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Spirits, Gods and Magic: An Introduction to the Anthropology of the Supernatural   Spirits, Gods and Magic: An Introduction to the Anthropology of the Supernatural
Jack Hunter

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Note: Formerly published as an ebook titled Why People Believe in Spirits, Gods and Magic.

Across the globe and through time, diverse cultures have developed elaborate systems for understanding and interacting with strange forces and invisible beings. Since the nineteenth century anthropologists have theorised about the nature of the extraordinary experiences and beliefs recounted to them by their fieldwork informants, at home and abroad.

Spirits, Gods and Magic is an introduction to the anthropology of the supernatural. The book features introductory chapters outlining key anthropological perspectives on Shamanism and Spirit Possession, Witchcraft and Magic, and Ghosts, Spirits and Gods. It also includes chapters exploring the relationship between Ethnography and the Paranormal and what the fields of Anthropology and Parapsychology can learn from each other.

With a Foreword by anthropologist Dr. Fiona Bowie and an Afterword by parapsychologist Dr. David Luke, the book makes an important contribution to inter-disciplinary paranormal studies.

An interview with Jack on Jeff Mishlove’s New Thinking Allowed can be found here.

About the author

Dr. Jack Hunter is an anthropologist exploring the borderlands of ecology, religion and the paranormal. He lives in the hills of Mid-Wales with his family. He is an Honorary Research Fellow with the Alister Hardy Religious Experience Research Centre, University of Wales Trinity Saint David and a Research Fellow with the Parapsychology Foundation, New York.  He is the founder and editor of Paranthropology: Journal of Anthropological Approaches to the Paranormal, the author of Greening the Paranormal: Exploring the Ecology of Extraordinary Experience and Engaging the Anomalous (2018). He is the editor of Strange Dimensions: A Paranthropology Anthology (2015), Damned Facts: Fortean Essays on Religion, Folklore and the Paranormal (2016), and is co-editor with Dr. David Luke of Talking With the Spirits: Ethnographies from Between the Worlds (2014).
To find out more about his work visit

Sample chapter


The branch of anthropology that is most concerned with the supernatural is the anthropology of religion, a sub-field of social and cultural anthropology. Religion has been a key concern for anthropologists since the very dawn of the discipline in the mid-nineteenth century. In light of the apparent diversity of forms that religion takes throughout the world, from the monotheism characteristic of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, to the polytheism of Hinduism and Buddhism, and all the many varieties in between, one of the first tasks facing the early anthropologists was to develop a standard definition of religion. At first glance this might seem like an easy task, but a generally accepted definition has, even today, yet to be devised. The problem lies in the complexity of the various phenomena usually categorised as religious in nature, and in understanding how all of these disparate parts relate to one another. For example, religion may be defined in terms of the beliefs of a certain people, or in terms of their practices, that is their rituals, rites and performances. Religion might also be interpreted politically and economically, or described using the language of psychology and philosophy. This complexity, combined with huge cultural variation, makes the development of an all-encompassing definition and theory of religion a particularly difficult task, which has consequently led to a plethora of scholarly perspectives.12 Over the course of this chapter we will examine several of the major definitions and theories proposed by anthropologists, sociologists and other scholars of religion, with the aim that they might help us when grappling with the main subject matter of this book, the so-called paranormal. 

Defining Religion

Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917), widely regarded as one of the founding fathers of modern anthropology, realised that any definition of religion would have to be inclusive of the broad spectrum of religious ideas present throughout the human world. Tylor was shocked to read, in the reports of pioneering explorers and missionaries, that many newly ‘discovered’ societies were described as possessing no religion at all, despite their apparent preoccupation with spirits, demons and ancestors. This neglect, he thought, arose from too narrow a definition of what religion entails, arguing that if our definition of religion is based on the notion of belief in a supreme deity, judgement after death, or the adoration of idols (which are hallmarks of both classical and contemporary European religions), the beliefs of a great many non-European people would immediately be excluded from the category of religion. To Tylor this simply did not make sense. The problem with this sort of definition was that it was based upon a particular development of religion - namely a Judeo-Christian development - and not upon religion itself. In order to counter this, Tylor defined religion, in its simplest terms, as ‘the belief in spiritual beings’ – a common trait across religions that he found ample evidence of in the ethnographic documents he read. Tylor’s definition of religion, therefore, highlighted the significance of belief, as well as the supernatural objects of these beliefs - spirits, ancestors, demons and deities.13

Another influential definition of religion was offered by Émile Durkheim (1858-1917), a pioneering sociologist and contemporary of Tylor’s, who argued that belief in spiritual beings, although common to many religions, could not be considered a minimum definition of religion because there are religious systems that do not hold such beings as centrally important to their faith. To illustrate this point Durkheim gives the example of Buddhism, which does not consider gods and spirits to be central to its beliefs (though it does not exclude them), but rather emphasises the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths as its main creed (dukkha - ‘suffering,’ samudaya - ‘craving,’ nirodha - ‘the end of suffering,’ and the Eightfold Path to end suffering). It is for this reason that Buddhism is sometimes thought of as a philosophy, rather than as a religion. Durkheim suggested, therefore, that religion could best be defined as a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to ‘sacred things’ and as beliefs and practices that unite its adherents in a ‘single moral community.’ To Durkheim, then, religion was to do with the sacred, which he defined as things set apart and surrounded by prohibitions and taboos. For Durkheim, then, the sacred did not have to include supernatural concepts or references to spirits or gods. Durkheim’s definition of religion could, for example, equally be applied to other social phenomena, as long as they were treated with a special kind of respect and separated from normal everyday life by certain prohibitions. Above all, Durkheim thought of religion as a social and communal phenomenon - that the sacred is created by humans through collective ritual. From this perspective religion is more about what people do than what they believe.14 We will hear more about the influence of Durkheim’s functionalist view of religion shortly. 

A more recent definition of religion was been proposed by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1926-2006), who suggests that religion is primarily a symbolic cultural system. For Geertz religion is a set of symbols that perform particular functions within a society. Geertz’s definition reads:

Religion is (1) a system of symbols, which (2) acts to establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.15

In considering religion as a set of symbols, Geertz shifts the focus of defining religion away from purely sociological and psychological factors (though these are also included in his definition) towards a more holistic view of the phenomenon. Geertz emphasises religion as a lived in system, comprising the world-view of its adherents, shaping their experience and interpretation of the world.

A complete survey of all the various scholarly attempts at defining religion exceeds the scope of this book, but suffice to say that any comprehensive definition of religion will have to be inclusive of a broad range of supernatural conceptualisations, address social, psychological and symbolic factors, while also emphasising the holistic, and embedded, nature of any given religious world-view in the lives of its adherents. Religion is much more than dogma, liturgy and scripture. Indeed, the scholar of religion Ninian Smart (1927-2001) identified seven key ‘dimensions’ of religion:

1. The Practical and Ritual Dimension (Ritual and Practice)
2. The Experiential and Emotional Dimension (Experiences and Emotions)
3. The Narrative Dimension (Stories)
4. The Doctrinal and Philosophical Dimension (Philosophy and Theology)
5. The Ethical and Legal Dimension (Laws)
6. The Social and Institutional Dimension (Social Functions)
7. The Material Dimension (Art and Architecture).16

This is one of the most useful frameworks for encapsulating the complexity of religion, demonstrating how the various strands and functions of religion coalesce to create something that is much more than the sum of its constituent parts, and cannot be reduced to any single one of them.

Theories for the Origins of Religion

Perhaps more pertinent to the subject of this book - the anthropology of the supernatural - than definitions of religion are the various theories that have been proposed for the origin of religion, because these theories seek to explain how and why religion arises in the first place. In his book Theories of Primitive Religion, anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard (1902-1973), divided such theories into two distinct sets: psychological theories and sociological theories, and these categories are still broadly applicable today.17 For the benefit of simplicity, then, we will look at a selection of anthropological theories for the origin of religion from within Evans-Pritchard’s framework, and will begin with the psychological theories.

1) Psychological and Cognitive Theories

As we have already seen, E.B. Tylor’s minimum definition of religion was the belief in spiritual beings. He called this belief animism - from the Latin root word anima meaning ‘soul’ - and suggested that it was from this ‘primitive’ belief in the existence of spirits that all religious ideas ultimately stemmed. Tylor suggested that the idea of supernatural beings could effectively be explained away as the misinterpretation of experiences such as dreaming and trance states. For example, Tylor argued that early humans might have mistaken their encounters with deceased acquaintances in dreams as real meetings with real people. From such experiences early humans posited the existence of a non-physical component of the person that could continue to exist after the death of the physical body, and so reach out to them in dreams. Tylor further reasoned that primitive humans expanded this idea out to other aspects of the world: attributing spirits, or souls, to animals, plants and other natural phenomena such as the wind, lightning, mountains, rivers and the sun (amongst many other natural phenomena), which often seem to possess a consciousness of their own. Tylor’s animism, therefore, suggests that supernatural beliefs arise from an attempt to make sense of unusual experiences and to explain the seemingly conscious activities of animals, plants and other natural phenomena. It is for this reason that Tylor’s theory is often described as an ‘intellectualist’ theory - religion arises out of a misguided (unscientific and irrational) attempt to make sense of the world around us.

Another quite different psychological theory of religion is the psychological functionalism of Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942). For Malinowski, supernatural beliefs developed out of a need for psychological stability in an unpredictable world. To illustrate this point Malinowski considered the performance of fertility rituals amongst the Trobriand Islanders of Papua New Guinea, with whom he conducted fieldwork. Malinowski suggests that these rituals serve the important function of reassuring the individual that they have done all that is within their power to ensure a good harvest, especially once all practical and technological methods have been applied. Malinowski is eager to point out, however, that dependence upon magic is not evidence of a lack of ‘scientific’ knowledge, but rather insists that magical rituals are complementary to empirical knowledge.18 Supernatural beliefs, according to this functionalist perspective, serve an evolutionary purpose in enabling humans to better cope with the psychological stresses of everyday life. They are, therefore, purely psychological phenomena, and might best be understood as psychological defense mechanisms.

Taking a similarly psychological stance, structuralist anthropology, as pioneered by the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss (1908-2009), seeks to understand human culture in terms of deep structures within the human mind. These structures inform the way in which we experience the world around us, and become apparent in our cultural constructs.19 The classic example of such a ‘deep structure’ is the propensity towards interpreting the world through binary oppositions: positive and negative; good and evil; light and dark; hot and cold; raw and cooked; clean and unclean, and so on. For Levi-Strauss, then, religions, and mythology more specifically, are cultural manifestations of the underlying structures of the human mind. By dissecting the religious and mythical systems that human minds have developed we can, in turn, gain access to these deep structures of consciousness. From this perspective, religious and mythological systems represent a means of understanding the world through symbols and conceptual constructs that have their roots deep within human consciousness, and are expressions, at a very fundamental level, of the way in which we categorise, make sense of, and understand the world around us.

Similarly, cognitive theories seek to understand religion as the result of innate functions within the human mind. In certain respects cognitive approaches can be seen as descendants of Tylor’s approach, which considers supernatural concepts to be the product of misunderstood but otherwise natural experiences such as sleep and trance, but they also bear important similarities to structuralist theories. One of the most influential cognitive theorists of religion is the anthropologist Stewart Guthrie, who has put forward the hypothesis that the innate human propensity for recognising patterns in random formations (for example seeing faces in the clouds), ultimately led to the belief that the world was populated by other minds similar to our own.20 This is often referred to as the hyperactive agency detection hypothesis.21 The theory essentially suggests that the ability to recognise agents (minds with intentionality) in the environment has been selected for by evolutionary processes because it allows us to spot potential predators in the wild, thus improving chances for survival. The belief in supernatural beings arose when this useful skill for detecting potentially dangerous predators was mistakenly applied to other natural phenomena that do not possess consciousness, for example drawing the conclusion that lightning must be conscious because it moves. Like Tylor’s theory, then, Guthrie’s cognitive theory emphasises the misattribution of consciousness to non-conscious natural phenomena, and like Levi-Strauss’ structuralism cognitive theories understand religion as an expression of innate processes deep within the human mind.

2) Sociological Theories

Sociological theories of religion are not concerned with the experiences of individuals as such, rather their emphasis is on the social group and the role that religion might perform within it. Compared to the psychological theories discussed above, which could be conceived a ‘bottom up’ theories (moving from the individual to society), sociological theories often present ‘top down’ perspectives (from society to the individual). Sociological theories of religion can also be broadly categorised as functionalist in that they tend to focus on understanding what it is that religion does for individuals and social groups.

Émile Durkheim’s writings are usually regarded as foundational texts in the development of sociological theories of religion. As we have already seen, Durkheim conceived of religion as a purely social phenomenon, and was not primarily concerned with trying to understand the nature of the experiences that gave rise to it (though even these he suggests are experiences of the social). For Durkheim religion, in its very essence, was a sort of social mechanism aimed at maintaining group cohesion. In other words, through providing a group of people with a distinct set of beliefs, religion enables distinctive cultures to develop with their own shared norms, values, symbols and sense of social identity. This shared identity would include, for example, belief in the same gods and performance of the same rituals, and would ultimately lead to a stronger, more unified, society.

The British anthropologist A.R. Radcliffe-Brown (1881-1955) drew on Durkheim’s sociological interpretation to develop what he termed the structural-functionalist approach to understanding social systems. According to Radcliffe-Brown’s model, human societies can be thought of as consisting of many interrelated component parts (or social systems), which combine to produce a fully functioning whole, much like a living organism.22 Social institutions, such as religion, are therefore interpreted as components in the social organism that serve to ensure that it does not fall apart. For Radcliffe-Brown it was not the beliefs of a society that were important, rather it was their rites and rituals - what people do - because it is the performance of rituals that brings the social group together. Indeed, he suggested, contrary to the approaches of psychological theorists (who tended towards the position that rituals developed from specific supernatural beliefs), that it was the performance of essential rituals (such as the burial of the dead), that were ultimately explained and given meaning by the development of supernatural beliefs. According to Radcliffe-Brown, the origins of religion can be seen in the necessary rituals performed by human groups: ritual comes first, followed by explanatory beliefs. From this perspective, then, religion is nothing more than a specialised social process with no underlying reality other than its sociological and structural efficacy. 

3) Phenomenological and Other Theories

Unlike the psychological and sociological theories outlined above, which essentially suggest that there is no underlying reality to religious and paranormal experiences (other than their psychological and sociological functions), phenomenological approaches do not jump quite so quickly to such conclusions. Indeed, phenomenological approaches often ignore, or bracket out, the question of the reality of the experience under investigation in order to focus on the experience itself. In other words, phenomenological approaches treat experience as experience, without attempting to explain it away. Such approaches place a significant emphasis on understanding what is often called religious experience, considering it an irreducible category in itself, and an essential component in understanding religious belief and practice.

Prior to the nineteenth century the term ‘religious experience’ was used primarily in a theological context. Religious experience was something that happened within the framework of established religion, and as such was not investigated by social scientists like psychologists or sociologists. The American psychologist and philosopher William James (1842-1910) was one of the first to discuss religious experience from a perspective external to theology. James considered religious experience to be a distinct class of experience that he pragmatically defined by its fruits, or the moral transformation it produces in the experiencer. He reasoned that the characteristics of ‘philosophical reasonableness and moral helpfulness,’ when resulting directly from a religious experience, should be taken as evidence in favour of defining that experience as genuinely religious in nature.

As a psychologist James was most interested in the private thoughts and feelings associated with religious experience. He did not consider religious experiences to be ‘supernatural,’ but rather a natural fact of human life. In James’ view religious belief systems developed around individuals who had encountered religious experiences directly. James took a phenomenological approach to his investigations; compiling numerous narrative accounts of religious experiences in his classic book The Varieties of Religious Experience.23 As part of his phenomenological approach, James undertook a comparative analysis of experiential narratives collected from those he considered ‘most accomplished in the religious life,’ and highlighted the similarities between their accounts of religious, spiritual and mystical experiences. He identified four key characteristics of religious experiences, suggesting that they are:

1. Ineffable - they cannot adequately be put into words.
2. Noetic - they impart knowledge, often of God or the ultimate reality.
3. Transient - they are short-lived and temporary.
4. Passive - they feel like they are coming from outside of the experiencer.

In noting these similarities James was proposing what has come to be called the ‘common core hypothesis’: the idea that there is a fairly standard kind of ‘religious experience’ that is interpreted differently according to the experiencer’s cultural background. This is an idea we will return to shortly.

Rudolph Otto (1869-1937) was a German theologian and philosopher with a particular interest in the issue of religious experience. Having travelled extensively, Otto was aware of the role of religious experience in non-Christian traditions and so had a wider perspective than many of his contemporaries in theology. Otto’s most influential contribution to the study of religious experience was his book The Idea of the Holy, first published in 1917. In the book Otto attempts to explore what he calls the non-rational element of the ‘holy,’ that is the element of the notion that is free from morality, goodness and other modern additions to the idea. Beneath this cultural baggage, Otto suggests, lies a ‘unique original feeling response, which can be in itself ethically neutral.’ Otto uses the term ‘numen,’ or ‘numinous,’ to describe this sensation. For Otto, the numinous possessed a dual nature, at once beautiful and terrifying. He referred to these two aspects as the mysterium fascinans (beautiful mystery) and the mysterium tremendum (terrifying mystery), and saw these as fundamental components of the religious experience. In distinguishing between the numinous experience and subsequent rational conceptualisations of it, Otto suggests that at its most fundamental level, religion is concerned with a particular kind of experience, and as such cannot truly be understood without an appreciation of it. 

The same might also be said of other forms of supernatural belief. David J. Hufford’s examination of the Newfoundland ‘Old Hag’ tradition (in which a person asleep in bed is assaulted by a supernatural being, often in the form of an old witch), is a classic example of a phenomenological approach to the study of supernatural beliefs and experiences.25 Hufford argued in favour of the ‘experiential source hypothesis’ as a useful tool in the study of supernatural belief traditions, suggesting that rather than being purely the product of cultural influence, supernatural beliefs often have some basis in lived human experience, regardless of whether that experience was genuinely supernatural or not. For example, the Old Hag may be explained with recourse to sleep paralysis. The Scottish folklorist and anthropologist Andrew Lang (1844-1912) argued along similar lines. Lang suggested, in contrast to Tylor’s misinterpretation theory, that supernatural beliefs might have their foundations in genuine anomalous experiences. Indeed, in his book The Making of Religion, Lang went so far as to hypothesize that paranormal experiences might have been major contributing factors in the early development of religious ideas. In other words, Lang suggested that supernatural beliefs need not be considered irrational if they were founded upon genuine paranormal experiences, rather than on misinterpreted experiences. Lang opts, therefore, for an approach that takes seriously the possibility of ontologically real supernatural phenomena and beings.26
More recently, the anthropologist Edith Turner (1921-2016) has called for an approach to the study of ritual that takes seriously the beliefs and experiences of informants when conducting ethnographic fieldwork. Following her own unusual experiences during a healing ceremony in Zambia (see Chapter Five for a detailed account), Turner concluded that in order to truly understand and appreciate a particular belief system the anthropologist must learn to ‘see what the native sees’ through a process of active and emotional participation in their belief system and rituals.27

The approaches employed by the likes of Otto, James, Lang, Hufford and Turner lead to an appreciation of the significant role of direct personal experience in the development of religious and supernatural belief systems. Unlike the psychological and sociological approaches discussed above, phenomenological theorists do not attempt to ‘explain them away’ in overly reductionist terms. The shift towards a serious appreciation of subjective experiences in anthropology was a gradual one, inspired in many cases by the personal experiences of anthropologists themselves in the field. Some notable examples will be discussed in greater detail in Chapter Five, and we will return to the development of anthropological approaches to the paranormal in Chapter Seven.


It is clear from the brief overview of theories and models presented in this chapter that the task of interpreting and understanding humanity’s supernatural beliefs is a particularly difficult one. There is a constant tension between those theorists who take a psychological approach, focusing on the experiences and thoughts of the individual, and those who take a sociological approach, with an emphasis on the function that supernatural concepts and their associated practices perform for the wider community. It seems clear, however, that each approach has something significant to offer to our understanding, but that neither taken alone is able to provide a complete explanation. The complexity of the issue at hand demands that we take a more pluralistic approach that emphasises the interaction between social and psychological functions, but that is also open to an examination of the phenomenology of the supernatural (that is how the supernatural is experienced), and the implications of such experiences. We will return to the theories discussed in this opening chapter throughout the book, as they relate to the themes of each individual chapter, and will conclude with an examination of the implications of taking the phenomenology of the supernatural seriously in the two closing chapters.

Publisher: August Night Press
Published March 2020
144 pages
Size: 6 x 9 inches
ISBN 978-1-78677-132-2
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