The Anthropology of Magic

And now back to a review of a more specialized book…

There aren’t a lot of serious academic books on Paganism and related topics – this is one of them. Susan Greenwood is an anthropologist and (per the back cover) Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the University of Sussex. Her new (2009) book is titled The Anthropology of Magic. I bought it to see how a serious social scientist would handle a topic like magic. I’m very much unqualified to judge how well she did as an anthropologist, but as a practitioner, I think she did pretty well.

Much of the book consists of trying to fit magic into various anthropological theories and systems. Here Greenwood is clearly writing for her fellow professional anthropologists. Although I’m glad academics are finally starting to see these topics as worthy of research, I really could care less whether Evans-Pritchard or Levy-Bruhl (anthropologists of the early 20th century) had a better understanding of magic.

The value of this book to the common reader (as well as to skeptical academics) is that it challenges the consensus Western worldview that what cannot be observed and measured, what cannot be rationally explained cannot exist. Rational thought has done wonders for humanity, but by itself it cannot make us whole. It asks – demands – that we ignore experiences and ways of knowing that fall outside its boundaries.

We cannot and should not give up rationality. Greenwood advocates what she calls “not only, but also.” Keep science and magic. Keep objective reality and subjective reality. Keep logos and mythos.

This is illustrated in this quote from Greenwood on spirits and our interaction with them:

The question of the reality or nonreality of spirits appears to be unreasonable. At worst, it legitimises a denial of the experience of magic, and at best, it is a distraction from the further examination of this aspect of human awareness. The best way forward to start to feel this aspect of consciousness is to take the phenomenological perspective of acting ‘as if’ – to bracket disbelief – and simply experience. What is essential about magic is a participatory relationship with an inspirited world.

I have learned to stop trying to explain magical happenings and to just experience them and learn from them. Whatever they are objectively, they are meaningful and helpful, and I will continue to interpret them as such.

I don’t recommend this book to the casual reader or average practitioner, but if you’re interested in an academic look at magic by someone who takes both seriously, give it a try.

About John Beckett

I grew up in Tennessee with the woods right outside my back door. Wandering through them gave me a sense of connection to Nature and to a certain Forest God. I’m a Druid graduate of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the Coordinating Officer of the Denton Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans and a former Vice President of CUUPS Continental. I’ve been writing, speaking, teaching, and leading public rituals for the past eleven years. I live in the Dallas – Fort Worth area and I earn my keep as an engineer.


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