Review – The History of Magic

Posted January 31, 2022 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The History of Magic by Chris GosdenThe History of Magic, Chris Gosden

You know the joke about archaeology where, if they don’t know what something is, it’s obviously for ritual purposes? That’s kind of how I find this book. Everything in the past that we don’t understand, as far as Gosden’s concerned, was done for ritual purposes. If someone in the pre-literate past got tattooed with a tiger, then they were trying to blend themselves with the tiger or take on some of the tiger’s power or express that they were a tiger.

I’m sure people with Hello Kitty tattoos will be pleased to know that absent written intention, going to the effort of having ink stamped into their skin means they are trying to take on the power of Hello Kitty for themselves.

It’s difficult to look at paintings deep within caves and see anything other than magic, but that’s the problem. We have no idea at all what they meant by it. Maybe it was just thrill-seeking, going deep into the dark to do something time-absorbing and difficult that might get interrupted by a bear. Maybe it was a rite of passage thing, without having to be magical.

Humans have done a lot of things for spiritual and magical reasons throughout our history, and of course it makes no sense to think that that suddenly emerged when literary did, so there must have been magic/ritual/supernatural beliefs at that time. I’m just sceptical that we can assume what those were from the meagre scraps in the archaeological record, or even if we do identify something as being a magical practice, whether we can correctly understand its intent. I think Gosden goes a little too far into interpretation, resulting in pages on pages of “perhaps they believed… maybe they wanted to… we can imagine that…”

When he discusses the archaeology and some basic interpretations of it, it’s very interesting, but the more he tries to embroider on it the more I feel like I’m reading nothing more than a flight of fancy. On the other hand, I’m sure it would have been a dry read without any imagination — it’s just a difficult balance. I think in this case he says “maybe” and “perhaps” so often that they become invisible, and then there’s a risk of taking his suppositions to be fact because they’re served up alongside it.

I sound very critical, but I did enjoy the reading experience and find the archaeology he described absolutely fascinating. I was more sceptical of his thesis that we should stay open to magic as a relevant way of interacting with the world, not because I disagree, but because I think he ended up then suggesting that if we’d all just believe in magic and go back to ancient beliefs about oneness with other species, we’d fix climate change and change our consumer lifestyles and so on. The problem being that he contrasted that against science, as if scientific views and Linnaean species names are, well, the problem that led us here.

I don’t think there’s inherent moral value to either way of approaching the world, and there are plenty(!) of scientists who are very ready to change the world. It’s not, for the most part, scientists who are holding us back, but politicians and corporations. You’re not going to catch them believing in science or magic unless it benefits the bottom line.

Rating: 2/5

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