In Magic: A History: From Alchemy to Witchcraft, From the Ice Age to the Present, Oxford professor of archaeology Chris Gosden treats readers to a history of humanity through the lens of magic. Gosden defines magic as human participation in the universe through ritual and art. From Paleolithic cave art and Egyptian burial practices to 19th-century spiritualism and 20th-century paganism, magical objects and rituals have always been a part of the human experience. Even in cultures guided predominantly by the two other great belief systems, religion and science, magic has often persisted alongside them.
In this beautifully illustrated and written book, Gosden offers an encyclopedic compendium of magical practices across the globe and throughout history. Readers will gain much from the transhistorical perspective Gosden offers. For example, the shamanism practiced on the Eurasian Steppe in 5000 B.C. traveled from Mongolia to Iron Age Western Europe, where it was practiced by the Celts. This history can be traced through the objects found in ancient burial sites and under excavated stone circles, examples of which are reproduced throughout the text.
The global and historical reach of Gosden’s knowledge is astonishing and makes this book an essential reference work. But Gosden has another compelling trick up his sleeve. The book’s humane, urgent conclusion suggests that magic may even offer some clues for surviving our current global climate crisis. Many of the magical rituals and practices discussed here rely on the notion of an animate and sentient natural world. “To be human is to be connected,” Gosden argues. If we can reawaken our sense of connection to the natural world—to trees and animals and oceans—we may be able to encourage more humans to practice living lightly and harmoniously with the world around us.