Ink drawing of a man in a red cloak escaping a bubble of magic and stars with a brightly colors sun out to a chaotic starry ski

Anthropology of Magic and Its Elements Over A Period of Time

Magic, mythology, witchcraft, superstitions, religion – all names to identify the unseen. Elements of life that we can’t fully explain as humans.

Life, love and death are common themes in stories about humanity. Such mysteries have been fascinating for centuries. As we continue to pursue these marvels, we have found many different answers.

Ancient times brought us to believe gods were walking among us. Religions provide their own explanations for life. And still we see magic take it’s hold in society today.

From birthday parties to spiritual practices, magic is actively part of our lives. Yet despite being so normalized, it’s also regularly painted in a negative light.

Here, we’re going to learn what makes magic seem dangerous and where such ideas came from. But to start, let’s take a closer look at the history of magic.

Origins of Magic

Black background with magic book lying open, blue and purple swirls glowing from the open pages
Credit: Blossom and Berry

History of magic doesn’t have an exact point of creation. Origins of magic, on the other hand, can be traced right back to ourselves. There’s a difference between the beginning of magic and the origin of magic. The beginning of something is when that thing started. We can’t trace the beginnings of magic because it was so long ago. Also, people weren’t really writing things down at that time. But we can trace the origins, or source, of magic. And that source is our brains.

Each organization or practice of magic has an in-depth explanation of their own history. But we can also see it from a broad perspective of overall magic. Anthropologists have categorized magic origins into five sections:

  1. Explanation of Surroundings. A classic origin of magic, it works to explain how things came to be. Some people see this as the history of the universe. Others see it as a religion. Still some see it as magic. Our brains explain our surroundings by giving credit to something “other”, something more powerful than we can understand.
  2. Avoiding Catastrophies. Humans are constantly trying to avoid the things that cause them pain, which makes sense. Magic can work as a form of avoidance. Our brains can understanding suffering better if we have a place for blame. Magic provides us with that area of blame. It also gives us hope that we can avoid such suffering in the future.
  3. Preservation. Similarly thought as avoidance, but the complete opposite. Where avoidance wants to keep things away, preservation wants to keep things the same. As a way to maintain the current order, magic works as a glue for life. Again, it gives our brains a reason for why things do or do not go as planned.
  4. Children’s Stories. This explanation says that people have created the stories of magic. More specifically, children’s imaginations have created them. Along with routine parental threats, kids brains run wild with ideas of something “other”. These ideas are very logical to young children. As they grow up, their logic becomes habit, and habit becomes practice.
  5. Deliberate Creation. When people purposefully create stories of magic aligned with ones that already exist. Believing to have occurred after the first four, this is a later addition to the list. Using the other methods as backdrops, deliberate magic works as warnings, encouragement, and continued explanations of life’s mysteries.

Magic Over Time

Chief archaeologist holds small gold rectangle, about the size of a pinky, with ancient spells carved into gold.
Credit: The Guardian

Early Magic

While we aren’t able to trace back to the first form of magic, we do know it’s been here for a really long time. One of the oldest pieces of evidence comes from Serbia. Buried next to skeleton remains, there were tiny scrolls of gold and silver. Each scroll had Aramaic writing engraved on it, a Greek and Middle Eastern Derivative.

Archaeologists believe the scrolls to be magic spells that were buried with their owners. In reading the scrolls, they found names of Syrian demons. While they don’t know he exact reason for these scrolls, it wasn’t uncommon for people to cast such spells. Especially in tombs, people always wanted to bring some extra luck with them in the afterlife.

Earlier still, there are suggestions that cavemen were using magic. Paintings of hunts going well were believed to be predictions or omens for a good hunt. These theories of magic, unlike the tiny scrolls, cannot be proven. Instead, they are assumptions made from knowledge of other magic practices.

Growth of Magic

Outside of death, people would also cast similar scroll spells for a various of other reasons. Be it looking for love, being brave, or finding one’s way home, magic was always an answer. A lot of the fascination with magic came from the Middle East. Mesopotamia and surrounding areas shared beliefs of nature’s power. From other-world beings to human-like deities, magic was their governing force.

Evidence shows that magic was practiced in many countries, including Egypt and Greece. Magic often worked as an early source of explanation for these people. Sorcery was both an act of creating magic as well as observing magic that nature provided. We’ll learn more about the different kinds of magic further in the article.

As time went on, people continued to find new explanations for the world around them. After 1500, Judeo-Christianity began to get a foothold in European countries. During the Medieval time period and into colonialism, these Christian thoughts were spread along with their land.

Religion and Magic

Ink drawing of a man in a red cloak escaping a bubble of magic and stars with a brightly colors sun out to a chaotic starry ski
Credit: San Jose State University

Religion acted as more than just an expansion of magic, it was also a military tactic. In order to bring more communities under European command, soldiers had to get people to listen to them. A frequent way of doing this was through religion. European soldiers saw the magic traditions people practiced and explained how they were “supposed to be” Christian believers.

Instead of forcing new ideas into communities, soldiers convinced them Christianity was the next version, or step, in their beliefs. This idea latched on pretty well. Scholars theorized that beliefs advanced parallel to a society’s advancement. Still today, many people see religion as the next phase in belief systems and magic as the savage original.

We now know that this is entirely incorrect. While many small, rural societies do have magic beliefs, it is not because they are savage or less advanced. Rather, it is simply their belief systems.

Religion and magic can be separated from each other by religion being organized, and magic more chaotic. That is not to say that magic doesn’t have any organization. Rather, religion is focused on organization, whereas magic is focused on the practices.

The hierarchy of magic and religion was only created because Europeans needed a way to expand Christianity. Organization of religion worked excellently to explanation the disorder of magic. Expansion of colonial communities only furthered this structure when science came into the picture.

Science and Magic

Black and white sketch of Issac Newton examining a prism as light passes through it.
Credit: The Irish Times

Later in the timeline, science became a regular part of society. As people learned how the world worked, they didn’t need magic to explain life’s mysteries. Science gave communities more knowledge than they previously had. In turn, they were able to use this knowledge to better their societies.

Instead of understanding magic to be a part of society that is important on it’s own, scholars of this time added it to the hierarchy. Religion was seen as an advancement of magic, and now science was an advancement of religion. Scientists turned the hierarchy into a pyramid:

Blue 2-d pyramid with bottom section titled “magic”, middle as “religion” and top as “science”
Credit: Adobe Illustrator

After many years of in-depth study on magicians and practicing communities, anthropologists learned that the relationship is more along the lines of this:

Ven diagram of three circles, each with a title of “religion”, “science” and “magic”, indicating how the three are interconnected
Credit: SlideShare

Magic as Witchcraft

Top view of a women raising hands inside a chalk painted pentagram with papers and smoke laying about.
Credit: Times Higher Education

Explaining magic as a savage version of religion and science allowed people to think that magic was also savage. Many Europeans painted magic as dark, evil, and cruel. While there are some elements of magic that are evil, it is not in all forms.

From necromancy to divination, Europeans regularly saw magic rituals as dark events. Where Christianity believed all things dark to be evil, magic saw them as part of life. Just because there was darkness in something or someone, it did not mean they were doomed.

History shows us that magic and witchcraft were separate belief systems at one point. Today, we frequently lump these two together. Magic and witchcraft do have a lot in common, but they are separate in some instances.

Generally, witchcraft is a larger practice that involves magic. Magic is the act of witchcraft; spells, sorcery, etc. Magic can be part of other things, but witchcraft always uses magic.

One of the most prominent places we see magic as witchcraft is with the famous Salem Witch Trials. These infamous events showed just how powerful people’s words can be – whether they are magic or not.

Particularly in American culture, witchcraft has become entirely associated with women. Just as before, Christianity pushed for a strange form of organization. Puritan Christianity took the stage and insisted that women remain mothers and caretakers.

Women who did not comply were cast as witches. Too many or too few children indicated that the woman was dealing with the devil. Outspoken, wealthy, or funny were all indicators that women could be witches.

Events such as this, as well as other less known witch trials, created a new idea of witch hunts. Rather than attacking people who practiced magic, people today are attacked for going against society’s norms.

What is Magic?

Human hands holding jar above bowl of herbs with candles and herbs surrounding the bowl, a light whips of smoke on the table indicating some use of magic
Credit: The Conversation

We know how we, as humans, came to create magic. And we see there has been a long and diverse history of magic. What actually is magic, though?

In comparison with science and religion, magic can be defined more by what it is not. Magic is not an organized set of beliefs that individuals need to follow. Nor is it a studied practices has physical evidence. It falls into the category into superstition, witchcraft, and mythology as modern Western ideas have pushed them aside.

While we see magic today as rabbits form top hats and the expansion of colonialism, it had roots in things much more mundane. Astrology, meditation, and alchemy are examples of every day practices that seemed like magic.

Magic can be understood to have these purposes:

  • Obtainment of power, knowledge, wealth and/or love
  • Healing people
  • Fighting off danger and illness
  • Guaranteed success
  • Harming other people
  • Revealing information
  • Transformation (physical or non-physical)
  • Entertainment

If we allow ourselves to believe in magic, we see that it does have some sense of order. Not as strict as religion, but magic can be separated into categories.

Separation of Magic

Divided generally, there is a difference between High Magic and Low Magic. High Magic is known as “intellectual elite”, a practice for those who are trained in the art. Low Magic can be described as “common folk practices”, for those who are not trained.

This is not to be confused with Black Magic and White Magic. Where High and Low Magic are about the intelligence of the practitioner, White and Black Magic are about the intentions. White Magic refers to all that has a positive, or beneficial purpose. Black Magic on the other hand is sorcery with harmful intent.

We can see from the list above how magic and those practicing can fall under the four categories of magic. While the four areas are separated from each other, they are not exclusive. Instead, magic works as a grid, in which it can be both White and Low, or Black and High.

No matter the use of magic, each magician believes that they are harnessing the power of something, or someone, else. An “other” that is greater than out world.

Elements of Magic

Four of the most central elements of magic that can be found in all practices include:

  • Spells
  • Materials
  • Rituals/Rites
  • Functions

Let’s break these down further and see what we’re really getting at.


Flattened pamphlet of ancient magic spells
Credit: The British Library

Also known as incantations or charms, anthropologists explain that spells can be used in many ways. Words, poems, or numbers can be used as a way to draw power from that other worldly being. Spells are not commonly known and often only used within a spall circle of people.

Secrecy is kept in small spell casting groups through the use of ancient languages. Only people who have been allowed in the group will have the knowledge of the spells. Keeping spells within a small circle will also continue the usage of the ancient language, being that groups are not allowed to translate the spells.

For example, the Maori people of New Zealand believe that when words or mispronounced or sentences mixed up, that natural disasters occur.

Spells can also be repeated sounds or syllables that create a spiritual feeling. Mediums and mystics use tactics like these when communicating with spirits. And of course, we see the famous spell “abracadabra” in all house parties.


Tarot cards at the bottom of the image, lying on a white table, surrounded by book, crystals, jewelry, and other magical materials
Credit: Good Witches Homestead

Materials refers to all the physical elements that are used in ceremonies. These can be herbs, gems, animals, or special trinkets.

Physical elements such as these can be referred to as “medicines”, as they work to fulfill the purpose of the magic. Also referred to as medicines because many people thought that medicine was magic in ancient times. As people learned of special properties of various plants, the medicine men were considered magicians.

Materials can also include things for evil practices, such as poison. Sometimes materials are directly related to the rituals, like pouring water so that it will rain. Other times, it’s more part of the process, like offering food to spirits.


Four women standing in a candle lit circle on the sand at night partaking in a magic ritual.
Credit: Time

Rituals are a big part of magic as well. Similarly to the spells that are used, only certain people can practice magic. Even when there’s a large audience, all in participation need to be allowed. In some cases, this is seen as purifying the magician or onlookers. Other times, it’s part of being in the small circle where only few can partake.

Magicians also need to go through rites themselves. Keeping to a life style of no relationships, strict dieting, and being alcohol-free are some examples. Modern performance magicians on the other hand do not practice such rites.

Performance magicians do not necessarily believe in a connection to the “other”, but instead are focused on illusions. But we’ll talk about modern magicians in a little bit.


Photoshop image of a full tree within a shattered glass orb
Credit: European Commission

Last, there is the function of magic. A function relates to the quadrants we mentioned before. Whether the magic is goof or bad, intelligent or fun. Anthropologists who have studied magic see that it’s function can be broken into three types:

  1. Productive
  2. Protective
  3. Destructive

Similar to the purpose of magic, the function tells what the point of the spell is for. Function also works as a way to measure how well the magician is doing. It also informs the practitioner is they have a specialty in a certain area. The functions of a magician can define what rites, materials, and spells will be used to fulfill the purpose.

Magic and Anthropology

As we see from above, anthropologists have done a lot of work with magic. Studying the origins, methods, and results of magic, researchers have always been fascinated with the subject. On one hand, anthropologists have pushed the envelope too far.

In labeling magic, religion, and science into a hierarchical system, they invalidated a lot of people. But continued work has led them to see magic in a better light. Further research will allow anthropologists, and the general public, to see magic as it really is.

2 thoughts on “Anthropology of Magic and Its Elements Over A Period of Time

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