Magic (anthropology)

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For the U.S. World War code word for communications intelligence, see MAGIC (communications intelligence)

Magic in the anthropological sense refers to the use of means (as charms or spells) believed to have supernatural power over natural forces. It can also refer to stage magic performed by a juggler or an illusionist. Some practitioners of the use of supernatural magic differentiate their practices from stage magic by spelling theirs as magick.

Magic involving supernatural powers

Notions of magic as a serious practice have been invoked in religious ceremony to attain ends otherwise seen as impossible or difficult to achieve, common examples being the restoration of health or protection from danger. Where it was considered that known use of natural laws and techniques could not go far enough to assure these goals, the hope or belief was that adding a magical element altered the possibilities.

Certain practices, such as shamanism, do produce nonordinary realities, but do not necessarily expect to summon supernatural forces, but to touch normally unreachable parts of the human mind. Other practices indeed do summon. Transpersonal psychology attempts to put the two into a unified framework.

Magic as an art form

In regard to the conception of magic as art form, the contemporary conjurer, fine artist and critical theorist Jeff Sheridan offered the following meditation on and typology of 'magic/illusion':[1]

Because the art of magic is predicated on illusion, the general consensus is that this is an art concerned mainly with deception. As such, magic is generally held, in spite of its popularity, in a somewhat lower esteem in comparison with the other arts, whose aesthetics appear to be concerned essentially with revelation. Although illusion and revelation may be at first seem fairly antagonistic as concepts, a closer examination reveals them to be quite often two sides of the same coin.
When interpreted in their broadest sense, the words 'magic' and 'magical' can apply to many things...However, the definition of magic in the art of conjuring is specifically defined as the apparent disobedience of nature's natual laws. Although they can be broken down further, there are basically only eleven ways in which this can be done:
Production, Vanishing, Transposition, Restoration, Penetration, Levitation, Animation, Suspension, Mind-Reading (or Clairvoyance) and Physical Anomaly (i.e. Headless Woman).

Sheridan's rumination on and elucidation of 'magic' has a canonical weight due both to the comprehensiveness of the above taxonomy but also due to his own standing as a magician of considerable accomplishment.


  1. In his chapter "Conjuring and its Cousin" in the publication "Con Art" (Ed. Helen Varola, 2002, Site Gallery, Sheffield, UK)