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, in religion and superstition

magic, in religion and superstition, the practice of manipulating and controlling the course of nature by preternatural means. Magic is based upon the belief that the universe is populated by unseen forces or spirits that permeate all things. Because these supernatural forces are thought to govern the course of natural events, control of these forces gives humans control over nature. The practice of magic is held to depend on the proper use of both the ritual and the spell. The spell, or incantation, is the core of the magical ceremony; it unlocks the full power of the ritual. The practice of magic, in seeking its desired end, may combines within its scope elements of religion and science. In alchemy, for example, the process of transmuting a base metal into gold requires precise weights and volumes of acids, bases, and catalysts as well as the reciting of holy passages and prayers.

Anthropologists often distinguish between two forms of magic, the sympathetic and the contiguous. Sympathetic magic works on the principle that like produces like. The Ojibwa of North America would make a wooden image of an enemy and then stick pins into it. Because the doll represented the enemy, harm done to the doll was believed to harm the enemy. Contiguous magic operates on the belief that things that have been in contact will continue to act on each other after the physical contact has ceased. The aborigines of Australia believe that they can lame a person by placing sharp pieces of quartz, glass, bone, or charcoal in that person's footprints. Sometimes both sympathetic and contiguous magic are used in conjunction; certain African tribespeople will build a clay effigy around nail clippings, hairs, or bits of cloth belonging to the enemy and roast the completed image slowly in a fire.

Not all magic is performed in order to harm or destroy, and for this reason a distinction is made between black magic and white magic. White magic is characterized by those rites and spells designed to produce beneficial effects for the community (see fertility rites) or for the individual, particularly in those cases where an illness is considered to be the result of evil demons or of black magic.

See also voodoo; witchcraft.


See J. Frazer, The Golden Bough (12 vol., 1907–15); L. Thorndike, History of Magic and Experimental Science (8 vol., 1923–58); B. Malinowski, Magic, Science, and Religion (1948); M. Bouisson, Magic: Its History and Principal Rites (tr. 1961); J. Middleton, comp., Magic, Witchcraft, and Curing (1967); M. Marwick, Witchcraft and Sorcery (1970); M. Christopher, The Illustrated History of Magic (1973).


, in entertainment

magic, in entertainment, the seeming manipulation and supernatural control of the natural world for the amusement and amazement of an audience. Entertainment magic can be divided into four main categories: sleight of hand, also known as prestidigitation or close-up magic, consisting of tricks done close to the spectators in which the eye is deceived by the fast and skillful manipulation of the hands; club or platform acts, in which various apparatuses are employed to create illusions of seemingly impossible events; escape magic, involving complicated breakouts from apparently inescapable situations; and mentalism or mind reading.

The earliest recorded example of magic as performance is thought to be a painted Egyptian papyrus dated c.1700 B.C. that pictures Dedi of Dedsnefu performing tricks for a pharoah; one of the illusions shown is the cup-and-balls trick (balls seem to jump invisibly from beneath upended cups), still a staple in contemporary magic. The performance of magic was mingled with religion in ancient Greek and Roman culture as priests performed a number of “miraculous” effects through devices built into temples (e.g., spontaneously or thunderously opening doors) or implanted in statues of the gods (e.g., they appeared to speak or wine flowed from their mouths).

In Christian Europe from the Middle Ages through the 17th cent. magic tricks were a feature of fairs, circuses, and sometimes of theatrical performance. However, until the 17th cent. magic was also commonly associated with witchcraft or sorcery and, although magicians called themselves jugglers or tricksters, they sometimes performed at their peril. The first recorded debunking of the presumed occult association was in Reginald Scot's The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1554), which explained sleight of hand and asserted that the devil had no part in magic. Another early book on magic, The First Part of Clever and Pleasant Inventions, by the Frenchman Jean Prevost, was written the same year. Performers of magic also flourished in the East. The Muslim traveler Ibn Batuta, for example, reported the performance of the so-called Indian rope trick (1355) at China's royal court.

By the 18th cent. performance magicians were known by name, notably with the ascendance of conjurers such as Matthew Buchinger (1674–1739, the “Little Man of Nuremburg”), an armless and legless prestidigitator; Isaac Fawkes (fl. 1710s–20s), who entertained crowds at English fairs; and “Jacob Philadelphia,” an American, born Jacob Meyer, who entertained European audiences during the 1760s and performed for Catherine the Great and other notables. In the latter part of the century the Chevalier Joseph Pinetti (1750–1800, the “Professor of Natural Magic”) became famous for his use of complicated apparatuses, his escapes, and his mentalist tricks, and is often credited with being the first modern magician.

The popularity of stage magic in the 19th cent. owes much to a clockmaker turned peerless conjurer and master of disappearances and transformations, J. E. Robert Houdin. Other important magicians of this period included the English prestidigitator Antonio Blitz (1810–77) and the Scottish magician John Henry Anderson who performed illusions from the 1840s–70s as the “Great Wizard of the North.” Among the famous stage magicians of the later 19th cent. were the American Alexander Herrmann (1843–96, “Herrmann the Great”), who did card tricks, produced items from thin air, and used cabinets from which assistants disappeared, and the German Johann N. Hofzinger, known for his manipulation of cards and of various magical apparatuses.

The late 1880s to the 1930s are widely considered the Golden Age of magic; the form was a favorite on the vaudeville circuit and in theaters specifically devoted to conjuring. The great Harry Kellar (1849–1922), an American conjurer and successor to Herrmann whose celebrity reached its height in the 1880s, included among his many illusions the well-known Levitation of Princess Karnak. Among the era's other magicians were London-based John Nevil Maskelyne (1839–1917), inventor of the magic play and the box escape, and his partner, David Devant (1868–1941), creator of the disappearing moth-woman; T. Nelson Downs (1867–1938), renowned for his coin tricks; Chung Ling Soo, pseud. of William Robinson (1854–1922), who waved shawls and produced goldfish-filled globes; Charles Morritt (1861–1936), master of the Disappearing Donkey, hypnotist, and mind reader; Howard Thurston (1869–1936), Kellar's celebrated American successor, noted for his dismemberment illusions and card tricks; Horace Goldin (1873–1939), practitioner of strings of rapid-fire effects; society entertainer Max Malini (1873–1942); P. T. Selbit (1881–1938), probably the first (1921) to “saw” a woman in half; world-famous escape artist Harry Houdini; mentalist Joseph Dunninger (1896–1975); and master illusionist Harry Blackstone (1885–1965).

Magic blossomed again after World War II as professionals and amateurs proliferated. It flourished on stage and in nightclubs (e.g., the Las Vegas acts of Siegfried and Roy and Melinda Saxe), became a staple of television variety shows in the 1960s, and reached Broadway with Doug Henning's The Magic Show (1974). Other noted magicians of the late 20th cent. included Harry Blackstone, Jr., David Copperfield, James Griffin, James (“the Amazing”) Randi, and Dorothy Dietrich. By the turn of the century magic continued to expand in concept, propelled by the spectacular illusions of Lance Burton, the extravagant stunts and levitations of David Blaine, the superb card handling and wry humor of Ricky Jay, the quirky trickery of Penn and Teller, and the work of many others.


See N. Maskelyne and D. Devant, Our Magic (2d ed. 1946, partially repr. as Maskelyne on the Performance of Magic, 1976); W. B. Gibson, The Master Magicians (1966, repr. 1984); M. and M. Christopher, The Illustrated History of Magic (1973, repr. 1996); E. A. Dawes, The Great Illusionists (1979); R. Jay, Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women (1986, repr. 1998); T. A. Waters, The Encyclopedia of Magic and Magicians (1989); J. Steinmeyer, Hiding the Elephant (2003).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2022, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.


the attempt to activate supernatural or spiritual agencies in order to attain a specific outcome by ritualized means. Magic is not always readily distinguished from religious activity (see RELIGION), and in operation is often associated with it. However, an activity is usually identified as magic by its more instrumental, often more immediate, concern with the achievement of specific ends. In functionalist terms (see MALINOWSKI, 1948), magic is employed in situations where effective technologies to achieve the desired end are lacking. Thus the social function of magic is to allay anxieties and fulfil the need to do something, and it can also be cathartic (see also WITCHCRAFT AND SORCERY, SHAMAN).

In its broadest sense, magic is not only a feature of so-called ‘primitive societies’, but is also operative in modern societies, e.g. confidence in various pseudosciences, such as astrology, and in the survival of superstition. The interpenetration of‘true’ technologies and ritualized magical activity can be seen as a pervasive feature of social activity, present even in modern medicine In all discussion of magic there is the difficulty that, since the distinction between empirical science and non-science is never a straightforward matter (see SCIENCE), the distinction between technology and magic is correspondingly blurred. It is the case that many of the users of magic do not operate with a sharp distinction between the natural and the supernatural. Thus magic is often an observer's concept rather than one shared by participants.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
Enlarge picture
Magician casting a spell. Engraving by Stephen Miller after a painting by William Douglas. Courtesy Fortean Picture Library.

Magic(k); Magician

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

"Magick" is an old spelling of "magic" and is used by many modern occultists to differentiate the parapsychological form from the stage conjuring variety. There are many definitions of magic. Some of them are:

Creating your own reality.

A seemingly unnatural happening brought about by human means.

Words and actions affecting physical reality. "The science or art of causing change to occur in conformity with Will." (Aleister Crowley) "The projection of natural energies to produce needed effects." (Scott Cunningham) "Making something happen that you want to happen." (Raymond Buckland)

Events normally happen following a course of cause and effect, although we are invariably unaware of this principle as life flows by in a seemingly haphazard manner. However, if this flow—this seemingly disorganized pattern—can be interrupted and changed to make an event take place when and where we want it, then "magic" has been done. We are making something happen that we want to happen.

Scott Cunningham says there are three main sources for magical energy: personal power, Earth power, and divine power. Personal power is that which resides within each and every one of us, empowering our bodies and sustaining life. This power can be aroused with the right stimuli, directed to achieve some purpose, and released to that end. Earth power is within the planet and may be reached through any number of means: stones, trees, plants, wind, fire, water, and so on. It, too, can be aroused, manipulated, and directed to achieve desired ends. Divine power is the driving force that works through the other two. It is universal power coming from what we perceive as deity and acting through our bodies or through the Earth.

Cunningham makes the point that magic is not supernatural. It is occult, meaning hidden or secret and known only to the initiated, but it is also natural. Its workings may not yet be known, understood, or even labeled by science, but that does not mean it does not exist.

Anyone who practices magic is, by definition, a magician. It should be stressed that a magician is a practitioner; in other words, he or she is not necessarily connected with any religious beliefs or worship. It is not necessary to become a Witch, Christian, Jew, Buddhist, or follower of any other religion in order to be a magician and practice magic. Whether or not one believes that the power behind magic comes, ultimately, from deity is immaterial; magical rituals do not have to be done as part of religious rituals.

There are many different ways of working magic and as many different types of magician. There is "Low" and "High" magic, imitative or sympathetic magic, Ceremonial Magic, folk magic, and magic for health, wealth, love, power, and protection. Generally, magic can be divided into positive and negative, although some small actions may fall somewhere in a gray area between the two (see Binding). Some magic can be potentially dangerous to the practitioner because of entities or spirits conjured, while other magic is totally benign, drawing only from natural forces within.

Magic can be done by individuals or by groups. Most Ceremonial Magic is done by an individual, while most Witchcraft magic is done by groups (covens), but there are exceptions to both of these. In Ceremonial Magic, the magician may take days or even weeks preparing for the ritual. All the instruments needed are carefully prepared to an ancient formula. The time and place of performing the ritual is determined and, again, carefully prepared. The power is drawn down by using the Names of Power: powerful names that can be used to force the spirits to do the magician's will.

In Witchcraft, the work to be done is carefully planned out, with the objective clear in everyone's mind. Then the power necessary to work magic is drawn from the bodies by raising them to a state of excitement, or ekstasis—a "getting out of oneself." This may be achieved by dancing, singing, chanting, scourging, sexual activity, or other ways. When sufficient power has been raised, it is sent out, directed to achieve the desired result. In some Wiccan traditions, each individual sends the power as and when ready. In other traditions, the power is sent by the individual witches into the body of the High Priestess, who then projects the total.

In Hedge Witchcraft, Wort Cunning, and many forms of folk magic, there is less emphasis on the drawing down of power and more on imbuing charms, amulets, or talismans with the power to do the work.

The time of working magic is always important. In such forms as Ceremonial Magic and even candle magic, the time to work may be carefully established through the use of tables or by following set formulae. In most folk magic and that of Wicca, a more general approach involves simply working positive magic in the waxing phase of the Moon and negative magic (i.e., magic to be rid of something, be it an unwanted suitor or a bad cold) in the waning phase.

Green, Marian: Natural Magic. Element Books, 1989. King, Francis: Ritual Magic in England (1887 to the Present Day). Neville Spearman, 1970. Kraig, Donald Michael: Modern Magick. Llewellyn, 1988.

The Witch Book: The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Wicca, and Neo-paganism © 2002 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment; rituals connected with belief in a person’s ability to influence people, animals, natural phenomena, and imaginary spirits and deities by supernatural means.

Like other phenomena of primitive religion, magic arose in the earliest epoch, when human beings were powerless in the struggle against nature. Magic rituals, which are prevalent among all the peoples of the world, are extremely varied. Generally known, for example, are “wasting disease” or “curing” through an enchanted potion, ritual bathing, anointing with holy oil, and wearing of talismans. Magic rituals were performed at the time of plowing, sowing, and harvesting, as well as to call forth rain or to guarantee success in the hunt, in war, and other pursuits. Often rituals of magic combine several forms of magical methods, among which is incantation (casting a spell). The origin of each form of magic is closely bound up with the specific conditions of the practical activity of the people.

In class society, magic rituals lose their primary significance in contrast to more complex forms of religion, with prayers and the propitiatory worship of high deities. But here, too, magic is also retained as an important component of many of the rituals of every religion, not excluding even the most complex—Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and so forth. Thus, in Christianity important roles are played by magic rituals (anointing, extreme unction, pilgrimage to “holy” curative springs, etc.) and the magic of the weather and of fertility (public prayers for rain, blessing of the harvest, etc.).

Magic is divided into two types—black (the appeal to evil spirits) and white (appealing to pure spirits—angels and saints).

The magical perception of the world, in particular the notion of the universal similarity and interaction of all things, underlies the oldest doctrines of natural philosophy and of diverse “occult sciences,” which spread in the late classical and medieval eras (for example, alchemy and astrology). In large measure, the rudiments of experimental natural science were still developing at that time in close connection with magic, a fact that was reflected in many works of scientists of the Renaissance era (G. della Porta, G. Cardano, Paracelsus, and others). Only as science developed further were elements of magic in it overcome.

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

What does it mean when you dream about magic?

Magic has both positive and negative connotations. Positively, magic may represent a creative mind that will “magically” achieve just what the dreamer is hoping for. Alternatively, black magic is a symbol for evil, and for getting what one wishes through underhanded “tricks.”

The Dream Encyclopedia, Second Edition © 2009 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.


flute Tamino’s guard against black magic. [Ger. Opera: Mozart, Magic Flute, Westerman, 102–104]


See also Enchantment.
Magnificence (See SPLENDOR.)
Aladdin’s lamp
when rubbed, genie appears, grants possessor’s wishes. [Arab. Lit.: Arabian Nights]
Armida’s girdle
enabled the enchantress to know and do whatever she willed. [Ital. Lit.: Jerusalem Delivered]
magician who taught Merlin arts of sorcery. [Arthurian Legend: Walsh Classical, 57]
wizard with special control over fire. [Br. Lit.: J. R. R. Tolkien Lord of the Rings]
Houdini, Harry
(1874–1926) famous turn of century American magician and escape artist. [Am. Hist.: NCE, 1275]
magic carpet
flew King Solomon and his court wherever he commanded the wind to take it. [Moslem Legend: Brewer Dictionary, 177]
Magus, The
millionaire living on a Greek island magically manipulates an unhappy young Englishman through bewildering experiences into self-awareness. [Br. Lit.: Fowles The Magus in Weiss, 279]
prince of magicians. [Br. Lit.: Le Morte d’Arthur]
Open, Sesame!
formula that opens the door to the robber’s cave. [Arab. Lit.: Arabian Nights]
uses magic to achieve ends. [Br. Lit.: The Tempest]
ship large enough to hold all the gods and their possessions, yet so skillfully wrought by dwarves that it could be folded and pocketed. [Scand. Myth.: Bulfinch]
wild ass’s skin
assures the fulfillment of its possessor’s wishes, but with a fatal result. [Fr. Lit.: Balzac The Wild Ass’s Skin in Magill II, 1133]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


An early system on the Midac computer.

[Listed in CACM 2(5):16 (May 1959)].


As yet unexplained, or too complicated to explain; compare automagically and (Arthur C.) Clarke's Third Law:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

"TTY echoing is controlled by a large number of magic bits." "This routine magically computes the parity of an 8-bit byte in three instructions."


Characteristic of something that works although no one really understands why (this is especially called black magic).


(Stanford) A feature not generally publicised that allows something otherwise impossible or a feature formerly in that category but now unveiled.

Compare wizardly, deep magic, heavy wizardry.

For more about hackish "magic" see Magic Switch Story.


This article is provided by FOLDOC - Free Online Dictionary of Computing (

active area

The active area is the top part of the chip where all the action takes place. It contains the layers of transistors, resistors and interconnection layers that make up the circuits and perform the actual computing. Although the thickness of the entire chip is only about 1/30th of an inch, the active area is just a few micrometers. See chip, half-adder and Boolean logic.

Entirely Magical
No man-made object is more incredible than the chip. Today's state-of-the-art CPUs and SoCs contain billions of transistors, many millions of which are simultaneously switching their state from on to off and off to on every second. In fact, so many transistors are changing at the same time that, in total, there are quadrillions of transistor state changes taking place every second. Think about that number... quadrillions of changes every second for hours on end in absolute digital perfection. See transistor and SoC.

A Digital Miracle
When people look at a chip package, they see an object the size of a cracker, but its active area is thinner than a postage stamp. Chip packages can be as large as this example or as small as the tip of a lead pencil (see microcontroller). See Boolean logic and chip package.

Android Magic

The second generation Android phone, introduced in Europe in 2009. See Android.

magic cookie

A small data file passed from one program to another and sent back without change. Typically used in Unix systems, a magic cookie may be an identification token or password that activates a function. The "magic" implies some obscure data known only to the software and not the user. The Web cookie term was coined after magic cookie. See cookie.

Magic Mouse

A multitouch mouse from Apple. Introduced in 2009, Magic Mouse has no buttons or wheels. Its entire top surface is touch sensitive, allowing it to respond to gestures for scrolling in all directions. It also functions as a regular click mouse. See Magic Trackpad.

It's Magic!
Scrolling is done by sliding a finger over the mouse in the appropriate direction. There is no scroll wheel, and the surface accepts one- and two-finger gestures. (Image courtesy of Apple Inc.)

magic number

In programming, a magic number is a constant value used to identify a file format, protocol or error code. In many file formats, the first few bytes identify the file; for example, "PK" in ZIP files and the hex values "F8 D8" in JPEG files.

Certain communications protocols use a magic number, such as the hex values "63 82 53 63" at the start of every DHCP packet or "FF 53 4D 42" at the beginning of every SMB request. See DHCP and SMB.

Magic Constants
The term also refers to fixed values in a program that are never expected to change. For example, an algorithm involving playing cards might frequently use the magic constant "52" without jokers or "54" with jokers (or "51" and "53" for offset addresses).
Copyright © 1981-2019 by The Computer Language Company Inc. All Rights reserved. THIS DEFINITION IS FOR PERSONAL USE ONLY. All other reproduction is strictly prohibited without permission from the publisher.
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