Do You Believe in Magic?

A global history of our oldest—and most maligned—practice

Photo-illustration using <em>Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses</em> (1891) by John William Waterhouse
Photo-illustration using Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses (1891) by John William Waterhouse

Magic has gotten a bad rap for the past few hundred years: in our haste to become rational, logical creatures of the Enlightenment, we’ve disavowed magic of all kinds (and burned a few hundred thousand women as witches along the way). Oxford professor of archaeology Chris Gosden wants to change the way we think about magic, starting with its definition: a connection with the universe that allows us to directly influence its workings. Gosden considers it the oldest and most neglected form of human engagement with the world, wrongly condemned by adherents of science and religion. His new book, Magic: A History, runs from the stones of prehistory to the apps on our smartphones to explore practices on every inhabited continent. What might we learn by considering the sentience of trees, or the connections between the living and the dead? Who is excluded from the hierarchies of religion or science? And might a 21st-century magic lead us to a better response to climate catastrophe?

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Stephanie Bastek is the senior editor of the Scholar and the producer/host of the Smarty Pants podcast.


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