Magic – What is it, concept, history, types and characteristics

We explain what magic is, the two ways of understanding it and its history. Also, the characteristics of each type of magic.

magic illusionism
Magic supposes the existence of intermediate knowledge between religion and science.

What is magic

Broadly speaking, there are two different ways of understanding the meaning of magic:

The first and most traditional, he understands it as the belief that through rituals, spells and arcane knowledge, supernatural forces can be manipulated, to affect reality at will.

These powers would be used by sorcerers, magicians, witches and other mythological figures to whom tradition attributes an occult knowledge of the world, collected in magical books and set in motion by potions, magic wands and other supposedly power elements.

The second consideration, also called illusionism, refers instead to the art of producing illusions on stage, using more or less elaborate tricks that give the sensation, precisely, that there are invisible and supernatural forces at work. Unlike the previous case, this concept of magic is the one that is put into practice, in the real world, by illusionists and conjurers, for entertainment purposes.

Both concepts are the result of a tradition that imagines the existence of intermediate knowledge and powers between religion and science, close to alchemy, necromancy, thaumaturgy and other forms of occultism. These supposed knowledge and practices, usually attributed to ancient pagan cultures, were persecuted by the great monotheistic religions and punished with a severe hand, as happened with witchcraft and herbalism.

Magic is immensely attractive, since it assumes that reality can be shaped to our liking if we know the necessary formulas or enchantments. In fact, from a certain point of view, the barriers that differentiate magic from other verifiable knowledge are difficult to trace: for a person from the Middle Ages, many of the daily tasks that science allows today could be classified as “magic”.

History of magic

magic illusionism story
The office of illusionist arose from the hand of science.

The word “magic” comes from Latin Magic, in turn inheritance from the Greek mageia, term with which the ancient Greeks referred to the qualities attributed to the priests of Persian Zoroastrianism. That is to say that the origin of this word surely goes back to Farsi (magush).

Persian priests were enormously influential in their society between the 6th and 5th centuries BC. C. They used to perform their Mazdean rites and chants in front of bonfires, so that in the West supernatural and demonic powers were attributed to the Persians.

The term magus of the Romans, in fact, it was reserved for those who, like these priests, practiced the occult and the sinister arts. Nevertheless, It was the Christians who subsequently undertook the persecution of the Magi, accusing them of making a pact with the devil and of being, essentially, heretics, servants of Satan.

With the same criteria, the Christian West responded to the ritual traditions of the pagan peoples, of the Eastern peoples, and even to the first forms of scientific thought. It was common, for example, in colonial times, that the subject peoples were attributed the practice of magic or magical rites.

In Spanish colonial America, for example, the natives were imagined as inheritors of powerful magical traditions or spiritual, which were considered sinful. African slaves were attributed the practice of necromancy, better known as voodoo. Magic, as it will be seen, has awakened in the human being since ancient times the fascination and at the same time the mistrust.

On the other hand, illusionists have been around since ancient times as well, and they have fed on the belief in such occult powers and traditions. In fact, there are records of “magicians” in Ancient Egypt, more than 4,000 years ago.

Nevertheless, the office of illusionist only emerged in the sixteenth century, from the hand -curiously- of science, since the first conjurers and spiritists used mechanisms and illusions to feign magical powers.

This tradition became a spectacle in the 19th century, with the appearance of the first escapist magicians, such as the famous Harry Houdini (1874-1926). Later they had the opportunity to appear before large audiences, through the media.

Types of magic

Traditionally, various traditions of supposed magic are distinguished, depending on their nature and the moral or ethical consideration of their actions. Thus, for example, it is common to speak of “white” magic when its aims are well-intentioned, and of “black” magic in the totally opposite case. Similarly, the following magical “forms” can be differentiated:

  • Divination. As its name suggests, it is about magic that is used to predict the future or see what can not ordinarily be seen. Its traditional symbol is the crystal ball: an artifact in which images of the future could supposedly be seen, or of what was happening in another part of the world. The use of letters is also common (such as tarot), palm reading and other supposed methods that interpret the clues of the future in the present.
  • Necromancy. It is about the magic that deals with the dead and the world of the deceased, whether it is reviving people, summoning spirits, or performing rites that require corpse parts. It is associated with the undead, pestilence, witchcraft, and the arts of the devil.
  • Pyromancy. This is the name of the magic of fire: the one supposedly dominated by those who establish a pact with said element, to subject it to the control of their will. The pyromancers could not only – supposedly – command the fire, but also spontaneously generate it.
  • Sexual magic. Starting from the consideration of sex as a sacred and powerful practice, this tradition attributes magical capacities to the fluids of the body, to certain positions or erotic practices, and aspired to provoke infatuation and passion at will among human beings.
  • The invocation. In this type of magical practices, rituals are used to summon or attract demonic, supernatural or mystical entities to the real plane, which otherwise could not interfere with reality. In exchange for this, or precisely as a condition to let them return to their usual plane, the summoners used to ask for favors or demand the use of their powers. An ancient and oriental version of it is the one that imagines the genie trapped in a magic lamp, granting three wishes to whoever frees him.
  • Thaumaturgy. Understood as the magic that transforms or creates matter, it can be understood as a predecessor of alchemy. The thaumaturges could turn some materials into others at will, or make them appear out of nowhere, and they could also confer certain gifts on specific objects, such as relics. This is the case of the supposed holy chalice, which immediately purified everything that was poured into it.
  • The evil eye. One of the most popular and common forms of magic, which consists of the possibility of bewitching the other or hurting them just by looking at them, especially when they are the result of envy. For this, it is usually (still today) to use protection amulets such as jet or the peony seed, especially in newborn children.