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Magic and religion

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A belief in magic as a means of influencing the world seems to have been common in all cultures. There was considerable overlap between beliefs and practices that were religious and those that were magical, such that their mutual influence was significant. In many cases it becomes difficult or impossible to draw any meaningful line between beliefs and practices that are magical versus those that are religious. Communal rites and celebrations contained elements of both religion and magic. Over time, especially within the specific religious context of western monotheism as expressed in the Abrahamic religions, religiously-based supernatural events ("miracles") acquired their own flavor, and became separated in those religious worldviews from standard magic. Some religions today, such as Neopagan religions, still embrace their connections to magic, while others retain only distant echoes.

Unlike other kinds of magic, religious magic usually involves requesting the intervention of a personal deity or deities - or often an impersonal divinity or spiritual force - to enact the desired effect. It is up to the deity in question whether or not to grant the request. In the case of an impersonal spiritual force, as in Taoism or other eastern or shamanic or pagan religions, it may require some specific religious or spiritual discipline, such as esoteric meditation methods or fasting or vision questing, to attune oneself to the divine power that is capable of effecting the desired magical change.

In some religious contexts the supplicant may be regarded as having few or no innate magical powers of their own. (Although some might claim a personal divine gift, such as clairvoyance or healing or speaking in tongues). In other religious contexts, especially neopagan witchcraft and magical traditions, deities may be called upon as tutors or guides in magic - to assist the individual in learning to develop his or her own magical abilities, and in learning the principles and practices of magic. Such tutelary deities are sometimes called "hermetic deities" or "spirit guides." Such deities would include gods and goddesses such as Exu or Legba in African-based religion, Thoth in Kemetic (Egyptian) religion, and the Greek goddess Hecate in Wicca.

Magical practices in prehistory

Appearing from aboriginal tribes in Australia and New Zealand to rainforest tribes in South America, bush tribes in Africa and pagan tribal groups in Western Europe and Britain (as personified by Merlin), some form of shamanism and belief in a spirit world seems to be common in the early development of human communities. According to Joseph Campbell, the ancient cave paintings in Lascaux may have been associated with "the magic of the hunt."[1] Much of the Babylonian and Egyptian pictorial writing characters appear derived from the same sources.

Although indigenous magical traditions persist to this day, very early on some communities transitioned from nomadic to agricultural civilizations, and with this shift, the development of spiritual life mirrored that of civic life. Just as tribal elders were consolidated and transformed into monarchs and bureaucrats, so too did shamans and adepts evolve into priestly caste.

This shift is not in nomenclature alone. It is at this stage of development that highly codified and elaborate rituals, setting the stage for formal religions, began to emerge, such as the funeral rites of the Egyptians and the sacrifice rituals of the Babylonians, Persians, Aztecs, and Maya civilizations.

Psychological perspective

Some anthropologists have asserted that "magical thinking" is a form of proto-science or pseudoscience rather than a form of religious practice, most notable among them being Sir James George Frazer and Bronisław Malinowski. By this line of thought, early magical beliefs developed through a post-hoc fallacy — a supplication was made on the altar, and then it rained shortly afterward. Regardless of whether the supplication was the actual cause, it was credited with the change, and thus magical beliefs could grow.

One magician's response to this is that magic is unconcerned with establishing causality, only repeatability. Ramsey Dukes explains in his book S.S.O.T.B.M.E. that questions such as "Are you sure it was your magic that cured her?" are irrelevant to the magician. "If it was a coincidence, it doesn't matter just so long as he can bring about such coincidences"[2]

Religious practices and magic

Closely related to magic are most forms of religious supplication, asking the divine for aid. Perhaps the most famous form is prayer, which is often considered a spiritual duty in communing with the divine, even aside from any miraculous effects on the outside world.

Both magic and religion contain rituals. Typically, there is a recognition that rituals do not always work; rather, it is thought to simply increase the likelihood of the desired result coming to pass. (Some practitioners of "natural" magic believe that their spells always work.) While many rituals focus on personal communion with the divine and spiritual purification, others often seek "magical" results, such as healing or good luck in battle.

Likewise, both can be divided by the effects they produce into perception and material changes. That is, whether prayer or some type of spell is used, it can either bring about an actual change (material) or a change in the way the subject feels (perception). The same prayer, for it to be "cooler" could therefore either actually raise the temperature, or simply alter the praying subject and any other targets feeling of the temperature. This is not to say that perception changes are not "real" as it could be used in healing to numb the sensation of pain, allowing healing to take place more easily.

The names of the Gods

There is a long-standing belief in the power of "true names;" this often descends from the magical belief that knowing a being's true name grants you power over it. This is often seen as a requirement in spiritualism; knowing the identity of a spirit greatly aids in soliciting information from it.

If names have power, then knowing the name of a god that is regarded as supreme in your religion should grant the greatest power of all. This belief is reflected in traditional Wicca, where the names of the Goddess and the Horned God - the two supreme deities in Wicca - are usually held as a secret to be revealed only to initiates. This belief is also reflected in ancient Judaism, which used the Tetragrammaton (YHWH, usually translated as "Lord" in small caps) to refer to God "safely" in the Tanakh. Saying the name of God without good reason ("taking the Lord's name in vain," one of the Ten Commandments) could result in stoning.(Rabbi Joseph Telushkin has claimed that the commandment is simply to not use God's name to deceive or to bully.) The same belief is seen in Hinduism, but with different conclusions; rather, attaining transcendence and the power of God is seen as a good thing. Thus, some Hindus chant the name of their favorite deities as often as possible, the most common being Krishna[3].

Religious artifacts

Some religions believe in transferring holiness to objects and places; this is often seen in even simple things like "christening" ceremonies for a new boat. Churches and certain religiously-minded individuals often consecrate the ground where a building will be constructed.

The practice was common during the Middle Ages, where a large market for spiritual trinkets existed. Fragments of the true cross and bones of saints were often brought back by Crusaders from the Holy Land, where they were sold to the peasantry as cure-alls. Most scholarly sources agree that the vast majority of these sales were frauds and simply a form of supplemental income for the Crusaders. This practice somewhat fell into disrepute during the Reformation; it became associated with idol worship. As a result, this is less seen in Protestantism than Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy[4].


One of the more controversial practices in magic and religion both, this involves a sacrifice to a supernatural being, such as a god, angel, or demon, who is asked to intervene on behalf of the person performing the sacrifice.

Sacrifice can take many forms. The most common forms of supplication and sacrifice in pagan and neopagan religious practice involves the burning of oils or incense. Other common forms of supplication may include the offering of personal objects to a deity, offering chants, and the offering of drinks and food. Less used is blood sacrifice. In early history, blood sacrifice was common; a goat or calf would be sacrificed. Often, divination would be practiced via the reading of entrails (notably in Ancient Rome). Leviticus contains detailed rules for proper blood sacrifice, used in early Judaism. Blood sacrifice has been rejected by some neopagans, but not all; both Ásatrú and Celtic/Irish Reconstructionists still practice blood sacrifice and burnt animal offerings. In hoodoo, blood ritual, or the giving of one's own blood in ritual practices, is not entirely uncommon. Most strands of modern Judaism believe that with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, there is no place to sacrifice to any more, and thus the need is negated (modern Samaritans disagree, and maintain the practice). In Christianity, it is believed that Jesus's final sacrifice renders any further sacrifices unnecessary. Some syncretic blends of Islam and native practices in places such as Indonesia feature sacrifice as an element of worship.

The most extreme form of sacrifice, and the one carrying the most negative taboo, is human sacrifice. The moloch is one famous but disputed example of the practice; the Carthaginians seemingly sacrificed young children when circumstances looked grim, hoping to regain their gods' favor. Some historians attribute this as one reason for their downfall. Other cultures preferred to sacrifice only their enemies, offering up captured prisoners in supplication; the Druids became one of the two religions banned by the Roman Empire due to their practice of (Roman) human sacrifice[3]. The book Genesis contains the famous story of the "Binding of Isaac"; Abraham is ordered to sacrifice his son Isaac by God, but it turns out that God was only performing a mysterious test, and a ram is sent instead. Human sacrifice is condemned afterward. The Qur'an contains strong condemnations of the Arabian pagans who would sacrifice babies who turned out to be unwanted girls by leaving them in pots in the desert to die of exposure, saying that such practice surely leads to hell.

Magic and Abrahamic religion

Magic and Abrahamic religions have had a somewhat checkered past. The King James Version of the Bible included the famous translation "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" (Exodus 22:18),[5] and Saul is rebuked by God for seeking advice from a diviner who could contact spirits. However, miracles from God are considered legitimate, such as Moses' staff turning into a snake. The Tanakh contains many condemnations of non-Jews and their practices; it is unclear how much it is simple heresy being condemned, and how much magic. Magic was seen as intricately tied up with Baal-worship and other unacceptable forms of religion at the time. In the New Testament and later theology, it is thought that all seeming "magic" is actually powered by demons, making it even more unacceptable. Thus, magic was seen as taboo throughout much of the Middle Ages, unless draped in Christianity; Beowulf is an example of a story of likely pagan origin that was infused with religion to make it "acceptable." Occasional persecutions were made on the basis of witchcraft, or at least using witchcraft as the excuse to execute enemies with. A famous example is the Salem Witch Trials.

The Qur'an contains references to both good and bad jinn, claiming that some submitted to God while others persist in disobedience. Soliciting the aid of a Muslim jinn might grant magic-like effects and be acceptable to God, such as that done by King Sulayman (Solomon). Evil jinn are, in essence, demons.

Some mainstream Protestant and Jewish theologies claim the age of miracles has passed, and "magic" is now ineffective (whether or not it actually worked in the past). Therefore, the point is moot and there is no need to hunt down witches, because there are not any true ones. Many sects of Christianity still maintain a belief in demons and evil spirits, but normally believe that in accordance with Christ's commands, devil-worshippers should be saved, not slain. Judaism, after long years of persecution after the Diaspora, refrains from persecuting witches.

The words "witch" and "witchcraft" appear in some English versions of the Christian Holy Bible. One verse that is probably responsible for more deaths of suspected witches than any other passage from the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) is Exodus 22:18. In the King James Version, this reads: "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." The precise meaning of the Hebrew word kashaph, here translated as 'witch' and in some other modern versions, 'sorceress', is uncertain. In the Septuagint it was translated as pharmakeia, meaning 'poisoner', and on this basis, Reginald Scot claimed in the 16th century that 'witch' was an incorrect translation and poisoners were intended.[6] His theory still holds some currency, but is not widely accepted, and in Daniel 2:2 kashaph is listed alongside other magic practitioners who could interpret dreams: magicians, astrologers and Chaldeans.

The Judeo-Christian abhorrence of witches was not peculiar to them. The pagan Roman Empire, Egyptian Empire and Babylonian Empires all developed laws against malevolent witchcraft. The ancient Code of Hammurabi specifically called for death to witches, and also proscribed false accusations of witchcraft:

If a man has laid a charge of witchcraft and has not justified it, he upon whom the witchcraft is laid shall go to the holy river; he shall plunge into the holy river and if the holy river overcome him, he who accused him shall take to himself his house.

See also


  1. Campbell, Joseph (1991). The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology. Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-019443-6. 
  2. Ramsay Dukes, S.S.O.T.B.M.E. Revised, The Mouse That Spins, England, 2000 ISBN 0904311082, pp 22-23
  3. 3.0 3.1 Gonick, Larry. The Cartoon History of the Universe. Doubleday. 
  4. Palmer, R. R.; Joel Colton (1995) [1950]. A History of the Modern World (Eighth Edition ed.). McGraw-Hill, Inc.. 
  5. Bible (King James). 
  6. Scot, Reginald (c. 1580) The Discoverie of Witchcraft Booke VI Ch. 1.
This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Magic and religion. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

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