Chapter 1 


A belief in various forms of magic was once common in most communities and still exists in many societies. For example, in Aug 2014 newspapers in the United Kingdom widely reported the discovery of a young Nigerian boy's dismembered body floating in the River Thames near Tower Bridge in London. Experts testified that the wounds on the boy were consistent with those of ritual killings practiced in western and southern parts of Africa where human sacrifices are still often used to tap supernatural powers for magic purposes. Every year hundreds of Africans lose their lives in ritual murders by tribal members who go in search of human body parts at the behest of witchdoctors or traditional medicine men. These human body parts are used in magic rituals or potions, to ensure the witchdoctors’ ‘clients’ have success in finance, business, politics or other ventures. Similar news reports are still found in many developing countries, where traditions in magic continue.

Magic, as a protective and procuring agent, has existed universally in all cultures since ancient times. It can be described as a ritual activity that aims to produce an affect on the physical world by using supernatural powers. Ritual magic also attempts to control powerful supernatural forces such as a spirit, a god, a demon, or a cosmic force through elaborate ceremonies. Magic’s ultimate goal is supreme authority over all things, but a distinction must be made between black and white magic. Whereas black magic aims to destroy and harm, white magic aims to affect the community and individuals beneficially. 

In traditional tribal societies, the magician or sorcerer is seen as all-powerful and is never questioned. For example, during the Zulu uprising in South Africa in 1906, the witchdoctor applied war medicine, believed to immunize the Zulu warriors against bullets, to all battle-ready men. Believing in the witchdoctor’s power and his medicine or magic, hundreds of Zulus, armed only with assegais, hurled themselves at the British batteries of rifles and guns. They were mowed down almost to a man. Yet, no one would have thought to question the medicine man’s efficacy – the loss of life simply meant the enemy’s medicine was stronger. Generally magic has always been seen as immune to failure – if it does not work, the procedure followed is deemed incorrect or the counter-magic applied is seen as superior.

Magic practices range from rituals involving the entire community, such as those for successful hunting or a plentiful harvest, to peripheral or minor magic acts concerned with individual community members. Simple magic, often called sorcery, involves practices such as tying or untying knots; rituals involving human or animal blood, hair, and nails to cast spells; and sticking pins or sharpened splinters in waxen images, small dolls, or poppets. There are two main types of magic: contagious magic and sympathetic magic.

Contagious magic is based on the belief that someone can be hurt by damaging or inflicting harm on anything that has been in contact with that person. Therefore, Australian Aborigines put glass, sharp crystals, or bone splinters in an enemy’s footprints, believing this lamed the man. An interesting parallel to this notion is found in India, where it was believed that an enemy could be vanquished by tying the dust of his footprints in a leaf and burning it. Similarly, it was thought that a thorn placed in the footprints of a runaway thief would make him grind to a halt.

The idea that special influences are inherent in particular objects is universal. A magic connection is believed to exist not only between a person and any severed body parts, such as hair or nails, or footprints and handprints, but also with every item with which the person has had physical contact. Therefore, many cultures took great care to dispose of bodily refuse. Whoever managed to get possession of these items could work his or her will from a distance on the hapless owner. The same association of ideas is shown in the meticulous care many people formerly took not to let anything they owned or used fall into their adversaries’ hands. To this day, abandoned gypsy encampments are always left cleaned of all their possessions whether still useful or useless, except for the fire ashes and sometimes a stick left standing upright in the ground to indicate their having been there. The same principle applies to the Australian Aborigines who have always taken great care not to let anything belonging to their tribe fall into the hands of another.

In sympathetic magic, however, the effective principle is that ‘like cures like’, or ‘like influences like’ and that any effect may be produced by simply imitating it. Therefore, anything regarded as evil may be used to repel evil. During the Middle Ages, in times of plague, it was firmly believed that any poisonous substance such as arsenic carried on one’s person, would draw to it the ‘contagious air’ of the plague. Another more current example can be found in a CNN report of 9 June 2014 titled: ‘Albino activist fights witchcraft murders’. The news item relates that in Tanzania and other African countries, where little is known about the genetic disorder affecting albinos, atrocities committed against them are still prevalent. In Tanzania alone, dozens of albinos have been mutilated and slaughtered in recent years, their limbs hacked off and used in potions or magic rituals to bring ‘good luck’. The news item further states that traditionally, albinos in African societies are viewed with great superstition, regarded as demons, ghostlike evil beings, or spirits. It is most likely that because albinos are regarded as fundamentally ‘evil’ by these societies, witchdoctors use their body parts to repel evil – hence inviting good fortune or ‘luck’.

Sympathetic magic is found worldwide amongst all societies at some or other stage in their history. A belief in sympathetic magic is evident in cannibalism, in that by eating a brave enemy warrior’s flesh, his many virtues might be absorbed. The Tupi Indians of the Amazon Basin especially prized dead prisoners’ genitals, indicating that their sexual prowess was highly esteemed and thought transferable. The notion that by eating the flesh or drinking the blood of another human, one could absorb that person’s nature into one’s own is one that appears among various tribal peoples in many forms. It lies at the root of drinking enemies’ fresh blood and the habit many early huntsmen practised of eating some part, such as the liver, of dangerous carnivores so that the animal’s courage might pass into them. 

Many tribal peoples once customarily ingested brave men’s flesh and blood to inspire courage. The Australian Aborigines rubbed themselves with a killed enemy’s belly fat so that all his qualities, mental and physical, might be communicated to the vanquisher. Deep within the jungle of Indonesia’s Papua Province, the Kombai and Korowai tribes still practise ritual cannibalism of their enemies, thereby ingesting their specific attributes. On 13 July 2012, The Daily Telegraph, a British newspaper, reported the arrest of 29 alleged cannibals in Papua New Guinea's jungle interior. The perpetrators were charged with the murders of seven suspected witchdoctors. Cult members had purportedly eaten the witchdoctors’ brains and penises to attain supernatural powers and sexual prowess. 

Apart from sympathetic magic being evident in cannibalism, it is found in countless other everyday cultural activities – always reflecting the principle that ‘like influences like’ and that ‘any effect may be produced by simply representing it’. Sympathetic magic is the reason women sowing rice in Sumatra would let their hair hang loose behind their backs – the hair blowing in the breeze was seen to mimic a luxuriant growth of rice. In the same way, buffalo dances by Apache warriors, were performed to lure buffalo herds for the hunters – the warriors ceremoniously clad in head-dresses made from buffalo heads, miming the herd movements. 

Similarly, to induce the growth of breasts, young girls in various Australian regions fashioned mud breasts and wore these while holding ‘mud babies’ in paper-bark carriers. A traditional form of love magic in western Arnhem Land, Australia, consisted of men drawing the likeness of a desired female on the wall of a rock shelter. If the chosen woman was, however, not enamoured of the man trying to court her, he could ‘magically’ forge an attraction by simply drawing her having sexual relations with himself. In the same context, Australian Aborigines used sympathetic magic to try to induce pregnancy by repeatedly drawing a woman with a foetus, or breastfeeding a child, in the sand. 

Sympathetic magic was similarly also believed to influence the elements – through imitating a desired effect, it was believed that that aspect of the weather would be produced. Therefore, to persuade the setting sun to rise again, the ancient Europeans lit bonfires. Especially at times of solar changes such as equinoxes or solstices, these bonfires were believed to encourage and strengthen the weakening sun in its renewal. Thus, by making a fire, the sun would be compelled to shine, and by sprinkling water on the ground with a bunch of twigs, rain would be made to fall. In this context, rituals used around the globe in appeasing and coercing the rain-gods were many and varied. For example, Australian Aborigines and West African tribes squirted water from the mouth to imitate a fine drizzle of rain and, in so doing, induce it. Ancient Mexican magic ceremonies included pouring water from pitchers to induce the gods to pour forth rain, while the black smoke from sacrifices was believed to generate clouds. Similarly, the fringed trimmings and tassels of Red Indian tribal dress were intended to evoke rain, the fringes’ lively movement simulating rainfall. 

In Europe, the spread of Christianity in no way halted the once pagan rituals. The focus simply shifted, and rainmaking processions and ceremonies then centred on such acts as dipping a cross or any relic in holy water or dipping the statues of saints or holy personages in rivers and lakes during times of drought. In Navarre, France, it was customary to pray to St. Peter for rain, and it is reputed that on one occasion, when there was no rain, one village’s inhabitants carried the saint’s statue to the river, and despite the irate priest’s outrage, submersed it in the water. In the Outer Hebrides, on the Island of Uist, the locals had a cross set up, specifically called the Water Cross. When rain was needed, this cross was raised, and when enough rain had fallen, the cross was laid flat on the ground. Similarly, if popular legend is to be believed, the monks of Iona in Ireland shook their patron St. Columba’s tunic in the wind to procure rain.

All harvest customs, including Maypoles, the marriage of trees, the presence of the King and Queen of May, and all the emblems of animal and vegetable fertility, could be said to fall into the category of sympathetic magic. These rites were intended to stimulate nature, to procure the desired effects of fertility, and to ensure an abundant harvest. Analogous harvest customs have been found in places as far apart as Sweden, India, Borneo, Africa, and North and South America. 

A subsection of sympathetic magic is called image magic, which also aims to produce a specific effect by simply imitating it.


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