It’s no accident that the study of magic and ritual flourished during the wane of the British empire; the beliefs of native cultures were collected and studied so they could be corrected. The study of magic was important, the ethnologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard would later explain, “not only for the anthropologist but also for the colonial administrator and missionary, if they wish to show to the peoples whom they govern and teach that they understand their notions about right and wrong.” For some, the main reason for studying sympathetic magic was to eradicate it.
For all its erudition and analysis, The Golden Bough has for more than a century helped cement the idea that magic is inappropriate, wrongheaded thought. Yet what separates magic from religion or science is not its methodology—Frazer himself notes that it “is therefore a truism, almost a tautology, to say that all magic is necessarily false and barren; for were it ever to become true and fruitful, it would no longer be magic but science”—it’s that ordinary people can do it, transforming their lives with the ambitious power of everyday thought....
As the world was becoming more ordered and codified via patriarchal religion and a burgeoning system of capitalism, magic was seen as a threat because it circumvented these structures: it offered a life outside the authority of the Church and the hierarchies it had carefully cultivated. Little had changed; people still felt powerless in the face of nature, but now instead of turning to magicians, they blamed them. The Church, after all, rarely attacked sympathetic magic on the grounds that it was empirically fallacious or ineffective—rather, it was a rival source of power. Among the many scandalous aspects of witches’ sabbaths as they were popularly depicted was the commingling of social classes: women—and increasingly men—of all walks of life, from peasants to the aristocracy, all were equal at the Midnight Mass. This vision of a dark Utopia was as threatening—if not more so—than any of the black rites practiced therein....
Perhaps this explains why a belief in sympathetic magic—irrational, superstitious, glorious—continues unabated in our hyperrationalist age. If anything, the ascendancy of science has clarified these beliefs, and the degree to which we’re willing to cling to them despite a cognitive awareness of the fallacious nature of magic. In the past few decades, celebrity and sports memorabilia have become big business; at auction sites like gottahaverockandroll.com, one can bid on all manner of ordinary items that have been imbued with the proximity of the famous: the site boasts of having auctioned John Lennon’s talisman necklace, worn on the cover of his and Yoko’s Two Virgins album, for a record $528,000, and recently auctioned a small amount of hair collected from Michael Jackson’s stay at the Carlyle Hotel, bought by a gambling website with an eye toward turning it into a roulette ball. “Together,” onlinegamblingpal.com proclaims, “we can ensure Michael Jackson continues to rock and ‘roll’ forever,” while meanwhile, the Hard Rock Cafe continues to build on its successful business model of serving mediocre food magically enhanced by its close proximity to the guitars of the famous suspended above diners’ heads. Sympathetic magic was once employed to protect us from chaos, to offer a measure of control over the caprices of nature. Now it offers a chance of escape, however fleeting, from a world of hierarchy and order. In a world where each of us is assigned a place, to hold Elvis Presley’s shirt is, for a moment, to capture some of the magic of Presley’s life, to inhabit a life other than one’s own. It’s a way of making it through life.
Magic vs Religion vs Science
Thu, 2012-07-26 14:16#1
Magic vs Religion vs Science