Kirk Straughen

(Investigator 43, 1995 July)


My interest in magic is due to having lived on the island of Bougainville and my contact with its native culture. My scientific treatment of this subject has been influenced by Gene Ogden, an anthropologist who often stayed at my parents' plantation.

In this article I have used the word occultist as a generic term for magicians, witchdoctors, shamans, etc.


Magic can be defined as a rite and verbal formula projecting human desires into the world on a theory of human control to some practical end.

The verbal element in magic is extremely important in some societies, and is regarded as the fundamental constituent, and the believed source of occult power. In Oceanic societies, the form of words is thought to be fixed and invariable, so much so that a mistake in the recital is thought to spoil the effects of magic.

In others, however, particularly in Africa, the form of words is variable and consists rather in a conversational address to the "medicine" (magic objects or compounds) to perform its work, the occultist modifying his phrases as he sees fit. According to Africans, the power of the magic resides in the medicine rather than the spell.

There are at least four different forms of magic: Imitative, contagious, sequential, and divinative. In imitative magic the occultist seeks to bring about an event by symbolically causing it to happen. For example the ceremonial pouring of water in order to bring rain. Imitative magic is based on the principle that like produces like.

Contagious magic is based on the idea of association. It is believed that by performing acts on something that is related to or has been in contact with a particular object or being, one may gain control over the original. For example, the ceremonial burning of someone’s hair in order to injure them.

Contagious magic assumes that things which were once related or in contact continue to be connected.

Sequential magic includes most beliefs and actions dealing with supernatural cause and effect which are neither imitative nor contagious in nature. It operates by assuming that when one event occurs after another, the first must have caused the second and will continue to do so. Most superstitions can be classified as sequential magic. For example, breaking a mirror brings bad luck. Unlike imitative, contagious, and sequential magic, the magic of divination is not concerned with causing or preventing the occurrence of various events. Its aim is to predict. Towards this end a large variety of devices and procedures are used. Palmistry, for example, uses the lines, size, and shape of the hand.


Analysis of an act of magic reveals several characteristic features. There is a definite practical aim to be achieved, and there is a human performer of the magic. This person, in order to perform the magic, has frequently to be in an appropriate condition – he may have had to abstain from sexual relations with others, to have refrained from eating certain foods, to be in solitude, or to be clothed in ceremonial garments.

There are normally three elements in the practice of magic: The first element is represented by the instruments or medicines; the second is the rite; and the third is the spell

The instruments can be of a technical kind. For example, a Polynesian canoe builder who wishes to kill any borers that might be in the timber of the craft he is constructing, cuts the wood gently with his adze, and recites a spell to destroy the insect. However, not all instruments are tools in the conventional sense. Such examples are the quartz crystal of the traditional Aboriginal healer, and the pointing-bone of the Central Australian witchdoctor.

African magic makes great use of medicines, which have to be gathered and manufactured under special conditions. These medicines are often kept in special containers which are thought to possess some magic virtue, or at least be an index to the kind of medicine they contain.

The rite has almost infinite variety, but in essence its function is to bring the magic and its object into contact.

The spell. Where the form of words is fixed, certain conventions usually apply. For example, figures of speech and references to mythology are common, and some of the words are cryptic and archaic in form, having no meaning apart from their particular magical context.

The words of the spell are not meant to convey information but to be a mode of action, and an expression of human will.


The idea of magic probably originated with the Cro-Magnons, the first fully modern humans who appear in the Upper Palaeolithic period. Strong evidence of this belief comes from their cave art which is centred on south-western France and northern Spain with other sites located in southern Spain, Portugal, Sicily and eastern France.

Much Paleolithic art is found deep in caves, beyond the reach of daylight, and this suggests that this period of art reflected more than mere enjoyment of art for its own sake. Humans in Paleolithic times obtained their food primarily by hunting, and the role of magic appears to have been directed towards this end.

It appears that the hunters believed that they could gain magical power over their quarry, either by representing it on a cave wall or floor, or by enacting a ritual hunt in front of a representation of the quarry. For example, at the Isturitz in the Basses-Pyrenees is a sculpture of a bison in sandstone. On its flank is a deep vertical incision, at the side of which an arrow is cut. It is even possible that the original fracturing of the head and feet was the result of intentional mutilation which completed the ceremony.

The idea of magic may have arisen because humans are often tempted to attribute random events to their own actions. Psychologists call this belief the illusion of control, and it probably results from our attempt to make sense of coincidences. This often results in the misapplication of the association of ideas relating to cause and effect.

The following hypotheses are offered as tentative explanations for the origin of the four basic forms of magic.

If one of our Palaeolithic ancestors in a fit of rage said: "I wish that So-and-so would die", and broke one of So-and-so's possessions, and if this person then died of an accident or illness, it may have been very tempting to attribute this event to human action, and it is from these types of coincidences that the idea of imitative and contagious magic may have arisen.

Sequential magic, like other forms of magic, arises from mistaken assumptions about cause and effect. An unusual occurrence closely followed by another event may leave a profound impression on a person's mind and lead them to believe that one event caused the other.

The idea of divination may have arisen from experiencing precognitive dreams, and our ancestors may have assumed that these coincidences were proof that all events can be predicted.


In view of the fact that magic has had an extremely long history, why is it that its fallacy has not been perceived during the great expanse of its existence? First, some of the results aimed at by magic do actually occur, either as a result of coincidence, the placebo effect, or because there may be some real virtue in what is done or in the medicines used. For example, henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) which contains the alkaloid scopolamine had various magic as well as medicinal uses, the latter being as a painkiller.

Secondly, in many cases trickery is practiced by the occultist to deceive his fellows. For example, a South American Witotos shaman who is attempting to cure a patient with an illness that is not responding to his herbal medicines, will in a darkened house at night, stimulated by coca and tobacco, work himself into a frenzy, shaking his rattle, beating the floor, and uttering intermittent shrieks and howls until he summons the spirits with whom he is to converse. Their presence is made manifest to the onlookers by the cries of animals which seem to come from all sides – by virtue of his ventriloquistic skills.

Eventually, having diagnosed the illness with apparent supernatural aid, he collapses with exhaustion. On recovering, he commences his treatment. He breathes on the affected part, sucks it, spits out a black liquid, and through sleight of hand produces some object, such as a thorn or a stick, as the material embodiment of the offending spirit. Thirdly, positive cases count more than negative ones.

Fourthly, there is the belief in the existence of counter magic. If a rite fails to produce the desired result, then it is argued that the proper conditions have not been met, or that some one has magically conspired against it.

Perhaps another part of the answer to magic's persistence is that the sphere with which it purports to cope is essentially the unknown and the unpredictable. Most people crave certainty in their lives, and magic claims that humans can assert power over nature, allowing them to go forward with their aims in the conviction that through its use they can command success.


In the section of this article titled "Belief", I outlined some of the reasons why magic appears to work, but these explanations aside, could there exist occult powers of which we are unaware? I shall now address this question.

One of the major problems faced by the theory of an occult force, which is neither matter nor energy, as we know it, is how the material world and the force can interact to produce a tangible effect. In order for this event to occur, a mediating force would need to exist that is capable of bridging the gap between the disparate worlds of nature – matter and energy governed by natural laws, and supernature – incorporeal forces that exist on a non-material plane governed by unknown laws.

Physicists have discovered that the great diversity of our Universe stems from a handful of essential building blocks – the subatomic particles, and that these particles interact in a few basic ways. Physicists speak in terms of the four fundamental forces (gravity, electromagnetic, and the strong and weak nuclear forces) that take part in these interactions between the particles and mould the Universe into the form we observe.

These forces are all that is needed to explain the workings of the everyday world, the Universe at large, and the inside of atoms.

Each of these forces acts like "cog" in the intricate "machinery" of nature, from the microcosm of subatomic particles to the macrocosm of stars and galaxies. In view of these facts it is not unreasonable to ask how and where an occult force interacts with the forces of nature, and if it is even necessary to postulate such a thing, considering that natural explanations can account for seemingly supernatural phenomena.

The occultists will no doubt argue that supernatural forces exist, but science has not developed the proper instruments to detect and measure them. This might or might not be the case, but until these forces have been shown to exist, wild and speculative claims that they do should not be made. Science does not make claims that phenomena exist until the evidence is firmly established.

If the occultists then argue that this force is not detectable due to its incorporeity; then how can it affect the material world? If they insist that it can, then in my opinion this is analogous to saying that I can pick up a feather (material object) with the shadow of my hand (incorporeal "substance").

Occultists appear to live in a world of speculation and imagination. Imagination can be very useful in devising theories, and it can be a powerful tool for the advancement of knowledge. But without a solid factual foundation, imagination in itself cannot support the multitude of occult speculations.

To date there is no experimental evidence to support the belief that occult powers exist, and in view of this fact I think that it is justifiable to apply Occam's razor – the principle that the fewest possible assumptions are to be made in explaining a thing. Therefore, the natural explanations for magic's origin, apparent successes, and persistence remain the most likely to be true.


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