Magical Things


Thing Magic or Magic Things


Easton J. Anspach 

Magic is a faculty of wonderful virtue, full of most high mysteries, containing the most profound contemplation of most secret things, together with the nature, power, quality, substance and virtues thereof, as also the knowledge of whole Nature, and it doth instruct us concerning the differing and agreement of things amongst themselves, whence it produceth its wonderful effects, by uniting the virtues of things through the application of them one to the other.



Three Books of Occult Philosophy or Magic


The Extra in Things

            Agrippa was a magician, theologian, astrologer, alchemist, occult researcher, and writer in the early sixteenth century.  The opening quote is taken from his magnum opus on the occult and magical thought, Three Books of Occult Philosophy or Magic.  Agrippa argued that magic was the point where the natural world came into contact with the greater celestial universe.  Magic, he says, “doth instruct us concerning the differing and agreement of things amongst themselves…by uniting the virtues of things through the application of them one to the other.”  Magic, it would seem, is actually just knowledge of how things work together, but this knowledge is at the same time mysterious and secret.

            The mysterious nature of things is by no means a new topic among thing theorists.  In fact, it is one of the few elements of things that seems to be ubiquitous.  Brown speaks of things having excess and ambiguity, Gell (1998) discusses their captivation, Heidegger (2001) points to their thingness, Miller (2005) calls upon their materiality.  But it is Bennett’s (2005) assemblage and Latour’s (1993) network which come closest to Agrippa’s understanding of magic: a world in which the virtues of things unite and intertwine in a complex and mysterious manner that escapes simple understanding and instead requires profound contemplation.


Things and Magic

            As a result of this shared understanding, things are often deployed as items that transcend earthly and cosmological realms.  Consider, for example: communion bread, which is able to bring together bread, the physical body of Christ, the heavenly body of god, the practical sins of earthly existence, and the purification of heavenly redemption; Voodoo dolls which are able to permeate time and space to assemble pain within the bounded human body; or sage incense which wipes the supplicant clean so that the Great Spirit may reside within the mind, collapsing heaven and earth.  The magic of things is their ability to bring people into contact with a larger universe from which they are normally isolated.


            Magic is subsequently apart from humans and objects at the same time it is part of them.  This is evident in the language used to speak of magic.  Witches and warlocks are believed to tap into the larger pool of energy which they call magic.  Plains shamans do not create magic, they are possessed by spirits who are able to put them in touch with the abilities they seek.  Voodoo practitioners are chosen by the magic itself: it is not they who decide who will be granted the gift.  Magic is often portrayed as an extremely powerful entity that has the potential to dwarf its practitioners, escaping their limited control.


Advent of Rationalism

            And yet, in the West magic has all but disappeared as a practical influence on humanity.  The Protestant Reformation brought about a particular insistence on self-help and individual stoicism that undermined traditional reliance n necromantic forms of assistance.  The scientific and philosophical revolutions reconstituted the universe as something subject to immutable natural laws.  New technical aids such as fire-fighting and property insurance, which guard against life’s unexpected misfortunes, removed the need for supplication to cosmological protectors.  Urbanization undercut the intimate personal relationships on which accusations of sorcery depended.  Theoretical innovations in mathematics, psychology, and sociology provided victims with novel intellectual tools for explaining the causes of the disasters in their lives (Cook 2001:164).

            These developments were paralleled by the Cartesian divide between mind and body, subject and object, which marked Western societies’ movement into the “modern age” (Latour 1993).  As a result, things and magic were separated from the constitution of the human mind which became paramount in the makeup of the human experience.  Magic, in turn, became separated from things so that the only mystical objects belonged to the delusions of the fetish held by marginalized “others” (Frazer 1998).  In the Western humanist hierarchy, science reigned supreme while magic became the result of unsophisticated and faulty understandings of the working of the universe.

            Magical things were subsequently rendered as belonging to the Other, the foreign, the exotic.  While in colonial areas this increased the mystery and power of magic (Taussig 1987), in the western world magic was taken out of the hands of respected medicine men, healers, and leaders and placed in the realm of mediums, swindlers, and conmen (Edinburgh Review 1895:82).  Instead of acts of reverence, supplication, and respect these new magicians took on roles as fortune tellers, good luck charms, and communicators with the deceased through the use of raps, cards, levitations, and trickery.  Magic and magical things seemed destined for extinction


Out of the Ashes

            We have already noted, however, the ambiguous thingness of magic which is not so easy to destroy.  At the same time that magic was slipping into debauchery it was being reconstituted and reinvented within the new framework of science.  A single individual will serve to illuminate this development: Harry Kellar.


            Kellar was known variously as the “Dean of American Magic,” the “Greatest American Magician,” the father of modern magic, and the founder of American magic.  He served as mentor and teacher to Harry Houdini and Howard Thurston, the greatest magicians of the twentieth century (Milbourne 1973:198-199).  His success reveals the reinvention of magic that took place in the face of the advent of modernism.

           Kellar practiced what he termed as “true magic” (1903:1256), a high-brow phenomenon based on large stage illusions and reenactments of feats of natural wonder which he witnessed during his world travels.  Distancing his profession from the lowbrow hokum which had come to be known as “magic,” Kellar actually made a name and career for himself by exposing fraudulent mediums and spiritualists.  The goal in doing so was to carve out a niche in the burgeoning science obsession for magic by couching his work in scientific, Victorian terms.

            Kellar even added the title professor in a series of articles he published about the magic abilities of Indian fakirs and Native American shamans:

Fifteen years spent in India and the far East have convinced me that the high caste fakirs, or magicians, of Northern India have probably discovered natural laws of which we in the West are ignorant.  That they succeed in overcoming forces of nature which to us seem insurmountable, my observation satisfies me beyond doubt (Kellar 1893).

We see here a complete new package for magic, one associated with upscale travel, the rank of high caste fakirs, and which calls upon unknown, mysterious natural laws. 


Magic of Things

            The separation, then, between the lowbrow magic of mediums, which would come to be known as spiritualism, and the highbrow magic of Kellar, was things.  Legitimate magic included trunks, handcuffs, levitating bodies, saws, playing cards, rabbits, top hats, etc. Spiritualism, on the other hand, took place in a more ephemeral realm including ESP, communing with the dead, psychical phenomena.  It would seem as if Agrippa’s definition of magic hinged on things.  The removal of things leaves only people, and the connection between virtues of people lies in psychology, philosophy, and religion.

            As a result, the move to demystify magic has taken place in the push to strip magicians of their things.  The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have witnessed an increasing exposure of the “gimmicks” and “tricks” behind magic.  Consider the popularity of the recent show on Fox, The Masked Magician, where a professional magician actually reveals the “secrets” behind magic “things,” or the popular saying, “magic is nothing but smoke and mirrors.”  We are left echoing John Frow’s query, “Is it really true that the world is becoming emptied of things?” (Frow 2004:357).


            Perhaps the world is being emptied of magic things, but not of magic.  In truth, the highest grossing live performers in the United States are magicians.[1]  Magicians are still household names: Chris Angel, David Copperfield, David Blaine, Penn & Teller, Siegfried and Roy.  In popular culture, magic still makes up one of the most pervasive and highest grossing genres: Harry Potter, Charmed, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Wicca, a religion based on magic, is one of the fastest growing religious groups in England and the United States.[2]  Magic is increasingly attributed to concepts and institutions such as capitalism and the stock market (Taussig 1987). If the world is stripped of magic objects and magic people are dismissed, why does magic persist?


Performing Thing Magic

            The answer lies in the performance of magic things.  If we accept Ingold’s statement that “Movement [is] truly generative of the object rather than merely revelatory of an object that is already present” (2000:346), then it is magical movement that truly generates a magical object.  But what is magical movement?  Magical movement interweaves the subject and object, it defies the immutable natural laws which govern the Western philosophical world.  Magical movement reminds us that we have never been modern (Latour 1993).

            Magic performance shows us what Agrippa observed four hundred years ago, things have virtues which interact and intermingle, many times in mysterious ways.  Science has revealed a great deal of this mystery, but its sterilization of objects has obscured what inspired the research in the first place.  Magic performance continues to create magic objects because science still cannot answer the totality of how the virtues of things interact with one another.



Perhaps the answer lies in shifting the perspective from magic things as intermediary between magician and audience to mediator of the perception of the world.  As things construct social relations, so do magical things construct a society in which our relationship with things is not one of dominance over sterile objects, but one of interrelation with things with virtues: virtuous things. The continued fascination with magic shows a desire to escape the limitations of the “modern” world, a need to believe in a larger, powerful force (assemblage, shi, network, magic) that exists beyond the edge of pure modern scientific comprehension (captivation).

Take, if you will the following quote: “Magic is not a practice. It is a living, breathing web of energy that, with our permission, can encase our every action (Morrison 1998).  Magic, then, shows us that everything is connected.  It reveals a world in which we, as humans, are no longer the sole owners of virtue.  Objects are virtuous too.  It is precisely this observation which leads Bennett to link her idea of assemblages to Shi, “the dynamic force emanating from a spatiotemporal configuration rather than from any particular element within it” (Bennett 2005:461)”.  The force which says that everything in the world is connected and we must be accountable for our actions within this field of connections.  Magic, in other words, requires us to perform in a way that once again recognizes the things of the world as virtuous.



Agrippa, Heinrich Cornelius.  1993.  Three Books Of Occult Philosophy. Trans. J. F. Edited by Donald Tyson. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn.

Bennett, Jane.  2005.  The agency of assemblages and the North American blackout.  Public Culture 17(3):445-465.

Brown, Bill.  2001.  Thing Theory. Critical Inquiry, v.28 (1):1-22.

Cook, James. 2001. The Arts of Deception. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari.  1988. Introduction: Rhizome.  In A Thousand Plateaus, pp. 3-28. Athlone Press.

Frazer, James George.  1998 [1922].  The golden bough: a study in magic and religion.  Oxford University Press.

Frow, John. 2004. A pebble, a camera, a man who turns into a telegraph pole. In Things, edited by Bill Brown, pp. 346-361. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Gell, Alfred.  1998.  Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory.  Clarendon Press, New York.

Heidegger, Martin. 2001. The thing. In Poetry, Language, and Thought, pp. 165-182. New York: Harper Collins.

Henare, Amiria, Martin Holbraad and Sari Wastell.  2007.  Introduction: thinking through things.  Thinking Through Things: Theorising Artefacts Ethnographically, eds. Amiria Henare, Martin Holbraad, Sari Wastell.  Routledge.

Ingold, Tim. 2000.  On weaving a basket.  In The Perception of the Environment: Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling, and Skill, pp 339-348.  Routledge: London.

-2007. Materials Against Materiality. Archaeological Dialogues 14:1-16.

Kellar, Harry.  1893.  High Caste Indian Magic. The North American Review 156: 75.

-1903.  The Wizard at His Tricks. The Independent 55: 1254-1259.

Latour, Bruno. 1993. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Milbourne, Christopher.  1973.  The Illustrated History of Magic. New York: Thomas Y. Cromwell.

Miller, Daniel. 2005. Materiality: an introduction. In Materiality (Politics, History, and Culture), edited by Daniel Miller, pp. 1-50. Duke University Press.

Edinburgh Review.  1895.  Modern Magic. The Edinburgh Review.

Morrison, Dorothy.  1998.  Everyday Magic: Spells & Rituals for Modern Living.  Lewellyn Worldwide.

Taussig, Michael.  1987.  Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man : A Study in Terror and Healing.


[1] According to the Society for America Magicians accessible at


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