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The Meanings of Magic

 Michael D. Bailey

Iowa State University

The establishment of a new journal titled Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft begs the question: what do these words mean? In what sense do they comprise a useful academic category or field of inquiry? The history of magic and the cultural functions it has played and continues to play in many societies have been a focus of scholarship for well over one hundred years. Grand anthropological and sociological theories developed mostly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries offer clear structures, and the classic definitions of Edward Burnett Taylor, James Frazer, Emile Durkheim, and others still reverberate through much scholarly work on this topic. While aspects of these theories remain useful, more recent studies have tended to take a much narrower approach, examining the specific forms that magic, magical rites, or witchcraft assume and the issues they create in particular periods and within particular societies. This has led to laudable focus and precision, yet it has also stifled communication between scholars working in different periods, regions, or disciplines. This journal is intended to promote such communication, and to provide a forum in which issues common to the study of magic in all contexts can be raised. Therefore, it will prove useful at the outset to present some thoughts about the significance of magic as a category, about the meanings it has carried and the approaches it has evoked, about some of the ways in which the study of magic might be advanced, and about some of the areas to which such further study might contribute.

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