Richard Hooker and Hermes Trismegistus

Besides the History of Witchery, I’m also interested in theology. One theologian in particular, an Elizabethan-era guy by the name of Richard Hooker, has caught my attention lately. He wrote a book called Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity as an answer to Puritans who thought the Church of England’s style of church government—its ecclesiastical polity—was unbiblical and therefore evidence of high rebellion, and a good reason not to submit to church authority.

Hooker’s response starts by examining what laws are and where they come from in the first place—not just laws the government enforces, but laws of nature, universal moral laws, and the laws given in the Bible. His major point is that the Bible doesn’t have the answers to every question, and isn’t meant to. God gave us the ability to reason, and commanded us to grow in wisdom, and so we are therefore not only allowed, but expected to use our judgment on any number of issues where the Bible doesn’t give a clear answer. For his purposes that means church government, but principles he expounds can be applied to many other issues. I highly recommend the modernized version I have been reading. Language has, after all, changed since the time of Shakespeare.

But the reason I bring this up is that I was surprised to find that Richard Hooker was familiar with one of the big names in the history of witchery: Hermes Trismegistus.

Hermes, also known as Mercury, was the Greco-Roman god of many things, magic among them. He is sometimes identified with the Egyptian god Thoth and the Norse god Odin. Some later Jewish and Christian authors identified him with the Old Testament saint Enoch, who “walked with God and was not, for God took him.” In post-Biblical legends, he is supposed to have been a particularly holy man who was therefore given quite a bit of wisdom, which he then passed on to his sons. In more occult readings of this story, this means secret, magical wisdom which only initiates have access to.

The Corpus Hermeticum is the body of work attributed to this figure, referred to by readers of the work as “Hermes Trismegistus.” The philosophy contained in these books inspired a lot of more high-class, mystical and ceremonial magic in the later medieval period and beyond. One of the more recent magical societies, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, draws inspiration from him, as do other modern practitioners.

So imagine my surprise when I found this inspirer of magicians referenced in the very respectable book of a quite orthodox theologian. Of course, any confusion is quickly cleared up when one pays attention to how Richard Hooker references Hermes.

The first reference in Book I comes as Hooker is arguing that God does everything according to a plan, a sort of law He has established for Himself.[1] Having stated his case, and before he dives into Biblical proofs, he asserts that “Even wise and learned pagans” agree on this point. He cites Homer, Anaxagoras, Plato, and the Stoics. In the midst of this cavalcade of wise pagans, he cites Hermes Trismegistus:

“…and Hermes Trismegistus admits the same when he says that the demiurge made all the world, not by hands, but by reason.”

Below, the editors note the passage he is citing. They use the Mead translation, which is as follows:

“With Reason… not with hands, did the World-maker make the universal World.”[2]

In my version, which is much older, it goes:

“The Workman made this Universal World, not with his Hands, but his Word.”

If, as I suspect, the underlying Greek word for Reason/Word is “logos,” then not only do the differing translations make sense, but there may be some additional, probably intentional, Christological significance to the statement. The passage comes from verse one of what their translation calls “The Cup or Monad,” and what mine calls “His Crater or Monas,” which is the twelfth book of the Corpus Hermeticum.

The other reference in Book I of the Laws also cites Hermes as a wise pagan who recognizes a Biblical truth.[3] That, I think, is a sensible use of such mystic texts. When they get things right, there is no harm in acknowledging it, but they are not authorities on par with Scripture. This does imply that pagan thinkers, even magical ones, can obtain a certain degree of truth through natural reason alone, and that was exactly Hooker’s point. Reason is a gift from God, and though it won’t get you everywhere you need to go, it is often quite a reliable guide, even in theological issues.

Beyond this theological point, Hooker’s use of Hermes also extends our picture of the influence of magicians on the modern world. Note only were scientists often dabblers in mystical realms, at least one major theologian of the Church of England was familiar with one of the more influential magical works in history. I don’t read enough footnoted early modern theologians to promise I’ll follow this thread, but as I continue to make my way through Hooker’s Laws I’ll certainly make note of any future references to Hermes or his ilk here.


[1] Hooker, Richard. W. Bradford Littlejohn, Brian Marr, and Bradley Belschner, editors. Divine Law and Human Nature: Book I of Hooker’s Laws: A Modernization. Lincoln, Nebraska: The Davenant Trust, 2017. Pg. 6.

[2] They cite it as “The Cup or Monad 1. Cf. The Corpus Hermeticum, trans. G. Mead (United States of American: IAP, 2009), 29.”

[3] Hooker, pg. 24.

Witchcraft and Individual Freedom

Distinctly Modern Magic

 

Sometimes we have a habit of thinking of magic as a throwback to an earlier time, a period when people didn’t exactly understand the way the world worked. Even a cursory study of the history of witchcraft, astrology, “high magic,” and related arts, however, should quickly disabuse us of this idea. Magical ways of thinking about and interacting with the world did not go away with the Enlightenment, but only changed to match the times. Certain practices became less common, others more. Some explanations for the way magic worked fell by the wayside, and others became more important.

Michael Bailey’s Magic and Superstition in Europe is merely an overview of the topic, with truly modern magic occupying only a chapter, or perhaps a chapter and a half if you draw the lines more loosely. But even in this short space, Bailey finds room to suggest ways in which much modern magic is not merely a holdover from a bygone era, but a uniquely modern creature. One way he does this is by drawing attention to the way some have attempted to remove the stigma of participating in magical practices. In the past, he says:

“The labels of magician, sorcerer, and especially witch were assigned to individuals, whether by powerful religious or secular authorities acting through legal courts, or by neighbors acting through equally effective systems of village gossip and community opinion. Many people, indeed most, engaged in actions that some others might well have considered magical, but few judged their own personal practices to be magic, at least not in the sense that magic was transgressive or illicit.”[1]

That is, in the past people may have engaged in a little hocus-pocus, but they would hardly have accepted the label “witch.”

We throw around words like “countercultural” pretty easily today, as if that meant very little, but in many societies being countercultural was a far costlier choice than in our own. We enshrine individual freedom as one of the central tenets of our society—people should be free to believe what they want, to do what they want, to be who they want, so long as it does not directly harm another individual. Both right and left have accepted this basic idea for some time, though of course they apply it very differently, with the right embracing more economic freedom, the left more social and cultural freedom, and libertarians trying to get the best of both worlds.

In societies where social, cultural, economic, and even religious freedom were simply not on the menu, where there were no popular elections with competing parties dividing people into contrasting ideologies, the idea that one would differ significantly from one’s neighbor by choice was a bit strange. Your livelihood was, to one degree or another, dependent on finding a way to belong. If you failed to do so, you generally lacked the mobility necessary to pick up and move on to another place where you had some hope of starting over.

Bailey connects the emergence of individual freedom with new trends in magic and superstition:

“In the modern West, however, with its stress on individual freedom (and, critically, freedom from legal punishment for performing previously illicit forms of magic), certain people began to prove very willing if not eager to take on the title of magician, and later also of witch, in no small part because these titles and practices associated with them have been considered to transgress limits imposed by the structures of modern society. Yet in the very act of transgressing and to some extent attempting to transform these limits, these individuals actually behave in a very modern, at times perhaps postmodern, fashion.”[2]

Consider what it takes to sustain a society where individual freedom is important. You have to not only create the political and religious structures that allow for individual freedom, you also have to pass that value on. You have to tell stories about the courageous individual, bravely standing up against the villainous society which seeks to restrain him. To keep a liberal society going, we have to tell stories of the marginalized confronting the powerful, and being in the right. The witch is by definition marginal, a ready-made hero of a society that values individual choice and self-definition.

 

Witch Trials and Liberal Storytelling

 

There are a number of ways modern magical practices and traditions, especially Wicca, embody a distinctly liberal ethos. I hope to examine several of them more fully when we reach that part of this study. For now, however, I want to draw attention to one of the more interesting ways in which witchcraft lends itself to the “brave individual vs. the world” narrative: the witch trials.

If there’s anything we know about witches, other than brooms, hats, and cauldrons, it’s that the Church loved to burn them. The middle ages was one long slog of random women tied to stakes and set on fire, maybe because their neighbors didn’t like them, and maybe because Judge Claude Frollo is repressed and doesn’t know how to deal with it. We all know that millions of women were killed this way. It was practically a holocaust. More specifically, it was a male-driven holocaust perpetrated mostly against women.

This is, of course, a gross exaggeration in almost every detail. To begin with, rather than millions of people killed, the European witch trials probably claimed less than 100,000 lives, spread across the entire continent, and over three centuries.[3] More likely, the number was actually between forty and fifty thousand.[4]  Moreover, the witch trials were not a medieval phenomenon, but an early modern one. The worst half century was from 1580 to 1630, well after both the Reformation had ended the monopoly of Roman Catholic religious power, and after the Scientific Revolution had already begun.[5] Also, while the trials were certainly directed more often at women, on average 25 percent of the accused were men, though in pockets like Normandy the number might actually be 75 percent, or over 90 percent in Iceland.[6] Furthermore, it was not the Roman Catholic Church or the Spanish Inquisition that drove these trials. Trials, conviction, and execution were all far more common in places where centralized church or state government had less influence, not where they had more.[7] In fact, Spain, home of the famous Inquisition, executed far fewer witches than almost any other country in Europe, with Italy not far behind. This number, for the curious, is a mere 300 in the century from 1560 to 1660, the height of European witch trials.[8]

Fifty thousand spread across three centuries, for the curious, is about 167 people a year. This was spread across the kingdoms of England, Scotland, France, Spain, and Portugal, as well as the patchwork quilt of Italian city-states and the realms of the Holy Roman Empire, as well as Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden, Iceland, Poland, Switzerland, and other assorted European nations. Massive hunts were not the norm, but the exception. Rather than burnings in every village for the entire course of the middle ages, we ought to imagine sporadic and isolated events spread unevenly over a very large area.

This is not to say that the witch trials were not a serious miscarriage of justice, or to minimize the suffering inflicted many no doubt innocent people. There is, however, a rather large gap between our picture of what happened, and what actually did happen. This ought to make us curious. Where did our picture come from?

Weirdly enough, the first group to really embrace this notion of the European witch trials was the Nazi party:

“By the mid-twentieth century, the notion that medieval and early modern witches had actually been practitioners of a pre-Christian, pagan religion…had gained considerable credence. The Nazi leadership decided that witches would make useful symbols of northern European völkisch culture, in opposition to essentially Mediterranean Christianity, which was, moreover, rooted in Judaism.”[9]

As the Third Reich expanded, the SS’s “Special Witch Unit” went through records of witch trails in various regions, hoping to use them for propaganda purposes. [10] The Nazi brand of feminism—wherein Aryan women were decidedly superior to the men of other races—even adopted a line common to later feminist takes on witchcraft, proclaiming that it was an assault on Aryan womanhood by degenerate Christian men.[11] The Nazi’s conception of a witch-holocaust was expressed in the 1935 pamphlet Der christliche Hexenwahn, or “The Christian Witch-Craze.” A year before, another leader of the German pagan movement, Mathilde Ludendorff, printed Christliche Grausamkeit an Deutschen Frauen, “Christian Cruelty to German Women,” which claimed that approximately nine million women had been killed throughout the witch hunts.[12]

None of this is to suggest any sort of moral equivalence between Nazis and people who have a similar understanding of the witch hunts. To claim that because, say, Wiccans share certain beliefs about history with Nazis, that they must be similarly monstrous and wicked is patently ridiculous. Such smear tactics have no place in any sort of civil discussion, whether they are directed marginalized or at mainstream religious, ethnic, or political groups.

But there may be a reason liberal narratives of the witch hunts and the Nazi narratives are so similar. These two disparate movements had a common enemy—the Christian Church. A unified Christian Church, even in the loosest sense, can compete with the Aryan race for German loyalty, as it did in the case of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church. It can also present itself to individuals as an entity demanding moral and behavioral conformity. In either case, it is convenient to believe that the Christian Church perpetrated a massive slaughter of either fiercely independent women or of noble Aryan pagans when at the height of its power.

Every movement needs heroes, and a good hero will often breed a movement. Looking back to the exaggerated tale of nine million women slaughtered in a holocaust of superstition and prejudice, especially if one believes these women were carrying on an ancient pagan faith, it is easy to see what makes identifying with them attractive. They seemed to have a spirit of independence and courage, as well as a connection to something more ancient and apparently more good than the currently prevailing religion. If we, as a society, teach our children to value these things, is it any wonder a number of them will grow up to claim the label “witch?”

As always, it is a mistake to assume that facts automatically lead to beliefs. Often the version of history we select is driven more by which stories express our values than which has the most evidence behind it. If Christians want to win hearts, we should aim to shape hearts, not just convey information. And we should also learn to pay attention to myths and storytelling tropes, at least as much as we do to actual history.

 

 

Update: I recently began another nonfiction project offline, with an eye towards publication. While I will continue the History of Witchery project, the other has priority, and new posts will likely be more spaced out than they were in June.


[1] Bailey, pg. 216.

[2] Bailey, 216.

[3] Bailey, 176.

[4] Bailey, 175.

[5] Bailey, 143.

[6] Bailey, 149.

[7] Bailey, 161-170, but especially 162.

[8] Bailey, 165.

[9] Bailey, 236.

[10] Bailey, 236.

[11] Bailey, 237.

[12] Bailey, 238.