Magic Has Shaped Our Understanding of the World

La Monica Everett-Haynes, University Relations - Communications
April 26, 2016

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Traditional recipes and ancient "women's magic" have informed contemporary science and medicine — like the now-popular proposition that the use of turmeric may help curb the development of prostate cancer and other conditions.

"Until the university trade doctors arrived, it was all about women's magic — women were mostly in charge. It was mostly women who declared mythical visions and having direct connection to the gods through their spiritual experience," said University Distinguished Professor Albrecht Classen, specifically addressing the medieval era.

"Then came a power struggle as the mid-15th-century Catholic Church came down on things like this, saying that this was dark and evil. But these magicians, including others, served as the foundations for modern chemistry and medicine. The 16th-century Paracelsus was famous as an alternative medical researcher, but he was also maligned as a magician, like many other innovative scientists at that time."

The history of magic and how it has informed scientific research and advancement is a fairly new area of research, and it will be explored during the 13th annual International Symposium on Medieval and Early Modern Studies, to be held at the University of Arizona on Friday and Saturday. Organized by Classen, the conference, under the topic of "Magic and Magicians in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Age," has pre-session events on Thursday.

The conference brings together dozens of medieval and early modern experts from the U.S., Germany, Mexico, France, Israel, Italy, the Czech Republic, Finland and elsewhere to speak on issues related to the interplay of magic on scientific and humanistic domains.

Conference participants also will contribute to the planned next volume of "Fundamentals of Medieval and Early Modern Culture," set for release in spring of 2017 by publisher Walter de Gruyter (located in Berlin and Boston), with Classen and Marilyn Sandidge of Westfield (Massachusetts) State University serving as co-editors.

"It is an absolute privilege and a huge honor that so many people from around the world are attending the conference," Classen said. "We are producing fundamental research. There is so more about heaven and earth than what science tells us."

In advance of the conference, Classen answered some of our questions:

Q: How do you define "magic"?

A: Magic, you could say, is associated with the devil. That's the Christian approach to condemning necromancy. The folkloric approach draws on driving forces in nature and by appealing to certain gods, formulas and magical charms which are thereby used to harness powers. There is a third approach — relying on necromantic forces not associated with the devil. Ultimately, to achieve their own goals, people hope and dream and pray. They believe they can use these appeals, or evoke powers. Whether it's necromancy or faith doesn't matter. Throughout time, people have done this all the time. Even with traditional medicine — sometimes it just doesn't help. But sometimes, a miracle happens. So we expand the concept of magic to mean anything anyone does to appeal to a higher power, an alternative episteme, as we might say.

Q: Why focus on the issue of magic, and why has it emerged as a topic for research?

A: Magic and magicians is a fantastic new topic, which is presented in the overall agenda to explore and discuss fundamental aspects of human life: the sciences, arts, culture. Our modern perspectives lay a groundwork for fundamental research in the future. Magic and necromancy, which were not approved by the church, were significant avenues to understand this world. This conference does not intend to fantasize about magical things, in a pretense world, but wants to uncover profound aspects of medieval and early modern epistemology. Magic and necromancy were significant avenues to understand this world, and they held tremendous sway in many different areas of human sciences and religion.

Q: Please explain further: How has magic shaped our understanding of the world?

A: Human life is determined by uncertain things we cannot control. Everyone knows the phrases "knock on wood" and "break a leg" to wish you good will and good luck. We have all of these odd ways of expressing ourselves to try to overcome the material and physical limitations of this world. With that, there is so much more about heaven and earth than what the sciences tell us.

Q: How are magic and science connected?

A: I don't want to say that magic is science, but there are some intriguing parallels. Magic is and was simply an attempt to understand the world, but in different ways and with different means that are not always tolerated by the authorities because they are not subject to verification and falsification.

Q: While not the central theme of the conference, can you speak to areas where there is evidence of magic in our contemporary lives?

A: Particularly in Arizona, a lot of people believe in earth forces. For example, people travel to the Sedona area, believing in the power of its springs and other water, and in earth lines. You have people in Tucson who believe there is evidence of a circle of stars being reflected throughout parts of the city and in areas like the Rillito River. Then, of course, there are people who believe in astrology, which is in a large sense magic through the belief in the power of the planets and an understanding that constellations have a direct impact on human life. Then there are the countless forms of folk beliefs that carry over today.

Q: What new or different understanding do you hope will come out of the investigation of magic?

A: We need to understand today our assumptions about religion as the dominant form of culture — be it Catholic, Protestant, Islam or Judaism. Those are just the dominant institutions when, really, there are thousands of different forms of faith, beliefs and superstitions, and they continue to constitute a subsurface of our modern-day lives. This, in some ways, reflects our power structures: who gets to dominate the discourse and who is in charge of the standard paradigm. It's not simply about magic; it is really about our politics, science, the history of religion, the history of literature, the history of medicine and so forth. It's one of the most fascinating topics, and it's so much fun to explore the foundation of everything we know about premodern culture and history.


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