Magic is a purposeful act of will focused
by a particular form and directed toward a particular entity or being; and for the primitive, magic-oriented consciousness all modes of existence, all beings, are alive. They are specialized forms taken by the One Life for the performance of a particular function. The magic-working shaman is able to resonate to the essential character or quality of this function, and by so doing uncover its Name. Every specialized form taken by the One Life has its Name - or, from the point of view of a much later development of the human mind, its archetype.
Magic is therefore a performance (literally, something done through a form) enabling the magic worker to control a living being by sounding the being's Name. In some instances control is not possible, because the being - a nature-spirit, a god or the one God of the primitive tribal community - is too powerful. The magic worker can nevertheless invoke this being and force it to take a physically concrete or psychically perceptible form and to listen to his petition or demand. He can coax the being into displaying some favor or revealing some secret by food offerings and sacrifices.
Magical action implies that a communication is being established. In tone-magic communication can be interpreted in terms of resonance. The phenomenon of material resonance in its simplest aspect can be easily demonstrated by placing a mass of small grains of sand on a metal plate to which the sound vibrations of a violin string are communicated. The grains of sand will form themselves into a geometrical pattern which changes when the frequency (number of vibrations per second) of the sound is altered. Similarly, singers have been known to shatter an empty glass by producing a vocal sound vibrating at exactly the same frequency (or pitch) as that of the glass.
Sound is the basic means for the transmission of the magical will. Magical tones can be particularly powerful when associated with physical body movements, that is, with specific rites and magical dancing. In a ritualistic dance the characteristic movements of an animal, or (in more developed culture-wholes) the periodic motions of the planets around the sun, are imitated. Imitation is the simplest form of magical activity; one is believed to become what one imitates. Similarly, at a mental level, one is said to become what the mind images forth. Whenever an individual or collective will acts through a form whose constant repetition impels or even compels a person, consciously or not, to imitate this form, one can speak of magic.
Magic is not an archaic concept; it is the most often-used procedure at any period of the development of a society, Western society included. The main difference between archaic and modern magic is the level at which the magical will operates and the level of consciousness of the persons the will seeks to affect; secondary differences involve the types of sounds, Names, and repetitive movements (rituals) used to communicate the message which the will is beaming at the intended recipient. Fortunately, the will of modern magic workers is usually not well focused, and the intention behind it is too general to be sharply effective - except for highly ritualized brainwashing aimed at deliberately weakening the recipient's physiological and psychological ability to resist suggestion and retain his or her own identity (Name) and the particular function he or she is performing as an individual in society.
Primitive societies initially operate at the level of animism. During the animistic stage of culture (which is, strictly speaking, protoculture) human beings endow every repetitive natural activity with a quasi-personal character. These entities are relatively friendly or inimical. Human beings have to solicit their help or ward off their attacks by propitiating them. All human activities are magical in intent - including all biological functions that seem to assist or hinder the primordial drives for survival and expansion. The elemental forces of nature (personified as spirits) - and in general whatever affects the process of life, growth, and the sustainment of the animal species sharing human territory - have to be dealt with, placated, or made use of through magic. Magical forms of communication are made possible by a great variety of sounds. The thundering, elemental voice of storm gods communicates to primitive peoples the arrival of a fearsome manifestation of superhuman power. The cries of animals, each species (or "kind") having its own characteristic cry, make known the animal's presence and vital mood. These sounds do not just happen; through them the entities producing them are communicating with other living beings in the life-field. The sounds frighten and warn; they are summons to collective activity. Responding or failing to respond to these communications often means the difference between death or survival.
Human beings are confronted with two basic kinds of natural sounds, elemental and animal. Because these natural sounds convey a potential or actual message, they are truly tones
. They have magical potency. By resonating to them, human beings come to learn the Name of particular animals or elemental powers - the power of wind, storms, heavy rain, a raging river, and so on.
Primitive peoples seek to imitate elemental tones by using percussive and wind-like instruments. These tones magically reproduce the all-enveloping life of the territory in which human beings are born and to which they remain collectively and compulsively attached. But the most important magic resides in the human voice, with its extraordinary ability to imitate and thus to conjure the cries of most other animal species deprived of such a capacity. Animals can communicate only their own species' nature and biological feeling-responses to life's situations; man (generically speaking) can reveal not only his own pain, anguish, or elation through vocal tones, he can compel animals to respond to and even obey his voice.
At the primitive stage of human development, human activity is instinctual and compulsive. Mind is completely at the service of biological drives; it operates as a principle of adaptation to the environment and the changing rhythms of nature. A new stage is entered upon when human beings are able to interpret repetitive changes as large-scale, cyclically recurring processes
- the most easily observable of which is that of the yearly modifications in the weather and the growth, maturity, and disintegration of seasonal kinds of vegetation. This yearly cycle is related to the changing positions of the moon and stars in the night sky, to the changes in the elevation and heat of the sun, and to the periodical displacement of sunrises and sunsets in relation to fixed natural formations at the horizon.
Then astrology is born, together with agriculture, and, eventually, cattle raising. Cattle raising depends upon the magical process of domesticating animals to increase the chances of survival. The vitalistic age of human development has come. It may come spontaneously and gradually, as primitive tribes emerge from jungles or forests onto open plains made potentially fertile by the seasonal inundation of large rivers. But the appearance of extraordinary human beings among the primitive tribes may be responsible for the initial and sustained development of some particularly dynamic and fast-growing culturewholes. The traditions of many great cultures - like those of Egypt, India, Mesopotamia, and China - refer to very ancient races of divine instructors and kings who taught human beings agriculture and the rudiments of music, architecture and the arts.
From the point of view of the modern analytical intellect (only one particular
point of view, susceptible of being altogether altered in the future), it is difficult to say what is "true," because the fundamental vitalistic manner of communicating the collective experience of human beings from generation to generation was the myth
. At the vitalistic stage of human development, the formation and maintenance of cultures rests upon the transmission of what is both knowledge and wisdom through symbols and myths. Symbols are (as it were) concentrates of collectivized human experience. Myths are the symbolic forms given to processes of life; and the most important processes are condensed into a series of events referring to the living experience of one or more personages who have become symbols of this process.
Whether a particular human being or god "actually" existed and "actually" experienced all the symbolic events of a myth is of no consequence for the mythically operative consciousness of people living at the vitalistic stage of culture. The adverb actually
has a very important meaning for the modern mind working at high speed under a compulsion to accumulate what we call data; whether a man Jesus "actually" lived, was crucified, reappeared, and talked to his disciples after having died seems very important for us to "know." But the vitalistic consciousness cares little about such "knowledge." Because it is attuned and resonates to the essential nature of archetypal Man, this consciousness knows - in its own way, which is not
the scientist's way -that in certain circumstances symbolized by the time and place of Jesus's birth, it is possible for any human being to imitate Christ, that is, to enact the Christ-myth
What then does it matter if Jesus actually passed through the events narrated in the Gospel or not? What counts is simply to live according to the mystery-wisdom revealed by the Christ myth and its symbols. Knowing that Jesus actually existed and was crucified in Jerusalem may be necessary in order to convey to and impress the supreme meaning of the Christ life upon the mind of an individual
who thinks in terms of data and personal biographies, but at the vitalistic level of consciousness there is little concern with individual persons, who are always more or less expendable. What counts is the perpetuation, through endless repetition, of a life process in its essential nature and its original form, which the myth reveals in timeless symbols. The symbols are timeless in the sense that their meaning and value are not disturbed by any changes occurring during the life cycle to which the symbol refers. They have a changeless meaning in terms of that particular cyclic life process - an eternal (eonic) meaning.
While the power to communicate to the people of a culture the living quality and potency of their way of life is inherent in the culture's great myths, in order to be fully effectual this power of communication must be periodically revitalized by the performance of sacred
rituals. A sacred ritual may be considered a magical performance, but it is magical in a special sense. At crucial moments of a cycle of changes it restates forcefully in human terms what the creative power of life brought forth at the beginning of the cycle. This power of life, which transcends the ordinary understanding of human beings, is mythified into the creative acts of the gods. Whatever is attuned to and able to re-evoke in symbols the creative activity of the gods is sacred.
By performing the sacred rituals directly or indirectly related to the myth of creation, the people participate in the vibrations of the creative power of the gods. Every culture has its own creation myth. That of the Hebraic-Christian culture is found in Genesis, although modern astrophysics is painstakingly attempting to replace it with a cosmogonic myth of its own. Even if it is built by the intellectual, analytical mind as a seemingly logical construct made of carefully accumulated "facts," the astronomers' story of the Big Bang and the process it started is a myth. It organizes into a sequence of atomic and physical phenomena a number of interpreted data which are relevant only
if one assumes - a very big assumption! - that the "laws of nature" have been always and everywhere what our limited observations make them appear to be. It is a myth that reveals the stage of mental development of Western civilization, just as older religious cosmogonies show the state of consciousness and feeling-responses to nature, life, and social process of earlier culture-wholes.
In The Sacred and the Profane
, Mircea Eliade (a French-born anthropologist teaching in the United States) significantly develops the meaning of the sacred in primitive cultures. (1
) This sacred activity of the gods is essentially operative at the beginning of all cycles of existence, yet it never really ends because it occurs in a special time that is ever present. Whoever thinks in terms of historical time has to say that God acts creatively
once and for all (uniquely) at the creation of the world, even if according to the Christian myth He also acted, also once and for all, redeemingly
in the form of the Christ. In vitalistic cultures the seasonal cycle of vegetation is symbolized as the solar myth so often discussed by anthropologists of the last hundred years or so. This myth was enacted in the ancient Mysteries whose sacred character was still unquestioned during the great period of Athenian culture. Everything originally related to it was sacred, because it was imbued with the resonance of the gods' creative activity.
The sacred acts of a human being whose whole being is consecrated to the gods (or God) as a pure channel for their (or His) creative power are magical in their potentially transformative effects. But they are more than magical, because the human form and consciousness have, from the mythical point of view, been totally assumed by the divine power. God acts through
the human being, and this activity is now, because God's activity is eternal. Thus it is not that this divine act is repeated every season and in every sacred ritual; it is the same act brought down (as it were) from the changeless realm of God into that of forever-changing events.
Every moment is a creative beginning for whoever lives in terms of and in tune with the sacred. Thus, for the consciousness of the ideal Catholic priest in the era of total faith in the Christ-myth, the Mass he celebrated each day was
Christ's act of redemptive sacrifice. Christ's power was active in the consecrated Host. Communion was a psychoactive, sacred experience of a human being assumed by God.
Everywhere in the realm where a multiplicity of living beings interact in the famous Darwinian struggle for survival, various modes of magical activity are at work. Every living organism fights for its oxygen, food, and a living space, which it instinctively tries to expand. Cooperation may be the best way for surviving and expanding, but the motive is still survival and expansion through superior force. Magic - or today technology, a modern form of magic - is based on the use of the power obtained in one way or another by the focalized will. The performance of the sacred act, however, takes place at another level of being. It requires an antecedent repolarization and transmutation of consciousness. The human being in the performance is no longer the actor. He is the divine power of creation and transformation in act; he is a human form the god assumes. At the collective level of the culture, the assembled people directly or indirectly involved in the sacred ritual seem to be enacting the myth, but it is the myth that is acting through them.
From the intellectual point of view of modern anthropologists and ethnologists, the myth had been gradually elaborated by the imagination of many individuals; but for vitalistic human beings, the mythmaker is only an instrument resonating to the power of the creative voice of the tribal god. The god-emanated creative impulses often take the form of a vision in the inspirited consciousness of the mythmaker. They are nevertheless addressed to the whole tribe. Myths operate at the level of the collective psychism of a community of human beings, because these beings are ineradicably rooted in a common soil, and they actually function as a biopsychic organism. This organism, the culture-whole, develops a conscious sense of unity through its myths, very much as a human being develops the feeling of being "I" through the operation of a particular set of responses to the pressures and opportunities of his or her immediate environment - a particular character.
The great myths of a culture-whole represent its collective ego, its specific way of interpreting its deep and compulsive feeling of having a special nature and function in the universe. The development of such a distinct and exclusive feeling is the ego myth. To challenge the value and psychic power of the myth in an ancient society has the same effect as, in our present society, to belittle, impair, or even destroy, the ego of a growing child. A culture no longer sustained and energized by faith in its myths is psychically crippled. When a conquered people surrender their myths, they also surrender their psychic potency. If faith in the myth is retained against the pressure of alien surroundings, the myth takes on a new quality which gives a tense and bitter character to the conquered people. Similarly, in a modern society actually functioning in terms of the power and feelings of a multitude of personal egos, a youth whose ego has become dispotentialized by severe shocks is often unable to act in a vital and psychically sound manner.
New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1959. Return