If you were a witch, would you tell people? This is a question Dr. Michael D. Bailey — who’s been studying the history of magic for years — balked at, before asking a follow up question. “In what time period?” he asked. The era was crucial to his answer, he said, because the origins of magic are shrouded in secrecy, darkness, and the prompt killing of some people who claimed to practice witchcraft.
Bailey explains that in the 1500s, 1600s, and 1700s, there were major witch hunts throughout Europe and in colonial North America. But magic was controversial even before that time. “One of the very earliest documents about acting against suspected witchcraft suggests taking someone who’s been accused of being a witch and throwing them into a river. “If they don’t drown, they’re a witch, and if they do, the accusation is bad and, well…”
But in the Western world in 2019, you could argue that magic and witchcraft are trendy. Who can’t name at least one of Harry Potter’s spells? The New York Times just published an article titled “Interview With the Witch.” Today, you can be open about it, according to Bailey, a Ph.D., professor in the history department at the Iowa State University, and the associate editor of Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft.
“Now, there aren’t many reasons not to tell people if you practice magic or modern witchcraft or neopaganism, unless maybe you’re afraid people will look down on you,” Bailey says. “And Wicca has been accepted as an official religion, and they have all the legal protections that any other religion would.”
Over time, the acceptance of and belief in magic has changed drastically. In general, the origins of the so-called craft are a bit murky. There are a few reasons for this. For one, Bailey notes that some of the original texts about it were burned or destroyed to prevent knowledge from getting out. Also, as magic historians Peter Lamont and Jim Steinmeyer point out in their book The Secret History of Magic, there are quite a few myths. For example, for almost a century, historians claimed the first recorded magic trick involved a man named Djedi who decapitated and then resurrected a goose in ancient Egypt for the Pharaoh. Turns out, It was just a made-up story, Lamont and Steinmeyer write.
To know the history, you also have to determine what’s magic, and what’s just good old fashioned deception. As Teller — of the Las Vegas stage magic duo Penn and Teller — has put it: Much of magic is “telling a beautiful lie.”
In keeping with the clandestine nature of magic, Teller said this in one of a few private lectures that weren’t allowed to be recorded in any form — but the quote was captured by journalist and writer Chris Jones, who profiled Teller for Esquire.
Jones tells Refinery29 that another reason it’s so hard to put your finger on the origins of magic is this: “There are so many different strains and perceptions of magic,” he says. “There’s witchcraft, ouija boards, and cheesy children’s birthday party magic, like pulling a rabbit out of a hat,” he says. “One of the cool things about magic is that it can be whatever you want it to be.”
Magic itself is one of those words that’s thrown around more frequently than many deem necessary. Just like the world “literally.” There’s Disney’s Magic Kingdom, magic mushrooms, and The Magic School Bus. How does Santa squeeze himself down your narrow chimney every year? Duh, it’s magic. It’s a complicated notion with an even more complicated (and sometimes deadly) past.
Perhaps the most widely debated and pivotal question about magic is this: Does it actually exist? Well, that depends who you ask. Bailey says that magic itself isn’t real in the sense that people can truly turn pumpkins into carriages. But he believes it’s had very real repercussions throughout history that have brought it to life.
Jones says that, like Halloween, magic lets you participate in behavior that’s a little outside the norms of society. It lets you believe in things that seem impossible. “There’s this idea that you know it’s not real, intellectually,” Jones says. “But you want it to be real… The best magic makes you want your heart to beat your head — it makes you hope that the heart wins. As a modern, semi-intelligent person, I understand all this stuff — ghosts and tricks — is probably not real. But there’s a part of me that wants to believe that it is.”
Catherine Tosenberger, Ph.D., is an associate professor of English literature and cultural studies at the University of Winnipeg who specializes in folklore. She believes in and practices traditional folk magic, but doesn’t like to share too many details about it. “Believe it or not, I’m a somewhat superstitious,” she jokes.
Tosenberger says that magic will always exist as long as there are people who want something that seems out of reach by reasonable means. “The way I understand magic, it’s a mode of creating change,” she says. It’s traditionally been used throughout history by people who’ve been oppressed or downtrodden by society, she says. For example, women in the 1600s who had few rights. “It’s practiced traditionally by people who don’t have access to other forms of power,” she says. “It’s been a way to protect yourself in a world where all the official institutions are set up to persecute you.”
Tosenberger believes magic has been around and will be around “as long as there’s uncertainty in your life, as long as there’s a limit to what you can do to directly improve your situation, and as long as people want to protect the ones they love,” she says. “It’s a way of asserting control in an uncertain, chaotic world. There has been and will be a need as long as there are humans.”
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