BBC History Magazine

“Magic is a really important strand of what it means to be human”

Ellie Cawthorne: Your new book surveys a vast array of magical beliefs throughout human history. How do you define magic?

Chris Gosden: My definition of magic is a human openness to the universe. And a universe’s openness to people.

Let me give you some examples. In Oxford’s Bodleian Library, there are 80,000 astrological diagnoses, dating from between the late 16th century and about 1660. Around 60,000 people visited three astrologers and asked questions about a whole range of things, from health and career choices to lost children. The astrologers were highly methodical in how they recorded these consultations – they made a note of the question, drew an astrological chart of where various bodies were in the heavens at the time a particular event occurred, and recorded a diagnosis. In astrology, the assumption is that the movement of the planets, the moon, the sun, the stars could influence our health, our well-being, our careers.

My second example comes from my own experience. When I worked as an archaeologist in Papua New Guinea, a group of people from the village I lived in took me out to a little area in the rainforest where a bunch of stones were lying in the grass. They said: “You see these stones? At certain times, they can fly around just above the ground. And if you know how to read them, they will tell you the future.” I said that I’d love to see the stones fly, but the group responded that it wouldn’t happen if a white person was present.

In both these cases, the people involved believed

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