Magic (supernatural)

The Magician (I), an illustration from the Rider-Waite tarot deck first published in 1910.

Magic is a category in Western culture into which since the Enlightenment have been placed various beliefs and practices considered separate from both religion and science.[1] Historically, the term often had pejorative connotations, with things labelled 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 comes 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 categorised 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 organised 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.


Since the emergence of the study of religion and the social sciences, magic has been a "central theme in the theoretical literature" produced by scholars operating in these academic disciplines.[2] According to the scholar of religion Randall Styers, attempting to define magic represents "an act of demarcation" by which it is juxtaposed against "other social practices and modes of knowledge" such as "religion" and "science".[3] Scholars have engaged in extensive debates as to how to define magic,[2] with such debates resulting in intense dispute.[4] Throughout such debates, the scholarly community has failed to agree on a definition of magic, in a similar manner to how they have failed to agree on a definition of religion.[4] Even among those throughout history who have described themselves as magicians, there has been no common understanding of what magic is.[5] Thus, as the historian Michael D. Bailey describes it, "magic" represents "a deeply contested category and a very fraught label";[6] the fellow historian Owen Davies stated that the word was "beyond simple definition".[7]

"Magic has often been dismissed as either primitive and irrational and therefore alien to modern society, as inherently opposed to the Judeo-Christian traditions of the West, or as incompatible with religion in general. These antipathetic sentiments are deeply embedded in Western culture, and the term magic has typically been used to describe non-mainstream beliefs and practices — non-Christians, heretics, non-Westerners, indigenous, ancient or 'primitive' cultures — any that might be considered 'Other.' The image of magic as inherently linked with the Other has functioned as an important factor in the construction of the self-identity of Western culture, for by defining magic as something alien, exotic, primitive, evil, deviant or even ridiculous, our society also makes a tacit statement as to its self-perceptions."

– Historian of religion Henrik Bogdan[8]

Many scholars have argued that the use of the term as an analytical tool within academic scholarship should be rejected altogether.[9] The scholar of religion Jonathan Z. Smith for example argued that it had no utility as an etic term that scholars should use.[10] The historian of religion Wouter Hanegraaff agreed, stating that "the term magic is an important object of historical research, but not intended for doing research."[11] The scholars of religion Berndt-Christian Otto and Michael Stausberg suggested that it would be perfectly possible for scholars to talk about amulets, curses, healing procedures, and other cultural practices often regarded as magical in Western culture without any recourse to the concept of magic itself.[12] The idea that "magic" should be rejected as an analytic term developed in anthropology, before moving into Classical studies and Biblical studies in the 1980s.[13] Since the 1990s, the term's usage among scholars of religion has declined.[10]

The concept and term "magic" developed in European society and thus using it when discussing non-Western cultures or pre-modern forms of Western society raises problems, as it may impose Western categories that are alien to them.[14] While "magic" remains an emic term in the history of Western societies, it remains an etic term when applied to non-Western societies.[15] During the twentieth century, many scholars focusing on Asian and African societies rejected the term "magic", as well as related concepts like "witchcraft", in favour of the more precise terms and concepts that existed within these specific societies.[16] A similar approach has been taken by many scholars studying pre-modern societies in Europe, such as Classical antiquity, who find the modern concept of 'magic' inappropriate and favour more specific terms originating within the framework of the ancient cultures which they are studying.[17] Alternately, this term implies that all categories of magic are ethnocentric and that such Western preconceptions are an unavoidable component of scholarly research.[18]

Within Western culture, the term "magic" has been linked to ideas of the Other,[8] foreignness,[19] and primitivism.[20] In Styers' words, it has become "a powerful marker of cultural difference".[21] It has also been repeatedly presented as the archetypally non-modern phenomenon.[22] Among Western intellectuals in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, magic was seen as a defining feature of "primitive" mentalities and was commonly attributed to marginal groups, locations, and periods.[21]

Other Languages
Afrikaans: Towerkuns
asturianu: Maxa
azərbaycanca: Magiya
Bahasa Banjar: Séhér
Bân-lâm-gú: Hoat-su̍t
беларуская: Магія
български: Магия
català: Màgia
čeština: Magie
Cymraeg: Dewiniaeth
dansk: Magi
Deutsch: Magie
eesti: Maagia
Ελληνικά: Μαγεία
español: Magia
Esperanto: Magio
euskara: Magia
فارسی: جادو
Frysk: Magy
Gaeilge: Asarlaíocht
galego: Maxia
한국어: 마법
हिन्दी: जादू
hrvatski: Magija
Bahasa Indonesia: Sihir
Ирон: Маги
íslenska: Galdur
italiano: Magia
עברית: כישוף
къарачай-малкъар: Магия
ქართული: მაგია
қазақша: Магия
Kreyòl ayisyen: Maji
Кыргызча: Магия
latviešu: Maģija
lietuvių: Magija
magyar: Mágia
македонски: Магија
မြန်မာဘာသာ: မှော်ပညာ
Nederlands: Magie
日本語: 魔術
norsk: Magi
norsk nynorsk: Magi
Nouormand: Magie
occitan: Magia
oʻzbekcha/ўзбекча: Magiya
polski: Magia
português: Magia
română: Magie
русский: Магия
саха тыла: Алып
shqip: Magjia
سنڌي: جادو
slovenčina: Mágia (okultizmus)
slovenščina: Čarovništvo
српски / srpski: Магија
srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски: Magija
svenska: Magi
தமிழ்: மந்திரம்
татарча/tatarça: Магия
Türkçe: Büyü
українська: Магія
اردو: جادو
Tiếng Việt: Phép thuật
ייִדיש: כישוף
粵語: 魔法
žemaitėška: Magėjė
中文: 魔法