magic, in religion and superstition, the practice of manipulating and controlling the course of nature by preternatural means. Magic is based upon the belief that the universe is populated by unseen forces or spirits that permeate all things. Because these supernatural forces are thought to govern the course of natural events, control of these forces gives humans control over nature. The practice of magic is held to depend on the proper use of both the ritual and the spell. The spell, or incantation, is the core of the magical ceremony; it unlocks the full power of the ritual. The practice of magic, in seeking its desired end, may combines within its scope elements of religion and science. In alchemy, for example, the process of transmuting a base metal into gold requires precise weights and volumes of acids, bases, and catalysts as well as the reciting of holy passages and prayers.
Anthropologists often distinguish between two forms of magic, the sympathetic and the contiguous. Sympathetic magic works on the principle that like produces like. The Ojibwa of North America would make a wooden image of an enemy and then stick pins into it. Because the doll represented the enemy, harm done to the doll was believed to harm the enemy. Contiguous magic operates on the belief that things that have been in contact will continue to act on each other after the physical contact has ceased. The aborigines of Australia believe that they can lame a person by placing sharp pieces of quartz, glass, bone, or charcoal in that person's footprints. Sometimes both sympathetic and contiguous magic are used in conjunction; certain African tribespeople will build a clay effigy around nail clippings, hairs, or bits of cloth belonging to the enemy and roast the completed image slowly in a fire.
Not all magic is performed in order to harm or destroy, and for this reason a distinction is made between black magic and white magic. White magic is characterized by those rites and spells designed to produce beneficial effects for the community (see fertility rites) or for the individual, particularly in those cases where an illness is considered to be the result of evil demons or of black magic.
See J. Frazer, The Golden Bough (12 vol., 1907–15); L. Thorndike, History of Magic and Experimental Science (8 vol., 1923–58); B. Malinowski, Magic, Science, and Religion (1948); M. Bouisson, Magic: Its History and Principal Rites (tr. 1961); J. Middleton, comp., Magic, Witchcraft, and Curing (1967); M. Marwick, Witchcraft and Sorcery (1970); M. Christopher, The Illustrated History of Magic (1973).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.