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Another realm of African religion is that of belief in magic and medicine. Belief in magic and medicine is widespread in Africa. This has been partly studied under the structures of African Traditional Religion. I will recommend that you go back and read Module 1 Unit 3 again as an introduction to this unit.


By the end of this unit you should be able to:

  1. define magic 
  2. explain the different types of magic 
  3. compare magic and religion 
  4. explain what medicine is.


3.1 Definition of Magic

Microsoft Encarta Premium Dictionary defines magic as a supposed supernatural power that makes impossible things happen or gives somebody control over the forces of nature. Magic can be subjected to various uses as again Encarta Premium says that magic is used in many cultures for healing, keeping away evil, seeking the truth, and for vengeful purposes. Robert S. Ellwood also defines magic as art of attaining objectives, acquiring knowledge, or performing works of wonder through supernatural or non-rational means. Techniques used in magic typically include chants and spells, gestures or actions that often have a symbolic relation to the desired result, and the use of substances believed to have a special relationship with the powers needed to accomplish the intended purpose. Magic is the handling of nature and bending them to man’s will to safeguard his welfare and shaping his destiny.

Magic involve at least a partial symbolic recognition of the society’s spiritual world view and of its divinities and myths. In this respect magic often merges with religion, and indeed the line between the two is frequently blurred. Religion, however, is usually regarded as the public acknowledgment of spirituality, while magic tends to be private and oriented toward power and gain by supernatural means rather than toward worship. A distinction can also be drawn between white and black magic: White magic is employed for benign ends, and black magic is used to harm others. Black magic is sometimes referred to as witchcraft or sorcery, even though many people who practice witchcraft do not seek to cause harm. Magic in the supernatural sense is different from stage magic, in which apparent magical effects are produced for entertainment through such means as sleight of hand.

3.2 Forms of Magic

Though anthropologists distinguish three types of magical practice, some scholars identify two in that they see two of the other three as overlapping. The three types of magic are as follows:

Homeopathic MagicThis type of magic operates on the principle that like begets like. It is the use of small portions of a thing to represent and affect the whole. In applying this form of magic, a magician tries to produce an effect by merely imitating it with the aid of supernatural power. Working on this principle of similarity, a person can injure or destroy an enemy by injuring or destroying an image of him believing that just as the image suffers so does the enemy.

Homeopathic magic can also be used for the benefit of the society. For example, a barren woman can be asked to carry a carved image on her back in imitation of a mother with a child. A person who has a compound fracture can be asked to produce a fowl whose leg would be broken at the same point as that of the patient. The magician then treats the wound of the fowl and performs the magical rites. As the fowl recovers so the patient recovers. In the same way, spotted leaf is used as a remedy for a spotted skin disease while twisted rings are worn on the fingers to prevent snake bites. In the case of severe drought, water is 1 (IC thrown into the air while spells and incantations are pronounced by a magician inviting rain to come down. Rain could also be invited by making a thick black smoke in imitation of rain-bearing cloud to attract rain.

Sympathetic MagicThis is the magic in which a symbolic action affects an object with which the symbol is in “sympathy” or harmony. This is used mostly in witchcraft where a doll or image can be made and with incantations be said to represent somebody and whatever is done to the image will begin to affect the person. It is also common in voodoo. For example if a pin is used to strike the doll, the person would begin to bleed and feel pain from that same spot.
Contagious MagicThis is the influencing of one thing through contact with another that is believed to be magically charged. It is believed that whatever one does to a material object that has been used by the person or that the person has come in contact with will affect that person. This type of magic is based on the principle that things that have once been associated must remain ever afterwards in contact even after they have been separated. For example, it is believed in most African communities that fingernails, hair, spittle, urine and placenta among other things can be used to harm anybody hence all these things are guarded jealously. For example, till date among the Yoruba it is the child’s father that the placenta of a child would be handed over to and he in turn will ensure that it is safely buried and keep the knowledge of the site to himself.

This type of magic is also used to the benefit of the society in that it is used for protection. For example, the teeth of a snake or lion or any other wild animal can be wrapped in leather as talisman. They then worn on the neck or the waist and these prevent such animals from attacking the wearer. Gun powder too is worn mostly by hunters as a protection against gunshot accidents.

As you read through all the different types of magic you will discover that they are almost the same thing. This is because the theoretical foundation for most magical practices is a belief in correspondences, or hidden relationships among entities within the universe, especially between human beings and the erternal world. According to this view, the application of the right colors, objects, sounds, or gestures in a given context can bring about the desired result. The theory of correspondences affirms the power of thought to confer reality on products of the imagination, particularly when these thoughts are expressed through significant symbols.

3.3 Magic and Religion Compared Similarities

  1. Both magic and religion deal with a power wholly other than humanity itself. The two recognizes the transcendental, the supernatural and the power beyond humanity. 
  2. Both magic and religion have a common root. They both arise as a consequence of humanity’s sense of need. They are the result of humanity’s attempt to deal with the mystery that surrounds their immediate physical environment. 
  3. Both religion and magic are symbolic. There are objects representing the supernatural entities in both religion and magic. Such objects in turn are endowed with magical or religious significance. 
  4. Taboos are common to both religion and magic. There are some things that must be done and some things that must be avoided for efficacy of both. 
  5. Magic and religion arise from the desire of humanity to dominate and have powers over others. When they possess such powers, fear, awe and respected are created out of the situation for them. 
  6. In summary, magic and religion both have supernatural frame of reference and appeal to man’s inadequacy and are able to give power to those who are in search of them for the purpose of dominating others. 


  1. Magic deals with non-human and molt- arbitrary order of reality while religion seeks foster idea of fellowship between human beings and God. 
  2. Magic seems to make some things work together for humanity’s good through the use of force. Apart from its public concern as in the case of rainmaking, magic at the personal level is used by the hunter, trader, students or politicians for selfish ends. Religion on the other hand is more concerned with the good of the whole community by giving sanction to common laws and norms. So religion gives inner sense of sanity, peace and self-being but magic does not provide these.
  3. Magic tends to show human beings how to obtain certain good things through their effort. Through magic, power is tapped and made use of to satisfy individual’s needs. Religion on the other hand puts power in the hands of the Divine and human beings can have communion and communication with the Divine. This is to say that religion implies trust, dependence and submission. In conclusion magic commands and religion implores. 
  4. Religion requires high moral standards on the part of its adherents. Religion holds that humanity must maintain high moral life in order to maintain communion with the Divine. Magic on the other hand would operate in spite of the moral status or ethical standard of the ones involved. 

3.4 Medicine

By medicine, we mean substances that are used in treating or preventing disease or illness. From this perspective, African sees medicine as both medicament and preventive. Medicine then is the art of using the available forces or materials of nature to prevent diseases and to restore and preserve health. In traditional understanding, medicine is closely associated with religion. This is because medicine comes directly from God and it operates through divinities and spirits.


In this unit you have studied about magic which is seen in the ability to make impossible things possible or to give someone control over the forces of nature. You have also learnt about the three forms of magic, namely: homeopathic, sympathetic and contagious magic. You were also exposed to the comparison of magic and religion and the forms of medicine in Africa.


The following are the major points you have learnt in this unit:

  1. Magic is that which makes the impossible things happen or that 
  2. which gives somebody control over the forces of nature There are three forms of magic: homeopathic, sympathetic and contagious magic. 


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