The importance of magic to social relationships

Zygon 45 (2):317-337 (2010)
Abstract
Many anthropological explanations of magical practices are based on the assumption that the immediate cause of performing an act of magic is the belief that the magic will work as claimed. Such explanations typically attempt to show why people come to believe that magical acts work as claimed when such acts do not identifiably have such effects. We suggest an alternative approach to the explanation of magic that views magic as a form of religious behavior, a form of communication that promotes or protects cooperative social relationships. We suggest that all forms of religious behavior involve persons communicating acceptance of a supernatural claim and that this act communicates a willingness to accept nonskeptically the influence of the person making such a claim. Thus, religious behavior communicates a willingness to cooperate with the claim maker and others who accept his or her influence. We suggest that magic, which can be distinguished by the communicated acceptance of the claim that certain techniques have supernatural effects, also promotes cooperation. Different types of magic, including sorcery, love magic, and curing magic, can be shown to communicate different types of messages, such as a threat to use violence to punish unsocial behavior, sexual desire, or concern for a person's well-being. Ethnographic examples are used to support this hypothesis. This approach requires no assumptions about whether the practitioners of magic do or do not believe that the magical acts work as claimed. It attempts only to account for the identifiable talk and behavior that constitute magical acts by examining the identifiable, and often important, effects of these acts on the behavior of others.
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