On science, magic and so on Part 1

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I was a middle age adult in 1997 when the first Harry Potter book was published. Even though I was an adult and supposed to be serious minded, I enjoyed “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” very much. I was hooked on the magical world of this literary eleven-year-old. Since then I have read every book in the series, seen every movie and have enjoyed every minute of it. So, you might imagine my delight with the latest installment in the series, “The Crimes of Grindewald”.  The adventure continues!

The Harry Potter series has not always been greeted with as much delight as I confess. Some people complain that it glorifies witchcraft and promotes an openness to evil spirits and supernatural beings. I would counter that what the series promotes is friendship, loyalty, courage, self-sacrifice and justice. These are all virtues that are evident in the main characters of the series and are the dynamic force of the series. This is what inspires the reader, and this is what he or she retains from reading the series and watching the movies. The magic is primarily a gimmick that captures the attention of the reader, like superpowers would be for Wonder Woman or Aquaman in a superhero movie.

The issue of magic comes up because of a checkered history regarding religion and magic. Over the next few weeks, I’d like to take a brief look at that history to see what implications it has for us today in the 21st century Mariana Islands.

The face of magic today for many people is that of Hogwarts school children trying to control flying Quidditch brooms, overcome fears of Bogaerts and other scary creatures, or sneaking out to the candy store with the help of a magical map. This benign, even cute, image is not what has come to mind for most people over the course of centuries and in many parts of the world.

I first went to Chuuk in 1974 as a Peace Corps Volunteer. While I was there rumors circulated that there was a conflict among several shaman of the island. They were using magic against each other and people were dying. It sounded a bit spooky and even frightening to me, though I attributed any negative effects to the power of suggestion

Many traditional societies have a shaman. This is the person with the ability to interact with the spirit world. Some can speak with ghosts. Others know traditional herbal remedies and are like pharmacists in their society. Still others know rituals that lets them accomplish a variety of goals through magic. These are practical roles in the community, for the most part, and serve important purposes. The ghost whisperer shaman provides an important counseling service.  The herbal potions shaman serves the role of the pharmacist or even the medical doctor.  Ritual specialists serve the role of the priest in the community obtaining supernatural help for members of the community. When things go well, these roles serve as a glue holding the community together.

However, as with any social institution, they can be misused and cause great damage. Several classic anthropological studies conducted in the New Guinea area document how suspicion and conflict over alleged conflicts among various shaman in the community served to rip apart the community by sewing paranoia and mistrust.

Bad blood between Christianity and magic goes back many years into Old Testament times. The Torah (first five books of the Bible) prohibits the practice of contacting the dead for advice, as well as various ritual practices common in the region. These practices were too closely associated with the Canaanite pagan religions.

The inspired Biblical authors wanted to emphasize a break with the pagan traditions. For example, scholars think that the Jewish prohibition on eating dairy and meat together, or even using the same pots for preparing them, is a reaction against a Canaanite practice in which lamb was prepared in a milk sauce as part of a religious ritual. Anything that resembled the pagan ritual practice needed to be eliminated.

While Christianity spread throughout Europe rapidly during the first millennia, it took some time to shape the hearts and minds of many people. It wasn’t until the 9th and 10th centuries that people in the Northern parts of Europe became nominally Christian. Even then, many people retained the old pagan beliefs and practices as a part of their daily lives. They might go to church on Sunday but during the week they would make offerings to nature spirits to ensure a bountiful harvest or healthy livestock. Stories of ghosts, demons, angry spirits, and malicious sorcerers were common. Traditional fairytales were much darker and scarier than the Mother Goose versions that have come down to our children today. These darker stories flowed from earlier pagan traditions. This was an era where the average lifespan in Europe and much of the world, was in the late 20s and a person achieved old age if they made it to their mid-forties. Disease was common. Death from child birth or even simple wounds that got infected were all too common. The odds were against all your children living long enough to survive childhood. If disease didn’t kill you, there was constant warfare, the danger of starvation and strenuous manual labor, if you and your family were to survive. This era is fittingly described as violent, brutish and frightening. This situation was aggravated in the 13th century when the Black Death swept over Europe and killed about a third of the population. The fear that the world was coming to an end was tangible and not unreasonable, given the scope of the death and destruction that lay before the people.

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