Tag Archives: folk magic

Reading Roundup: 5 September 2012


Marvin Meyer, a scholar whose work I encountered last year & has deeply influenced my understanding of magic & religion, has recently passed away. The only work of his I’m particularly familiar with was an accidental find at a library booksale, Ancient Christian Magic.


Humanist pagans on the rise? If paganism isn’t about polytheism, what IS it about? Humanist pagans pose an issue for a lot of scholars of modern paganism.


This strange, rambling essay is about this author’s belief that esoteric beliefs fuels fanaticism, particularly racial fanaticism. His belief that the belief in a literal esoteric cosmology populated with spirits of any kind results in a delusional belief in conspiracies is… well, not particularly well-articulated here. Part of the larger, ongoing belief that “enlightened” people live in a disenchanted universe, and people who believe in an enchanted universe engage in “magical thinking” according to psychological boundaries and need help before they hurt someone. On the other hand, what might be seen as validating his argument is that in my own life there are people who have decided their (self-generated, clearly result-of-bad-choices) problems are all my fault because I’ve cursed them. And yet in many societies, an active belief in evil spirits and malicious magic-workers is an important part of constructing social boundaries and maintaining social control — are we to consign all such people as delusional? Spiritual healing in many communities is understood to stem from spiritual issues caused by interactions with non-physical but malicious entities impacting the physical body. Is it only insanity when white people in the West do it, or is the whole non-Western world actually deranged? Suffice to say, I have some issues with his premise.


This ancient charms are thought to have been a form of sympathetic magic to gain control over animals. If true, this might qualify this kind of magic  as one of the oldest in the books.


This is one of the more interesting discussions of “animism” I’ve seen recently. It gets at part of what is problematic about the schema of “animism” as a “worldview” which is neatly and categorically ordered into a hierarchy of spirits with discrete and universally agreed upon traits. I am reminded a bit of Karen McCarthy Brown’s discussion of the Lwa has having agreed-upon traits and definitions in a single community. You know who is speaking based on which traits the participants agrees they recognize, but should a performance feature traits not expected or fail to deliver traits come to be felt as familiar, markers of identity might shift if a spirit is otherwise positively identified. Likewise there seems to be an implication that there is a lot of fluidity about how spirits are understood, and people are content not to ask too many questions until something arises in which thinking about how spirits organize themselves, what rituals are efficacious for which purposes, and so on, become important.

Hmm. Do we forget that religious rituals and beliefs, when integrated into daily life, become invisible to us, the same way that we don’t put much thought into the deeper meaning of making dinner or brushing our teeth?


Animism apparently cannot be defined within modern terminology without applying to it a set of unquestioned assumptions that are the fundaments of modernity, and in whose matrix we necessarily operate as long as we assume that the question is one of determining the “correct” distinction between life and non-life, self and world. These assumptions are already manifest when it is described, in a seemingly neutral terms, as the belief of some cultures that nature is populated by spirits or souls. The very meaning these terms carry within modernity imply that such belief is at worst mistaken—that is, failing to account for how things really are—or at best symbolic representations of social relations projected onto a natural environment that is indifferent to them. When we use the term animism, we have thus already entered into the narrative structure and self-mythologies of modernity. And these narratives cannot but deny reality to what they construct as modernity’s other. Mobilizing the grounds would require that we question the very meaning of terms such as “belief,” “spirits,” ”souls,” “projection,” “fiction,” and even “life,” as well as the historical role they have played in Western modernity as part of a disciplinary system of divisions that organize a modern “reality principle,” ghettoizing modernity’s discontents as “fiction,” “aesthetics,” or “primitive animism.”

These incredibly dense notes on an exhibition about animism, challenging both animism as a category of interpretation and the worldview that leads to such a category, is… well, incredible. But dense. I spent 3 days chewing on the contents of these exhibition notes, trying to decide what to say about them. Challenging the worldview that creates a divide between “animism” and “rationalism”, otherizes animistic beliefs as “primitive” or “premodern” and pathologizes belief in an animated, aware universe that shapes us in return to being shaped by us,  the exhibition asks the question of what dismantling this division might mean for western society, art, psychology, and political engagement.

The exhibitation notes aren’t the only thing from the e-flux issue dedicated to animism worth a serious look. A lot of it isn’t in my fields of interest and can go over my head (I confess!) but it’s still a serious, rigorous collection, including scholars I’ve been told to keep an eye on, like Michael Taussig. You may see more of my notes on this issue of e-flux in days to come.

Reading Roundup: 16 August 2012

Is Obesity Actually a Taboo from a Magical Point of View? at Esoteric School of Shamanism and Magic Blog.

I sadly cannot find a link to the original post this referenced (it appears to have been deleted), but it argued that obesity is against pagan morals and values because it is harmful to the body and can kill you, and pagans shouldn’t die of preventable diseases. The reply is, apparently, more nuanced than the original, but trying to track down the reference to the “Navajo Beauty Way” led me down a curious and puzzling path of intersection between Native American traditions and their uses out of context by white Westerners. Still trying to get the pieces of this one together which rather distracted me from the original post. Another theme of the blog post, their “Rules of the Road”, seemed worth consideration with regards to ethics:

The magician judges the “goodness” or “badness” of his or her own acts, whether they are conscious or unconscious acts, on the basis of what the Universe reflects back on him or her. The same is true of judging others, entire communities, states, or nations.

How problematic this approach can be. It can be very comforting in some hands (who isn’t satisfied when somebody petty, selfish, & mean “gets it” when their own actions backfire on them?) and on the others it can lead to very strange, fallacious logic which blames victims for their own suffering (for example: “Voodoo is a violent belief system, that is why Haiti is poor & oppressed”, a sentiment really expressed to me this year).  But how are we to regard the ethics of our behavior, from where do we look for the sense that our ethical stances make sense? If we don’t believe in “Instant Karma”, how do we conceptualize “cosmic justice” that isn’t arbitrary, cruel, or more problematic than it is satisfying?

The Talmud’s Many Demons

A discussion of demons & the practical magic used to see them in Talmud. While the author is perturbed to see a belief in demons & the magic that unveils them (and the deeper theological implication in a belief in demons & spirits, which is at odds with his modern understanding of monotheism), the spell he includes is extremely interesting. In previous semester work I had difficulty tracking down references to Jewish magic, so this one delighted me.

 And there are magical ways of making demons show themselves. All you have to do is find a black female cat who is the firstborn daughter of a firstborn mother, burn her placenta to ashes, grind the ashes, and put some of them in your eye, and you will be able to see the demons. Be sure, however, to place the remainder of the ashes in a sealed iron tube, lest the demons steal it from you.

It show some markers of folk magic I would expect; the magical qualities of  black cat (as a black cat owner I’m gratified to see it doesn’t advocate harm to cats in any way!), the power of placentas to show things which would otherwise remain hidden,  the importance of birth order, and the power of fire to render things into usable form. I’m not sure I’d want to put something as unhygienic as placenta ash in my eyes, but perhaps this is why I don’t see demons…

The Kabbalah: Letter and Spirit (Visual Discourse)

In more links to Jewish studies, here is a beautiful group of historical images relating to themes of Jewish Kabbalah with some explanations, focusing mostly on its mystical and meditative qualities.

Art and Occultism (Visual Discourse)

By the same author, it is an interesting & eclectic offering of mostly (but not exclusively) 19th century occult ideas & their depictions in art.

Giordano Bruno’s Definition of Magic

An excerpt of definitions of magic. Quite interesting/useful. For my research I particularly like these two:

Second, ‘magician’ refers to someone who does wondrous things merely by manipulating active and passive powers, as occurs in chemistry, medicine and such fields; this is commonly called ‘natural magic’.

Fourth, magic refers to what happens as a result of the powers of attraction and repulsion between things, for example, the pushes, motions and attractions due to magnets and such things, when all these actions are due not to active and passive qualities but rather to the spirit or soul existing in things. This is called ‘natural magic’ in the proper sense.

This one might perhaps offend pagans of my acquaintance, but this kind of rhetoric used to be common:

The sixth sense adds to this the exhortation or invocation of the intelligences and external or higher forces by means of prayers, dedications, incensings, sacrifices, resolutions and ceremonies directed to the gods, demons and heroes. Sometimes, this is done for the purpose of contacting a spirit itself to become its vessel and instrument in order to appear wise, although this wisdom can be easily removed, together with the spirit, by means of a drug. This is the magic of the hopeless, who become the vessels of evil demons, which they seek through their notorious art. On the other hand, this is sometimes done to command and control lower demons with the authority of higher demonic spirits, by honouring and entreating the latter while restricting the former with oaths and petitions. This is transnatural or metaphysical magic and is properly called ‘theurgy’.

The astonishing 2,500 year old tattoos of a Siberian princess, and how they reveal little has changed in the way we decorate our bodies

The “Siberian Princess” found in the Russian permafrost has tattoos of animals significant in Siberian spiritual practices, including deer, and some of what she was buried with indicates she might be a healer or a spiritual leader. The tattoos themselves are beautiful, and the art forms surprised me with their similarity to medieval art found in Ireland. “Not much changes”, indeed.