Summoning, Good vs. Bad, and a Book Review

Gosden, Chris. Magic: A history From Alchemy to Witchcraft From the Ice Ages to the Present. (Farrer, Strauss and Giroux, 2020) Kindle Edition.

So, one thing readers of the Familiars series might notice is that the light-sided characters generally do not call up any spirits, Elementals aside. And then they ask, not coerce if at all possible (André, Lelia and the other shadow workers may coerce if forced to by circumstances, but they don’t like it.) One of the things that raises eyebrows among good to neutral magic workers is when someone compels Elementals or other things. Returning an accidental summoning, or banishing a spirit that should not be present (like F. X. Chiu delegated to the Buddhist priests), comes under a different heading.

When a magic worker starts forcing other beings to do his will, that suggests that a problem is developing that needs to be dealt with, if only so the person doesn’t get chomped and make/leave a mess for other people to deal with (like Lelia and F. X. got to do.)

I was thinking about this in part because of working out some things for M-Familiar, and in part because of a book I just finished reading. Well, OK, I read all but the last chapter, and skimmed that. Chris Gosden just released a history of magic, what I’d call an intellectual history, going back to the earliest identifiable evidence of ritual and “shamanism,” and continuing through to modern practices such as Wicca and some of the faux Native American* groups.  The book is well written and provides a very good overview of magic, taking the beliefs and practices seriously and suggesting that it is one of three equally legitimate responses to the world. The other two are religion (priests, belief in the over-arching power of one or more deities, emphasis on ritual and creeds) and science. The three are not entirely unrelated, nor are they “wrong” approaches. In some cases they were complementary, like how alchemy led to chemistry, and astrology contributed to astronomy and physics.

Gosden is careful with defining terms, and takes the practice of magic seriously. This is an interesting view, and one that makes a lot of sense, especially for places where magic is still a vital part of society. He also points out what we don’t know, and can’t know, and tries to avoid making major assumptions about the mentality of pre-modern people. I appreciate that. His work is the strongest when he’s drawing on archaeology and observational anthropology. He also spends a decent amount of space on non-Western traditions, which is a nice change.

I’d have liked more on folk magic in Europe, and on the Danube Valley culture, but that’s my “turf” so to speak, and there are a lot of other sources for those topics. This is an overview, so he’s trying to cover a lot of ground without turning the book into The Golden Bough 2.0 [12 fat volumes in the final version].

However, in the last chapter Gosden slides too far into the woo for my preferences. He starts looking at subatomic physics and animism, and if perhaps the entire universe is one, and how a return to the idea that inanimate objects might have spirits or be persons could help us save the planet’s environment and tone down the west’s greed and . . . I’ve read a lot of those arguments before. And it collides with Christianity in ways that I find very uncomfortable. Readers of this blog know that I’ve had some personal experiences that make me very, very leery of “spirits of place” and certain meditation practices that open the mind to . . . just inspiration and the subconscious, one hopes, but sometimes other things sneak in. The last chapter set off some of those internal alarms, so I skimmed it.

For readers who do not believe in magic in any form, this is still a very useful book. It treats magic as an intellectual and social good, and shows how magic can be a logical and needed response to social tensions and accidents, especially in cultures where there are no random bad happenings. Why did so-and-so get killed by a collapsing building? Because white ants at the foundation. Why did they eat the foundation? Because a wizard sent them. Or how to defuse problems between people and families in a community – have an acknowledged neutral party and accepted rituals and practices to determine guilt and administer justice. There’s a logic in that sort of magic, and it serves society.

I’d recommend the book for someone looking for a non-academic overview of magic that takes it seriously. There are lots of good sources in the bibliography. It is easy to read, has maps and illustrations, and is a useful introduction to the field.

*Native American groups really, really do NOT like people trying to take a bit of this and a dab of that and call it “ancient Indian spirituality.” In one case, the tribal group wasn’t able to do its own rituals because so many neo-Pagan types showed up to “participate” or observe. Dream catchers and personal vision quests in private are one thing. Getting in the way of someone’s private religious observance? Don’t do it. It’s not “honoring their wisdom.” Yes, I can see why Native Americans get touchy about their beliefs.

FTC Notice: I purchased this book for my own use and received no remuneration from the author or publisher for this review.


23 thoughts on “Summoning, Good vs. Bad, and a Book Review

  1. If you want magic in your science, you need look no further than complex numbers. It is proven that complex numbers (the real and imaginary axes forming a plane) are necessary for mathematics to be complete. Yet, all our physics exists solely on the real number line. (Complex numbers are used, but only to represent phase/angle differences, which are then normalized back to real numbers.) The complex plane is infinitely larger than the (infinitely large) real number line, and far stranger. (Neutrinos appear to exist on the complex plane, which explains why they are so very, very weird.)

    There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
    Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

    • “My theorems require/ When mesons pair/ a particle that is not there./
      It is not there again today./ Please, Fermi, make it go away!”
      Poul Anderson

    • Complex numbers and physics… wow, never thought about that. Never even occurred to me that it needed to be thought about.

      Hmm… Well, speaking as a long-frustrated interstellar-SF fan, I immediately start wondering if applying complex numbers to relativity might lead to a way to bypass Einstein’s traffic cops and achieve faster-than-light travel. I want my hyperdrive, doggone it!

      • Almost certainly, it has been investigated to death.

        Please pardon the misspellings.

        Complex numbers, IIRC, are due to Hamilton. Who came up with the next step up, Quarternons, and popularized their use for a wide range of physical problems in the 19th century. Well, apparently, Grassman’s algebra was a better way of tackling the math the well predicts these physical problems. In the late 19th century, Maxwell and Heaviside used certain theories of vector algebra to express the useful model of electromagnetics, and these were not quaternon based theories. There would have still been people fighting for the quaternon side when Einstein’s relativity was taking hold.

        You may recall a piece in the conventional journalism media about some Canadian chick researching Oction models? I eventually came across a blog by a physicist discussing the precursor papers, and exactly why it was considered unnecessary and fringe.

        The complex number based physics models may have been very near fully investigated.

        • Quaternion, I think, not quarternons. I’ve encountered them when having to deal with 3D rotations that can’t be well described by Euler angles.

        • Quaternions are are mathematical model for complex numbers that can be very elegant in certain situations. It is often used in computer graphics programs, because it’s faster to compute for some effects.

          The problem with our understanding of (possible) complex physics lies in the fact that we only perceive “real number” effects. Complex physics would explain particle spin and is probably the key to understanding neutrinos and the weak force, not to mention gravity. It’s also a contender for dark matter. The problem lies in the difficulty in testing something you can’t detect directly. Some smart person will eventually come up with a clever indirect method, no doubt.

  2. The signal processing equations for neutrinos are written with F*n(i)F*, where it’s matrices are bracketed by the complex conjugate, not a complex and conjugate pair [FnF*] like regular particles and signals. Came back from judging an ISEF, looked it up, then spent a few nights trying to think it out. Concepts behind the math were more daunting.

    Ordinary signal and optical processing of the kind that make shiny boxes and screens work are enough magic, for those without the math, but more magical for those who understand.

  3. One “interesting” series based on the idea that “inanimate objects have spirits” is Chosen of the Changeling (2 books) by Greg Keyes.

    Basically, humans live their lives “at the whim” of powerful spirits.

    I doubt if Grey Keyes saw his series in that way. 😦

  4. About summonings and compulsions — I had noticed that the light-side and shadow magickers don’t normally summon spirits (except Morgana a couple of times), but I hadn’t really thought about the “don’t compel” aspect because it’s such a standard aspect of magick. In just about every system of magick I’ve encountered, requesting obedience is fine, but compelling obedience is so clearly a Dark Side thing that decent magickers don’t do it if they can possibly avoid it.

  5. You have an asterisk here: Faux Native American*
    Did you intend that to lead to a footnote?

  6. Related – just lhad a reminder about Gears and handling large raptor Familiars. After an eye appointment and the magic drops, one of the cypresses looked funny, large and light brown. Got the camera and zoomed in – a mature red-shoulder hawk, about 2 ft tall, perched at the trunk, looking in our general direction from 30 ft away. No. 4 on our local raptor list. Confirmed picture with field guide. Oh boy, thinking about lift, handle, launch and recovery of a massive bird. Understand the tail collection now.

    • Red-shouldered hawks are medium-size for raptors. Some falconers fly Golden Eagles – one of the heaviest raptors in the world, about five times as heavy as a Red-shoulder. I’d guess that falconers who handle eagles develop VERY strong arm and shoulder muscles.

  7. A discussion of prehistoric woo without Atlantis as a matriarchal/socialist utopia?
    Dude’s going to get so much hate.
    To the (very) limited extent that I understand quantum physics, it seems like those involved spend a great deal of effort in mental gymnastics to avoid Leibniz and his monads.

  8. There’s a fourth, or at least I use a four way breakdown for the professional mindsets involved.

    Priests are the profession associated with religious practices, group/public ritual. Magicians are the profession associated with magical practices, solitary/private ritual. Scientists are the profession associated with scientific practices.

    I am convinced a) that scientific and engineering practices are best understood as distinct, despite b) modern engineering educations providing training for both mindsets.

    I suspect that looking at any ABET accredited engineering curriculum will show a combination of trainings that support development as a scientist, and trainings that support development as an engineer. Not complete, of course. Engineer development seems to rely heavily on post-degree OJT. But folks with the engineering aptitude can come out with a foundation in engineering, and folks with the scientific aptitude can develop into scientists.

    Engineers are the profession associated with engineering practices, using stuff you know somehow to improve how you do a thing.

    Scientific practices are about knowing stuff, without regard to what you are doing with the knowledge.

    It looks like they might have been separate strands of practice back in prehistory, and only recently reaching the current level of overlap.

    • Perhaps you could say it more simply as:

      Scientists discover new knowledge. Engineers apply existing knowledge to practical problems.

      It’s possible for the same person to be able to do both, but it isn’t common.

      • Art of knowing versus art of doing.

        Of course, gets a little more confusing when comparing to religion and magic, because both have ways of ‘knowing’ and ‘doing’.

        • Hmm. It seems to me that the goal of religion is understanding and communicating with God(s). The goal of magic is to make the world, or carefully selected bits of it, behave the way the mage wants them to.

          Clarke’s Third Law is “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Technology, not science.

          Oh, and few religious fundamentalists have an argument with technology, while many argue passionately against certain realms of science.

          Could we draw an (admittedly rough and drastically oversimplified) analogy that religion and science are counterparts, while technology and magic are counterparts? That is, religion and science both address the “art of knowing”, while magic and technology are both about the “art of doing”?

  9. Mathematics is about patterns. Really. That’s what all math has in common, from grade school math to game theory to higher algebras to whatsoever else.

    Physics is about (some of) what we find in the world. We use mathematics to understand it, and find spooky stuff, like information theory being the dual of thermodynamics. And even in math we find spooky stuff, like the link Euler found between an infinite product whose factors each have one of the prime numbers (covering them all) and the Riemann Zeta function (via the harmonic series-long before Riemann). The first belongs to the world of discrete math, of the positive integers. The second belongs to the world of continuous functions. The connection points to a profound hidden order in the reality of numbers.

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