Questions of agency are central for understanding ritual behavior in general and representations of ritual efficacy in particular. Religious traditions often stipulate who are entitled to perform particular rituals. Further, representations of unobservable superhuman agents are often explicitly described as the 'real' ritual agents. Recent investigations into the processes underlying action representations and social cognition can help explain how these representations arise. It is argued that paying close attention to details in the cognitive processing of ordinary actions can shed light on how ritual actions activate part of these systems while simultaneously leaving other aspects unaccounted for. This has particular effects that make culturally transmitted representations of superhuman agents highly relevant.
This chapter analyses Marcel Mauss and Henri Hubert’ classic and seminal work on magic, Esquisse d’une théorie générale de la magie from 1902–3. Following a detailed discussion of Mauss and Hubert’s theoretical argument, Sørensen focuses on their concept of mana before embarking on an investigation into how, and to what degree, cognitive theories of human representations of causality and force might shed light on the universal human proclivity to ascribe special force to certain persons, actions, or objects.