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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Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian

The Hyborian Age—where all the women were supple and all the men had mighty thews.

The world of Conan is a riot of wildly diverse races, cultures, and civilizations. Roman-inspired troops fight pseudo-Egyptians, there are echoes of Babylon and Persia, grim Celto-Germans, fearsome steppe nomads, and Picts that more closely resemble a caricature of native Americans than ancient British tribes. Speaking of native Americans, there are Aztecs too, or perhaps Mayans, though considering one of their number is named “Olmec,” it’s hard to tell. An Iranistan resembling old Orientalist legends of the Ottoman Empire butts up against a desert filled with Cossacks and a distant pseudo-India. The Far East is out there somewhere, and the jungles, plains, and deserts of “the Black Kingdoms.”

This incoherent mix of cultures from every era and part of the world is engaged in a constant struggle for survival, where only the mightiest races can survive. And race is very key in the story. If you cut Howard, he bleeds with that old style of Darwinian racism that is no longer in vogue among scientifically minded progressives. The darker the skin, the more savage—usually—the person. Peoples’ characters are defined by their bloodlines, genetics having a strange amount of weight in an otherwise Nietzschean, will-centered story universe.

The overall effect is an intriguing one. Are Aquilonians Roman or high medieval France? How did a Mesoamerican people sprout out of what appears to be Egyptian stock? Are the Egypt-inspired Stygian sorcerers actually any different from the Shemite villains Conan meets elsewhere? Are the Cimmerians Celts, or Germans, or Scythians, or something else altogether? What is the difference between the black men whose race makes them little more than animals in Conan’s sight, and the black men Conan is willing to call his friends?

This wild riot is intriguing. There’s always something new—if not terribly so—and each piece of the puzzle is just suggestive enough to make you want to fit them all together, to form a coherent view of Conan’s world. At every turn, however, you are confronted with contradictory bits of information, or some strange new problem that destroys the picture you thought was coming into view. Still, the fruitlessness of the exercise does not diminish its effect. With each new story, you are drawn into the world and wondering at every new and exotic person, city, custom, or creature that comes around the corner.

While Howard’s Darwinian racism is more central to his stories, and expressed in far more violent outbursts than in those of his friend, H. P. Lovecraft, it is qualified in an interesting way. Though Conan looks down in contempt at so many peoples for being uncivilized and barbaric, barbarism is clearly something both Conan and his creator admire. There is something more primal and more excellent about a wild man, a barbarian, a wolf in human form, than in the soft folk of more civilized stock. It is always the city folk who are the first to die, and one particular story makes it startlingly clear that all civilization goes this way. In Conan’s world, the natural state of man is wild barbarism, barely elevated above the animals. That is the place where human excellence thrives, and all civilization must ultimately bow before this fact as it is swept away in the sands of time and only the strong, the wild, the primitive remains. In such a world, how seriously can we take the supposed inferiority of Pictish hordes or Afghuli tribesmen?

Conan himself is an interesting puzzle. Like Superman, he’s impossible to beat, but he is far more cynical than that golden-age American hero. The only law he recognizes is survival, the only good he knows is the pleasure of his own belly—supple women, power, and gold. Indeed, the coldly predatory way he sometimes treats women is shocking, despite Howard’s unwillingness to cross certain lines or his studied avoidance of any entirely explicit sexual content. Conan is a creature powered largely by his lizard brain, made unstoppable by the might of his arm and his rough upbringing in the hills of Cimmeria.

Then again, Conan sometimes does make a moral choice. He saves a woman rather than treasure, goes back to save a newly-met traveling companion rather than fleeing to safety. Sometimes this is waved away with a cynical comment about how it was in his own self-interest in a roundabout way, or the careless acknowledgment that risking his neck like that was a poor choice, one he probably will not repeat. But sometimes it seems like Conan is developing human qualities that have little to do with the primitive pleasure-centers of his brain. There might be some character hiding under all the raw barbarian muscle.

The Lovecraft connection really cannot be ignored. Nods are given to that mythos, certainly, but they share a larger underlying logic. Lovecraft sets out in his work to tear down man’s presumptuously anthropocentric view of the universe. He does so by introducing his characters to inhuman beings of great antiquity, of vast power, and who little notice or care what happens to feeble humankind. Entire civilizations struggled up from the slime before us, many dwell beside us, and many more will outlive us. We are less than a footnote in the annals of cosmic history.

Howard also takes a crack at our anthropocentric presuppositions, but from another point of view. Rather than drawing attention to what gods or monsters might exist beyond the limits of our knowledge—though they certainly do exist in this world—Howard draws attention to our own continuity with the forms of life below us. All too often, Conan stumbles across a race of men that look and act a little too apelike. At other times, he runs across apes that act far too human. Conan himself is often said to have more in common with a jungle dragon or a wild wolf than he does with civilized men. He even knows the name and sign of a god the animals worship but man has long forgotten. Always we are reminded that men are merely beasts, and beasts may be more cunning, or stronger, than men. After all, many races of man have little more intelligence than the apes from which they are descended. The illusion that we are special is constantly dashed.

This is why racism is so prominent in Conan’s world. It’s the entire point. Man is just another beast in the struggle for survival. At any point he is arising from another species of ape, or diverging along two evolutionary paths. Just as the Atlanteans once overcame the other stocks of men in their world, and the Hyborians overcame the new races of men after the Cataclysm, so the “sons of Aryas” will soon wipe out what is left of Conan’s world and a new stock of human will come to dominate the surface of the planet—an event of far less consequence than such a creature might think. History is nothing but a succession of species eliminating its competitors and spreading its seed.

That, by the way, also makes the religion of the Hyborian world a far more brutal thing than in many other settings. There is no reverence among the followers of the gods, except on the part of the weak minded and easily killed. One might expect religion to be a superstition in this world, but it is not. No, the gods exist, but they are just another form of life, one more powerful than man, one that might be persuaded to help him if given the right incentive. The gods of Conan’s age are things to be cynically bartered with in acts barely distinguishable from either the summoning of a demon or the hiring of a mercenary. They are far from holy.

This is what makes the Conan movie so very different from these stories. The racism is toned far down, and the gods, though hardly treated with reverence, do not figure as hugely or as savagely in the darkness behind their sorcerous servants as they do in Howard’s originals. Where the written Conan is essentially an escapist fantasy where we get to follow the ubermensch around as his slays, lays, and plunders his way across an exoticized version of our own past, the film is a more sensitive treatment of the riddle of steel, of man’s heart and will and strength. It also asks Conan what is best in life—and wants you to seriously consider the answer as the film proceeds. While Howard’s stories certainly have some deep themes, it is rare that he explores them so philosophically. He sees, perhaps, far less meaning in life than the filmmakers, and far less wisdom to be gained from contemplating it.

Overall, the original Conan the Barbarian stories are quite a diverting smattering of adventures. Though the language gets a bit repetitive and the world never quite coheres, the zest with which Conan engages his world, the thrill of combat, of survival in dire circumstances, the wonder of strange lands—all can keep the reader spellbound for hours at a time. While I wouldn’t want to spend entire novels in this world, the occasional vacation there is enjoyable. It’s not hard to see how it inspired so many imitators and retellings. It’s quite the ride. Particularly “Beyond the Black River.”

 

Conan’s hand fell heavily on her naked shoulder.
“Stand aside, girl,” he mumbled. “Now is the feasting of swords.”

Marvel, the Gods, and Atheism

Marvel has a tense theology. Let’s lay some quick groundwork before tackling it.

One of the fundamental principles of classical monotheism is the Creator-creature distinction. Imagine a bubble. Inside is all of time and space from beginning to end. At one end of the bubble is the first domino ever knocked over, and all of reality ripples out from that first action, that first moment of creation.

Now, standing outside the bubble, outside of time and space and the chain of causality and reality as we can understand it, is the Creator. The Creator caused everything else to exist, and caused it to exist in the way it exists. But the Creator himself stands outside of that bubble of spacetime. Nothing made him exist. He just exists because that is what he does. He is the uncaused cause, the unmoved mover. Among other things.

In a monotheistic universe, all of reality is shaped by the personality and by the will of the Creator. To a very great extent, everything is just mimicking what Dad does. Each thing’s meaning is defined by the meaning he gave it, and its purpose by the intensions he has for it. And because he authored it all, he has authority over it.

In the Marvel universe, and in the imagination of those who deny any such being standing outside and independent of spacetime, this is not so. Puny mortals, superheroes, and gods all exist on a spectrum. There is no fundamental distinction between them.

Take Spiderman. Spiderman has superhuman sense, superhuman reflexes, and cool web-shooters. Your average Joe might be tempted to think his powers were supernatural, even godlike. But set him next to Thor, and there’s no comparison. Thor’s got mojo. He is so clearly godlike in comparison to Peter Parker, earthlings actually worship him. But set him next to Jean Grey (a.k.a. Phoenix), and again, there’s no comparison. So what if Thor is really strong and can fly? So what if he apparently lives for eons? Phoenix is more powerful than death itself. She controls space, she controls time, and she controls the thoughts inside a person’s mind, given a good excuse. Can most of the gods of classical paganism claim that?

And that’s why Joss Whedon’s refusal to let the Avengers bow before Loki makes sense. Sure, he’s a “god,” relatively speaking. He’s got oomph. He has power. But fundamentally he’s no different than any other creature zooming around the Marvel universe. Under the right set of circumstances, he can have all that taken away. Under the right set of circumstances—say, acquiring the Infinity Gauntlet—a puny human as klutzy and awkward and harebrained as Peter Quill might become top dog in the universe. The difference between one Marvel character and another is just degrees of power, which can be won or lost. There’s no real difference in kind.

And that’s why Captain America’s offhand remark that there’s only one God is such a big freaking deal. Perhaps Joss and the producers meant it as an offhand funny remark from a charmingly out-of-date super-patriot, but it has major implications. If Captain America believes that there is still a real God, a transcendent God, someone who stands outside of the bubble and stands as Lord of the whole shebang and judge of the actions of the Avengers and those around them—that changes everything.

In a world where the chain of being is all there is, there’s no reason for Iron Man or Thor or anybody else not to play with morality. There’s no reason they shouldn’t cross a line to get things done, let a few people die in order to save the world. Break a few eggs to make an omelet. The ends justify the means. It all comes down to what you think the greater good is and what you think you can get away with. Besides, if the other guy is bigger than you, and you let something as petty as your qualms about personal freedoms, or the sanctity of life, or whatever else get in your way, you’re going to regret it. There’s no room for that in the big leagues.

But if there is a just God standing outside of that chain of being, then you might be held accountable to him. The ends do not necessarily justify the means. Superheroes do not get a blank check and a free pass when they run around destroying cities or overthrowing democratically elected governments. There is a judge who will see justice done in the long run, and you are not him. And you might guess where I’m going with this.

Marvel’s Civil War plotline is ultimately about this question. In the grand scheme of things, are there limits to the authority of the guys with the supersuits and magic powers? Are they to be held to the standards of common mortals? Is there a God standing outside the universe who presides over the destinies of planets and the fates of the Avengers, or is it all a conflict between different degrees of power in a mechanistic cosmos? If the former, let’s put some brakes on Tony Stark. If the latter… maybe we leave the tough calls up to him. After all, he’s bigger.

Before I bring this in for a landing, let’s bring in another fictional universe. This is why H.P. Lovecraft, the materialist par excellence, is so comfortable with a universe filled with so many gods. The line between atheism and polytheism isn’t one that separates two fundamentally different mythologies. It’s just a question of terminology. If you believe that the world is one vast uncaring void, then maybe some small creatures the universe doesn’t care about worship other, larger creatures the universe also doesn’t care about. The gods of a polytheistic universe aren’t deities in any ultimate or transcendent sense, but they sure do look like it compared to the ants walking around beneath them. The Christian—or Muslim, or Jewish—disbelief in the gods of polytheism is simply nothing like the atheist’s or some polytheists’ disbelief in the Creator God.

And that is why Captain America can still not believe in pagan gods, even after hanging out with one.