Inherently human: New book explores magic and witchcraft

Sun setting behind a witch holding a cat.

Release Date: January 10, 2024

Phillips Stevens, Jr.
“Magic and witchcraft are central to understanding people, and that’s what anthropology is all about. ”
Phillips Stevens, Jr., PhD, associate professor emeritus
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Phillips Stevens Jr., PhD, a University at Buffalo cultural anthropologist, says that while magic and witchcraft are both thoroughly researched topics across various academic disciplines, a new effort is needed if we’re to fully understand the nature and significance of these two occult phenomena.

Stevens’ new book, “Rethinking the Anthropology of Magic and Witchcraft: Inherently Human,” provides that fresh perspective. His sweeping examination in the recently published book demonstrates how these universal ways of thinking are instinctual aspects of evolutionary biology.

Cover of Phillips Steven's book titled "Rethinking the Anthropology of Magic and Witchcraft.".

Magic and witchcraft help explain what it means to be human, according to Stevens, associate professor emeritus in UB’s Department of Anthropology.

“These are absolutely universal beliefs in that the components that are combined in the fearsome witch of traditional societies are present in the psychologies of modernized people who no longer believe in that creature, as evidenced in fears of child-trafficking, vampiric and cannibalistic Satanists. Understanding these beliefs explains a lot about human behavior,” says Stevens.

“It is not something that’s restricted to marginal areas of societies, supported only by fringe groups. Magic and witchcraft are central to understanding people, and that’s what anthropology is all about.”

But what is magic? And what distinguishes witchcraft? Each term has resisted standardization, but Stevens works through the variants to arrive at appropriate meanings.

“I suggest that no one or no group of scholars has made a concerted effort to clearly define these terms,” he says. “Science is a cross-cultural, pan-human endeavor that can’t be tested if meanings of relevant terms vary among peers.”

Stevens defines magic as the human effort to directly affect the forces of nature through the use of symbols, words or actions without spiritual intervention. 

“When people say, ‘Go to hell,’ they’re performing something that falls under the heading of magic,” says Stevens. “Those words must be deflected or reversed.”

Anyone can learn magic, but only certain people, for unknown reasons, become witches. Witches don’t need magic. They have their own power. Witches go directly to their targets to instigate a range of unfortunate events. They can fly, transform or become invisible. Witches often share their power with an animal counterpart.

Films, television and books have created characters portrayed as good witches, and modern pagan religions identify certain people as witches, but the imaginary anti-social witch associated with the traditional system of witchcraft beliefs is always evil and motivated by negative human emotions, like envy and anger, according to Stevens.

“I also bring together the cultural beliefs and practices that work by magic,” says Stevens. “This includes sorcery, taboo, blessing, curse, and magical protection and healing.”

Witchcraft and magic, however, are not the same. Stevens says they are similar only in their innateness, which is likely a product of our evolutionary biology.

“Magical thinking is cognitive,” he says. “Witchcraft beliefs derive from visceral fears and fantasies.”

Stevens first conceptualized the new book while teaching a popular course he had developed as a UB faculty member. He started writing in the early 1990s and again in the early 2000s, but didn’t have the time to complete such a complex project.

In 2019, he retired from his faculty position and was able to devote his full-time attention to the book.

“It’s a better book because of those earlier delays,” says Stevens. “I rely heavily on neuroscience and the biology of the brain, fields that are far more advanced today than was the case decades ago.”

Stevens’ book is designed for students of anthropology, with numerous resources for students interested in further research, but it’s also written with general readers in mind.

“The most important reason for writing this book is indicated by its subtitle, ‘Inherently Human,’” says Stevens. “Over my several decades of study of and teaching anthropology, it has become clear that magic and witchcraft are manifestations of aspects of the very essence of being human.”

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