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Behind the Crystal Ball: Magic, Science and the Occult from Antiquity Through the New Age Paperback – 1 Dec 2002


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Product details

  • Paperback: 361 pages
  • Publisher: University of Colorado,Department of Fine Arts; 2nd Revised edition edition (1 Dec 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0870816713
  • ISBN-13: 978-0870816710
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 2.3 x 22.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 954,565 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By Mr. D. Butt on 28 Feb 2014
Format: Paperback
Don't buy this book at full cost; get it used (like I did) from somewhere else. Anthony Aveni does a great job of synthesizing his material into a cohesive and readable book, but he only skims the surface on many of the topics covered. Many of the questions I had and hoped that this book would answer unfortunately didn't get answered as I read through the book; Aveni's work, although easily readable, only left me frustrated with his lack of depth. For the price, the textbook by Lehmann and Myers, 'Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion' would be a much better purchase that covers Aveni's topics and so much more. If you are looking for a resource for personal or formal research, then this book is probably not for you. However, if you only want to have one book on your shelf that covers the topic of magic, science and witchcraft then choose this book; although it it still pretty light weight and is not at all comprehensive.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 5 reviews
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Aveni doesn't quite nail it. 12 July 2003
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
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.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Worthwhile book on subject 28 Oct 1999
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
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. Some of us give better Nielsens to the magic channel than to the reason channel because we enjoy its programs more."
While the author is generally understanding of the need to do "magic," he strangely distances magic from orthodox religion, although his book-opening quote is "one man's religion is another man's superstition." An examination of how Western man tries to reconcile scientific method with orthodox religious beliefs, which, even if "real," entail belief in unseen beings and a history that is largely not provable, together with a belief that unseen beings assist or hinder us in our daily lives, would have been beneficial in comparison to the unseen beings and cosmological history that Westerners see as untrue.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
New ways of seeing... 26 Jan 2008
By Barbara McCormack-Dunfee - Published on Amazon.com
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.
9 of 15 people found the following review helpful
Stay away 30 Jan 2004
By LesTP - Published on Amazon.com
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.
3 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Not a revised edition 10 July 2003
By "grosseteste" - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
I was asked to review this book by an academic journal and discovered that it differs only in insignificant details from the first edition of 1996. Replying to an email I sent, the director of the University Press of Colorado, publisher of the new edition, admitted that the book "should not be called a revised edition--that was a bit of a screw up on our part. It should have simply said 'With a New Foreword' rather than 'Revised Edition.' We anticipated more corrections to the original text than we actually got, but we never got the title adjusted accordingly prior to publication."
Caveat emptor.
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