Magic is a category in Western culture into which have been placed various beliefs and practices considered separate from both religion and science.

Historically, the term often had pejorative connotations, with things labeled magical perceived as being primitive, foreign, and Other.

The concept has been adopted by scholars in the study of religion and the social sciences, who have proposed various different—and often mutually exclusive—definitions of the term; much contemporary scholarship regards the concept to be so problematic that it is better to reject it altogether as a useful analytic construct.

The term magic derives from the Old Persian magu, a word that applied to a form of religious functionary about which little is known.

During the late sixth and early fifth centuries BCE, this term was adopted into Ancient Greek, where it was used with negative connotations, to apply to religious rites that were regarded as fraudulent, unconventional, and dangerous.

This meaning of the term was then adopted by Latin in the first century BCE. Via Latin, the concept was incorporated into Christian theology during the first century CE, where magic was associated with demons and thus defined against (Christian) religion.

This concept was pervasive throughout the Middle Ages when Christian authors categorized a diverse range of practices—such as enchantment, witchcraft, incantations, divination, necromancy, and astrology—under the label magic.

In early modern Europe, Italian humanists reinterpreted the term in a positive sense to create the idea of natural magic. Both negative and positive understandings of the term were retained in Western culture over the following centuries, with the former largely influencing early academic usages of the word.

Since the nineteenth century, academics in various disciplines have employed the term magic but have defined it in different ways and used it in reference to different things.

One approach, associated with the anthropologists Edward Tylor and James G. Frazer, uses the term to describe beliefs in hidden sympathies between objects that allow one to influence the other.

Defined in this way, magic is portrayed as the opposite to science. An alternative approach, associated with the sociologists Marcel Mauss and Émile Durkheim, employs the term to describe private rites and ceremonies and contrasts it with religion, which it defines as a communal and organized activity.

Many scholars of religion have rejected the utility of the term magic, arguing that it is arbitrary and ethnocentric; it has become increasingly unpopular within scholarship since the 1990s.

Throughout Western history, there have been examples of individuals who engaged in practices that their societies called magic and who sometimes referred to themselves as magicians.

Within modern occultism, there are many self-described magicians and people who practice ritual activities that they term magic.

In this environment, the concept of magic has again changed, usually being defined as a technique for bringing about changes in the physical world through the force of one’s will.

This definition was pioneered largely by the influential British occultist Aleister Crowley.

The Old Persian maguš

The English words magic, mage, and magician come from the Latin magus, through the Greek μάγος, which is from the Old Persian maguš (“magician“).

The Old Persian magu- is derived from the Proto-Indo-European *magh (“be able”), which was absorbed into the Iranian language; Iranians thereafter began using the word maguš or *maghu, which may have led to the Old Sinitic *Mᵞag (“mage” or “shaman).

The Old Persian form seems to have permeated Ancient Semitic languages as the Talmudic Hebrew magosh, the Aramaic amgusha (“magician”), and the Chaldean maghdim (“wisdom and philosophy”); from the first century BCE onwards, Syrian magusai gained notoriety as magicians and soothsayers.

The Magi are mentioned in both the Book of Jeremiah and the Behistun Inscription of Darius I, indicating that they had gained considerable power and influence by the middle of the first millennium BCE.

A number of ancient Greek authors discuss these Persian mágoi in their works. Among the first to do so was the historian Herodotus, who states that the mágoi were one of seven Median tribes and that they served as functionaries at the court of the Achaemenid Empire, where they acted as advisers to the king.

According to Herodotus, these Persian mágoi were also in charge of various religious rites, namely sacrifices and the interpretation of dreams.

For the storm lasted for three days; and at last the Magians, by using victims and wizards’ spells on the wind, and by sacrificing also to Thetis and the Nereids, did make it cease on the fourth day. — Herodotus Book VII.191, an example of the work of the Magi that is similar to that of their Chinese counterparts

The Magi traveled far beyond Mesopotamia and the Levant. They were present in India by at least the first century BCE, as well as in Ethiopia, Egypt, and throughout Asia Minor.

Many ancient sources claim they were Zarathustrians, or that Zarathustra, who may have lived as early as 1100 BCE, was himself a Maguš; according to sinologist Victor H. Mair, they arrived in China at around this time.

Ilya Gershevitch has described them as “a professional priesthood to whom Zarathustrianism was merely one of the forms of religion in which they ministered against payment, much as a professional musician earns his living by performing the works of different composers“.

In ancient Greece and Rome

The term magic has its origins in Ancient Greece. During the late sixth and early fifth centuries BCE, the Persian maguš was Graecicized and introduced into the ancient Greek language as μάγος and μαγεία.

In doing so it underwent a transformation of meaning, gaining negative connotations, with the magos being regarded as a charlatan whose ritual practices were fraudulent, strange, unconventional, and dangerous.

As noted by Davies, for the ancient Greeks—and subsequently for the ancient Romans—”magic was not distinct from religion but rather an unwelcome, improper expression of it – the religion of the other“. The historian Richard Gordon suggested that for the ancient Greeks, being accused of practicing magic was “a form of insult“.

This change in meaning was influenced by the military conflicts that the Greek city-states were then engaged in against the Persian Empire.

In this context, the term makes appearances in such surviving text as Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Hippocrates’ De morbo sacro, and Gorgias’ Encomium of Helen.

In Sophocles’ play, for example, the character Oedipus derogatorily refers to the seer Tiresius as a magos—in this context meaning something akin to ‘quack‘ or ‘charlatan‘—reflecting how this epithet was no longer reserved only for Persians.

In the first century BCE, the Greek concept of the magos was adopted into Latin and used by a number of ancient Roman writers as magus and magia.

The earliest known Latin use of the term was in Virgil‘s Eclogue, written around 40 BCE, which makes reference to magicis… sacris (magic rites).

The Romans already had other terms for the negative use of supernatural powers, such as veneficus and saga. The Roman use of the term was similar to that of the Greeks but placed greater emphasis on the judicial application of it.

Within the Roman Empire, laws would be introduced criminalizing things regarded as magic. In ancient Roman society, magic was associated with societies to the east of the empire; the first century CE writer Pliny the Elder, for instance, claimed that magic had been created by the Persian philosopher Zoroaster and that it had then been brought west into Greece by the magician Osthanes, who accompanied the military campaigns of the Persian King Xerxes.

Early Christianity and the Middle Ages

In the first century CE, early Christian authors absorbed the Greco-Roman idea of magic and incorporated it into their developing Christian theology.

These Christians retained the Graeco-Roman negative connotations of the term and enhanced them by incorporating conceptual patterns borrowed from Jewish thought.

Like earlier Graeco-Roman thinkers, the early Christians attributed the origins of magic to an area to the east of Europe, among the Babylonians, Persians, or Egyptians.

The Christians shared with earlier classical culture the idea that magic was something distinct from proper religion, although drew their distinction between the two in different ways.

For early Christian writers like Augustine of Hippo, magic did not merely constitute fraudulent and unsanctioned ritual practices but was the very opposite of religion because it relied upon cooperation from demons, the henchmen of Satan.

In this, Christian ideas of magic were closely linked to the Christian category of paganism, and both magic and paganism were regarded as belonging under the broader category of superstitio (superstition), another term borrowed from pre-Christian Roman culture.

This Christian emphasis on the inherent immorality and wrongness of magic as something conflicting with good religion was far starker than the approach in the other large monotheistic religions of the period, Judaism and Islam.

For instance, while Christians regarded demons as inherently evil, the jinn—comparable entities in Islamic mythology—were perceived as more ambivalent figures by Muslims.

The model of the magician in Christian thought was provided by Simon Magus, or “Simon the Magician“, a figure who opposed Saint Peter in both the Acts of the Apostles and the apocryphal yet influential Acts of Peter.

The historian Michael D. Bailey stated that in medieval Europe, “magic” was a “relatively broad and encompassing category“.

Christian theologians believed that there were multiple different forms of magic, the majority of which were types of divination.

For instance, Isidore of Seville produced a catalog of things he regarded as magic in which he listed augury, necromancy, astrology, incantations, horoscopes, amulets, geomancy, hydromancy, aeromancy, pyromancy, enchantment, and ligatures.

Medieval Europe also saw magic come to be associated with the Old Testament figure of Solomon; various grimoires, or books outlining magical practices, were written that claimed to have been written by Solomon, most notably the Key of Solomon.

In early medieval Europe, magia was a term of condemnation. In medieval Europe, Christians often suspected Muslims and Jews of engaging in magical practices; in certain cases, these perceived magical rites—including the alleged Jewish sacrifice of Christian children—resulted in Christians massacring these religious minorities.

Christian groups often also accused other, rival Christian groups—which they regarded as heretical—of engaging in magical activities.

Medieval Europe also saw the term maleficium applied to forms of magic that were conducted with the intention of causing harm.

The later Middle Ages saw words for these practitioners of harmful magical acts appear in various European languages: sorcière in French, Hexe in German, strega in Italian, and bruja in Spanish.

The English term for malevolent practitioners of magic, witch, derived from the earlier Old English term wicce.

Early modern Europe

During the early modern period, the concept of magic underwent a more positive reassessment through the development of the concept of magia naturalis (natural magic).

This was a term introduced and developed by two Italian humanists, Marsilio Ficino, and Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola.

For them, magia was viewed as an elemental force pervading many natural processes and thus was fundamentally distinct from the mainstream Christian idea of demonic magic.

Their ideas influenced an array of later philosophers and writers, among them Paracelsus, Giordano Bruno, Johannes Reuchlin, and Johannes Trithemius.

According to the historian Richard Kieckhefer, the concept of magia naturalis took “firm hold in European culture” during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, attracting the interest of natural philosophers of various theoretical orientations, including Aristotelians, Neoplatonists, and Hermeticists.

Adherents of this position argued that magia could appear in both good and bad forms; in 1625, the French librarian Gabriel Naudé wrote his Apology for all the Wise Men Falsely Suspected of Magic, in which he distinguished “Mosoaicall Magick“—which he claimed came from God and included prophecies, miracles, and speaking in tongues—from “geotick” magic caused by demons.

While the proponents of magia naturalis insisted that this did not rely on the actions of demons, critics disagreed, arguing that the demons had simply deceived these magicians.

By the seventeenth century, the concept of magia naturalis had moved in increasingly ‘naturalistic‘ directions, with the distinctions between it and science becoming blurred.

The validity of magia naturalis as a concept for understanding the universe then came under increasing criticism during the Age of Enlightenment in the eighteenth century.

Despite the attempt to reclaim the term magia for use in a positive sense, it did not supplant traditional attitudes toward magic in the West, which remained largely negative.

At the same time as magia naturalis was attracting interest and was largely tolerated, Europe saw active persecution of accused witches believed to be guilty of maleficia.

Reflecting the term’s continued negative associations, Protestants often sought to denigrate Roman Catholic sacramental and devotional practices as being magical rather than religious.

Many Roman Catholics were concerned by this allegation and for several centuries various Roman Catholic writers devoted attention to arguing that their practices were religious rather than magical.

At the same time, Protestants often used the accusation of magic against other Protestant groups which they were in a contest with.

In this way, the concept of magic was used to prescribe what was appropriate as religious belief and practice. Similar claims were also being made in the Islamic world during this period.

The Arabian cleric Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab—founder of Wahhabism—for instance, condemned a range of customs and practices such as divination and the veneration of spirits as sihr, which he in turn claimed was a form of shirk, the sin of idolatry.


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