Magic: A Theory from the South, by Ernesto De Martino

Fraser Macdonald
2017 Anthropological Forum: a journal of social anthropology and comparative sociology  
To be honest, I had never heard of Ernesto de Martino prior to being asked to review Magic: A Theory from the South. I now not only feel that I had been missing out on some genuine intellectual delights, but also that my ignorance was inexcusable, such is the importance of this book in anticipating current trends within anthropological discussions of magic, witchcraft, and sorcery. Had he been working in English and not his native Italian, one has to think de Martino's stature and regard within
more » ... e and regard within anthropology would have been considerably greater, and that this work would be counted alongside other famous anthropological examinations of the occult. In this light, high praise must be tendered to both Dorothy Louise Zinn and HAU Books, the first for her meticulous translation of the original into English and the latter for their efforts in making sure such excellent studies receive their rightful, if belated, due. The book is set in Lucania/Basilicata, a region of Southern Italy not far from de Martino's own native Naples, and is the second in his Southern trilogy of ethnographic monographs. Originally published in 1957, only eight years before his death in 1965, Magic: A Theory from the South is a book brimming with vitality and depth. de Martino's focus is the 'low ceremonial magic' of the Lucanian people. The book is organised into two parts, one descriptive and the other analytical, and explores three key contexts: the place of magic in the lives of the Lucanians, the relationship of magic to Southern Catholicism, and, lastly, how these magical ideas and practices figured within and were shaped by the seventeenth-century Neapolitan version of the Anglo-French Enlightenment. Reading the first part of the book made me slightly uneasy, but in a productive way. Dispensing with the anthropological formalities of introducing the reader to the community or the fieldwork situation, de Martino instead plunges us headlong into the world of Lucanian magical ritual, where we feel somewhat out of our ontological depth. He exhaustively describes the innumerable rites and spells that the Lucanian use against 'binding', a process of being acted upon by an occult force that renders the victim literally selfless, without autonomy. Across a multitude of cultural contexts, including fertility, marriage, childrearing, and so forth, de Martino describes an 'existential regime' characterised by a deep-seated need for protection in the face of envy and jealously, with not only humans but also cats and dogs being seen as a potential threat to one's well-being (46). The rites described to ensure protection from binding are elaborate and present a curious mix of local and Catholic content, which he moves to analyse in the early stages of the second part of the book. de Martino's insightful argument is that despite 'an immense cultural distance' dividing Lucanian magic from Catholicism, these two spheres of ideation and ritual interpenetrate based on a common 'fundamental magical nucleus of the mythical horizon of the crisis and the de-historification of the negative on the exemplary level of the myth' (123). By this he means that both the original Lucanian practices and Southern Catholicism are essentially magical and share a ritual technology oriented towards dissolving singular negative instances into a broader, 'metahistorical' cultural order (or cosmology) encoded in foundational myths. From here, the latter stages of the book explore how the Lucanian world was influenced by the Enlightenment era and its presentation of 'the choice between magic and rationality,
doi:10.1080/00664677.2016.1265279 fatcat:ksqt33ppwjd2zobqgzpg4s7p7y