Magic is a varietal word, and it changes meaning depending on who you ask. To some, it connotes a Houdini-esque street performer who can spontaneously pull a rabbit from their hat. To others, a fictitious manifestation of the imagination, like something out of Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings. Or, in cases of the extreme, evil conjurings of dark spirits, usually associated with paganism or the anti-Christ. Yet, despite the extreme differences of these definitions, they almost always connotate with the land of make-believe, or put more simply, of something that doesn’t actually exist.
Yet (speaking as someone with both an over-active imagination and the overwhelming desire for the extraordinary), I have reason to believe that magic once did exist, and that humanity now finds itself in a magic-less world. The outrageousness of this claim, of course, is not lost on me. But if my magic-seeking endeavours have taught me anything, it’s that you have to take risks to get to the truth of the world as you’ve come to know it, or as you don’t.
To me, magic is subjective, according to those who perceive it. Though, for argument’s sake, let’s assume it means anything out of the ordinary – specifically, the supernatural. This thought originally occurred tome while looking at medieval maps, though it wasn’t the incomprehensible depictions of modern countries that caught my eye, but rather the detailed drawings of mythical beasts and monsters.
Of course, the standard logical counter-argument to this would passionately explain that these drawings are the product of an ignorant time, not yet well-acquainted with the greater natural world. However, it’s easy to brush off an inaccurate sketch of a dolphin, but it’s another to wholly dismiss drawings that don’t appear to resemble any real-life animals, like many-headed beasts with tentacles and glowing eyes. While humankind has only discovered about 10% of the ocean itself, there are no creatures in our modern world that resemble these more outlandish drawings in the slightest.
Though what’s more, sea monsters and mythical beasts exist across cultures and continents as very real, very easily encountered dangers of the ancient world. Dragons appear in Western and Eastern folklore alike, almost always in the same manner as a winged, fire-breathing, gigantic reptilian creatures. The word ‘dragon’ first came into the English language in the 13thcentury from the Old French word of the same spelling, derived from the Roman word meaning ‘huge serpent’.
In medieval Europe, dragons dominated many folktales and legends, something that makes the creature such a recognisable facet of the period. Usually, they were depicted in religious contexts, such as the Bishop of Paris, Marcellus, who supposedly expelled a dragon out of the city, and Saint George, famous for slaying another beastly, fire-breathing dragon.
Dragons, however, in medieval contexts were usually literary devices to symbolise the Devil himself, understandable given their reptilian form. They appeared in early renditions of fables and bedtime stories, serving the educational purpose of the ultimate antithesis of Christian values and morals.
Oddly enough, I feel that religion, in a large way, connects to magic, or even to the death of it. From a religious point of view, magic strays far from the ideology of childhood and is more often associated with heresy. After all, witch trials were a widespread phenomenon throughout both Europe and America, curating a fear of all things that strayed from traditional Christianity. It is notable that most traditional magical icons, such as witches and, as previously mentioned, dragons, have been associated with the Deviland his hellish crusade on earth.
However, I also sometimes feel that, ironically, religion might be the closest thing human beings have to modern magic. And this is not exclusive to the major monotheistic religions, either. Historically, Greek and Roman myths and legend also conjure the same steadfast belief in supernatural magical elements as evidenced in that of the medieval period.
In Ancient Greece, citizens worshipped roughly 3,000 gods and deities, all associated with specific aspects of life, from more traditional natural elements like the sea, to more abstract ones like war (and even magic itself). Temples were erected in their honour, sacrifices were made to obtain their favour, and, overall, life was centred around the constant belief that at any moment, at any time, everyday citizens could come face to face with one of them. In fact, hospitality was such an integral part of Greek culture for this specific reason – you never knew who you would stumble across and what identity they could be concealing.
Though it is notable to consider that although we, as 21st century observers, can equate ancient Greek religion with magic, for the ancient Greeks, it was completely real. Spontaneous blessings, random spawns of half-god half-mortals, and fear of setting off the gods’ cataclysmic rages were all completely normal aspects of life. Yet some may argue that, similarly, the spontaneous transition of turning Eucharistic wafers into the body of Christ himself could also be considered a form of magic.
So many fundamental beliefs of popular religions align with qualities of the supernatural, though even Biblical stories also provide proof of a modern-day post-magic world. Just like the gods no longer summon everyday people to take off on maritime journeys, angels no longer descend from the skies to send people on missions from God. But hardly anyone would describe the beliefs of Christianity as magic, and maybe that’s because so many people actively believe in them.
Maybe religion is the culprit for our magic-less world, after all. Maybe mixed in with all of the innocent accused, too many witches were burned at the stake. Maybe the gods and goddesses all died when the Roman empire fell. Maybe something only becomes magical when it ceases to exist. Because if God hangs over all of our heads, despite being completely invisible to his worshippers, he is still real. Though I feel it is something much more abstract than religion. Perhaps the essence of being magical is instead rooted in a lack of existence. Therefore, magic never really exists as the tangible glittering phenomenon that we read about in books, but rather, comes to life as a concept after widespread belief in something fades.
In everyday life, these traces of magic still exist, albeit burdened by a scientific explanation. Some natural phenomena, once justified by the rage of a vengeful god or punishment for wrongdoings, have figuratively lost their magic. The way the sky turns green before a tornado, rainbows that appear after a rainstorm, and the magnetic pull of the aurora borealis— All of these things feel supernatural, but because we live in an age of extensive knowledge, they are scientifically glossed over.
Perhaps even sadder than the death of magic is simply the heady fog of the mundane that seems to cover every aspect of life. With time comes an advance in knowledge, and with it, the emergence of what is real and what isn’t. It is absolutely devastating to live in a magic-less world. Especially if you want to believe so badly that everything that you know, really is something more: the rustle in the bushes, the strange feeling you get when you go for solitary walks, the view of the moon from outside of your window. It’s hard to think that there isn’t something greater than this, but it’s even more disconcerting to think that the world was once full of magic, and that we now live in the uninteresting aftermath.
But, nonetheless, because human beings are creatures of indomitable spirit, we continuously seek the extraordinary even in a completely ordinary world. We jump at the opportunity to have our fortune told. We watch paranormal investigation television shows with baited breath. We cling to magic as a lifeline, because without the possibility of greatness, life as it is would be too monotonous to bear.
Magic is reserved for the scrappy underdog. It’s the ultimate destabiliser to the world as we know it. It makes us question reality and the natural order of things. And while the majority of the population would wholeheartedly agree in the nonexistence of magic, it is for that very reason that it still holds meaning. Very few phenomena in the world lack a complete scientific explanation, and where there is a lack of clarity, some magic may still exist. We have to ask ourselves, is magic really dead? There may not be a straightforward answer, but that ambiguity is precisely why it may still be alive, after all.