Theory of Magic

Anthropology of Magic IV: Lévi-Strauss on Magic

Kwakiutl figure in costume. Wikimedia Commons [source]

In this week’s post, we are going to explore the famous article by Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009) “The Sorcerer and His Magic” which appeared in 1963, and is still a classic study for anyone interested in healing rituals. The question we are trying to find an answer to in our research on Coptic magic is whether and how we can reconstruct ritual practices when many pieces of the puzzle are missing. How could Lévi-Strauss’s analysis of indigenous North American thought be useful for us?

Lévi-Strauss was an influential French anthropologist and one of the founders of structural anthropology. Among his most important works are Mythologiques I-IV, an important study of mythologies which describes the structure of thought which creates myth as being the same as that which we would consider “logical”, and Tristes tropiques, an anthropological memoir, just to name a few.

Let’s focus on the theory that Lévi-Strauss proposes in “The Sorcerer and His Magic”. First of all, he presents three case studies from various cultures of healing rituals, the most important one being the story of Quesalid, an indigenous Kwakiutl man from the Vancouver region, described by Boas (Boas 1930). Quesalid was a sceptic who did not believe the healing abilities of the shamans of his community, but he nonetheless spent a lot of time with them to understand their craft. One day, he was asked to heal a sick man, who knew of his association with the shamans. Quesalid appeared in his dream and the patient, through his dream, defined the role of Quesalid as a healer. Quesalid was able to heal the patient by performing a similar practice to that of the shamans, much to his own surprise. The healing method which he used was that which he learned from the healers: the shaman hid a piece of tuft in his mouth and bit his tongue so that the tuft would become bloody; he would make it seem that this piece of tuft is the foreign body extracted from the patient by sucking and other activities. Quesalid was, however, still not convinced.

One day, Quesalid visited a neighbouring community and observed their healing ritual, which differed in one significant detail; the shaman did not extract any physical object from the patient’s body, he merely spat on his hand after the procedure. Quesalid knew his own method relied on what we would perhaps call today the “placebo effect” prompted by the healing ritual, but the fact that the shaman did not even present a tangible proof of cure reinforced his belief in his own practice.

Quesalid became a very successful shaman in his own community, so powerful that he was now being challenged by other shamans from neighbouring communities. One of these shamans used a different healing method than Quesalid, and he was unsuccessful in healing a patient during the challenge, unlike Quesalid. This old, previously powerful shaman, came to Quesalid and asked him: “I pray to you to have mercy and tell me what stuck on the palm of your hand last night. Was it the true sickness or was it only made up?” (Boas 1930, p. 31). Quesalid did not give him any answer. The shame of failure was so overwhelming for the unsuccessful healer that he went mad. Quesalid went on to be an influential healer and apparently “believed” in his craft, although he had once had doubts.

Lévi-Straus giving a lecture in Amsterdam. Wikimedia Commons source]

Now, how does Lévi-Strauss analyse this? Belief in magic has three aspects, he claims: the sorcerers’ belief, the patient’s belief, and social beliefs. He goes on to say that the unconscious fabulation of reality (i.e. the healing procedure in this case) is founded on a threefold experience: (1) that of the shaman, who undergoes specific psychological states – and who Lévi-Strauss considers a “neurotic” in nature, (2) that of the sick person, who may or may not be healed through the healers’ magic and (3) that of the public, who is the audience for the healing rituals and provides a sort of collective support. These three elements are interconnected, but the most important poles are the group consensus and the psychological experience of the shaman. 

What does Lévi-Strauss mean by the shaman’s “neuroticism”? The prospective healer went, during his life, through some kind of sickness or crisis, which enabled him to resurface as a shaman, now having the necessary experience to become one. An ordinary person without unusual experiences would not have the experience to become a healer. Lévi-Strauss compares this to today’s psychoanalysts, who also have to undergo an analysis themselves (keep in mind that we are here in the French tradition, where psychoanalysis is very common and has different connotations than, for example, in the English-speaking world). It is through this crisis that the shaman obtains a special connection to supernatural beings. Now, when Quesalid brought a new method of healing, the people re-grouped around him and around his new method of healing, which formed a “relationship between a specific category of individuals and specific expectations of the group”.

Now, what exactly happens during the healing ritual observed by the audience? According to Lévi-Strauss a kind of harmony is recreated within the group. He claims that there exists, in everyone of us, a “normal” mode of  thought, a more or less “logical thought”, which is always deficient in meaning, and a “pathological” thought, which is always abundant in meaning. The normal mode of thought is in the ritual represented by the patient, who is passive and somehow unable to express his problem (resulting perhaps in his sickness) and the pathological thought is represented by the neurotic shaman, who has enough experience to ascribe a symbolic meaning to the patient’s behavior and thus to heal him. The audience observes this and its own contradiction of these two modes of thought, which normally remains unarticulated, is now articulated and appeased. The psychological universe is then the projection of the social universe.

In Lévi-Strauss’s mind, this structure is systematically elaborated and very dynamic, always forming in and around new individuals and groups, but must always be internally coherent. The focus here is not so much on the cure, but reinforcing the system by creating new permutations of rituals, which allows the cure.

By the end of his article, Lévi-Strauss goes on to define magical thinking. In everyone’s mind, there is a contradiction described above; as he says, “the mind always has more meanings than objects to which to relate them”. Magical thinking can allow change, and provide the mind with a new system of reference, a new interpretation, which allows the contradiction to fade aways. So, in Quesalid’s mind, he does not believe his abilities at first, but when he encounters other shamans who do “even less” than him, his faith is reasserted. This is logical thinking in a way, but might also have concluded that neither method worked). The contradiction in his mind is resolved by accepting his powers.

There are many gaps in Lévi-Strauss’s article and many unanswered questions – what is “pathological” and “normal” thought being the most crucial one. But how can we relate this to Coptic magical practices?

Most importantly, we are missing the context for Coptic magical practices; we assume that there was a “magician” and a “patient” – however, was there an audience? What social roles did the rituals play? This is extremely difficult to reconstruct, having only on one side the documents of the orthodox church discouraging people from magic and demonizing it (to what extent can be believe whether what they report on magic is true?) and on the other amulets and recipes on how to do the rituals. Our knowledge of the social context is lacking.

Lévi-Strauss’s article could, however, be useful to us in its structural dimension – firstly, the fact that the Coptic magical rituals are always varied in details might not be due only to the fact that different people performed them at different geographical locations, but also because they perhaps always served a slightly different purpose which needed to be adapted – they needed to constantly evolve to meet changing social needs. Also, analysing the variants could tell us what is always there and always true – this could show the conceptual and symbolic framework that people in late antique Egypt worked with. Secondly, Lévi-Strauss’s article raises the question of identity of the magicians – did they also have to go through sicknesses and tragedies in order for their magic to be effective? Were there competing systems of magic? The third, and most important dimension, is the ability of the ritual to integrate conflicting thoughts or beliefs into and integrated system which also approves of them. If, in any cultural context, a sickness is integrated into an understood narrative or system of thought, it is easier to understand it; a clear example of this in Coptic magic would be an invocation of the three Hebrew Youths against fever, who themselves were saved by God from fire (providing an analogy with fever). By contextualizing one’s own situation into a shared system of belief, one’s mixed feelings and thoughts can be aligned with the socially-accepted tradition. 

Bibliography and Further Reading

Boas, Franz. The Religion of the Kwakiutl Indians. Vol. II.  New York: Columbia University Press, 1930.

Cook, Albert. “Lévi-Strauss and Myth: A Review of Mythologiques.” MLN 91, no. 5 (1976): 1099-116. URL

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. “The Sorcerer and His Magic”. In Structural anthropology. New York: Basic Books, 1963.

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