NAASR Notes: Ian Cuthbertson


by Ian Cuthbertson

I suppose I had better just come out and say it: I’m interested in lucky charms. My research in Montréal, Québec involves an online survey and in-depth semi-structured interviews with individuals who possess and use lucky or protective objects – that is objects that confer luck or protection via supra-empirical means. I am interested in lucky and protective objects for a number of reasons. First, because these objects and the stories behind them are fascinating in their own right, but also because these objects and their uses remain largely invisible in contemporary scholarship. Part of my ongoing research and Ph.D. thesis is concerned with explaining this curious fact and before I give details concerning my qualitative research and describe some of my more interesting findings, I would like to take a moment to explain why I seem to be one of only a very few people who are interested in the presence and use of lucky and protective objects in Western, urban, and seemingly secular contexts.

The answer, I think, depends on two factors. The first is a general disdain for magical practices in religious studies scholarship and the second involves dominant conceptions of the world as disenchanted, which is to say un-magical. Of course this habit of pushing magic to the sidelines is nothing new. Although James George Frazer is perhaps the most forthright in his dismissal of magic, noting that magic is “practiced only by the dull, the weak, the ignorant, and the superstitious” (1940, 55), Durkheim, Evans-Pritchard, Malinowski, and Mauss also make clear distinctions between religion and magic. Importantly, these distinctions often involve value judgments: whereas religion tends to be cast in a positive light, magic is associated with secrecy and superstition and is therefore, in Keith Thomas’ words, “rightly disdained by intelligent persons” (1971, ix). Randall Styers (2004) traces the ways magic has served as religion’s rather unpleasant constitutive other in his excellent book Making Magic and I will not reiterate his arguments here. But magic is also given short shrift outside of religious studies scholarship as well, which brings me to my second factor: the ascendency of disenchantment discourse.

Magical explanations were deemed unnecessary as early as 1917 when Max Weber famously described the disenchantment of the world. In Weber’s formulation, “one need no longer have recourse to magical means in order to master or implore the spirits, as did the savage” since “technical means and calculations perform the service.” Somewhat like its cousin, the secularization thesis, the disenchantment thesis has been extremely popular in recent years – though it is not without its critics. In Modern Enchantments: The Cultural Power of Secular Magic (2002), Simon During describes stage magic, modern advertising, and film as sources of modern re-enchantment. Similarly, The Re-enchantment of the World: Secular Magic in a Rational Age (2009) contains chapters on popular fiction, spectacle sports, mass culture, and stage magic. But what about lucky and protective objects? Unfortunately, the kind of magic I am interested in is conspicuously absent from these accounts. While Christopher Partridge does mention the growth of occult societies in The Re-enchantment of the West (2005), these descriptions of re-enchantment actually reinforce the dominant disenchantment discourse. For one thing, all three works describe apparent re-enchantment (which means the world really was disenchanted to begin with), but they also push enchantment out of the everyday and the ordinary into the extraordinary.

This is where I come in. I am interested in the ways individuals entertain magical thoughts and engage in magical practices in their everyday lives. While my data is in no way representative of Montréal more generally, magical objects are used by a surprising number of Montrealers on a daily basis: hundreds of Montréal residents reported possessing and using lucky or protective objects in my online survey. Some examples include: a pentacle pendant, a St. Christopher medallion, a silver angel, a four leaf clover, a rabbit’s foot, a work out top, a cross necklace, a dream catcher, a Buddha pendant, a good luck bracelet, an evil eye medallion, a pocket knife, a melted Ken doll head, lucky keys, lucky stones, lucky marbles, and lucky interview pants.

While I am still sorting through some of my data and while I have yet to transcribe all my interviews, I have noticed a couple of interesting trends. The first of these came up in the surveys. A large number of respondents left lengthy comments after completing the survey and many of these contained clarifications. Respondents who wrote paragraphs describing their particular lucky or protective object, how it works, and its role in their lives wanted to assure me that of course they did not actually believe in magic. Broadly speaking, these kinds of comments can be divided into two groups: non-religious individuals who explained that they were actually rational and scientific, and religious individuals who explained that they knew the object itself had nothing to do with its apparent powers. A related trend came up in the interviews. Several interview participants mentioned that they had never before spoken of their lucky or protective object, not because it is unimportant in their lives, but because they lacked the vocabulary with which to speak about these objects. Two individuals who self-identify as atheists noted that while they suspected religious individuals would have an easier time talking about lucky or protective objects, they lacked both a framework and an appropriate terminology for doing so.

So what is going on here? My no-doubt thrilling conclusions will be presented in my Ph.D. dissertation (forthcoming) but I suspect it has something to do with the dominant disenchantment discourse described above. In other words, magic is disdained not only by scholars but also by the people who possess and use magical objects in their daily lives.

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