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“Magic” was widely acknowledged in the old world. Is there any evidence or record of such magic being used in a public, verifiable setting at any point in history? Why did so many people buy into this idea?(r/history)
Medievalist here! Sure there were scams, and mystical thinking promoted by the church, but there is another, better answer to your question.
>I just wonder how the belief in magic could be so widespread if nobody personally witnessed such acts.
I’m going to say something dicey, then explain the metaphor. I’ll wax poetic too (in retrospect). Please bear with me.
How do magnets work?
Take a moment and watch this, Ill wait:
Done? Great! Now you have a pretty good sense of how much seemingly obvious, but not-self-evident scientific knowledge we have today that we take for granted.
Here’s the book you should read on the topic of how we know what we know, and how they did not know those things – and were bothered enough by it that they invented the ways that we rely on to know what we so smugly know now:
Now, for the poetic part – lets go back to the middle ages. Not the middle ages that’s shrouded in “darkness” or “superstition” or anything like. Just a middle ages in which we have not yet invented a number of very important, but seemingly obvious philosophical ideas.
So, they knew that, for example, temperature affected the world around them. They could tell that temperature was real because it could make swords stick in scabbards, or water freeze, or people die… but temperature wasn’t really a thing you could hold or look at. It was this invisible force that’s all around you and you just – sort of – feel it.
They knew that time passed, although realistically there was no proof of this. Time does not make candles go out – fire does. Time does not make an hourglass settle, gravity does (not universal gravitation, the theory, the regular old “things fall” gravity). Time is just something that you felt pass.
They knew that people could get sick, and sickness made people do strange things, and it moved around between people, but sickness was not really a force you could observe. You could only see its effects in other, and you just feel it in yourself.
They knew that people could be angry. Anger makes people do strange things. Anger tends to move around and spread among people, and it can’t be touched or held, but you feel it. It’s clearly different from illness.. but how?
They knew magnets could attract metals, and they knew you could not see or touch the magnetism, but you can feel it and see its effects. Magnets do not attract mercury…. so only some metals, sometimes.
They knew that it was always coldest when the Sun was in Saggitarius and Capricorn. They couldn’t see these constellations influence the earth, but like clockwork they did. When the Sun is in Ares, the summer is near.
They know of tides, but no mechanism that ties the moon to the earth (without universal gravitation). They knew of hate, of faith, of virtue, and the ways these different things would make people act differently. They knew birds could fly, and so could insects, and so could balloons, and could burning paper… but not how.
So why is it strange to believe that drinking a potion made of the sweat of a man with the pox could give you a fever, but drinking one made from a man who murdered wouldn’t make you angry?
If rocks can make one another float in the air – if lights can appear in the cold sky at night – if a healthy, happy, wealthy, faithful man can collapse to the ground in an instant and die with no warning, how much further is magic from that?
Then pile on the fraud, the real but not understood chemical processes (why should lemon juice and finely powdered oyster shell begin to fizz when mixed, but lemon juice and finely powdered bone do not?), the fact that news traveled slowly, the population was illiterate and could not research things for themselves.
How did Pope Leo I turn back the Huns?
Truth be told – we still believe in magic, just different magic – just different things we think we know without knowing how. Have you seen a 4-year-old walk up to a TV that isn’t on and try to touch the screen to wake it up? Have you seen a kid pick up literally any square object and try to talk to it?
Have you ever tried to help someone understand why it is easy to get their phone to automatically tag their photo with their location, but impossible to get it to tag their photo by whether or not it is a picture of a bird?
Why can’t I take a pill to get over this cold? Hey, this vitamin C totally helped me get over this cold! Hey, you shouldn’t eat unnatural food, it’s full of toxins (not pathogens, not viruses, not cyanide – toxins).
Magic is often just the over-application of understood systems to areas of reality where they do not apply.