Compiled by Chris Gosden, Professor of European Archaeology at the University of Oxford and former curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum, many of whose objects are referred to in the text of his latest work, The History of Magic is a book quite astonishing in its ambition and the breadth and depth of the knowledge and sources brought together to create a self-consistent whole.
Divided into ten broad sections, beyond the introduction the opening section considers the earliest roots of cultures and the surviving indications of the links of those people to what could be considered the magical in their lives and environment from 40,000 BC onwards while the final section considers Gosden’s personal view of our connections to the planet, looking to the future through the lens of his theories.
Between, the roots and courses of magic are charted across the globe, the histories of different civilisations presented comprehensively across Mesopotamia and Egypt, China, the Eurasian Steppe, prehistoric Europe, Jewish, Greek and Roman magic, Africa, Australia and the Americas, somewhat brief considering the cultural diversity and richness of those vast areas, before focusing on Medieval Europe.
His thesis and ultimately his manifesto being built around what he terms “the triple helix” of magic, science and religion, the latter two perpetrators of “a most successful propaganda campaign waged against magic,” Gosden never offers a concise explanation of what magic is; instead, the body of the book expresses his contention that magic is not a fixed entity or concept, rather that it is “experimental, changeable and inventive.”
This conveniently allows magic to be whatever Gosden needs it to be, offering anecdote as evidence, unwitnessed and unsupported, weaving his triple helix of magic, religion and science and cautioning that to choose between them is unhealthy, claiming Newton as an ally, “the last of the magicians rather than… the first of the scientists” without the qualification that it was the standard of his time and it would have been more unusual not to have a belief in God and an interest in alchemy.
Dismissing scientific detachment as “a powerful fiction,” Gosden does a disservice to his own work in synthesising his fastidious research of disparate cultural strands into engaging and readable sections where, despite time and distance, recurring themes are apparent, the continuum of intellectual struggle to understand both the immediate environment and the grander, wider universe, to find meaning and possibly to control the elements favourably.
Among those motifs repeated across cultures are the melding of human and animal forms, the importance of water and the power of words, spoken and then written as writing became more common yet still primarily within the realm only of the governing classes, yet enraptured by his immersion in his subject Gosden is too credulous, dismissing “the cultural role that science claimed for itself” as easily as the hippy movement’s belief in leylines while failing to apply the same standards to his own dubious inferences.
It is easy to understand why one would wish to believe rather than disbelieve, the former offering the illusion that we are significant, that we will have the chance to survive and thrive, but while an astrological project lasting seven hundred years may undeniably be “longer than anything in modern science,” that does not mean the belief that the stars chart human destiny and fate is anything other than erroneous and that the effort was misguided, based on a profoundly false premise.
The methods and language of these aims having evolved, what was once termed “magic” is simply a term, a passage which has led us to an era when to many it is synonymous with superstition and as easily dismissed, yet Gosden persists that a resurgence in magic will be needed if threats such as climate change are to be addressed: “the western world finds magic most controversial, but it is the western world that is… most in need of a change of attitude.”
The History of Magic as comprehensive a work as can be expected on a subject which is reconstructed through an incomplete and ambiguous record recovered through ancient burial mounds and sites such as Stonehenge, Gosden pointing out that we see the only the final state of a structure reshaped over hundreds of years whose meaning and purpose at any past moment may have little continuity subsequent interpretations, his work is most interesting as an archaeological and anthropological study rather than as a pointer to any secret knowledge or eternal truths.
The History of Magic is available now from Penguin