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Magic, A History

It’s not every day you see an Oxford professor seriously argue magical thinking is just as valid and religion and science. I suspect it is even more unlikely for the same professor to then, without skipping a beat, argue magical thinking may be necessary for resolving the climate crisis. This was not, by the way, what I expected to read when I first got my copy on an impulse. Magic, A History is easily one of the most persuasive mainstream arguments for the validity of magical practices and their importance for the human experience.

As always, the place to start with any academic book is the author. Chris Gosden is a British and Australian archeologist who specializes in the archeology of identity with a focus on English identity. He is Professor of European Archeology and Director of the Institute of Archeology at the University of Oxford. He is also a trustee for the British Museum. Gosden has written and contributed to over a dozen academic books and countless papers on subjects like prehistoric archeology, Iron Age Britain, colonialism and archeology, and cowrote the 2009 Oxford Handbook of Archeology. In short, he’s an established expert working at one of the most well-funded, connected, and informed institutions in his field. His mainstream pedigree is part of what makes Gosden’s conclusions on the place of magic in society so surprising.

According to Gosden, for most of human history knowledge worked as a triple-helix of magic, religion, and science interacting with and influencing each other. Magic, according to Gosden, is a, “experimental, changeable, and inventive”[1] system of knowledge which emphasizes human connections with the universe. This makes humans subject to the universe’s workings while also making it possible for human action to influence the universe and everything in it. He contrasts this with religion, which he argues focuses on understanding the world by understanding deity and their influence on life, and science, which he claims pursues a distanced understanding of physical reality. Gosden asserts magic is the oldest of the three and is changeable, adaptable, and shows patterns of consistent renewal throughout human history. He further argues the downfall of magic in the modern world was due to a combination of acts of fraud by magical practitioners and action by religious and scientific authorities to discredit magic as a system of knowledge.

Where he takes his triple-helix model is a place where many Pagans and Heathens may find themselves nodding in agreement while catching more mainstream readers somewhat by surprise. According to Gosden, magic provides a way of understanding the world in terms of relationship and connection as opposed to religion and science’s more top-down, removed approaches. He also claims, “No choice is needed between magic, science or religion”[2] and integrating the participatory, interconnected elements of magical thinking into our world may help us better grapple with ecological breakdown and our place in a planet in crisis. For Gosden, magic creates a sense of kinship and relationship with other elements of the cosmos which, in turn, fosters a sense of responsibility. As he eloquently puts it on the final page of his book, “Whereas science asks, ‘Can we do that?’ magic asks, ‘Should we?’”[3]

Gosden presents his case over the course of ten chapters which each cover a broad region and period of magical practice. He begins with prehistoric magic, going as far back as Ice Age archeological finds from across the globe, before moving through ancient China, the Mediterranean world, the Americas, and onward into the present day. His book provides useful and tantalizing details while giving a solid sense of what main tendencies existed in each area of focus.

One noteworthy shortcoming in this book is Godsen is a bit slippery in how he distinguishes between animism and magic. Gosden does, in many places, seem to conflate the two as interchangeable while also treating magic and animism as distinct phenomena. This seems to be a consequence of Gosden’s own understanding of magic as a system of knowledge that fosters connections with the rest of the world, something that is also somewhat true of animism.

Another significant problem is found in the final chapter where Gosden discusses modern magic. He, like many more mainstream scholars, consistently conflates all Pagan practices with Wicca and treats the Goddess theology of Wiccan-derived traditions as the norm rather than the product of a specific Pagan sect. In fairness, Wicca and Wiccan traditions are easily the most visible of all Pagan groups so it is understandable that Gosden is making this mistake. That said, further research into the nuances of modern Paganism would’ve enriched his closing argument by strengthening many of his core points on modern magic.

One final flaw in Gosden’s work is the relative lack of attention given to the Americas, Africa, and Australia. Instead of giving each of these distinct regions their own full chapters he chose to clump all three into a single box. Part of this may be thanks to his expertise being in European archeology but it is still somewhat unfortunate to see an otherwise excellent work give so little time to each of these regions.

That said, these flaws do not detract from Gosden’s overall points or undermine the validity of his triple helix approach to human knowledge. Every Pagan, Heathen, and Witch should have this on their bookshelf. Mainstream religious practitioners would also benefit from reading this text as it may bring fresh perspectives and challenges to long-held assumptions. Whether or not you find it to be persuasive, Magic, A History is a provocative book which is likely to continue inspiring debate and discussion for years to come.

[1] Chris Gosden, Magic, A History: From Alchemy to Witchcraft, from the Ice Age to the Present, Picador (New York, NY: 2020), 1 [2] Gosden 415 [3] Gosden 432

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