Is the belief in magic and witchcraft an example of irrational mystical thinking that characterises pre-modern society?

Anthropologists have always been extremely interested in the mystical and religious beliefs and practices underpinning the societies they were studying (Lambek 2008: 3; Luhrmann 1989: 8), however their own religious beliefs, as well as their historical and cultural understanding of the phenomenon of witchcraft in the West, coloured their interpretation of the reports they were given from people returning from ‘primitive’ and ‘exotic’ societies, and subsequently also what they were witnessing in the field (Wallis 2017: 225; Tambiah 2008: 312).

In this essay I will give an overview of the views of early anthropologists in relation to magic and witchcraft, as well as the evolving perspectives on the subject by functionalists, structuralists and postmodernists in subsequent years, focusing on the position taken and rationale used as to whether the belief in magic and witchcraft is irrational and limited to pre-modern society.

I will then use ethnographic examples to illustrate the function of magic in modern society, while also assessing the rationality of such modern beliefs.

Armchair Anthropologists

In the early days of anthropology, in the second half of the nineteenth century, magic and witchcraft were seen as evidence of the ‘primitive’ nature of the societies in which they were found.

The ‘founding fathers’ of anthropology, such as Edward Tylor and James Frazer, were ‘armchair anthropologists’ who did not go out into the field but instead based their research on reports received from third parties such as missionaries or colonial officers.

Both men were strongly influenced by Darwin’s theory of evolution, as described in his seminal book The Origin of Species, which was published in 1859. Based on this theory and the inevitably ethnocentric reports they received from people returning from the colonies, they surmised that societies worldwide went through an evolutionary process that took them from ‘primitive savages’ to ‘civilised.’

According to them, ‘savages’ started off believing in magic and witchcraft, but as their society evolved their beliefs became more sophisticated, ‘developing from animism through totemism and polytheism to monotheism’ (Wallis 2017: 229).

Are Magical Beliefs Rational?

What is interesting, however, is that Tylor and Frazer disagreed in their interpretation of the rationality of magical beliefs.

In Tylor’s opinion, magic was a ‘pseudo-science’ used by primitive people who were trying to make sense of the world around them. Thus, its use was not irrational, but he surmised that societies went through three distinct stages of development – animism, magic and science – and argued that as societies matured and gained more scientific knowledge, their belief in magic would eventually be replaced by an understanding of the laws of science, thus rendering magic obsolete (Wallis 2017).

Frazer, on the other hand, viewed magical thinking as fundamentally irrational, a ‘bastard-science’ – ‘magic is a spurious system of natural law as well as a fallacious guide of conduct; it is a false science as well as an abortive art’ (Wallis 2017: 229).

A more nuanced view of the rationality of magic

The next generation of anthropologists moved away from the idea that culture goes through a standardised evolutionary process and took a more nuanced view of magic. Émile Durkheim and his student Marcel Mauss perceived magic and witchcraft as a reflection of social relationships. In their view, magical beliefs were not irrational but reflected a ‘social fact’ based on the present reality of the society in question (Wallis 2017: 231).

The advent of functional anthropologists such as Bronislaw Malinowski, Edward Evans-Pritchard and Godfrey Lienhardt, who went out in the field and lived with the people that they were studying, created another shift in anthropological thought about magic.

Ethnography – The Trobriand Islanders

Based on participant-observation of the Trobriand Islanders, Malinowski argued that magic and witchcraft served a useful social function in pre-modern societies, helping people to make sense of the world around them and to deal with the uncertainty and unpredictability of life. Thus, their belief in magic and witchcraft was not irrational but served a very specific psychological purpose, principle amongst which was allaying anxiety (Geertz 2008: 65; Wallis 2017: 233).

He supported this argument by comparing the magic rituals performed by fishermen before they ventured out into the treacherous open seas to the ones performed when they stayed within the protected lagoon. The more anxiety-inducing the fishing expedition was, the more magical rites the fisherman needed to perform to reassure themselves before heading out to sea (Malinowski 1922).

Malinowski’s analysis was especially significant because it redirected anthropological research from questions regarding ‘belief’ in magic and whether it ‘works’ towards the study of the function of magic as a means of creating and preserving psychological and social cohesion (Wallis 2017).

Ethnography – The Azande in Sudan

Edward Evans-Pritchard conducted fieldwork amongst the Azande in Sudan around ten years after Malinowski was in the Trobriands.

His assessment of the magic used by the tribe was similarly functional in nature, and he concluded that the system of oracles used by the Azande whenever grievances between tribe members arose was crucial for the maintenance of public order in the tribe.

Thus, the fact that the magic did not ‘work’ did not mean that its use was irrational since it ultimately achieved the aim of restoring social cohesion. He himself used the oracles while living with the Azande, saying that he found them ‘as satisfactory a way of running my home and affairs as any other I know of” (Evans-Pritchard 1937: 126).

Leinhardt, a contemporary of Evans-Pritchard, came to similar conclusions in his ethnography of the Dinka, saying that the magic rites of the tribe consisted of ‘symbolic action’ which the natives deployed to bring about ‘a set of mental and moral dispositions’ (Leinhardt 2008: 303).

Would Science make Magic irrelevant?

The views of anthropologists such as Tylor and Frazer therefore contrasted greatly with those of the functionalists, in that the former viewed magical thinking as either the result of ignorance or a lack of logic, while the latter viewed it as rational and achieving a useful purpose in the society in question (Wallis 2017: 233). That said, nonetheless, they all agreed on one fundamental principle, which was that the advent of science would render magic irrelevant, and that advanced knowledge would ultimately make magic redundant in modern society.

This understanding of magic as an early stage of a linear developmental process that culminated in science, was particularly prevalent in the United Kingdom, where anthropologists and historians compared the magic and witchcraft that had been studied in the previous three decades in the colonies to the witch trials in England in the eighteenth century (Hutton 2004: 413), thus implying that societies that still practiced magic were centuries behind the English and would eventually evolve and abandon such ‘irrational’ thinking as they modernised.

This notion persisted well into the twentieth century, only to collapse in 1975, when several British historians and anthropologists agreed that the parallels they were making did not hold, culminating in a paper published in The Journal of Interdisciplinary History by anthropologist Hildred Geertz, where she accused Keith Thomas, one of the main proponents of this comparative practice, of using England-specific categories and definitions of witchcraft as ‘cultural weapons’ against societies that had very little in common with the English (Hutton 2004: 414).

The debate regarding the rationality of magic and its inevitable extinction in the light of science had come up against a problem – the fact the practice of witchcraft and magic was growing exponentially in the post-modern Western world at the end of the twentieth century (Luhrmann 1989).

Ethnography – Witchcraft in Normandy

In the late 1960s, a French anthropologist called Jeanne Favret-Saada conducted an immersive ethnography in a rural village in Normandy, getting intimately involved and fully participating in the witchcraft that formed an important part of the villagers’ lives.

Her findings were similar to those of Evans-Pritchard forty years earlier in Sudan, with witchcraft having an important role in the management of grievances in the small community.

‘a set of words spoken in a crisis situation by someone who will later be designated a witch are afterwards interpreted as having taken effect on the body and belongings of the person spoken to, who will on that ground say he is bewitched. The unwitcher takes on himself these words originally spoken to his client, and turns them back on to their original sender, the witch . . .’

Favret-Saada as cited in Wallis 2017: 241

The ‘words’ used by the witches were important ‘performative’ acts that could not and should not be interpreted through the lens of ‘rationality’ or ‘science,’ but rather through their symbolic and representative nature, and their resulting psychological and social effects (Wallis 2017; Tambiah 2008).

Interestingly, Favret-Saada’s conclusions echo those of anthropologists researching the psychological impact of magical rituals in non-Western societies at around the same time as she was conducting her ethnography in Europe.

The Zār healing dance

In a paper published in 1967, John Kennedy assessed the therapeutic impact of the magical Zār healing dance, which was performed in North and East Africa and the Persian Gulf.

He found that ‘the zar is apparently effective not only with hysterical and anxiety reactions but with depressive neuroses, psychosomatic ailments, and even some psychotic conditions’ (Kennedy 1967: 194).

Further research on this magical ritual showed that it was particularly popular with women. This was linked to the struggles of women who were experiencing a cognitive dissonance between their culturally imposed roles and identity, and the reality of their experiences and desires (Boddy 2008), or who were struggling with the aftermath of marital infidelity or infertility (Boddy 2008; Mianji, Semnani: 2015).

The magical rituals were powerful because they enabled the women to express their emotions in a way that was acceptable in a society that frowned upon displays of emotions, while also externalising them and confronting them, enabling them to once again attain congruence in their self-perception (Boddy 2008).

Ethnography – Witches in London

Twenty years later, an American anthropologist called Tanya Luhrmann conducted another fully immersive ethnographic study of witches practising their craft in and around London.

In her book Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft, she asks the very same questions that early anthropologists asked about the use of magic in primitive societies, only in her case her subjects were middle-class English men and women living in cosmopolitan London in the post-modern world.

She points out that the number of people turning to magic and witchcraft in the West was increasing, so she set out to understand ‘the process that allows people to accept outlandish, apparently irrational beliefs’ (Luhrmann 1989: 7), leading to them coming to view them as ‘eminently sensible’ (Luhrmann 1989: 7).

Why do modern people turn to magic?

Why, she asks, do they ‘practise magic when, according to observers, the magic doesn’t work?’ (Luhrmann 1989: 4). It was clearly no longer possible to chalk it down to the absence of science. Many of the people she studied were highly educated – she mentions computer scientists, university professors, bankers, businessmen, psychotherapists, teachers, doctors and civil servants. What led these people to ‘don long robes and perform rituals in which they invoke old gods to alter their present reality’? (Luhrmann 1989: 4)

One could say that her ethnography brings the anthropological study of magic full circle, directly taking on the narrative based on describing magic and witchcraft as ‘irrational mystical thinking that characterises pre-modern society,’ by showing that the same mental processes are at play in late twentieth-century London, which could be considered a mecca of post-modern rationality.

“Modern magicians are sophisticated, educated people. They know a way of explaining nature – science – which has been remarkably successful in its explanation and remarkably antagonistic towards ritualist magic. In addition, they do not come from a background which accepts magic easily and their rites are novel creations: their magic cannot be explained as some burden of the past. They are clearly equipped with the mental equipment to think non-magically.’

(Luhrmann 1989: 10).

How do modern people find their way to witchcraft?

In the ethnography Luhrmann identifies several paths that lead people to magic, many of which touch upon very real concerns that preoccupy people in the post-modern world.

The ‘New Age’ practitioners, for example, were interested in preserving nature – ‘If you are a magician, and particularly if you are a witch, [you] should be working with the Great Mother of Earth to preserve the wilderness, restore the forests, refertilise the land …’ (Moonwalker as cited Luhrmann 1989: 30).

She also describes ‘feminist’ witches, driven by the desire to honour a female god and put women at the centre of the cycle of life (Luhrmann 1989: 52).

There were also ‘solo’ witches, for whom magic became a form of ‘social cachet’ and an important feature of their sense of identity. Luhrmann talks of ‘Mick’ who ‘called her cottage ‘Broomstick Cottage’, kept ten cats and had a cast iron cauldron near the fireplace … like all religions, the witchcraft reduced the loneliness, lent charm to a bleak landscape, and gave her a social role’ (Luhrmann 1989: 54).

Luhrmann concludes that initially people became involved in magic in a ‘science-like’ quest to explore a new ‘theory of reality,’ but that as they get more involved, ‘they came to treat their practice like a religion – in that they spoke of gods and spiritual experience.’

Comparing magic to religion

One could draw an interesting parallel between these witches, who get emotionally and spiritually drawn into the practice of their coven, to the process of conversion described in various ethnographies of religion.

Smilde (2007) studied the phenomenon of conversion of Evangelical Protestants in Venezuela. He found that initially the converts’ motivations were not spiritual but rather the ‘perceived economic, social and personal gains’ (Smilde 2007: 4). However, once they started going to religious services, they found themselves drawn in and experienced a true conversion of their Christian faith.

Luhrmann describes the “conversion” of magicians and witches as happening through a process of ‘interpretive drift.’ They notice and respond to events in their life, such as finding money on the street or getting a work promotion, by attributing them to the power of magic.

‘Through magic, magicians’ perception of their world – what they noticed and experienced – altered, and the way they interpreted these perceptions altered’ (Luhrmann 1989: 11). As a result, ‘They learn to accept its core concept: that mind affects matter, and that in special circumstances, like ritual, the trained imagination can alter the physical world’

(Luhrmann 1989: 7).

The concept of interpretive drift applies to all religions, and not just magic. Harding (2008) concluded that Evangelicals ‘become convinced that supernatural reality is a fact, that Christ is the literal Son of God, that he did rise from the dead and is alive today, that the Holy Spirit is speaking to them, that Jesus will enter their hearts if they acknowledge their sins, that they will have eternal life, that God is really real’ (Harding 2008: 481).

Just as the witches and magicians in Luhrmann’s study saw the impact of magic in everything that happened around them, the Evangelicals in Harding’s study saw the hand of Jesus Christ in everything that they experienced. They believed that God spoke to them in innumerable ways through everyday occurrences, which become proof, if proof was needed, of his existence and his power. Thus, their faith permeated every aspect of their lives, from the mundane to the spiritual, becoming a form of interpretative key to decipher their life experiences (Harding 2008).


In conclusion, there can be no doubt that the fascination with witchcraft and magic has by no means subsided in the post-modern world, and the topic continues to be of considerable interest for anthropologists.

It is now clear that there is no such thing as an evolutionary ladder of religion, inexorably leading developing societies from primitive magic to the holy grail of science.

The rituals and rationalities of belief in magic are indistinguishable from those of the so-called ‘more civilised’ monotheistic religions. Furthermore, people use similar ‘intellectual strategies’ (Luhrmann 1989: 12) to navigate the chasm between magic/religion and science.

Clearly there are strong psychological factors that lead people to find solace, meaning and human connection through their magical or religious practice – something that is extremely valuable and by no means irrational in our increasingly disconnected world.


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Bronislaw M. (1922) Argonauts of the Western Pacific: an account of native enterprise and adventure in the Archipelagos of Melanesian New Guinea. Routledge.
Evans-Pritchard, E.E. (1937). Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Geertz C. (2008) ‘Religion as a Cultural System’. In Lambek, M. (Ed.) Ev. Oxford: Blackwell. (Chp 4)
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Smilde, D. (2007) Reason to Believe: Cultural Agency in Latin American Evangelicalism. Berkeley: University of California Press, Berkeley.
Tambiah, S.J. (2008) ‘Form and Meaning of Magical Acts’. In Lambek, M. (ed.) A Reader in the Anthropology of Religion. Oxford: Blackwell. (Chp 25)
Wallis, R. (2017) ‘Witchcraft and Magic in the Age of Anthropology’ in Davies, O. (Ed.) The Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft and Magic. Oxford U.P.
Ziegler, R. (2008) ‘What makes the Kula go round?” Social Networks, 30(2), pp. 107-126.

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