I have recently purchased a facsimile copy of Reginald Scott’s The Discoverie of Witchcraft (originally published in 1584). This is an important book in the history of Western civilisation as it is the first ever book in which methods for creating magic are explained. This might seem an overstatement, as magic is nowadays a trivialised from of theatre which barely has any influence on the way we think.
Scott’s book is important because it was the first time somebody openly challenged the belief in witchcraft and supernatural powers by exposing conjuring methods. The book contains some interesting magic; there are pictures of trick knives that make it seem like you are cutting your nose or finger. The picture on the left shows a contraption used to create the illusion of somebody’s head being severed. There is also a description of a Magic Colouring Book, which is still used in children’s magic shows and many other tricks still performed by contemporary magicians.
The book was published in the Renaissance, a period which heralded Western culture as we know it today. Although many people see the renaissance as a period where Europe emerged from the Dark Ages, some do not see this as a positive development. Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, for example, questioned whether the renaissance was a positive change and argued that it was a period of decline from the High Middle Ages, destroying much that was important.
One of the important cultural phenomena that was destroyed was the sense of magic commonplace in humanity. The Discoverie of Witchcraft illustrates helped this development by dispelling magic as tricks. It might seem strange for an engineer/philosopher like myself to argue that dispelling a belief in magic would not be a good thing. Magic is, however, more than a simplistic belief in supernatural forces that control our lives.
Magicians have been part of human civilisation for as long as there are records—and possibly as long as human culture exists. There are many anthropological accounts of medicine men and shamans using conjuring skills as part of their healing and rituals. Most magic history books interpret this use of sleight of hand as an attempt by the shaman to obtain power mischievously. But there is much more to magic than one person gaining power over others. Magic is a means to understand our position in nature. Although some might argue that magic has been wiped from contemporary culture, it has never actually disappeared from our psyche.
Simple acts, such as writing your name on a wall are in fact magical. To some this is a simple act of vandalism, but that is not the real motivation for people to do this. Writing your name on a wall makes the wall becomes an extension of yourself and you become part of the wall. It is a way to exert our self onto the world. This is I think the deeper psychological reason for the popularity of tagging. Tagging is a way to impart part of your self onto the environment in which you live. This is in essence an act of magic because it is a way to connect the inner world (psychology) with physical reality. There is no rational reason to write your name on a wall
There are many more examples of non-rational behaviour; why do we prefer one brand over another? Why we choose one political party or football team over another? When analysing motivations in every day choices we see that people often cross the horizon of reason and this is the realm of magical thinking. Magic, as a psychological force, is still alive and kicking in a hyper-modern world.
Read more about the future of magic in my book Perspectives on Magic.