The Psychological Origin and the Nature of Religion/Chapter 4

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In the preceding section, I have compared animal with human behaviour in an attempt to single out the psychological traits whose presence in man accounts for his possession of Religion and of Magic. I must now complete the characterisation and the account of the origin of these two higher types of behaviour.

The relation obtaining between Magic and Religion has been variously understood. Most authorities hold that Magic preceded Religion, and that they are in some way genetically related. In the following pages we shall argue in support of two opinions: (1) the primary forms of Magic probably antedated Religion; (2) whether Magic antedated Religion or not, Religion arose independently of Magic; they are different in principle and independent in origin.

But the word Magic includes an almost endless number of practices so far quite inadequately classified. We cannot go on without first marking out at least its more prominent groups. And since the common bond of these practices is neither a common purpose (Magic serves to gratify every kind of desire), nor a common method (the magician’s methods are literally numberless), but the non-personal nature of the power pressed into service, we shall make use of this last element as a means of classification. Three groups are thus obtained.

Magic classified.—Class 1 is characterised by the absence of any idea of a power belonging to the operator or his instrument and passing from either one of them to the object of the magical art. To this class belong many instances of so-called sympathetic Magic;[1] a good many of the taboo customs; most charms; the casting of lots, when a spirit or god is not supposed to guide the cast; most modern superstitions, those, for instance, regarding Friday, the number thirteen, horse-shoes, planting when the tide is coming in. In these instances the effect is thought of as following upon the alleged cause, without the mediation of a force conceived as passing, let us say, from the warm arrow to the wound and irritating it. The idea of power is reduced here to its least possible complexity.

Class 2. A power, not itself personal, is supposed to belong to the magician, to his instrument, or to particular substances, and to pass into, or act upon, the object. Howitt relates how some native Australians begged him not to carry in a bag containing quartz crystals a tooth, extracted at an initiation ceremony. They thought that if he did so, the evil power of the crystals would enter the tooth and so injure the body to which it had belonged.[2] The potency of many charms is of this nature, while others have a fetichistic significance, i.e. they involve the action of spirits, and so do not belong to this class. Rubbing oneself with, or eating the fat, or another portion, of a brave and strong man in order to make oneself courageous and powerful, belongs also to this second class, together with most instances of contagion-magic. So does, usually, the power defined in the following passage and the similar powers believed in and used in other than Melanesian populations: ‘That invisible power which is believed by the natives to cause all such subjects as transcend their conception of the regular course of nature, and to reside in spiritual beings, whether in the spiritual part of living men or in the ghosts of the dead, being imparted to them, to their names and to various things that belong to them, such as stones, snakes, and indeed objects of all sorts, is that generally known as mana . . . No man, however, has this power of his own; all that he does is done by the aid of personal beings, ghosts or spirits; he cannot be said, as a spirit can, to be mana himself . . . he can be said to have mana.’[3]

Class 3. Perhaps a special class should be made of the cases in which the magician feels as if his will-effort was the efficient factor. This is often true of spells, of incantations, and of solemn curses. A man addressing the magical spear, saying, ‘Go straight, go straight and kill him,’ feels no doubt that, somehow, by the words in which quivers his whole soul he directs the spear on its errand of death.

Though Magic does not make an anthropopathic appeal it may, and frequently does, bring to bear its peculiar coercitive virtue upon anthropopathic beings. It aims then at compelling souls, spirits or gods, into doing the operator’s will, or in preventing them from doing their own. In necromancy, spirits are summoned by means of spells and incantations. In old Egypt the art of dealing coercitively with spirits and gods reached a high development. Maspero, speaking of a strange belief regarding names, says, ‘when the god in a moment of forgetfulness or of kindness had taught them what they wanted [the sacred names], there was nothing left for him but to obey them.’[4] At Eleusis, it was not the name but the intonation of the voice of the magician which produced the mysterious results.[5] But whether Magic acts upon personal or impersonal objects, its effective power is ever impersonal.

I would not give the impression in this attempt at classification, that the conceptions of the savage are clear and definite. I hold them to be, on the contrary, hazy and fluid. What appears to him impersonal one moment may suddenly assume the characteristics of a spirit. Mana, for instance, although usually an impersonal force stored into plants, stones, animals or men, assumes at times truly personal traits; it becomes the god himself. One should not be surprised to meet with cases that fall between rather than in the classes, for the sharp lines of demarcation it suits us to draw are not often found in nature.

And now we return to our two theses.

1. The Probable Priority of Magic.—Certain historical facts might be held to support the pre-religious origin of Magic. As one descends from the higher to the lower social levels, Religion dwindles and Magic grows. In the lowest societies of which we have extensive and accurate knowledge, the Central Australian tribes, Religion is represented by mere rudiments, whereas Magic is everywhere and always in evidence. I have had occasion in a preceding section to quote Howitt with regard to the slight role played by Religion among the South-East Australians. The presence of Religion in the lives of the tribes inhabiting the central portions of Australia is still less obvious. Frazer reflects the views of Spencer and Gillen, of Howitt, and probably of every recent first-hand student of that country, when he writes: ‘Among the aborigines of Australia, the rudest savages as to whom we possess accurate information, Magic is universally practised, whereas Religion, in the sense of a propitiation or conciliation of the higher powers, seems to be nearly unknown. Roughly speaking, all men in Australia are magicians, but not one is a priest; everybody fancies he can influence his fellows or the course of nature by sympathetic magic, but nobody dreams of propitiating gods by prayer and sacrifice.’[6] If we may trust our knowledge of other savages, the general fact thus affirmed of the native Australians holds good with regard to every other uncivilised tribe.

But as the least civilised of existing tribes are far from being ‘primitive’ in the true sense of the word, it could be argued that Magic is, after all, the outcome of the corruption of a primitive Religion, of which almost nothing remains in the savage tribes of the present day. And so we shall have to rest our case not upon historical evidences, but upon considerations regarding the psychological nature of Magic and Religion, and upon analogies we may discover between them and certain facts observed in children and in adults of uncivilised races.

In his attempt to support the belief in the priority of Magic, Frazer, who has put every student of Religion in his debt by his monumental work, affirms its greater simplicity when compared with Religion. The opinion itself is tenable, but the defence of it, made as it is from the standpoint of the old English associationism, is unfortunately worthless. ‘Magic,’ he tells us, ‘is nothing but a mistaken application of the very simplest and most elementary process of the mind, namely, the association of ideas by virtue of resemblance or contiguity,’ while ‘Religion assumes the operation of conscious or personal agents, superior to man, behind the visible screen of nature. Obviously the concept of personal agent is more complex than a simple recognition of the similarity or contiguity of ideas . . . The very beasts associate the ideas of things that are like each other or that have been found together in their experience . . . But who attributes to the animals a belief that the phenomena are worked by a multitude of invisible animals or by one enormous and prodigiously strong animal behind the scenes?’[7] It is undoubtedly true that the mind of man tends to pass from an object to others like it, or experienced at the same time, but this psychological fact does not in itself account for Magic. The mind of animals is regulated in a similar manner. In spring-time the sight of a feather makes the bird think of nest-building, and the smell and sight of his master’s coat brings the master to the dog’s mind. Yet animals do not practise the magical art. This fact should be sufficient to make one realise the insufficiency of ‘a simple [mistaken] recognition of the similarity and contiguity of ideas’ as an explanation of the origin of Magic. An animal might observe the colour-likeness between carrots and jaundice (not, however, unless practical dealings with them had attracted his attention to the colour), and ‘coat’ and ‘master’ might follow each other in a dog’s mind. But in order to treat the coat as he would the master, and in order to eat carrots or give them to be eaten for the cure of jaundice, there is required, in addition to the association, the belief that whatever is done to the coat will be suffered by the master, and that the eating of carrots will cure the disease. It is the existence of these ideas with their motor and affective values and of their dynamic connection which makes Magic possible in beings subject to the laws of association. This fundamental difference between mere association of ideas and the essential mental processes involved in Magic, Frazer has completely overlooked. The difference may be further illustrated by the instance of a dog biting in a rage the stick with which he is being beaten. He is indeed doing to the stick what he would like to do to the man. But in attacking the stick he does not conceive that, although the stick is not the man, the injury done to it will hurt the man. His action is blindly impulsive, while the form of Magic in question involves generalisations and other mental processes not expressed by the laws of association.[8]

If magical actions cannot be deduced from the principle of association, they can at least be classified according to the kind of association they illustrate. For, although the various ideas brought together in Magic, in a relation of cause and effect, are frequently said to have come together by ‘chance,’ some of the conditions under which they have in fact become connected are expressed in the universal laws of association, namely, association by similarity or contrast, by contiguity or spatial opposition, and by emotional congruity or disparity. Whenever magical acts have been classified, it has been according to the principle of association.[9] But every kind of activity involving mental operations falls in some of its relations under the laws of association, hence the relative unfruitfulness of these classifications, hence also our attempt at grouping magical practices according to a factor of greater significance, namely, the nature of the power they involve.

2. The Independence of Religion from Magic.—The following psychological arguments appear to me to go a long way towards proving that magical behaviour has had an origin independent of the animistic[10] belief, and that some of its forms, at least, antedated it, and therefore also Religion:—

(a) The absorbing interest found by young children in the use of things, and their complete indifference at first to the modus operandi, point, it would seem, to a stage in human development at which the explanation of things is not yet desired. It is well known that long before a child asks ‘how?’ he wearies his guardians with the question, ‘what for?’[11] He wants to know what things are good for, and, in particular, what he can do with them before he cares for an understanding of their origin, and of their mechanism. This keen interest in the production of results, this curiosity about the practical meaning of things, is apparently quite independent of any abstract idea of power. Since the child passes through a pre-interpretative stage, may we not admit a corresponding period in racial development during which no explanatory soul-theory, no animistic philosophy, is entertained? A mental attitude such as this would make Religion impossible, while it would provide the essential condition for a Magic of our first class.

(b) Children—and adult savages resemble children in many respects—like to amuse themselves by setting up prohibitions and backing them up with threats of punishment. ‘If you do this,’ they will say, ‘that will happen to you.’ The ‘this’ and the ‘that’ have usually no logical connection with each other, neither is there in the mind of the child any thought of a particular kind of power, or agent, meting out the punishment. This kind of play is strikingly similar to a large number of magical practices. Can it not be regarded as the prototype of most taboo customs? In taboo there is usually no logical and no qualitative relation between the prohibition and the punishment. Neither is there, ordinarily, any notion of a particular agent carrying out the threat. It involves, it seems, nothing more than the assumption of a causal connection between two facts brought together by ‘chance’ association under the pressure of a desire for food or success at war, or for the enforcement of a rule of conduct.[12] The punishment announced is anything on the efficacy of which one may choose to rely. In Madagascar conjugal fidelity is enforced by the threat that the betrayed husband will be killed or wounded in the war; among the indigenous tribes of Sarawak, the belief is that the camphor obtained by the men in the jungle will evaporate if the women are unfaithful during the absence of their husbands, while in East Africa, the husband would, in the same eventuality, be killed or hurt by the elephant he is hunting.[13] The high sanction which the requirements of social life give to beliefs of this sort is readily understood.

(c) It is a fact of common observation that in passionate moments, men of every degree of culture act, in the absence of the object of their passion, more or less as if it was present. A man grinds his teeth, shakes his fist, growls at the absent enemy; a mother presses to her breast and talks fondly to the departed babe. The pent-up motor tendencies must find an outlet. To restrain every external sign of one’s desires or intentions when under great emotional excitement is unendurable pain. By the sick-bed of one beloved, one must do something, however useless to him. Who shall say that we do not have in this natural tendency the origin of the large class of magical acts represented by sticking pins into, or burning, an effigy? The less a person is under the control of reason, the more likely is he, not only to yield to promptings of this order, but also to be seduced by his wish into a belief in their efficacy.

If any one finds it difficult to admit that the savage can so easily be deceived, I would direct his attention to the well-known instances of children’s self-deceptions. Most of them behave, at a certain age, as if their dolls were alive and, to all appearances, there are some moments when they think so. What they think at other moments is another matter. We need not suppose that the savage cannot take, at times, a critical attitude and perhaps undeceive himself. It is sufficient that at other moments, when under the pressure of needs or in the excitement accompanying ceremonies of considerable social significance or of much personal importance, he should be able to assume the attitude of the believer. The behaviour of certain mentally deranged persons throws some light on this point. Such a person may believe that his hands are always dirty and be constantly washing them. If reasoned with, he may perhaps be convinced that they cannot be dirty. Yet a few seconds later he will exclaim, ‘But I feel they are dirty,’ and return to the wash-basin. The savage is under the control of his impulses and feelings to a degree approaching that of the person instanced. In this connection, the effect of repetition, and of the tribal sanction obtained by magical customs, should not be overlooked. They tend to make doubt and criticism next to impossible.

What need is there in cases of this kind to introduce a middle term between the actions of the magician and their expected effect? None whatsoever. The thought of an efficient agent or power passing out of the magician or of his instrument to work upon the victim is no necessary part of this type of Magic.

(d) The belief at the root of a great variety of magical practices, that ‘like’ produces ‘like,’ may have arisen in still other ways than the one just indicated. Nothing is more common than the invisible passage of things, be they heat, cold, light, thunderbolt, odours, diseases, etc., from one person or object to another, either by contact or through space. The frequent instances of diseases spreading by infection among men, animals, and vegetables, seem in themselves sufficient to suggest the belief that ‘like’ produces ‘like.’ The idea of contagion must have appeared very early indeed. Now, as the savage is quite unable to distinguish between the different agencies involved in the variety of experiences of this sort, he cannot draw the line between the ‘likes’ that really produce ‘likes’ and those that do not; hence his very strange expectations. This class of Magic also is independent of the conception of an agent effecting the connection between the objects related as cause and effect.

Since Tylor wrote his memorable work, the doctrine of animism has become classical. This passage from Primitive Culture,[14] ‘What men’s eyes behold is but the instrument to be used, or the material to be shaped, while behind it there stands some prodigious but half-human creature, who grasps it with his hands or blows it with his breath,’ expresses, no doubt, fairly correctly, a very early philosophy of life. I would not object even to its being termed the earliest philosophy, provided it be granted that the progress of the human race was already well under way when it appeared. But when it is assumed, as it is by many, that the animistic conception of nature is necessary to, and antedates, the establishment of Magic, I must dissent and affirm that a very large number of magical practices neither presuppose, nor in any way involve, a belief in animism, and that there are good reasons for considering them original, i.e. not corruptions of practices primitively implying that belief. So much I trust to have shown in the preceding pages.[15]

I do not in the least deny that some of the magical practices in existence are derived from actions of a different character. Many of the ‘superstitions’ of civilised countries have had a long history. Several of the marriage customs; for instance, the cutting of the cake by the bride, and the lifting of the bride over the threshold, are vestiges of actions once necessary or useful.[16] But it would be absurd to conclude from the existence of derived magical practices that Magic, as a whole, is to be accounted for on a theory of ‘lapsed intelligence.’

Magic and Religion combine but never fuse.—When ghosts and nature-beings have become mental possessions of the savage, one may expect the sphere of Magic to extend so as to include these unseen, mysterious beings. Why should not the magical power take effect upon ghosts and gods as well as upon men? The savage, like everybody else, is anxious to use every available means to secure his preservation and his advancement. Why then should he not use both Magic and the offering of food? From the moment Religion appears, until the efficiency of Magic is totally discredited, we may expect to find these two modes of behaviour associated in men’s dealings with gods, except, however, where the god is clearly thought of as a world-creator. For the savage could hardly have the presumption of attempting to control a power he recognises as the maker of the human race and of the world. Here are two instances of the combination of Magic with Religion. ‘In the Babar Archipelago, when a woman desires to have a child, she invites a man, who is himself the father of a large family, to pray on her behalf to Upulero, the spirit of the sun. A doll is made of red cotton, which the woman clasps in her arms, as if she would suckle it. Then the father of many children takes a fowl and holds it by the legs to the woman’s head, saying, “Upulero, make use of the fowl; let fall, let descend a child, I beseech you, I entreat you, let a child fall into my hands and on my lap.” Then he asks the woman, “Has the child come?” and she answers, “Yes, it is sucking already.” . . . Lastly, the bird is killed, and laid, together with some betel, on the domestic plate of sacrifice . . .’[17] In this ceremony prayer and sacrifice to a god are associated with magical practices of a mimetic and sympathetic character. In a large number of ceremonies, the god is dealt with religiously in order to secure from him ‘power,’ and then Magic is added to make the power effective. In old Egypt one of the formulas according to which the help of gods was secured began with an appeal to them under their popular names. It was a prayer which they were free to heed or to neglect. Then followed, in order to compel them to act, an adjuration introducing the mystical names, ‘those written at birth in their heart by their father and mother.’[18] The magician not only claimed the power to force the gods to do his bidding, but also, in case of disobedience, to punish them, even by destruction. Remnants of magical dealings with gods are found even in the Christian Religion, if we are to believe the authors quoted by Frazer.[19] Magic and Religion are so closely interwoven in the life of peoples of low culture that some authors have affirmed the impossibility of separating them. Their affirmation need not be contradicted unless it be intended to mean that originally they were one and the same thing. However closely interwoven they may be, Magic and Religion remain distinct, as in the above instances. One might say, borrowing the language of the chemist, that they do not form compounds, but only mixtures.

What did Magic contribute to the making of Religion? Frazer’s Theory.—Our conclusions are, so far, that Magic has had an independent origin, that it very probably antedated Religion, and that they associate for common purposes without ever fusing, for they are referable to different principles. Are we, then, driven to the opinion that even though Magic should have antedated Religion and been often combined with it in common undertakings, it has, nevertheless, contributed in no way to the establishment of Religion? That conclusion is not unavoidable. Frazer’s conception presents an alternative which, however, we cannot accept. As he recognises not only a fundamental distinction, but even an opposition of principle between Magic and Religion, he cannot think of allowing the former a positive influence in the establishment of Religion. Yet he admits a genetic relation between them: it is, according to him, the recognition of the failure of Magic that is the cause of the worship of gods. ‘I would suggest,’ writes Frazer, ‘that a tardy recognition of the inherent falsehood and barrenness of Magic set the more thoughtful part of mankind to cast about for a truer theory of nature and a more fruitful method of turning her resources to account.’ When man saw that his magical actions were not the real cause of the activity of nature, it occurred to him that, ‘if the great world went on its way without the help of him or his fellows, it must surely be because there were other beings, like himself, but far stronger, who, unseen themselves, directed its course and brought about all the various series of events which he had hitherto believed to be dependent on his own Magic . . . To these mighty beings, whose handiwork he traced in all the gorgeous and varied pageantry of nature, man now addressed himself, humbly confessing his dependence on their invisible power, and beseeching them of their mercy to furnish him with all good things . . . In this, or some such way as this, the deeper minds may be conceived to have made the transition from Magic to Religion.’[20] Several obvious objections may be raised against this view. I would remark first of all that Frazer does not discredit the sources of the belief in ghosts and in nature-beings mentioned in the preceding section: sleep and trances; apparitions; the impulse to personify great and startling natural phenomena; the idea of creation. His hypothesis of the origin of Religion is, therefore, superfluous, unless he could show that the transition from Magic to Religion took place in the manner he suggests before the experiences and reflections we have named had given rise to the idea of god.

The assumption on which Frazer’s hypothesis rests, namely, that sagacious men of wild races persuaded themselves and their fellows of the inefficiency of Magic, seems clearly contradicted by the history of the relation of Magic to Religion, and also by the psychology of belief. On the latter ground, he may justly be accused of attributing neither enough influence to the will to believe nor to the support it receives from the many apparent or real successes of Magic. These successes, with the help of the several ways of accounting for failures without giving up the belief,[21] were in my opinion sufficient to support a belief in the efficiency of Magic until long after the birth of Religion. Is not that the conclusion we must draw from the recent spread of the spiritualistic movement, not only among the untutored, but even among representatives of our higher culture? The late gains of spiritism have been made despite numberless failures, the repeated discovery of deception, and the satisfactory scientific explanation of a large proportion of the alleged spiritistic facts, and thanks merely to a desire to believe, and to a few questionable facts not readily explained by accepted hypotheses. To suppose that before ghosts and nature-beings had been thought of and made great enough to exercise a practical influence upon men’s conduct, there had existed, in the barbarous circumstances implied in the supposition, persons so keenly observant, so capable of scientific generalisation, and so free from the obscuring influences of passion as to be able to reject the many instances of apparent success of Magic, is to posit a miracle where a satisfactory natural explanation already exists.

In Magic and Religion, Andrew Lang directs a vigorous and successful attack upon Frazer’s hypothesis.[22] A part of his argument, based on generally accepted historical data, is summarised in this passage: ‘If we find that the most backward race known to us believes in a power, yet propitiates him neither by prayer nor sacrifice, and if we find, as we do, that in many more advanced races in Africa and America, it is precisely the highest power which is left unpropitiated, then we really cannot argue that gods were first invented as power who could give good things, on receipt of other good things, sacrifice and prayer.’[23] He remarks, in addition, that although one would not expect people who had recognised the uselessness of Magic and turned to gods, to continue the development of the magical art, yet, in order to find the highest Magic one has to go to no less a civilisation than that of Japan, where gods are plentiful.

Although the hypothesis that gods and Religion are the consequence of the recognition of the failure of Magic, must be rejected, it does not follow that two modes of activity in the service of common purposes, as are Magic and early Religion, do not act upon each other in many ways. If Magic was first in the field, we may believe that the satisfaction it gave to man by its results, apparent and real, and in providing him with a means of expressing his desires, tended to retard the establishment of any other method of securing the same ends. The habit of doing a thing in a particular manner always stands more or less in the way of the discovery of other ways of doing the same thing. So that Magic was, in these respects, a hindrance to the making of Religion. There is, however, a grain of truth in Frazer’s hypothesis. Had Magic completely satisfied man’s multifarious desires, he would, in all probability, have paid but scant attention to the gods, for it is in times of trial that man turns to them. It was thus greatly advantageous to the making of Religion that the inadequacy of Magic should have been felt. Moreover, Magic exercised, in ways mentioned before, a very considerable influence on the general mental growth of savage populations; in this sense also it may be said to have helped Religion.

In a penetrating comparison of Magic with Religion, Marett[24] points out how easily our third class of Magic—Spell-Magic—assumes ‘the garb of an affair between persons,’ and thus approaches very close to Religion. But even when Magic involves the ‘projection of an imperative will,’ the fundamental difference between the two modes of behaviour remains quite distinct. In ancient Peru, when a war expedition was contemplated, they were wont to starve certain black sheep for some days and then slay them, uttering the incantation, ‘As the hearts of these beasts are weakened, so let our enemies be weakened.’ If this utterance is to be regarded as expressing an attempt to project the operator’s ‘will’ upon the enemies, we are clearly in the realm of pure Magic. But if it is to be understood as addressed to a personal being, it is a prayer, and then we deal with an instance of the combination of Magic with Religion.

Magic and the Origin of Science.—A common opinion has it that Magic and not the mechanical type of behaviour is the precursor of science. Before bringing this chapter to a close, we shall try and determine in what sense this statement is to be understood.

The reader will remember that after discriminating roughly, in the introduction, the three modes of behaviour observable in man, I added that the anthropopathic behaviour becomes Religion when it is directed to gods, and the mechanical becomes science when the principle of quantitative proportion it implies is definitively recognised. Frazer, who sets forth in his great book the magical origin of science, may stand as the representative of that theory. ‘Magic,’ he tells us, ‘is next of kin to science,’ for science ‘assumes that in nature one event follows another necessarily and invariably without the intervention of any special spiritual or personal agency. Thus its fundamental conception is identical with that of modern science; underlying the whole system is a faith, implicit, but real and firm, in the order and uniformity of nature . . . his power [the magician’s], great as he believes it to be, is by no means arbitrary and unlimited. He can wield it only so long as he strictly conforms to the rules of his art, or to what may be called the laws of nature as conceived by him . . . Thus the analogy between the magical and the scientific conception of the world is close. In both, of them the succession of events is perfectly regular and certain, being determined by immutable laws, the operation of which can be foreseen and calculated precisely.’[25] Upon this I observe, first, that the acknowledgment of a fixed relation between actions or beliefs and their results is not peculiar to Magic; it is implied also in Religion and, more perfectly, in mechanical behaviour. Salvation is by the right practice, or by the right faith, or both. The gods cannot be approached and conciliated in any way; worshipper, no less than magician, has to conform to a definite ritual. In certain not entirely barbarous communities salvation or damnation is held to follow, respectively, belief or disbelief in no less than thirty-nine articles! So that ‘definite and certain succession of events,’ their determination ‘by immutable laws’ to the elimination of caprice, chance, or accident, are expressions which apply, on the whole, as well to Religion as to Magic. These phrases do not denote a kinship of Magic to Science, which could not be claimed also by Religion.

Turning to another side of the matter, we observe that Frazer finds it convenient to minimise, in this connection, the considerable share of the personal, i.e. of the capricious, the incalculable, in Magic. The personality of the magician introduces an indeterminate and undeterminable factor about which enough has been said in preceding sections. Nothing could be in more direct antagonism to the scientific attitude than these two factors: the influence accorded to the personality of the magician and the belief in occult powers belonging to particular objects and events. So that it is truer to the facts to say that the fundamental conception of science, so far from being identical with that of Magic, is absent from it. For the essential presupposition of science—the one that differentiates it alike from Magic and from Religion—is the acknowledgment of definite and constant quantitative relations between causes and effects, relations which completely exclude the personal element and the occult. If that scientific presupposition is absent from Magic and from Religion, it is implicitly present in mechanical behaviour. The savage is nearer the scientific spirit and its method when he constructs a weapon to fit a particular purpose, or when he adjusts his bow and his arrow to the direction and the strength of the wind, than when he burns an enemy in effigy, abstains from sexual intercourse to promote success in the hunt, or exorcises diseases.

What magic shares with science is not the belief in the fundamental principle we have named, but the desire to gain the mastery over the powers of nature and the practice of the experimental method. The experimentation of Magic is, however, so limited and so unconscious that it can hardly be assimilated to the modern scientific method. If any one were to turn to history for an argument in support of the thesis defended by Frazer, and point out that the alchemist is the lineal ancestor of the scientist, the sufficient answer would be—(1) Historical succession does not imply continuity of principle. Although Magic, Alchemy, and Science form an historical sequence, the fundamental principle of the last is not to be found in the others. (2) The clear recognition of the principle of fixed quantitative relations is, whenever and wherever it appears, the birth of Science and the death of both Magic and Alchemy. This last fact demonstrates clearly the fundamental enmity of these arts to the scientific principle.

The discovery of the scientific principle was probably almost as much hindered by the false notions and the pernicious habits of mind encouraged by Magic, as furthered by the gain in general mental activity and knowledge which it brought about. Magic, no more than Religion, encourages the exact observation of external facts, but rather self-deception with regard to them.


  1. Hang a root of vervain around the neck in order to cause the disappearance of a tumour: as the plant dries up, so will the tumour. If the fish do not appear in due season, make one of wood and put it into the water. Keep the arrow that has wounded a friend in a cool place that the wound may not become inflamed.
  2. Journal of the Anthropological Institute, xiii. (1884), p. 456, quoted by Frazer.
  3. Dr. R. H. Codrington, The Melanesians (Clarendon Press, 1891), p. 191.
  4. ‘Études de mythologie et d’archéologie égyptiennes’ (Paris, 1903), Bibliothèque Égyptologique, ii. p. 298.
  5. Foucart, ‘Recherches sur la Nature des Mystères d’Eleusis,’ Mémoires de l’Institut, xxxv. 2nd part, pp. 31-32. Comp. Maspero, ibid., p. 303.
  6. ‘The Beginnings of Religion,’ Fortnightly Review, lxxxiv. (1905), p. 162. Comp. The Golden Bough, 2nd ed., i. pp. 71-73.
  7. The Golden Bough, 2nd ed., i. p. 70. Oldenburg (Die Religion des Veda, Berlin, 1894) was first, I believe, in holding to a pre-religious magical stage of culture. But it is Frazer who first made a clear separation, not only between Magic and Religion, but also between Magic and belief in spirit-agents.
  8. Comp. R. R. Marett, ‘From Spell to Prayer,’ Folk-Lore, xv. (1904), pp. 136-141].
  9. The latest classification is probably that of Frazer in Lectures on the Early History of the Kingship (Macmillan, 1905), p. 54. A. van Gennep, in a review of that book in the Revue de l’Histoire des Religions, liii. pp. 396-401, offers a somewhat different classification.
  10. I use ‘animism’ in the sense which Tylor gave it, i.e. a belief in the animation of all things by beings similar to the ‘souls’ or ‘ghosts’ revealed to the savage by dreams and other natural experiences.
  11. The interested reader will find a summary of observations on this topic in Alex. F. Chamberlain’s The Child (The Contemporary Science Series, 1900), pp. 147-148. See also Sully, Studies of Childhood, p. 82.
  12. See, for instance, many of the prohibitions included in the initiation ceremonies of the Australians in Spencer and Gillen, loc. cit., chapters vii-ix.
  13. Frazer, The Golden Bough, 2nd ed., I. pp. 29-31.
  14. Fourth ed. (1903), i. p. 285.
  15. The word naturism should be adopted as a name for the pre-animistic and pre-religious stage of culture, a stage corresponding to the one through which a child passes before he inquires into hidden causes and mechanisms. See on this an excellent little book published in this series, Animism, by Edward Clodd, pp. 22-25.
  16. Lord Avebury, On the Origin of Civilisation (3rd ed., 1875), pp. 113-114.
  17. The Golden Bough, i. p. 19.
  18. Maspero, loc. cit., pp. 298-299.
  19. Amélie Bosquet, La Normandie romanesque et merveilleuse (Paris et Rouen, 1845), p. 308.
  20. Loc. cit. i., pp. 75-78.
  21. A widespread opinion ascribes the failures of the magician to a rival or to the counter-influence of some evil spirit.

    ‘If a man died in spite of the medicine-man, they [the Chepara of South-East Africa] said it was Wulle, an evil being, that killed him.’—Hewitt, loc. cit., p. 385.
  22. Chap. iii.
  23. Ibid., p. 59.
  24. R. R. Marett, ‘From Spell to Prayer,’ Folk-Lore, xv. (1904), pp. 132-165.
  25. Loc. cit., pp. 61-62. In the third volume (pp. 458-461), a change seems to have taken place in the author’s opinion. What it amounts to, I cannot exactly make out.