Cambridge Centre for the study of Western Esotericism

Research, Reviews, Conferences

J R COLOMBO REVIEWS the anthropology of magic

An eye-opener of a book written by Susan Greenwood is reviewed by John Robert Colombo

There is an amusing story that is told about the Danish physicist Niels Bohr who was showing a colleague the barn behind his chalet which he had converted into a study where he undertook his calculations. The colleague pointed out that above the barn door someone had nailed an inverted horseshoe, a symbol of good luck. He asked Bohr if he believed the horseshoe would bring him good luck. “No,” Bohr replied, “but I understand it works whether I believe in it or not.”

I was reminded of this tale when I began to read “The Anthropology of Magic” written by Susan Greenwood. It came to mind because the moral of her book – I am not offering a “spoiler warning” here so much as I am “cutting to the chase” – seems to be that “thinking makes it so” or “if you believe you can do something or if you believe you cannot do something, you are right.”

The two statements seem to be platitudes – indeed, the first is a cliché, and the second is a paradox – yet these truisms are … well … true. There is a kind of knowledge that results from “magical thinking” as there is a kind of knowledge that results from “scientific thinking.” This in a nutshell I assume to be the argument of Dr. Greenwood’s study. As for the nutshell mentioned in the previous sentence, it was Prince Hamlet (who has been called the first modern man) who boasted, “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and call myself king of infinite space …. ”

It occurred to the biologist Stephen Jay Gould while he was in Vatican City that there are two forms of authority (if not knowledge) and that these two forms are derived from “the magisterium of science” and “the magisterium of religion” and that the two magisteria do not overlap. At the time of this formulation Gould was in Rome, accompanied by Carl Sagan, the sceptical astronomer, who had a deep “sense of wonder.” They were there to participate in a scientific conference. Sagan derided Gould for his suggestion (or concession) there is any knowledge in religion, knowledge at any rate that resembles the “real” knowledge that results from the work of scientists, that produces measurable results, and that can be falsified. Gould was miffed and wrote an essay about the disagreement.

Aleister Crowley practised ritual magic the way Dorothy Clutterbuck practised the ceremonial magic of wicca. The Great Beast used to call what he did “magick,” and I seem to recall that he defined this practice as “causing change to occur in conformity with Will.” Crowley conformed to the image of the Black Magician. The White Witch may be seen in the person of Clutterbuck, who inspired Gerald Gardner, who gave much of the characteristic form and feel to the contemporary practice of Wicca, which is at home with the subtle forces of the natural and supernatural worlds. Both Crowley and Clutterbuck worked in “imaginal” realms.

These ideas and notions were rattling around in my brain (or mind) when I began to read “The Anthropology of Magic,” which is a serious contribution to both anthropology and magic written Dr. Susan Greenwood, who is Visiting Senior Research Fellow of the University of Sussex, Brighton, England. She is scheduled to deliver the keynote address at a seminar to be held at Girton College, Cambridge, England. It takes place on May 13, 2010, and the title of the session is “Legitimate Forms of Knowledge?” (I imagine that the question mark is important in her address.) So Dr. Greenwood is a scholar. She is also a practitioner of magic.

First, a note of “disambiguation.” Susan Greenwood is not to be confused with her near-namesake, Susan Greenfield. The former is an anthropologist; the latter is Baroness Greenfield, an Oxford scholar and a biomedical writer of considerable ability and media-savvy and the author of numerous works, including The Human Mind Explained, and other popular and not-so-popular texts. The two Susans are very able people, but the Baroness does not profess to be a magician.

The Anthropology of Magic, written by the scholar who professes to read tarot cards and to practice the healing arts, is a big book in that it is an oversize trade paperback that measures 6 inches by 9.5 inches. It is only viii + 164 pages long but the type is quite small so there are many sentences. It was issued in soft and hard-cover editions in 2009 by Berg Publishers, an academic house based in Oxford that publishes books and journals in a great variety of fields with a specialty in modern design. Its website lists and describes its serious publications, including the present one.

I imagine Dr. Greenwood to be a fine lecturer because she is a fine writer. I am tempted to say that for an anthropologist she writes with great clarity. Her sentences are crystal clear and the diagrams that she has added to the text to display contrasts between scientific and non-scientific modes of thought are ideal for PowerPoint presentations. She is one anthropologist who is interested in communicating with a public that is academic though not limited to fellow anthropologists or magicians. In this regard she reminds me of Susan Blackmore, who in her shift from espousing parapsychology to embracing scepticism has never ceased to be a psychologist and a scientist.

Like Dr. Blackmore, Dr. Greenwood is an enthusiast and a participant who is willing to advance atypical views. But the two academics are unalike in that Dr. Blackmore works as an experimental psychologist and follows the trail of the evidence (or lack of it), whereas Dr. Greenwood is a theorist and not a scientist who is concerned with finding a place in intellectual discourse for what is regarded as the irrational. Dr. Greenwood is arguing a case, and she argues well, but after a while the reader – this reader anyway – begins to feel that he is being led to face a series of foregone conclusions.

In the next paragraphs, I will summarize the contents of Dr. Greenwood’s book and thereafter offer an evaluation of her approach. Now I will begin with the Table of Contents which neatly outlines the subject – which I take to be how an anthropologist argues that we could look at magic as a source of knowledge, and if knowledge is a form of power, then as a source of power too.

There are four sections. The first section is titled “Explaining Magic” and it describes what used to be called the “participation mystique” (it sounds better in French) and the structure and operation of magical thinking (through connections and associations). The second section is called “The Experience of Magic” and it presents what the author considers “magical consciousness” and “a mythological language of magic.” The third section is labelled “Practical Magic” and it deals with “webs of beliefs,” basically how being human we can never escape this way of experiencing the world. The fourth section is termed “Working with Magic” and deals with what might be called consilience but which the author describes in the phrase “Not Only, but Also.”

So much for the arrangement of the contents of the book. I will now try to abridge the author’s Introduction, introducing some of my own impressions along the way, but downplaying to some extent the author’s great strength: her knowledge of and respect for the theories and insights of the great anthropologists of the past and the present. She argues that the discipline has always had to deal with the subject of magic and that the approaches that anthropologists have taken in the past have told their readers more about themselves and their societies than about the theory and practice of magic itself. As well, it seems, the conception of the nature magic has changed with the times.

There are two main problems: the “ultimate irrationality of magic” and its “inferiority … when compared to science.” Nevertheless magic lies “at the heart of anthropology” because of “the issues it raises in relation to human experience.” If it lies at the “heart” of anthropology, it lies at the “heart” of men and women too. We seem to be creatures who are able to respond to the world both magically and scientifically.

The author writes, “The time has come to propose another understanding of magic, and it is the aim of this book to examine magic as an aspect of human consciousness.” She is prepared to show how it affects “everyday conceptions of reality” and how it can be “an analytical category as well as a valuable source of knowledge.” Perhaps I am taking this further than the author does when I suggest that to her magic offers a way of knowing about ourselves in the world through the imagination, a way of knowledge that augments the way we generally know the world of matter through measurement.

“When I first started my doctoral research in the 1990s, I made the decision to study magic from the inside, as a practitioner of magic as well as an anthropologist. I wanted to discover what could be learnt through direct experience.” She explored the ramifications of this approach in her two previous books, both published by Berg: “Magic, Witchcraft and the Otherworld” (2000) and “The Nature of Magic” (2005).

A dozen pages of Introduction follow in which she discusses cultural assumptions and contrasts the experiences of magical practice in our own culture with those in other cultures. She notes the effects of “a detraditionalisation of mainstream religions”and limns the changing face of magic in Western occultism. In the process, I acquired two new words that have recognizable meanings: “Celticity” and “Druidry.” She amusingly compares traditional “African witch-doctors with Western political spin-doctors” (like those employed by prime ministers and presidents and other political leaders to create new “narrative”). She concludes, “Magic is alive and well as an analytical category in a whole range of new ethnographies.”

She writes, “The approach taken here focuses on _magical consciousness_, a term that I use to describe a mythopoetic, expanded aspect of awareness that can potentially be experienced by everyone …. ” Despite the importance of this mode of knowledge, magic has been marginalized in what she calls our “Western rationalist culture.” The writings of Tylor, Kroeber, Freud, Durkheim, and others are mentioned to demonstrate how magic has been dismissed as deluded, dangerous, deceitful, or dumb.

Yet shamanism is not so easily dismissed because it does produce a change in consciousness in the sense of a transformation of sensations, impressions, emotions, and conceptions. These in turn affect values. The transformation of consciousness immediately brought to my mind the following lines from the poem “Vacillation” in which Yeats describes the illumination of a fifty-year-old man:

While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.

Many people feel (at times anyway) blessed, but anyone who is able to bless is a magician. It would seem the poets are there with the magicians.

A consideration of the truths or insights that come to us through the medium of poetry is offered through a brief but relevant discussion of Donne’s poem “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” Yet only one page is devoted to the nature of consciousness itself, despite the advances recorded in the 1990s by neurologists and philosophers into the mind / brain division in the field of “consciousness studies.” I guess these are not subjects regularly discussed by anthropologists, nor should we expect them in a book about the “anthropology” of magic.

Some subjects do not yield their secrets to logic and this is one of them, so with relief she switches into a visionary mode. She begins one paragraph, “I remembered a dream I had had previously in which I was climbing down a deep tunnel in the middle of the earth …. ” The dream continues and it involves a loss of skin, a round space, swimming in water, narrow tunnels, bones being picked by a large crow, etc. This is a fertile field for a Freud or a Jung!

I have maintained a daily dream diary for the last five years, so I can attest that one’s dreams are significant to the dreamer but seldom meaningful to anyone else. These motifs in the dream world may or may not be relevant to the waking world. She concludes, “This experience had a profound effect on me,” and I do not doubt her, but was it an “imaginal experience” as she suggests? Not in Corbin’s meaning of that word. A dream is an experience, but it is the experience of an illusion, and no special effects necessarily issue from it. Are any such illusory experiences meaningful and significant? I doubt it but the subject may be debated and Dr. Greenwood does debate it well.

Psychology is not much to the fore. I read Tanya Luhrmann’s Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft when it appeared in 1989, but in the intervening years, I have found little reason to recall its argument. Luhrmann found magic or Wicca to be rich in psychological insight, period. Dr. Greenfield finds it to be rich in many other fields as well.

The author is concerned to square insights from the practice of magic with the understanding offered by her discipline. “The difficulty is that anthropology is a discipline with theoretical and methodological understandings located firmly in the material world, despite attempts to value all human orientations as valid.” Yes, but is there communicable knowledge beyond the confines of the material world? She would answer Yes. I am inclined to agree with her, but I prefer to hedge my bet, like the majority of scholars and scientists, and take refuge in the Scots verdict “not proven.”

The great anthropologist Frazer is given his due, limitations and all, for he was the Darwin in his field. One upon a time, à la Frazer, there was magic which gave way to religion which gave way to science. Given the paradigm shift proposed in these pages, it seems science may now yield to religion and religion to magic. Perhaps “paradigm shift” is the wrong phrase to use here, for there are no references in the text to Kuhn and his theory of just such a shift.

Dr. Greenwood much prefers what has been called the “interpretive drift.” This is part of the mythopoeic faculty which has always been inherent in the nature of man and woman and been granted at least some recognition in every human society (except, according to convention, that of ancient Sparta). Denis Saurat saw it explained as “philosophical poetry.”

The author discusses the views of the “mystical mentality” adopted by the philosopher Lévy-Bruhl and the psychologist Evans-Pritchard. She even writes an imaginary dialogue for them to debate their points of view. She feels their views hold promise today for they agree that “mystical mentality was universal to all human beings.” The savage of the past was no less rational than is the scientist of today. The anthropologist or psychologist is on safe ground in making this observation for the statement challenges neither of these disciplines. I recall reading somewhere that a researcher once said, “Superstition is superstition. But the study of superstition is science.”

The profession of magic is very much part of the author’s life, as is the profession of anthropology. “This book tells a story about my journey to discover the anthropology of magic; it feels like a patchwork quilt or a jigsaw of pieces of information that I have picked up over the years, both in trying to make sense of my fieldwork experience and also in teaching ideas about magic in anthropology of religion courses at Goldsmith’s College, University of London, and shamanic and altered states of consciousness courses at the University of Sussex.”

So much for the Introduction. If I continued to try to paraphrase and comment in such detail on the balance of the book, I would produce a tedious review too long to be read in a single sitting, and I would do the author’s thesis less than justice. Instead, I propose to do something unusual and allow the author to make her major points in her own words. I will do so by quoting the four paragraphs that the author has written to outline her argument section by section. These are well handled.

Summary of Section One:

“This section sets out to explain theories that help an understanding of magic: not the explanations that somehow reduce magic to its effects on human behaviour or society, but the essence of magic as an intuitive process of mind. Magic is a holistic orientation to the world that is essentially relational and expansive; it is not irrational or confined to the thought of so-called primitives, nor is magic the preserve of non-Western, exotic societies. Rather, it is an aspect of human consciousness, and therefore it is especially appropriate to study magic in modern, Western societies, where it often manifests as an undercurrent.”

Summary of Section Two:

“Using my own experience, in this section, I focus on breaking down the barrier between researcher and researched to show how magical consciousness flows through emotion and the mythological imagination.” (Added to this summary are two quotations. The first one has Dr. Greenwood quoting herself about the “uncomfortable process” of “self-examination and exploration.” The second one is an observation of Jo Crow, a British shaman, who alludes to the “multidimensional” nature of this experience.)

Summary of Section Three:

“Magic is often said to be about the purported art of influencing the course of events through occult means; it is a practice that is said can bring about certain effects such as causing harm or healing. It can be conscious or unconscious as well as rational and mystical, but above all, magic involves an immaterial psychic dimension to everyday reality; this is widely described as spirit. In this section, we will explore everyday magic, from the classical ethnographic work of Evans-Pritchard on Azande witchcraft, magic and oracles (Chapter 6) to divination and healing in various cultural settings (Chapter 7).” (Also included are three quotations from Evans-Pritchard, Tedlock, and Parrish which add little to the above description.)

Summary of Section Four:

“Anthropologists working in the field encounter specific challenges when confronted with the gap between informants’ accounts of spirit beings and their own position as researchers within the essentially rationalistic academic anthropological discipline. Magic poses problems for many anthropologists; this is due to the fact that its spiritual nature conflicts with Western notions of rationality, as we will see in Chapter 8. A more inclusive scientific framework is needed that overcomes the theoretical tendency to devalue magical experience and to recognize magical knowledge as a valuable aspect of human consciousness. Chapter 9 builds on ideas developed by Gregory Bateson and Geoffrey Samuel to just this end.” (Also included are short quotations from Turner, Lévy-Bruhl, and Bateson.)

I should add that the book includes extensive source notes and an index. There is no general bibliography but there are short bibliographies for “further reading.” There is no section called Conclusion, but I soon came to the conclusion that none is required for what the author would have to say in any final section is a foregone conclusion.

Dr. Greenwood is appreciative of the anthropologists of the past who devoted their lives to fieldwork. I imagine she regards her own experiences and the effects they have caused in magical circles as a form of fieldwork. She sees the great anthropologists’ insights into shamans and magical journeys as transferrable to today’s witches and their imaginative encounters. In this undertaking, she wins on points because she is what the French describe as “parti pris.” She knows where she stands and that is where she is heading. The reader is not taken on a journey so much as allowed to explore the intellectual ground already claimed. So her study does not add to human knowledge but it does examine some of our preconceptions of the nature of that knowledge.

There is a short but interesting section devoted to the relationship between mythos and logos. I wish it were longer and that it took into account the conception of that connection in the analysis of Northrop Frye who found the relationship to be one of “interpenetration.” But to do so would have required Dr. Greenwood to enter into the woods of the archetypal world of Nemi that is more frequented by literary critics and analytical psychologists than by anthropologists and ethnologists. As well, the author spends some time with phenomenology, she never really exorcizes its demon of subjectivity, even misspelling that word on page 141.

Yet I find “The Anthropology of Magic” to be an eye-opener of a book, not so much because of what or how it argues, but more because of the position for which it argues: the postmodern notion which is rapidly gaining ground that it is not necessary to believe in anything.

Near the end of the book she writes, “Whilst participating in a magical aspect of consciousness, the question of belief is irrelevant: belief is not a necessary condition to communicate with an inspirited world.” What works, works. William James’s contribution to the notion of multiple consciousnesses – not just to multiple layers of consciousness – is acknowledged, and as a pragmatist he would have agreed. So would Niels Bohr with his horseshoe.


John Robert Colombo, an author and commentator who lives in Toronto, is an anthologist, not an anthropologist (although he did pass two “anthrop” courses at the University of Toronto in the late 1950s). His latest publication (co-edited with Dr. Cyril Greenland) is an expanded edition of “Walt Whitman’s Canada.” He is currently writing an introduction to an omnibus edition of the five Sumuru novels written by Sax Rohmer (the mystery story writer who created Dr. Fu Manchu). Colombo’s personal website is


CCWE is independent of any academic or esoteric communities, the co-ordinators share an interest in the need for a wider dialogue between scholars and practitioners in the field of Western Esotericism and in the establishment of a secular space in which an interdisciplinary network can thrive.

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