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Authentic, spiritual magic!

[ by Charles Cameron — from conjuring to gospel truth — third in a series ]
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Kwakiutl winter ceremonial mask, closed and open

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Here’s magic, as in my best recollection, a Pacific Northwestern shaman explained it to an anthro friend..

It’s my recollection that [Tlingit / Kwakiutl winter ceremonials] were both entertainment for the long winter nights and “schooling” for the young, and I have a vivid recall of reading somewhere a shaman’s admission to an anthro of the exact nature of the dramatic means by which the shaman’s capacity to defeat death was demonstrated.

I read this in the early eighties, but searching on the web I’ve found something that comes close — Clellan Stearns Ford’s record of Charles James Nowell’s memories in _Smoke from their fires: the life of a Kwakiutl chief_. Around p 120, there are two stories, the first about a girl who “turned the wrong way” during a dance, the second about a girl who is put in a box and burned. In both cases, the nature of the trickery is described but in the version I read all those years ago, the two stories were one — the girl who was put in a box in the fire pit and “burned to death” escapes through a false bottom to the box along a tunnel into the adjoining room, and her voice then issues as if from her ashes, via a kelp tube that goes from the tunnel to the adjoining room where she’s now standing.

She describes her descent into the sea realm, where she is chastened and eventually granted a boon to return to the tribe. A canoe sets out to fetch her, but by the time the audience sees it set out, she’s already secured by rope to the far side of the boat, and at a suitable distance is hauled aboard and brought back to shore, alive.

A child seeing this would be mightily predisposed to believing the shaman had healing powers, and by the time the ruse was revealed, that underpinning of faith is already in place.

In the Nowell version, even the adults, who “know” the deception involved, are deceived: “The fire burned and the box burned, and she was still singing inside, and then the box go up in flames, and they can see her burning there in her blue blanket, and all her relatives just cry and cry. Although they know it is not real, it looks so real they can’t help it. It was all a trick. There was a hole under the box with a tunnel leading out of the house, and the woman went out of the box and put a seal in her place wrapped in a blue blanket, and then someone sang into the fire through a kelp tube, her song. Oh, it looked real!”

One source I found recently online:

Tom McFeat, Indians of the North Pacific Coast: Studies in Selected Topics

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I would like to suggest to you that magic, if you think of it as imagic, has to do with image, and is usefully considered as another term for or related to, imagination..

There are a couple of other categoies I’d like to bring to your attention: (i) coincidences or synchronicities, which can border on (2) the miraculous, at its finest a sacred business, (3) poetry, at its most beautiful, true and good, (4) sacraments, defined as revelations of “an inward an spiritual grace” my means of an “outward and physical sign” — and (5) the Eucatastrophe as described by JRR Tolkien in his masterful essay, On Fairy-tales..

The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels — peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, selfcontained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.

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Magic: there’s more to it than advertising, but advertising may deploy it.

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