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The Golden Bough
James George Frazer
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Chapter 4. Magic and Religion
THE examples collected in the last chapter may suffice to illustrate the general principles
of sympathetic magic in its two branches, to which we have given the names of
Homoeopathic and Contagious respectively. In some cases of magic which have come
before us we have seen that the operation of spirits is assumed, and that an attempt is
made to win their favour by prayer and sacrifice. But these cases are on the whole
exceptional; they exhibit magic tinged and alloyed with religion. Wherever sympathetic
magic occurs in its pure unadulterated form, it assumes that in nature one event follows
another necessarily and invariably without the intervention of any spiritual or personal
agency. Thus its fundamental conception is identical with that of modern science;
underlying the whole system is a faith, implicit but real and firm, in the order and
uniformity of nature. The magician does not doubt that the same causes will always
produce the same effects, that the performance of the proper ceremony, accompanied by
the appropriate spell, will inevitably be attended by the desired result, unless, indeed, his
incantations should chance to be thwarted and foiled by the more potent charms of
another sorcerer. He supplicates no higher power: he sues the favour of no fickle and
wayward being: he abases himself before no awful deity. Yet his power, great as he
believes it to be, is by no means arbitrary and unlimited. He can wield it only so long as
he strictly conforms to the rules of his art, or to what may be called the laws of nature as
conceived by him. To neglect these rules, to break these laws in the smallest particular, is
to incur failure, and may even expose the unskilful practitioner himself to the utmost
peril. If he claims a sovereignty over nature, it is a constitutional sovereignty rigorously
limited in its scope and exercised in exact conformity with ancient usage. Thus the
analogy between the magical and the scientific conceptions of the world is close. In both
of them the succession of events is assumed to be perfectly regular and certain, being
determined by immutable laws, the operation of which can be foreseen and calculated
precisely; the elements of caprice, of chance, and of accident are banished from the
course of nature. Both of them open up a seemingly boundless vista of possibilities to
him who knows the causes of things and can touch the secret springs that set in motion
the vast and intricate mechanism of the world. Hence the strong attraction which magic
and science alike have exercised on the human mind; hence the powerful stimulus that
both have given to the pursuit of knowledge. They lure the weary enquirer, the footsore
seeker, on through the wilderness of disappointment in the present by their endless
promises of the future: they take him up to the top of an exceeding high mountain and
show him, beyond the dark clouds and rolling mists at his feet, a vision of the celestial
city, far off, it may be, but radiant with unearthly splendour, bathed in the light of
The fatal flaw of magic lies not in its general assumption of a sequence of events
determined by law, but in its total misconception of the nature of the particular laws
which govern that sequence. If we analyse the various cases of sympathetic magic which
have been passed in review in the preceding pages, and which may be taken as fair
samples of the bulk, we shall find, as I have already indicated, that they are all mistaken
applications of one or other of two great fundamental laws of thought, namely, the