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The Anthropology of Magic

By Susan Greenwood

The Anthropology of Magic

You can view this book's Amazon detail page here.

Tags: Anthropology

Started reading:
January 2010
Finished reading:
February 2010


Rating: 10

Anthropological models of magic have been as important for practitioners as they have been for scholars – as can be seen by the influence of early theorists such as Tylor, James Frazer or Eliade in shaping practitioner’s own understandings of magic. In this book, practitioner-ethnographer Susan Greenwood reviews and critiques dominant anthropological approaches to magic; and argues that to move towards a fuller understanding of magic, anthropology needs to develop a radically different approach. She offers the proposal that magic is an aspect of human consciousness – in particular, magical consciousness:

…a mythopoetic, expanded aspect of awareness that can potentially be experienced by everyone; it is expressed in myriad varying situations and contexts, and it informs both the shaping of cosmological realities and individual behaviour as well as social structures … Thus magical consciousness is an aspect of mind that occurs in a multiplicity of ways in varying individuals and cultural contexts, and through time.

The first chapter opens with an “imagined dialogue” between the English anthropologist Edward Evans-Pritchard and the French philosopher Lucien Levy-Bruhl – highlighting the importance of participation as a feature of “mystical mentality” – shifting the focus from magic as an instantiation of “primitive thought” towards it being an alternative ideational system of thought – a “frame of mind” present in all societies.

Chapter Two moves this theme of “participation” onwards, with Susan drawing on her own experiences and the ideas of Levy-Bruhl in order to set out the key features of Participation: altered states of consciousness; holistic language; a metaphorical modality; engagement with an inspirited worldview; and drawing us into a mythologcal realm using narratives – and then making use of Stanley Tambiah’s distinction between the Causal and the Participative orientations to the world – stressing their complentarity rather than the tendency to see them as opposites.

For the third chapter, Susan examines James Frazer’s concept of “Sympathetic Magic” and argues that despite Frazer’s own dismissal of magic against science, his ideas about magic’s propensity towards associative thought are nonetheless useful, as she moves on to examine the role of analogical thinking in magic, which: “involves an evocative transference of the value of meaning implied on one set of relationships to a second set of relationships” – drawing on the work of both Tambiah and Malinowski.

Chapter Four is devoted to an explication of “Magical Consciousness” – “an affective awareness experienced through an alternative mode of mind.” She discusses magic in terms of it being a different modality of consciousness, quoting shamanic practitioner Jo Crow’s reflections on how magic cannot be approached logically – Trying to understand stops the flow and also stresses the importance of “thinking with the heart” – the importance of magical consciousness as a whole-body experience. As Susan says, the idea of thinking from the heart challenges western scientific views of mind, but it also provides a challenge to magical presentations where practitioners assume a pose of being cool and detached – scientific experimenters, rather than engaged participants.

Chapter Five focuses on Mythology as “the language of magic” and Susan returns again to James Frazer and his 1922 classic The Golden Bough (see this post for some observations on Fraser’s work) and argues that despite the problems of Fraser’s work, it is still useful to consider The Golden Bough in terms of associative thinking. She goes on to discuss the distinction between myth and logos, pointing in the direction of Levi-Strauss, and, drawing again on her own experience of mythodramatic magic, illustrates how mythic themes in practice involves participants emotionally – arguing that myth is affective and performative.

Chapter six deals with the issue of belief. Susan makes an important point I think, when she stresses that “Magic is dynamic and situationally adaptive; it refuses neat categorisation.” She examines Evans-Pritchard’s work on the Azande, and how it contributed towards understanding that magic could be “rational” within its own context, but also how Evans-Pritchard’s work was co-opted into functionalist accounts.

Chapter 7 “Magic in Everyday Life” – examines divination and healing as two examples of the magical mode of mind – the experience of which can potentially lead towards a “restructuring of lived reality”. Chapter 8 moves the discussion into a terrain which has been particularly problematic for anthropologists – the “reality” of spirits. Susan argues that in order to understand spirits “objectively” the anthropologist has to move beyond the western worldview which dismisses spirits. He reviews how magic has become associated with “irrationality” from the Age of Enlightenment onward, and particularly due to the influence of Descartes. In this context, she critiques the now infamous study of magic undertaken in the 1980s by Tanya Luhrmann. Susan argues that, as an anthropologist, she has been able to combine both the analytical and participatory orientations (often kept opposed by accusations that anthropologists have made the cardinal error of “going native”) and asserts that bringing these two orientations together can provide real insights.

The final chapter “not only, but also” argues for a more inclusive approach to anthropology (and by extension, science in general), drawing on Geoffrey Samuel’s Multimodal Framework (see Mind, Body and Culture: Anthropology and the biological interface, Cambridge University Press, 1990) – a dynamic, relational framework which echoes Bateson’s evocative “flow of relatedness” and overcomes the dichotomies of mind v matter, subject v object, self v society.

Although aimed primarily at students and scholars of anthropology, The Anthropology of Magic offers much that is challenging to practitioners too. Susan’s clear, incisive and sympathetic approach to magic might well help in prompting a new wave of practitioner-scholars to step forth, and also invite practitioners to re-evaluate the academic theories which get routinely wheeled out in support of magic, often with all too little in the way of critical examination. This gentle, unassuming, yet highly provocative book could well be the crest of a wave which will wash over magical practitioners and scholars alike, and take us to a new mutually fruitful understanding. Highly reccomended!