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The Hidden Truth and Enduring Appeal of Magic

A professor’s mammoth history of wizardry argues that it has a role to play alongside science and religion

Next time you’re jerking off and approaching the big O, try casting a spell instead of muttering “Mamma mia!” That’s right. I’m talking about sex magick. Practitioners of sex magick believe orgasm channels cosmic energies, and if directed with intention, can achieve certain outcomes. Sex magick was popularized by occultist Aleister Crowley, a bisexual, libertarian, trust-fund baby whose mom called him “The Beast.” Crowley was also a prolific author who fancied himself an übermensch and founded a religion called Thelema, centering himself as the prophet. 

Though the idea of sex magick is fascinating and Crowley strikes me as an intriguing huckster, both of these phenoms are just footnotes in Chris Gosden’s mammoth history, Magic, which offers a comprehensive introduction to all things magic. It’s sort of like Harry Potter meets ancient Mesopotamia. 

To be clear, Gosden isn’t concerned with magicians, with the David Copperfields, David Blaines and other showy Davids whose sleight of hand relies on deceiving viewers. On the contrary, he’s interested in shamans from Siberia and Sir Isaac Newton’s experiments in alchemy, the aboriginals of Australia and all my friends who consult Co-Star regularly. He’s interested in magic as a lens to viewing the world, one that advances a more holistic understanding of it. 

Magic, as Gosden sees it, is “human participation in the universe.” In other words, he views magic as a mutual exchange between humans and the universe, wherein “we feel our words and actions can enact change in the universe,” and vice versa. He distinguishes between malign or dark magic, such as witchcraft and curses, and benign magic, like scrying, alchemy and communicating with ancestors. 

As Gosden proves in his doorstopper of a book, which spans from the ice age to present-day Big Witch Energy, magic has always been with us and, not until recently, was it shown the door by religion and science. Max Weber, the famed sociologist, argued “modernity came about through a process of disenchantment” and saw “the loss of magic” as “an inevitable aspect of progress, with reason being necessary to administer and provision mass societies.” Part of Gosden’s project then is to restore magic to equal footing with science and religion as a legitimate form of meaning-making. These three strands of thought aren’t mutually exclusive, often co-exist and even feed into one another, which is why Gosden describes them as a “triple helix.” 

Gosden shows how many disciplines intellectuals or rationalists might scoff at today (alchemy, astrology) prefigured modern sciences (chemistry and medicine, astronomy and mathematics). Sir Isaac Newton, the father of modern-day physics, practiced astrology, was a student of alchemy, and like many of his contemporaries, avidly “sought the philosopher’s stone as the key to the unity underlying the universe.” “Alchemy and magical thought formed the framework Newton used to try unsuccessfully, to create a fully holistic understanding of the universe,” Gosden writes.

Many historians are quick to frame the development of human society and civilization strictly in economic terms (for example, as populations grew, so too did the need for housing and a systematic means for procuring food; hence: agriculture). But in Gosden’s view, evidence of these early congregate settlements point more to magical or spiritual communion. In speaking of the Göbekli Tepe, a somewhat recent discovery of a hunter and gatherer settlement in Turkey, Gosden argues, “People’s main preoccupations seem to have been in the ritual itself; they were not intending to become farmers, and this change was an accidental outcome of population growth and aggregation.”

I once heard someone say the historian’s task is like reconstructing an ice castle from a melted puddle. When I relay this anecdote to Gosden, an archaeologist by training, he laughs and adds, “The archaeologist’s puddle is often dried up as well.” Archaeologists are dealing with mere crumbs of human existence, and as Gosden points out, archaeology is often described as “the science of rubbish,” meaning archaeologists study the stuff people deliberately threw away. “When you think about it, quite a lot of your life goes into the garbage can,” Gosden says.

Stitching together a speculative narrative from thousand-year-old trash requires extraordinary imaginative prowess and the uncanny ability to vacate one’s mind of deeply embedded presumptions of how the world works. To my mind, this is a kind of sorcery in and of itself. Echoing the famed anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard, Gosden argues that, if one can accept different cultural premises, then the logic of magic is as airtight and as plausible as empirical science. 

Of course, this begs the question, what is the logic of magic? 

Whereas science focuses on causation, the relationships between cause and effect, magic focuses on correlation, at patterns and similarities, and introduces a “strong moral dimension” to lines of inquiry. When someone falls ill, science asks how and magic asks why. Medicine treats the immediate symptoms, but magic gets at the root cause of the problem. 

Though Gosden is unaware of any instances of anti-pandemic magic practices and public-health experts insist there’s no “magic bullet” to stop COVID-19, he assures me “illness and wellness is a major concern of magic.” “Prior to the development of germ theory, many people thought illness was some sort of possession by a demon or a devil.” When I ask what magical hexes or amulets Gosden might deploy to ward off the pandemic, he pauses before describing a ritual that was once used to treat tinnitus. In it, the final step was to make an image of the illness, of the demon, and tie it to a tree with the hopes that the demon would haunt the tree instead. 

“Kind of like a scary piñata,” I reply. 

As such, after our conversation, I procure some rope, a featureless piñata, red Solo cups and hot glue and make my own devil coronavirus visage. I’ve got a bat at the ready, and I’m more than willing to make a little magic it if the vaccine rollout continues to drag.