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Theories of Magic (in Social Anthropology and History of Religions)

Class at Faculty of Arts |



Everybody knows or thinks that they know what magic is. But what, in fact, is magic? Or better put: what do or did different people think about magic, and its various and different dimensions? What do or did people think about its forms, meanings, and functions? There is only one way to answer these questions: explore the different scholarly theories that have tried to do so analytically, preferably on grounds of empirical, i.e. evidence-based, approaches.

Using theories developed mostly within the kin-disciplines of Social Anthropology, History of Religions, and Ethnology and Folkloristics (but with incursions into the realms of Cognitive Studies and Cultural Studies as well), this course aims to provide a broad overview of magic seen as a historically and culturally significant fact. It will discuss with the learners the possible ways we can explain magic as a historical and social multiform and polysemic phenomenon, understand it, and acquire the analytical tools to interpret magic beliefs and practices observable in cultures past and present.

The approach will be both theoretical and historiographical, that is, it will offer not only a problematisation of theories of magic, but also an overview of the history of theories of magic. This is necessary in order to contextualise the development and reception of said theories and their usability (or unusability) in contemporary research and scholarship. This work of reflection, comparison, and criticism will also entail, whenever possible and suitable, the distillation of theories of magic even where a thinker did not expressly put forward his or her material in a theoretically coherent or systematic way.

The geographical and cultural focus will be on Europe, although frequent digressions will occur concerning non-European societies, especially as far as anthropological historiography and theorisation are concerned.

The interpretative and teaching model employed during the course will be designed from the knitting together of four main threads, which will intersect one another throughout the progression of the lessons. These threads are: 1) Theories, 2) Themes and Topics, 3) Times, and 4) Types. “Theories” refers to discreet theoretical paradigms, e.g. positivism and evolutionism, functionalism, cognitivism, etc. “Themes and Topics” refers to traditional and specific objects of enquiry and theorisation, e.g. disenchantment and re-enchantment, non-Western magic, magic in folk and popular culture, magic in Western esotericism, etc. “Times” refers to periodisation, e.g. magic in prehistory, in the ancient world, in the Middle Ages, in the early modern period, and in the modern and late modern world. “Types” refers to the various typologies of magic practice that have been identified and categorised in the scholarship, such as, e.g., sympathetic magic, magical healing or divination, black vs white magic, the evil eye, etc.

Learners will also be presented with the teacher’s own research on magic, namely his works on the historiography of magic and shamanism, his ethnographic case studies concerning ritual re-enchantment in several European countries, his analysis of representations of magic in videogames, and his historical investigations about a number of examples distilled from European cultural history.


This is a tentative course structure (the following order and the topics themselves may later change due to a variety of factors); each topic would ideally be taught during one lesson.

Lesson 1 1.1 Course presentation 1.2 What magic is, and what magic does: etymological, definitional, ontological, aetiological, and historical problems. 1.3 More problems: magic and science; magic and rationality; magic and/or/as/vs religion

Lesson 2 2.1 The 18th and 19th century: Enlightenment, positivism, and the beginning of the scientific study of magic (folkloristics, intellectualism/evolutionism, and functionalism) 2.2 The 18th and 19th century: Romanticism, Gothicism, and a renewed cultural fascination with magic 2.3 A comparative, transcultural typology of magic practices: emic and etic taxonomies from the Middle Ages until today

Lesson 3 3.1 The 20th century: modernism in the study of magic (European and non-European perspectives): functionalism (réprise), structural-functionalism, and phenomenology

Lesson 4 4.1 A theory of magic “from the South”: the thought and works of Ernesto de Martino

Lesson 5 5.1 Other modernist approaches: structuralism, social and cultural history, history of esotericism, and the advent of post-modernism

Lesson 6 6.1 Where are we today? A reaction to post-modernism: the ontological turn, i.e. relativism and animism revisited 6.2 Marshall Sahlins’ cosmological and neo-structuralist take on magic

Lesson 7 7.1 Symbolic Efficacy: ritual magic and the Triumph of Society 7.2 Esoteric Efficacy: ceremonial magic and the Triumph of the Individual

Lesson 8 8.1 Magic operators: witches and warlocks and wizards and other wonder-makers

Lesson 9 9.1 Magic and the fantastic: fairy-tales, folklore, and fantasy fiction

Lesson 10 10.1 Enchantment, disenchantment, re-enchantment – what is all that?

Lesson 11 11.1 Post-modern and pop magic: Harry Potter, videogames, and the late modern wizardry

Lesson 12 12.1 Putting things in perspective: a discussion of Marco Pasi’s “Theses de Magia” (“Theses on Magic”) 12.2 Conclusions and final discussion

Three other potential lessons could pertain to 1) the mentalist approaches in the study of magic (psychology and cognitivism, for instance); 2) magic in art and literature (surrealism, primitivism, magical realism, etc.); 3) the topic of “Praga Magica” – if time allows.


The main teaching method will be direct instruction through lessons. The course will be held in English and the teacher will rely on face-to-face learning, with the occasional help of slides and handouts.

The students will be asked to actively participate in the teaching and learning processes, individually or through small group discussions. They will be encouraged to ask questions and will be given the opportunity to express their opinions. Individual students or small groups may present readings from the bibliography during the lesson.

The course will be offline only.


Both attendance and active participation during the lessons are considered as very important and will be taken into consideration in the evaluation process (up to 10% of the evaluation). Attendance is mandatory unless differently agreed between the teacher and students who for demonstrable and serious reasons cannot attend the lessons in person. In this case, the student should immediately inform the teacher and a solution will be found together.


The learners will have to study all the items in the compulsory literature and then choose at least one item from the optional literature.

The final exam will consist of an oral test conducted by the teacher about both the course content and the literature. The overall final assessment will also take into account the attendance and the active participation of the learner.

Evaluation will be broken down as follows:

- Attendance and participation in the classroom: 10%

- Final oral exam: 90%


Part 1 – Compulsory readings

NOTA BENE: all students wanting to take the exam will have to study the following texts:

- Henrik Bogdan (Guest Editor), “Introduction: Modern Western Magic”, in Modern Western Magic, edited by Henrik Bogdan (ed.), thematic issue of Aries: Journal for the Study of Western Esotericism, pp. 1–16.

- Owen Davies, Magic: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2012.

- Bernd-Christian Otto, “If people believe in magic, isn’t that just because they aren’t educated?”, in Hermes Explains: Thirty Questions about Western Esotericism, edited by Wouter Hanegraaff, Peter Forshaw, and Marco Pasi. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2019, pp. 198–206.

- Marco Pasi, “Magic”, in The Brill Dictionary of Religion, edited by Kocku von Stuckrad. Leiden: Brill, 2006, pp. 1134–1140.

- Marco Pasi, “Theses de Magia” (“Theses on Magic”), in Societas Magica Newsletter, Fall 2008 (n. 20), pp. 1–8, to be studied along with Marco Pasi, “Theses on Magic: A Response to the Responses”, Societas Magica Newsletter, Fall 2010 (n. 24), pp. 4–7.

- Robert Wallis, “Witchcraft and Magic in the Age of Anthropology”, in The Oxford History of Witchcraft and Magic, edited by Owen Davies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2023, pp. 227–252

- Alessandro Testa, “Can a person have Pagan beliefs without being Pagan?”, in print in Pagan Religions in Five Minutes, edited by Suzanne Owen and Angela Puca. Sheffield: Equinox, 2024, 2 pages

Part 2 – Additional readings

NOTA BENE: Students wanting to take the exam must also do the following: study at home, or present in the class, at least one of the following texts (alternatively, a student can propose a text as a piece of additional reading of his/her own interest, but this must be approved in advance by the teacher):

- Fiona Bowie, section “Witchcraft in Rural France” and section “The Evil Eye”, in Id., The Anthropology of Religion: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 2006, pp. 212–220.

- Angelo Brelich: “Note sul concetto di magia”, in Id. (a cura di P. Xella), Mitologia, Politeismo, Magia (1956-1977), Napoli, Liguori, 2002.

- David J. Collins, “Magic in the Middle Ages: History and Historiography”, in History Compass 9/5 (2011), pp. 410–422.

- Owen Davies, “The World of Popular Magic”, in The Oxford History of Witchcraft and Magic, edited by Owen Davies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 165–195.

- Owen Davies, “The Rise of Modern Magic”, in The Oxford History of Witchcraft and Ma