Critical history of the war on sympathetic magic

"Very Superstitious," Colin Dickey's essay for Lapham's Quarterly, presents a critical take on The Golden Bough, James G. Frazer's 1890 classic text on superstition. Dickey frames contempt for sympathetic magic and its practitioners in the context of the decline of the British empire, and connects it with earlier critiques stretching all the way back to Plato. The essay ends with a section on witchhunting and the persecution of both midwives and promoters of the germ theory of disease, who were accused of practicing their own form of sympathetic magic.

The conviction that witches were behind dangerous storms and other unexpected perils highlights a curious reversal that had taken place with regard to sympathetic magic. If it had once been used as a ward against uncertainties, against the caprices of nature and sudden death, now many saw it primarily as a cause of these dangers. (The Malleus Maleficarum warns that witches “can also, before the eyes of their parents, and when no one is in sight, throw into the water children walking by the waterside; they make horses go mad under their riders.”) These primal anxieties, of course, hadn’t gone away, and James, afraid of drowning at sea, certainly hadn’t yet learned the Christian art of dying well.

Such subtleties were no doubt lost as the crush and waste of humanity that was the European witch panic took on a logic and inertia of its own. After all, it was good business. Agnes Sampson’s torture and execution, like most witch trials, wasn’t cheap, employing judges, scribes, bailiffs, jailers, and executioners—each of whom had a financial stake in further trials. The trial record of Suzanne Gaudry, executed in 1652 in Ronchain, France, notes that each member of the court was to be paid 4 livres, 16 sous, while the soldier who accompanied her to Roux for the trial was to be paid 30 livres. Around 1593 in Trier, the scholar Cornelius Loos quipped that witch persecutions were a new kind of alchemy, whereby “gold and silver [were] coined from human blood”—before all his books were burned and he was forced to publicly recant ever having said such a thing.

As the world was becoming more ordered and codified via patriarchal religion and a burgeoning system of capitalism, magic was seen as a threat because it circumvented these structures: it offered a life outside the authority of the Church and the hierarchies it had carefully cultivated. Little had changed; people still felt powerless in the face of nature, but now instead of turning to magicians, they blamed them. The Church, after all, rarely attacked sympathetic magic on the grounds that it was empirically fallacious or ineffective—rather, it was a rival source of power. Among the many scandalous aspects of witches’ sabbaths as they were popularly depicted was the commingling of social classes: women—and increasingly men—of all walks of life, from peasants to the aristocracy, all were equal at the Midnight Mass. This vision of a dark Utopia was as threatening—if not more so—than any of the black rites practiced therein.

Very Superstitious (via Kottke)


      the above link is an interesting intro to TGB…  after having read the article linked, and then this intro, i find the whole of the matter too complex to damn anyone but the actual witch hunters.  everyone else seems to have had neutral/good intent.

    1.  It used to be my game to seek out sets of the Golden Boughs when I’d visit universities and had downtime to spend in the library.  At least five different schools and never did I encounter a complete set.

  1. Magic is still a significant malicious force in some parts of the world.  On one side, Sarah Palin has her Kenyan witch hunting friend Pastor Muthee and other superstitious and gullible people who are afraid of old women and strangers.  On another side, there are those South African witch doctors who use body parts from albinos and children as charms for their gullible superstitious customers.   Even though the magic itself is non-existent, the fear is real, and the violence it causes is real.

    That’s separate from your neopagan friends and mine, traditional shamans and newagey ayahuasca tourists around the world, Oprah’s favorite authors talking about “laws of attraction” you can find in their books, and whatever ceremonies Christine “Not a Witch” O’Donnell did with her high school boyfriend. 

    1. Take a course on graphic design and logo’s. Lots of “magic”  still being used today. Heck, the advertising world is a malicious force of magic use.

  2. Years ago, Viz Magazine invited readers to place their fingers on a big red dot and wish for Uri Geller to have piles. Uri Geller hasn’t confirmed if this worked, but I choose to believe that it did. It gives me hope.

  3. The Golden Bough is my one “Desert Island Book”.

    *Do* get a copy and *do* dip into it.If you read past the (minimal) dated condescension, it’s a fantastic read. And you see the comparisons with {mainstream religion} that are clearly framed and identified by the author but left unsaid in every chapter.

    1. It’s been on my “to read” list for quite a while.  It won’t be there for much longer.

    2. Anyone who reads this book or has an opinion about it without having read it should at least attempt to understand the times it was written in.  The author was walking on a fine line between ‘enlightened’ people thinking magic was silly and the  official churches taking it very seriously, indeed.  Hence the disclaimers you see in such works, even today.

      If you disbelieve in this kind of magic, send me one of your hairs and you will begin to understand.  The CIA studied magic, but they were such dumbo’s that their ineptness showed up on the front page as news of our wonderful central unintelligent agency.

      1. On the other hand, if you believe in this kind of magic, send *me* one of your hairs plus $10 for postage and you will begin to understand.

        1. I’ll need all of the above, as well as your address and a tracing of your housekey on the letter. This is purely for magic. Also, the magic works better if you give me your work schedule. I assure you, you’ll be amazed at how I can make things dissappear.

      2. “If you disbelieve in this kind of magic, send me one of your hairs and you will begin to understand.”

        I’m sure you can remote view me quivering in my boots.

        “The CIA studied magic”

        All aspects of the government did. The research led to jack shit magic-wise, but shaped our psychological warfare policy. I’m still sad at how the Men Who Stare at Goats book was adapted to film, the stupid fiction got in the way of the horrible reality.

    3.  But the Golden Boughs isn’t one book.  It grew to twelve in total (I think), with ridiculous people hinting there was a banned thirteenth book because of stuff HPL-influenced writers wrote.  Watch as I make spooky hand gestures and talk in a spooky voice:  “Thiiiiirttteeeenthh boooook”.

  4. A related book is simply called ‘Envy’ and details more ancient history in which neighbors blamed good luck on playing favorites with various spirits such that Leonardo types were basically killed so often that progress was rather slow for thousands of years.

    1.  So That’s where Australia’s Tall Poppy syndrome comes from, we’re all worried that successfull people are following Dante’s example!

    2. From the title/thesis, I thought we might be dealing with a Fans of John Galt type work, so I looked it up. The US publisher is a right-libertarian group that sponsors right-wing conferences. The author, Helmut Schoeck, is one of those Austrian libertarian types from the 40s-50s, who was a “center-left” figure in the 60s, meaning, in US terms, on the right.

      Anyway, just offering the results of my quick research to save anyone else a trip. The book’s meritocratic thesis sounds interesting, but I greet it with the same suspicion that I greet most meritocratic arguments these days, as a justifier for the inequalities of the status quo. I’d like to read it and be proven wrong, though.

  5. I’m a bit surprised but also gratified to see so many sympathetic comments regarding Frazer’s book. I would have liked the author of the Lapham’s piece to spend just a bit more time looking at the revolutionary nature of the book, which remains central to the scientific study of comparative religions, folklore and mythology.

    Frazer had the courage (in his first edition, at least) to put the Christ myth side-by-side with dozens of similar stories of death and resurrection, and to suggest that the wide distribution of these stories is a phenomenon which bares scientific analysis. The Christ myth, in other words, is one story among many similar stories, not necessarily THE story.

    This great advancement in human thought helped transform the way myths and religions were studied, so that they could be examined with respect to their narrative, historical and psychological character, and not solely evaluated on theological grounds.

    This shift in perspective has played an important role in loosening the dominance of the Christian religious viewpoint on academic culture.

    1. There is a finality to the Christian story of death and resurrection, which is absent from other traditions (but maybe I am wrong). A Christian would claim that the death and resurrection of Christ makes a clean break with the past – at most previous traditions paved the way for Christ. The Church is not necessarily wrong.

      1. There is a finality to the Christian story of death and resurrection, which is absent from other traditions (but maybe I am wrong).

        Resurrection gods are not uncommon, such as Osiris. I myself am planning to emerge from the Nile soon. SOON.

      2.  Yeah, there’s about a million resurrection stories which is exactly why we need comparative anthropology texts, to point this stuff out.  Osiris, like Antinous said, is a good one but the Dionysus stuff is even better.  I think.

        1. Yeah. Christianity is a temporary but necessary aberration. Essentially the death and resurrection of the saviour is the loss of the partially developed and return of the fully developed natural human ability to see the relationship between different stories and their evolutionary function in motivating human progress, ideologically, psychologically and neurologically. The disagreements between magic, religion and science are actually more imagined than real.

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