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The Functions And Effects Of Magic In Classic Anthropological Works

The early contributions of Wilhelm Wundt (1832–1920) and R. R. Marett (1866–1943) drew attention to the psychological motivations and effects of magic. Wundt, who viewed magic as a stage in the development of religion, found that the impetus to practice magic came from human beings' fear of nature and efforts to influence it. Marett saw magic as a way for humans to address emotions stemming from insecurity and to gain courage and confidence.

Beginning with the work of Bronislaw Malinowski (1884–1942) in the Trobriand Islands of Melanesia during World War I, the insights that anthropologists brought to the study of magic were based on long-term field observations and were undertaken by the writers themselves. Along with the work of his contemporary, Alfred Radcliffe-Brown (1881–1955), he greatly contributed to anthropology's developing body of thought on methods and standards for fieldwork. With extensive examples from his study, Malinowski found that magic in the Trobriand Islands addressed particular kinds of problems that were specific and practical. These he distinguished from the larger concerns of human life that he identified with religion.

For Malinowski, the many functions of magic included human beings' attempts to increase the probability of success in important activities, and increase confidence to undertake them. Magic opened up possibilities for human action. He did not view magic as a characteristic of particular kinds of societies, but thought that it could be found when human beings were confronted with a lack of knowledge or ability to control something important to their lives. Malinowski also observed that magic had social and moral functions that led to better cooperation among group members. In addition, it gave people access to what he referred to as "miracles," events that were unexpected or unlikely, thus giving them hope.

Addressing the question of the difference between magical and natural causality, Malinowski showed that the Andamanese used magic to supplement the actions of the natural world. In their horticultural and sailing activities they both relied on their own knowledge and skills, and used magic to assist them to handle unexpected events. Malinowski did not present magic, religion, and science in an evolutionary framework, but considered them as aspects of cultural systems. His approach acknowledged that the Andamanese had empirical knowledge and did not assume that magic was apart from, or a replacement for, effective activity in the world.

The work of Radcliffe-Brown among the Andamanese also provided new standards of research for the study of magic and religion. Like Malinowski, he was able to demonstrate the many social functions of magic. One of his greatest contributions was to elaborate on the term mana, the word for magical knowledge and power that has the potential to be both dangerous and beneficial. Objects and substances possess mana, and human beings acquire mana through their relationship with spirits.

Radcliffe-Brown observed that the Andamanese used mana as a way of distinguishing transformations in social positions. During times of transition, the dangerous aspects of mana are dominant, requiring people to observe taboos. Radcliffe-Brown stressed that the function of these ideas and the rituals associated with them was to support group collaboration and interdependence. Compared to Malinowski, he placed even greater emphasis on the social value of ritual rather than on its instrumental effects.

E. E. Evans-Pritchard (1902–1973) extended the study of the social and political context of magic. His research among the Azande of the Sudan was published in Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande (1937), a work that continues to stimulate scholarly debate and reinterpretation. His analysis of magic and witchcraft not only acknowledged their strategic uses, but permitted a more complex understanding of the relationship of witchcraft and magic to social and political institutions. He reveals that it was only men and members of the elite in Azande society who were authorized to use certain forms of magic and oracles that could identify those responsible for witchcraft. While these issues were not his central concern, his detailed and comprehensive description of Azande life allows readers to identify the implications of magic for gender relations and to support political and economic power.

One of his greatest contributions was to present magic as part of a "ritual complex" and stress their relationship rather than to focus attention on categorical distinctions. For Evans-Pritchard, magic, witchcraft, oracles, and divination worked as an integral whole and could not be understood alone. In his account of Azande ideas and practices, he showed that magic, oracles, and divination were used to address witchcraft. Oracles and divination provided information about the source of witchcraft, and magic was employed to counter it. Because the Azande used magic primarily in response to the mystical power of other human beings, and not to change nature, Evans-Pritchard did not consider the comparison of magic with science to be relevant.

One of the results of Evans-Pritchard's detailed ethnographic work was to convey the pervasive uses of magic and witchcraft in the everyday lives of the Azande. Including both the act of engaging in rituals and ways of apprehending their world, magic and witchcraft were presented as an integral part of Azande culture. Evans-Pritchard also provided information about the contents of magical acts that could be similarly compared to those in European magic. He described how the plant and animal substances used in magic were considered to be inert until activated by the verbal spells of the owner, and explained that the Azande called these substances medicines. He contested the established notion that magic was primarily used to change the natural world with his discovery that, for the Azande, magic was used to counter the magic of others, and was therefore an activity that was largely identified with protection. He also pointed out that it was used to punish people who misused magic, a function that was considered moral.

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