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The Cambridge History of Magic and Witchcraft in the West
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Book description

This book presents twenty chapters by experts in their fields, providing a thorough and interdisciplinary overview of the theory and practice of magic in the West. Its chronological scope extends from the Ancient Near East to twenty-first-century North America; its objects of analysis range from Persian curse tablets to US neo-paganism. For comparative purposes, the volume includes chapters on developments in the Jewish and Muslim worlds, evaluated not simply for what they contributed at various points to European notions of magic, but also as models of alternative development in ancient Mediterranean legacy. Similarly, the volume highlights the transformative and challenging encounters of Europeans with non-Europeans, regarding the practice of magic in both early modern colonization and more recent decolonization.


'This impressive collective volume proposes a coherent history of learned magic in Western Europe and the colonial world between Christianization and contemporary neo-paganism. It has found an access to magic that contrasts with the many studies that situate magic in a religious or anthropological context, and thus is a welcome and necessary supplement and corrective. Giordano Bruno would have relished it.'

Fritz Graf - Ohio State University

'This volume offers a rich and exciting set of essays that will prove invaluable to scholarly discussions of Western magic and witchcraft. With contributions from a range of innovative scholars, the collection masterfully intertwines expansive historical and cultural insight with creative theoretical reflection.'

Randall Styers - University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

'This important and ambitious collection of twenty authoritative essays … is likely to become a standard work in the field because of the quality of the contributions, and the unprecedented wide range of material covered in a single volume … the choice of chapters and selection of scholars would be hard to better … it ought to be on the shelf of every historian of religion, let alone historians of witchcraft and magic.'

Francis Young Source: Journal of Jesuit Studies

'… this volume is well constructed, thoughtful, and interesting, with contributing authors of high scholarly standing. It is recommended to readers interested in magic and witchcraft, and their close relatives - religion and esotericism - across a broad historical and geographical sweep.'

Carole M. Cusack Source: Church History

'There can be no doubt that it is a welcome addition to magic and witchcraft studies since it offers a refreshing number of departures from tired clichés, and invites the reader to think about magic beyond the boundaries of western Europe. … Both Collins and his contributors are to be congratulated on their ambition for this volume, and its individual accomplishments.'

Peter Maxwell-Stuart Source: The Journal of Ecclesiastical History

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Page 1 of 2

  • Chapter 4 - Roman Antiquity
    pp 115-147
  • The Imperial Period
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    Purity is the state of undisturbed, flawless perfection that is characteristic of the divine sphere but achieved by humans only temporarily and not without effort. The transition from impurity to purity is one of the basic goals and regular elements of magic rituals in all ancient Near Eastern cultures. Ancient Near Eastern magic as a whole can be subdivided into four categories: liminal magic, defensive magic, aggressive magic, and witchcraft, an illegal and aggressive form of magic. A Babylonian purification ritual for the king, the recitation of numerous Akkadian and Sumerian incantations and prayers, the ceremonial washing of the king in seven huts erected outside the city, and the performance of rituals against evil signs and divine anger. The art of the Mesopotamian exorcist was not restricted to dispelling an evil that had be fallen or threatened to be fall the patient.
  • Chapter 5 - The Early Church
    pp 148-182
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    This chapter explores whether magic is an appropriate or useful term for scholars to use in the context of ancient Egypt. It provides a historical overview of the development of Egyptian magic from the third millennium BC until the end of paganism during the first centuries AD. The origins of magic in the creation and its preservation in medical papyri further associate Egyptian magic with learnedness. The earliest period of Egyptian history from which texts have survived is the Old Kingdom. Several types of material related to magic are attested from the Middle Kingdom. The close association between Egyptian magic and medicine becomes explicitly clear in the famous Edwin Smith Papyrus of about 1550 BC. The Egyptians were well aware of the dangers of black magic. Just as in the earlier periods, there are also extant in the Graeco-Roman epoch manuscripts of narratives on magicians.
  • Chapter 6 - The Early Medieval West
    pp 183-206
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    A curse tablet from fourth-century Attica exemplifies many aspects of what has come to be considered magic in Western thought/ Inscribed on a thick tablet. This chapter surveys the history of magic in Greece and Rome, up to and including the Republic, with the goal of illuminating both the emergence of magic as a discourse of alterity, or othering strategy, in Western thought. The corresponding influence this discourse had on the practice of rituals that came to be considered magic. Magic operated as a discourse of alterity that was part and parcel of the discourse of barbarism to marginalize certain people and practices, including peripatetic venders of cathartic healing, curse tablets, and unregulated domestic religion and women's control over it. The chapter also briefly surveys the debate among scholars of antiquity over defining magic and its use as a heuristic category for ancient societies in order to clarify how the operation of magic is understood as a social discourse.
  • Chapter 7 - Magic in Medieval Byzantium
    pp 209-234
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    This chapter traces the emergence of the magic-religion dichotomy in the wider context of imperial age culture, with special attention to developments in cosmology, theology, and demonology. It explores more closely the boundaries between the polemical representations of magic in the literary, legal, and philosophical sources of the imperial age and the reality of magical practice as it appears in the formularies. In imperial discourses on magic, human sacrifice is typically linked to necromancy, an association that is not attested in classical Greek sources. Egyptian priests and Persian magi were supposed to be experts in necromancy, and the Greco-Egyptian magical papyri certainly confirm that communication with the dead was part of the repertoire of an Egyptian magician. Pythagoreans and Egyptian priests are frequently linked in other imperial sources. The Christian equation of paganism and sorcery was persuasive because it exploited instabilities internal to late pagan daimonology.
  • Chapter 8 - Magic, Marvel, and Miracle in Early Islamic Thought
    pp 235-267
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    This chapter approaches magic in the early church from two angles. In first, it examines the ways in which different groups of people performing rituals were depicted as practitioners of magic. In second, the discussion of Late Antique practices deemed to be magical focuses on the competition for spiritual authority between ritual experts. In the eyes of Graeco-Roman outsiders, Christian practices resembled widespread stereotypes of magic. Origen was a Christian apologist who addressed allegations of magic against Christians by reframing the terms. Celsus had accused Christians of attaining their powers by using the names of demons in their incantations. Christian writers connected magic with demons and designated Graeco-Roman cult practices as magic and asserted that they dealt with evil spirits. The association of magic with paganism and heresy in imperial legislation shows how the imperial government aimed at harnessing magic for various social, political and religious goals.
  • Chapter 9 - Jewish Magic in the Middle Ages
    pp 268-300
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    Magical practices, such as various forms of divination, amulets or the use of incantations, were part and parcel of that concept of paganism, and they helped Christianity set up clear-cut boundaries by defining what is permitted from a Christian point of view and what is not. The late seventh and early eighth centuries marked an important turning point in the references made to magic and paganism in Western Europe. When considering the nature of magic and magical practices in the early medieval West, one has to keep in mind that magic was closely intertwined with the Christianised world-view of the post-Roman Barbarian world. No doubt people in the early medieval West possessed amulets and phylacteries, turned to witch doctors in times of illness and distress and attempted to intervene in the course of nature by swallowing potions or reciting incantations. These acts were interpreted by various Christian authors as magical and, more often than not, as pagan and diabolical.
  • Chapter 10 - Common Magic
    pp 303-331
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    In Byzantium, magic was consistently categorized as body of non-Christian knowledge and practices. The chapter first evaluates the definition of magic in the civil and canon law of the middle Byzantine period, as well as that of related terminology in other textual genres. Middle Byzantine legislation provides definitions of unsanctioned activities, and these sources offer useful guidelines for understanding the position of the Byzantine State and the Orthodox Church regarding what constituted magic. Material evidence for the combination of Christian and magical imagery is found in a sizable corpus of middle Byzantine amulets. Another important textual source for middle Byzantine conceptions of magic is saints' lives, in which the supernatural machinations and moral weakness of sorcerers and their clients are sharply contrasted with virtue and spiritual strength of Christian holy people and their followers. Women also appear as the practitioners of magic, often in the form of the drunken old woman who peddles false prophecies or who manufactures illicit amulets.
  • Chapter 11 - Learned Magic
    pp 332-360
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    The modern study of magic in Islam is intimately connected to the history of Orientalism as it developed during the course of the nineteenth century. It is also true that the belief in jinn and their occult power is rooted in the Qurʾān and the fabric of early Islamic cosmography. Similarly, the practice of shrine veneration and the acceptance and promotion of saintly miracles is intimately connected to the structures of religious authority and piety in Islamic history. The Qurʾān speaks of magic as illicit and harmful and generally associates it with evil or trickery. One of the fields of the occult that directly intersects with the religious elite can be found in the diverse practices of exorcism. The charismatic presence in the written and oral forms of the Qurʾān fits into a larger topography of sacred materiality, which included a range of physical objects and locations invested with intercessory powers.
  • Chapter 12 - Diabolic Magic
    pp 361-392
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    This chapter first deals with the medieval Jewish discourse of magic by focusing on four specific examples of rabbinic discussions of magic and magic-related practices. It then focuses on origins, transmission, and adaptation of some of the texts and technologies of medieval Jewish magic in different times and places. The Jewish magical tradition was greatly enriched by internal Jewish developments as well, and especially by the rise of the so-called Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical-esoteric tradition. The chapter examines the survival of Late Antique Jewish magic into the Middle Ages, and then turns to the Muslim and Christian influences on medieval Jewish magic. The older Jewish magical texts were characterized by their deep exposure to the Greco-Egyptian magical tradition and by their selective borrowings and adaptations from that tradition. Looking at Oriental Jewish manuscripts that transmit magical texts, such as those found in the Cairo Genizah, people find copious documentation of Oriental Jewish magic from the tenth to the twentieth centuries.
  • Chapter 14 - Spain and Mexico
    pp 429-460
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    The learned magic encompasses significant portions of what more particularly can be identified as natural magic, image magic, astral magic, divination, alchemy, and ritual magic. These forms of magic were informed not only by the rediscovered texts of ancient Greece and Rome but also by the commentaries and treatises produced by Muslim and Jewish scholars in more recent centuries. Astral magic was related to astronomy and astrology, that is, the study of celestial bodies, their movements, and their influences on the human world. Alchemy, the science of transforming natural substances into other substances, constitutes a fifth form of learned magic. Ritual magic concerns itself with the conjuration of spirits, both good and evil, for particular tasks through complex ceremonies. Neo-Platonism inspired Renaissance thinking about magic in many ways, none of which was more influential, than Hermeticism.
  • Chapter 15 - Folk Magic in British North America
    pp 461-481
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    The restrained view of demonic capabilities, and hence the nature of the threat represented by demonic magic, which was evident into the early 1000s, changed dramatically during the eleventh through eighteenth centuries, the era of Old Europe. This chapter approaches the witchcrafts as the major evidence for and consequence of a particular Western European view of diabolical magic. In recognition of the possible marvelous, mysterious, and occult virtues in nature that human beings might learn to manipulate, a category of natural magic emerged in thirteenth-century Christian thought, which would further complicate notions of demonic magic for the remainder of the era of Old Europe. Skepticism and decline are often linked terms in witchcraft historiography. Renaissance magic is a vague category, but in general it may refer to learned systems of magic grounded in new modes of thought that emerged initially out of Italy.
  • Chapter 16 - Colonial Magic: The Dutch East Indies
    pp 482-518
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    The banishment of Mistress Missa was established as a necessary priority of religious reform in England. The link between magic and the Mass reached to the heart of the liturgy, and of late medieval devotion, in the assertion that transubstantiation was itself no miracle, but rather a magical or quasi-magical manipulation by the priest. The image of the priest not as celebrant but as conjuror cast the central rite of the church as a diabolic act. Reformation critics accused Gregory of 'monstrouse wytchcraftes' and the ability to deceive the eyes of the observer with false wonders and feigned miracles. The magical and the folkloric were interwoven with threads of orthodox piety in the fabric of medieval religious life, as traditional non-Christian practices were adapted to the Christian world-view, sustaining a contested amorphous middle ground between religion and magic. Yet the separation of miracle from magic, at least in theoretical terms, still owed much to the legacy of the Catholic past.
  • Chapter 17 - Magic in Common and Legal Perspectives
    pp 521-546
  • View abstract


    This chapter focuses on Spain's encounter with Mexico, the jewel added in 1521 to the crown of the newly elected Emperor Charles V, Ferdinand and Isabella's young Habsburg grandson. It introduces Mexican 'magic' by discussing the divinatory calendar. The chapter examines the extent to which a domain of malefice or black magic existed in indigenous conceptions of magical practitioners and considers how European observers imposed their notions of witchcraft and the demonic pact on these darker figures. The idolatry, witchcraft, and magic that Spaniards associated with indigenous Mesoamericans served the same ideological function that tropes of savagery or racial inferiority did for later colonial projects: keeping the colonized perpetually in a condition of otherness and subjection. The chapter discusses unsanctioned native religion with a brief look at indigenized Christianity, especially the cult of the saints. Mesoamerican healers supplemented their magic with an immense herbal pharmacopeia.
  • Chapter 18 - Elite Magic in the Nineteenth Century
    pp 547-575
  • View abstract


    The folk magical traditions that colonists brought with them from England assumed that men and women could manipulate supernatural forces for their own ends. Cunning folk used a variety of fortune-telling techniques that they learned from manuals that circulated on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet neither magical beliefs nor magical practices were gender-specific: men as well as women resorted to and functioned as cunning folk. As English colonists turned to magic in hopes of divining the future, curing ailments, and protecting themselves or their loved ones from harm, their options were not limited to English techniques and English cunning folk. Although witchcraft prosecutions occurred throughout the British colonies in North America, the powerful influence of religious culture in New England produced a disproportionate number of cases and thus a disproportionate amount of information about magical beliefs and techniques. The assumption underlying folk magic contrasted sharply with the teachings of Puritan theology, which placed supernatural power firmly in God's hands.

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