Marcel Mauss a general Theory of Magic

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We suggest, provisionally, that magic has been sufficiently distinguished in various societies from other systems of social facts. This being the case we have reason to believe that magic not only forms a distinct class of phenomena but that it is also susceptible to clear definition. We shall have to provide this definition for ourselves, since we cannot be content to accept facts as 'magical' simply because they have been so called by the actors themselves or observers. The points of view of such people are subjective, hence not necessarily scientific. A religion designates the remnants of former cults as 'magical' even when the rites are still being performed in a religious manner; this way of looking at things has even been followed by scholars-a folklorist as distinguished as Skeat considers the old agrarian rites of the Malays as magical. As far as we are concerned, magic should be used to refer to those things which society as a whole considers magical and not those qualified as such by a single segment of society only. However we are also aware that some societies are not very coherent in their notions of magic and, even if they are, this has only come about gradually. Consequently, we are not very optimistic about suddenly discovering an ideal definition of our subject; this must await the conclusion of our analysis of the relations between magic and religion.

In magic we have officers, actions and representations: we call a person who accomplishes magical actions a magician, even if he is not a professional; magical representations are those ideas and beliefs which correspond to magical actions; as for these actions, with regard to which we have defined the other elements of magic, we shall call them magical rites. At this stage it is important to distinguish between these activities and other social practices with which they might be confused.

In the first place, magic and magical rites, as a whole, are traditional facts. Actions which are never repeated cannot be called magical. If the whole community does not believe in the efficacy of a group of actions, they cannot be magical. The form of the ritual is eminently transmissible and this is sanctioned by public opinion. It follows from this that strictly individual actions, such as the private superstitions of gamblers, cannot be called magical.

The kind of traditional practices which might be confused with magical activities include legal actions, techniques and religious ritual. Magic has been linked with a system of jural obligations, since in many places there are words and gestures which are binding sanctions. It is true that legal actions may often acquire a ritual character and that contracts, oaths and trials by ordeal are to a certain extent sacramental. Nevertheless, the fact remains that although they contain ritual elements they are not magical rites in themselves. If they assume a special kind of efficacy or if they do more than merely establish contractual relations between persons, they cease to be legal actions and do become magical or religious rites. Ritual acts, on the contrary, are essentially thought to be able to produce much more than a contract: rites are eminently effective; they are creative; they do things. It is through these qualities that magical ritual is recognizable as such. In some cases even, ritual derives its name from a reference to these effective characteristics: in India the word which best corresponds to our word ritual is karman, action; sympathetic magic is the factum, krtyâ, par excellence. The German word Zauber has the same etymological meaning; in other languages the words for magic contain the root to do.

However, human skill can also be creative and the actions of craftsmen are known to be effective. From this point of view the greater part of the human race has always had difficulty in distinguishing techniques from rites. Moreover, there is probably not a single activity which artists and craftsmen perform which is not also believed to be within the capacity of the magician. It is because their ends are similar that they are found in natural association and constantly join forces. Nevertheless, the extent of their co-operation varies. Magic, in general, aids and abets techniques such as fishing, hunting and farming. Other arts are, in a manner of speaking, entirely swamped by magic. Medicine and alchemy are examples: for a long period technical elements were reduced to a minimum and magic became the dominant partner; they depended on magic to such an extent that they seemed to have grown from it. Medicine, almost to our own days, has remained hedged in by religious and magical taboos, prayers, incantations and astrological predictions. Furthermore, a doctor's drugs and potions and a surgeon's incisions are a real tissue of symbolic, sympathetic, homeopathic and anti-pathetic actions which are really thought of as magical. The effectiveness of the rites are not distinguished from that of the techniques; they are considered to be one and the same.

It is all the more confusing when the traditional character of magic is found to be bound up with the arts and crafts. The successive gestures of an artisan may be as uniformly regulated as those of a magician. Nevertheless, the arts and crafts have been universally distinguished from magic; there has always been an intangible difference in method between the two activities. As far as techniques are concerned, the effects are considered to be produced through a person's skill. Everyone knows that the results are achieved directly through the co-ordination of action, tool and physical agent. Effect follows on immediately from cause. The results are homogeneous with the means: the javelin flies through the air because it is thrown and food is cooked by means of fire. Moreover, traditional techniques are controllable by experience which is constantly putting the value of technical beliefs to the test. The whole existence of these skills depends on a continued perception of this homogeneity between cause and effect. If an activity is both magical and technical at the same time, the magical aspect is the one which fails to live up to this definition. Thus, in medical practices, words, incantations, ritual and astrological observances are magical; this is the realm of the occult and of the spirits, a world of ideas which imbues ritual movements and gestures with a special kind of effectiveness, quite different from their mechanical effectiveness. It is not really believed that the gestures themselves bring about the result. The effect derives from something else, and usually this is not of the same order. Let us take, for example, the case of a man who stirs the water of a spring in order to bring rain. This is the peculiar nature of rites which we might call traditional actions whose effectiveness is sui generis.

So far we have managed to define only ritual, not magical ritual, and we must now attempt to distinguish it from religious rites. Frazer, as we have seen, proposed his own criteria. The first is that magical rites are sympathetic rites. But this is not sufficient. There are not only magical rites which are not sympathetic, but neither is sympathy a prerogative of magic, since there are sympathetic practices in religion. During the festival of Succoth, when the great priest in the temple of Jerusalem poured water onto the altar, hands held high above his head, he was obviously performing a sympathetic rite destined to bring about rain. When, during a holy sacrifice, a Hindu officiant prolongs or shortens at will the life of the sacrificial victim, following the peregrination which accompanies the libation, the ritual is still eminently sympathetic. In both cases the symbolism is perfectly clear; the ritual appears to act by itself. However, in each of these rituals the dominant character is religious. The officiants, the atmosphere of the place, the presence of divinities, the gravity of the actions, the aims of the people attending the rite-all leave no doubt in our minds on this score. Sympathetic rites may therefore, be either magical or religious.

The second criterion proposed by Frazer is that a magical rite normally acts on its own, that is, constrains, while a religious rite worships and conciliates. The former has an automatic, immediate reaction; the latter acts indirectly through a kind of respectful persuasion-here the agent is a spiritual intermediary. However, this is far from satisfactory as an explanation. Religious rites may also constrain and, in most of the ancient religions, the god was unable to prevent a rite from accomplishing its end if it had been faultlessly executed. Nor is it true-as we shall see later-that all magical rites have a direct action, since spirits and even gods may be involved in magic. Finally, spirits, gods and devils do not always automatically obey the orders of a magician; the latter is often forced to supplicate to them.

We shall, therefore, have to find other criteria. To find them we shall look at the various aspects one after the other.

Among rites, there are some which are certainly religious in nature; these include ritual which is solemn, public, obligatory, regular-for example, festivals and sacraments. And yet there are rites of this kind which Frazer refused to accept as religious. As far as he was concerned, all the ceremonies of the Australian Aborigines, and most of their initiation rites, are magical because of the sympathetic ritual involved. In fact, the ritual of the Arunta clans, known as the intichiuma-the tribal initiatory rites-have precisely that degree of importance, seriousness and holiness which the idea of religion evokes. The totemic species and ancestors present during the course of the ritual are, in fact, of the same order as those respected and feared forces, the presence of which Frazer himself takes as indicative of the religious nature of a rite. These are the very forces invoked during the ceremonies.

On the other hand, rites do exist which are consistently magical. These are the evil spells or maléfices, and we find them regularly qualified as such by both law and religion. The casting of evil spells is illicit and expressly prohibited and punished. This prohibition marks the formal distinction between magical and religious rites. It is the fact of prohibition itself which gives the spell its magical character. There are religious rites which are equally maleficent, such as certain cases of devotio, the imprecations made against a communal enemy, against persons violating tombs or breaking oaths, and all those death rites sanctioned by ritual taboos. We might go so far as to say that there are evil spells which are evil only in so far as people fear them. The fact of their being prohibited provides a delimitation for the whole sphere of magical action.

We have, in other words, two extremes which form the differing poles of magic religion: the pole of sacrifice and the pole of evil spells. Religion has always created a kind of ideal towards which people direct their hymns, vows, sacrifices, an ideal which is bolstered by prescriptions. These are areas which are avoided by magic, since association with evil as an aspect of magical rites always provides humanity with a rough general notion of magic. Between these two poles we have a confused mass of activities whose specific nature is not immediately apparent. These are practices which are neither prescribed nor proscribed in any special way. We have religious practices which are private and voluntary, as well as magical practices which are licit. On the one hand, we have the occasional actions of private cults; on the other, there are magical practices associated with technical skills, such as those of the medical profession. A European peasant who exorcizes the mice from his field, an Indian who prepares his war medicine, or a Finn who incants over his hunting weapons-they all aim at ends which are perfectly above board and perform actions which are licit. There is the same connexion between magical and domestic cults in Melanesia, where magic acts in a series of rites involving their ancestors. Far from denying the possibility of confusing magic and religion we should like to stress the fact, reserving our explanation for the situation until later. For the moment we are happy enough to accept Grimm's definition that magic is a 'kind of religion, used in the lower spheres of domestic life'. However, while the continuity between magic and religion is of great interest, we must, for the moment, begin to classify our data. In order to do this we shall enumerate a certain number of external characteristics by which they can be recognized. This interrelationship between magic and religion has not prevented people from noting the difference between the two types of rite and hence from practising them in such a way as to show that they are aware of the difference. We must, therefore, look for these signs, which will enable us to make some kind of classification.

First of all, magical and religious rites often have different agents; in other words, they are not performed by one and the same person. By way of exception, a priest performing a magical rite does not adopt the normal comportment of his profession: he turns his back to the altar, he performs with his left hand what he usually does with his right, and so on and so forth.

There are also many other signs which should be grouped together. First there is the choice of place where the magical ceremony is to be performed. This is not generally inside a temple or at some domestic shrine. Magical rites are commonly performed in woods, far away from dwelling places, at night or in shadowy corners, in the secret recesses of a house or at any rate in some out-of-the-way place. Where religious rites are performed openly, in full public view, magical rites are carried out in secret. Even when magic is licit, it is done in secret, as if performing some maleficent deed. And even if the magician has to work in public he makes an attempt to dissemble: his gestures become furtive and his words indistinct. The medicine man and the bone-setter, working before the assembled gathering of a family, mutter their spells, cover up their actions and hide behind simulated or real ecstasies. Thus, as far as society is concerned, the magician is a being set apart and he prefers even more to retire to the depths of the forest. Among colleagues too he nearly always tries to keep himself to himself. In this way he is reserving his powers. Isolation and secrecy are two almost perfect signs of the intimate character of a magical rite. They are always features of a person or persons working in a private capacity; both the act and the actor are shrouded in mystery.

In fact, however, the various characteristics we have so far revealed only reflect the irreligiosity of magical rites. They are anti-religious and it is desired that they be so. In any case, they do not belong to those organized systems which we call cults. Religious practices, on the contrary, even fortuitous and voluntary ones, are always predictable, prescribed and official. They do form part of a cult. Gifts presented to gods on the occasion of a vow, or an expiatory sacrifice offered during illness, are regular kinds of homage. Although performed in each case voluntarily, they are really obligatory and inevitable actions. Magical rites, on the other hand, while they may occur regularly (as in the case of agricultural magic) and fulfil a need when they are performed for specific ends (such as a cure), are always considered unauthorized, abnormal and, at the very least, not highly estimable. Medical rites, however useful and licit they may be made to appear; do not involve the same degree of solemnity, nor the same idea of an accomplished duty, as do expiatory sacrifices or vows made to a curative divinity. When somebody has recourse to a medicine man, the owner of a spirit-fetish, a bone-mender or a magician, there is certainly a need, but no moral obligation is involved.

Nevertheless, there are examples of cults which are magical. There was the Hecate cult of Ancient Greece, the cult of Diana and the devil in the magic of the Middle Ages and the whole cult devoted to one of the greatest Hindu divinities, Rudra-Shiva. These, however, are examples of secondary developments and quite simply prove that magicians have themselves set up a cult which was modelled along the lines of religious cults.

We have thus arrived at a provisionally adequate definition of magical phenomena. A magical rite is any rite which does not play a part in organized cults-it is private, secret, mysterious and approaches the limit of a prohibited rite. With this definition, and taking into consideration the other elements of magic which we have mentioned, we have the first hint of its special qualities. It will be noticed that we do not define magic in terms of the structure of its rites, but by the circumstances in which these rites occur, which in turn determine the place they occupy in the totality of social customs.





We have used the term 'magician' to apply to any practitioner of magic, whether or not he considers himself a professional. In effect, we maintain that there are magical rites which can be performed by others besides specialists. Included amongst these are 'old wives' remedies, magical medicine and all those country rites which are performed so frequently throughout the agricultural cycle; hunting and fishing rites also seem generally available to all. However, we should like to stress the fact that these rites are much less common than might appear. Moreover, they are always of a rudimentary nature and while they fulfil common needs their extent is limited. On the whole, this kind of folk magic is performed only by patres-familias or mistresses of households. And, what is more, many of these last prefer to leave the business to those more skilled or versed in the subject. The majority are wary of employing magic, whether through scruple or lack of self-confidence; there are also those who might refuse to pass on a useful remedy.

Furthermore, it would be a mistake to imagine that the amateur magician feels in his normal state when about to perform a ritual. Very often it is just because he has left his 'normal' state that he feels able to produce results. He has observed sexual abstinence; he has fasted, meditated; he has carried out certain preliminary actions; not to mention the fact that the ritual itself, at some point in time at least, turns him into another man. In addition, anyone who uses a magical formula, however trite, believes he has a proprietary right to it. The peasant who speaks of 'My grandmother's cure-all', is consequently qualified to avail himself of it; here the use of the remedy is confined to the 'métier'.

Following this train of thought, we should mention the case where all members of a society are endowed, by common belief, with qualities from birth which on occasion may become magical. This applies to the families of magicians in modern India (Ojhas in the north-western states, Baigas in Mirzapur). Members of secret societies may also acquire special magical powers through the fact of their initiation and where initiation plays an important role this may apply to the society as a whole. In short, we see that even amateur magicians, as far as their ritual practices are concerned, are not laymen pure and simple.

It is true that, though there are rites which are available to all and sundry and require little specialized skill, it is very often the case that these rites have become common knowledge through constant repetition, have become simplified through use or are commonplace by their very nature. But in all cases, there must at least be the knowledge of a remedy, the traditional approach, in order to give those who pursue the rites the minimal qualifications. Having made this observation we can now state that, as a general rule, magical practices are the prerogative of specialists. Magicians do exist, and their presence is indicated everywhere where sufficiently intensive studies have been carried out.

Not only do magicians exist, but in many societies-at least in theory-the performance of magical rites is their prerogative. This fact has been attested in the Vedic texts, where the ritual may be performed only by the Brahman. The person involved does not act independently, but he attends the ceremony, follows instructions passively, repeats the formulas he is told to repeat, placing his hand on the officiant during particularly solemn moments, but nothing more. In brief, he is relegated to the same role as the person who provides the sacrificial beast when the priest is performing the rite. Moreover, it appears that, as far as ancient India is concerned, the exclusive ownership of magic by magicians was not merely a theoretical rule. We have reason to believe that it was a genuine privilege possessed by the Brahmans and recognized by the ksatriya caste of nobles and kings. Certain scenes in Indian classical theatre provide proof of this. It is true that on all levels of society popular magic flourished, less exclusive perhaps, but even this had its practitioners. The same idea was common in Christian Europe. Whoever performed magic was reputed to be a magician and could be punished as such. The crime of magic was a common one. For the Church as for the law there could be no magic without a magician.

I The qualities of a magician Nobody can become a magician at will; there are qualities which distinguish a magician from the layman. Some are acquired, some inherited; to some the qualities are lent while others actually possess them.

It is claimed that a magician can be recognized by certain physical peculiarities, with which he is branded and by which his calling may be discovered should he attempt to conceal it. It is thought, for example, that the pupils of a magician's eyes have swallowed up the iris, or that his visual images are produced back to front. He is said to lack a shadow. In the Middle Ages people looked for the devil's mark on the witch's body. Doubtless many witches were hysterical cases capable of producing stigmata and anæsthesic zones. As for the beliefs regarding the particular appearance of magicians, they mainly depend on actual observation. All over the world there are people who have a peculiarly cunning look, who appear odd or untrustworthy, who blink at one strangely. It is summed up in the idea of the 'evil eye' and applies to persons who are feared and suspected. They are all lumped together as magicians, along with nervous and jumpy individuals or subnormal peoples in those backward areas where magic still has a hold. Violent gestures, a shrill voice, oratorical or poetic gifts are often taken to be attributes of magicians. They are all signs betraying a kind of nervous condition, which in many societies may be cultivated by magicians and are manifested with greater force during ceremonies. Often they may be accompanied by nervous trances, hysterical crises, even cataleptic fits. The magician falls into a state of ecstasy, often naturally induced but more usually feigned. Then he often believes, and it seems to the onlookers, that he has been transported out of this world. From the first twitchings until his return to the world of the living, he is watched with worried attention by the spectators, who today behave similarly during hypnotic seances. These experiences deeply impress the magician, since he is prone to believe that his abnormal states are the manifestation of an unknown power which in turn makes his magic effective. These kinds of nervous phenomena, indications of spiritual gifts, qualify certain individuals to become magicians.

There are other individuals destined to become magicians who are brought to public notice by fear or suspicion, or through their physical peculiarities or extraordinary gifts-jugglers, ventriloquists and tumblers are examples. Any infirmity suffices, such as a limp, a hump or blindness. Over-sensitivity to the reactions of normal people, a persecution complex or delusions of grandeur may predispose them to believing themselves capable of special powers.

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