Magic and Authority

As Michael Bailey introduces the reader to the religious world of ancient polytheism, the modern reader is confronted with what may be a disorienting fact: they did not have a concept of magic in the same way we do. Worse, their explicitly religious and socially accepted rituals often looked very much like rituals they tended to condemn. Both involved sacrifices, set words or phrases that must be said, laws of purity that must be observed, calls on spiritual forces, and the expectation that these forces would grant the petitioner the desired outcome. But while we might be tempted to erase the distinction between ancient magic and ancient religion, Bailey insists that this would be too hasty:

“This is not to say that ancient peoples drew no distinctions between what in modern terms might be described as ‘the religious’ and ‘the magical.’ To claim that a Babylonian priest regarded the cultic rituals he performed as being akin to the charms employed by a rustic healer or the spells of some maleficent sorcerer would surely be false.” (pg. 13)

There was a very real distinction between licit and illicit rituals. But in order to understand that distinction, we have to enter into the mind of an ancient polytheist—and polytheism is exactly the significant term in this discussion.

“Most ancient peoples did not conceive of a single divine force animating the entire universe. Rather, they believed in numerous deities, both their own gods and also those of other peoples, which were usually held to be real and powerful, albeit foreign, entities. In addition to deities, most ancient cultures also believed in a wide range of lesser spiritual beings inhabiting the world.” (pg. 12)

Thus the world was alive with spiritual power, with conscious beings who wielded influence over men and nature. Some of these were powerful gods who presided over certain spheres of creation—sea gods and storm gods, love gods and death gods. Others were minor nymphs of a particular spring, or dryads connected to a specific tree. There were also, of course, tribal and civic gods—gods who were intimately connected to a city or a people, whose successes and failures were directly related to the successes and failures, or the anger and satisfaction, of the god in question.

“The Mesopotamian city-states were not simply physical territories united under a ruler; they were not purely human political units. Rather, they were essentially divine or supernatural (again, the modern terms fail to catch the full and real meaning). Amid the numerous deities recognized and worshiped by the ancient Mesopotamians, each city was typically linked to a particular patron god and his or her cult. Each was centered physically around a great temple complex in which resided the scribe-priests who represented a political and social as well as a spiritual elite. Each was ruled by a priest-king who derived his authority from the god he represented. Marduk, for example, was supereme in Babylon; Assyria was the land of the god Assur.” (pgs. 13-14)

What was true of Mesopotamian city-states was also true, with variations unique to the culture, of Greek city-states. The prosperity and even survival of the city was dependent on a right relationship with its patron gods or goddesses. There was therefore something nefarious about living in Athens, for example, while worshiping a Persian deity. It indicated a certain disloyalty to one’s community, and an attachment to another. Beyond its mere symbolic importance, however, it was also the ritual infidelity to the god, who might therefore be angered and take vengeance upon the city.

The distinction between conventional religion and condemned magic, then, is not so much the actions themselves as the forces the actions appealed to. Religion was what was done to approved deities in public places on behalf of the city, and magic was what was done to alternative gods in private on behalf of an individual.

“More central to the negative reputation that accrued around most practitioners of magical arts—whether actual magoi or homegrown agyrtai, manteis, or those called by other appellations—was the notion that their actions were private and secretive, as opposed to open and public. The civic cults of the Greek city-states operated to preserve the public welfare by maintaining proper relationships with the gods. The actions of private agents, even when they benefited those who contracted them, might serve to upset the overall harmony of the cosmos and the proper ordering of society. Ultimately, there seems to have been a clear sense in the ancient world that such power was dangerous in the hands of individuals who were unregulated and unsupervised by any official structures or institutions.” (pg. 18)

This was certainly true in Greece in Mesopotamia, and if anything, it was more true in Rome. Rome had a very strong notion of its divine destiny, a sort of pre-Christian notion of being a City on a Hill, shedding the light of justice throughout the world.

“Few ancient cultures had as clear a sense of possessing a divinely appointed destiny as did the Romans, and discerning that destiny in advance was very important to them. Superstitious divination, however, typically referred to non-Roman rites or personalized prophecy rather than the public rituals designed to determine and ensure the overall destiny of Rome.” (pg. 19)

If the gods had a plan for the Romans, it behooved the Romans to know that plan. Public divination was central to Roman religion, and central to the conduct of the Roman state. If we imagine someone reading entrails, gazing at patterns in smoke or shapes in mirrors, or casting lots, or any other divinatory activity, we are likely to imagine some sort of witch or sorcerer. For the Romans, that was likely a well-respected, high-class priest.

But if the future can be told, it’s not only the state that will want to know about it. Businessmen will want to know if their venture will be a successful one, and politicians will want to know what rivals to look out for. There will be parents hopefully divining the fates of their children, and paranoids or hypochondriacs worriedly seeking to avoid the next disaster. All these and more will doubtless make their way to skilled fortune tellers of one kind or another. What would the Romans think of them?

“Likewise, personalized prophecy was regarded as presenting a significant public danger for the Roman people. Since so much of Rome’s identity was caught up in a sense of its own trajectory to future greatness, private revelations (assumedly false or at least misleading ones) that might contradict or call into question Rome’s public destiny could corrupt the will of the citizenry.” (pg. 19-20)

Private divination was an essentially anti-social practice. A good Roman was supposed to worry about the future only insofar as it coincided with the future of the Roman people. He was not to go off seeking his own independent fortune, acting in order to further interests which might diverge significantly from the Republic as a whole. Similar things could be said for other magical or “superstitious” practices, “superstitio” being the Latin word for this unauthorized divination.

“Yet the meaning of superstition was becoming broader. Perhaps because divinatory practices were so central to the Roman public cults, superstitio gradually came to imply all forms of false or non-Roman rites. It could be applied to foreign cults, which Roman authorities typically tolerated, although they also feared that these cults would somehow sap the virtue of Roman citizens… In addition, superstitio could be applied to the improper observance of Roman cultic practices. In particular, it implied excessive observance, such as the obsessive devotions that some parents apparently paid in order to ensure that their children would not suffer untimely deaths.” (pg. 20)

Throughout the ancient cultures that stood at the roots of Western Civilization, the distinction between magic or superstition and legitimate religious practice boiled down to one central concern—are you appealing to the right gods, and are you doing so in the right way? This is, at its base, a question of authority. That is, what god or spirit has legitimate authority over the one seeking help, and over the area of life in which he seeks help? If you ignore the god who has a claim over you and turn instead to a foreign god, or a spirit within your pantheon other than your people’s patron, you are likely committing some form of magic or sorcery.

Take this rubric and apply it to a distinctly Christian context. Both Aaron and Pharaoh’s priests were able to transform staffs into snakes. Witches like the one at Endor were condemned for speaking to the dead, but Christ himself spoke to Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration. Indeed, several of Christ’s miraculous healings might be mistaken for magical practice, if anyone else had done them. Consider his use of phrases like “Talitha cumi,” or the incorporation of mud and spit to heal when the Gospels are clear that he did not even need to touch someone to heal them. What separates illicit magic from legitimate use of divinely granted power?

The answer lies in the question itself: whether or not the power is indeed divinely granted. For most of Christian history, magic has been understood as functioning through the help, whether with the practitioner’s knowledge or otherwise, of demons. In the early days of the Christian Church in particular, this had to do with the way Christian authorities declared pagan gods to be lying, unclean spirits. Rites that the Romans or Greeks or Egyptians would have considered legitimate, honest worship, sacrifice, or prayer were now considered witchcraft.

This is not essentially different than the distinction the ancients made. It would be easy, then, to fall into the mistake of declaring the use of the labels “magic” or “superstition” to be merely examples of ancient chauvinism. This would be a mistake.

As Bailey points out, neither the Mesopotamian, nor the Greeks, nor the Romans necessarily objected to foreigners worshiping foreign gods. After all, in a polytheistic universe one people’s gods need not necessarily have any authority over another’s. Thus Romans allowed the cult of Isis to continue in Egypt, though they looked askance at it when it crossed the Mediterranean. Likewise, they let the Jews continued to worship Yahweh, though the same worship imported to Rome itself, whether by Jews themselves or the growing sect of Christians, was a cause for concern.

Judaism and Christianity, however, are monotheistic religions. In a polytheistic context, it might be right to let each tribe have its god, or each rock or tree or river its spirit. In a monotheistic context, however, the one God has authority over all Creation. Therefore any sort of rite designed to praise or to invoke any spirit but the one God is illegitimate in more or less the same way a Roman appealing to a Babylonian god would have been seen as illegitimate or antisocial in Rome. Sorcery is, at its base, idolatry.

This is an interesting insight in itself, but it gets more interesting when you apply the principle to realms other than the hocus-pocus of the stereotypically supernatural. It is wrong to appeal to pagan gods or spirits or occult forces for help because God alone is Lord over life and death, over one’s fortune or safety, over the fertility of your crop or the success of your business dealings, over the lives one’s children or one’s ability to attract a mate. But pagan gods are not the only things we appeal to rather than God to solve these problems.

For quite some time, Western culture has been enamored with the possibilities new technology opens up. It has brought widespread health, better diets, more efficient transportation, and whole worlds of new entertainment. We enjoy a lifestyle our ancestors could only dream of. It is perhaps not unthinkable, then, that some should look for technology to advance our power even further.

Transhumanism is a movement that seeks to change what human beings are, to fundamentally alter our natures. It promises to grant us far greater intelligence and athletic ability, to cure genetic diseases and birth defects. It wishes to help humanity escape the human condition, perhaps including death. What if aging could be cured? What if consciousness could be downloaded and stored, transcending this prisons of flesh? Alchemy could not give us the elixir of life, but perhaps only because science was not yet sufficiently advanced.

For some, technology can become like a god, promising solutions to our most difficult problems, if only we are willing to go where it takes us, however strange and unnatural that place is. Technology has worked for long years to separate sexual intercourse from reproduction, and has become more or less able to separate sex from one’s chromosomes and anatomy at birth. Such things fundamentally change what it means to exist as a human being. And with advances in our ability to manipulate genetic code, or to perform great surgical feats, things like this may be only the beginning.

If sorcery is fundamentally a question of who we turn to for help, who we believe has the power to make our lives better, then far more of us have sorcerous hearts than actively engage in pagan rituals.

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Magic and Superstition in Europe

The first stop on our journey is Michael D. Bailey’s Magic and Superstition in Europe: A Concise History from Antiquity to the Present. As its title suggests, it is a single-volume overview of anything that might be called magic, witchcraft, or superstition, beginning with the Greco-Romans and ending with the late twentieth century flourishing of Wicca. It is a good read, each chapter highly thought-provoking in its own right, and serving overall as an admirable introduction to the subject.

Having read through this once, I’m going to lay out my understanding of the history of the subject as presented in the book. In future posts, I’m going to take a single chapter or a thread and elaborate on it. There’s a lot here.

 

Do Ut Des: “Magic” in the Ancient World

 

The beginning of any history of magic has to acknowledge that the word itself has a history, and so does the concept it describes. There is no single Latin or Greek term for “magic” as we understand it, largely because they did not even have the concept. The idea of a particular sphere of ritual action separate from religion, which relied on supernatural forces to produce desired effects, that was in some sense opposed to “ordinary” mechanical or scientific ways of interacting with the world, relies on assumptions about science, religion, and the way the world works that were pretty foreign to the Greeks and the Romans.

To begin with, what we call magic would have hardly been distinguishable from ordinary pagan religious practice. In a polytheistic context, each god or goddess had his or her own sphere, and it was perfectly reasonable to appeal to them for help within that sphere. For example, one might appeal to Ceres for a good harvest, Mars for victory in war, or Poseidon for calm seas. Each of these gods likewise had their own particular rituals and appropriate sacrifices. Most gods, for example, preferred white animals, while chthonic gods such as Pluto or Hecate preferred black victims.

Roman religion in particular relied on the concept of “do ut des”—a Latin phrase meaning, roughly, “I give, that you might give.” That is, if all the rituals were performed correctly, the right words said, the right sacrifice offered, the gods were honor-bound to grant the request of their worshipper. If they did not, this was seen to be a moral failing on the part of the gods, and future sacrifices might be withheld.

In addition to such a strong belief in the importance and power of ritual, Romans frequently consulted the gods and the natural world for signs regarding the future. Whole disciplines were devoted to reading the behavior and flight paths of birds, or the appearance of a sacrificial victim’s liver. The stars, of course, had also been read since Babylonian times.

But all of this existed in a very specific context—public, approved civic religion. Sacrifices were not a private affair, but a matter of state. It was believed that Rome maintained its position of power through its proper relationship with the gods, which was, in turn, maintained by the regular performance of the appropriate rituals and sacrifices. Likewise, the various forms of divination were used in senatorial and imperial decision-making, or to determine the proper actions to be taken by a community in the coming year.

This means that there was a category of activities which the Romans might have considered the rough equivalent of what we call “magic,” “witchcraft,” or “superstition.” This was the area of the observance of religious ritual for private gain. A superstitious individual—in the sense of the Latin word superstitio—was someone who habitually consulted diviners concerning their private life, or worried excessively about his relationship with the gods. Equally suspect were people who performed rituals to gain the love of someone not otherwise willing, or to curse an enemy, or to gain personal wealth. Certain of these activities might even be proscribed by law, though only for their harmful intent or effects, and not because they were “magic” per se.

In Greek-speaking regions, these things might be done through a combination of religious rituals and the use of potions brewed by a pharmakon. This purveyor of magic elixirs, and sometimes deadly poison, gave its name to the modern pharmacist. Next time you go to pick up a prescription, stop and consider that the white-robed individual across the counter is the distant vocational offspring of Greek potion makers.

Often these people who performed rituals for personal gain did not do so through the ordinary Roman gods, like Jupiter or Poseidon. For their special needs, they sought out a special brand of power. They often called on foreign gods, such as Isis, Thoth, various Babylonian deities, or—perhaps more surprising to Christian readers than it should be—to Yahweh. In desperate times these foreign gods worshipped by strange rituals might be counted on to listen when Apollo would not, or to provide help where Venus would not.

This means that the type of “magic” that ancient Romans and Greeks feared was not simply anyone who called upon supernatural entities to do their bidding, but specifically people who did so outside the bounds of public religion. These were self-interested, anti-social people who threatened the social fabric by threatening Rome’s—or a given Greek city’s—right relationship with the gods.

A word should be said about Hebrew views of magic in antiquity. Bailey points out, rightly, I believe, that the Hebrew conception of forbidden practices we would term magical was not terribly different than Greeks’ or Romans’. The problem was not supernatural power—Moses and Elijah displayed that. Nor was it the use of strange rituals or talismans—say, lifting up a staff or marching around a city seven times and blowing trumpets. The problem was simply one of appealing to foreign gods or to inappropriate methods of appealing to, or even openly attempting to manipulate, God Almighty. Magic isn’t non-science, it’s idolatry.

 

Daemones and Pagan Leftovers

 

As Christianity outgrew its Judean heartland, it made a distinctive contribution to the history of magic. While at times the Bible speaks of pagan gods as non-entities, often in speaks of them as unclean, lying spirits—demons.

The word “demon” is rooted in the Latin daemones, itself a derivative of the Greek daimones. Both words refer to intermediate spirits, somewhere between the true gods and goddesses and us mere mortals. The forms of “magic” the Greeks and Romans dismissed often appealed to these mid-level spirits. They didn’t have a problem with the spirits themselves, however, so much as they saw appeal to them as a bit excessive.

When Christians came along, it was understood that all idolatrous worship, especially that which seemed to get results, was directed towards specifically evil spirits. That is, the daemones were not to be trusted. They were servants of Satan sent to deceive mankind and draw them away from the rightful worship of God. Furthermore, all the Olympian gods of Greco-Roman religion also fell into this category. In short, Christians collapsed the distinction between respectable public sacrifice and shady private superstitio, condemning all pagan rituals as idolatry.

As Christianity spread and became dominant, traces of paganism held on. This was true in enclaves where Greco-Roman or Germanic paganism were actually practiced, and it was also true in places where ostensible converts still practiced what we would today call folk-magic without much thought as to how it worked. This new, broader definition of “superstition” created a divide between honest worship, even if saints sometimes worked miracles, and wicked “magic,” which was cooperation with demons, even if the participant was ignorant of the fact.

The interesting thing about this period of the history of magic, though, was that these practices were not viewed with excessive animosity. Rather than painting those who performed these acts as Satan-worshippers, magic users were portrayed as ignorant, backwards rabble who superstitiously held on to the old ways in a new era. It was generally assumed that, just as the public Roman religion had vanished, folk-magic and superstitions originating in pagan religious practices would also vanish over time. This was not a demonic conspiracy against the church, but merely one of many foolish practices that would vanish with the onward march of the Gospel.

 

The Learned Magician

 

The next development in the history of magic is, in my opinion, the most terrifying.

When you think of medieval sorcerers, of magicians from the age of knights and damsels, of old-fashioned wizards, what name immediately comes to mind? If you’re like most people, the only answer is “Merlin.”

Merlin is not a leftover pagan, nor is he a superstitious peasant. He is a learned man, a reader of books, who mutters spells high in his tower and commands abilities far beyond what is natural. There is a sinister cast to him, but he is decidedly on the side of Arthur and his knights. These, in turn, are on the side of the Church. Merlin, like them, is presumably a Christian. But how can one work magic, which the Church understood to involve the use of demonic power, and yet remain on the side of the angels?

In the High Middle Ages, a new way of looking at magic developed. It was still conceived of as an art that dealt with demons, but now it was stripped of the lingering paganism that had once defined it. These demons were now thoroughly Biblical, denizens of a cosmos quite separate from what any rival religion might conceive of. And had not Christ and the apostles commanded demons? Mostly to flee, certainly, but had not Christ been given all authority in heaven and earth? Did not has followers partake in that?

The idea developed that, while a Christian certainly should not worship or make pacts with demons, it was not entirely out of bounds to command them. One legend—originating, so far as I can tell, from Islamic folklore—had Solomon commanding armies of demons and using them to build the Temple. Indeed, the fabled Ring of Solomon supposedly still allowed people to command these dark forces, and books might be found claiming to teach the reader the proper rituals necessary to conjure and enslave them.

Thus magic was given a decidedly scholarly and Christian cast, though assuredly not one widely endorsed by the Church. To most in authority, trafficking with demons was still trafficking with demons, even if one claimed to do it by the power of Christ. These were unclean creatures, not to be trusted.

This medieval “high magic” is more terrifying to me than any Satanic witches or dark pagan sorcerers. To be caught up in it, one does not have to be sinisterly evil—one can even have an apparently sincere faith in Christ. All that is required is a certain foolishness, a certain arrogant overestimation of one’s abilities or the trustworthiness of one’s grimoires. This is a situation ripe for demonic deception and eventual tragedy.

Of course, these learned magicians were not the only ones to continue doing what we would call magic in that era. Folk magic continued on, as ever, unheeding of official condemnation. In many ways, it had not changed terribly much. The names of old gods were replaced by saints, spells began to resemble prayers or incorporate snatches of Scripture or liturgy, and talismans began to include saints’ relics and the communion wafers. The common folk did not believe they were trafficking with demons, nor did they have a sophisticated theological or scientific explanation for how their little charms worked. They simply believed that the did, and kept on doing them.

 

A Satanic Conspiracy

 

With the rise of high magic practiced by learned men, often clerics of one kind or another, the Church came to understand such things as a much greater threat than they had previously. This sorcery was not the last gasp of an old religion, but signs of unorthodoxy, a disregard for authority, and great folly within Christendom itself.

This was also the period where the rot of heresy had begun to seep into France, Italy, and other regions. The Cathars and Albigenses in particular held alarmingly popular heretical beliefs, beliefs that seemingly could not be vanquished by the preaching of right doctrine alone. Indeed, it would take a crusade to wipe them out.

In Spain, another threat loomed. As the Christian kingdoms slowly drove their Muslim enemies out of the peninsula, they were stuck with a mixed population of Jews, Muslims, and Christians who had gotten along far too well with their former rulers. These were encouraged, by sometimes less than noble means, to convert en masse to Christianity. Of course, many simply did this to make life easier under the new regime, and some still practiced the old religion in secret. Thus Christian lands and Christian churches might be filled not only with secret heretics, but with complete unbelievers.

The Church in Spain and elsewhere soon developed legal processes to root out these heretics, drawing on the old Roman judicial system of judges who actively investigated the cases set before them. This method had been called inquisitio, and it gave rise to what we now call the Inquisition.

The growing concern with heresy met insecurities about high magic and old-school condemnation of peasant superstition and combined to create a far more sinister picture of sorcery. While witchcraft largely went unprosecuted, and often only lightly punished, in earlier eras, this had been due to the rather low opinion people had of magic as a threat to Christendom. After the rise of heresies, however, people began to understand magic not as something lonely men did in high towers, or old spinsters did in rural villages, but as something very like the Cathar or Albigensian threat—a conspiracy of heretics opposed to the true faith.

Witch trials slowly became more common, and began to incorporate charges that the accused flew great distances to meet other witches and cavort with demons. This is the beginning of the idea of the witches’ Sabbath, though it was called a witches’ synagogue at the time. At these places, they openly entered into pacts with demons, though not usually Satan himself. They engaged in orgies, and sometimes in more violent expressions of depravity. The idea of a coven of diabolical witches had been born

Contrary to popular belief, however, this did not lead to sudden, continent-wide hysteria and mass persecution of the supposed witches. This mythology of witchcraft as something done in groups, and as decidedly bent on the overthrow of Christendom, grew slowly. It was not until the medieval era gave way first to the Renaissance and then to the Reformation that the witch trials as we understood them truly began. By this time, the folklore was already well-established.

 

Wisdom from the Ancients

 

While the dominance of Christianity had established a pretty thorough understanding of magic as a distinct activity which used rituals to call upon demons to perform various tasks, the things that we would consider magical were never wholly placed within that category. Astrology, a highly complex and sophisticated discipline bearing little resemblance to modern memes about zodiac signs, was given an entirely rational scientific explanation which relied in no way on the power of demons. Alchemy, a pursuit we would consider equally mystical and unscientific, was based on rigorous experimentation and a deep knowledge of the natural world as medieval understood it.

In the period we today refer to as the Renaissance, a similar attitude opened up the West new kinds of magic. In one of those periodic floods of ancient Greek texts, or their Arabic translations, into the West, one set of works in particular led to a new understanding of the natural world: the Corpus hermeticum.

Medieval science was essentially an elaboration on Aristotle, with few texts by Plato being preserved in the Latin West. This did not mean, however, there was no interest in Plato’s thought. His reputation was great, and many were eager to rediscover his works. How much more exciting, then, would it be to discover the works that had inspired him?

The Corpus hermeticum was a collection of works purporting to set out ancient Egyptian wisdom recorded by the Thrice-Great Hermes. It had clear connections to Plato’s view of the universe, though scholars at the time did not realize that it was actually downstream of Plato rather than upstream. It painted a picture of a world of invisible metaphysical forces, a great hierarchy of being descending outward from the from the eternal, transcendent One. With great wisdom, one could come to understand and manipulate these forces, gaining both an understanding of the true nature of the universe, and a certain degree of mastery over it.

While this “Hermetic” magic was spreading among the elite, another source of power was entering Christendom through Jewish sources: Kabbalah. Kabbalistic magic held that all of Creation was constantly emanating from the Divine, and that since God created the world using speech, speech was the key to power over it. In particular, Hebrew was considered the original, divine language, and the most powerful words were considered to be the various names of God Himself.

Hermetic, Kabbalistic, and Neoplatonic thought all met astrological and alchemical science in this era and developed into a new brand of high magic. Learned men engaged in various rituals and investigated the true nature of the universe, using ancient secrets to seek out new knowledge and advance beyond medieval learning. This might involve working with demons, but it might just as likely mean manipulating the entirely benign, but hidden and poorly understood, forces of the universe.

The strange reality of Renaissance magic that may seem counterintuitive to those of us living in age after the Enlightenment is that magic was studied, practiced, and expounded upon by many of the same people who were advancing science. To people at the time, Newton’s gravity was every bit as much of an occult force as anything magicians like Cornelius Agrippa claimed understand. Copernicus’s theory of a sun-centered universe proved interesting not because it better explained the motion of the stars at the time—it didn’t—but because Neoplatonic, Hermetic, and Kabbalistic thought tended to consider the sun the most important astral body. Johannes Kepler was a firm believer in astrology and the occult influences of the stars upon earthly bodies. Robert Boyle, founder of the Royal Society, was an adept alchemist, and Isaac Newton himself has been described as “the last of the age of magicians.” Bailey even makes a solid case that the empiricism and skepticism of the Enlightenment was not based on a less “occult” understanding of the natural world, but of one that was far more.

 

Magic in the Age of Reason

 

But the Enlightenment did come, and Renaissance magic did not flourish half so well as its twin brother Science. Skeptical and materialist views of the universe grew popular among the elite, and high magic died a slow and tragic death. Folk magic, of course, meandered onward, adopting new ways in freshly the freshly reformed lands of the Protestant north, and preserving the old ones in the now decidedly Roman Catholic south.

But magic would not stay dead forever. With the Enlightenment spread societies like the Freemasons, with secret rituals, mysterious initiations, and a hierarchy of ranks. Out of this spun other societies which sought to revive ritual magic, now with a much more muddled and Romantic theory, and fighting an uphill battle against the disenchanted world around them.

Besides the rise of magical secret societies, there was also a growing interest in folk magic. Enlightened elites felt alienated from their own peasantry, but had also caught something of a nationalist fever. Thus they sought out traditional beliefs and practices supposedly unique to their nations, including popular magic. Some began spinning tales of pagan survivals, of worshippers of the old gods who had held on through long centuries of Church dominance. A few German nationalists in particular began recasting the Early Modern witch trials as Catholic attempts to stamp out traditional Aryan culture.

The grow disciplines of folklore and anthropology also developed new explanations for the meaning of old myths and religious rituals. Theories about the centrality of fertility cults to ancient pagans became quite popular, and were sometimes combined with rumors of pagan survivals. In the early twentieth century, Margaret Murray proposed that witchcraft was actually an ancient pagan religion that had survived down the centuries, might still be working in secret in the present day.

In the 1950’s, a man named Gerald Gardiner capitalized on this idea. He claimed to have come into contact with a coven of Murray’s witches in the south of England, and they had passed on their beliefs and rituals to him. Witchcraft was at last fully decriminalized in Britain not long after, and he began spreading his new religion. He called it Wicca, and it became the fastest-growing neopagan religion in the modern era.

A few decades before, a man named Aleister Crowley had gotten involved in ritual magic through the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. He left and developed his own magical theory, which would be adopted and adapted by Anton LaVey in the 1960’s. He founded an outwardly Satanic religion that was in reality a kind atheistic play-acting which adopted much of the external trappings of the witchcraft rumored to exist in the early modern era. While much less popular than Wicca, LaVeyan Satanism did much to shape modern perceptions of magical practice.

 

What Bailey Leaves Out

 

Bailey traces magic from pagan religion, through folk magic and learned command of demons, past Renaissance theories of the secret workings of the universe and early modern beliefs about Satanic conspiracies, to modern Wicca. All of this is, in one way or another, a straightforward part of the Western magical tradition. This will form the main body of what I hope to blog through in the weeks and months to come. However, this does not quite cover every kind of magic one might run into today.

If one lives in the Deep South, Lousiana Voodoo is as popular as any variety of Wicca, and Santeria is at least as common in the United States as any order of ritual magicians. The folk magic of Britain continued developing in Appalachia and the Ozarks and other backwoods of the United States. The age of the internet has also brought about chaos magic, and other theories of the occult. Michael Bailey provides an admirable overview of the broadly Western mainstream of magic, but to understand our modern context, our investigations will have to take us in other directions.

But for now, I hope to follow up this rough summary of the book’s content with a few more posts on specific chapters and specific aspects of the history of magic and superstition as Bailey presents them. There is a lot of gold here, and it is well worth mining before we move on to other works.

Four Reasons to Study the History of Witchery

When I told my father that I had recently bought a copy of Magic and Superstition in Europe, a concise overview of the history of magic and witchcraft in Western Christendom, his response was predictable.

“Why?”

Of course, there is a fairly obvious personal answer: “Because I want to.” Occasionally I develop an itch to learn about something, and acquire books to satisfy my curiosity. Since college, I’ve gotten a little more systematic about it. This time it’s witchcraft, but next it may very well be Calvin’s sensus divinitatis or the history of American Indians. There’s no telling.

But I also think there are very good reasons for classically educated Christians and amateur scholars in 2017 America to educate themselves on the topic. Here I’m going to present four.

Understanding Pop Culture

Many evangelical Millennials came of age in the wars over magic in Harry Potter. This was at roughly the same time that Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed brought magic into the living room, and Supernatural parked its Impala on pop culture’s Main Street not long after.

This was nothing new, of course. As many Potter partisans were quick to point out, Lewis and Tolkien had been slinging spells, or at least enchanted objects, long before the boy with the scar came on the scene. Out of Tolkien had grown most of the modern fantasy genre, including the infamous (to those of us with a fundie streak) Dungeons & Dragons.

Dungeons & Dragons in particular got caught up in a late 70’s and 80’s Satanic panic, wherein Christians became worried about creeping occult influences on their children, in pop culture, and in society at large. This made Hollywood plenty of money with flicks like The Exorcist, The Omen, Rosemary’s Baby, and other Satanic and occult-themed horror movies. The ultimate parody of this trend came with that iconic story of bumbling exterminators facing off with ancient Middle Eastern demons: Ghostbusters.

With the rise of the internet, Dungeons & Dragons style worlds found a new platform in Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games—MMORPGs, or MMOs for short. Everquest and World of Warcaft introduced people to various forms of magic and spellcasters on an unprecedented scale, and in an entertaining format. The internet also allowed people with a more serious interest in previously somewhat fringe topics of divination and spellcasting to gather for the first time in online communities. Both fantasy nerds and real neopagans flourished in the age of the internet.

Today’s pop culture is soaked in magical lore, whether it’s movies or TV, fantasy or horror, MMO’s or tabletop games, entertaining podcasts or YA novels. The sources they draw upon are widely varied, and the way those traditions interact is extremely complex. Some of this stuff is just old-as-dirt fairytale tropes, and some draws on genuine magical traditions—some more sinister than others. All of it influences the people around us. It’s a jungle out there, and it pays to have some idea of what’s going on.

Understanding Classic Literature

As someone steeped in the classics from an early age, and attempting to pass that tradition on, I think it’s pretty important to understand old books. These are the values and ideas of the people that went before us, the people who shaped our world. They have things to teach us about God, about life, and about ourselves. And they frequently mention magic.

I’ve taught through Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain before. It’s a great book, and the source for much later Arthurian legend. Perhaps Geoffrey’s greatest contribution to the mythos is the figure of Merlin, the archetypal wizard. But who is Merlin? Where does his power come from? How does it work? And, considering general Christian opposition to the use of occult forces, how did the writers, readers, troubadours, and listeners reconcile such activity in so close an associate of the supposedly Christian King Arthur?

Fast forward to Shakespeare, and similar problems arise. The Tempest features a magician in a prominent role, along with his familiar spirit—neither of which are villains. Shakespeare’s contemporary, Edmund Spenser, wrote The Faerie Queene, which features other magic worker from a more sinister perspective. Why is there ambiguity here?

As we approach the modern era, as strange thing happens. These bearded men with great books chanting strange words in their towers are replaced by cackling witches who make pacts with the devil and fly around in the night abducting babies. The famous European witch trials occurred during and after Shakespeare’s day, and made their way to the New World where they became fixed in New England lore at Salem, Massachusetts. What caused such a dramatic transition in our understanding of magic from a learned pursuit to a field dominated by old and illiterate peasant women?

Going back through time, to the Greeks and the Romans, also lands us in interesting territory. The sorts of things we tend to condemn as magic—reading the future in the entrails of animals or the flight paths of birds, sacrifices for a good harvest or fortune in war, strange ceremonies by moonlight—were all more or less accepted religious practices in a certain context, but might also be viewed suspiciously in the hands of a Circe or Medea. What are we to make of this? What separates the Roman religious principle of do ut des—“I give (sacrifices) that you might give (certain benefits)”—from magical charms? What divides sinister use of semidivine power from legitimate invocation of the gods?

The picture isn’t any less replete with questions when you turn to the ultimate canon of Western Christendom, the Bible. In the pages of the Old Testament we find Moses and Aaron duking it out in a wizard’s battle with Pharaoh’s magicians, who are decided portrayed as having powers of their own. The witch of Endor legitimately summons Samuel’s spirit for Saul, and in the New Testament Paul casts an actual spirit of prophecy out of a slave girl, thus lowering her market value. Even the magi found Christ through astrological means, divinely ordained though they may have been. Magic seems to be a very real thing in the pages of the Bible, though what it is and how it operates are not always clear. And, while the condemnation of large chunks of it is not disputed, the exact differences between, say, Joseph or Daniel’s dream interpreting and that of pagan diviners is worth looking into.

Understanding the Contemporary Religious Landscape

While the Satanic Panic may have been overblown, new religious movements have certainly been on the rise since the early twentieth century, if not before. Many of these deal with magic. Whether we are talking about LaVeyan Satanism or the nature-centered world of Wicca, self-professed witches are no longer uncommon in today’s religious landscape. Wiccanism in particular has a large number of adherents, enough for the US armed forces to start using Wiccan chaplains and burial rites.

Of course, not all modern magic-users are so inspired by the notion of witchcraft as these two groups. Neopagan religions of various kinds seek to reconstruct ancient polytheistic religions, whether Norse, or Celtic, or Greek, or Roman, or even Slavic. Several of these pagan traditions include the use of magical rites that, while not central to their faith, are certainly a prominent part of it. Individually, any of these movements is almost negligible, but together they are a force to be reckoned with in modern society. With the rise of the alt-right, Norse and Germanic Neopaganism in particular are worth knowing about.

Then of course there are more traditional magical systems which either are religions or form a part of religious practice in the United States. These include things like Voodoo, Hoodoo, Santeria, and Appalachian folk magic. Such things have gained a certain degree of acceptance in today’s pluralistic culture, alongside interest in astrology, palmistry, and tarot cards. In many places in the US, but especially in the Deep South, this is a part of the world you’re going to run into from time to time.

There are also more esoteric forms of magic. Enochian magic, Kabbalah, Rosicrucianism, and other practices have seen a renaissance in the age of the internet, and find their way onto the silver screen and onto the printed page in more frivolous contexts. One pair of modern magicians in particular engaged in a magical duel over the course of several years via the production of comic books embodying their different magical ideals. It is a strange world we live in.

Now many Christians are not likely to be thoroughly surrounded by any of this, but most of us have at least been around that world at some point in our lives. I personally have known multiple magic users from several of the above-mentioned traditions, so knowing about their beliefs is just part of getting to know my neighbors.

As Christians, we are called to love our neighbors, to seek the good of the city God has placed us in, and to evangelize. All three of these callings require us to know about the religions and practices that surround us. Today, that means knowing a little about the roots and varieties of magical practice. The people we must love may engage in it or be influenced by it, the cities God has placed us in include and accept citizens who practice it, and the men and women we are sent to call back to Christ may be mired deep within it. To be Christians in today’s world requires a basic literacy on the topic of magic.

Understanding Our Heritage

Part of honoring our fathers and mothers, and part of understanding the world God has placed us in, is simply knowing its history. Magic and witchcraft have been part of Western Christendom since its foundation. It features as part of the stories we tell, and as part of the lives that have lived within it. At some times the part it has played has been minor, but at others it has been momentous.

The Scientific Revolution has often been understood in contrast to the superstitious “Middle Ages,” but the truth is that Copernicus, Kepler, Boyle, Newton, Tycho Brahe, and dozens of other figures of early scientific history and Renaissance humanism were steeped in alchemy, astrology, Neoplatonic spirituality, hermeticism, and Kabballah. Science and magic advanced together in the early modern era, and were only separated much later, and by a concerted effort, during the Enlightenment.

Around the same time, and during the Reformation, the witch hunts were overtaking Europe. This widespread rooting out of Satan’s minions imprinted itself on our cultural psyche, living on in story and metaphor to this day. There is also something to be said for the argument that it played a part in building the early modern state, not to mention got deployed for propaganda purposes in the advancement of secularism.

Much earlier, magic manifested as the last remnants of old paganism lingering on into early Christian Europe, and it re-emerged in nineteenth century Romantic revivals of purportedly ancient, national folk culture. Understanding early Christian Europe and understanding early secular Europe both require some understanding of magic and superstition in those time periods.

From Christ and the magi, Paul and the prophetess, to the elimination of the Knights Templar and the rise of Romantic nationalism, magic is tightly interwoven into the history of Western Christendom. If we are to understand who we are and where we came from, we must understanding something about this topic.

A Plan of Attack

I have something of a vested interest in both classical and contemporary literature, in both the historical Western culture and the contemporary religious landscape. For these reasons, as well as general curiosity, I’m going to be investigating the history of witchcraft and magic. My goal will be to determine how major varieties of magical practice and belief have changed over time, as well how the perception of them has changed over the centuries.

As I said at the beginning, I’ve been getting a little more organized about these things, so I’ve made a syllabus for myself. I will be reading seven generally well-respected and often academic books on the subject, which will hopefully combine to provide a solid overview history of witchcraft and magic in the Christian West. Along with the readings, I’m going to be doing some outlining, note taking, and summarizing. My plan is to publish the summaries and miscellaneous thoughts on the subject here on this blog. This will both force me to review and summarize what I have learned, and will hopefully serve as an accessible intro to the subject for people who would rather not do so much esoteric reading.

If you want to follow along, however, these are the books I will be reading, in the order I will be reading through them:

  1. Magic and Superstition in Europe by Michael D. Bailey
  2. Magic in the Ancient Greek World by Derek Collins
  3. Magic, Witchcraft and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds: A Sourcebook by Daniel Ogden
  4. Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700: A Documentary History by Alan Charles Kors & Edward Peters
  5. Magic in the Middle Ages by Richard Kieckhefer
  6. The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe by Brian P. Levack
  7. The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft by Ronald Hutton

I hope this post has inspired you to follow along as I blog through them, because I’m not even done with the first one, and this is already a fascinating subject. I’ve discovered insane Roman epics, hilariously stubborn medieval peasants, exasperated inquisitors reining in over-enthusiastic magistrates, eccentric and unpopular authors of renowned witch-hunting manuals, apparently pious clerics under the impression they can command demons, and theological insights into the nature of prayer, magic, and authority. It’s a wild world, fully worth diving into.