Cover Image: Magic: A History

Magic: A History

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Great book for full a somewhat  comprehensive history. While it was a little dry at times, and dense, I still really enjoyed it.
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This is a very in-depth look at the history of magic, a thorough etymology of what magic is, where it came from and the major influences it's had to what we call magic today. The reading was a little dense, but the undertaking of this book, I pretty much expect that. I would recommend this book anyone interested in understanding where magic comes from.
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In this historical perspective, Gosden hones in on what he deems 'the triple helix' of magic, science and religion, and how the beliefs were co-mingled and, though later studied apart, need to be considered as part of a whole without the magical elements being dismissed - the manner in which people humanised the world and felt connected to it. An archaeologist, he analyses different strands of beliefs throughout the world, from Mesopotamia, China and Egypt, different branches of animism and Shamanism, and the later influences of philosophy.

A broad approach and in a dense, academic style, this might be a challenge for the reader new to the study of magic through an academic, anthropological and archaelogical lens, but will certainly cover all the bases before the scholar chooses to dig deeper. It binds the explorations with a common thread of encouraging us to re-adopt that connection that we've lost, to bring the topic back to the present.
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Chris Gosden takes on a lot in The History of Magic: From Alchemy to Witchcraft, from the Ice Age to the Present — a history of magic through time and space, skipping across millennia and the continents. Though “history” might be a tad misleading, in that Gosden includes our current age in his survey and then makes a call for magic to if not “return” (he would argue it never left) to at least reclaim its equal position beside its younger siblings in he calls the triple helix of magic, religion, and science. Such an ambitious project in terms of scale necessarily makes some sacrifice when it comes to specificity, and one might wish for a more focused exploration of cultural magic or find fault with some generalizations, but there’ certainly merit in the exploration despite the pitfalls, and Gosden offers up a broadly informative, thoughtful, and fascinating journey in the telling. 

As one might expect, Gosden opens with definitions and separations, explaining how he views magic and what separates it from its two siblings:

Magic sees a direct human relationship with the world. People’s words and acts can influence events and processes. Religion takes some of the power out of this magical relationship, placing it with the gods but leaving some room for direct human participation, even if often grudgingly. The mechanical universe of science radically repositions people — the universe works on its own . . . indifferent to people.

This “kinship with the universe” is a theme Gosden returns to frequently, and it’s perhaps his most important argument at the end for magic reclaiming its former place of prominence. 

Following the definitions, the book generally runs chronologically, both overall and within particular sections. The earliest point predates Homo sapiens, with several reference to Neanderthals. From there we work our way through early hunger-gatherer cultures, into the rise of agricultures and cities, through the stone, bronze, and iron ages, on into the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, into the Victorian Era, the 19th and 20th Centuries, with Spiritualism and Wiccan, and up to (and a bit farther than) today. Geographically, we hit, at various times, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome, Europe, China, parts of Africa, Russia, Israel, South and North America, and Australia.

Within those geographies we journey to several sites in some detailed fashion (at least, detailed enough given the broad survey Gosden is undertaking), such as the absolutely fascinating construction (dated at roughly 9000 BCE) at Gobekli Tepe in Turkey, with its tall pillars carved “with a variety of animals, many of them fierce and dangerous”; Stonehenge, one of the most famous and mysterious sites in the world; several Chinese tombs, including the well-known terracotta warrior tomb; mounds cities in North America , such as Cahokia; Newgrange in Ireland, or lesser known (at least to me) sites in Mongolia, large burial mounds with the bodies of humans and horses entombed together. 

The deep dives into various cultural practices are all interesting in both their differences and the overlaps. The power of words, for instance. The use of amulets (I confess, I love the idea of “mass-produced” magical amulets.)  Or the various broad types of magic that keep cropping up:  divination (using sometimes similar, sometimes distinct methods), transformation, healing magic, and the like. Within that vein, he points out several times that despite its prevalence in modern media, malevolent magic is actually relatively insignificant in comparison to benevolent magic. 

As interesting as the details are (and I highlighted many), I often found my favorite parts were when Gosden used the specific as a jumping off point for more expansive and usually deeply thoughtful explorations about what those specifics revealed about culture and basic humanity, whether at a particular time and place or, as a contrast to our own, or as a thread of commonality from those distance in time or space from us. 

I wouldn’t call this an academic work — it’s not meant for the journals — but it is a scholarly work, strongly based in anthropology, archaeology, history, and other disciplines. While absolutely accessible to the general public, it does help to know some of the references, though it isn’t at all essential to understanding. Gosden does an excellent job of summarizing or paraphrasing important texts or arguments. Recognizing his lay audience, he also includes a liberal amount of illustrations and tables of historical events to keep things in context for the reader who may not, say, easily recall just which Chinese dynasty ruled during which years, or exactly where the line is drawn between pre-pottery Neolithic and Neolithic.

The ending call for magic’s return (or at least the idea behind it) went a bit long I thought, and felt a little tacked on, not because there weren’t good point made but because it felt like it was rehashing points made earlier in the text and even if one wanted to make them again in more focused fashion (as a call), I felt it could have been done more succinctly. And some of it felt a bit of a stretch. But it was hardly burdensome. And as noted, there were times one might have wished for a bit more of a deep dive into a particular area, time, culture, but there are other books more focused. As a general survey, it’s hard to imagine one doing a better job than what Gosden has done here.
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Magic: A History by Chris Gordon


An informative, if a little heavy handed, history of 'magic'. This isn't magic as we might typically think of (wizard hats and witches in broomsticks) but the occult-leanings of past societies. There's plenty to be interested in however the subject somehow becomes a little dry as the book goes on. A solid read but not to everyone's taste.
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Writers will find this work on magic the precise compendium needed to help fill in the knowledge bank~!  Chris Gosden has done a superb job and clearly is invested in his subject. While his belief seems to be 100%, it is easy to read this book and absorb the concepts without ascribing to every single thing. That magic is believed in is indisputable, so it is worth knowing the cultures its roots are in and the diversity of practices. I have been moderately interested in magic since reading Ibn Khaldun's discussion on the same in the 14th century, Gregorian, and of Ibn Battuta's accounts as well.
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Magic: A History by Chris Gosden is a free NetGalley ebook that I read in early November.

A full global and chronological timeline on magic (i.e. conjuring, rituals, divination, alchemy, animism, prophecy, clairvoyance, shamanism, incantations, astrology) and its ties to religion and science. All told, it's interesting to read so much that I don't know about from this perspective of history.
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I received an ARC through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review!

When I requested this, I didn't expect this to be a dense, very scholarly work that really does look at magic and its history from prehistory through to modern day in basically any area that you can imagine. It's impressive and, while I call it dense, it is accessible and pretty easy to read once I got into it. It examines magic from various angles and how they culturally differ, as well as the connectedness of magic with science and religion. It's definitely a book that I'll want to revisit at some point and have on my shelf so I can read it again!
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I received an advance copy of this book via NetGalley.

Oxford professor of archaeology Chris Gosden authored this overview of magic across world history and cultures. His approach is comprehensive, his viewpoint honest; he doesn't sniff at magic as a primitive thing, but from a neutral standpoint as an essential part of people's lives from the ice age into the modern day. He doesn't shy away from the effects of colonialism on the loss of magical knowledge, and also addresses it as an inspiration or attacking or defending against oppressors. He does walk a delicate line between religion and magic; some readers will be irked that he classifies miracles within the Christian faith as magic, though by the definition he establishes early on, it fits.

He tries to give equal billing across history to various cultures, but that's hard when some people such as those in ancient Mesopotamia have left little in terms of a balanced record. In chapters such as that one, the emphasis on magic felt lost as it became more of an overview for readers who may not know much about the culture at all. That approach is understandable, but the focus felt lost and it became stodgy and, I hate to say it, boring at times. I actually deliberated whether or not to finish the book, which was a surprise because an unbiased study of this subject matter should very much be my sort of thing. I found the book became more engaging as it worked into the medieval and near-modern eras and he had a lot more material to draw from.

In all, a very uneven read, but one with plentiful insights to offer.
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Informative and very interesting. I enjoyed reading it and seeing how history viewed magic and how those views evolved. It was a cool subject that interests me a lot and I was happy to see how it was handled throughout the book. Really good recommendation for someone with an interest in the subject.
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Note: This review was published in Booklist.

In this expansive history of magic in the ancient world, archaeology professor Gosden makes the case for the ongoing centrality of magical thought and practice to the human experience. Contrary to magic’s poor reputation in the modern world, Gosden argues that it must be considered alongside science and religion as a major strand of belief throughout history. Magic begins with the earliest archaeological evidence of human habitation, then teases out the differences and similarities among magical practices in the deserts of Egypt, the Siberian steppe, Chinese hill country, and many more. In all of these disparate places and cultures, however, we find a shared desire to understand how humans affect and are affected by the world we live in, whether that understanding comes from science, religion, or magic. At times the book’s ambition is more hindrance than help, as Gosden bewilderingly dedicates a single chapter to three continents while electing not to discuss South Asian magic at all. Despite such gaps in the story, Magic is an authoritative history of humanity’s engagement with the supernatural.
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3 stars - I liked it. 

Chris Gosden is an archaeologist, who had first been a curator-lecturer at the Pitt Rivers Museum and then a Professor of European Archaeology in Oxford. His work as an archaeologist has led him to places like Papua New Guinea, Turkmenistan, etc.  

    At the beginning of his book, the author describes his intention as showcasing how, as he calls them, the three helix of belief - magic, religion and science, developed through time and geographical areas, beginning with prehistoric magical practices in the Middle East and ending with a view about how a belief in a sentient system (promoted by magic) complements new quantum physics discoveries, and the benefits of adopting such a belief when dealing with contemporary problems like global warming, inequality, and more. 

    I found Gosden`s qualifying of the term magic interesting. For him, magic is a worldview, according to which, everything is connected, and man, using these connections, has the power to influence other beings or events. This allows him to describe even ancestor cults, like those in China, or animism, as magical, and both of these would otherwise be described as early forms of religion. Logically, his description of the term works, I am only a bit put off because of its broadness. I am used to academic approaches of such terms to be very different, most specialists trying to narrow down the subject as much as they can. 

Gosden lists three aspects of magic - transcendence, transformation and transaction, each of these playing a different role in every culture, time period and region. Transcendence, for example, he explains with the help of astrology and the maxim “as above, so below” - a one way influence on humans. Transformation can be seen in alchemy and transaction in votive offerings. This creates a very wide spectrum of magic attitudes and allows for various combinations.   

    Throughout almost half of his book, Gosden is dealing with prehistoric magic, which I attribute to his general interest in prehistory (he has several books on the subject and in this one he mentions having worked on prehistoric archaeological sites). Of course, our knowledge of prehistoric magic can only come from material finds and their interpretations are often ambiguous and too rooted in our own cultural background. Another problem is the hyper interpretation, a trap in which most prehistoric archaeologists easily follow. I am glad the author acknowledged the risk of the last one in the beginning of the book and repeatedly reminded the reader of it. 

    Gosden has embarked on an enormous task - to write a history of magic throughout ALL human history, which of course, comes with its setbacks. For example, because of dealing with such broad geographic areas and time periods, the author is obliged to give the reader enough background knowledge of the certain one who looks at, as to make his statement on how magic developed, evolved and contributed to that specific culture (or cultures). This results in an average 50-60 pages chapter on a specific area and period (which are enormous in their own terms), with almost half of these filled with background knowledge, thus leaving only around 30-40 to the specific subject. The constrained volume, also, allows only a handful detailed looks at specific archaeological materials or written sources. 

    I was somewhat puzzled at one of his statements: “In contrast to Mesopotamia, there is no mention (in Egyptian mythology) of the creation of people or their cosmological role”, which is just wrong. In Coffin Text 80, for example, Atum refers to human beings as having come forth from his Eye. In fact, there are several variations of this myth - the sun god weeping because he is alone after his birth and unable to find his mother, or the Eye of Atum crying in rage after founding out it was replaced by another, both of these resulting in the creation of mankind. The Teaching for King Merikare also provides some knowledge about the role and place of humankind in the cosmos: “For it is for their sake that He created heaven and earth. He stilled the raging of the waters, and created the winds so that their nostrils might live. They are His images who come forth from His body, and it is for their sake that He rises in the sky… And when they weep, He hearkens.” 

    Despite this, Gosden has some really interesting ideas (I attribute them to him, because I haven't really met them somewhere else, but this might be my fault). For example, the idea of the neolithic house as a living being with its own character and life (birth and death) or the far-fetched ,but still rather curious, connection between mesolithic lake deposits of weapons in Britain and the Lady of the Lake providing Arthur with Excalibur, a magical sword. 

    The author writes with caution and detail, but despite this, the book never felt dry. This would definitely help in engaging the mind of a reader, who lacks an academic background. There are also a lot of illustrations and tables, which always come in hand. 

    Overall, the book provides a lot of interesting material, but I wouldn't recommend it to the more advanced, in such subjects, reader. It would be a good starting point for someone with a more general interest in magical or religious attitudes, tho! It's a great foundation to build on. The provided bibliography also helps with that. Some of the titles in it have been on my to-read list for a long time, and some I gladly added to it. 

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the opportunity to read this book for free in an exchange for an honest review. .
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This book is a bit long-winded as far as history goes, and brings nothing together in terms of showing us how magic can be used today, or how its history can help us understand magic today.
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This isn't a casual read.  The  historical information is bountiful and Chris Gosden brought it all out for the person interested in magic to dive into, but it takes a while to get to the good stuff.  Explaining how Magic is different from Religion and Science is an overwhelming task which was done with painstaking detail.  If you want to learn everything about the history of Magic this book for you.
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Very cool, anthropological resource about magic and it's history within civilizations then and into the present. Very concise and factual.
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This book covers everything from Ancient Mesopotamian magic to modern and future magic. This gives readers a broad overview of magic over time and throughout the world. This book is full of fascinating tidbits about magical beliefs, practices, and religion. However, there is a lot of info in this book and sometimes it felt overwhelming and so I had to read in small doses. The writing style also felt a little dry at times. For example sometimes we got a lot of archeological evidence laid out followed by speculation, which wasn't what I was expecting. So while there was a lot of fascinating history surrounding magic, it felt like I had to cut through some fat to get to it while other areas didn't go as deep as I expected into the magical history and knowledge. 

Disclaimer: I received a free ARC from the publisher for review.
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So as much as this book had interesting things to say and really good points to make, I just could not get over the fact that it spent such an inordinate and grueling amount of time speculating about the possible magical practices of cultures with no written record before straight up skimming over the magical practices of cultures that had written records in abundance. Other readers may feel differently, but...the listing off of magical practices with a long and concrete history was 100% what I was reading this book for. So to get a whole info-dump of archaeological findings that we're only slightly sure of the exact meaning of, and only an overview of things that did in fact have records was a very, very strange choice to me, and made this book something of a chore to read.

There are some really interesting things in here, like I said, (the way people treated statues through the ages alone was fascinating) but if you're not interested in speculations on Mesolithic cultures this book is probably not for you.
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