A Supernatural War
Magic, Divination, and Faith during the First World War
- ISBN: 9780198862659
- Published By: Oxford University Press
- Published: October 2021
Owen Davies’ A Supernatural War: Magic, Divination, and Faith during the First World War is a valuable contribution to the growing scholarship on religion, science, and magic that examines these discourses from the early modern period through the present day. The book would be a useful companion to Bruno Latour’s famed We Have Never Been Modern (Harvard University Press, 1993), because the debates over whether these practices and beliefs are licit or illicit are largely a function of the deeper and much more anxiety-producing crux: how do we reconcile Europe’s self-perception as rational and “disenchanted” when soldiers claimed to see ghosts on the battlefield and consulting fortune tellers was widespread?
In the opening chapter, “A War Full of Wonder,” Davies presents primary sources highlighting the ways in which magic and occultism were popular among soldiers and civilians. He provides examples where the term “superstition” is used to denigrate fortune tellers or soldiers carrying talismans for protection.
Chapter 2, “Prophetic Times,” describes early 20th century efforts to predict whether there would be a large-scale conflict between European powers, as well as ascertaining who would prevail in such a war. Nostradamus’s prophecies were key sources, but so as were Britain’s noted astrologists.
Chapter 3, “Visions, Spirits, and Psychics,” looks at personal experiences recorded during the war, including visions of white crosses, the angel of Mons, and ghosts. Davies differentiates between mainline and evangelical Protestant positions on these phenomena. The former regarded guardian angels as “Catholic superstition,” but the latter “embraced it as an expression of God’s immanence, and ‘His’ continued intervention in human affairs” (57). The Catholic Church, meanwhile, considered spiritualism’s practice of contacting the deceased through a medium to be demonic (76-77). That a large percentage of mediums were women is a key reason that powerful religious organizations objected to the practices.
In chapter 4, “Telling Fortunes, Telling Tales,” Davies turns his focus to the rise of fortune tellers during this period. Their services were sought out by people from all echelons of society and became much more popular than spiritualist mediums. Practitioners encountered legal issues due to overlap with phrenology and palmistry, both forbidden under the Vagrancy Act. Spiritualists differentiated between their methods for contacting the dead—geared towards comforting the bereaved—and predicting the future.
Chapter 5, “Battlefield Luck,” outlines protective charms used by soldiers. Davies argues that “it did not matter what the item was: the potency was unlocked by the intimate association between the giver and receiver and the parting words or unspoken sentiments that accompanied the emotional moment of bestowal” (147). These items could be very specific—such as a caul, intended to protect sailors from drowning—while others were more common, clovers, herbs, or touchwood figurines. Swastikas were extremely popular in Britain during the First World War, due to “archaeological discoveries of its global depiction and also esoteric interest in Eastern mysticism” (152). The popularity of these objects meant that some companies enjoyed immense commercial success through producing lucky charms. Additionally, there was an added layer to the anxieties provoked by soldiers’ interest in lucky charms: “Interest in the psychology and psychiatry of warfare generated observations on how the wearing of talismans and mascots was symptomatic of male infantilization when under extreme conditions” (175).
Chapter 6, “Trench Faith and Protection,” looks at the intersection of religious practices and material culture, especially miniature bibles. All European participants portrayed the war as a crusade, and the Ottomans declared it a “religious war” in 1914. Church leaders used terms like “diffuse Christianity” and “emergency religion” to describe “pervasive adherence to a non-dogmatic form of faith, which was concerned more with a personal moral code for daily life and succour in the face of fear than a guide to devotion in honour of God” (178). This war saw the greatest concentration of printed bibles ever through that point in history, resulting from the combination of improved miniaturized printing and changes in uniforms that made it possible for soldiers to carry Bibles with them. Technological advances were one key force that made these types of practices much more popular because objects (like miniature bibles) were more accessible. He also notes the presence of “New Thought” groups (Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christadelphians, Christian Scientists, the Unity movement) among soldiers. And, of course, millions of soldiers involved in the conflict were not Christian—two million Muslims were in the Ottoman forces, and one million Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims were from India. This section concludes by briefly touching on the practices of Jewish and Muslim soldiers.
The final chapter, “Aftermath,” critiques the position that the First World War serves as a temporary re-enchantment of the world, arguing instead that these practices and beliefs never really went away in the first place. The early 20th century saw the commercialization of items like talismans on an unimagined scale. Similar to the advances in military technology, advances in supernatural technologies fused “mechanization into the realm of the magical, rendered mundane the notion of life after death, and psychologized the psychic realm” (232).
One of this book’s strengths is the variety of materials that Davies uses to make his argument: postcards, almanacs, personal letters, official pronouncements by religious, military, and civilian leadership. He builds the case that magic was not only of interest during this time, but was also central to the lived experience of those who went through the First World War. The gender analysis—specifically the two related threads of traditional authorities’ disapproval of women occupying influential roles and the concerns about soldiers exhibiting a growing inclination for “superstitious” behaviors—is very compelling and is a theme on which future scholarship should expand. Similar attention could have been paid to the role that class played in these debates. While the First World War certainly included participants from a great number of countries, one of the book’s limitations (no doubt due to lack of space) is a deeper analysis of magic among non-Christians. Their presence is noted, but their participation in the conflict—whether physically or supernaturally—is given superficial treatment. However, this lacuna is ripe for treatment from other scholars with the requisite expertise. While scholarship on magic is certainly growing, the majority of it is still quite Eurocentric.
Patrick J. D’Silva is visiting teaching professor in Islamic Studies, Department of Religious Studies, University of Denver.Patrick D'SilvaDate Of Review:August 30, 2023