Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Jan Van Baal, Spells, and a Magical Worldview

John William Waterhouse, Circe Invidiosa, 1892.

In Van Baal’s ethnographic opinion, the universal element of magic is the ‘spell’, and the effect it has is essential for understanding the magical worldview as a religious phenomenon as “it evokes the weird atmosphere of mystery, in which things have power, in which things are more than they are and hold out to man danger and promise at the same time.”[1] This atmosphere of mystery is essential for magic to form within a worldview. Although, according to Van Baal, mystery has become a rarity in Western cultures, in non-Western cultures mystery is intertwined with the uncertainty of life and it is the magical spell that evokes the participatory element in this worldview, which is crucial for magic and reinforced through myth and symbolism “as a means of expressing his experience of and against an uncertain power-charged world, which makes its mystery felt in that uncertainty.”[2] From a scholar’s perspective this can indeed be tenuous for systematic research, but this should not be understood as a negative indication, for “it is enough to know how it is driven away, we must know how the experience of mystery originates, or at least what favours its appearance.”[3] Another essential purpose that this mystery fulfils is that it eases life’s harshness, and at times pointlessness, by allowing for the presence of some mysterious yet intentional agency, which implies that through magical means those participating in a magical worldview believe that through spells they might be able to control this.

However, despite those who participate in a magical worldview expressing their experience of the world in terms of mystery, they do not merely just confine themselves to this. On the contrary this mystery is addressed through myth and symbol, and then spells are cast in the endeavour that this addressing will cause an effect, an effect though that is not always expected to yield any tangible result. This though, according to Van Baal, is irrelevant as

In magic a result is expected, though not in the pragmatic sphere – at least not in the first instance, for a magic act is no substitute for a technical one – but in the atmosphere of mystery and intentionality surrounding the object… By giving expression to the mystery and the arbitrariness of the object by the secret language and acts applied, man himself has become part of that mysterious atmosphere, has penetrated it and has perceived something of what lies behind the object. As long as that mystery was outside him and he was outside it, it was dangerous, but it becomes manageable as soon as he himself enters that atmosphere by acting mysteriously too.[4]

Van Baal concluded that despite all reassurance, this reassurance must be accompanied by an effect initiated by the spell, even though this magical act does not replace the technical one. What is essential here is that it connects the practitioner with the aura of mystery that permeates through the magical worldview, and for Van Baal, this in itself has been an obstacle in the path of further understanding the nature and technology of magic.

How then, with magic being such a vague phenomenon, along with insufficient and limited effects attributed to it, has it maintained itself long after the rise of scientific empiricism and Western rational paradigms? In response to this, Van Baal wrote,

There is only one possible answer to this… because magic is such an important religious phenomenon. It permits people to live not in a cold world of cause and effect but in a world which, for all its faults, is one of which one may expect anything.[5]


[1] Jan Van Baal, ‘Magic as a Religious Phenomenon’, in Higher Education and Research in the Netherlands, VII. 3/4, 1963, page 16.
[2] Jan Van Baal, ‘Magic as a Religious Phenomenon’, in Higher Education and Research in the Netherlands, VII. 3/4, 1963, page 16.
[3] Jan Van Baal, ‘Magic as a Religious Phenomenon’, in Higher Education and Research in the Netherlands, VII. 3/4, 1963, page 17.
[4] Jan Van Baal, ‘Magic as a Religious Phenomenon’, in Higher Education and Research in the Netherlands, VII. 3/4, 1963, page 19.
[5] Jan Van Baal, ‘Magic as a Religious Phenomenon’, in Higher Education and Research in the Netherlands, VII. 3/4, 1963, page 19.

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