MAGIC. In primitive days, before science had provided its key to nature, men were surrounded by terrifying mysteries. They could fight their human enemies and overcome wild beasts, but the lightning which killed without warning, the strange diseases which struck men down at their own firesides, the swarms of locusts which devoured their grain, all such unusual disasters or calamities appeared to them monstrous and unjust—the products of magic in those days. The general tendency was to believe that their gods ruled in
EVERY child knows wonderful stories of magic. Life would be dull indeed if elves and Fairies, giants and dwarfs, ogres and dragons were done away with. How should we see the beauties of Bagdad without the magic carpet, or the glitter of the robbers' cape without Ali Baba's "Open Sesame"? What would become of Aladdin without his wonderful lamp, or of Jack without his beanstalk? What a gap would be left in King Arthur's court if Merlin, the great magician, were removed .' As long as children glory in wonderful heroes and beautiful princesses, in little boys who conquer monsters and little girls who overcome wicked witches, we shall have seven-leagued boots, magic swords, wishing cups, purses of Fortunatus, mice turned into horses, and all the marvellous feats of fairyland. The literature or all races has been filled with tales of magic, from the "Arabian Nights'1 to "Peter Pan." But these are fancies to delight a fireside evening. There is an entirely different side to magic, which has played an important part in nearly all pagan religions, and which is dealt with in this article.
The difference between magic and religion seems to have been clear even an orderly manner, each looking after his own department and his own people, with perhaps a supreme god over the entire group. The spirits of magic, however, were considered irresponsible and disorderly. They caused accidents and trouble without reason. But the most important thing about them, according to savage belief, was that they could be brought, under man's control and used for private purposes.

It is this belief, existing down through the ages, which created the thousands upon. thousands of magic practices and superstitions, sometimes secret, sometimes carried on in public but all with the idea of getting supernatural help against enemies or against the powers of Nature. The spirits of magic, instead of being looked upon, as gods, were often used to outwit divine authority.

Among the earliest forms of magic are those which rest upon the belief that the fate of an individual may be influenced by getting possession of something which once belonged to him. A lock of hair, nail clippings, a drop of blood, might put the person from whom they came completely in the hands of the magician. This is still believed among the natives of the Pacific islands, among the Patagonians of South America, and
even in certain peasant districts of Germany. A bit of clothing stolen from an enemy was also considered a powerful agent of magic. The belief spread to include almost everything which had come in close contact with a man's body. Thus, Australian savages drove sharp stones into a man's foot­prints to make him go lame. On the other hand, the weapons or clothing of a man noted for courage may make a hero of the one who seizes them. The claws of a lion will bring the wearer the boldness of the king of beasts, the feathers of the eagle will give swiftness and keenness of eye. These beliefs even affect the food of the savages. Thus, the flesh of deer or rabbit may create cowardice, but the meat of the lion, the tiger, the bull, give strength. Cannibalism was, in part, the outgrowth of such superstitions as these.


Burying Stones to Grow Plants

Later came the belief that, by imitating the thing or person that be desired to influence, the magician could establish his control. Pretended " rain-makers " almost always sprinkled water, made smoke clouds, used flashes of fire to in­dicate lightning, and wooden clappers to imitate thunder. Stones shaped like vegetables were buried in the soil to make real plants grow. American Indians drew the picture of an antelope on a piece of bark and shot at it with an arrow. If they struck the drawing, it meant that they would be lucky in their hunting.

It was the custom among many peoples to make figures of wax or clay resembling the persons they wished to injure. Calling them by name, the magicians would thrust pins into the figures, or tear off an arm or leg, or melt — them in fire or water; whereupon illness and death accompanied by great pain was supposed to come upon the person indicated.

The sick man is lying down with his head in a relative's lap. The " medicine " is in the curved hollow horn lying over the patient's body, and the "witch-doctor" is performing incantations to drive away the demons which the natives believe to be the cause of the trouble.

This practice prevailed in Ireland and England for many centuries. It still exists in the voodoo rites of certain negro groups in the southern states of America, being inherited from ancient African beliefs.

The power of names forms a branch of almost all magic. The name was con­sidered as part of a man, and by pronouncing it under proper circumstances, he could bo influenced either for good or bad. From this belief grew the curious custom among many savage tribes of having two names for each individual — a real name, which was always kept a careful secret, and an everyday title for general use, through which he could never be influenced magically. This custom, is still prevalent among certain tribes in various parts of the world, but like many other customs is not practised nearly so much as it once was.

Gods and spirits were believed to have special magic names, known only to a chosen few. Uttering these names was supposed to give a man some power over these supernatural beings. In this way grew up the spells and charms which form so large a part in the history of magic.

Charm-words or certain secret sentences called incantations were used for summoning the spirite of the dead, and all the various jinns and genii, goblins and fairies, who would then obey the orders of the one who possessed the secret. The belief in " putting spells "on hated rivals or other enemies existed in all countries, and continues among the uneducated today. The theory of the curse is part of such a belief.

Certain spells, like the Irish geasa, compelled the person addressed to carry out any reasonable task which might be demanded, under penalty of losing honour and reputation. Other spells, like the tabu of the Pacific islands, prohibited certain actions.

A dwelling might be tabu, which would forbid anyone to enter it under threat of magic punishment.


The African witch-doctor is away, and he has set up this grotesque image before his door. He has no fear that burglars will visit his establishment during his absence, for no native would be foolhardy enough to brave the might? powers which he believes this image possesses

Various animals or fish, fruits and vegetables might become tabu for certain members of a tribe and not for others. This tabu power was often used by native chiefs and priests in place of laws, and it was held in such terror that violations were exceedingly rare.

The word "charm " is also used to describe talismans, amulets, mascots, and any object which is carried to bring good luck. Almost anything may become a charm in this sense. Usually the person discovers the magic properties of the object himself, and while it may be a charm for him, it is often supposed to bring bad luck to any other person.

Fear of the " Evil Eye "

The most general use of talismans and amulets is to guard against the " evil eye," the fear of which exists in one form or another in almost all parts of the world. Certain persons are believed to have this evil eye and to bring disaster to anything they gaze at, unless proper magic protection is provided.


When a charm is believed to be not merely an instrument of magic but the actual dwelling-place of a certain spirit, it is called a fetish. The worship of fetishes is usually regarded as a form of religion, but it has many of the characteristics of ordinary magic. Fetishism plays a large part in the voodoo practices mentioned above.

While most forms of magic are based on the belief that evil spirits are particularly numerous and likely to injure mankind, there arises also a belief in good spirits. Along these lines, the practice of magic came to be divided into black magic and white magic; the former being used to do harm, the latter to combat this harm and do good instead.

The special magician or sorcerer has existed wherever a belief in magic prevailed. Under the name of necromancers, wizards, witches, conjurors, medicine­men, soothsayers, diviners, and many other titles, they posed as persons who had unusual powers over the spirit world, and could foretell the future or read the secrets of the past. They were everywhere regarded by the people with fearful respect. In Christian countries persons suspected of dealing with the powers of evil were persecuted severely.

But many of their practices were regarded as beneficial, even in Europe, in the Middle Ages and later. Studies in magic frequently led to important scientific discoveries, for the sorcerers in contriving their magic philtres and other drugs made wide researches in chemistry, while those who studied the influence of the stare on human life learned

These grotesque figures are aborigines of Queensland. They are engaged in "The Dance of the Forked Stick," which is supposed to bring anything the tribe desires greatly, from rain to victory over enemies. During such ceremonies it is not unusual for the dancers to become so frenzied with excitement that they thrust their feet into the fire, apparently without feeling it. At other times they fall rigid to the ground and remain unconscious for hours.

many a valuable fact about astronomy.

In common practice, however, their so-called skill was directed toward interpreting dreams, getting information about the future from their "familiar''' spirits, and, in almost all cases, deceiving a superstitious public for their own personal profit. Among tho intelligent, their fraud was usually suspected, and tho Roman Cato " wondered how one diviner could meet another on the street without laughing."

While modern man prides himself on having thrown off all such superstitions, remnants of magical belief are found even among fairly intelligent people, and many of these are regarded seriously. Under this head come all the delusions about breaking mirrors, walking under ladders, the number 13, Friday, lucky coins, spilling salt, wishbones, black cats, opals, and a thousand other things that are supposed to bring good luck or bad luck. Medical superstitions also remain too numerous to mention. Any almanac will give a list of zodiac signs which are believed to govern the planting of crops, the treatment of farm animals, and to perform other functions equally magical, even to influencing the character and fate of those born under them.

In place of the old magician, we have to-day the fortune-teller, the clairvoyant, the crystal gazer, and the palmist, while many of the practices of the spiritualistic mediums, and such contrivances as the ouija board are looked upon by most scientists as relics of the magic arts.

from 'The Book of Knowledge' An Encyclopedia for All Ages. Edited by Harold F.B. Wheeler London 1930. pps. 2287 to 2291
out-of-print and copyright expired


There is, of course, no such thing as witchcraft. What concerns us here is the belief that men used to have in witches and their powers. Witches were women who were thought to have made a contract with an evil spirit—a contract scaled with blood—to serve him, and who in return for that promise were given power to accomplish things beyond ordinary human abilities. They could bring sickness and death to whom they wished, they could go through locked doors, they could ride through the air on broomsticks, and assume animal forms. Working Their Evil Will

Their greatest delight was to bring harm and suffering to those who incurred their spite. This they did in many ways. Often they made waxen images of those they sought to harm or kill, and pricked these images or slowly melted them, so causing wasting away, suffering, and finally death to the persons represented.

According to these strange beliefs, there were great assemblies of witches, known as Witches' Sabbaths, at which the witches met with the devil, performed elaborate ceremonies, and were instructed by him in the evil that they should accomplish. It was believed that the devil left certain marks upon the persons ot the witches, secret marks, which could be detected only by those expert in such things. Many of the women suspected as witches had uttered foolish threatening words against some­one who had made fun of them.

Persecution of the Witches

All through, the ages there has existed a belief in magic and evil spirits. From about the middle of the 15th century down to the 17th century, and in some places as late as the 19th century, witches were persecuted and often executed for their supposed misdeeds. But by the latter half of the 17th century the more intelligent people were beginning to suspect that witchcraft was a delusion. Now the world generally has ceased to believe in witches and to punish silly old women for imaginary crimes.

from 'The Book of Knowledge' An Encyclopedia for All Ages. Edited by Harold F.B. Wheeler London 1930. p. 3778