Magic is often thought of as being a capricious, abstract, “new age” concept. But in fact, magic may very well be as old as humanity, existing long before people even had a word for it.
Let’s travel back in time to what we call the “Stone Age”….
We gather around as an elderly man decorates a cave dwelling with pictures of sabre-toothed tigers with spears protruding from their sides. By creating these symbolic murals, he has ensured that a real animal will be killed at the next hunt. The elderly man we are watching is called (today) a “Cunning Man”.
These cave paintings are all that remains as evidence of spells cast by “Cunning Men”. They were relied on to perform ritual dances to secure a bountiful hunt and an abundant harvest.
But where there is good magic, there is bad magic inevitably being worked elsewhere; or at least that is what the Cunning Men relied on people to think. When they failed at their workings, they claimed that a more powerful magician was working against them. This evil-doer was considered an unseen spirit, not a mortal like the Cunning Men. This fear of sorcery was perpetuated by the Roman Empire and later by the superstitions of the Viking barbarian invaders. Soon people began to blame their every misfortune on black magick, which was eventually considered the working of a “witch”. The ultimate scapegoat, soon various policies were decreed which allowed trials for witchcraft. It also allowed people to easily put the blame on a weaker target.
People’s “facts” about witchcraft were hazy and convoluted. Time passed and soon the belief firm in the minds of the average villager was that witches fly around in hoards of thirteen, called covens, and they hold meetings called sabbats where they perform strange and lewd dances and feast. People added bits and pieces as the rumors spread, using words like “sacrifice”, “demons”, “hex”, and “bewitch” to add zeal. Most likely these tales were the result of people twisting what limited fact they knew in favor of interest. Most of the victims of original witchcraft accusations were simply lonely old women, friendless and therefore defenseless.
Soon people believed so strongly in magick and feared the power of the witches so much that they adopted their own charms to ward off evil magick. Iron and amber were popular tools against curses and hexes. The Cunning Men now had the occupation of casting spells which prevented bewitching and cursing.
When Christianity began its spread, the Cunning Men were still heavily relied upon. Entire villagers were converted to Christianity but were concerned that their new God would not know how to supply a good crop, so they continued to entreat magic of the Cunning Men.
It was at this time that a great transformation occured; magic became science. The first books on medicine were authored by Cunning Men. Those who pioneered science were considered heretics and suffered the same fate as magicians began falling to. When Friar Bacon discovered the use of gunpowder and created spectacles, it was claimed that his cleverness was the result of sorcery. Scholars, scientists, and astrologers were thought to obtain their knowledge from the devil. Because the Cunning Men dressed in animal skins and wore antlers, it was easy to convince pious Christians that they were clearly worshippers of Satan, eventually eliminating the people’s faith and reliance in the magic that had held up their skies and filled their plates for so long.
The consequences for seeking a deeper understanding of the natural and supernatural world were suffered greatly by our ancestors. In spite of immense intolerance and persecution, magic thrives still today.
Where do we find magic now? It’s all over the place. It’s in our superstitions, in making a wish, in our fanciful dreams… in prayer, in the wonderment of a child, in true love. Certainly it’s magic that makes the world turn. That’s why it’s been present since we arrived, and will remain when we depart for those to follow.