Magic and Magical Thinking by Anne Baird

Advertising copywriters know the power of magical thinking. It drives sales!

Why else would you buy a pair of overpriced running shoes, hoping they’ll help you  “Just DO IT!”? Why else pay big bucks for an expensive spa membership (“It’s all about YOU!”) praying it’ll help you get your groove back?

If you’ve fallen into the trap, don’t be embarrassed. We all engage in the age-old practice of magical thinking. Madison Avenue didn’t invent it. The admen just tapped into an eternal yearning deep in the human psyche for the power to affect and control our natural world.

The practice of magic dates back at least 32,000 years to pre-historic times.

The beautiful animal paintings in the caves of Lascaux in France have intrigued people for years. What was the purpose of these mysterious images, sketched on the walls of almost inaccessible caves by Paleolithic artists? Scholars believe that shamans or priests painted them as “hunting magic,” designed to increase the number and quality of animals that hunting parties could slay, and bring home to clan campfires.

In what’s known as the period of Classical Antiquity, beginning around 700 BC through the 5th and 6th centuries AD, prototypical “magicians” were a priestly class – the Magi of Zoroastrianism. Magi meant “bearers of gifts.” They were first-rate astrologers whose influence over the ancient world gradually extended beyond Persia and Egypt, where they began, into the West.

The Gospel of Matthew speaks of the Magi, “men from the East,” who were inspired by divine inspiration, and a study of the Heavens, to follow the Star of Bethlehem to Jerusalem in search of the Christ Child. Once they found him, they gave him symbolic, magic-infused gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, foretelling his future. Warned by a dream, they then returned home by a different route, to avoid the wrath of Herod, who trusted their prophetic wisdom, and who wanted to find out where the holy child was, so he could kill him.

The strong magical component the Magi introduced into religion – divination, magic words, command of the spirits, magic wands, circles of protection, spirit mediums, and star-gazing – persists even today, in some form, in both orthodox and pagan religious practice.

In the 6th century BC, a few intellectuals challenged the appeal of magic and magicians for the common people. Heraclitus cursed magicians for their “impious rites” and labeled them as “sorcerers” who attempted to influence fate.

By the Middle Ages, with Christianity in the ascendancy, the Church found itself battling for the hearts and minds of people who were still deeply attached to the rites of their ancient folk religion. It tried to wean them from their pagan beliefs by adopting some of the magical thinking of folk religion into Christian dogma.

Christian “magic” was expressed in the veneration of miracle-working relics of saints, and in miracles wrought through prayer and the intervention of divine intermediaries. Christian art and music competed with Pagan images, chants and songs. When this failed to stamp out folk religion, and when other religious beliefs that deviated from orthodox Christianity surfaced, a period of persecution began.

Different paths to God and to spirituality were now regarded as “heresy,” and a danger to the Church. In the 13th century, Rome authorized the use of torture to force suspected heretics to confess their sin, and the prosecution of heresy was assigned to the Inquisition. In 1401, the English Parliament passed the Witchcraft Act. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella launched the notorious Spanish Inquisition in 1478. Unless a suspected witch or heretic recanted, the penalty was death by burning at the stake.

Under this assault, Magic went underground. Textbooks of magic, called “grimoires,” with instructions for casting spells, performing divination, and raising angels or demons, were secretly written so that the arcane knowledge would not be lost. Rare copies of these books have circulated throughout Europe since the Middle Ages, and are very valuable today.

During the Renaissance, (1400-1600), a broader tolerance for “magic” emerged. Europe was still deeply Christian. Many believed that any effort to manipulate, control or even to understand the laws of the natural world was an attempt to put yourself in God’s place, or to subvert His will. But the aristocracy and bourgeoisie were fascinated by the occult arts. The study of alchemy, astrology and spiritual powers such as angels and daemons flourished among them.

Despite this, the state continued to treat witchcraft as a capital offense. England’s Witchcraft Act of 1541 made it a felony to practice conjuring, enchantment, or sorcery. Henry VIII imposed the death penalty for “invoking or conjuring an evil spirit.” Witches were removed from the jurisdiction of ecclesiastical courts, and turned over to courts of common law. The property of witches or sorcerers was forfeit to the crown, so there was real financial incentive to convict people of witchcraft.

A huge, irrational backlash against witches and sorcerers erupted briefly in Puritan New England in the 17th century. The infamous Witch Trials of Salem sent many innocent men and women to their death – often for nothing more than the offense of healing the sick, or presiding over childbirth, using their knowledge of herbs and folk medicine. This threatened both the church, which felt that all healing came from God, and the professional class of doctors, who believed all healing came from them. The magic of healing was not to be shared with non-professionals!

As the Renaissance morphed into the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th and 19th centuries, chemistry replaced alchemy, and the germ theory of disease undermined the belief that magic, outdated medical practices, or even religion, could cure or cast out the demons of disease. The Age of Reason was upon us, and the fear of magic began to dissipate.

In 1735, the Witchcraft Act of 1541 was repealed. Instead of being hanged for witchcraft now, people suspected of practicing magic could be prosecuted as mere vagrants or con artists.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, magic is making a real comeback, though without the serious attention it once commanded throughout the Western world. Daily horoscopes are published in newspapers everywhere. There are Psychic Fairs, and Mind, Body, Spirit Expos. Magazines such as Sage Woman and Young Witch flourish, and are regarded with equanimity by the general population. Wiccans and Earth Religion people practice their ancient faiths freely. The Internet offers access to every conceivable faith practice. Offers for magic amulets, palm and tarot readings pour into my email box every day.

It has gone much further than that, however. Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

In the Digital Age, Photoshop wizards can airbrush faces, and even alter photographs of politically inflammatory events to reflect a new reality. Text messaging and real-time e-mail make old-fashioned thought transference a thing of the past.

Computers often seem possessed by evil spirits. They suffer from viruses as virulent as anything attacking human beings – a curse that only a sophisticated computer magician can lift from you. When in good working order, your computer can catapult you to a new destination faster than a magic carpet. It can correct your spelling, give you access to a broad spectrum of information, and even plot your course and purchase your tickets to a remote destination, without consulting the stars. Though you can do that too.

Has magic, then, been destroyed by science and technology? No. Technology has extended the boundaries of magic to an unimaginable degree. The new Magi are computer programmers and techies, who sit in splendid isolation, wrapped in thought, as they produce the next generation of unbelievable possibility. All is grounded in a hard, scientific, digital reality that cannot be violated if it is to work properly. Their magic is expressed in an arcane language, understood only by highly trained initiates into their technological priesthood.

Where does this leave the digitally challenged, still yearning for magic, if not magical thinking, which usually gets us nowhere?

There is still magic in the world, apart from technology. And it is far deeper, and more nourishing to the human spirit. It has always been there. It’s the magic that impelled the shamans to paint the “hunting magic” images in the caves of Lascaux. The magic that made Bach compose his magnificent Brandenburg Concertos. The magic that made Vincent Van Gogh paint the sunflowers, and Rembrandt, his own tired face. The magic of poetry and dance.

It is the eternal magic of creation, and of the human spirit. It doesn’t reside in the latest hyped products that will “change your life,” any more than it lay in the purchase of a questionable sacred relic or trinket. It doesn’t even lie in the stunning achievements of technology.

Instead, it is to be found in the small miracles that surround you daily. Look for the magic in life around you. In Nature. Look for it in yourself. There is magic in you too…