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.

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