Magic is many things for many people. Generally magic is percieved to be one of three things:
- Manipulation of paranormal phenomena. Real or imagined, the intent is certainly real.
- Stage magic or prestidigitation, the purpose of which is to amuse a paying audience with various illusions (hence it is often referred to as Illusionism).
- A card game recently devised by Richard Garfield, actually called Magic: the Gathering.
Further discussion here will be pertinent only to the first definition.
The history of magic is a convoluted one. It seems that every culture on earth has developed a Magical tradition to fit its own needs. For example the Voodoun of Haiti, the Haruspex of ancient Rome, the Nåjd of the Saami and the Crowleyist of 20th century Europe and America, and the modern Neopagan. Each of these traditions fit into their parent cultures and world views.
It is likely that magic was concieved as an integral part of early religions in order to explain the rules of reality. Indeed, magic is still integral to several major religions. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, however, magic has long been separated from the official religious practices. Many (western) scholars in the study of religions have previously thought that magic is an earlier stage of development, before the development of religion. Today, most reject that view, on the grounds that it implies that primal and indigeneous religions (which in Western eyes are often seen as 'magic') are inferior to the religions of more developed peoples. See also Ethnography and its history for comparison.
Manipulation of paranormal phenomena, magic (after Aleister Crowley sometimes called Magick) can again be subdivided into two different branches according to its purpose: Theurgy and Thaumaturgy. Theurgy is the application of magic for divine and religious purposes, thaumaturgy is the application of magic for physical results.
Magical organizations are numerous, and may take the form of secret orders, study circles, esoteric fellowships and many, many others.
It should be noted that mainstream science has found no acceptable evidence for the existence of magic that cannot be explained by current scientific theories. Some magical ingredients have been found to contain drugs (particularly psychotropic drugs such as hallucinogens), and some rituals are believed to induce hypnotic states in participants. Other magical effects such as cures for diseases, and curses, are suspected to be examples of the placebo effect.
Notwithstanding all of the above, beliefs in magic continue throughout the world, including the Western world, where a new interest in magic has arisen in the last few decades. Many Neopagans believe in, and indeed practice magic, a practice they refer to as witchcraft, or simply The Craft. People who practice magick often call themselves witches.