magic (in religion and superstition)

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.
Save to active project

magic (in religion and superstition)

magic, in religion and superstition, the practice of manipulating and controlling the course of nature by preternatural means. Magic is based upon the belief that the universe is populated by unseen forces or spirits that permeate all things. Because these supernatural forces are thought to govern the course of natural events, control of these forces gives humans control over nature. The practice of magic is held to depend on the proper use of both the ritual and the spell. The spell, or incantation, is the core of the magical ceremony; it unlocks the full power of the ritual. The practice of magic, in seeking its desired end, may combines within its scope elements of religion and science. In alchemy, for example, the process of transmuting a base metal into gold requires precise weights and volumes of acids, bases, and catalysts as well as the reciting of holy passages and prayers.

Anthropologists often distinguish between two forms of magic, the sympathetic and the contiguous. Sympathetic magic works on the principle that like produces like. The Ojibwa of North America would make a wooden image of an enemy and then stick pins into it. Because the doll represented the enemy, harm done to the doll was believed to harm the enemy. Contiguous magic operates on the belief that things that have been in contact will continue to act on each other after the physical contact has ceased. The aborigines of Australia believe that they can lame a person by placing sharp pieces of quartz, glass, bone, or charcoal in that person's footprints. Sometimes both sympathetic and contiguous magic are used in conjunction; certain African tribespeople will build a clay effigy around nail clippings, hairs, or bits of cloth belonging to the enemy and roast the completed image slowly in a fire.

Not all magic is performed in order to harm or destroy, and for this reason a distinction is made between black magic and white magic. White magic is characterized by those rites and spells designed to produce beneficial effects for the community (see fertility rites) or for the individual, particularly in those cases where an illness is considered to be the result of evil demons or of black magic.

See also voodoo; witchcraft.

See J. Frazer, The Golden Bough (12 vol., 1907–15); L. Thorndike, History of Magic and Experimental Science (8 vol., 1923–58); B. Malinowski, Magic, Science, and Religion (1948); M. Bouisson, Magic: Its History and Principal Rites (tr. 1961); J. Middleton, comp., Magic, Witchcraft, and Curing (1967); M. Marwick, Witchcraft and Sorcery (1970); M. Christopher, The Illustrated History of Magic (1973).

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

magic (in religion and superstition)
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?