A Cognitive Theory of Magic

Unauthorized magic is judged as a hindrance for the correct unfolding of an overlying event-frame—the salvation of the soul.

A final summary of the relation between established religion and unauthorized magical action: Magic in general can be seen as an innovative force in three ways.


First, magical rituals can effect the emergence of new religious systems through the process of ritualization leading to symbolic interpretation. This is strongest in cases of non-formalized, agent-based magical agency involving the construction of brand new constitutive rules of ritual action, but it can also be found in possible reinterpretations of known symbolic elements. Through their employment in magical rituals, known symbols are stripped of conventional relations to other symbols, a process which facilitates transformation of meaning.

Second, magic is focused on ritual efficacy and is therefore open for import of foreign ritual elements and structures believed to enhance this efficacy. This tendency is strengthened by the de-symbolizing aspects of magical actions in which iconic and indexical properties of objects are utilized at the expense of symbolic relations, thus facilitating import of efficacious elements and structures independent of their symbolic embedding. In this respect, magic can be described as a ‘syncretistic engine’ that brings about exchange of ritual elements and structures between religious traditions and ethnic groups. The de-symbolizing aspect of magical actions enhances this, as ‘exotic’ signs seem to be ascribed extraordinary power.

Finally, magic is indirectly innovative by effecting a reaction in established religions against competition from unauthorized magical rituals. Thus, non-institutionalized ritual actions indirectly affect the form and structure of established and insitutionalized religious rituals, at least in cases where these are confronted.

Instead of understanding magic and religion as two equal systems opposing each other, I propose a more dynamic explanation. Magic is a general mode of ritual behavior that, when appearing outside established, authorized and institutionalized religious rituals, prompts the creation of either new systems of beliefs and religious institutions, or provoke a re-evaluation, reflection and possibly change of already established ritual structures. Utilizing very basic cognitive processes, magic is a permanent force in the historical development of institutionalized religion. It constantly challenges established religions’ abstract and context-distant symbolic interpretations by directing attention to concrete, context-near and goal-directed understandings of ritual action. Due to the very structure of our cognitive system, the disenchantment of the world proposed by Weber is always followed by a re-enchantment, creating new ways of infusing our everyday world with magical agency.  (190-191, Jesper Sörensen)


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