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The Notion of Magic

By: Ricardo P Nunes

    Although tacitly, the first anthropologists to address the theme of magic, either as a kind of proto-religion or an indistinct means for the realization of aspirations for themselves or, in the form of revenge, for others, but above all for cures , suggested in their monographs that the institution of magic, or its intention in the performance of rites or in the handling of elements associated with it, was supported by the idea or perspective of a dynamic vital force that would be disposed in the very elements of which it was constituted. the world. As in Spinoza's pantheism (1983 [1677]), but revocable, manageable; as if, as soon as the devoted theological fear of cataclysmic phenomena proved unfounded, or that the very regularity of such grand phenomena relegated them to the unintelligible sphere of the supreme gods, it remained available to the vicissitudes of everyday life, even if only to a small minority susceptible, a whole store of mystical formulas and devices with which it would be possible to try to control these supposed supernatural forces for private or collective benefit.

    To refer to this force or to its simple "notion" - a vague term but which I will provisionally adopt here - although we must consider here its most diverse nuances and variations, those researchers used the very terms with which the natives called it, such as mana among the Melanesians (COGRINGTON, 1891, pp. 57 ff.), manitu among the Algonquins (THAVENET apud MAUSS and HUBERT, 2016 [1902], p. 148), orenda among the Iroquois (HEWITT, 1903, p. 207). Within this list, we can also enumerate the meaning of the Amazonian indigenous term bahsese, used by the tucano tribal collectives of the Alto Rio Negro:

The bahsese holder, in order not to suffer the attacks of the waimahsan, with their artifacts and weapons (wakari, wahpiri, wehõesé and others), makes use of various types of invisible mats around the person who is under the protection of the bahsese. This prevents and prevents diseases released by the waimahsan. [...] the kumu launches words of affinity, respect and consideration with expressions of appeasement: “mari niku porãni, mari na diaku ni mari, ameri ñatuti wetikarã mari” [1] [...] This formula is used for to enter and enjoy in the act of bahsese of the beings and things of the land-forest (AZEVEDO SUEGɄ, 2016, p. 52).

    As well as the notion of origin of a healing “strength”, as described in the report by Audirene S. Cordeiro in a city in the interior of Amazonas:

[Most of the healers] manifested feeling a strange force during the healing activities, but only healers considered to be sacacas revealed that this force was a deep-down animal [...] Only after being tame, that is, after overcoming the state of 'being wild', freeing themselves from bodily grids that limit access to other territorialities, going beyond the Eurocentric logic, the healers can receive and control the healing force/potency. Hence, why those healers whose teaching on healing took place in the school at the back are called sacaca. They receive the power/strength/potency to cure and insist on confirming "I don't cure, the force that comes through me does the job" [...]  it is from these beings that the strength emanates not only to cure, but also to ingest, capacities without which sacaca healers would lose strength (CORDEIRO, 2017, pp. 117-118).

    This category of notions would be defined, in general, as a belief that from the least suspicious to the most trivial threads of physical and spiritual nature would be to some extent interrelated [2] , as if substantiated by the same influx of a universal energy.

Orenda is power, mystical power. There is nothing in nature and, more especially, there is no animate being that does not have its orenda. The gods, the spirits, the men, the animals are endowed with orenda. Natural phenomena, such as the storm, are produced by the orenda of the spirits of these phenomena. The happy hunter is one whose orenda beat the hunting orenda. The orenda of animals that are difficult to catch are said to be intelligent and cunning. Orenda fights are seen everywhere among the Hurons, just as we see mana fights in Melanesia. The orenda is [...] the storm-making spirit, [which] casts its orenda represented by the clouds. Orenda is the sound that things make; the animals that scream, the birds that sing, the trees that murmur, the wind that blows, express their orenda (HUBERT and MAUSS, op. cit. p.147).

     More recently, Geertz (1989, p. 72) has endorsed this category of notions by proposing that mana is “a conception fully imbued with vitality”; further on, he attributes a certain precedence to this institute, a primordial character, when he suggests that mana is one of the religious foundations and that it was only through it that it was possible to organize the "natural disorder in which we found ourselves" and that "the belief religious does not involve a Baconian induction of everyday experience [...], but, on the contrary, a prior acceptance of the authority that transforms that experience” (Idem, p. 80, emphasis added).

     Under a less intuitive and more logical analysis, that is, under the perspective that “nihil est intellectu quod prius non fuerit in sensu [3] ”, or the empiricist principle of the tabula rasa of John Locke (1983 [1689]), such institution, widely shared by any of those peoples and pointed out by the first ethnographers of the theme as a source of the notion of magic, although with a relatively variable and dispersed sense or apprehension - as it only happens to concepts, myths and elements within the scope of religious affections not yet systematized by an exegetical controversy or consolidated in a dogmatic ─, would only be the result of the sensorial deductive experience; that is, from the conclusions, however erroneous or hasty, about the relationships of cause and effect between the phenomena experienced or observed.  If, from an unpretentious experience of the world where a category of phenomena does not fit into the inferences provided by the analogy between sequences of ordinary phenomena, it is natural to glimpse in those acts the domain of another sphere of events not sheltered in material nature. Therefore, there would be a given formula of another underlying reality, mysteriously structured by a superior power as a ball of interdependent parts which would be, although not intelligible, at least susceptible to mimesis - which at first would not be articulated in a thoughtful way. If there would be any sympathetic logic [4]  in the world, it would then be possible to try to reproduce its results. The rites of passage, the deeds and circumstances that mark the magician, the witch, the shaman, the shaman and (why not?) the neo-Pentecostal pastor, or even the hyperesthetic effects and stimuli of the ritual itself, refer us to the attempt to to enter this magical or spiritual dimension of the world that would harbor the notion of mana, whose success would depend only on the officiant's own capacity, whose faith in this "strength" makes him see or feel it not as separate from himself, but as himself way through which to penetrate it.

     Thus, a reflection on this ethnography about the idea of mana leads us, on the other hand, to something perhaps less than metaphysics, or as something given at a later and more ordinary moment, as in the suspicion that magic would be, albeit surreptitiously or “spuriously” (FRAZER, 1982 [1890], p. 85), a rudimentary ancestor of scientific procedure (MAUSS and HUBERT, op. cit. p. 50; BOURDIEU, 2007, pp. 34 ss); in the terms of Lévi-Strauss (2017 [1962], p. 21), a kind of bricolage. Thus, this notion of pure and simple magic, not Manichean, that is, already stripped, independent or prior to the emergence of malevolent or angelic anthropomorphic entities, which grounds and evokes this miraculous atmosphere, so to speak "neutral", starts before a perspective with a certain degree of desacrality, insofar as the advent of the sorcerer, the alchemist or the priest demonstrates that it is believed to be able to handle, albeit fleetingly, the elements common to those two worlds. The contingent and irrevocable orb in its dialectical-temporal developments could then be influenced by the other, such a continuum. This magical interface would be anathematized, however, by the supremacy acquired by Christian orthodoxy, especially from the 20th century onwards. IV onwards, which would have demoted the ancient Greco-Roman cult to idolatry and to the basest condition of infernal demons the entities of its pantheon (GIBBON, 2003 [1776], pp. 194-239).

    What Max Weber called the disenchantment of the world, which, according to him, occurred more prominently in the passage from the Ancient to the Modern Age, would, in fact, have been triggered by a giving up, a resigned tiredness, or even a socio-social inadequacy. political or economic of the individual in seeing himself eternally conditioned by a maximum divine entity whose promise of redemptive intervention is reserved only for the end of time, for the afterlife of an unjust and incomprehensible world. In other words, it concerns precisely the incompatibility of a world where its most immanent forms of divinity had been banned in the long process of universalization of Christianity. But what becomes clear next, however, is that over time, albeit with the fall of the Roman Empire and ancient religion and the later domination of the Catholic canon in the Northwestern world, this disenchanted, desacralized worldview referred to -would only go to its macrocosmic scope, because what happens or continues to happen in religious practices is a perception of the earthly plane where the very natural elements [5] and the facts of everyday experience that constitute its most immediate reality assume their own autonomy, in the which will soon demand an interpretation that relates them to each other and perceives them as potentially endowed with sacredness [6] . In other words, deep down, the enchantment would not have been totally extinguished, but only resignified now in an intracosmic field, and especially when the need for cosmological reorientation and to fill the void resulting from the frustration of the cherished scientific progress in being able to explain arose and offer solutions to the most intimate, existential old human dramas.


Mana, bahsese .... kharisma and urban cures

    In an attempt to suggest, in an analytical, conceptual way, that the notions of diffuse “spiritual energy” found in more elementary or direct forms of magical practices have a similar substratum and play, albeit in a merely analogous way,  a preponderant role also in the neo-Pentecostal healing ritual, for example in concepts such as kharisma [7]  or dogmas such as the spiritus sanctus, it would be necessary to compose a long journey back to historical sources about early Christian Gnosticism, its sources in ancient Jewish sects from the Second Temple era and even the influence exerted by the religious cults of the Near East Hellenic [8] , which would extrapolate the objectives and dimensions of this work. What we can sustain here is only that, although too elusive, heterogeneous, and pantheistic for the dogmatism of orthodox Christianity, this notion of pervasive “spiritual energy” could be analyzed as an equivalent parallel within the context of present-day neo-Pentecostal religions; that it shares a semantic content with this new healing current of urban evangelical cults, although here this "notion" is associated with the configuration of a supreme deity typical of the great institutionalized religions over the centuries, which need to objectify it in logical frameworks such as a theodicy, a soteriology or theological-philosophical summaries [9] .

    As for the unilateral or ambivalent nature of this “notion”, as we have tried to explore it so far, obviously foreign to the Manichaeism of the neo-Pentecostal cult, we could argue that the need for objectification would probably be allied to the structure of polarization of categories relevant to rationality itself. Thus, the consolidation of this process of opposition in a millenary religious field such as Christianity, between demonological or theurgical figures and representations, would possibly have resulted in the fact that this "notion" appears to be split into antipodes and irreconcilable categories such as Good and Evil. which take up the modern healing rituals practiced today by various evangelical denominations, in the so-called urban shamanism and in sophisticated energy healing techniques such as “harmonic resonance”, Reiki therapy”, etc. What is visceral about neo-Pentecostalism is its cosmological persistence univocal, which makes the conduct of its devotees, especially with regard to faith and practical sacrifices, immediate and ostensible, is responsible for attracting or rejecting spiritual forces always under the aegis of their priests. itself imposes a foundation in an ecclesiastical hierarchy based on a supreme being, but now as provider of charisma - or of the end. ana — who now reduces all his opponents to the vicissitudes of merely contingent and submundane evil forces, mere obstacles in the believer's trajectory toward personal success in this world.


[1] "We are children of the same ancestor, we are one person, we do not have hostility towards each other".

[2] Such a Platonic ideal world, but inseparable from it, that is, the beyond can be projected, however, it would not fail to be embodied in this world. As Viveiros de Castro (2002) and Philippe Descola (2016) suggested, the cultural universe of those peoples would be felt and experienced through a monist perception because it is simultaneous between nature, culture and the supernatural; contrary to the typical bipartite perception of industrial society, where there would be room for only two distinct dimensions: nature and culture, however, we are not fully in agreement with this theory as explained in the Ritual for Community chapter.

[3] Empiricist maxim: “nothing is in the intellect that has not passed through the senses before”.

[4] In the meaning that James Frazer (1982 [1912]) ascribes to the term.

[5] A similar attitude occurs in the telluric evocations of the so-called urban shamanism (MAGNANI, 2005).

[6] Since the early Middle Ages, we have seen characters such as Paracelsus, Pico de la Mirandola, Giordano Bruno and Roger Bacon gain prominence in the theological-philosophical field (YATES, 1995; GILSON, 2007; VOEGELIN, 2012), as well as, later on, leading figures linked to the foundation of modern sciences such as Francis Bacon, Descartes, Mersenne and Isaac Newton (idem), whose scientific works still run parallel to a strong Christian religious feeling at the same time as mystical-alchemical experiments (FANNING, 2017) .

[7] Even if charisma - From the Greek, kharisma, acts: grace; favor. In Latin, charīsma, ătis: divine grace, extraordinary and divine gift given to a believer or group of believers.

[8] Cf. Hellenism, Rome and Early Christianity, v. I. Eric Voegelin, It's Achievements, 2012

[9] Scholastics, mainly that of Tomaz de Aquino (GILSON, 2007, pp. 652-682)


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