The History of Magic: From Alchemy to Witchcraft, from the Ice Age to the Present

by Chris Gosden

Hardcover, 2020



Call number



Viking (2020), 512 pages


History. New Age. Religion & Spirituality. Nonfiction. Over the last few centuries, magic has developed a bad reputation-thanks to the unsavory tactics of shady practitioners, and to a successful propaganda campaign on the part of religion and science, which denigrated magic as backward, irrational, and "primitive." In Magic, however, the Oxford professor of archaeology Chris Gosden restores magic to its essential place in the history of the world-revealing it to be an enduring element of human behavior that plays an important role for individuals and cultures. From the curses and charms of ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish magic, to the shamanistic traditions of Eurasia, indigenous America, and Africa; from the alchemy of the Renaissance to the condemnation of magic in the colonial period and the mysteries of modern quantum physics-Gosden's startling, fun, and colorful history supplies a missing chapter of the story of our civilization. Drawing on decades of research around the world-touching on the first known horoscope, a statue ordered into exile, and the mystical power of tattoos-Gosden shows what magic can offer us today, and how we might use it to rethink our relationship with the world. Magic is an original, singular, and sweeping work of scholarship, and its revelations will leave a spell on the listener.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member asukamaxwell
It’s an anthropological study of early magic, defined as a method of participation “in the universe directly, and the universe influences and shapes us.” This may seem vague, but it’s a necessary, objective approach. According to Gosden, while magic arrived first, the trifecta of magic,
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religion and science have overlapped over time. Under each are the possible subcategories of transcendence, transformation and transaction. Magic was/is practiced in many forms: relationship or protective magic, foretelling or understanding the past, death or sickness, alchemy or manipulating desire.

In the Paleolithic era, “art helped to honor, maintain, and manipulate” animals without actual worship and eventually “rituals were developed to link dead humans and animals to the living.” But this does not constitute religion, and those buried with various animals parts were not necessarily a “shaman.” The reader learns that shamanism is incredibly specific and shouldn’t be a throwaway label. It was only around 8,000 years ago that formal religion emerged. Mesopotamia and Egypt then created elaborate cosmotheologies. Hemerology, the Scythians, early Celts, Jewish, Greek, Roman, African and Native American practices are also examined.

Issue is, the premise is only solid into the Middle Ages. The practice of magic is “suggested" until that point (besides Egypt), and not for lack of trying. For example, Gosden successfully introduces the Zhou and Han dynasties in China, but struggles to incorporate yin and yang philosophy. However, the archaeological evidence is clear that early peoples were much more sophisticated and in-tune with their environment than they’re often given credit for. I’m now fascinated with early Eurasian Steppe art and “deer statues” and I appreciate the author’s first-hand knowledge and obvious passion for this subject.
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LibraryThing member ladycato
I received an advance copy of this book via NetGalley.

Oxford professor of archaeology Chris Gosden authored this overview of magic across world history and cultures. His approach is comprehensive, his viewpoint honest; he doesn't sniff at magic as a primitive thing, but from a neutral standpoint as
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an essential part of people's lives from the ice age into the modern day. He doesn't shy away from the effects of colonialism on the loss of magical knowledge, and also addresses it as an inspiration or attacking or defending against oppressors. He does walk a delicate line between religion and magic; some readers will be irked that he classifies miracles within the Christian faith as magic, though by the definition he establishes early on, it fits.

He tries to give equal billing across history to various cultures, but that's hard when some people such as those in ancient Mesopotamia have left little in terms of a balanced record. In chapters such as that one, the emphasis on magic felt lost as it became more of an overview for readers who may not know much about the culture at all. That approach is understandable, but the focus felt lost and it became stodgy and, I hate to say it, boring at times. I actually deliberated whether or not to finish the book, which was a surprise because an unbiased study of this subject matter should very much be my sort of thing. I found the book became more engaging as it worked into the medieval and near-modern eras and he had a lot more material to draw from.

In all, a very uneven read, but one with plentiful insights to offer.
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LibraryThing member pierthinker
This is not a book about magic as entertainment. There is no discussion of stage magicians, illusionists or masters of sleight-of-hand. This is a book about how magic allows humans to understand how they fit into the world and how they can influence the part they play in it. Our earliest
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archaeological finds suggest that magic has been part of the human experience from the start.

From the earliest times humans have seen themselves as living within a greater whole, both as part of the physical world of things (animate or not) and as part of a more extended world where all things (animate, once animate, or not) have a spirit with which we can communicate through appropriate procedures (spells) and processes (rites) for good or ill. As society became more complex the individualistic approach to magic was gradually replaced with a more formalised structure loosely called religion where others (gods, a priestly caste) interceded with the universe on one’s behalf. That in turn was gradually replaced with science which essentially put the human element outside of any interaction with the universe (that comet is either going to hit or miss the Earth whether humans are here and interested or not). Of course, as Gosden shows, the lines between magic, religion and science are very blurred and overlap hugely.

This is an excellent book which addresses a fascinating topic on the largest of scales - the whole of human history. Gosden’s propositions and observations are based solid evidence and inferences are clearly stated. For me, the writing is a little too dry and academic, but the extra effort required is well rewarded.
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LibraryThing member Lavender3
It has useful information. Reads much like a history textbook. Because the author is not pagan or a believes in the idea of it (assumingly) feels very drawn out. It can be a resource for Pagans,witches, and wiccans looking back at the origins and history of the life. I at this time could not find a
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reason to want to read it. Very much skimmed it focusing more on Chapter 8 The magics of Africa..., 10. Modern and future magic,and the timeline global history of magic. I felt that there was a lot missing. From the known and unknown knowledge. A lot of key PWW were mentioned and referenced. Over all the book is average and without all the fact and data below average for me. Maybe when I am older and trying to piece together my lineage it would be useful but for now it was not. Also a lot of the caribbeans and islands where not really mentioned only three times.
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LibraryThing member tuckerresearch
I thought about giving this three stars for the last chapter. But, we'll get to that.

The author Chris Gosden is an archaeologist who works at Oxford. As such, his broad overview of magic in human societies begins in the pre-historical era with educated guesswork based on archaeological and
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anthropological evidence. Here Gosden is very good, laying out suppositions, counter-suppositions, and comparing possible pre-historical practices with recorded magical practices in societies recorded or studied by explorers, historians, and anthropologists. When Gosden gets to historical times and historical examples of magical items, texts, etc., he has so much to choose from, that his coverage is spotty, hit-or-miss, and shallow.

Still, Gosden's breadth may lead to some shallow spots, but his attempt to write a human-wide history of magic and magical practices is admirable. Most histories of magic are firmly set in the European West, with roots in Hebrew, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian forbears, definitely. Sometimes some Chinese magic may be thrown in. As such, Gosden's inclusion of prehistoric man, aboriginal peoples, primitive cultures, and a wide swath of civilizations from all continents and eras is welcome, interesting, and refreshing. However, it then must dispense with whole chunks of European magic, from Renaissance times to Crowley and afterward. Gosden does cover this, but in a way that those already familiar with such history may find insulting or incomplete.

As some other reviewers have pointed out, Gosden spends an inordinate amount of time discussing the history of a place, religion, or culture, before then discussing the magical elements in it. A good chunk of the text is set-up, not exposition. So, at times, magic is lost. More problematic, however, is Gosden's grand attempt to come up with a historio-sociological philosophy of magic. He uses the phrase "triple helix" more than a dozen times, and he is so enamored with his concoction that he shoehorns it in to almost every chapter of the book. Gosden says, in short, that magic is one strand in a TRIPLE HELIX with religion and science that humans have used in an attempt to understand and interact (and even change) the world. That it is ubiquitous and a part of the human condition, even for scientists like Newton, or witch-hating Christians or Muslims, or post-Industrial Revolution Victorian Britons, or what-have-you. Okay, but he beats the "triple helix" dead horse to death.

But, MOST problematic, is Gosden's final chapter: "Modern and Future Magic." Here Gosden seems to think we need a little magic in our lives, and since magic was really practiced by primitive societies in touch with nature, then they have better respect the environment, the climate, people, whatever, etc. So we should all dispense with capitalism, the free market, the Industrial Revolution, democratic republican government, our cars, fertilizers and easy access to food, cities, buildings, and air conditioners, and whatever, I guess. That a man ensconced in Oxford, in the U.K., in the twenty-first century, who lives off the fat of capitalism, science, and Judaeo-Christian morality, can write such Ludditic, anti-modern, anti-scientific, culturally relativistic, amoral malarkey is saddening, troubling, and inexplicable. Having pre-modern magical thinking and being "in touch with nature" isn't going to mean that 1+1 doesn't equal 2 or that I can reverse the Second Law of Thermodynamics, or whatever it is magic seems to promise to Gosden. Or is it that he just wants the supposed sense of community and respect for others magical societies seem to possess? Here Gosden has fallen for the old fallacy of the "noble savage," very prominent among archaeologists, anthropologists, and scholars of any leftist bent, that modern society is just bad. I am assuming Gosden sees something lacking in society and perhaps his own life, in what I can only assume is a life absent of religion, pro social-democracy (Labour), and in active rebellion against conservative moral values. He wants to fill it with magic, instead of anything Christian, Western, and traditional. Methinks.

The sometime shallow presentation, the too much background, the unneeded timelines, sometimes made the book drag. But, all-in-all, it's an important, interesting, and refreshingly comprehensive review of magic in human societies. As such, I could see its use in undergraduate and even graduate classrooms as an introduction to magic. But, the triple helix and the polemical last chapter leave a bad taste in the mouth.

Index, timelines, images, figures, tables; notes and bibliography. There could have been a million more pictures.
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PEN Hessell-Tiltman Prize (Shortlist — 2021)


Original language


Physical description

9.45 inches


0241294819 / 9780241294819
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