Magic as Spiritual Technology, Part One: The Making of a Grimoire

Even when I take a break from the History of Witchery, I seem to stumble across it by accident. A week or so ago, I found a magical text referenced by a theologian. More recently, I asked someone in the field of Forteana—the study of bigfoot, UFOs, and similarly weird topics—to recommend researchers worth following. Among his recommendations was purported author of the fabled Necronomicon.

The History of the Necronomicon

For those who are in the know, the preceding sentence should sound a bit like nonsense. For those who aren’t, the Necronomicon is supposed to be a fictional work, a grimoire invented by horror author H. P. Lovecraft in the early twenties for use in his stories. There should be no author of the Necronomicon because the book does not exist.

But the tale only begins with Lovecraft. In an effort to add realism to his work, he advised friends to incorporate references to the Necronomicon in their own work, and he in turn referenced their fictional grimoires in his stories. For the unwary reader, it might seem like all these seemingly unrelated authors were referring to a book that genuinely existed, like The Lesser Key of Solomon or the Corpus Hermeticum. By the sixties, college kids were in on the prank, sneaking forged cards into the catalogues of university libraries so that naïve parties might stumble across the reference and assume it was real.

These pranks were only the beginning. Although occult beliefs had never really died out in the West—they barely retreated—the late sixties saw a massive upsurge in the popularity, coinciding with a similar explosion of neopagan religions that had begun with Wicca in Britain in the fifties and had now crossed the channel. Grimoires were no longer the province of pulp horror fanatics, but prizes sought after by people who might actually put them to use. The time was ripe for hoaxes.

One particularly clever forgery was known as the Simon Necronomicon. Published in 1975, the book claims that it was stolen by unorthodox priest and smuggled into the hands of certain students of the occult in New York. There it was edited and published under the leadership of someone using the name “Simon,” who preferred to keep his real identity secret. But all this would have been just one more unbelievable story, if it were not for the fact that much of the contents of the Simon Necronomicon is actually authentic.

To understand what this means, you have to know what Simon was actually claiming. He did not say that everything Lovecraft wrote about the Necronomicon was true, and did not incorporate Lovecraft’s excerpts from the book into the work itself. Even Lovecraft’s infamous author, “the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred,” is not part of Simon’s work. There are no bald invocations of Lovecraftian gods or demons. The only thing that clearly links it to Lovecraft’s work is the title of the supposed manuscript—the Necronomicon.

Simon’s Necronomicon is accompanied by a long editorial preface making it clear that he finds the link to Lovecraft as astounding and unlikely as anyone else—but it is there all the same. He then dives deep into history, proposing tentative links between entities mentioned by Lovecraft and Sumerian and Babylonian deities. Perhaps, he suggests, Lovecraft was a sort of sensitive, open to the influence of forces that actual exist, despite his lack of belief in them. Or perhaps he did indeed encounter rumors and scraps from this work and incorporated them into his fiction. Perhaps his stories were not as fictional as he thought.

The text of the Necronomicon itself is taken from a multitude of Sumerian and Babylonian sources, authentic lore merely rearranged and given a new context as a grimoire. Spells are taken from actual hymns and invocations of these ancient Mesopotamian gods, with very little material actually invented. Very little is unknown to scholars of that region and era, and even less is familiar to fans of Lovecraft’s fiction. Other than the name, it comes across as a quite plausibly historical work.

Whether the work is authentic or not—and I remain highly skeptical—it was certainly accepted as a usable grimoire. The published copies sold out, and it was copied illegally and began to spread underground. Practitioners of magic used the spells written therein, and some even came to believe the things suggested in the preface. The Necronomicon had gone from fictional tome to real-world sacred object. Simon had conjured it into existence.

Simon Says

Simon did not disappear after the success of his book. He published again, and, with the advent of the internet, began to lurk in occult forums online. Though there has been much speculation as to his identity—including the suggestion that he might be Sandy Pearlman, author of Don’t Fear the Reaper—no conclusive cases have been made, and Simon has yet to out himself.

It was in the accusations against one particular man, the Fortean researcher I referred to earlier, that I discovered the link to an old interview of Simon from 2002 that originally appeared in Behutet Magazine. While this was interesting enough on its own, something leapt out at me which was particularly relevant to a theme I have been exploring in my History of Witchery posts: Simon repeatedly uses the phrase “spiritual technology” to describe the contents of his Necronomicon.

I have written before about the links between science and magic, how there is a spirit at the heart of both that unites them. Throughout history, pagan philosophers like Plato and Aristotle and Christian theologians like Augustine and Aquinas have asked us to look at the world outside ourselves, to find external standards for human behavior. Our desires, our appetites, ought to conform to objective realities about what is good for man. It is the way of the sorcerer and of the mad scientist to instead demand that the external world be made to conform to our appetites. Rather than demanding virtue, we demand that vice be without consequences. Rather than accepting the limits and position God has imposed upon us, we seek to fashion ourselves and our world after our own image. We seek power.

As C. S. Lewis pointed out in his own critique of science and magic, there is such a thing as true or noble science. Seeking to better understand the world is near the very heart of wisdom, and science of that kind should not be condemned. The science he was far more skeptical of, the kind that seemed so much like sorcery, was applied science—technology. There we learn to impose our will on the world without always considering why the world is the way it is, and what the consequences might be for ignoring it.

I could go on a long tirade, citing fictional morality plays like Frankenstein or Jurassic Park. I could point to real-world examples, such as the social effects of the wide availability of birth control or the ecological impact of industrial civilization. This is not the place for that, as the issue of technology and how we use it is a complicated one calling for a lot of nuance, and this is a post about how a horror writer’s world-building got out of hand.

But the link here is real and interesting. Simon does not view his magic as venerable traditions handed down from his ancestors, or liturgy appropriate to the worship of gods he holds sacred. It is technology. It is a tool. If you follow the procedures, you will get a result. That is very scientific way of looking at things, even if the science in question deals with the spiritual plane.

In the near future I hope to go over this interview in more detail, drawing out at length what Simon believes magic is and how it is to be used. For now, though, I will leave you with the suggestion that just as fiction can find itself bleeding over into reality, so the things we have labeled rational and superstitious are not so far apart as they seem. Rather than a holdover from the Dark Ages, interest in magic may be very modern indeed.


Science and Magic as Twins: Bacon, Bailey, Lewis, and Malcolm

The Centrality of the Occult

For some, the history of science begins with Sir Francis Bacon. Born in 1561, and dying in 1626, he lived at the height of the witch trials in Early Modern Europe. He was not a Neoplatonist, or a Kabbalist, or any other sort of Renaissance magician. He was more or less a skeptic, advocating that we learn from nature through rigorous experimentation and close observation and recording of details. While perhaps not the father of the scientific method, his beliefs, and his rejection of more mystical explanation for natural phenomena, certainly helped lay the groundwork for modern science.

But Michael Bailey suggests that even this confirmed empiricist was not entirely free of the influence of more occult disciplines, claiming that “such works as his famous Novum Organum (The New Instrument) in 1620 had certain roots in older occult forms.”[1]

“In the Middle Ages, “books of secrets” had professed to disclose the hidden properties of natural substances, as well as providing instructions on how to unlock and employ these powers. Far from being complex theoretical treatises, these were mostly practical handbooks aimed at offering basic medical treatments for illness and injury as well as other homey recipes for practical purposes. To justify their knowledge, the authors of these works claimed simple experience—they had observed that the various concoctions, potions, and mixtures they recommended were actually effective, or they had at least heard so from reliable witnesses or had knowledge based on long tradition. Already a fairly popular genre by medieval standards, after the advent of printing in the later fifteenth century books of secrets, or, as was often the case slimmer pamphlets of secrets, flourished. The most popular such book in the early modern period, Alessio Piemontese’s Secreti, was issued in over one hundred different editions from the mid-sixteenth to the end of the seventeenth century.”[2]


Related to these books of secrets were “cabinets of wonders.” These collections of strange and mysterious objects did not claim to lay out some systematic explanation of the forces behind the universe, but merely to point towards certain odd things which did exist. “But for natural philosophers of the period they were important tools of observation and classification; modern natural history museums have their roots in such collections.”[3] During this time period, both the curiosities found in the cabinets of wonders and the strange effects of actions outlines in books of secrets ceased to be understood as supernatural signs, miracles, or freaks of nature, and instead as “unfamiliar but usefully illustrative examples of normal natural processes.”[4]

But Bacon’s tendency to reject Neoplatonic or Hermetic systems and instead rigorously examine nature, especially through experimentation, was not merely a by-product of pseudo-occult Renaissance literary trends, or curiously secular spins on the old practice of relic-keeping. Bailey suggests that, at its base, the entire empirical project was occult:

“Baconian-style empiricism in general can actually be seen not so much as rejecting occult aspects of nature as, in a way, making them central to its conception of the natural world. Aristotelian natural philosophy had also been based on the observation of the world, but it worked essentially by categorizing animals, materials, and natural effects according to their immediately observable properties. The new philosophy held that nature did not so easily reveal her true aspect, and therefore carefully crafted observations and deliberate experimentation were required to uncover her actual workings. Like changing understandings of “wonders,” this new method can also be seen as resting on an important shift away from the idea that occult properties in nature were essentially mysterious, differing from normal natural properties, to the notion that such secrets, properly uncovered would reveal understandable elements of the natural universe. Such shifts in mentality and purpose were important, to be sure, but they represent a progression, not an absolute rupture between older magical and newer scientific systems of thought.”[5] (emphasis added)

Thus the revelation of hidden, “occult” properties in the cosmos became the work, not of Hermetic or Kabbalistic mages, but of early scientists. No longer was “occult” action something that occurred only in miracles and freaks of nature, but instead the very fabric of the universe—as central as gravity.

The Magician’s Bargain

But the heart of the matter, the thing that links science and magic, is not simply a preoccupation with hidden properties. There is a deeper motive at work, one which shapes the kind of knowledge each is seeking, and the purpose for which they seek it. To find that, let us turn to one of the great Medievalist scholars of the past century, and popular Christian author, C. S. Lewis. After making accusations similar to my own for a significant portion of The Abolition of Man, and acknowledging that they could be misconstrued as a wholesale condemnation of science, he writes the following:

“I have described as a ‘magician’s bargain’ that process whereby man surrenders object after object, and finally himself, to Nature in return for power. And I meant what I said. The fact that the scientists has succeeded where the magician failed has put such a wide contrast between them in popular thought that the real story of the birth of Science is misunderstood. You will find people who write about the sixteenth century as if Magic were a medieval survival and Science the new thing that came in to sweep it away. Those who have studied the period know better. There was very little magic in the Middle Ages: the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are the high noon of magic. The serious magical endeavour and the serious scientific endeavour are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and throve. But they were twins. They were born of the same impulse. I allow that some (certainly not all) of the early scientists were actuated by a pure love of knowledge. But if we consider the temper of that age as a whole we can discern the impulse of which I speak.”[6]

A cursory study of the history of magic, and a reading of Bailey in particular, vindicate Lewis’s historical claim that the Early Modern period was the high noon of serious magical study in the West, as well as the birthplace of science. The deeper impulse that unites, that places them within the “temper of the age,” however, is not something a historian like Bailey is likely dwell on. Instead, it takes a moralist like Lewis, who also has deep scholarly knowledge of the period, to point it out.

“There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the ‘wisdom’ of earlier ages. For the wise man of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious—such as digging up and mutilating the dead.”[7]

This is the essential question at the heart both of sorcery and of sorcerous magic: how can I make reality conform to my own wishes? How can I bend the natural order to serve my desires? Lewis is right to point out that this runs counter to quite a lot of ancient wisdom. Plato believed in a highly ordered universe spreading forth from a central reality, a One, and that the task of humanity was to grasp this higher reality, and to arrange his soul in such a way that it conformed with the order of the universe. The Stoics likewise believed in a fundamental order to the universe, and the importance of man recognizing that and conforming himself to it. The same can be said for eastern philosophies, like Taoism, whose uniting, ordering principle, the Tao, lends its name to Lewis’s work.

Taken this way, the tendency of ancient Greek or Mesopotamian city-states, or of the Roman empire, to designate private or alien religious practices “magic” is not mere chauvinism. At the heart of their religious systems is a believe that certain gods have the authority to arrange the universe in a certain way. Magical practice is the claim either that one can circumvent this order imposed by the gods, or that one is capable of coercing the gods themselves to reinvent it. This is far different in character than the sacrifices, rituals, and forms of divination which the gods themselves require, even if the external acts or the intended results may bear a passing resemblance.

But Lewis does not leave this connection floating in the ether. He takes one of the fathers of modern science for an illustration and drives the point home:

“If we compare the chief trumpeter of the new era (Bacon) to Marlowe’s Faustus, the similarity is striking. You will read in some critics that Faustus has a thirst for knowledge. In reality, he hardly mentions it. It is not truth that he wants from the devils, but gold and guns and girls. ‘All things that move between the quiet poles shall be at his command’ and ‘a sound magician is a mighty god’. In the same spirit Bacon condemns those who value knowledge as an end in itself: this, for him, is to use as a mistress for pleasure what ought to be a spouse for fruit. The true object is to extend Man’s power to the performance of all things possible. He rejects magic because it does not work; but his goal is that of the magician.”[8]

This is the rotting heart of sorcerous science: we reject wisdom and reject finding our place in the order of the cosmos, and instead choose to remake the cosmos in our image. What does it matter if we appeal to demons and false gods or to specialized technical knowledge divined by experimentation? If the result of either is the overthrow of the God-ordained order of the universe, then practically the actions are the same. Both are idolatry, both are blatant disregard for God’s authority and the appeal to some other force that promises us some power or some reward in exchange for yielding up our soul, or at least our temporary worship.

Modern Magery

It would, of course, be excessive to claim that any form of technology is idolatrous or sorcerous simply because it does something that formerly could not be done without it. As Thomas Brainerd pointed out to me, it’s hardly fair to say one is engaging in idolatry by trusting the controlled explosions in our engines to get us to work rather than ripping us apart. This is a cunning use of nature, not a contradiction of it. This is a point both I and Lewis concede:

“No doubt those who really founded modern science were usually those whose love of truth exceeded their love of power; in every mixed movement the efficacy comes from the good elements and not from the bad. But the presence of the bad elements is not irrelevant to the direction the efficacy takes. It might be going too far to say that the modern scientific movement was tainted from its birth: but I think it would be true to say it was born in an unhealthy neighbourhood and at an inauspicious hour. Its triumphs may have been too rapid and purchased at too high a price: reconsideration, and something like repentance, may be required.”[9]

As Lewis says, modern science certainly is driven by a certain degree of love of truth. Modern technology often unlocks the potential hidden in nature to help us do good and noble things—healing the sick, feeding the hungry, spreading and preserving wisdom. But it can and has been used for far wickeder things.

Lewis himself wrote an excellent novel called That Hideous Strength, wherein the fiercely modern antagonists use sociology and inhumane treatment to reeducate initiates, and plan to use the same supposedly scientific methods to “cure” criminals. They also engage in vivisection, the live dissection of animals for gaining scientific knowledge, a practice which Lewis himself vocally opposed.

Our own time is not lacking in examples of bad science. One of the most striking and disturbing are the experiments that involve creating human-animal hybrids.  Thusfar, such creatures are not allowed to develop and be carried to term, if such a thing were even possible, but the very existence of such a thing as mixture between animal and man overturns the natural order in a significant way. Not just Christianity, but virtually every human civilization is founded on a basic assumption that animals and humans, whatever they may have in common, are essentially different. To blend the two is a monstrosity.

Species is not the only boundary that is beginning to be crossed with regularity, however. Anyone without their head in the sand is quite aware that surgical procedures exist which are more or less capable of turning a formerly anatomically male person into a person who is anatomically female, and vice versa. Here is yet another distinction within the natural order, ratified for Christians by divine revelation, overturned by modern technical knowledge.

But both of these products of modern science are big and flashy. Other things we take for granted are also deviations from nature, whose consequences we may not fully appreciate. The existence of widespread, safe, and affordable birth control, for example, has divorced the sexual act from procreation. In the early days this was a more or less self-conscious move, an attempt to liberate women from biological constraints and place them on even footing with men in both the freedom with which they can engage in sexual activity, and in their ability to pursue a career unhindered by the physical demands of pregnancy and childbirth.

Perhaps this is something to be welcomed—perhaps—but it is certainly a momentous shift in the meaning of activities and processes central to our humanity. With the advent of functioning 3D-printed ovaries and artificial wombs, the very concepts of “mother” and “father” may, at some point, conceivably be a thing of the past. This is without even directly addressing the social effects of sexual liberation.

In the field of artificial intelligence, the question of what constitutes a “person” and what our moral duties towards such artificially created “people” might be is quite an old one. More interesting to today’s transhumanist technocrats is the question of how humans might become machines, and so gain transcendence that way.  Philosophers and theologians have long debated exactly what it means to be human, and this certainly pushes the boundaries.

Our hubris, however, is not exclusive the realm of the weird. We are the civilization that das rivers, that alters their course. We invented strip mining and vast, mechanized farms employing chemicals with not fully explored properties to kill pests and preserve crops. Through deliberate action, we have, either nearly or entirely, wiped out species once as numerous as the passenger pigeon, or the buffalo. We have deforested vast stretches of continents, introduced invasive species by the dozen, blasted through mountains and hills, and in general altered the ecology of most of our world beyond recognition.

The problem here is not agriculture, nor is the building of roads or cities, but the unconscious assumption that the world is here to be exploited. That is, we believe creation was meant for us, and can be changed to conform to our will with few or no consequences. There is no order we have to respect, no natural balance to be maintained, only a series of resources we can harvest and bend to our own ends.

This is not the picture the Bible paints. Man was placed in the garden “to tend it and keep it.” The world was not made to serve him, instead he was made to be God’s image and likeness in the world, its protector, its nurturer, its sustainer and healer.  Man was not placed on this earth to exploit and dispose of it, but to beautify it and cause it to flourish, to cause order and not desolation.

Nor is this an issue that concerns the natural world alone. The buffalo were massacred in the million by the same advances in weaponry that led to the unprecedented carnage of the Civil War. World War I saw the advent of the machine guns that necessitated trench warfare, of the bombs and gas that could not distinguish civilian from soldier. World War II ended with the detonation of a single weapon capable of wiping out cities, whose radioactive traces rendered environments unlivable for generations. At least as frightening is the concept of biological warfare, of bacteria and viruses crafted to kill human beings, regardless of age or sex, regardless of guilt or innocence, in vast numbers. Science has taught us to seek power not only over our own bodies or the environment, but also over the lives of others.

Something Like Repentance

Not every piece of tech is a Faustian bargain, and the march of science is not necessarily the forward march of sorcerous inhumanity. This is not a blanket condemnation of seeking knowledge of the natural world, nor of every tool which can improve human life. But it is a suggestion that perhaps we no longer care for wisdom as an end in itself, that we no longer see ourselves as part of an order created by Someone Else’s authority. To one degree or another, we are drunk with the power offered us by scientific knowledge, and to some extend our consciences have been seared by long years of self-interested exploitation of these secrets. To quote the inimitable Dr. Ian Malcolm:

It is possible, and indeed good, to subject advances in technology or scientific practice to ethical questioning. We can ask whether or a new tool or a new method—or a new experiment—comes at too high a cost, or exhibits too great a hubris in our relationship to the natural world. The Amish, of course, are very conscious of this principle. While perhaps we should not imitate them in everything, it may be wise to pay some attention to their way of thinking, which is far more complex and open to innovation than they are often given credit for. This may not be our solution, but we should at least be thinking in this direction.

I do not know what the future will look like. I’m not ready to say we’re standing on the brink of some massive, man-made ecological disaster, or that we are on the threshold of the dystopian cyberpunk future Ridley Scott and the Wachowskis tried to warn us about. But I do believe that there is an element of arrogance and idolatry in the way we approach the world which the old sorcerers would recognize. And the old stories are all consistent about one thing: if make a bargain with the devil, you have to give the devil his due. It might be good to engage in self-examination before that due date comes.

[1] Bailey, 204

[2] Bailey, 204

[3] Bailey, 204-205

[4] Bailey, 205

[5] Bailey, 205.

[6] The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics, 489.

[7] Lewis, 489.

[8] Lewis, 489.

[9] Lewis, 489.

Science and Sorcery: Bailey on the Scientific Revolution

Last time, I made the suggestion that the root sin of magic is also present in some kinds of science. Hudson Brainerd helpfully insisted I be more precise in my claims. This post is the first half of a two-part attempt to do so. In it, I intend to use Bailey to establish the significant overlap between scientists and magicians, and the influence of magic on science, during the Scientific Revolution. The next part will zero in on one particularly illustrative father of science, and draw on a second Medieval and Renaissance scholar to highlight the common principle at the root of both science and sorcery, as some people have practiced them.

Magicians Who Practiced Science

The Scientific Revolution occurred in era where the high magic of clerics and scholars was changing rapidly. The old magic based on the command of demons was being replaced by a new magic based on revived ancient philosophy. Among these philosophies were Neoplatonism, a modified form of Plato’s philosophy which dates from the first centuries after Christ, Heremticism, a partially Neoplatonic system based on the supposed writings of the mysterious Hermes Trismegistus, and Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism which belonged more properly to the Medieval era, but which was now gaining traction in the European mainstream.

In the midst of these new developments arose a man whom Bailey calls “probably the most significant sixteenth-century English mage.” I would add that he is one of the most well-known English mages, period. His name was John Dee. Dee was a practitioner of both Hermeticism and Kabbalah, as well as alchemy and astrology. He also attempted to communicate with angels, and claimed to have succeeded. Indeed, he produced an entire language which he claimed the angels spoke, Enochian, as well as an Enochian alphabet and mystical writings in the language. This supposedly magical tongue has enjoyed attention from later practitioners of mystic arts, and even recently featured in the film The Witch.

In his own day, Dee was quite famous. He enjoyed noble patronage, including the patronage of the royal family, among them Queen Elizabeth I. More to the point, Dee was also a student of mathematics and navigation. The time in which he lived, 1527-1608, saw the first expansion of European overseas empires, and the latter was a particularly valuable science. Mathematics, of course, is central both to astrological and nautical calculations. Dee’s preoccupation with both these hard sciences and mystical pursuits was less contradictory than it was complimentary. Ships, like men, must follow their stars. (pgs. 188-89)

Another astrologer, and Dee’s older contemporary, was the Italian Girolamo Cardano, who lived from 1501 to 1576. The connections between his mystical and scientific pursuits were perhaps far tighter than Dee’s—he was a physician who believed firmly that the stars had an effect on human health. In his early days he was a professor of medicine at the University of Bologna, but his interest in astrology led to the publication of a book of prognostications in 1534 that gained him recognition across Europe. “He was summoned from as far away as Scotland in 1552 to treat the archbishop of Edinburgh.” Along the way, he spent time in the French and English courts. Renaissance medicine and Renaissance astrology were not all perceived to be strange bedfellows. (pg. 188)

Younger than both Dee and Cardano was the Italian magician Giordano Bruno. Born in 1548, he became a Dominican at a very young age in 1563. He soon rejected the old-school Aristotelian (and Thomistic) school of thought that order clung to, and embraced Hermeticism, Kabbalah, Neoplatonism, and even Copernicanism. This last was a significant concern of his. As we will soon see, the mystical schools of thought prevalent in the Renaissance era enthusiastically favored a heliocentric view of the cosmos. This meant Bruno had a vested interest in the outcome of this scientific controversy, and did not hesitate to take part in it. He was, however, more deeply concerned with preaching the corruption of the Christian faith, which he believed to be a false religion, and proclaiming the need for a revival of a supposedly ancient magical religion. He was burned as a heretic in 1600. (pgs. 189-190)

Scientists Who Practiced Magic

In the rather large category of Renaissance scientists who also practiced some form of magic or superstition, most were involved in alchemy.

“The basic purpose of alchemy was to transform one substance into another, most famously to change lead into gold. Like astrology, this practice rested upon certain fundamental principles of ancient and medieval natural philosophy. In the case of alchemy, the principle involved was that all matter was composed of the same four basic elements—earth, air, water, and fire—merely in different proportions that gave particular substances their varied characteristics. If the proportions of these elements could be manipulated, alchemists reasoned, any substance might be transformed into any other. Such manipulation was no easy task, but might be accomplished through long and arduous series of meltings, boilings, evaporations, refinements, sublimations, distillations, separations, and combinations of various materials. To achieve their ends, alchemists employed some of the same basic equipment as modern chemical laboratories.” (pg. 95)

These materials, as well as the four elements and various chemical processes, were frequently had astrological connections. Gold was associated with the sun, for instance, and iron with Mars, and tin with Jupiter. Lead was the province of Saturn. Thus alchemy may have used a chemist’s equipment, and many of his procedures, but there were decidedly mystical overtones both to the whole project and to the thinking behind it.

The great mind behind Renaissance alchemy was the fantastically named Philippus Areolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim. Later thinkers, understandably, remembered him by his pen name—Paracelsus. Paracelsus lived from 1494 to 1541. He was a medical practitioner who incorporated alchemy into his practice, and insisted that a knowledge of astrology was necessary to both disciplines. He is perhaps better remembered as the man who introduced the world to a type of creature that would later become very popular in fantasy gaming—the elemental. (pgs. 187-188)

Each element, he insisted, had a creature which rightfully belonged to it. The air was realm of sylphs, spritely little creatures composed primarily of that substance. Fire, on the other hand, was the province of salamanders, a magical lizard-like being who burned, but was not consumed. Water was the land of undines, which might be compared to both nymphs and mermaids. Finally, earth was inhabited by gnomes.

Paracelsus’s ideas were very influential on later alchemy, which is why I begin this section by introducing him. The most famous Paracelsan scientist was born over a century later, in 1627. His name was Robert Boyle, and he wrote on everything “from chemistry to physics to medicine.” He founded the Royal Society, a scientific organization which continues in England to this day. His The Skeptical Chymist sought to reform chemical and alchemical practice. One might suspect that this was a step away from alchemy’s mystical roots, but in fact he continued to attempt transmuting lead into gold and “to communicate with angels by alchemical means.” He also exchanged alchemical insights with men like John Locke and Isaac Newton. (pgs. 205-206)

Newton in particular is well known for his magical and pseudo-magical pursuits. He was, of course, and alchemist like Boyle, and very prone to experimentation. He believed that the phenomenon in alchemy known as “Diana’s Tree” was evidence that metals “possessed a sort of life.” A collection of book sold after his death indicate an interest in manufacturing the “Philosopher’s Stone.” He was a student of sacred geometry, particularly the geometry of the Temple built by King Solomon, which he believed was something of a key to the chronology of Jewish history. He was a student of Biblical chronology as well, not only outlining the past, but seeking to at least roughly determine the time of the apocalypse. Within one of these chronological studies, he even mentions the fabled sunken realm of Atlantis. John Maynard Keynes summed him up by saying, “Newton was not the first of the age of reason” but “the last of the age of magicians.” (pg. 206)

Newton is, of course, well known both for his Opticks and his co-invention of calculus. Perhaps he casts a larger shadow in scientific lore, however, for his theory of gravitation. This discovery is often painted as a golden example of science and reason overcoming ignorance and superstition. The strange thing was, however, gravitation itself was something of an occult idea. The science of the time was moving away from the idea of airy spirits and astral intellects and towards a more mechanical view of the universe. Things were supposed to act directly on other things through clearly observable motion, if one knew how to look. Then along came Newton, proposing that some invisible force reached across even vast distances to move small objects towards larger ones. Gravity, at the time, seemed like a backwards step into the positively spooky. Leibniz in particular “ridiculed the notion of gravity as a positively ‘occult’ principle.” (pg. 206)

Another “avowed Paracelsian” was the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, who lived from 1546 to 1601. He kept several alchemical furnaces at his observatory, and a garden where he crafted herbal remedies in accordance with his astrological take on medical science. He was also far more empirical than Copernicus, recording a great quantity of very accurate astronomical data.

The Visible God

Among the most revolutionary moments in scientific history was the suggestion of Nicholas Copernicus that the apparently stable earth was in motion, and that it revolved about an actually stationary sun. Much as with gravity, the children of the Enlightenment have assumed that this was again a triumph of reason over antiquated dogma. Bailey suggests that there are holes in this theory:

“Because all the later major figures of the Scientific Revolution came to accept Copernicus’s theory (and, of course, because it proved to be correct), heliocentrism is often regarded as completely ‘scientific’ in a modern sense. Yet Copernicus made no significant new empirical observations to justify his theory. He used mostly old data gathered by others and previously interpreted in a solidly Ptolemaic framework. There were certain empirical problems with the earth-centered conception of the universe—for example, the retrograde motion of the planets (because of the earth’s own movement, planets sometimes appear to move backward in the night sky)—however, the Ptolemaic system had explained these inconsistencies by relatively complex but not essentially implausible means (certainly no more implausible than the notion that the earth, which so clearly seems to be immobile under our feet, is in fact whizzing through space at tremendous speed)… In fact, Copernicus’s own system was riddled with problems that took several generations to solve. It was no more accurate than the Ptolemaic system at predicting and accounting for the observed movements of the heavenly bodies and offered no satisfying explanation for planetary motion. So the Copernican heliocentric theory cannot be regarded simply as the replacement of a poor theory with an unquestionably superior, empirically supportable one.” (pg. 202)

What, then, motivated Copernicus to adopt this admittedly strange, counter-intuitive, and apparently problem-riddled model of the universe? Bailey suggests that he was motivated by Neoplatonic and Hermetic views. Both systems, perhaps drawing from Plato’s analogies in the Republic, treated the sun with great reverence, both as a literal source of light and as a symbolic source of truth and knowledge. Would it not then make sense to place the sun, rather than the lowly earth, at the center of the cosmos? To support this reading of Copernicus, Bailey quotes a section of De revolutionibus, the work wherein the astronomer set forth his radical idea:

“In the middle of all sits the Sun enthroned. In this most beautiful temple could we place this luminary in any better position from which he can illuminate the whole at once? He is rightly called the Lamp, the Mind, the Ruler of the Universe; Hermes Trismegistus names him the Visible God.” (pg. 203)

Nor was Copernicus the last to imbue the heliocentric view of the universe with Neoplatonic meaning. Johannes Kepler “was also deeply influenced by Neoplatonic traditions of cosmic harmony and mathematical simplicity and elegance.” He “worked out the mathematics of the heliocentric universe in much more detail,” for which he is remembered as another hero of the Scientific Revolution. Yet he was, Bailey reminds us, “a firm believer in astrology.” The whole history of the heliocentric model is shot through with magical associations. (pg. 203)

Such a notion may be startling to our modern sensibilities, but by now it should not surprise the reader. In the Renaissance era, magicians were heavily involved in science, and scientists in various forms of what we would call magic and superstition. They were, after all, searching for the hidden secrets of the universe. “Hidden” is merely an English word for the Latin “occultus.” How strange is it, then, that science should involve the occult?


By now I hope it is clear that magic and science in the Renaissance were not opposed to one another, but were often practices engaged in by the same men. Neither heliocentrism, nor gravity, nor chemistry are free of Neoplatonic, Hermetic, and Kabbalistic associations. Perhaps part of the reason for this is already clear, in that both pursuits promise to yield the secrets of the universe to diligent practitioner. I believe, however, there is another reason the two were often found together. In my next post, I hope to explore that reason in some detail.