Magic in Popular Narratives

by Jan Kajfosz (Author)
©2021 Monographs 218 Pages
Open Access
Series: Modernity in Question, Volume 15


The book deals with manifestations and relics of magical thinking in the narrative folklore of Cieszyn Silesia (Teschen Silesia, Těšín Silesia). The point of departure is a phenomenological and social constructivist approach to human cognition. The author follows the cognitive dimensions of pre-modern folklore and popular texts in general. They are conventional in the sense that they are repeated in many variants inside one communicative group. Habituation based on more or less accurate reproduction of stereotypes (and corresponding experiences), motives, action scenarios, rationalizations, and motivations, is the source of relatively stable world image. The key concept developed in the book is redefined categorization understood as the simplification and stabilization of too complex and changing reality through shared narratives.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Foreword
  • Chapter One Narrative Folklore as a Colloquial Text and Its Cognitive Dimension
  • Folklore as a Non-Text
  • The Status of the Represented World of Folklore as the Genre Marker
  • Folklore and the Critique of Cognition
  • Folklore as a Form of Natural Language
  • Chapter Two Categorization as a Tool for Ordering the World
  • Logical and Natural Categorization
  • Chapter Three Myth as a Sign and a Text
  • Building the Cosmos Through Excess Meaning
  • Building a Cosmos Through Judgment and the Situational Logic
  • Building the Cosmos Through the Narrative
  • Chapter Four Categorization, Memory, and Narrative Folklore
  • Gradational Character of Categorizing the Past
  • Chapter Five Relational and Multi-Plane Character of the Image of the World
  • Where is the Sacred? Where is the Profane?
  • What Is Good and What Is Bad?
  • Where Is the Center of the World and Where Are the Peripheries?
  • Chapter Six Categorization within the Magical Image of the World
  • The Myth of Eternal Return
  • Harmony of the World, Predictability, and Fate
  • Agency of Language
  • Elements and Relicts of Magic in the Folk Culture of Cieszyn Silesia
  • Chapter Seven Origin of the Source Texts and Methods of Their Interpretation
  • Sample Texts
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Sources
  • Index
  • Series Index

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The book in reader’s hands looks at manifestations of magical thinking in everyday lives of denizens of Cieszyn Silesia (Teschen Silesia, Těšín Silesia) in the premodern era. In the book, I recreate the magical dimension of routine and habitual ways of perceiving and thinking about reality, and therefore of the magical dimension of conceptualizing and ordering reality during the premodern era by means of works of narrative folklore collected by local folklorists between the 1950s and the 1980s of the twentieth century. The book, which was published by the University of Silesia in 2008, is an attempt to recreate the magical image of the world shared by the broadest social strata of Cieszyn Silesia. It is also an attempt at finding an answer to the question of the role that magical thinking played in social construction of reality (Berger and Luckmann 1989) in the premodern era.

When presenting a book dedicated to the English-speaking reader, we should first explain why in an anthropological study looking at magical thinking as part of social construction of reality, we choose to refer to relatively obscure region of Cieszyn Silesia, one of Silesian provinces, which constituted part of Habsburg’s monarchy since 1918. The Duchy of Teschen territory mentioned in contemporary anthropological, sociological and linguistic literature in English is known most commonly as the borderland. Works dedicated to Cieszyn Silesia typically focus on the study of processes that shape collective identities and processes of linguistic change, and the study and demonstration of the influence of national borders on these processes (Hannan 1996). The previous Duchy of Teschen was divided between two states in 1920: Poland and Czechoslovakia. During the years of the border crossing the area (lasting, with one break, from 1938 to 1945), the Cieszyn Silesia used to be a multi-language and multi-ethnic territory, which was a common phenomenon across the regions of Eastern Europe at that time. The territory was dominated by the population, which identified with the Polish language aside populations that identified with German or Czech and a population that identified with two or more languages simultaneously. The Czechoslovakian Poles who inhabited the Czech part of the former Duchy of Teschen are one of the luckier ethnic minorities of Central-Eastern Europe that managed to survive the Second World War on its territory and the following mass displacements of entire populations. The Polish minority exists in the Czech part of the Cieszyn Silesia to this day, even if due to assimilation, its numbers have dwindled.

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Ethnic conflicts in that territory, which from the end of the Second World War took on a character of a competition between the Polish and Czech ethnicity (after eliminating and relatively marginalizing the German language), are the reason for the wealth of folklore materials collected between the 50s and the 80s that is almost unmatched. The motive behind these long term and intense ethnographic field studies conducted by the Polish Cultural and Educational Association in Czechoslovakia (PZKO) was an attempt to collect proof for the ethnically Polish character of the municipalities which, at the time of being inducted into Czechoslovakia, were mostly inhabited by populations speaking in Silesian-Polish dialect and identified with the standard Polish language. Under the guise of the official friendship between the communist governments of Poland and Czechoslovakia an unofficial Czech-Polish kulturkampf continued. It focused, among other issues, on winning domination over the narrative regarding the linguistic and cultural past of the area. One of the main tools of that struggle over the image of the past wielded by the local Poles was folklore studies focused on recording and documenting oral folklore of different genres. Thanks to that effort, today, we have very precise samples of the local, historical folklore at our disposal, which are representative enough to use them for reconstructing with great detail local models of life-worlds. For a long time, in ethnographic discourses of Central-Eastern Europe, texts of the oral folklore have been looked at from the perspective of aesthetics or the question of collective identities, but they could be treated as a relevant source for reconstruction of the magical image of the world of the premodern era, regardless of the fact that similar texts across Europe and including metropolitan cultures, were collected at the turn of an epoch that we call postmodernism.

Due to the fact that the folklorists living in the Czech part of Cieszyn Silesia inhabited by the Polish minority – the so-called Zaolzie – focused on folklore narratives of the oldest generation of people living in the least urbanized areas, we may suspect that the materials they collected constitutes at least a partial representation of the premodern world, even if the storytellers themselves lived in an already modern, heavily industrialized, and urbanized country of the Eastern Block. The switch from premodern to modern world initiated by the industrial revolution did not happen simultaneously in all parts of Europe and did not encompass all social strata and all spheres of everyday life at the same time. Even if we were to connect the beginning of modernism with the industrial revolution, the change from the premodern to modern epoch had a form of a multi-dimensional evolution that, with varying speeds, took over different aspects of social practices. In the Cieszyn Silesia area, the premodern templates of culture held for the longest among the plebeian strata, mostly in respect to everyday life, ←8 | 9→and mostly those that did not require a lot of reflection, or verification. Cieszyn Silesia’s folklorists managed to collect an interesting material during times when the remains of magical thinking in its premodern form functioned at least among some of the members of the oldest generation of farmers and laborers as a natural way of spontaneous perception and interpretation of the world, while in other circles they have been already recognized as an element of ancestral tradition that is worth recording. Magical thinking as such has an obvious universal dimension (Sørensen 2007) that pertains to the modern and postmodern world, however, there are no more characters of the socially reproduced system of ordering of the world.

At this point, we must ask how it is possible for mutually exclusive paradigms that condition the perception and interpretation of the world to exist next to each other and do not lead to cognitive dissonances and conflicts. The answer could lie in the phenomenological theory of everyday knowledge proposed by Alfred Schütz (Schütz 1944). Everyday knowledge differs from scientific knowledge by not having the prerequisite of being consistent. It also does not have to eliminate contradictory views and attitudes. Not all its elements activate simultaneously, but rather interchangeably follow the changing circumstances, which repeatedly decide about the hierarchy of importance of the objects of our interest. On the plane of the everyday, the way of perceiving the world that fits one set of circumstances could be replaced by a different way in a different situation without the need for any revisions. The consistency of attitudes and beliefs does not constitute a necessity in this case, while interpretations, which within a reflexive overview would be mutually exclusive can, instead, complement one another within the sphere of spontaneously adopted worldviews. As an example, let us take a theater play, in which an actor playing the main protagonist is killed with a dagger and dies, while remaining alive to give another performance and, once again, “die.” In the spontaneous experience of the audience member, one does not exclude the other and even within the framework of reflective view a similar contradiction does not have to be noticed and does not have to constitute an epistemological problem. Within the sphere of everyday life, the magical order of the world can exist besides the positivistic one, or any other order, as long as each of them finds use in specific circumstances. The magical order of cognition takes on the form of unobserved, tacit routine when new information corresponds with reference framework (or: background knowledge) to a point where there is no longer a need for a blunt legitimization.

In this book, we work with the notion of folklore as proposed by Peter G. Bogatyrev and Roman Jakobson (Jakobson and Bogatyrev 1980). As understood by these authors, the verbal folklore is a poetic text that exhibits a repeatable ←9 | 10→meaning structure that corresponds with aesthetic and cognitive habits (reference frameworks) of the members of the communication community understood as a more or less broad social environment. In that sense, folklore is a relative phenomenon, due to diversity of social environments and changeability of historical circumstances that are tied to patterns of fictionalization and perception, including evaluation and ordering of the world. In that sense, we could speak of historical folklore of a given territory, or a social environment and contemporary folklore, shaped by, among others, currently employed communication technologies.

As a source for reconstruction of the magical image of the world from the premodern epoch, we used only those texts of historical folklore that have been recorded on tape and after minimal editorial treatment published in magazines native to the researched area and placed in local press. We use narratives, which from the perspective of their “senders” take the form of memories about past, important events and not memories about how their ancestors interpreted the world. One problem related to use of these sources was the fact that we are dealing exclusively with narratives recorded by local folklorists, most often without any information about the social context or circumstances surrounding the recreation of those narratives. However, the relative lack of context for the used texts does not constitute any major, methodological problem, due to our stated goal, that is a reconstruction of premodern mechanisms of cognitive ordering of the world, which are independent from any concrete situation, because they operate both within the framework of spontaneous perception of phenomena and within the boundaries of their secondary interpretation and reflection.

Inspired by the classics of anthropology like James G. Frazer, Marcel Mauss, Edgar E. Evans-Pritchard and others, we refer to the concept of magic only to alleged dependencies and processes that, according to testimonies of witnesses, work independently from whether they are being registered by human consciousness. The object of our interest is the implicit, direct performativity of phenomena, different from performativity that is mediated by the human consciousness. In that sense, we have excluded from our field of interest any situations, in which the sign has an impact on the world in a verifiable way, because the observer does not differentiate it from the reality which it represents. We can study only that which is made available by the folklore material we work with. We are not primarily focused on rhetoric, speech acts, or reification, nor circumstances, in which that what people perceive as real becomes such in its consequences (Thomas and Thomas 1928), like in the case of divination (representing sign) becomes fulfilled, because people have identified it with a future state of affairs.

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This book is an attempt to reconstruct the premodern, cognitive habitus that is employed in routine situations of everyday life and which in the light of inten-sifying domination of modernist templates of culture has gradually become noticeable, transformed into an object of reflection, gaining a status of something suspicious, doubtful, amazing, or even amusing, a status of an object of ethnographic interest. We are undertaking the reconstruction of patterns of seeing and interpreting the world used independently from a situation and relevance of phenomena that are of interest to a man. We are looking at patterns, which are the rule within the framework of a spontaneous perception, fictionalization, and reflective thinking.

Chapter One deals with defining the category of “colloquial.” It is an attempt at answering the question of what is the difference between colloquial and all the other texts. What is the relationship between a colloquial text and narrative folklore?

Chapter Two touches upon the question of categorization that constitutes the center of the argumentation in the book. I attempt to show that we could also employ the theory of categorization – within which the cognitive linguistic studies has been related to the lexical plane of language – as means of delineating broader units of language – whether it is an opinion (proposition), or narrative itself. A narrative could be understood as an ordering of fragments of the experienced reality through the plot in the process of transforming experienced contents into “chains” of events that are ordered by cause-and-effect relationships. Similar process based on selective forgetting, which in the field of semiotics is described as semiosis, could be considered an example of categorization, making the world available to a man, thanks to a relative simplification and immobilization of that very world. If we were to understand categorization in that way, we should consider the social memory as its unique form, along the representations of experienced reality in the form of common and colloquial narrative. A form of categorization understood as a process of ordering – simplification and solidifying – of reality is finally magical thinking that does not recognize coincidences itself. It is the primary thesis of this work.

The fact that the world represented in any narrative is never an exact reflection of the experienced world, but always its more or less successful representation, suggests a fundamental question about collectively determined, or solidified mechanisms of creating these very representations. The key code or system of operation, symptoms of which constitute the object of this book, is magic understood as action and cognitive system, along with an established interpretation of the world. It provides men with – often misleading – conviction that they can explain almost everything and fully control their present and future.

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Chapter Three focuses on analyzing units of different levels of linguistic construction of the world, which are characterized by a shared correspondence. More specifically, we are talking about correspondence between images that accompany notions of natural language (connotations), routine propositions, and narratives. In that context we could speak of three planes of a linguistic system: stereotype as a repetitive and simplified image of reality on the level of word’s connotation, routine judgment, and common narrative. A stereotype was shown here as an unquestionable condition for any kind of spontaneous cognition and communication, which is simultaneously a condition for and a result of categorization. Repetitive character of judgments, propositions, and texts constituting the effect of categorization as is nothing else than a symptom of a systemic character of language and culture, understood as a condition for the existence of the experienced cosmos, a sphere of cognitive comfort and safety.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2021 (March)
magical thinking folklore categorization myth cognitive anthropology Teschen Silesia
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 218 pp., 2 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Jan Kajfosz (Author)

Jan Kajfosz is university professor at the Institute of Culture Studies, University of Silesia in Katowice (Poland) and associate professor at the Department of Sociology, University of Ostrava (Czech Republic). His research interests concern magical thinking, cognitive anthropology, and social constructivism.


Title: Magic in Popular Narratives
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220 pages