Behind the Crystal Ball: Magic, Science and the Occult from Antiquity Through the New Age

Behind the Crystal Ball: Magic, Science and the Occult from Antiquity Through the New Age

by Anthony F. Aveni, Anthony Aveni
     
 

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In this fascinating exploration of occult practice, Anthony Aveni takes the reader on a whirlwind tour through time and space, traveling from the ancient Tigris-Euphrates river valley to the streets of our modern-day cities. On the way, he catalogs the many ways people have used magic over the millennia in hopes of improving their lives. Consider a page from your… See more details below

Overview

In this fascinating exploration of occult practice, Anthony Aveni takes the reader on a whirlwind tour through time and space, traveling from the ancient Tigris-Euphrates river valley to the streets of our modern-day cities. On the way, he catalogs the many ways people have used magic over the millennia in hopes of improving their lives. Consider a page from your ancestors' book of spells: For a headache, pour vinegar on your door hinges. For warts, wait until the twentieth day after a new moon, rub dirt on the warts while you lie in the road, and gaze up at the moon. Or, if you prefer more modern superstitions and want to be a good pitcher, be like Texas Ranger Mike Griffin and always eat bacon the day before you take to the mound. Professor Aveni argues persuasively that we cannot separate a culture's perception of reality from its times. The ancient priests of Egypt saw the dung beetle, or scarab, as a sign of life not because they were ignorant primitives, but because they were using the available clues in the world around them to map out a greater truth. When Kabbalists sought to discover meaning through the letters in a name or an historical date, they were seeking to satisfy a very deeply held urge. The ancients sought the same goals we now obtain from science and religion - a clearer picture of humanity's place in the cosmos. How and why has Western thought and scientific inquiry diverged from magic? At a time when crystals, channeling, faith healing, earth worship, and transcendental meditation are enjoying a renaissance, the lines between science, magic, and the occult are beginning to blur once again. Comparing Harry Houdini and scientific provocateur Richard Feynman, Professor Aveni asks, "Is magic in the eye of the beholder?"

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Titles on science and spirituality are usually targeted at readers interested in new scientific paradigms. This informative but stacked-deck history of science and magic (the latter a discipline that Aveni defines broadly enough to include kundalini yoga), however, presupposes a readership that embraces a scientific-materialistic worldview that sees little or no sense in the pursuit of so-called magical practices. Aveni, who teaches astronomy and anthropology at Colgate, seems eager to understand the motives of the magically inclined, but his tone can be condescending or flippant ("the seeming mumbo-jumbo magic of Kabbalism"). He offers a whirlwind tour that covers, among other matters, the complicated cures of the ancients, the rise of alchemy in medieval times, 19th-century occultism and New Age phenomena from channeling to UFO abductions to near-death experiences. His reach is so broad that he fails to cover any one subject in significant depth, meanwhile exhibiting a lack of scale and discriminationfor instance, by following up a mention of a modern-day innovation like magnet-therapy with a discussion of the venerable practice of tai chi. Aveni does a solid job of explaining the basic principles of magic (e.g., that like cures like), and he ultimately concludes that, to its practitioners, magic is an expression of deeply held religious beliefs. In his wonderful book Conversing with the Planets, Aveni sensitively explored astronomy's roots in astrology; that sensitivity is sorely lacking here. (Aug.)
Library Journal - Library Journal
If you enjoyed Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces (Princeton Univ., 1989), you'll probably like Aveni's new work. Aveni (astronomy and anthropology, Colgate Univ.), who has appeared in episodes of Unsolved Mysteries and A & E's Ancient Mysteries and has been listed as one of the country's ten best university professors by Rolling Stone magazine, offers a whirlwind survey of occult practices from ancient Mesopotamia to the present. He explores the changing relationship throughout history among mysticism, magic, religion, and their offshoots, touching on such subjects as science, astrology, alchemy, phrenology, psychokinesis, crystals, and channeling along the way. Aveni argues that to dismiss magic as poppycock is to dismiss a large part of our past and something that satisfies a basic need of our psyche. To do so is to believe falsely that we can forget the past and live only in the present. Well written with extensive notes; recommended for public and academic libraries.James Olson, Northeastern Illinois Univ. Lib., Chicago
Gilbert Taylor
Aveni visits subjects, such as numerology and astrology, that science has dispelled rationally if not socially. For readers intrigued by the social contexts of such obscure quackery as hapatoscopy (divination of portents found in livers), he crafts an engaging set of stories. Loosely arranged chronologically, with side trips into the use of magic and miracles in Christian theology, the trail begins with Greco-Roman beliefs. After discussing Pliny's writings, Aveni describes the heyday of the occult during the Dark Ages, with its tarot cards and alchemists transmuting lead into gold. The Age of Enlightenment may have diminished, but never entirely displaced, vogues for the supernatural, which, as with enthusiasms for mesmerism and spiritual mediums, lends Victorian society a number of strange stories. With the persistence in our era of belief in paranormal phenomena and its techno-variant, UFOs, Aveni ends a presentation that definitely fills a need for libraries needing a general (and skeptical) overview of the occult.
Kirkus Reviews
For an anthropologist and astronomer, Aveni (Conversing with the Planets, 1992, etc.) displays an encouraging though sometimes excessive openness of mind about things magical in this dash through the history of Western mysticism and hokum, from the Gnostics to the alchemists to the New Age.

While he recognizes the many benign uses of magic—as religion, as ritual, as epistemology—Aveni is also far too accepting of the innumerable abuses. Pulling the usual flea-bitten rhetorical rabbits out of his hat (science is limited, magic is nonempirical, etc.), he clumsily seeks to excuse all manner of mountebanks and charlatans: "When we compare magic's by-laws to those of science, it becomes very clear why the two constitute ways of knowing that are totally at odds with one another concerning both what knowledge is valid and how that knowledge gets passed on." Yet as Aveni acknowledges, the two have sometimes become entwined. Further, he believes that as science supposedly becomes less rational (cf. quantum mechanics), it will once again meld with magic. Interestingly, while science changes constantly, magic has altered very little over the centuries, with old beliefs constantly "being rediscovered and dressed up in brand-new clothing." Though Aveni's erudition is impressively vast, he doesn't know when to rein it in, as he hies off after even the most obscure flummeries. Yet he manages to slight both non-Western magic and the history of science. In short, this is one of those works that seem both too long and too incomplete. Certainly, it is far removed from the benchmark history of mysticism, Charles Mackay's entertaining 19th- century classic, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.

Still, saw this book in half, suspend some of Aveni's credulity, and presto chango, you just might conjure up a highly readable book.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780812924152
Publisher:
Crown Publishing Group
Publication date:
07/01/1996
Edition description:
1st ed
Pages:
406
Product dimensions:
6.48(w) x 9.56(h) x 1.39(d)

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