Theory of Magic

Anthropology of Magic I: Darwin, Tylor, and the Origins of Religion and Magic

Charles Darwin, author of The Origin of Species (1859), which shaped not only natural sciences, but humanities as well. Christopher DOMBRES [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

At the beginning of his book Magic’s Reason (2017), the American anthropologist of magic Graham Jones, describes his encounter with the illusionist Jack Alban. When Alban found out he would be interviewed by an anthropologist, he asked a friend who “knew something about anthropology” to give him advice regarding the topic. When they finally met in a Parisian café, Alban handed Jones a piece of paper with a short bibliography related to the anthropology of magic, written by his friend – Golden Bough by Frazer (1900), Mauss and Hubert’s Outline of a General Theory of Magic (1902-1903) and Durkheim’s Elementary forms of Religious Life (1912). Indeed, Alban’s friend really “knew something about anthropology” – he had chosen the most important modern works on the theory of magic. In this series of blog posts, we will concern ourselves with these classic studies of magic. In this post, we will begin by having a look at Friedrich Max Müller and Edward Burnett Tylor, the first modern “scientists of religion”. Although not mentioned in Alban’s little bibliography, they remain important figures. We will turn to Frazer and his famous Golden Bough in our next post in this series.

The modern history of writing about religion and magic begins in the second half of the 19th century when the publication of  Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) caused his theory of evolution to permeate not only the natural sciences, but also the humanities. It is then no surprise that the research questions anthropologists asked themselves and their general approach to the studied material were, in essence, evolutionary. They did not look for the origins of species as Darwin had done, but for the origins of all religious thought and practice, aiming to track their development and eventual obsolescence. Friedrich Max Müller (1823-1900) was the first major figure to approach religion from this new “scientific” perspective in his book Introduction to the Science of Religion (1873). Müller was an indologist who related the development of religions with the development of languages, in his words “nomina (“names”) grew into numina (“gods”), ideas into idols.” He claimed that mythology was a “disease of language”, that the idea of gods originated in expressions of abstract ideas and gradually became personified as numinous beings. An example of this is the myths of the dawn and the sun, common to “Aryan mythology”. From comparisons with Sanskrit parallels, Müller suggested that the name of the Greek nymph Daphne meant “dawn” and because the dawn appears before the sun, which is in Greek mythology identified with Apollo, the story of the sun god chasing Daphne was originally a simple description of the idea that the sun is chasing after the dawn.

Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917) was one of those inspired by Müller’s ideas on origins of religion, but rather than studying the correlation between language and religion, he decided to study culture in all its parts. Tylor is called the “father of modern anthropology”,  because he built an intellectual framework for the discipline and systematized earlier ethnographic writing. He became the first reader in Anthropology in Oxford in 1884, thus earning the title “the Father of Anthropology”. Tylor never attended university and gained his anthropological experiences during his travels in Central America, which were published in Primitive Culture (1871). In the book, he outlines a theory of animism, according to him the earliest form of religion, which he famously defined as “belief in Spiritual Beings”. In his reconstitution of the pattern of thought of the “savage philosopher” who came up with religious beliefs in an attempt to explain the world and thus creating a primitive form of science, Tylor claims this philosopher was baffled by two questions: What is the difference between the dead and the living and where do beings in dreams come from? His answer was simple: these are spirits that animate people and the world, and thus was born his theory of animism.

Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917) , author of Primitive Culture
CC BY-SA 3.0

According to Tylor, the world was full of spirits for the animist “primitives”. Because humans are “animated” by a spirit, they thought that this must also be true of every other living thing. First, according to Tylor, animist cultures recognised spirits of individual objects such as trees, then spirits of more abstract concepts, such as forests. This process, ultimately, led to the development of the idea of a supreme god, the highest and final stage in the evolution of animism. This belief in spirits was, however, a fallacy, according to Tylor, and so would eventually be replaced by science. Religion is only a “survival” of an earlier tradition, no longer fulfilling its purpose of explaining the world. Religion, for Tylor, was therefore a misguided attempt to explain how and why things happened.

Tylor only implicitly compared magic to religion (for example saying that dream interpretation is close to religion rather than magic, without giving a concrete explanation), although he made an explicit comparison between magic and science; it is therefore not an easy task to abstract Tylor’s definition of magic. Sorcery, witchcraft, “occult sciences”, “black art”, superstition and divination – all these phenomena seem to belong to Tylor’s implicitly defined category of magic.

Tylor approached magic, as he did religion, in an intellectualistic manner. In his interpretations, he always started with reconstructing the thought patterns of the “savage philosopher”, with the help of associationist psychology, popular in his day. His theory of magic is explained by the “association of ideas” performed by human reason in its early stages, and is based on the assumption that the mind creates relationships between phenomena that are not reflected in real life. The “primitive” thinker first makes an erroneous intellectual association which he consequently projects into reality; he thus has the illusion of control over his present and future. But this is merely an illusion – the savage philosopher mistakes “an ideal for a real connection”. An example of this is a simple idea of joining two objects with a cord and thus establishing an effective relationship – “in Australia, the native doctor fastens one end of a string to the ailing part of the patient’s body, and by sucking at the other end pretends to draw out blood for his relief. In Orissa, the Jeypore witch lets down a ball of thread through her enemy’s roof to reach his body, that by putting the other end in her own mouth she may suck his blood.”

Modern European “superstitions”, according to Tylor, are a “survival” of this early way of thinking: in modern Germany, reports Tylor, it was believed that locks must be open in a dying man’s house so that the soul can escape. In the example with the lock and the dying man, an erroneous association is created between the soul escaping the body and a closed house, in which the soul could be trapped, creating problems for the dying man. Tylor would argue that in fact, whether the house is locked or not does not have any impact on the last moments of life of the man. When the mind creates associations that exist in what he calls “reality”, this is what Tylor considers scientific thought. In Tylor’s view, magic is only an unsuccessful attempt at science, and the same can be said of religion. In this point again, his distinction between magic and religion becomes blurred.

Surviving superstitions in modern Europe: A maid puts a key down a man’s shirt to stop his nosebleed. Lithograph, c. 1835-1841. See page for author [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The intentions of the scientist, as well as those of the magician, are good; it is the underlying philosophy that is fallacious. Divination, claims Tylor, serves as a mask for the sorcerer’s interest and predictions of the future can often be only a result of chance or luck, not a result of the magician’s capabilities. Furthermore, Tylor creates another distinction between magic and science. While magical or religious beliefs often – although not always – rely on associations of personal agents, the goal of science is to establish “impersonal causation”.

What should we take away from Tylor and what should we leave in this dusty book? Certainly not that “magic” is always erroneous and that religions will eventually become obsolete and replaced with science – no reputable anthropologist would claim this today. Tylor’s research does not follow the standards that we would today consider scientific in terms of the collection of ethnographic material and its interpretation. Furthermore, too much emphasis was put on the role of a single “savage philosopher”, in whose mind mythology was supposed to emerge. Social circumstances were not taken into consideration. Tylor’s idea of “survivals” is equally problematic, because if we call something obsolete and no longer having a function, how do we explain the presence of the phenomenon? Tylor disregarded a possibility of recontextualization or reuse of cultural phenomena.

On a more positive note, even though Tylor’s definition of religion as a “belief in spiritual beings” is more than a hundred years old, it is still often considered useful and used by contemporary academics. His ideas on animism evolved and transformed into what we call “new animism”, a scientific field focusing on cultures that believe “the world is full of persons, only some of whom are human, and that life is always lived in relationship with others”. Tylor’s ideas about religion and magic have permeated our “general knowledge”, and if one is not acquainted with their origin, one might unknowingly repeat what are considered fallacies in modern anthropology.

References and Further Reading

Harvey, Graham M. Animism: Respecting the Living World. London: Hurst & Co., 2005.

Hsu, Francis L. K. “Rethinking the Concept ‘Primitive’.” Current Anthropology 5, no. 3 (1964): 169–178. URL

Jones, Graham. Magic’s Reason. Anthropology of Analogy. Chicago – London: The University of Chicago Press, 2017.

Müller, Friedrich M. Introduction to the Science of Religion. London: Longmans Green And Co., 1882. URL

Müller, Friedrich M. Lectures on the Science of Language II, London 1864, reprinted in Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. URL

Pals, Daniel L. Eight Theories of Religion. New York – Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Stringer, Martin D. “Rethinking Animism: Thoughts from the Infancy of Our Discipline.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 5, no. 4 (1999): 541–555. URL

Tambiah, Stanley J. Magic, Science and the Scope of Rationality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Tylor, Edward B. Primitive Culture. London: Murray, 1920. URL

Wax, Murray, and Rosalie Wax. “The Notion of Magic.” Current Anthropology 4, no. 5 (1963): 495–518. URL

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