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Behind the Crystal Ball:: Magic, Science and the Occult from Antiquity Through the New Age Hardcover – July 30, 1996

2.8 out of 5 stars 5 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Anthony Aveni, who teaches astronomy and anthropology at Colgate University and is the author of a book on the astrological origins of astronomy, Conversing With the Planets: How Science and Myth Invented the Cosmos, is an interested but skeptical inquirer into the wackier realms of superstition. His assumptions are scientific, rational, and secular as he charts the history of magical and supernatural beliefs and their pseudo-scientific manifestations. The thread of his story runs from early Greece and Rome through the Dark Ages of alchemy and witchcraft to the Age of Enlightenment and on to our New Age resurgence of belief in the spirit world. From the evil eye to the crystal ball to new age healing crystals, Aveni identifies a consistent human weakness for magical solutions to life's puzzles.

From Publishers Weekly

Titles on science and spirituality are usually targeted at readers interested in new scientific paradigms. This informative but stacked-deck history of science and magic (the latter a discipline that Aveni defines broadly enough to include kundalini yoga), however, presupposes a readership that embraces a scientific-materialistic worldview that sees little or no sense in the pursuit of so-called magical practices. Aveni, who teaches astronomy and anthropology at Colgate, seems eager to understand the motives of the magically inclined, but his tone can be condescending or flippant ("the seeming mumbo-jumbo magic of Kabbalism"). He offers a whirlwind tour that covers, among other matters, the complicated cures of the ancients, the rise of alchemy in medieval times, 19th-century occultism and New Age phenomena from channeling to UFO abductions to near-death experiences. His reach is so broad that he fails to cover any one subject in significant depth, meanwhile exhibiting a lack of scale and discrimination?for instance, by following up a mention of a modern-day innovation like magnet-therapy with a discussion of the venerable practice of tai chi. Aveni does a solid job of explaining the basic principles of magic (e.g., that like cures like), and he ultimately concludes that, to its practitioners, magic is an expression of deeply held religious beliefs. In his wonderful book Conversing with the Planets, Aveni sensitively explored astronomy's roots in astrology; that sensitivity is sorely lacking here.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 406 pages
  • Publisher: Crown; 1 edition (July 30, 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0812924150
  • ISBN-13: 978-0812924152
  • Product Dimensions: 1.5 x 6.5 x 9.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 2.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #492,069 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By A Customer on July 12, 2003
Format: Paperback
Aveni takes great pains to point out the porous boundaries between magic, science and religion. For example, he demonstrates that the premise behind phrenology isn't inherently absurd. Today legitimate scientists accept that bodily shapes, proportions and symmetry broadcast information about one's overall health and especially reproductive fitness. The phrenologists in the 19th Century just carried the program farther than the evidence warranted.
Similarly, Aveni points out that the popular enthusiasm for spiritualism in the 19th Century, while clearly magical, reflected widespread dissatisfaction with the institutional religious beliefs in a society roiled up by democratic politics and cut-throat economic competition. Many dislocated people turned to spiritualism as an empirical source of information about what was "really" happening in the afterlife, instead of taking the Bible and their pastors' word for it. These people were using magic to criticize and construct alternatives to the received religious authorities.
But I think Aveni doesn't emphasize sufficiently that the human brain falls into magical modes of thinking because it finds itself having to deal with anxiety on a daily basis. A great deal of our behavior, much more than we care to admit, isn't motivated by satisfying animal needs, seeking truth, or anything else that the older rationalistic psychology would have accepted as legitimate drives. Rather much of our behavior is motivated by the desire to manage anxiety in the face of an uncertain environment, even with all our technology and wealth. Hence our natural inclinations to fall back on religious and magical modes of behavior when we confront anxiety-provoking situations.
That fault aside, I found this book fun and eye-opening.
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Format: Hardcover
While Behind the Crystal Ball may not be an in depth study of the subject, I found it to be one of those rare books, like Richard Bach's Illusions, that gives the reader completely new ways of looking at the world. While there are numerous histories of magic and the occult, Aveni differs in that he shows the overlap between science and, occasionally, established religion with magical practices. Moreover he explains how our way of separating magic from science, and or even defining what we would call "true" magic instead of stage fakery, is influenced by our common societal beliefs and how other societies define these beliefs differently.

I found this to be a book that completely rearranged my thinking, giving me completely new insights into the varying ways the common culture has looked at various magical practices though history, especially during the Renaissance and modern age.
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By A Customer on October 27, 1999
Format: Hardcover
I was surprised this 1996 book is already out of print!
The book examines different ways that man through history has been attracted to "magic," seemingly defined as "that which does not bear up under the Western scientific method."
The individual chapters on types of "magic" in history, such as alchemy and mesmerism, are interesting, although episodic. They sometimes suffer from an over-abundance of fine detail and too much direct quotation of primary and secondary sources, in what is essentially a chapter review of certain practices.
The author shines best in his chapters labeled "summaries," and in the final four chapters and epilogue where he attempts to bring it all together. He suggests that no one theory or world view explains all observations, and that perhaps multiple realities exist simultaneously.
"'There is no system of truth with which to account for all aspects of being.' ... [B]oth science and magic ... have definite tools and methods, separate technologies, contrastable rational procedures, and systematic bodies of knowledge....
"When we cast modern scientific spells upon the world in order to control it we too are engaging in a form of religious ritual, albeit one that depends more upon the worship of the book and the computer than on eliciting the power of the spoken word. Incidentally, this religion too has its fanatics....
"Are there multiple realities, other subuniverses of the mind that lie beneath the concrete, sensible world in which we place all our faith? ... Perhaps the thought planes that we perceive are all there at the same time and we spend our days and nights switching channels from one to the other.
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By LesTP on January 30, 2004
Format: Paperback
It is not often that I find a book that manages to insult my intelligence on every page, but Aveni's done it. This book makes no attempt to teach the reader anything, but only to entertain, and does a poor job of that, as well. The chapters do not present a coherent argument, but are just a bunch of random facts strung together. The arguments that the author does attempt to make are shallow and unsupported; instead of clearly laying out his points in sequence, the author relies on flowery language and repetition. In brief, I was very, very deeply disappointed by this book.
I will suggest a few alternatives. If you are interested in the history of magic and science, most good science history books include the discussions of magic, since the in the early days of civilization there was no clear distinction between one and the other.
If you are only after the history of magic, the best treatise on the subject ever is Lynn Thorndike's "History of Magic and Experimental Science" in 12 volumes - unfortunately, long out of print. Check your university library. Thorndike's writing is excellent, very lucid, very informative and thorough. Another alternative is Frazer's "The Golden Bough." It is in print and the full text is even available online at [...] The book focuses on the psychological roots of magic. The scientific side of it is somewhat obsolete, but it's a literary classic nonetheless - very well written. Both of these books are ~80 years old.
If you know a good contemporary book on the history of magic, let me know - because "Behind the crystal ball" isn't.
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