It’s that time of the year again. The wilted flowers ready themselves for their annual ritual of decay, dissipated, becoming one again with the soil beneath them until Spring calls for their return. The excitement from candy-filled nights makes room for childlike wonder that springs among the shimmering decor snaking its way through our cities and homes.
For many, Christmas is a time of magic and awe, filled with stories and traditions passed down through generations. Decorating the tree, offering gifts, unwrapping presents and singing carols are customs steeped in enchantment and mystery. The stories and legends associated with this holiday, such as the tale of Santa Claus and his flying invisible reindeers, hint towards sorcery and fantasy. Even outside this festive season, we find an abundance of magic around us.
From children’s bedtime stories to entertainment, it seems magic has been quietly weaving its wondrous thread among the roots of our society. Overall, our relationship with magic is a complex and fascinating one, marked by both acceptance and rejection, and by the ongoing search for meaning and connection in a world that often seems overwhelming and uncertain. From its earliest forms in primitive cultures, to the role it plays in today’s modern world, magic has been and continues to be a source of wonder and inspiration; but not without its complications.
The violet fairy book (1906)
1800s Fantasy Illustration
From the earliest days of human civilisation, people have been drawn to the mysterious and inexplicable, and the concept of magic has been a part of many cultures and traditions throughout history. Initially birthed as a means to make sense of our world, mythical stories were told to share knowledge and create cohesion within communities. Before the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th century, there were no scientific explanations to the phenomenon occurring around us and our imagination and storytelling gave reason and meaning to our world. These stories bridged the gap between the visible and invisible world, and set the ground for the collective beliefs we built our lives upon.
Our ancestors lived hand in hand with mysticism, sharing stories of divine creatures, using rites and spells to cure illnesses, ask for good fortune and ward off evil spirits, attempting to control the forces of nature and protect themselves from her unpredictable caprices. In Mesopotamia, magic was believed to be the only viable defence against bad omens. They used medical formulae to counteract ghosts and demons, which often came hand in hand with human or animal sacrifice. Practicing magic was a means to alter physical realities through incantations, some that could be recited by anyone, not requiring any specialist knowledge. In Ancient Egypt, both the literate and priestly hierarchy as well as illiterate herdsmen and farmers performed these rituals, either in temples or in the privacy of their homes. The Ancient Egyptian religion heka (also spelled hike), can be translated to ‘magic’ or ‘magicalpower’. Heka was believed to be the primordial divine force responsible for the creation of our universe, whose primary function was the preservation of the natural world order. Heka was based on the belief that words have the power to manifest things into being, and that men, created by the gods, therefore also held this power within them. In times during which so much of our livelihood was out of our control, magic became a means to reclaim agency and power in our lives.
As human civilisation developed, the way in which magic was practice also morphed, giving birth to black magic. Dark magic is pursued with evil or harmful intent as opposed to white magic, which is used for selfless or benevolent purposes. For example, ‘curse tablets’ from Ancient Greece and Rome were discovered, stones on which were engraved ‘revenge’ spells: you could pay your local magician to curse those who had wronged you, somewhat similar to what modern-day voodoo dolls are used for.
An Egyptian handbook records love spells, exorcisms and a cure for black jaundice written in Coptic (an Egyptian language) and dates back around 1,300 years. Photo by Effy Alexakis / Macquarie University
With time, as societies began to modernise and adopt more rational and scientific ways of thinking, magic fell out of favour. Already categorised to marginalised groups of people, magic was viewed as superstition and became increasingly associated with the occult.
Nicholas Culpeper was a herbalist who wrote one of the most influential books on the medicinal uses of different plants. He was rejected by the scientific society for being an unlicensed apothecary and for writing in English instead of the more traditional Latin in order to reach more people with his findings. In 1642 he was tried for practicing witchcraft, the penalty of which was death, for providing herbal remedies for diseases and ailments. Luckily, he was acquitted.
In Europe, the rise of Christianity led to a widespread belief that magic was inherently evil and associated with the devil. Viewed as a dark and dangerous art that relied on exchanges with demons, magic was linked to paganism. This helped fuel the infamous witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries, during which people, mostly women, were accused of practicing magic and were brutally punished, often with torture and execution. It is estimated that tens of thousands of both men and women were killed in this battle against magic and mysticism.
Joan of Arc, or Jeanne d’Arc, is a perfect example of this. As a girl, she claimed to have received visions from God that told her to lead the French army to victory against the English during the Hundred Years' War. Although only a child, and despite her lack of military experience, Joan was able to convince King Charles VII to allow her to lead an army. She proved to be a brilliant military strategist and a brave leader and rallied the French soldiers to several key victories against the English. In 1430 she was captured by the English and put on trial for heresy. She was found guilty and burned at the stake at the age of just 19. Despite her tragic end, Joan of Arc is remembered as a national hero in France and a symbol of resistance against foreign occupation.
As seen above, those who dipped their toes in witchcraft and divination were often simple individuals brave enough to fight the status quo, forging new pathways into unknown grounds out of passion and drive. Their courage only exposes our society’s fear and inability to cope with unfathomable, intangible things. In man’s pursuit and desire to control, it’s no surprise sorcery and magic were ostracised to such extent.
Illustration portraying Satan's relationship with Witches. Image: Wellcome Collection
Despite this repression, magic never disappeared. It continued to hold a powerful fascination over many people, who continued to practice it behind closed doors, infusing it with enhanced mystery and enigma. And while some people may see magic as a relic of the past, for many it remains a powerful and enduring symbol of the human imagination and the boundless potential of the human spirit. Its poetical use, for instance, continues to be a popular way to express ideas and emotions, with many famous writers and artists still using ethereal themes and imagery in their work. From popular books and movies that feature magical creatures to the use of magic in advertising and marketing, the idea of magic continues to inspire and captivate us.
Whether seen as a tool for controlling the forces of nature and gaining control over one's life, a form of entertainment for children and adults alike, a means of expressing our inner worlds, as a way to connect with nature and the spiritual world, rediscovering the ancient wisdom and practices of our ancestors, the magic that has captivated us for centuries shows no signs of fading away. We therefore invite you to dip your feet into our children’s natural apt for wonder and awe, for whom there is no separation between the mundane and the sacred, and fall back in love with magic.