Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. Juni 2004

1.2. Signs, Texts, Cultures. Conviviality from a Semiotic Point of View /
Zeichen, Texte, Kulturen. Konvivialität aus semiotischer Perspektive"

HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Jeff Bernard (Wien)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Grundlagen/Fundamentals Teil 1/Part 1:
Teil 2/Part 2:
Moderation / Chair: Astrid Hönigsperger
Teil 3/Part 3:
Teil 4/Part 4:
Nonverbale Zeichen/Non-verbal Signs

Signs of Magic: On the Archetypal Roots of Culture

Traian D. Stanciulescu (Iasi)


Summary: The existence of a historical "unity of the human spirit" can also be proved by the universality of magical behavior. The truth of the statement "magic is as old as man" results from the need of people to take hold of cosmic and social world "things" through a complex fusion with them. To assume the world by its "cultural signs" was possible, first of all, due to the functions of magic: ontological, vital, pragmatic, cognitive, poetic and religious. The paper pays special attention to the "magical power" of (non)verbal language. Some resonance mechanisms - at work in ritual dance, music, incantation, mantra, name-pattern, etc. - are rationally explainable by using the hypotheses of semiotics, biophotonics, etc. Such an approach permits to conclude that "magical practices" represent the archetypal roots of the major aspects of present culture.


1. Magic, a constant of human culture

The recognition of the universality of magic, which compels cosmic and/or human phenomena and objective forces to obey, as a human practice prior to religion, which requests the favor of these forces by offerings and prayers, generated the clash between two different viewpoints pertaining to:

In reality, to follow a compromising line of truth, account must be taken of the dialectics between human incapacity and capacity in the first confrontations with nature (Lips, Childe). In other words, the origins must be searched primarily in pragmatic causes, in fundamental existential needs that only later determined the psychological needs that were affective, intellectual and volitional.

Protoarchaic human magical thinking, totemic-tabooistic in nature, was a particular way of conceiving the world or weltanschauung, that can be synthetically characterized as follows (Wax 1963: 495-519): the world or cosmos is made of "beings" rather than "objects"; interactive relations are relations of resonance that are established between these objects, irrespective of whether they are of human type or not; the becoming of the world has as substratum the unique cosmic force or mana in its various states; some "beings" hold more power-mana than others; power can be obtained by conveyance or lending, deliberately, but also by theft; any new redistribution of pragmatically known cosmic powers implies a ritual, an appropriate magic practice.

All these practices rely on the physical and/or psychophysical sound or light systems' power of resonance/interference, and on their quality of reflecting themselves one in another actively or passively with or without a change in the state of the reflecting system. The magic act is above all an act in which the receiving system changes its state in an optimizing sense as white magic or, on the contrary, in an inhibitory sense as black magic. In fact, establishing a relation of resonance, no matter how reasonable or illogical this relation seemed to our reason and logic, was, according to Herbert Read (1970: 12-13) the first step towards culture and civilization, the basis for the first symbolic/semiotic pragmatic system: the language of magic.

* * *

Expressing his belief that "the idea of magic" could never be chased from human conscience, Romanian philosopher Lucian Blaga (1987: 217) found reasons for one of the most puzzling elements of human existence: magical thinking. Taking place under the sign of the human spirit's historical unity (Eliade 1990: 119), and being a fundamental paradigm of twentieth century anthropology, the rediscovery of magic in the sphere of contemporary knowledge is one purpose for the (meta)physical quests of all those for whom "mystery" is an obsession.

Two opposed realities, generating complementary human attitudes, can therefore be productively coupled: the mystery circle, shaping out a horizon of the transcendental beyond which the access of human knowledge seems to be forbidden, and the magic hexad, pointing out the human being's attempts at breaking the magic (Blaga 1987: 271, 335). With such a coupling, a rethinking in terms of scientific rationality of power signs, which archaic humans used in order to establish control over the cosmic world and themselves, corresponds to the intention of anchoring the idea and practice of magic in the contemporary knowledge sphere, by using an analytical hermeneutics (Stanciulescu 2003c: 85-124).

To this purpose, with the six functions describing the "idea of magic" in view, we shall entirely suspend usual human dogmatic censorship in order to associate some explanatory hypotheses with these functions, which are:

(1) Ontological, vital and pragmatic, on the one hand, predominantly implying the physical aspects of human life as follows:

(2) Cognitive, poetic and religious function, on the other hand, essentially involving the spiritual (metaphysical) aspects of human existence as follows:

Because these last three functions are predominantly involved into the genesis of human culture, we will pay them a special attention, by considering the integrative system of signs which is the (non)verbal "language of magic".


2. The powerful effects of the magic language

The magic ritual, following this pragmatic purpose, engaged completely an already constituted system of signs: gestures turned into dances, images materialized into plastic symbols and rhythms turned into music. Thus the first magic system became also the first syncretic semiotic-symbolic system whose aim was the outcome of a unique impulse: the will to live. The typology appropriate to magic practices can be submitted to a double semiotic evaluation: of the relation between signifier and signified, on the one hand, and between the degree of motivation and of arbitrariness, on the other hand.

2.1. The magic effects of signs: a semiotic assumption

In the power effects associated to magical acts, the substratum-signified plays a special part. In an extreme case it is able to generate alone power effects by its objective, physical attributes, which make the totem or talisman an energy and information accumulator, and by its subjective, psychic attributes, such as the totem's form, configuration, etc., it is able to generate related auxiliary psychic states. It is known, for example, that all geometrical structures (including the plan ones) are generating so-called "wave-forms", which could explaine the "magic" (objective) effects of pyramids, of oriental "mandalas", etc.

When the totem is real and objective, as a certain object, phenomenon, or being, it acquires the value of a symbol, signifying something other than it usually does. Thus totems like the tree, the snake, the sun, beyond their common significance, get a symbolic, cosmic interpretation and afferent magic functions. In this case the significance is entirely included in its very signifier. With the resonance phenomenon in the background, the magic act's signifier is mimetically engaged in generating power effects:

Of course, a lot of magical practices are syncretic ones, both verbal and nonverbal, combining gestures and words.

* * *

(1) A certain priority of nonverbal codes or signs over the verbal code, as word-signs, can be argued in two ways. First, rituals dominated by nonverbal language are prior to magic where verbal elements also intervene. Second, the ritual-magic-myth succession reveals a gradually increasing importance of verbal mechanisms and their autonomization with regard to previous figurative codes. Within this succession the passage takes place in four stages. It moves from the representative internal language or protolanguage to the external language consisting of nonverbal signs, gestural, plastic and musical, in rituals, nonverbal and verbal signs as syncretism of expression in magic, predominantly verbal signs in myths, and verbal-ritualistic signs in initiatory practices. In one way or another all these signs were used by archaic humanity to one purpose only: that of generating certain power effects.

(2)  Hypotheses formulated with regard to the origins of language (speech), especially the mimetic ones and their variants, are able to explanatorily substantiate intuitive convictions and archaic practices concerning its power effects. The connection between thing and name was so strong that anything having no name did not really exist. Knowledge through names was therefore the first explicit reference humans had to the world. The origin of this ontological inversion must be sought in the primitive belief that each thing has a soul. Only the grasping of this "soul" allows the thing to be designated by an appropriate mimetic word: breath + noise. With such a quality, the word is characterized by a "corporal" dimension; because they are a kind of "thing", as mentioned above, words have a soul of their own: a vibration in direct resonance with the "soul" of the designated word. It is this direct possibility of having vibratory correspondence, contained in the conviction of animism that there is a unity of all cosmic elements and forces, that became the premise for the practice of a millenary magic of the uttered word.

* * *

We can conclude by saying that all major practices use the sign-symbol mainly according to its motivation and to its correspondence in resonance with a particular frame of reference. On this basis, we can give explicit arguments for both the mimetic-naturalistic and the conventionalist hypotheses on the genesis of language.

(a) The mimetic-naturalistic hypothesis accounts for archaic humanity's mythical-ritualistic behavior. Power effects, for example, sonorous resonance, aimed at penetrating to the human receiver's level by means of the signifier (the ontological way), generating particularly strong effects (vibrations/biopsychic emotions). Their gnoseological meanings were situated in the individual or collective unconscious, where the adequate effects expected by the initiated persons who were emitters of "power words" acted slowly over time. Such categories of signs (like mandala, mantra, magic spells, etc.) are an expression of the "natural" genesis of the language. This genesis explains all the series of phenomena where the power of the word was "magically" used by archaic humans, from the creation of the world through the sacred word by the cosmocrat divinity to controlling the body and the soul of an ordinary person by knowing and "magically" acting upon their proper name.

(b) The conventionalist hypothesis accounts for the force of the mythical discourse by its penetration into the receiving consciousness through the signified as effective, displayed informational content. The experiential living of the relation with the cosmos, which for the most part is an implicit, direct and unconscious living, is now replaced with the joy of a person who knows and discovers truths on the conscious level, molding them creatively like in a game of the mind.

Interpreted semiotically, the triadic classification of magic phenomena results from the involvement of a symbol/power sign:

In reality, as mentioned above, most of the magic phenomena are of a syncretic type, involving to a larger or smaller extent both an energetic-signifier dimension and a significant-informational one. By its double nature, namely by its quality of being at the same time perceptible and imperceptible, present and absent, visible and invisible, the mythical-magical sign becomes an adequate instrument for defining the relation between sacred and profane.

2.2. The "magic language": (un)conventional explanatory hypotheses

The essence of the metaphysical functions of magic is completed by the passage from image to image, from representation to the creative consciousness. In this process, a fundamental role is played by the psycho-cerebral mechanisms of representation, which are the basis of the genesis of the verbal and non-verbal language that early humans used as "power signs".

2.2.1. Nonverbal effects of resonance

We can affirm that, in a first stage of magical (mythical-ritualistic) language usage, one values above all the motivation that involves the consubstantiality between sign and thing (referential) that is able to entail sensible resonance effects at its level. Such an acceptation allows us to define sacredness as a "space" where fully motivated signs manifest themselves. The magic sacredness of the sign results from its very power of (re)action. For, at this stage, the aesthetic and poetic dimension of the linguistic sign is entirely subordinated to the magic act, which represents a complementary means of generating the "experiential living" of the magic.

It is only at a subsequent, modern stage, when the word as sign loses its "sacredness" because of a more and more obvious arbitrariness, that the poetic function becomes a "purpose in itself", the magic of receptivity being more and more subordinated to the aesthetic dimension. Such a dimension is implicitly found in every metamorphosis undergone by the magic sign in its passage from light to enlightening, from the world's external language to the world of internal language, from sacred to profane, from iconic to iconoclastic, from imagery to imaginary, from nature to culture and from the creation of the world to the world of creation.

The interdependence of these transitional stages, centered on the use of one and the same power instrument - the sign - explains why "the magician involuntarily resorts to poetic means, and the poet involuntarily resorts to magic means" (Blaga 1987: 332). According to Bronislaw Malinowski, this magic, creative force of the sign resides exclusively in humans, "spreading through his magic art, releasing itself at the same time with his voice ('his thought', our note, TDS) transmitted by the ritualistic act" (1993: 120). With the conviction that the ritualic acts results from an ancestral understanding of the harmonious relation between body and spirit, one of the objectives of our own research is the recovery of the relation between the archaic creative ways of expression and their therapeutic functions (Stanciulescu 2003a: 215-218). Having in mind such a purpose, we could observe that the traditional motifs (forms) of tapestry, embroidery or ceramics, of wood adornments, and of many other artistic expressions, by their sacred archetypal signs/symbols - the rhomb and the lens (the circle), the column and the "string" - are arranged in networks of "life columns" and are found in the archetypal forms of the "Essential Unity", implicitly preserved in universal symbolistics: the ovoid, the hourglass, the column, the cluster. Through their intrinsic properties (shape, proportion, color, etc.), all these symbols that have only apparently a decorative-aesthetic function actually fulfill a magic, therapeutic function as well. They are to optimize the psychophysical state of their users and receivers.

A series of explanatory theories, in a synthesis of those already mentioned, can account for the "magic" dimensions of aesthetic acts:

(a) On the one hand, the chromatics and shape of the patterns woven or painted on ceramics, on eggs, etc. generate phenomena of photonic (primarily optical) resonance experienced at the cerebral level. It is known that both colors and other aspects (like aesthetic shapes which observe the golden number proportion) have beneficent (equilibrating, tranquilizing) effects for the nervous system. Similarly, dancing generates through the very "vortex/solenoid" of its movements a powerful biofield in the group of dancers, whose effects of stimulating power are felt throughout the entire body. In its turn, music generates harmonious effects upon various organs that are sensitive to various vibrations, by structuring the human body's organic water.

(b) On the other hand, among the exceptional aspects of creativity we can mention, in the order of complexity, aspects pertaining to the capacity of hypermnesia or cryptomnesia, the capacity of holistically finding innovating solutions, the early manifestation of certain exceptional creative resources, the effects of hypnotic suggestion upon the creative subject, trance creation, etc. All these phenomena are apt to be considered "magic" by common sense.

In fact, they can be approached by recent scientific explanations drawing on the nervous system and mnesic function's holographic functioning (Pribram), on the theory of morphogenetic fields (Sheldrake) or of "wrapped order" (Bohm), on the possibility of temporal and transpersonal regression (Grof, Rogers), etc. Getting information by way of individual resonance with the "symbolic values" preserved at the level of these fields and ignored by sensitive (physical) knowledge could account for a series of magic phenomena still unexplained rationally.

2.2.2. The power of the "magic word": a (bio)photonic explanation

Starting from such power effects of the nonverbal sign, according to an analysis developed elsewhere (Stanciulescu 1995: 29-30), the genesis of verbal language must be related both to the naturalist explanation supported by Cratylos in Plato's famous dialogue and to the conventionalist explanation given by Hermogenes. In this connection, one may use the viewpoint of a logic of "and/and" type to prove that:

In other words, throughout its evolution, language passed through a "magic (sacred) phase" in which words were marked by the force of the named object and then entered a "profane" phase deprived of the advantage of the sign's inner force. The scientific explanation of such a process as the basis of the origin of language and human knowledge, may be rigorously supported with the help of the hypotheses proposed by two recent scientific theories, based on the contribution of a very new science: biophotonics (biology + technology of lasers):

(1)   The photonic theory of energy and information (PTEI) (Constantinescu/Stanciulescu 1993) argues for light's energetic-informational nature by:

(2)   The "biological lasers" theory (BLT) explains with the help of some inter-disciplinary areas of research (Stanciulescu/Manu 2002):

The complementarity of the two theories' can account for insufficiently elucidated aspects of the passage from biological to psychological or, in more general terms, for aspects of the passage from "nature" as physical and biological to "culture" as psychological. In light of these theories, one may understand the photonic nature of psychograms, hologram-like mental representations, with which we describe our internal and external reality (Stanciulescu 1996). More specifically, the holographic brain functioning hypothesis (Pribram 1971) gains its full scientific relevance only now. Acquired through the analyzing system that is primarily visual, or through the biofield afferent to the human body (as a system of suprasensorial knowledge), bio-information or bio-luminescence, which are biophotonic emissions, modify their properties in accordance with the natural light present in the body.

According to the BLT, this process takes place due to the absorption and emission stimulated/amplified by light at the level of molecular structures of the phosphate type, present throughout the body but especially in the brain, and due to the (bio)photonic fluxes "filtering" at the level of some organic structures of a "liquid crystal" type, present in the cellular membranes. The presence of these structures that are able to generate "memory effects" by fixing themselves in relatively stable positions under the influence of external stimuli, explains the "magical" effects including healing effects that quartz crystals or diversely colored stones, for example, have upon the human body. The body in itself functions as a "huge receiving crystal" and a generator of energies and information having a particular frequency, amplitude, etc. Among these the "psi energy" whose characteristics are not comprised by scientific tables is responsible for most of the phenomena of a magical or para-psychic type (Motoyoma 1974: 339-345).

Intercepted directly, by the eyes as the primary analyzers or indirectly, by the auric field, the external-information energy, which is light reflected by objects or by their radiative fields, is transformed. At the level of the brain, the energy becomes vibrating ensembles or holograms that are reproduced through resonance as a relation of homomorphism with the energetic-informational matrix of the referential. This mechanism of psychophysical reflection of reality is the premise for the creation of a profound symbolic code probably used by the protohuman being to arrive at a first intermental semantic communication. By the command the brain gives to the verbal-kinesthetic system, this "mental hologram" is analogically transformed and exteriorized as a "sonorous hologram", functioning as a word (Stanciulescu 2003b: 153-166).

In conclusion, we may recall our elaborated definition of "power word" as a "reflection of the reflection", as a powerfully motivated sign consubstantial with the designated object and having as a signifying substratum the sonorous energetic complex, and as a signified content the photonic information recorded on the sonorous support. "The power word" is a photo-sonic hologram, a second-degree "image" of a reality that it could directly influence by feedback in the form of reversed resonance. In this way we can account pertinently for the power of the sign/magic word, through sonorous effects of the already mentioned "Open, Sesame!" type, as well as through the psycho-physical resonance generated by incantation, magic spell, prayer, myth as spoken discourse, etc.

* * *

Finally, we may conclude that by developing, in the terms of contemporary semiotics, the parameters of the "functional hexad of magic" as conceived by Blaga, we have superposed on it a first transfunctional dimension: that of scientific explanation. Such an exegesis corresponds to our declared intention of bringing magical experience, by rational means, into both the spheres of knowledge and of contemporary practice.

By magical-mythical verbal language, as well as by its nonverbal substitutes, that is, magic-ritualistic language that is gestural, plastic or musical, archaic humans succeeded not only in exerting a certain objective control over natural and human reality but also in building a subjective reality able to mentally replace the real one: the human culture. Thus the world revealed itself as language to the primitive human, through the magic-ritualistic discourse activating cognitive-behavioral resources corresponding to certain phenomena and processes inaccessible to the senses in a direct way. The creation of the world by the cosmocrat deity, through a "magical sign" such as sound, gesture, dance, song, laughter, cries, etc., was a hypersensitive frame within which a powerful archaic faith could manifest itself: "What gods did so people will do."

© Traian D. Stanciulescu (Iasi)


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Stanciulescu, Traian D. (1995). Miturile creatiei - lecturi semiotice. Iasi: Editura Performantica

- (2003a). Signs of Light. A Biophotonic Approach to Human (Meta)Physical Fundamentals. Iasi-Geneva: Editura Cristal-Concept/World Development Organization

-  (2003b). Semiotics of Light. An Integrative Approach to Human Archetypal Roots. Iasi-Geneva: Editura Cristal-Concept/World Development Organization

-  (2003c). "El poder de los 'signos de luz': de la technología de los mágico a la magia de la tecnología". Signa 12: 85-124

-  & Daniela M. Manu (2001). Metamorfozele luminii. Introducere în teoria "laserilor biologici" (Light metamorphoses. Introduction into the "biological lasers" theory). Vol. II. Iasi: Editura Performantica

Wax, M. & R. (1963). "The Notion of Magic". Current Anthropology 4: 495-519

Grundlagen/Fundamentals Teil 1/Part 1:
Teil 2/Part 2:
Moderation / Chair: Astrid Hönigsperger
Teil 3/Part 3:
Teil 4/Part 4:
Nonverbale Zeichen/Non-verbal Signs

1.2. Signs, Texts, Cultures. Conviviality from a Semiotic Point of View /
Zeichen, Texte, Kulturen. Konvivialität aus semiotischer Perspektive"

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For quotation purposes:
Traian D. Stanciulescu (Iasi): Signs of Magic: On the Archetypal Roots of Culture. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

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