The Eucharist and the Origin of Magical Ideas

George A. Wells

It is official Catholic teaching that when, at the Eucharistic celebration, the priest speaks the words of consecration, the substance of the bread and the wine is changed into the body and blood of Christ. It is thus supposed that the mere pronunciation of words in this ritual situation can effect a change in the character of material objects. How can such a notion ever have arisen? The question can be answered by investigating the origin and development of language. Ronald Englefield’s ideas on this subject have been followed up in books of my own (listed with his at the end of this article), and I shall draw on them here.

It is now widely agreed that language began as gesture or pantomime. If, in a situation where oral language is not available, I want someone to climb a wall, I could convey the idea to him or her by jumping and then pointing to the wall. Hence, we may suppose that, when natives jump in their ritual dances to make their crops grow high, this practice originated as an attempt to influence the crops by the same means as were once employed to influence fellow beings. The same is true of sprinkling water to attract rain, roaring to encourage thunder, and whistling for the wind. The inference on which these methods originally rested was that, because such signs were effective when employed on fellow human beings, they might usefully be tried on other things. The mere performance of the linguistic act (even if that were only a gesture) might produce the desired result.

If language began with gestures, there was surely a time when oral language was a novelty, used primarily by initiates, so that among other persons, erroneous beliefs about the power of these bizarre utterances could easily arise. Examples of belief in the magical properties of a later form of communication, namely writing, amply demonstrate the possibility of such misunderstanding, by analogy with which earlier forms can be reconstructed. There are many stories of persons who knew nothing about writing being astonished to observe how marks on paper could convey an influence from their author to a distant stranger. An official gives a native three bottles of wine to take to a friend with an accompanying note specifying the gift. The bearer steals one of the bottles for himself and is amazed to discover that the written note informs the recipient of his crime. Since the marks are meaningless to the uninitiated person, he is ready to attribute the same power to other unfamiliar markings and also to assume that the power in question is much wider that it in fact is. The symbols were unintelligible, therefore mysterious, and therefore probably potent.

In reality, the power of gestures or words is due to their being understood by an intelligent (animal or human) respondent. But if this was not realized, it could be supposed that they themselves had an effective power. That the use of a gesture or a word could have some effective results was a perfectly correct observation. By beckoning or uttering a man’s name, for instance, I can summon him. By saying “Strangle Tom,” one in authority might in fact accomplish Tom’s undoing, and for those who did not realize that the words were effective only on an intelligent respondent, the result was mysterious and could be attributed to some power in the words themselves. It was thus possible that, from the observed potency of words, there should result the belief that, by uttering the right words, one might bring about any desired result.

R. P. Carroll notes that the Old Testament amply shows that the prophet’s word was believed to have great power to achieve what it predicted: “the prophet spoke the word and things happened.” Sometimes, such magical power was attributed to him as the servant of Yahweh, so that it was the word or will of Yahweh that was so effective. And “if the spoken word was a powerful force in the world, how much more powerful was the word of Yahweh” (When Prophecy Failed, London: SCM, 1979). He only had to say “let there be light” and there was indeed light.

As the use of language became more widespread and vulgarized, and the real limits of its efficacy determined by experience, verbal magic became restricted to archaic or unintelligible formulas handed down from ancient times or to formulas that possessed some sanctity through their author or origin. In this way, one can understand the Eucharistic formula “the body of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The fallacy involved in all these examples is that of unwarranted generalization: a real correlation is observed, but its efficacy is supposed to apply much more widely than is really the case. The hypothesis that verbal magic originated in this way is strengthened by the fact that a great deal of magic of other kinds is attributable to the same process of generalization. For instance, many plants are found from experience to yield medicines or poisons. The real connection between the herbs and these effects was long unknown, but it was a logical and normal process of induction to argue that, because so many plants produce interesting effects, we may be able to discover a plant to produce any particular effect we happen to desire— such as the passion of love. In the same way, astrology grew out of authentic observations of a real correlation between celestial and terrestrial phenomena. If the position of the stars, or the sun in relation to the stars, was seen to be correlated with and even to determine the changing seasons, why should they not also determine other vital conditions of human prosperity and perhaps man’s calamities as well?

The extending of a real correlation beyond the limits of its true validity is of a piece with scientific errors. Indeed, Pavlov’s experiments have shown that mammals other than man generalize too readily and that a first rough and approximate generalization, which has later to be refined and restricted in its scope, is important for learning.

Once established, magical practices would suggest others, and origins will have been lost from sight, even if they had ever been properly understood. Magical ceremonies as practiced today are survivals, and like modern religious rites they must be regarded as compounded of elements of different antiquity. Where problems of an immediate practical nature are concerned, there is a constant weeding out of misconceptions and inadequate notions. But the resulting progress in practical discovery is not incompatible with the survival of many erroneous beliefs less vulnerable to the test of daily experience. And so the most primitive forms of magic linger today beside the latest scientific advances. The skilled and enlightened scientist or statesman will still be seen at times to treasure a mascot or pay the immemorial respect to the days of ill omen—or to partake of bread and wine in a solemn ceremony. Ceremonies are persisted in even when those who perform them are quite unaware of the grounds that led to their institution. These grounds may even be contemptuously rejected by those who continue to perform the ceremonies.

What I have written in this article is heavily indebted to the work of Ronald Englefield, whose books deserve more attention than they have received. He showed that it is unnecessary to explain magic by assuming a special kind of primitive psychology, as if the minds of uncivilized people worked quite differently from those of educated persons of today. The so-called savage, in applying his magical methods, was acting on experience and generalizing from it. These methods are most commonly practiced apropos of matters that are of crucial importance to the individuals or communities concerned and yet are not within their power to control by ordinary means, illness and weather being the two most obvious examples. Although the magic is in fact futile and fails to achieve practical end
s, Englefield did not agree that this means that no such ends were envisaged and that magic is merely expressive—an expression of strong wishes with no expectation of their fulfilment. Some who practice magic today may well regard it as no more than expressive, but it is too widespread and too important among uncivilized peoples to have originated in this way. Such an assessment of magic is typical of the tendency to stress emotional determinants of human behavior at the expense of intellectual ones and to look askance at any suggestion that what people do, particularly what uncivilized people do, is influenced to any great extent by their beliefs. Magicians could always explain failures away, for instance, as due to the forces of countervailing magic or to negligence over some detail of the necessary rites. Such loopholes were not necessarily conscious safeguards. Where faith is strong, rationalization is easy. Convinced Freudians and Marxists have little difficulty in accounting for failures in their theories.

Englefield did not deny that there was always room for a certain amount of hocus-pocus or make-believe in the organization of these ritual observances; for the organizers—medicine men or chiefs—may well have introduced or exaggerated some features for the sake of impressing onlookers rather than for enhancing the effectiveness of the magic. But he emphatically denied that magic as a whole, whether communal or private, can be explained in this way. Such features may have helped to keep magical practices going once they had been introduced but cannot explain how the particular kinds of practice that we find to be almost universal came to be adopted.

Further Reading

Englefield, R. Language. Its Origin and Its Relation to Thought. London: Elek/Pemberton. New York: Scribner, 1977, and The Mind at Work and Play. Buffalo NY: Prometheus, 1985. (Englefield died in 1975, and his manuscripts were edited to form these two books by the neuropathologist Dr. D. R. Oppenheimer [who died in 1991] and myself. A third volume, titled Critique of Pure Verbiage, which we also edited from his papers, was published by Open Court [La Salle, IL] in 1990. It is concerned with abuses of language in various modern literary, religious, and philosophical writers.)

Wells, G. A. The Origin of Language. Aspects of the Discussion from Condillac to Wundt. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1987; What’s in a Name? Reflections on Language, Magic and Religion. Chicago and La Salle: Open Court, 1993; and The Origin of Language. London: Rationalist Press Association, 1999 (a booklet of thirty-nine pages that includes discussion of recent theories by Noam Chomsky, Steven Pinker, and others).


George A. Wells is emeritus professor of German at the University of London and a former chairman of the Rationalist Press Association.

George A. Wells

George A. Wells is emeritus professor of German at the University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles on the origins of Christianity and on German intellectual history.


“. . . The power of gestures or words is due to their being understood by an intelligent (animal or human) respondent. But if this was not realized, it could be supposed that they themselves had an effective power.”

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.