Literary Review: The History of Magic by Chris Gosden

“Human kind / Cannot bear very much reality,” TS Eliot wrote in the Four Quartets, the fruit of his own long struggle with spiritual torment. Eliot ultimately found solace in the late-medieval Christian mysticism of Julian of Norwich, but his point still stands: what reality is and how we learn to bear it has been the defining challenge of the human condition across history. As Chris Gosden compellingly demonstrates in The History of Magic, humanity has been testing the former since time immemorial, using magical practices as a way of coping with the abiding human mysteries of pain and fear and grief, of consciousness and memory.

This is not the magic of the conjuring trick, but the magic of astrology, divination and countless other techniques. Gosden’s overall thesis is that this kind of magical thinking needs to be restored to its rightful place in intellectual history as an integral part of what he calls a triple helix along with religion and science. In this reading, each of these three traditions of thought has always existed to some degree, each complementing the others, each a different answer to the same question: what does it mean to be alive?

His starting point is that magic is not irrational; it is a rational and logical response to the world that simply proceeds from different premisses to our own. To make his case, he reaches as far back as the late Paleolithic period 40,000 years ago, broadly taking each epoch and world region in turn – with particular emphasis on the Fertile Crescent, Europe, China and the Eurasian Steppe – before ending at the present day. This is, then, a book of vertiginous ambition.

But readers expecting a history of a mentality – or mentalities – might be disappointed. Gosden is an archaeologist and his primary interest is in ethnography and the remains of material culture. It is symptomatic of his approach that in Arthurian legend he is far more interested in Excalibur than he is in Merlin. Why? Because the sword’s return to the lake at Arthur’s death seems to echo of the practice, common across north-west Europe from the Mesolithic to the late Bronze Age, of placing things of value – including swords and other weapons – in bodies of water. (Anyone who has ever left a coin in a fountain might get a shiver of recognition here.) It’s a practice that Gosden sees as falling into the category of transactional magic, an understanding of reality that stresses reciprocity and mutual need.

It is ironic, perhaps, that a book about neglected intellectual traditions should be so concerned with artefacts such as grave goods, but that is, in many respects, a strength. The dead have always played a vital role in magical thinking about what it means to be in the world.

In China, it is ancestral spirits rather than transcendent gods to whom supplication was made. The reciprocal nature of the relationship is evident in the c1200 BC tomb of Fu Hao – Lady Hao – a warrior queen in the city of Yinxu in what is now Henan province. Lady Hao and sixteen servants were buried with all the necessary goods – food, drink, ritual bronzes – to feast her ancestors in the afterlife. An ancestral hall was built on the site of her tomb so that her descendents could propitiate her. In death she received a new name, Mu Xin, and became, in a sense, a different person with different responsibilities towards the living. “Death transformed a person’s state,” Gosden writes, “rather than ended their existence.” Likewise grave goods carried on being active after they were buried: that was the point of burying them.

The same kind of thinking is evident elsewhere too. As far back as 13000 BC the Natufian people in what is now southern Israel and Jordan buried their dead under the floors of their homes. At the town of Çatalhöyük, in Turkey sometime before 7000 BC, the people continued the same practice, but also constructed what have been called ‘history houses’, where each layer of building with the dead beneath it was built upon the last. The burial mounds of Iron Age Europe were not closed; people and animals moved through them. To paraphrase Faulkner, the dead are never departed. They’re not even dead.

Gosden by and large avoids discussion of emotions, but it is hard not to be moved by the late Mesolithic grave in eastern Denmark which contains the body of a new-born baby, laid to rest on the wing of a swan. The longings and sorrows it seems to articulate flatten time, embodying part of the argument the author wants to make. We are used to thinking about the world in terms of quasi-Linnean hierarchies and taxonomies, with time linear and unidirectional, effect neatly married to cause. But perhaps the connectedness of magical thought, which places us at an intersection on a great web of sentience that stretches across all things living and otherwise, and back and forwards in time, has more to offer us than we realise.

The History of Magic reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut’s dictum ‘Science is magic that works’. The triumph of science is that its effects are replicable. As soon as magic becomes reliable, it ceases to be magic. But, as Gosden shows, the modern world has been built out of a wide range of magics that worked: agriculture, architecture, art, cooking, medicine, and so on, may all have roots in a kind of thinking that we have effectively othered in intellectual life.

Mechanistic success is only a small part of what it means to be human, however, and the astonishing breadth of Gosden’s work makes clear just how important magic has been in making reality bearable. We might end where the book’s timeline opens, some 40,000 years ago, two kilometres deep in the caverns of the earth, at the potent, friable border of the known, where our Paleolithic ancestors painted animals on the walls and made prints of their hands by firelight. Do we not feel a kinship with them, these people flickering at the edge of history, standing at the threshold of something other – a rockface, a body of water – looking beyond the surface of things for a sign?

This review first appeared in the October 2020 issue of Literary Review.

To buy a copy of The History of Magic from my Bookshop.org book store, please click here. Profits from sales through the website go to support independent bookshops across the UK. I also receive a 10% commission on any purchases through my store.

3 thoughts on “Literary Review: The History of Magic by Chris Gosden

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  1. This is definitely on my to-read list. I love the Kurt Vonnegut quote, which I hadn’t heard before but which immediately reminded me of making hokey-pokey as a youngster. When I added baking soda to the sugar syrup I was rewarded by a frothy golden mass – magic. Then came the day I added baking powder by mistake and was left with pallid toffee…

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