The Origins of Magic: Etymology
Welcome to my new blog: all things magic.
I’ve been obsessed with magic more or less my entire life. As a child, I binge-read books like The Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, The Magician’s House, and the Septimus Heap saga. (Full disclosure: I still reread all of those occasionally, even as an adult.) In recent years, I’ve graduated to writing my own books about magic—the culmination of which will be published on 21 July 2021. This has meant an awful lot of research into magic: what is magic and where did the idea come from?
When I write, I love including titbits from actual history, real beliefs in magic which have existed throughout civilisation. In this blog, I’ll share some of my learnings and experimentation with you, along with tips for writing about magic, and a few fun projects to bring more magic into your own life.
I hope you enjoy, and please do leave a comment! I love talking to people.
Without further ado, let’s jump right in.
THE ETYMOLOGY OF "MAGIC"
Magic can mean different things to different people, but at its core it describes the process of harnessing supernatural forces in order to manipulate events, things, or people. This definition encompasses a vast variety of practices, depending on culture and historical context, including divination, curses, protective enchantments, and many others.
The concept of magic goes back as far as human civilisation. It developed alongside religion and science as a mode of understanding and explaining the world around us. (Magic, variously, has been used to explain everything from the spread of diseases, to medicine, to early alchemical experiments.) Depending on the civilisation in question, magic plays a lesser or greater role in human consciousness. In fact, it is often impossible to define strict lines where magic ends and religion or science take over.
There are a myriad of terms to describe magic and the practice thereof in English: magic, witchcraft, wizardry, sorcery, thaumaturgy, and enchantment, to name just a few. Practitioners of magic are variously called magicians, mages, witches, wizards, warlocks, and sorcerers. Merely the profusion of terms associated with the craft indicates how prevalent the belief in it must have been.
The English word “magic” comes from the French “magique”, which in turn comes from the Latin terms “magica” and “magicos”. These originate from the Greek “magos”, meaning “member of the learned or priestly class”. The term “magic” displaced existing forms in English which derived from Germanic: “gaeldorcræft” (“enchantment”), “wiccecræft” (“witchcraft”), and “drycræft” (“dry-” meaning “magician”, from the Irish “drui” (“priest”), which is the source of the word “druid”). The existence of these terms in all languages, going back thousands of years, demonstrates that magic has always been an integral concept in human consciousness. It also reveals a close association with both learning and priesthood.
Magic has had mixed connotations over the years. In fact, much of the early Greco-Roman and Judo-Christian traditions relating to magic concerned the need to protect oneself against sorcery. This carried over into the Christian tradition, which associated magic with demons. The notion of magic as something evil spread as the rest of Europe converted to Christianity. The extant Germanic, Celtic, and Scandinavian religious beliefs were strongly associated with magic, and the Church labelled these beliefs “pagan” in order to condemn them. This struggle continued throughout the medieval period, and eventually culminated in the witch hunts.
In spite of this widespread persecution, a proliferation of magic-related texts from the medieval period, the use of magic as a theme in literature, and the continuation of magical beliefs up to the modern day, demonstrate that magical beliefs did not diminish with the spread of Christianity. They continued to hold sway in Europe as a mode of rationality (term coined by Jacob Neusner to mean a method of explaining natural phenomena) up until the Age of Enlightenment, when science began to win out as the preferred method. In other cultures around the world, magic continues to play an important role in belief systems.
Magic has been critical to the development of modern-day societies around the world and continues to hold importance in the human consciousness: one only has to look at children’s books and fairy tales to see that magic is still an integral part of our upbringing and an important stage in the development of our individual psyches.
This blog will explore what magic really means to modern-day society: real-world examples of how the belief in magic has manifested, how different magic systems are represented in literature, the importance of magic to our consciousness, and how each of us can bring a little bit of magic back into our lives. I look forward to taking this journey with you.
Until next time,