The scientific mentality modern man got used to during the last centuries, which moulded our sensibility and relationship with the world, makes it difficult to understand ancestral man's magic thought. He too aspired to manipulate nature according to his needs and desires. However, the way he thinks that manipulation and brings it into practice is completely different from ours. If some comparison is possible between ourselves and the "primitivism" of our ancestors called "primitives", it is the one that deals with knowing if we have better means to tackle the problems we are faced with than the means they had at their disposal to tackle the problems that were theirs. This forbids us to draw the conclusion that our technical superiority entails cultural superiority.
Magic comprises, always and necessarily so, magic rituals, magic representations, and agents - sorcerers, shamans - who perform them. The magic act is never, so to speak, silent, but always goes hand in hand with the recitation of words, which are normally myths describing the act of creation carried out by the gods in the beginning of time, and which the sorcerer has to repeat in the present. Myth recitation aims to invoke the supernatural powers that magic aspires to reproduce, and without whose confluence it is inefficient. It is believed that the presence of the invoked supernatural being is real - hierophany - and that it is this presence that ensures the efficiency of the action performed by the sorcerer who thus acts as an intermediary, a hierophant. In some cases, namely in rituals of cure, the word ritual plays such an essential role that the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss developed from that very fact the idea of symbolic efficiency, to oppose it to technical efficiency, in which modern man tends to place an exclusive trust. Yet that symbolic efficiency implies a collective, unanimous and indefectible belief in the power of the word or image to perform - and not only represent - action. In this way, the painting or engraving of hunting scenes were believed to have the power to contribute to the success of a real hunt. Besides, a common feature of magic is its ability to teleact, i.e. to act at a distance upon the phenomenon or person it aims at, both to do it good or to obtain good from it, and to attack or even kill it. For magic man, language does not only describe or represent reality; it is demiurgic, it is an intervention in it, it creates it and materially intervenes in it. That intervention obeys, nevertheless, to the law of mimesis which requires the magic ritual to repeat - entirely and faithfully - the original creative gesture of the gods invoked at that moment, which means it takes on a prescriptive value. In its turn, nature is thus presented as the normative horizon of human intervention, which the latter should not transgress, at the risk of retaliation by supernatural forces, outraged and often in need of appeasement through expiatory sacrifices. The way of conceiving nature is itself magic: the cosmic order is governed by multicausality, in light of which nothing happens by chance, everything relates to everything, and all events bear a meaning and relevance that exceeds each one of them.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude - Antropologia estrutural. Rio de Janeiro: Tempo Brasileiro, 1996
Mauss, Marcel - Esboço de uma teoria geral da magia. Lisboa: Edições 70, 2000