Marcel Mauss a general Theory of Magic



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We should point out here that all these individuals-the disabled and the ecstatic, the pedlars, hawkers, jugglers and neurotics-actually form kinds of social classes. They possess magical powers not through their individual peculiarities but as a consequence of society's attitude towards them and their kind.

The same may be said of women. They are everywhere recognized as being more prone to magic than men, not so much because of their physical characteristics, but because of the social attitudes these characteristics provoke. The critical periods of their life cycle lead to bemusement and apprehension, which place them in a special position. And it is precisely at periods such as puberty, menstruation, pregnancy and childbirth that a woman's attributes reach their greatest intensity. It is usually at such times that women are supposed to provide subjects or act as agents for magical action. Old women are witches; virgins are valuable auxiliaries; menstrual blood and other like products are common specifics. Moreover, it is true that women are particularly disposed to hysteria, and their nervous crises make them susceptible to superhuman forces, which endow them with special powers. However, even outside these critical periods, which occupy a not insignificant part of their life, women are the butt of superstitions and jural and religious taboos, which clearly mark them off as a separate class in society. They are made out to be more different than men than they are in fact. They are said to be the font of mysterious activities, the sources of magical power. On the other hand, since women are excluded from most religious cults-or if admitted, reduced to a passive role-the only practices left to them on their own initiative are magical ones. The magical attributes of women derive primarily from their social position and consequently are more talked about than real. In fact, there are fewer female practitioners of magic than public opinion would have us believe. The curious result is that on the whole, it is the men who perform the magic while women are accused of it. In the Atharva Veda sorceresses are exorcized and all the magic is made by men. In most societies we call primitive, old women as well as younger ones are accused of crimes of witchcraft which they have never committed. In the Middle Ages, particularly from the fourth century onwards, the majority of witches were women. But here we should not forget that we are dealing with a period of persecution and our information is only derived from accounts of trials. The excessive number of witches accused then simply revealed the existence of social prejudices which the Inquisition exploited and encouraged.

Children may be in great demand as assistants to the magician, particularly in divinatory rites. Sometimes they even perform their own magical rites, as among the Australian Dieri. In modern India children draw signs in the footprints of elephants, singing the appropriate incantations. As we all know, children have a very special status; because of their age and because they have not passed through definitive initiatory rites they are still thought to possess uncertain, troublesome natures. Once again it is from being members of a particular stratum of society that they derive their magical virtues.

Magic is also part and parcel of some professions. Doctors, barbers, blacksmiths, shepherds, actors and gravediggers have magical powers, which clearly are not attributes of individuals but of corporate groups. Virtually all doctors, all shepherds and all blacksmiths are magicians: doctors because their skills go hand in hand with magic, and in any case their use of such complex techniques makes it inevitable that their profession should be considered marvellous and supernatural; barbers, because they are so intimately involved with bodily waste, which is commonly hidden away or destroyed through fear of sorcery; blacksmiths, because they work with a substance which universally provokes superstition and because their difficult profession, shrouded in mystery, is not without prestige; shepherds, because of their communion with animals, plants and stars; gravediggers, because of their contact with death. It is their profession which places these people apart from the common run of mortals, and it is this separateness which endows them with magical power. There is, of course, one profession which separates a man from his fellows more than any other-particularly as it is usually performed by a single individual on behalf of the whole society, even a large-scale society-this is the role of executioner. And we find that executioners are individuals who have access to spells and charms used for capturing thieves, trapping vampires, etc. They are magicians.

The exceptional status of those with positions of authority in society also makes a magician. Among the Australian Arunta, the chief of the local totemic group, its master of ceremonies, is at the same time a sorcerer. In New Guinea most influential members of society are magicians; there are grounds for believing that throughout Melanesia, the chief-an individual who possesses mana, that is, spiritual force-is endowed with magical as well as religious powers. It is no doubt for the same reasons that the mythical princes in the epic poetry of the Hindus and Celts were said to possess magical attributes. These facts are sufficiently important for Frazer to have introduced the study of magic into his work on divine priest-kings although, as far as we are concerned, kings are more godly and priestly than they are magical. On the other hand magicians may possess political authority of the first order. They can be highly influential, often important personages. Thus the social status predestines certain individuals to the exercise of magical power and vice versa the practice of magic ordains their social status.

In societies where sacred functions are completely specialized, priests are often suspected of magic. In the Middle Ages priests were considered to be liable to attack from demons and as a result were tempted to indulge in demoniacal-that is, magical-activities themselves. In such cases, it was their role as priest which led to their being considered magicians. Their celibacy, their life of isolation and as consecrated officers of the

church in constant touch with the supernatural, all help to set them apart from others and expose them to suspicion. Such suspicions appear to have often been justified. The priest either devotes himself to magic for his own sake, or his participation is considered essential for the carrying out of magical ceremonies and he is forced to play his part in them, often indeed without knowing it. Wicked priests, particularly those who have broken their vows of chastity, are naturally more exposed to accusations of magic.

Once a church loses its following the members of the new religion consider the former priests to be magicians. The Malays or the Moslem Shams treat the pawang and the paja as magicians; in fact, they were former priests. Heresy also leads to acts of magic: the Catharists and the Vaudois were considered to be sorcerers. However, as in Catholicism the idea of magic covers the notion of a false religion and since this is a different phenomenon, we shall keep it for later study. The situation is, nevertheless, of interest here, since magic is once again seen to be attributed to a whole group. Up till now, we have found that magicians have been recruited from classes which have only a secondary interest in magic. Here on the contrary members of a religious sect are considered to be magicians. All Jews were magicians in the eyes of the Alexandrians, for example, as well as for the mediaeval church.

In the same way, strangers in a community are grouped as sorcerers. In some Australian tribes all natural deaths which occurred within the group were accredited to the witchcraft of a neighbouring group and resulted in vendettas and feuding. The two villages of Toaripi and Koitapu at Port Moresby in New Guinea spent their time (according to Chalmers) accusing each other of witchcraft. This situation is well-nigh universal amongst primitive peoples. Indeed one of the names given to the sorcerers in Vedic India was that of 'stranger'. A stranger is preeminently someone living on foreign territory-the hostile neighbour. One might say, accepting this viewpoint, that magical powers are delimited topographically. We have an example of just such a precise delimitation of magic in an Assyrian exorcization rite: 'Witch, you are bewitched, I am free; Elamite witch, I am free; Qutean witch, I am free; Sutean witch, I am free; Lullubian witch, I am free; Shannigalbian witch, I am free.' (K. N. Tallqvist, Die Assyrische Beschwörungsserie Maglü, iv, pp. 99-103.) When two cultures come into contact, magic is usually attributed to the lesser developed. Classic examples are the Dasyus of India, and the Finns and the Lapps, accused respectively of sorcery by the Hindus and the Scandinavians. All forest dwellers in Melanesia and Africa are sorcerers in the eyes of the more advanced tribes of the plains, the coast and rivers. Nomadic tribes living amongst a sedentary people are also thought to be sorcerers. This is the case even today with gypsies and the numerous wandering Indian caste groups-traders, leatherworkers and blacksmiths. And within these extraneous groups, certain clans or families are more gifted in the art of magic than others.

It would seem that these accusations of magic are not always unjustified. Some groups, in fact, claim to possess superhuman powers over certain phenomena, in some cases religious, in others magical. As far as the Greeks, Arabs and Jesuits were concerned the Brahmans were real magicians and were actually attributed with quasi-divine powers. There are groups who claim to be able to produce or withhold the wind or rain and who are recognized by their neighbours as possessing these gifts. In an Australian tribe in Mount Gambier there is a clan which 'owns the wind'. They are accused by their neighbours, the Booandik, of producing rain and wind at will. Even the Lapps sold sacks full of wind to European sailors.

We conclude then that, since certain persons dedicate themselves to magic as a result of the social attitudes attached to their status, magicians (who do not belong to a special class), must equally be the object of strong social feelings and that these feelings, which are directed towards magicians who are nothing but magicians, are of the same nature as those existing where it has been thought that among all the classes previously considered, there were magical powers. And, since these feelings are provoked principally by their abnormal character, we can conclude that a magician has, in so far as he has one, a social status which may be defined as abnormal. However, we do not wish to stress the negative side of the magician's role and would rather turn to a study of his positive qualities and his particular gifts.

We have already pointed to certain positive characteristics which incline a person to the role of magician: a nervous disposition, skill, etc. Magicians are usually thought to have wonderful dexterity and an outstanding knowledge. A simplistic theory of magic might speculate on their intelligence and the marvels they perform, and explain their profession as a complete tissue of inventions and hoaxes. Yet these concrete characteristics which continue to be attributed hypothetically to the magician form only one part of his traditional image; many other features have also served to bolster his prestige.

Included among these are those mythical and fantastical elements which feature in myths, or rather in a society's oral traditions which are generally recounted in the form of legends, fairy tales or romances. These traditions hold a considerable place in the folk cultures of the world and form an important part of the study of folklore. As the famous Somadeva collection of Hindu tales says: 'The gods live in a constant state of happiness, and men in perpetual distress; the actions of those who mediate between men and gods, through the diversity of their lot, are always acceptable and entertaining. For this reason I shall tell you the story of the life of the Vidyâdhâras', that is, the demons and consequently the magicians (Kathâ-Sâra-Sârit-Sagara, I, i, 47). These legends and tales are not simply exercises of the imagination or a traditional expression of collective fantasies, but their constant repetition, during the course of long evening sessions, bring about a note of expectation, of fear, which at the slightest encouragement may induce illusions and provoke the liveliest reactions. Moreover, in these cases there is no possible boundary between fable and belief, between legend on the one hand and real history and myths automatically believed on the other. People listen to a magician talking and watch him at work and they also consult him. They attribute to him such great powers that no one can doubt his ability easily to succeed in executing those little services which are required of him. How is it possible not to believe that a Brahman-a being superior to the gods themselves, a being who can create a whole universe-could not, at least from time to time, cure a cow? The image of the magician grows from story to story, and from teller to teller, precisely because he is a favourite hero of folk imagination; either because the people have their own personal problems or because of the picturesque interest which magic automatically excites. The powers of a priest are determined once and for all by the religious dogma, but the image of the magicians is created outside magic. It is created by an infinity of 'once upon a times', and all the magician has to do is to live up to this portrait. We should not be surprised, therefore, if the literary traits of the heroes of our magical stories are also typical characteristics of the real magician.

The mythical qualities of which we have been speaking are powers or produce power. What appeals most to the imagination is the ease with which the magician achieves his ends. He has the gift of conjuring up more things than any ordinary mortals can dream of. His words, his gestures, his glances, even his thoughts are forces in themselves. His own person emanates influences before which nature and men, spirits and gods must give way.

Apart from a general power over objects, the magician has power over his own being and this is the prime source of his strength. Through force of will he accomplishes things beyond the power of normal human beings. The laws of gravity do not apply to the magician. He is an expert at levitation and can betake himself anywhere he wishes in a trice. He is to be found in many places at once. Even the laws of contradiction do not apply to him. In 1221 Johannes Teutonicus of Halberstadt, a preacher and sorcerer, is said to have performed three masses, concurrently, at Halberstadt, Mainz and Cologne. Tales of this kind are plentiful. In the minds of believers in magic the exact nature of the magician's locomotion remains essentially uncertain. Is it the individual himself, his own person, which moves? Or is it his double or his soul which goes in his place? Only theologians and philosophers have attempted to solve this paradox. The ordinary man does not care a fig. Magicians have taken advantage of this uncertainty, encouraging it as another aspect of the mystery which surrounds their activities. We ourselves have no intention of trying to solve these contradictions; they arise from a basic vagueness of primitive thinking concerning the idea of the soul and the idea of the body. This vagueness is a more important factor than is normally believed.

Of these two concepts only that of the soul lends itself to sufficient elaboration, thanks to the mystery and wonder it conjures up in our minds even to this day. A magician's soul is an astonishing thing. It has even more fantastic, more occult qualities, much darker depths, than the run of human souls. A magician's soul is essentially mobile, easily separated from his body. When primitive forms of animist belief fade away and people cease to believe a mortal's soul wanders around while he dreams, or can be changed into a fly or a butterfly, it still happens that the old beliefs are applied to the magician. They may even provide a means of recognizing him, for example when one is found asleep with a fly circling around his mouth. At all events, unlike ordinary souls whose movements are involuntary, a magician may send out his soul at will. Among the Australian Kurnai, during a spirit seance, the 'barn' sends out his soul to spy on advancing enemies. In India we also have the case of the Yogins, although their mystical theology is really more philosophical than religious, and more religious than magical. In applying themselves to a task (verb yuj), they are joining (verb yuj) with the primary transcendental principle of the world, a union which produces (verb sidh) magical power (siddhi). The sutras of Pâtanjali are explicit on this point and even attribute the capacity to other magicians beside the Yogins. The commentaries of the Sutra, iv, I, reveal that the siddhi principle involves levitation. In general, any individual who has the power to send forth his soul is a magician. We have come across no exceptions to this rule. It is the basic principle behind the whole institution designated by the poorly chosen name of shamanism.

A soul is a person's double, that is, it is not an anonymous part of his person, but the person himself. It is transported at will to any place and its activities there are physical ones. In some cases even, the magician is said to split himself in two. Thus the Dayak sorcerer departs to seek his medicines while he is attending a spiritualistic seance. The people see the magician's body yet he is both spiritually and corporeally absent since his double is not merely pure spirit. The two parts of the double are identical to the point that they are strictly interchangeable, one for the other. In fact it would not be far fetched to imagine the magician splitting himself in two in this way, leaving his double on the spot and taking his real self off somewhere else. This is how the flights of mediæval magicians were explained. It was said that the magician attended the sabbaths, leaving a demon in his bed, a vicarium daemonem. This demon counterpart was in fact his double. This example shows that the same idea of splitting oneself in two may have quite opposite results. Moreover, this basic power of the magician may be conceived in a thousand different ways involving an infinity of degrees.

A magician's double may be a fleeting materialization of his breath and his spell-a whirlwind or a dustcloud, out of which on occasion, appears the corporeal figure of his soul or even himself. On other occasions the double may be quite separate from the magician, a person to some degree independent of his control, who from time to time appears to carry out his will. The magician may be escorted by a retinue of assistants, animals or spirits, who are none other than his doubles or external souls.

Midway between these two extremes we have shape-changing. This is, in fact, a kind of splitting in two which involves animal disguises, and while the metamorphosis seems to involve two formal beings, they are, in essence, still one. Perhaps the most common examples of this kind of shape-changing occur when one of the forms seems to cancel out the other. It was through shape-changing that European witches were supposed to have indulged in aerial flights. These two themes became so intimately connected that they merged into one and the same idea. In the Middle Ages, we had the striga, an idea stemming originally from Greco-Roman antiquity; the striga, the old strix, is both a witch and a bird. The female witch can be seen outside her dwelling in the form of a black cat, a hare, or she-wolf, while a warlock is a goat, etc. When they are bent on doing evil, they do as animals, and if discovered they are said to be found in their animal shape. Nevertheless, even then a relative independence is always maintained between the two images. On the one hand, a sorcerer keeps his human shape during night flights, simply by climbing onto the back of his erstwhile animal form. On the other hand, it can happen that continuity is broken, the sorcerer and his animal double sometimes being found engaged in different activities at the same time. In this case, the animal is no longer a witch's counterpart; it is her familiar and the witch remains quite separate. This was the case with the cat Rutterkin which belonged to the witches Margaret and Filippa Flower, who were burnt at Lincoln on 11 March 1619 for bewitching a kinsman of the Duke of Rutland. At all events, in all cases of complete metamorphosis, the ubiquity of the magician is an undoubted fact. We can never know when coming across a witch's animal shape whether we are dealing with the witch herself or a mere deputy. There is no way out of this confusion inherent in primitive thinking, which we mentioned earlier.

The metamorphosis among European witches does not involve indiscriminate shape-changing. They usually stick to one animal-a mare, a frog, a cat, etc. These facts lead us to suppose that shape-changing involves a regular association with a single species of animal. One comes across these kinds of associations throughout the world. Algonquin, Iroquois and Cherokee medicine men-and probably all American Indian medicine men-possess manitous in order to speak Ojibway. In certain Melanesian islands magicians own snakes and sharks which act as their servants. In all these cases it is the rule that the magician's powers derive from his dealings with animals. He obtains power from his animal associates who impart to him magical formulas and ritual. On occasion the limits of his powers may even be determined by this alliance. Among the Red Indians the magician's animal auxiliary gives him control over all beasts of his species and over all things related to this species. It is in this sense that Jamblique spoke of and who had power over lions and snakes respectively and could heal wounds inflicted by them.

In the main, apart from a few very rare cases, it is not a particular animal, but a whole species of animal with whom the magician has a relationship. Here there is a resemblance with totemic relationships. Are they in fact totemic? Our conjectures for the European situation have been shown to be true for Australia and North America, where the animal involved is really a totem being. A. W. Howitt tells the story of a Murring sorcerer who was carried off to the land of the kangaroos. As a result, the kangaroo became his totem and he could no longer partake of this animal's flesh. It may be true that magicians are the first, and also the last, to enjoy revelations of this kind and as a result are provided with individual totems. It is even plausible that, during the decline of totemism, it was primarily magician families who inherited clan totems and continued the old traditions. This is true of the Melanesian family group-known as the Octopus-who had the power to ensure successful catches of this creature. If we were able to demonstrate with any certainty that all magical relations with animals had a totemic origin we might conclude that in relationships of this kind the magician is qualified in his art through totemic affinities. At this stage all we can do is to conclude that we are dealing, not with fantasy, but with a series of facts showing examples of actual social conventions, which help us to determine the magician's status. It would be a mistake to quarrel with this interpretation by pointing out that some societies lack totemism altogether-Brahman India might be a case in point. For one thing, we know Brahman magic only from literary texts of rituals, which are the works of experts in magic and are far from the primitive roots; for another, the theme of shape-changing is not entirely absent from India as a whole and there are tales and Jâtakas galore which abound with demons, saints and magicians who change their shape. Folklore and Hindu magical custom are living proof of this tradition.




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