21 January 2016


David J Collins (editor). Magic and Witchcraft in the West: From Antiquity to the Present. Cambridge University Press, 2015.

This is a huge collection of twenty scholarly essays covering the history of magic and magical thought from ancient Egypt and the Near East to modern Neo-Paganism. The contributors are all professors and and lecturers at universities in Britain and America, in fields such as history, religion, anthropology and the history of art.🔻
The earliest chapters, which examine magical practices in the ancient world emphasise the difficulty of identifying specific practices which could be seen as different from the religious belief and practices of the era, or those which form part of the popular folk wisdom. In discussing Greco-Roman attitudes to magical acts Kimberley Stratton, notes “”Roman law also suggests that there was no distinct concept of magic, nor any laws specifically against it in the republican era or earlier”. The use of ritual incantations, for instance, was only punished when these were intended to hurt or steal from someone, and were regarded as simply the method used to carry out a criminal act, rather then being criminal in themselves.

Roman religion did not comprise an organised system of theology, but was rather a collection of beliefs and practices that were seen as part of the day-to-day routines of life. Later in the Roman era an idea of ‘magical discourse’ arose, but this developed largely in a literary context with formal curses, often involving the use of bizarre ritual ingredients.

This began to change in the later Roman Imperial period, when ‘magic’ began to be seen in a sinister light, involving human sacrifice and necromancy. The actual act of magic was now seen as evil in itself, regardless of the nature of the result it intended to bring about. At this time the idea developed of magic as a form of inverted religion, separating the gods of heaven from the gods of the underworld.

The early Christian Church furthered the distinction between magic and authorised religion. In the chapter ‘The early Church’, Maijastina Kahlos explains that Christian writers looked at magical practices in two ways, one emerging from the Greco-Roman idea of magic being of human origin, with practitioners using the powers of natural objects and forces, and also the idea emerging from Jewish thought of humanity being introduced to magic through the ‘fallen angels’. The idea of magic involving the intercession of devils and demons became the dominant thinking and determining the Church’s attitude to such practices.


In the chapter on the Early Medieval West we meet a character who is well know to Magonia readers. Archbishop Agobard of Lyon. In his treatise ‘Against the Multitude’s Absurd Belief Concerning Hail and Thunder’ Agobard gives us the first recorded use of the name ‘Magonia’ to refer to a mystical land in the sky. But far from believing in such an entity, Agobard denounces belief in the so-called tempestarii who supposedly had the power to cause storms and hail. Rather than seeing them as magicians or witches, it is suggested that Agobard was aiming his fire at local clerics who pretended to have power over the weather, and using belief ion the powers as a way or extorting ‘protection money’ from local farmers who feared having their crops destroyed.

The second section of the book looks at parallel strands of magical belief which have influenced Western thought on magic and witchcraft, including an examination of magic in Byzantium, Islamic and Jewish magical beliefs. The author of the chapter on Jewish Magic in the Middle Ages notes that it was “widely and openly studies and practiced by many learned Jews”, although many rabbis objected to practices which they though close to idolatry. However the tradition was not driven underground and flourished in the development of Jewish mysticism.

In a section ‘Old Europe’ two chapters contrast ‘common magic’ and ‘learned magic. Catherine Rider explains ‘common magic’ as practices which were rooted in everyday life - “curing illness, seeking prosperity or love and explaining and averting misfortune”. These practices were not confined to one particular type or class of person and were generally disseminated through practice and custom rather that thorough a literary canon, as were the magical processes considered in the chapter ‘Learned Magic’ by David Collins. However there seems to have been overlap between the two traditions, with popular grimoirs circulating amongst the ‘common’ magicians.

It was the ‘learned magic’ which was seen as the major challenge to the established order and provoked the earliest retaliation from state and church authorities, but it was also the learned magic, largely based on classical texts, which declined as many of its aspects were appropriated into the growing scientific disciplines of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a process which had little effect on the ‘common magic‘.

‘Diabolic Magic’ and ‘Magic and the Priesthood’ examine further how ‘learned magic’ interacted with ecclesiastical and secular authorities and increasingly became to be seen as a challenge to the status-quo, and accusations were often used to undermine individuals and institutions.

A considerable section on magic and the colonial experience examines topics such as the interaction between the Spanish and native traditions in Mexico and the influence this had on the development of the Catholic church in that country. The chapter on the folk magical tradition in North America deals largely with New England witchcraft. Other chapters deal with colonial magic in the Dutch East indies, and the conflict between native and colonial authorities across Africa throught the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The idea of ‘literary’ or ‘elite’ magic returns with discussion of the societies devoted to ritual magic which arose in the nineteenth century, starting with the description of a bizarre duel with pistols between rival magicians in Paris in 1893.

The nineteenth century magicians had the entire esoteric tradition of the early-modern era to work with, merging the so-called Egyptian Mysteries, with Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry and Enlightenment ideas such as Mesmerism. At the same time a post-colonial magic movement was underway in America which introduced pre-Columbian and African beliefs and practices into the religion introduced by the colonialists. The tradition of ‘literary magic’ was maintained through Kardec’s Spiritist movement which sought to reconcile esoteric and scientific traditions.

The book concludes with a chapter on the growth of New-Age and neo-Pagan magic, which however seeks to give only a brief account of the sources of contemporary practices.

This is a massive, and expensive, compilation coming to 800 pages with its extensive bibliography and index, and is not intended for the general reader or the contemporary magical practitioner. But although it is written by and for academics it does not descend into the deliberately opaque style of too many works aimed a similar readership and will be accessible to most people with a more general interest in the topics covered. 

This will certainly be a standard reference work for students of this particular fascinating strand of social history and should be part of any academic history reference collection. -- John Rimmer.

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