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Angela Tilby: Magic degree is not quite what it seems    

13 October 2023

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I WAS intrigued to learn that, from next year, the University of Exeter is to run an MA degree course in Magic and Occult Science. It is being offered to meet an apparent recent rise of interest in the occult, and should give students an opportunity to explore such topics as the Arthurian legends, witches and witchcraft, astrology, dragons in art and literature, and magical symbolism.

All fascinating stuff. Although some Christians might be moved to object, it would be good to explore how belief in spells, ghosts, and the occult continued to flourish, in spite of — and, indeed, sometimes alongside — church teaching.

From the signs of the zodiac to imps and gargoyles, there is occult symbolism in many cathedrals and churches. In literature and the arts, from Shakespeare to fairy tales, there are wicked witches, and innocent maidens, giants, spells, and incantations. C. S. Lewis set his Christian allegory of Narnia in a fantasy world of talking animals, ruled by a wicked witch. His friend and fellow novelist Charles Williams drew on occult and magical themes for what Lewis called his “supernatural thrillers”. In our own time, the Harry Potter novels and films enchant the children of the first generation of fans.

It is important to remember that even some of the sciences evolved from magic: there was alchemy before chemistry, astrology before astronomy. Many figures of the age of Enlightenment had interests in the occult; freemasonry, Rosicrucianism, and a host of other esoteric philosophies attracted people who, in the rest if their lives, assumed the primacy of reason.

Having acknowledged all that, it is worth realising that this new degree is not quite what it seems. To start with, it is apparently to be located in the Institute of Arab and Islamic studies rather than that of literature or even religion (Exeter has a renowned Theology Department).

The course director, Dr Emily Selove, says that the degree will explore “alternative epistemologies”, which include “decolonisation, feminism, and anti-racism”. All of this suggests that the new degree is getting into the territory of “grievance studies”, in which academics are prepared to propose that traditional Western preoccupations with maths, science, and other subjects based on empiricism, logic, and reason are really no more than male, white, and colonialist attacks on other cultures.

Dr Selove suggests that the MA will “allow people to re-examine the assumption that the West is the place of rationalism and science, while the rest of the world is a place of magic and superstition”. I find this highly questionable: surely everyone knows how dependent the emergence of Western science was on Arab mathematics, medicine, and astronomy.

It is suggested that the new degree will equip students for jobs in counselling, museums, heritage and library work, the arts, and publishing — but not, alas, for teaching at Hogwarts, or membership of the Magic Circle.

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