extraordinarily prolific academic literature on witchcraft, harmful magic is not an especially common category of magic when considered across the world and in the longue durée of human history (Gosden awards medieval and early modern witchcraft no fewer than three pages…). Similarly, Gosden reminds us that the vast majority of people alive in the world today, and of course the vast majority of everyone who has ever lived, accepted the reality of magic in some form (or, at least, did not performatively repudiate it in the manner of post-Enlightenment western culture). As the author notes, western culture defines itself in opposition to magic, but that opposition is a self-conscious performance rather than a genuine expulsion of all magical thinking from western culture. People still think magically, and still believe in magic, even if the vocabulary has changed.

The central argument of the book is that we ought to adopt a more positive evaluation of the potential of magic on account of a more holistic conception of the relationship between body and mind, and between human beings and their environment. Gosden argues that ‘Magic connects people to the world in a condition of kinship’ and encourages ‘positive and holistic planetary thinking’ (p. 33). Because ‘it is often difficult to say where the body stops and its surroundings start’ (p. 416), and we are inhabitants of ‘sensate ecologies’ composed of other sentient beings, Gosden advocates a neo-magical worldview in which we exist in a reciprocal relationship with our environment. He proposes reviving the mentality of the hunter gatherer for the technological age – ‘a communal life … lived together with all the cosmos’ (p. 432). Whether such a thing is possible is an intriguing question, although perhaps one that must be haunted by doubts about whether the archaeologist’s interpretations of the prehistoric mind really represent the authentic internal life of the hunter gatherer.

This is undoubtedly a valuable book, not least for bringing the study of magic in general (and not just its specific instances) into the mainstream of history – as its author notes, the historical study of magic is exploding because, for so long, many historians looked askance even at the study of magic and magical belief, let alone at magic itself. Gosden’s History of Magic is, in many ways, a personal response to the age old question ‘What is magic?’; but even if this book is not, perhaps, where I would send someone seeking an introduction to the history of magic, it is a response given by a scholar uniquely qualified to give some intriguing and very thought-provoking answers to the question of what magic is.

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