Can ‘magic’ be re-established as an analytical term of cross-cultural and diachronic scope? The lecture by Bernd-Christian Otto (Universität Erfurt, Germany) suggests a methodological pathway that allows for conceptualising ‘magic’ as a comparative category that can be applied to any religious data, independent of its timely, geographical, or cultural contexts.
Magic is omnipresent in modern popular culture, figuring prominently in movies and television series, computer and roleplaying games, fantasy novels and children’s books, or product advertisments. It is also an important facet of modern esotericism and new religious movements and is embraced, for instance, in many neopagan or neoshamanic groups. But wasn’t magic predominantly associated with superstition, irrationality, fraudulence, and false religion over the past centuries? How do we explain its great popularity over the past decades? And what is ‘it’, after all? Is magic connected to a specific type of worldview or ritual practice, or is it rather a fuzzy umbrella category for a number of different and disconnected things? The presentation explores these questions by presenting a fresh approach towards magic’s semantic complexities and ambivalences. This approach allows for re-establishing magic as a comparative category in the study of religion, whereby ideas and practices from different cultures may be meaningfully compared, thus paving the way for new cultural theory of magic.
Reading: Bernd-Christian Otto, ‘General Introduction’, to Bernd-Christian Otto & Michael Stausberg (eds), Defining Magic: A Reader, Sheffield & Bristol, CT : Equinox, 2013, 1-13.