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?
His book is breathtaking in scope ... It should be said at once that this is not a book for everyone. For many readers its pages will be full of fascinating discoveries. For others, the same pages will be full of meticulously catalogued nonsense ... If you agree...that it is not irrational to believe all misfortune and death to be caused by magic and witchcraft, then this book is for you. If you disagree, it is probably not, unless you can suspend disbelief completely while you read ... He is convinced, too, that early humans did not think of humans and animals as different species, and he points, as evidence for this, to the mixture of animal and human remains in many prehistoric graves. Such evidence is, though, disputable ... Gosden’s depiction of magic as a set of sensitive, benevolent beliefs is also contestable ... Whether he himself really believes in magic is not clear. He certainly writes as if he does. But can he truly believe, for example, that Chinese magic could 'shift the cosmos,' or that Egyptian magic could enable a dead husband to beget a child on his still-living wife—both of which he reports with no suggestion that they are nonsense?