A General Theory of Magic by Marcel Mauss
I have been interested in magic for a very long time - or more accurately in magical thinking. Wishes, prayers and spells are all, it seems, part of the same package – the desire to shape the world the way we want it by exercise of our own wills. To basically make things happen the way we want them to by force of will alone. That’s magic in a nutshell. Everything else – the rituals, the words spoken, the articles used – are essentially garnish.
Like me, Mauss tries to understand why magic and magical thinking exists – not only in supposedly primitive societies but still in the modern world. Writing in 1902 he, like many of his contemporary Anthropologists, studied accounts of travellers to exotic locations throughout the world – rather than visiting the tribes in question himself – to discern the essence of their beliefs. As travel throughout the far flung places became easier with the growing number of powerful steam driven ships (to say nothing of the expanding empires in the
contact with previously unknown peoples increased accordingly. This allowed the
prevailing theory of cultural evolution to be examined in detail as it was
believed ‘primitive’ cultures practiced magic – as an early form of science –
which morphed over time into religion which then fell away with the advance of
science. Understanding these magical societies therefore allowed the
anthropologists, so they believed, to look back into our own pasts and to
discern where religions came from.
This book has been on my shelves for anything up to 10 years before I read it some weeks ago (my review backlog is holding at 10 books at the moment or approximately 6 weeks). I’d dipped into it a few times – mostly for quotes for essays – so the overall content was familiar ground to me. I’ve also read other books, or bits of them anyway, from the same era dedicated to the theory that cultures evolve through a series of stages culminating, of course, with today’s superior one. Maybe this familiarity was part of the reason that I found this a bit of a slog almost like it was an assigned book at College or something. Maybe my interest in the subject has waned over the years or maybe it was as dry and as stuffily academic as I thought it was. I certainly don’t think it’s quite the thing for the average casual reader! Interesting in parts though it is I can only really recommend it to students of the History of Anthropology – both of you.