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Reflections on Folk Magic

By Nimue Brown

I recently read Stephen Wilson’s The Magical Universe – a book cataloguing evidence of magical practice and belief in mediaeval Europe. This is not the high, learned magic of people who might self identify as sorcerers, but everyday magic. The sort of magic your typical peasant might be dabbling in. Evidently much of it intertwined with, and leaned upon Christianity. I get the impression that our mediaeval ancestors had no problem doing magic and seeing themselves as Christians. Plenty of magic in fact called on saints, priests, relics, dust from sacred places, holy water, the wafers from communion and so forth. There might well have been pagan roots, but there was a lot of Christianity in the mix too.

What struck me most was this: The entire tome could be summed up by saying that the folk magic of mediaeval Europe was about trying to cajole a hostile world into letting you live, reproduce and keep your offspring alive. This is the magic of survival. I don’t know enough to say just how highly the odds were stacked against life, but the magic described in this book suggests a belief that it was so. Magic is about getting the crops to grow, warding off storms and vermin, tackling disease, finding a mate, keeping children safe from evil influences, cursing and warding off curses, for the greater part.

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