Magic happens when someone appears to cause something to occur that seems to be outside of the known principles of normal human perception. Thus, when a law such as that of gravity is broken or when a person is cut in half or disappears, we usually say that it is because of magic. But African magic also works in ways that annihilate the known or understood law and generate a new perception. Magic is the understanding of concealed laws in relationship to what is known. Since the earliest of times, Africans have been using these usually hidden laws to convince the masses of some divine intervention in the lives of the people.
There are several ways of viewing magic. From the standpoint of an African philosophy, it assists in the psychologizing of another person to feel, say, or see whatever one wants him or her to experience. You may also see magic as a social agent where people actually see what is taking place because a priest-magician controls the forces of nature. This means that the priest-magician must study the forms of energy in the universe, understand the nature of climate, recognize the functions and forms of material objects, and appreciate how the manipulation of these forces impacts the human mind. Thus, as the intellect of a divinity or spirit, the operator becomes a priest serving the purposes of the spirit.
Every conceivable human emotion and capability is open to the priest at the moment of his highest intensity. This energy and control over materials and minds is not limited to males; many of the most powerful operators of this form of magic are women. Each African ethnic group appears to have someone who has special spiritual insights capable of leading them to the possession that brings with it the ability to be rainmaker or otherwise agent of the transformation of material conditions. The longevity of a person with such magical powers would be nothing if the person could not perform the deed. Thus, in actuality, the priest-magician or priestess-magician had to demonstrate the ability to repeat the miracle of rainmaking each time it was needed or be discredited before the people.
European missionaries during the 18th and 19th centuries invented fanciful tales about African magic based on their own Christian beliefs. Many thought that the Africans simply waited until they saw the rain approaching and then held ceremonies to make it come. However, this is an example of cultural arrogance and the ignorance of African philosophy. Most kings would be able to detect any approaching rains, and indeed, the people would question the priestly magic if they saw an easily detectable ruse.
However, the magicians, as wise and intelligent beings, could know something about nature that was not readily visible to the ordinary, untrained, and uninitiated person. This is definitely so in the case of personal experiences of people who have witnessed the operation of magic in various societies. For example, among the Susu, Vai, Fon, Ijaw, Asante, and other West African people, one finds many examples of magicians who are actually specially trained priests who have powers to transform reality. There are eyewitnesses to priests being seen in two places simultaneously. A priest can be seen in one place, according to an eyewitness, and be talking to a person in another place, 50 miles away. Some priests have exhibited feats of invisibility, lévitation, walking on fire, pulling snakes from their throats, and being cut with knives and recovering from the bloody wounds within minutes.
These activities are not done to impress or for show; they are integral parts of the pattern of the religious philosophy of African people. As it was in the days when people understood that Africans were masters of the material universe, for example, even in the Old Testament when it was thought that the Egyptians practiced magic, so it is in many traditional African societies. Christians' and Muslims' magic is based on the ability of their religions to make old things new or to transform a person's life; therefore African religion has the ability to transform all material things.
This is the source of the discourses on African magic. Almost all traditional societies speak of these forces and energies with awe because they relate to the ability of the ancestral and other spirits to make themselves manifest on the Earth if certain incantations, ritual fires, ceremonies of purification, and appeals are made in earnest.



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Further Reading

  • Cagnolo, C. (1933). The Akikuya, Their Customs, Traditions and Folklore. Nyeri, Kenya: Mission Printing School.
  • Field, M. (1937). Religion and Medicine of the Ga. London: Oxford University Press.
  • Scheub, H. (2000). A Dictionary of African Mythology. New York: Oxford University Press.