• Theory of Magic

    Anthropology of Magic III: Superstitions in Antiquity and Today – Nothing Has Changed

    Even those who consider themselves to be “rational” sometimes slip and fall into the pit of superstition. Some of us, however, happily dwell in it. Nonetheless, calling a particular belief a “superstition” can have terrible, even life-threatening, consequences. One who believes in what others may call superstition, generally takes it seriously and does not consider it some “erroneous belief”, but a matter-of-fact. The Merriam-Webster gives two definitions of superstition: “(1) a belief or practice resulting from ignorance (…) and (2) an irrational abject attitude of mind toward the supernatural, nature, or God resulting from superstition.” A contemplation of this emotionally burdened term is called for, due to the two, starkly…

  • Theory of Magic

    Anthropology of Magic II: Frazer and the Golden Bough

    In our previous blog post of this series, we had a look at the influence of evolutionary theory on anthropology. In this blogpost, we will continue with this topic, but this time from the perspective of James George Frazer (1854-1941), author of the famous The Golden Bough (1890-1915), a gigantic twelve volume corpus of “primitive” beliefs and traditions. Although Frazer was a disciple of Tylor, he had a very different approach to the material he studied. While Tylor derived his theories, at least partially, from his own fieldwork, Frazer did not feel it was necessary to actually conduct fieldwork – a story is told of how Frazer, as a child,…

  • Theory of Magic

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

    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…

  • Theory of Magic

    Why Magic? Some Reflections on Terminology in the Study of Ancient Ritual

    In our first blog post, we tried to briefly describe what we meant by “Coptic magical papyri”, a simple phrase which contains hidden complexities. We recently received a message from one of our readers, who, while supportive, questioned the usefulness of the word “magic” in the study of the ancient Mediterranean. Since we share many of her concerns, we decided that it might be useful to discuss the term “magic” in more detail, and explain why we have decided to use it, despite our misgivings. This post will not discuss in detail the terms for “magic” in late antique Egypt, or modern theories of magic; we’re saving those topics for…