Human beings have always been trying to affect the world, to have an influence in the random events, and to make these events less fortuitous, but connected in his actions.
The observation of “primitive” peoples has allowed us to understand how the human being of another culture seeks to impose its influence on the world.
Today we try to do it with scientific thought, which has built laws that describe reality well, laws that provide us with a valid tool to prevent some unwanted events. Despite this, we very often rely on magical practices that we call superstition.
The people of the prescientific world have not lived at the mercy of chance, but have used practices and rituals, which today may seem rather absurd, with the aim of perceiving and living a controllable and manageable world.
These behaviours and rituals could be used to attract a desired event or to prevent an unwanted event.
prevent the danger
In the Kei Islands in Eastern Indonesia the people who were preparing a ship to leave for a distant place, whit the aim to avoid the dangers of the sea, they before leaving cover the site where the boat lay on the sand with palm trees, and that place became sacred.
No one could get close before the ship returned, otherwise the travelling men would be in great danger.
The ancient Hindus had a precise ceremony to treat a person from jaundice, a disease that makes the skin of the person yellow. The ritual was intended to bring back the person’s rosy tone and to send away the yellow colour, a symptom of an ill that could lead to death.
The patient must drink water full of hair, poured on the mantle of a red bull. Subsequently, three yellow birds were placed at the foot of the sick person’s bed. Through a ceremony, they will absorb the yellow colour of the patient and allow him to heal.
The idea that a bird could cure jaundice was also widespread in the Greeks, so much so that Plutarch describes the healing properties of the woodcock, properties that resided in his yellow eye, capable of attracting the yellow of the jaundiced patient to himself.
Avoid future dangers
The Eskimo children were forbidden to play “tangle”, a game of intertwining fingers and ropes, because once they grew up, they could get stuck with the harpoon rope during the whale hunt, because of this game done in the past.
The Toraja of Indonesia think that no one can stop on the entrance stairs of a house where there is a pregnant woman, because lingering there may cause the child to linger in childbirth, and therefore difficulty in the next birth.
Similar practices in various parts of the world can serve to avoid dangers, or even, as we have said, to make something desired to happen.
Causing injury to the enemy
The natives of south-eastern Australia believe they can harm a man by raging with a sharp material in his imprint left on the ground. Many rheumatic pains in the feet are thus explained both by these populations and by some European communities at the end of the 1800s (Germany, France, Yugoslavia).
These customs of the populations of different parts of the world all have in common an attempt to determine an effect through a cause caused by themselves.
The world in the absence of similar practices becomes unmanageable, especially in risky experiences. Experiencing danger as passive actors, without being able to do anything, means experiencing the fear of feeling completely at the mercy of chance and therefore of the unknown. As a result, the human being in different cultures has created various ways of dealing with the case and making it less dangerous.
the search for meaning
The practices I have told may seem rather absurd, but they describe well a way of functioning that belongs to our mind
We continually seek causes for world events, we seek meanings where it seems complicated to find, thinking that every event is an effect of a cause.
Finding motivations for the most diverse events of reality means dealing with the unknown, replacing what is unknown with an underlying law that describes its operation.
It is what seeks to do the magic of “primitive” peoples: to fill the unknown through the ritual capable of giving meaning to the experience.
There are infinite things in the world that have no meaning, but for the human being it is not so, because for us everything means.
We human beings are producers of meanings, and crisis time is moments in which we can no longer find useful meanings for our experience.
Magic and psychology have in common the attempt to be a tool to respond to this human need for meaning.
The symptoms of psychological distress in this perspective are signs to signify, and they become a tool to overcome the crisis, rather than the direct expression of a disease or disorder to be treated.
- James Frazer, Il ramo d’oro. Studio sulla magia e la religione, Torino, Bollati Boringhieri, 1990.
- Ernesto DE MARTINO, Il mondo magico, Prolegomeni a una storia del magismo, Einaudi, Torino, 1948.