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Magic: A Problem in Semantics

Author(s): Dorothy Hammond

Source: American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 72, No. 6 (Dec., 1970), pp. 1349-1356
Published by: Wiley on behalf of the American Anthropological Association
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Magic: A Problem in Semantics


Brooklyn College, C.U.N.Y

Anthropologists, from Tylor to the present, have so defined magic that, alt

shade into or overlap with religion, it is a separate phenomenon distinct

Theorists have made different features the chief means of differentiatio

how defined the distinction cannot be easily or consistently maintai

suggests that the concept of magic as a distinct entity is the factitious

centric classification, and that magic should be included within religion
the practices of which religious ritual is composed. [magic; religion; the
HE PUBLICATION OF a considerable

pears to be an inherent contradiction benumber of articles, compilations,

tween the
ideas of "secular" and "supernatu-

monographs during the last decade

Moreover, the ethnographic data comto movement of the anthropological
of that a sharp distinction bepel study
religion out of its long stay in thetween
magic and religion can hardly be sus-

Reawakened theoretical interest has been

tained. Spiro, in the course of making a

accompanied by renewal attacks onpoint
the about religion in his narrow sense of
the term, illustrates his argument with a
perdurable problem of definition. Current
definitions are not sufficiently incisive. To
de- belief (1966:110). This may be the
fine religion in Tillich's terms as "the ultimate
result of momentary carelessness, but Spiro's
concern" leads to the possible inclusion
of demonstrate the difficulty of mainslip does
anything from politics to sport and thus
can- consistency in the differentiation.

Evans-Pritchard, who also advocates a

not single out a specific cultural institution.
The even more prevalent definition by clear
referdistinction between magic and religion
attributes the confusion conence to a dichotomy between secular and
sacred, the idea of the "set apart," is a mere
cerning their relationship to semantic difficircularity, religion being the attribution
of (1965:110). By this he means the
religious significance. Recent attempts
at of translating the diverse terminolproblems
definition aim less at universal essences ogies
than,from various cultures into anthropomore modestly, at a clear designation of
the categories. But the semantic problem
topic. The need to provide a ready index
is in
reality twofold: it consists not only of
the difficulties of translation, but also the
identification has led a number of anthropologists to resume Tylor's position that more
reli- elementary issue of what anthropologion entails a belief in spiritual beings
gists mean by their own concepts.
(Goody 1961; Horton 1960; Spiro 1966).
As a general rule, twentieth-century anConsistency in the application of Tylor's
thropologists do not dichotomize magic and

definition commits these writers to another

religion. They tend rather to hyphenate

of his concepts, that magic is to be consid-them and refer explicitly or implicitly to

some sort of continuum. However, the conered as separate from religion. Spiro thus
includes magic with politics and art as func-ception of magic and religion as overlapping
tional alternatives to religion (1966:116).
or intergrading phenomena still conveys the
Horton describes magic as "secular" (1960:
idea that the terms denote at least partially
218). This logical consequence of the defini-distinct entities. Despite the overlap, they
tion is disconcerting, for it contains what apcontrast sufficiently to indicate that the
terms have the same hierarchical status in a

Accepted for publication 20 November 1969.

classification of belief systems.


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1350 American Anthropologist [72, 1970

The consensus on some distinction becentrism assigned magic to an earlier stage
tween magic and religion is limited to
in the
the evolution of belief systems. Because
accepted Tylor's definition of religion,
idea that there is a distinction. Beyond he
a review of the literature discloses irreconpersonification served to differentiate becilable disagreements among theorists, tween
the earlier and later stages. Unlike rewell as inconsistencies within discussions
ligion, magical belief lacks personification,

and its practices exploit supernatural mechaand discrepancies between conceptual

nisms (Frazer 1900:48-60). These two
schemes and ethnographic data. The source
characteristics-impersonal forces and maof the difficulty may well lie in the distinction itself. If the idea that magic and nipulative
relitechniques-remain as current
critical diagnostic features.
gion have equal categorical status is rejected
and Malinowski each added
and magic subordinated within the more Durkheim
to the definition of
clusive category, it follows that the distinc-

tion makes a part into an equivalent
and Durkheim based his distinction o
organization of personnel: religion in
separate whole. This mixing of levels
classification would account for the continuvolves the community and establishes a

ing confusion of which Evans-Pritchard sochurch, but magic concerns individuals and
justly complains. Anthropologists have been
forms only a clientele (1915:43-45). Malistruggling with the spurious, and therefore
nowski focused on the purposes of ritual. H
insoluble, problem of the extent and content
attributed intangible, long-term goals to reli
gious rituals in contrast to the employmen
of the contrast between religion and magic.

of magic to supplement inadequacies in

The real problem is what is the place of

magic in religion; how does the part fit into

technology for the achievement of concrete
immediate ends (1948:67-70).

the whole?

Like most ethnological terminology, reli- Because most supernatural belief systems
gion and magic are words in common usage.
contain both personified and nonpersonified
conceptions of supernatural power, the criteTheir employment to classify institutions of
other cultures has necessitated radical redefirion of personification only rarely permits
nition to free the terms from their cultural

definite assignment. Frazer was entirely

matrix and to eliminate inherent value judg- aware of this fact, which he accounted for

ments. To what extent all ethnocentrism has

as part of the evolutionary sequence. Such

been overcome is open to question. Ward H.beliefs represented transitions from magic to
Goodenough holds that anthropological us- religion or the conservative retention of
age still expresses ethnocentric rather thanolder elements into the later stage. But with-

objective judgment (1963:480). The fact

out the explanation provided by an evolu-

that current usage continues to reflect theotionary doctrine, the intermediate is merely
indeterminate, and much of the ethnories of nineteenth-century evolutionists supports his charge. The delineation of magic as
graphic data demonstrate the inadequacy of
a distinct anthropological category is morethe criterion.
the work of Frazer than of any other single The differentiation made by Durkheim received one of its most direct attacks from
theorist. By redefining religion as belief in
spiritual beings, Tylor had made it possibleWarner on the basis of his fieldwork in
to include a wide variety of belief systems in
Australia (1937:229-243). Among the
Murngin, the same totemic rituals are used
the same category as Christianity. Magic,
however, he discussed merely as a survival;for individual therapy as for communal welthus relegated, the term retained its pejora-fare; the community is directly or indirectly
tive connotation (Tylor 1889: Vol. 1, Ch. 4).participant in transactions between the maFrazer, however, related magic more closely
gician and client, and thus magic has a
to religion, although an underlying ethno-church no different from religion. Other de-

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HAMMOND] Magic: A Problem in Semantics 1351

on the conception
scriptive materials bear out Warner's
point of supernatural power.
that the line between public and Benedict
is religion as entailing two
polar attitudes, one of which might predomiextremely tenuous.
a given instance, but both might be
Malinowski's contrast between nate
thein practiexpressed
These attitudes
cal goals of magical ritual and the
soBenedict termed
cial values fostered by religious ritual
seems"animism," Tylor's concept, and
adapted from Marto hinge more on terminology than
had coined "animatism" to desigstance. The difference seems to be
a primitive diffuse supernaturalism
choice of concrete or abstractnate

from which
animism and mana had both
Trobriand garden magic for a plentiful
harevolved (1914:14).
In Benedict's usage, anivest contributes not only to subsistence
also to those values to Trobriand ethos exmism reflects "man's experience with persons" and animatism reflects their "experipressed in the production of excessive
amounts of food and its lavish display.ence
The with things" (1938:647). Practice folanalysis of what social values mean in lows
spe- concept: where the supernatural is perritual strives for rapport; where the
cific terms often reveals that the "goodsonified,
is impersonal, ritual strives for
of a people entails, or is symbolizedsupernatural

Mana and its analogues-wakan,
good crops or increase in cattle herds

manitu, and orenda--conceptualize the imsome equally material good. And it is more
supernatural. Magic falls neatly
the symbolic significance of these itemspersonal
the technological uncertainty that tends
toplace as the body of formalized procesurround them with ritual (W. H. Gooddures by which such power is controlled and

enough 1963:478; Nadel 1957:193).


Goode, like Benedict, dismisses dichotWhen applied to ethnographic data, none

of these theories completely differentiates omy in favor of a continuum. Unlike Benemagic from religion even in regard to the se-dict, he does not bypass the different criteria
lected critical trait. Nor do they correlatesuggested by various theorists but boldly atwith one another; the increase ceremonies tempts to overcome the contradictions

of the Arunta are classed as religion by within and among the separate schemes by
Durkheim but magic by Frazer, and Tro-combining them all into a single structure.
briand garden rituals, which MalinowskiHis suggested bipolar continuum opposes

terms magic, would be religion according toideal types of magic and religion in which
Durkheim. If more features are taken into
magic contrasts with religion in the concrete
account, the line blurs all the more.
specificity of its goals, its manipulative attiMarett is probably the best-known early
tude, instrumental character, belief in impertheorist to advance the concept of a magisonal power, professional-client relationcoreligious continuum (1914:28). He conships, individualism, voluntarism, and un-

curred in Frazer's concept of magic asscheduled

performance (1951:52-55).
earlier stage of religion, but his own judg-Goode's model rests on the expectation

ment that belief in mana was as much reli-

that on analysis the descriptive data will

gion as animism led him to reject personifiform significant clusters toward the two
cation as a main criterion and to reject
a If the traits do not exhibit substantial
clear-cut distinction between magic and relicorrelation, the ideal types are merely hypothetical constructs. There seems to have
been little testing of the actual extent of corBenedict, far more than Marett, cogently
relation on which the relevance of Goode's
formulated the idea that magic and religion

form a continuum. She disregarded evolutionary sequence and put aside most of the
discrepant subsidiary criteria to concentrate

model depends. Notable exceptions, how-

ever, come readily to mind. Australian in-

crease ceremonies are manipulative but

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1352 American Anthropologist [72, 1970

of Trobriand
primitive religion
magic clearly has cog
communal and obligatory.
value. Benedict,
like Marett, relied o
ritual is instrumental with
mana or mana-like
concepts to explicate
goals, but it is also obligatory,
and calendrical. Among world
the view
of this interpretation ha
may be manipulated ratherThe
out its major flaw.
Bunyoro magic horns used
behalf of a client become
goes too far in his dismissal of m
(Beattie 1967:229).
concepts as part of religion at all (194
Of the two continuum models, Benedict's58). Norbeck, however, justly contends t

has had wider influence. Her comprehensivemany ethnographic accounts of magic

and economical theory, Norbeck (1961:35)scribe no such concept nor indicate that t
notes, provides the conceptual basis implicitpractitioners of magic entertain any idea
in the analyses of many ethnologists. A sam-this kind (1963:510). Apparent logical n
pling of the literature confirms Norbeck's cessity or desire for a neat theory are insuf
comment. There is some shying away fromcient grounds for imputing its covert pr
the term "supernatural"; "nonempirical" is ence.
substituted as though "empirical" were any Norbeck (1961:49), therefore, su
less a category of the observer than "natu- that religion includes three power c
ral." An occasional obeisance is made to
personified power, impersonal power
other variables, but discussions largelymana,
and "a conception of supernat
to follow Benedict's emphasis on concepficiency or power inherent in certai
tions of supernatural power and the modes
chanical cause and effect sequence
of access to it.
short, although some magical practic
In much of the writing the terms most
be related to mana, a large residue a
frequently associated with magic are "imperas unexplained automatic efficacy. Ma
sonal," "mechanical," "automatic," "comploits a seeming cause-and-effect s

pulsive," "coercive," "efficient," "learned without any accounting for either th

techniques," and "acquired skills." Such as-of the cause or the nexus between them.
sociations indicate that usage gives more Some anthropologists take this quality of beweight to the employment of power than to ing inexplicable to be the very essence of
the nature of the power. This emphasis what constitutes magic. It is a "mysterious
seems a natural corollary of the shifts in an- art" (Bidney 1963:505); magic lacks theory
thropological interest. Nineteenth-century (Howells 1948:49); magic has no cosmotheorists such as Tylor and Frazer were pri-logical content (Middleton 1967:ix); magic
marily concerned with the cognitive func- specifically refers to that which cannot be

tion of religion. For a considerable timemade orderly and comprehensible (Galtier

thereafter, attention turned to sociological 1963:506).

and affective functions. Discussions of these
If magical systems are without rationale
subjects could refer to the proceduresorof
meaning, it is their pervasiveness and permagic without much concern for the consistence that are truly inexplicable. Magic is
ception of its power.
presumed to have only expressive functions
More recently, however, reflecting general
and an attributed instrumental utility. But it
intellectual interest in problems of meaning,
is most unlikely that magic can have these
anthropologists are again turning to values
the for human beings unless they somestudy of how men create a meaningful order
how perceive its relevance to their concepout of their experiences in a chancy andtion
in- of reality. Otherwise, magic is utterly
different universe: "attempts to provide anomalous-a
orisymbol without a referent, a
entation for an organism which cannot live
projection without a source.
in a world it is unable to understand"

There are substantial data to show that

(Geertz 1968:314). In Benedict's analysis

such a position is hardly tenable. The fairly

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HAMMOND] Magic: A Problem in Semantics 1353

when men
magic . . . that results are
frequent attribution of all deaths
be expected"
(Beattie 1964:206). Magic
misfortunes to witchcraft andtosorcery,
never lookedin
upon as one of the forces
example, patently demonstrates
nature which
can be utilized by man, but
magic. Witchcraft and sorceryofreflect
regarded as and
a cherished cultural possesconflict and obviously expressishostility

resentment of loss. Rituals are used as in-

sion which derives its powers from man's

and from his knowledge of tradistruments of prevention and vengeance,

tion" (Evans-Pritchard 1967:4). The power

they also express a cosmology. The cosmos
is held to be benign or neutral; evil derives
that makes magic effective is a projection of
from the character of human beings.
Nocapacity to act effectively by means of
matter how elliptically phrased, it is ahis
seriknowledge and skill.
ous statement about the nature and locus of
Analysis of myths for the meaning of
magic also seems to have encountered some
Primitive societies rarely produce their
anthropological resistance. It is true, as Naown theologians. Usually the task ofdel
ab-remarks, that there are magical systems
stracting conceptual content from symbolic
without associated myths (1957:192); but
expression in myth and ritual devolves
onsometimes can also be said of other

ethnologists who have tended to concentrate

kinds of rituals. According to Evans-Pritc

on myth. Kluckhohn (1965:147) suggests

ard, the relatively few Zande myths abou
that the preference reflects the importance
magic do not account for its power (19
of statements of belief in Western religions.
10-12). Although Trobriand mythology

Perhaps it has seemed easier to move from

much richer, Malinowski emphasized that
one set of words-the myth-to anothertoo
setlacks such explanation (1948:117).
of words-a statement of its meaning-than
There are, however, myths elsewhere that do
to translate rituals into statements. That
have bearing on what magic signifies. In
which is communicated by a gesture isWinnebago
mythology Hare achieves a
sense of identity with his human kinsmen;
With difficulty or not, a reasonably
the acquisition of arrows, a bow, and
reading of the anthropological literature
dis- to use them he acquires the symthe skill
bolic essence of human culture. And thus, as
closes that magic ritual does indeed commuhard to put into words.

nicate its meaning. The gesture is underthe exemplar of what is truly human, he

stood, but the commenters seem to resist

proceeds to make curing rituals (Radin

recognizing their own insight. Those who1948).

deny cognition in magic seem not to be lis- It is hard to see how a myth could more
tening to what they themselves say. Howells,plainly state its meaning than the Nupe myth
for example, in one passage finds no ade-that tells of a man who once attempted to
quate explanation for the potency of magic seek out god. His long arduous quest was
(1948:49-50); elsewhere he writes that
fruitless, and he returned to report that god
was both distant and indifferent. Men, theremagic gives man the "conviction that he can

take care of himself. . . . Man can put fore,

his must help themselves by learning how
best foot forward with magic; he can act to
on make "medicine" (Nadel 1954:17-18).
his own behalf. . ." (1948:63).
The reluctance to find the rituals and myths
Statement after statement can be found
of magic meaningful might hint that anthrothat point to the central concept in magic.
pologists too share the attitude Malinowski
"In magic man depends on his own strength
(1948:51) describes: ".'Magic' seems to stir
." (Frazer 1900:711). "Magic is the one
up in everyone some hidden mental forces,
and only specific power, a force unique of
some lingering hopes in the miraculous,
its kind, residing exclusively in man..."
some dormant beliefs in man's mysterious
(Malinowski 1948:56). "Magic is not
thought to take place by itself .... It is only These human potentialities are not so

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1354 American Anthropologist [72, 1970

Erwin R. Goodenough,
discussing the
mysterious. Norbeck (1961:50)
of magical practices
in Judaism,
that magic has its mundane
writes that
technology. To a certain extent
is symbols
obvi-"originally of
. . . have gradously true, and yet it seems
to and
the power
point. Horton (1968:66) argues
ually been that
made to a
techin addition to more
(1953:160). The
nological prototype tends remote
to give
to exof the adjective
"remote" is highly sugplanatory models that are use
or sciengestive. this
In small-scale
societies, effective actific in character. Although
tion isit
by the the
self and by familiar
need not be universally true,
others. In large-scale
idea that magic and technology
per se
are the exercise
of power by
authorities or even unnot closely linked. Magic seems

may provide
techniques far less thanknown
the agents
skill,the source for

the projection
of "remote
spiritual forces."
knowledge, or talents. Leach's
the immediacies
are never wholly supermark. But "libido" in theBut

and even those
religions that place
tency" (1967:98) is perhaps
to the

weight on a psychotranscendent omnipotent
the mark. But "libido" in the
the projecanalytic sense-and judgingdeity

tion of the means

his article that is how Leach
defines religion
scarcely refers directly to man's capacity
for narrowly as

effective action on the basis

superhuman beings,
ac-argues that the
on adults "develops imquired skills. Levi-Strauss child's

powerful action,
figures" and that these
magic to be a projection ages
of of
"deep-seated perceptive
sets, acquired in the
but he does not make entirely
clear the
very early
experience of the
child, comprise
grounds for his interpretation.

basis for the actor's conviction
analysis seems to involvethe
that the beliefs
comprise the religious
complex sequence of processes
projectradition of his society
are true" (1964:
tion, introjection, and reprojection
113). On the same basis it can be argued

On the whole, it seems both economical that the validity of magical belief is equally

rooted in the child's experience. The child

and reasonable to reinterpret Norbeck's
triad of power concepts on the basic asquite early discovers his own power to sumsumption that these are best understood asmon and dismiss, to grasp and release, to
projective symbols. The power of spiritualbuild and destroy. Maturation and enculturation further his sense of mastery, and this
beings reflects the authority of other people.
(Whether this is the authority of the clan experience
will be repeated every day of his
Durkheim had it or that of the father in the
effectively functioning life. Magic is no mere
Freudian view is here immaterial.) Magical
compensatory fantasy to palliate the inadepower reflects the capabilities of the self,
quacies of primitive technologies. The simand mana, the dynamic forces of the physi-pler hand technologies would more likely in-

cal universe.

duce a greater sense of mastery than maMan's ability to acquire skills and use chine technology, no matter how productive

them to shape his world is thus projected asand efficient. Witness the satisfaction in
one of the universal superordinate powers. building a fire, even with the help of a bo
The traditional hostility between deistic be-of matches and the Sunday paper, compare
lief and magical belief is understandable. An to resetting the thermostat. Moreover, it
ideology that holds man to be wholly depen-not the incompetents of a society who are
dent on powerful gods must view a concep- granted magical power.
tion of man as one of the ruling forces in
The awareness of the power of the self i
the cosmos as hubris of a most literal and
by no means necessarily limited to master
damnable kind.

over technological processes and materia

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HAMMOND] Magic: A Problem in Semantics 1355

sion of magic
into religion. The composite
objects. Although it is the dependency
of the
ritual statesfigthat the gods do not rule alone;
child that "develops images of powerful
ures," this need not develop an accompanytheir will and power are accompanied by the
ing feeling of utter helplessness. will
power of men.
child in almost any society may well
have of
a the concept indicates that
distinction between magic and religion,
keen sense of his own ability to the
adults. In the give-and-take of intimate
assowhether phrased
as dichotomy or polarity, is
Magic is not an entity distinct
ciation those in subordinate positions
are not
but a form of ritual behavior
without means to gain compliancefrom
desires from their superiors. And
thus an in
element of religion. That the
positions of authority are obviously
toled only to confusion supdistinction
control the actions of other people.
ports the judgment that the abstraction is
One must also recognize that based
on misinterpretation.
It has not only
the relation
impersonal power, such as mana,
an between religion and
equally early and significant base
magic, and
in led
to obscurantism concerning
child's experience with pressure,
but it has also given rise to a trunheat, light, and all the other manifestations
cated concept of religion as a whole. The
of a dynamic universe. There has
inherent in religions
attempt in this paper to analyze are
con- than belief in spiritual bemore complex
cepts. It has, however, been assumed
thatthe index of "belief in suings only. Because
the existence of impersonal power
is one
of recognizes only one asperhuman
the fundamental postulates of pect
of religion,
reliit seems preferable to subgions.
stitute the definition that religion entails beThe position that religious cosmology is
lief in superordinate agencies.
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seems appropriate then to limit the range of
meaning of the term-to restrict "magic" to
the designation of mechanical religious practices. This is, in effect, the way many anthropologists actually use the term, although

they do so without any explicit rationale.

Magic would serve as a denotation for one
type of ritual behavior, and thus belong to

the set of terms in that category, such as

prayer or sacrifice. With these propitiatory
rites it is contrastive, not with religion.
Just as prayer and sacrifice express the belief that the universe is governed by personi-

fied beings whom one can reach by words

and gifts, so magical practices express the
belief in human powers as effective forces.
The use of such practices in rituals addressed to the gods is not a discordant intru-



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