I have always had an interest in magic. A teacher I really liked used to reward my class by doing card tricks on festive occasions. My mother was Irish and superstitious. Ruth & I went to a cabaret the last time we were in Sydney and met a magician. Both Ruth and I became fascinated by Santaria while in Cuba. We saw practitioners of Santaria on Cuban streets. I look for and visit attractions like Newgrange that have a magical history. The teacher was really adept at card tricks and could have been a professional card sharp or entertainer. Growing up, I was forever throwing salt over my shoulder and would avoid walking under ladders. I’m no longer superstitious. The magician didn’t like me taking notes and was fearful that I would reveal his secrets. He kept making comments about my intentions. It was uncomfortable.
Due to this interest in magic, I had to get and read a new book about this subject when it came to my attention. Called Magic: A History, it was written by Chris Gosden a professor at Oxford University. He struck me as both informed and wise, and I loved reading his 2020 book. Its subtitle “….from Alchemy to Witchcraft from THE ICE AGE to THE PRESENT ” promises and delivers.
Having been raised in a Catholic family, I was especially interested in Chapter 7. It was called “Jewish, Greek and Roman Magic (c. 1000 BCE–1000 CE)” and began with this provocative sentence, “The idea of miracles has complicated the relationship between magic and religion for at least 3,000 years.” The Old and New Testaments are full of miracles from Noah who spent a lot of time on water to Jesus Christ who literally walked on water. Prior to reading this book, I didn’t know much about Jewish and Arabic magical traditions, but I quickly learned. I didn’t know, for example, that Muhammed worked miracles. On the very first page of this chapter, Gosden notes that both Jesus and Muhammed “…exorcised demons, healed the sick and raised the dead….” By page 2 of Chapter 7 Gosden was telling me what I already knew,”…Magic is intimately bound up with religion for the Greeks and Romans, somewhat more removed for Jews”. But there was a lot I didn’t know too. As the Romans adopted Greek gods and changed their names, “Roman magic echoed that of Greece, with an emphasis on curses and love magic….” And it struck me as essentially true that none of the religions that existed at the time of the New Testament and later can be truly understood without a focus on their magical connections.
Ruth delighted in my delight at finding this book to read, and she often asked me questions about it as I proceeded. The book got even better than before in the last chapter when Gosden’s beliefs and research came to a dynamite conclusion on the final page. Four pages before that, I pointed out a paragraph to Ruth that I really related to. She liked it so much that she copied it. It has to do with the continuity that is sadly lacking in Western Thought for now. Humans today, in our opinion, lose a sense of the continuity inherent in past and future generations. I copied the paragraph fully below, even though it’s long.
“At present in the West we mourn that the dead are no longer living, instead of honouring them as ancestral forces and presences. There is much current interest in family history, but this is not translated into a broader cultural sense that we, the living, are a moving moment in the generations of the world, with a responsibility towards those yet unborn in the same way that earlier generations had a responsibility to us.”
Gosden has a healthy respect for Haida artist Bill Reid, whom we got to know on our last trip to Vancouver, BC where there’s a museum devoted to him. Ruth, who seldom buys souvenirs, bought a copy of his salmon. It’s above and hanging in one of our rooms. Throughout his book Gosden frequently refers to the triple helix of magic, religion, and science. “Magic, religion, and science becomes something of a mantra for him as human endeavors become intertwined over time. I’m really glad I read this book.