A University of Oxford archaeology professor explores magic as an enduring element of human behavior with 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 supplies a missing chapter of the story of our civilization.
... [an] enlightening history ... Rather than forming successive trends of increasing rationality, Gosden persuasively argues that magic, religion, and science have always existed in tandem ... In light of the current climate crisis, and inspired by the discoveries of quantum physics, Gosden furthermore makes a compelling case for a return to the kind of interconnected perspective central to most magical traditions ... A fascinating exploration of magic’s hold on the human imagination.
The contents of Mr. Gosden’s cauldron are almost as eclectic as the ingredients that Macbeth’s hags favored. There are delightfully entertaining passages, especially on picturesque spells ... Mr. Gosden’s triple helix unwinds, however, as he insists on distinctions that disrupt his claims of continuity between religion and magic ... Much of the book is irrelevant: Sometimes Mr. Gosden can find no evidence of magic in the places or times traversed, as, like eye of newt or toe of frog, he swivels and leaps around the world. He wastes pages on elementary background information ... Mr. Gosden celebrates the survival of magic but doesn’t seem to realize that the more complexity science discloses, the more bafflement it causes, driving the perplexed into wild surmise ... Magic: A History will raise readers’ doubts about whether he, too, intends to mock or amuse us. Is it trick or treat?
Gosden treats readers to a history of humanity through the lens of magic ... In this beautifully illustrated and written book, Gosden offers an encyclopedic compendium of magical practices across the globe and throughout history. Readers will gain much from the transhistorical perspective Gosden offers ... The global and historical reach of Gosden’s knowledge is astonishing and makes this book an essential reference work. But Gosden has another compelling trick up his sleeve. The book’s humane, urgent conclusion suggests that magic may even offer some clues for surviving our current global climate crisis. Many of the magical rituals and practices discussed here rely on the notion of an animate and sentient natural world. 'To be human is to be connected,' Gosden argues. If we can reawaken our sense of connection to the natural world—to trees and animals and oceans—we may be able to encourage more humans to practice living lightly and harmoniously with the world around us.