‘Human kind/Cannot bear very much reality,’ T S Eliot wrote in Four Quartets, the fruit of his long struggle with spiritual torment. Eliot ultimately found solace in the late-medieval Christian mysticism of Julian of Norwich, but his point still stands: what reality is and how we learn to bear it have been the defining challenges of the human condition throughout history. As Chris Gosden compellingly demonstrates in The History of Magic, humanity has been testing reality since time immemorial, using magical practices as a way of coping with the abiding human mysteries of pain, fear and grief, consciousness and memory.
This is not the magic of the conjuring trick but the magic of astrology, divination and countless other disciplines. Gosden’s thesis is that this kind of magical thinking needs to be restored to its rightful place in intellectual history as an integral part of what he calls a triple helix, along with religion and science. In his reading, these three traditions of thought have always existed to some degree, each complementing the others, each providing a different answer to that same question of what it means to be alive.
His starting point is that magic is not irrational; rather, it is a rational and logical response to the world that simply proceeds from different premises to religion and science. To make his case, he reaches as far back as the late Palaeolithic period forty thousand years ago, broadly taking