Why We Still Turn to Magic in Difficult Times 

6 minute read
Stanmore is a specialist in medieval and early modern magic. She is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Exeter, UK, the first university to offer a master’s degree in occult history. She has been interviewed on BBC Radio and TV. Cunning Folk is her first book for general readers

In 1552, the Protestant divine Hugh Latimer preached a sermon in Lincolnshire, England. “When we be in trouble,” he said, “or sickness, or lose any thing, we run hither and thither to wizards or sorcerers, whom we call wise men… seeking aid and comfort at their hands.” Latimer saw this reliance on magic as a problem because it caused supposedly good Christians to turn their backs on God. The preacher had a point: in his day, there was a spell to solve nearly every problem, and a whole army of cunning folk willing to sell said spells to desperate clients. But Latimer was fighting a losing battle.

No matter how many sermons he, and others like him, dedicated to stamping such practices out, magic and mysticism would resurface in times of crisis. While Latimer despaired of Tudor people consulting cunning folk, the men and women themselves were using every method at their disposal to get through the day. One 16th century cunning woman, Joan Tyrry, consulted fairies to diagnose child illnesses. The 15th century vicar-cum-magician William Dardus found stolen goods by summoning spirits. The same year that Latimer complained, a servant named Joan Hall bought a spell to help her procure a “rich marriage.” As time went on, this became more acute in times of widespread danger: when crops failed or war broke out, the impulse to use magic got all the more powerful. As we will see, this is true of the modern day as much as it was the Early Modern era.

This belief in magic and the supernatural didn’t die out as time progressed: In fact, it survives into the present day. There is an old assumption that belief in magic faded away in the Enlightenment, shepherding a new age dominated by rational decision-making and scientific progress. It’s true that times have changed, but perhaps not as much as we might expect. Instead, it seems that when things get tough, we lapse into the same habits as our forebears.

The most striking example from recent times is the COVID-19 pandemic. As the new virus swept the globe, demand for psychics and fortune-tellers roe in tandem with infection rates. From the United States to Thailand, from India to the United Kingdom, people sought answers and comfort from supernatural sources while the world felt like it had turned upside down. The online directory Yelp reported a 74% increase in searches for mediums in 2020. Some psychics even confessed to turning away clients as they were unable to cope with the demand. People generally asked the same questions: about the health of themselves and their loved ones; whether they would survive financially, and when the chaos would end.

The same questions are asked in all times of stress, both personal and national. Google Trends shows searches for psychics peaked in the final weeks before the 2016 Brexit vote, and around key dates during the country’s exit from the European Union (there’s also a small but significant bump in searchers googling ‘money spell’). Mediums also saw an upsurge in business during the financial crash of 2008 (IBISWorld declared fortune-telling one of the few “recession proof” industries); and spiritualism and seances famously gained popularity during the First and Second World Wars. In my period of interest, there was a boom in astrology in 1640s England, when Britain was in the throes of civil war. Much like in modern spates of social upheaval, astrologers like the Londoner William Lillie were consulted about who might flounder and who survive, and when and how the trauma would end.

At first glance, turning to a medium can look like an act of surrender: of accepting that we are not the masters of our fates. But that is rarely the case. Rather, magic becomes one tool in our arsenal for coping. Knowing the future is one aspect of this; another is casting spells to bring about a desired outcome. We saw this happen in modern times with the “Witches against Trump” movement (and the prayer circles organised to counter the witches’ spells). What’s fascinating, though, is that those taking part in such rituals didn’t just rely on supernatural skills: they wove them into a wider blanket of action that encompassed things like campaigning and voting. This is an often overlooked aspect of magic—it’s not the same as mere wishful thinking. It is an active effort to take control of the situation, and as such most magical practitioners will use the supernatural alongside other methods to make their lives better. This is true of the past as well—Tyrry, the fairy healer, administered well-chosen herbs to her patients alongside her incantations; Dardus used his position as a priest to investigate his parishioners. Ultimately, magic has always been one tool among many in people’s arsenals to make life bearable.

Read More: What We Get Wrong About Manifesting

Of course, there is a darker side to magic in times of crisis. Difficult situations can bring out the best and worst in people, especially when fear sets in. Soldiers bought protective amulets during the English Civil War, but they also accused neighbours of malevolent witchcraft. The stress caused by the social divisions and trauma of the war led to the single biggest witch hunt in English history, with three hundred accused and over 100 executed. On this side of the Atlantic, the Salem Witch Trials saw over 200 people accused and at least 20 deaths. People’s fears during the COVID-19 pandemic also led to terrible acts: the United Nations reported an increase in ritualised murder as some people’s body parts were harvested for magical cures.

It's easy to think that we’re different to our ancestors. But when things go wrong, for good or ill, we still make room for magic in our lives. It’s one of several strategies people use to survive, and it is, in itself, not a bad thing. In fact, our reliance on magical thinking is something fundamentally human that deserves to be recognised. We are creatures who need hope and a feeling of control. Perhaps magic is just a mental and spiritual crutch—but it’s a surprisingly powerful and constant one.

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