17 January 2019


Edward Beyer and Randall Styers. Magic in the Modern World: Strategies of Repression and Legitimization. Penn State U.P., 2018.

Until recently, the idea that magic had been gradually removed from the modern world – the idea of ‘disenchantment’ - had been the standard attitude of historians and other scholars for over a hundred years. It was been perhaps expressed most clearly in Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971). The Reformation and the Enlightenment were seen as having removed magic from the world of everyday external experience, and internalised it purely in terms of subjective belief.

The first section of this book – the ‘strategies of repression’ - comprises four essays which describe how this process of disenchantment attempted to divorce magic from secular and scientific consideration. Randall Styers's 'Bad Habits, or How Superstition Disappeared in the Modern World' looks at how ‘superstition’ was changed from a religious to a purely psychological concept. Originally used to describe supernatural manifestations in a religious context – which could be either malign or beneficial – it gradually turned into a description of ‘wrongthink’, condemning those irrational ideas which were seen as incompatible with modernity.

Benedict Lang’s piece, 'Why Magic Cannot be Falsified by Experiments' considers the assumption that magical practices can be verified in the same way as scientific experiments, through verification by reproducing effects. He explains that main reason this does not appear to happen is because of the number of variables that might be seen to influence the result of a magical process. These cannot be adjusted for in the same way they can for a laboratory experiment, although in describing a personally conducted experiment involving a bottle of after-shave and a glass of Australian Cabernet, Lang also demonstrates that the repeatability of conventional scientific experiments has its own problems, which have often been overlooked by later writers

Adam Jortner's chapter, 'Witches as Liars' examines how witchcraft and magic were viewed in the early American republic, as enemies of the new nation's democratic values. Magic was the direct opposite of reason, and reason was proclaimed as the basis of free and democratic government. The arguments against magic were promoted through historical studies, with the Salem witch trials of a century earlier being used as an example of government being disrupted through magical beliefs, allowing an unscrupulous individual to exert power over the populace.

The message was also spread through fictional accounts and theatrical presentations. William Pinchbeck achieved fame through a touring magical act, which involved amongst other wonders a 'Goat of Knowledge', turning later into an 'Amazing Randi' style debunker, explaining to the formerly gullible public who lapped up his performances exactly how the 'magic' was produced.

Of course, even in the new, rational Jeffersonian republic there were still people immersed in the depth of magic and credulity, such as Native- and African-Americans. A certain David Reese wrote a book with the striking title of Humbugs of New York; Being a Remonstrance against Popular Delusions Whether in Science, Philosophy or Religion, where he made it clear that those most vulnerable to such humbuggery were the “weak sisters and female brethren [sic] whose intellectual imbecility renders them an easy prey to delusion”.

The second half of the book, 'Magic in Modernity', considers 'Legitimisation', consisting of a second set of four essays looking at contemporary magical thought and practice. The first essay, by Egil Asprem considers the use by contemporary magical practitioners of John Dee's 'Enochian' Angel alphabet. But Asprem says that modern magicians using this system take little notice of Dee's original sources and his prophetic purpose, instead using sources which have been mediated through nineteenth and early twentieth century writers and practitioners. In many cases they were basing their practice on the Enochian messages described in Meric Casaubon's True and Faithful Relation, which was actually written denouncing Dee's angelic magic, which Casaubon thought were actually actually produced by evil spirits. Outlining the way in which Dee's original texts were re-interpreted and re-discovered by later writers, he finds a “cacophony of practices, theories, interpretations and discourses building on Dee's material” and concludes that many modern practitioners of 'Enochian' magic have been working from almost totally fictional material.

This is an approach which practitioners of magical systems based around the so-called Necronomicon might quite openly endorse. The version of the Necronomicon that Dan Harms describes appeared first in New York City in 1977, attributed to the pseudonymous 'Simon'. Since then there have been numerous versions from different publishers. The Necronomicon is of course the totally fictitious book of 'forbidden knowledge' invented by horror writer H P Lovecraft, and in his fictional history it was translated from the original Arabic into English by John Dee himself, presumably just a hundred yards or so away from where I am writing this!

Harms claims that Simon's version of the Necronomicon is not a hoax, as its origins are quite transparent, concluding that the Necronomicon established its authority with practising magicians, “not through reference to magic itself, but through our postmodern conceptions of what magic should be”

The conflict, and indeed close relationship between magic and science is examined in Erik Davis's account of the life and work of the magician and rocket scientist Jack Parsons. His involvement in magic developed in the libertarian and libertine atmosphere of post-war Californian bohemian society, where he met characters such as L. Ron Hubbard and Robert Heinlein. Davis sees Parsons as a postmodernist figure - resembling the practitioners of Necronomicon rituals - who drew his inspiration from traditional magical roots, literary, and scientific sources in a way that seemed to integrate science and magic.

Seiðr was a form of Norse ritual magic, dating from Viking and pre-Viking times, and historically performed exclusively by women. In the Nordic sagas, it was considered an attack on a man's virility to charge him with practising seiðr, and an example is given of the trickster Loki taunting Oðinn about his masculinity by making such an accusation. This has caused problems for contemporary Neopagan and and Heathens – a term largely signifying attachment to North European traditions – and this chapter analyses the historical and modern significance of gender and gender politics for contemporary practitioners. This is perhaps the least accessible essay in this collection, requiring a significant amount of background knowledge to fully follow the argument.

Perhaps the main value of this collection is not so much in each individual contribution, but in adding a great deal of scholarly weight to the voices increasingly challenging the 'disenchantment' theory of the history of magic, and establishing contemporary magical practices as subjects worthy of scholarly study. – John Rimmer

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