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  • Magic: A History, from Alchemy to Witchcraft, from the Ice Age to the Present by Chris Gosden
  • Michael D. Bailey

magic, witchcraft, archeology, alchemy, worldview, definition of magic, shamanism, China

chris gosden. Magic: A History, from Alchemy to Witchcraft, from the Ice Age to the Present. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020. Pp. 492.

This is a revolutionary book in many ways. It attempts to decenter the history of magic from Western Europe and to displace the medieval and early modern periods from that history's chronological core. As an archeologist, Gosden is well-positioned to bring the deep history of magic to light and to work on a global scale. He is also inclined to stress the material record magic has left, rather than focusing exclusively on its textual trail, and he emphasizes the quotidian as much as he can. Moreover, although he puts witchcraft in his title, he largely avoids retelling the history of magic's legal or social condemnation. His most revolutionary step, however, is to propose an overarching definition of magic that hearkens back to those advanced by late-nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century anthropologists, although he is quick to decry their teleology and Western triumphalism.

There is much to like in Gosden's maneuvers. He wants to be global, for example, although he falls somewhat short in this attempt. Excluding his more conceptual first and last chapters, his book has eight regional/chronological chapters, the majority of which (five) still focus on the West. The rest of the world is then covered in a single chapter on China, one on Eurasian shamanism, and one that lumps together Africa, Australia, and the Americas. One might have hoped that Gosden's archeological approach would allow those last three regions to stand more independently alongside the literate, text-producing societies of the West and East Asia. Instead, we are told (about Africa at least) that "the archeological record provides us with little that we can recognize as magical" (293). Instead, Gosden focuses mainly on these regions' colonial and postcolonial periods, thereby framing them in terms of their relationship to the modern West. He omits South Asia entirely, claiming not too little information on that region but too much, more than he can reasonably synthesize (27–28).

Gosden's archeological bent leads him to favor, as much as he can, the material record of magic, but this introduces its own problems. Objects in isolation are not often completely comprehensible. In particular, very few [End Page 114] objects are obviously or explicitly magical; they must be interpreted as such, and these interpretations can be open to debate. Gosden also wants to emphasize the widespread and quotidian presence of magic in human societies, but he acknowledges that many archeological records, like written ones, more directly reflect elite practices. Finally, he wants to argue that magic was not just present but a positive force throughout human history, which leads him to avoid extended discussions of harmful magic or many societies' anxieties or outright condemnations of what they regard as magic. This is also reflective of the largest innovation in Gosden's approach: his promotion of a universalizing definition of magic, which carries some cost in terms of specific, contextual understandings.

Ever since the rupture between anthropological and historical approaches to magic in the 1970s, scholars have largely turned away from sweeping systematization to focus instead on specific instantiations of magical practice and belief. This has rendered comparative work difficult and has led some to reject the category of "magic" altogether. Gosden, in contrast, joins a growing group of scholars who are returning to larger comparative frameworks, but he does not directly engage with any of them. Instead, he frames his work entirely in terms of the outmoded anthropology of E. B. Tylor and James Frazer. He castigates their evolutionary interpretation, which drew a trajectory from "primitive" magic through religion to modern scientific rationality, but his own system is quite similar in some of its fundamentals.

Gosden frames magic through its relationship with religion and science. He frequently asserts that the three are not necessarily antagonistic and in fact work best in conjunction, but at other points he sets up...


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pp. 114-117
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