Magic: A History: From Alchemy to Witchcraft from the Ice Age to the Present

Magic: A History: From Alchemy to Witchcraft from the Ice Age to the Present

New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2020. 512 pp., paper, $20.

Magic has a history. It encompasses all cultures and climates and was developing long before the emergence of anatomically modern humans some 200,000 years ago. It is a history with no beginning and no end in sight. Evidently, to be human means somehow to believe in or practice magic, or both.

In this ambitious work, one of the world’s leading archaeologists tells one of the most varied and fascinating stories imaginable. According to Gosden, magic is not a survival from the discredited past or a sideshow in what some would call an age of progress. It is a window into the mystery of human experience in all times and places—from paleolithic to postmodern, from south to north.

Gosden is well known among scholars of prehistory, including the handful who can read hieroglyphics. An Oxford professor long associated with Britain’s Pitt Rivers Museum, he has worked at some of the world’s most important archaeological sites and invested a career into the pre-Roman history of the British people. His research is especially notable for its attention to the tragic effects of modern colonization on ancient cultures. Though committed to the rigor of his discipline, Gosden comes across in his publications as a real person, with genuine respect for persons of past eras. He knows the classic literature of E.B. Tyler, E.E. Evans-Pritchard, and James Frazer, but patronizing armchair theory is part of the past he is willing to discard.

Still, there is hubris behind the humility, or at least remarkable confidence. No one writes a 40,000-year survey without some acquaintance with audacity. Throughout the text, Gosden takes on one of the most contested questions in cultural studies: the meaning and relevance of magic. In harmony with G.K. Chesterton’s notion of the democracy of the dead, he maintains that the majority of people who have lived on earth have professed and performed some form of magic. The evidence for this claim, he says, is stretched across six continents and buried beneath the modern world’s secular cities. Some of the evidence is on the bookcases and domestic altars of the residents of those cities. Gosden traces the long arc of magic’s storied past, but he also speaks in present and future tense. What is most important about his account is the recognition of magic’s normality. Magic is as human as cooking food, making love, counting days, and caring for the deceased. It may even be the source of some of those phenomena. 

The defining characteristics of magic, according to Gosden, are kinship and participation—feelings of connection with a universe that feels back and the exercise of agency in processes that foster alignment with (and alteration of) an interactive cosmos. He contrasts magic with other strands of a “triple helix” woven into the fabric of history. Religion orients life toward deities and sparks hierarchy and institution building. Science detaches people from nature and divorces morality from knowledge. Magic highlights the power within human personality, while eliminating any sense of human privilege. Contending with the paradigm that dismisses magic and religion as failed attempts to do what only science can do, Gosden acknowledges that all three elements are in a state of constant flux, with only blurry boundaries between them. He sees twenty-first-century science, liberated from Victorian pretense, as amenable to a new chapter in magic’s evolution.

Gosden’s marshalling of support for his argument is wizardry itself. Proceeding at a rate of a century a page, his ten-chapter narrative moves seamlessly from ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt to east Asia, the Eurasian steppe, prehistoric Europe, Africa, Australia, and the Americas—from the end of the Ice Age to today. The book’s generous images paint a panorama of one generation after another, “curating,” as he puts it, a direct relationship with a living universe: scarab rings from Egypt’s Twelfth Dynasty, plastered skulls from Jericho, monoliths in the middle of Asia’s vast prairie, onions stuck up the chimney of an English pub, mouse oracle bowls from Côte d’Ivoire, and the first known written use of “abracadabra.”  

When Gosden was face-to-face with a much older illustrated history of magic, on rock walls far below the surface of the French countryside, he said he felt a “shiver.” This is the reaction triggered by his stunning chronicle. Other histories penetrate deeper into lineages and treasures of forgotten libraries. Gosden’s is the saga of anonymous magic enacted by people who invented things like agriculture, architecture, gods, and beer. Thanks to his craft, we touch the “fine textures of past lives”—lives whose audacious genius may offer everyday wisdom for the newest age of global warming.

Peter A. Huff

Peter A. Huff, an academic administrator and professor of religious studies, is the author or editor of seven books, including the forthcoming Atheism and Agnosticism.