A Very Brief History of Magic (pt 1)

As long time readers of his blog know I recently landed a book deal with Peregrine books to publish my book DIY Magic. The other day this got me thinking about where DIY Magic fits into the history of magic. There are a lot of different opinions about what magic is,  ( the most predominant opinion, in our culture, is that it doesn’t exist) can we even talk about a “history” of something that no two people can agree on the meaning of? I think so, there are college 101 classes on the history of every other theoretical branch of human thought and endeavor; religion, politics, psychology, sociology, literature . . . and these are things that nobody can agree on either! I think any historian with an open mind will readily agree that magic—illusive as the definition might be—has been every bit as influential and important in the shaping of humanity’s story on earth as any of these other fields. So think of this blog post as the cliff notes to a class on the History of Magic that never happened . . . yet. The main difference between myself and the average academic historian with an interest in magic is that I think there are things we can still learn from magic, there are tricks of the trade, methods, and wisdom that humanity still could benefit from the study and application of magic. And I am talking about very practical, hand-on, here and now benefits that just about anybody with the will and inclination can access. Ultimately to the question, what is magic? I reply, it is perspective, it is a way of thinking, a way of seeing, one that is natural to us a species, and one that we and the planet could benefit greatly from remembering how to do.


In the beginning Magic and art were one. Or to put it another way, art grew out of the practice of magic. Our ancient ancestors found themselves in a confusing and violent world. A world were you and your family were just as likely to be the prey to some larger predator as you were to be the hunter. A world that was ruled by magic. The first paintings ever done were magical. They were not done merely to amuse the eye. They were done to help the tribe catch dinner. Period. That was the beginnings of magic.

It is easy for us in the modern man to look at these and say, oh that’s cute. Those silly cavemen thought that by drawing a picture of the spear or arrow hitting the target it would actually help make that happen. I think that on closer inspection we can see that they may have been right. In my last post about creating rituals, I talked about how basketball players will often go through a long and idiosyncratic wind-up routine before they take a free throw shot. Often the NBA players who have the longest, and weirdest wind up routines have some of the best free throw averages. Could it be that the caveman of yore was practicing something similar before going out to hunt?


Let’s imagine the scene. I doubt it was as simple as one guy painting a picture of a deer with a spear in it on the wall of his abode and then saying “Ooka ooka, look guys that’s the plan!” I imagine that while the shaman or the magician, or whatever you want to call them, the person doing the painting (it was probably the wisest and oldest of the hunters, the one who understood the tricks of the trade the best) others were probably dancing, chanting around the fire, enacting the hunting sequence that they were about to go on. Recently a lot of research in psychology has shown the effectiveness of visualization— of basically imagining yourself doing something the right way before you do it (ask any body who plays any sport).


I don’t think that it is as simple as just saying that is all that is going on in the magical pre-hunting rituals of the cave men. It’s complicated—we are talking about a matrix of a lot of different processes that steer and guide human behavior, while the painting is being made, the shaman was probably communing with the spirit of the quarry, many hunting rituals involve placating the animal spirit, giving thanks to the fish or the deer for allowing itself to be caught in order to feed the tribe. In short, the magic ritual helps to give mankind perspective of his place in the world, as part of a balanced and harmonious whole, as one being among many who respects his environment and place. (Oh man, we could really use some more of that mentality right now! Maybe all corporations should be required to undergo a similar ceremony, where they make offerings to the environment before they go “on the hunt” for $.)


So, while the painting is being made, the hunters are dancing, chanting, going into a trance, they visualize themselves catching the prey.They are entranced, they are enchanted, they see themselves making the kill before it happens, and like a basketball huddle or a football locker room pep talk, they work out the tactics of who is going to do what, who is going to charge first, which hunter will be flanking on the left, and who will throw the spear. I imagine a story teller was probably telling stories of the last time the tribe brought down a big too,(here we have the beginnings of myth and literature) it was probably a very celebratory atmosphere, a bit like a tail gating party. I imagine it was also a bit like a fire drill sometimes — “look, Grok my son, if cave bear attacks us, me throw rock like this, you grab fire stick, ok?”


During the pre-hunting ritual rest of the tribe is involved too, they are wishing the hunters luck, everybody is getting pumped up. The ritual of magic was a communal affair, something that brought everybody together. In this we can see the flowering of Art, of Song, of Dance, Of Religion, of Warfare, and of a way of life, a way of looking at man’s place in the world that was comforting, that kept a balance, and that worked.


Of course this example is just talking about a narrow slice of what magic was—the prehunt ritual. However magic was commonplace in every other aspect of life— in birth, in death, in mourning, in the rituals of initiation, of caring for the wounded and the sick, peace and war, youth and old age, it was the very fabric of society.

In the next two blog entries we will take a look at how this notion of “sympathetic magic” (the idea that a thing can affect another thing acausally, or at a distance) stayed alive for most of human history up until the “age of reason” and then we will examine the potential role and purpose of a theory of magic in the modern age.



One Comment on “A Very Brief History of Magic (pt 1)

  1. Pingback: A Very Brief History of Magic (pt 4) | Anthony Alvarado

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