Much magic involves attempts to do good in the world, or to avert bad outcomes. Benign magic is more common than its malign twin.
Relationship work. This is a very broad category, as people have multiple relationships with significant others, which can include the land on which people live, plants, animals, artefacts, houses, fellow humans and so on. Each relationship might have its own magic, so that if relationships have gone wrong in some way, or need to be rebalanced or readjusted, effective action can be taken….
Apotropaic/protective magic. This is linked to relationship work above and seeks to protect people, animals, plants, landscape or ancestors from harm, and involves practices such as those found in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (immuring cats or shoes in walls) or symbols, such as those used to keep out the devil.
Foretelling the future. This can often concern relatively local or personal issues—the health of a child, personal career prospects and so on. Here local fortune-telling or divination may take place, which we think of colloquially as reading the tea leaves. More learned forms of prediction came into being through astrology. Scrying the future can be even grander and more cosmic, through inspired prophecy, often of momentous events such as war or even the end of the world….
Understanding the past. Looking at the causes of things is also very important, with oracles a powerful technology for finding out the cause of an accident, a death or another misfortune. People want both to diagnose the cause of what happened and then to take appropriate remedial action. The classical anthropological case is the Azande poison oracle, although looking for past causes takes many forms.
Dying, death and the dead. Notions of how to die, what happens immediately after death and becoming more stably dead in the form of being an ancestor are all of great interest—the Ancient Egyptians created very elaborate means of dealing with dying and the dead, although this is a theme relevant to all humans. In addition to becoming an ancestor, widespread preoccupations include talking to the dead and making sure they do not bother the living.
Medicine, sickness, health and possession (mental and physical). Prior to the existence of germ theory (and even after its rise) people’s ideas of health often involved relationships with a range of spirits, demons or bad human relations that needed to be counteracted. Frequently, as in the case of Ancient Mesopotamia, dealing with relationships involved herbal remedies but also a series of spells or practices to negate the effects of demons or other malign forces. In most cases, little distinction is made between mind and body, something found increasingly in “Western whole-body approaches to well-being.
Understanding and effecting transformation. This involves activities such as craft production, with concerns about the practices of the smith, who is able to wield and control powerful forces, being common. Craft production often involved a series of magical practices vital to its efficacy. Alchemy was a series of varied attempts to transform base metals into gold, giving rise to more recent chemistry. People also worry about monsters and hybrids (griffins, sphinxes, etc.) or more usual transformations, such as a predator eating its prey. The arts shared between the Steppe and Europe in the first millennium BCE exhibit an obsession with transformation and ambiguity.
Manipulating desire. Siberian hunters feel they have to make reindeer desire them so that they will give themselves up during the hunt. People have ancient relationships with reindeer, going back to the Last Glaciation, and it is possible ideas of physical closeness have developed over millennia. Similar notions of sexual desire are also found in Aztec contexts. Many other cultures, such as those of Ancient Greece and Rome, concentrated efforts on love magic, with occasionally comic outcomes.
— Magic: A History, pp. 19-24