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Magic: A History - The Classical World and Early Modern Europe
The Twilight and (Possible) Rebirth of Magic
Two important magical aspects of the Classical Mediterranean World Gosden highlights are Oracles and Curse Tablets.
Oracles were places where people went to gain knowledge of the future. The most famous and important of these oracles by far was, of course, the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi, but it was not the only one. Oracles were tightly bound up with city-states and Greek religious practices. They were a way the gods communicated with mortals. Oracles were consulted by kings and commoners alike on matters large and small, from the birth of a child to the fate of a kingdom:
Greek religion had no dogma, no official creed, no holy book, no priesthood and no Church. Greek religion started around 800 BCE and was based on the familiar pantheon of Olympian gods. Religious observance used to be seen as the official business of the polis. But more variety is now perceived, with the international dimension important, as the pan-Greek oracle of Apollo at Delphi of indeed the Olympic games in honor of Zeus indicate.
Within each polis a greater variety of religious observance is also acknowledged, from small-scale family shrines to festivals for clans and lineages. The opening up of our views of Greek religion provides possibilities for magic to add to the spectrum of beliefs and practices, and the range of mystery and ecstatic cults is also marked...magic can be understood only in the context of religion, as evidenced by a closeness between magical formulas and Greek prayers. Moreover, the same people were involved in religion and magic within the polis and beyond...(269)
Across the Greek and Roman world people consulted oracles to learn about the future. The oracles varied from small local shrines to large international centres, such as the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi; and the questions posed also ranged widely from personal matters to affairs of state. Consultation of oracles was an ancient practice, with the barque oracle in Egypt having a deep history, during which people carried the sacred boat of Amun and onlookers posed questions as it passed by. (271)
While we often learn about Greek mythology, magical practices were quite common, and were a part of everyday life, putting paid to notions of the "rational" West in opposition to the "mysterious" East. All sorts of magical practitioners plied their trade in ancient Greece, from telling fortunes to herbal medicine to communicating with the dead:
The magical landscapes of Classical Greece overlapped with those of religion, which meant that the oracles based at big temples had elements of both. There was also a changing parade of characters offering a great range of magical services. Selling their services door to door, or based in an impressive institution such as an oracle, were seers (manteis or chresmologoi), singers of incantations (epodoi), those who performed wonders (thaumatopoioi) and those skilled in interpreting wonders (tetraskopoi), competing with specialists in raising the souls of the dead (goetoi), as well as the possibly more mundane root cutters (rizotomoi), probably herbalists but possibly able to achieve miraculous cures, along with the pharmakeis.
Such a clear classification of magicians is in any case too neat, and many would have mixed a variety of magical skills to match the current demand. If the rulers of a state wanted advice on weighty matters of war and peace, or an individual required more personal advice, there was a baffling array of magicians available, ranging from descendants of families famous for their particular magical art to those who, chancing on a book of oracles, had newly set themselves up as experts. (265)
Curse tablets have been found all over the ancient Greek and Roman world. They are exactly what they sound like—statements written down on some sort of object asking for some sort of ill fortune or calamity to befall the target of the curse: "At least 1,700 curse tablets have been found across the Greek and Roman worlds, and many more are being discovered all the time." (275) The oldest known curse tablets date from the end of the sixth century BCE from a Greek colony on the island of Sicily. One of the most famous and prolific caches of curse tablets was discovered by archaeologists in the English town of Bath.
Bath Curse Tablets (Wikipedia)
Ancient ‘curse tablets’ discovered down a 2,500-year-old well in Athens (Greek City Times)
Gosden's take on early Christianity is rather interesting. Instead of highlighting the suppression of pagan folk magic practices by the early Catholic Church, Gosden argues that such practices were incorporated into the practices of early Christianity in Europe: "The Medieval world developed an image of deep participation, situating people fully within the world." (354) In other words, the Church itself was completely infused with magic! He highlights the cult of saint's relics, for example, which were said to possess magical powers. Demonic possession was commonplace, and seen as a cause of many maladies. Priests themselves commonly utilized herbal remedies to cure ailments. Angels and apparitions like the Virgin Mary often appeared to ordinary people, and no one thought this was particularly strange. The Eucharist, where bread and wine was quite literally and routinely transformed into the body and blood of Christ, was seen as its own form of magic (and is the origin of the phrase “hocus pocus”). Rather than existing in opposition to magic, then, Medieval Christianity was utterly infused with it. And although the Church claimed a monopoly on ‘true’ communication with the supernatural, all sorts of earlier magical practices persisted with the grudging toleration of Church authorities.
The Church was a strange centre of magic, from its miracles to the veneration of saints, but also because of its acceptance of demons and angels, a constant and acknowledged dimension of people's lives, bringing fear and awe. Super-human beings needed to be bargained with, and only those with the right knowledge or power could extract bargains. The revenant dead were also feared, as too were witches and warlocks. Technologies and techniques existed to discover and counter the many dangerous magics abroad in the world...(354-355)
Too rigid a classification of Medieval magic is dangerous, as attempts to understand and influence the world and its encircling cosmos varied greatly. But it is useful to distinguish so-called natural magic, where people attempted to understand and play with the forces and correspondences of the world, from forms of magic dependent on connections with angels and devils.
Natural magic practices became more common in the later Medieval Period, when they were increasingly seen as legitimate. Such scholarly practices were boosted by translations from Greek, Arabic and Jewish texts into Latin or vernacular languages...It was the connections with angels and demons that brought natural magic closer to something more dangerous and esoteric, with inspiration coming from the bible but ultimately deriving from the beliefs in Mesopotamia and the eastern Mediterranean from the Bronze Age onwards...
Magic was practiced across the whole spectrum of Medieval society, from the cunning man or woman in the village with spells, curses and herbs to those advising kings or bishops, drawing on many literatures or traditions. Medieval magic, as with European Medieval culture in general, combined many sources and influences from the Mesopotamian and Classical Greek and Roman worlds, sometimes refracted through Arabic sources but also showing the influence of Arabic thought itself, as well as local practices. (362)…Medieval magic was never static, and in time fed into the rich mixture of Renaissance culture, out of which came new magical practices and modern forms of science. (366)
The medieval world view derived much of its natural philosophy form the Classical World, such as the ‘Harmony of the Spheres’ (with the Earth located at the center of the cosmos); the Great Chain of Being; the theory of Four Humours; and the notion that everything was comprised of the four basic elements of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water (which was critical to alchemy): "Views linking human bodies, basic substances and the planets were found broadly across all aspects of society, as well as within more learned forms of discourse." (361)
Magical practices persisted throughout the Middle Ages alongside formal worship. Circular geometric designs known as hexafoils are found inscribed on the walls of houses and churches all over Europe which were believed to ward off demonic attack. Their presence even on the walls of churches indicates that Christian believers were not purged of magical or superstitious thinking. While the Church preached of a transcendent reality beyond this life, for practical, everyday affairs, the common people continued to turn to magic. Even priests who denounced magical practices from the pulpit would turn to them in secret.
Over the last few decades major new sets of evidence for Medieval and Early Modern magic have emerged, and archaeologists and historians are starting to assimilate their prevalence and what they mean for beliefs during these periods. The evidence takes two main forms: protective marks in churches and houses; and deposits of materials, including shoes, animals, crystals and bottles in parts of houses deemed to be vulnerable to demonic attack. (389)
During the Renaissance, magic became an intellectual practice attended to by learned scholars, often based around arcane antiquated texts translated from other languages. Early modern magic is suffused with practices like astrology and alchemy, which we've encountered before. The modern practice of distillation—which is responsible for many of our favorite alcoholic beverages—originated as a technique to extract the vital essences of substances in alchemical practice. Alchemists consulted the Emerald Tablet in search of the elusive Philosopher’s Stone. The major intellectual influences on magic during this period were Hermeticism, based on the alleged writings of Hermes Trismegistus; and Neoplatonism, supposedly developed by the philosopher Plotinus. Both show the syncretic influence of ancient Egyptian religion and ancient Greek philosophy.
Gosden highlights characters like Simon Forman and Richard Napier, who together produced some 80,000+ pieces of astrological correspondence between them. Their lives overlap with those of John Dee and Isaac Newton, and Gosden uses those two characters—the former usually described as a magician and the latter a scientist—to document the transition in the Early Modern period from magic to science: "The 200-year span from Dee's birth to Newton's death takes us from the very end of the Medieval Period to the Enlightenment." (378) He points out that the conventional description of the two is hardly accurate since hard-and-fast distinctions between what we now refer to as ‘magic’ and what we call ‘science’ did not exist—it is simply our modern prejudices at work. While Newton did indeed play a critical role in the development of modern physics, he was just as obsessed with occult practices as the now mostly-forgotten Dee:
A most fascinating period is that of the Renaissance, in the fifteenth century through to the seventeenth. Here there existed a complex combination of what we now separate out as magic and science, but that then coexisted productively in even the greatest minds of the age. I will contrast John Dee, usually described as a magician, and Isaac Newton, usually described as a scientist.
Dee developed magical practices, some drawing on Medieval world-views, but he also approached what we might see as science through, for instance, his interest in alchemy. Newton was also a committed alchemist and astrologer, as well as a slightly unorthodox Christian; none of this prevented him from developing ideas that became the foundations of modern physics, even though for Newton the universe was sentient rather than a series of insensible objects moving through force, mass and momentum.
Astrology and alchemy were found throughout the Early Modern world, as were both aggressive and protective forms of magic. In this period we see the triple helix of magic, religion and science start to take modern shape, although none of these categories were felt to be totally separate at the time (355)
It is during the Protestant Reformation when magic begins to be seen as something unnatural to be suppressed. For Protestants, magic became associated with Catholicism. The European witch trials only begin in earnest after the Reformation and the split between the Catholic Church and Protestant denominations, and may have been in part caused by it. It’s been argued that the arrival of the printing press in Northern Europe and the spread of literacy is what kicked off the European witch craze in a disturbing echo of the communication revolution our own times. Only with the Enlightenment do science and reason come to be seen in opposition to magic and superstition. Enlightenment thinkers argued that humanity was distinct from “dead” matter by means of thinking and reason. Humans observed rather than participated in the universe.
But magic and superstition stubbornly refused to go away, even during the Victorian Era, as numerous items found stuck up chimneys from this time attest. In Great Britain, onions and other similar objects were wrapped with pieces of paper inscribed with the names of individuals and placed up chimneys and other hidden spots to cause some kind if misfortune to fall on them—a kind of sympathetic magic. Four of these onions were found by E.B. Tylor, the author of Primitive Culture, whom we’ve encountered before. Tylor, as you'll recall, believed that magic was part of a more primitive state of human development which modern man was in the process of overcoming in favor of science. The quartet of onions with people’s names attached to them were accidentally found by Tylor in a house in Barley Mow, Somerset, in 1872, and included the names of some of Tylor’s own family members! The story is told in more detail here:
Tylor's Onion: a curious case of bewitched onions from Somerset (England: The Other Within)
In the chapter on Africa, the Americas and Australia, Gosden emphasizes that magic as it exists today in these regions is very much a reaction to colonialism and dispossession rather than some sort of relic of the distant past. Magic was often a tool of oppressed populations everywhere to deal with their oppressors: "During various forms of invasion, dislocation and dispossession, people fought back with all the means they could, creating in the process many novel forms of magic that combined older practices with newer aims." (286) For example, rebels in Indonesia and Sri Lanka fighting against colonialists used spells that they thought would protect them from bullets. He also points out that magical practices were incorporated into more formalized religions—both Christianity and Islam—because they were not seen in opposition but rather as complimentary: "The Christian religion chimed with existing magic, as in both were idea that the human word was surrounded and deeply influenced by the spiritual one. In many colonial situations magic and religion formed a powerful double helix." (290-291) Perhaps the most insidious use of magic was by Europeans to "otherize" native peoples all over the world in order to justify destroying their culture, enslaving them and taking away their lands:
For a number of centuries, but taking new forms since the writings of Max Weber, a crucial distinction has been made between traditional, credulous and unchanging societies who practice magic and the open, questioning and democratic cultures who do not. The negative load carried by magic has been used to weigh down African societies and indigenous peoples in the Americas, Australia and the Pacific among other places. Dynamic, vibrant societies were pushed back into prehistory on the basis of their magical beliefs to act as living fossils…The prescription to fight the symptoms and causes of this state was salvation through the bible and through science.
Of all the physical and cultural depredations these groups have suffered, to be labelled magical might seem the least pernicious, but the effect of such labelling has been profound and far-reaching. A vast range of human behavior has been ignored or pushed to the margins—the inventiveness and depth of which I can only sketch here—when it was often at the heart of social action. (287)
Two interesting practices discussed are Ifá divination and Australian aboriginal songlines. A common thread running through many of these cultures is that the division between living (animate) and non-living (inanimate) matter cannot be made; everything from rocks to plants to rivers was potentially alive and changing and was therefore as much a part of the social world as human beings. Whether something was alive or dead depended wholly on one’s interaction with it; a priori distinctions could not be made. Some of these ideas are being reintegrated by native peoples today:
In the chapter on modern magic, Gosden discusses contemporary characters related to magic, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's embrace of spiritualism; Harry Houdini's attempts to debunk the same; Freud's theories of the unconscious; and Aleister's Crowley's strange cafeteria of magical beliefs. All of these individuals demonstrate that even in the supposed era of science and reason, interest in magic and supernatural practices continued to play an important role in European and world society. More recent magical organizations are briefly discussed such as the Rosicrucians, the Freemasons, the Golden Dawn, the Ordo Templi Orientis, Wicca, Paganism and Chaos magic (as well as a few pages on Carlos Castañeda).
There's a lot more that I didn't even get to touch on. The book can function almost as a "big history" text since it covers the entire swath of human history from the depths of the Ice Age until the present-day, albeit viewed through the lens of magic (there's even a chronology in the back!). At over 430 pages, the book defies easy summation.
Gosden concludes the book with a meditation on the ways an updated form of magical thinking could engender an ethic of custodianship, make us feel connected to the natural world and to each other, and give us a sense of shared collective responsibility toward past and future generations: "Fundamental to magic is that humans are linked to the world. Accepting the range of ways we are enmeshed with the world allows us to enter a more magical mind-set." (417).
No choice is needed between magic, science and religion. They each stress and develop varied aspects of human action and belief, working best when complimentary. Three elements of contemporary thought incorporating scientific and religious beliefs are important to a new magic.
The first tries to centre people within the world again, emphasizing the skills of the human body, its senses and emotions, seeing also little division between people and the things around them, which are artefacts for living well.
The second and third dimension of contemporary thought explore the sentience of the world, both its living and non-living aspects, raising the possibility that human intelligence and sentience are just one form among many, gaining shape and purpose through interaction with many other sentient beings. This also raises the controversial possibility that matter is in some way sentient. (415)
In a world facing environmental devastation, species extinction and runaway climate change, the notion of “deep participation” and being embedded in a living universe is starting to look more attractive than a world of "dead matter" to be ruthlessly exploited at will. Many ideas that have traditionally been associated with magical thinking are now being seriously explored by by modern science, including the notion that the universe itself may be sentient. The Gaia hypothesis posits the entire earth as a living being. Quantum mechanics tells us that the outcome of certain experiments is dependent on the person observing it, and describes "spooky action at a distance." The placebo effect tells us that our mental state significantly affects our health outcomes. Ecology tells us that plants share nutrients, communicate with each other, and possess a kind of intelligence. Energy flows through all things as described by the laws of thermodynamics. Our atoms are continuous with all other atoms, and our cells return to the web of life upon our death to be recycled into other matter. The notion that we can stand back and observe the universe passively as if we are not embedded in it has always been a useful fiction, to be sure, but it’s possible that that fiction has run its course and is now detrimental to our survival. Many of these “scientific” articles sound much like magic:
Can the universe learn? (Live Science)
Some Scientists Believe the Universe Is Conscious (Popular Mechanics)
Plants Feel Pain and Might Even See (Nautilus)
Can the wood-wide web really help trees talk to each other? (Science Focus)
We are not separate from the web of life—we are enmeshed within it. There is no hard-and-fast distinction between living and non-living matter. While billionaires promise us salvation by uploading our brains into computers or escaping to distant planets, magic gives us a chance to reorient ourselves within our home; the only home we've ever known—to return to the place from whence we came and know it for the first time:
We will continue to use science to understand and change the world. But magic has an older sibling's capacity to calm the energies of science and its technologies, allowing us to think about the ends to which scientific discoveries can be put. Religion encourages a sense of wonder at powers beyond the human; magic helps us to explore our shared subsistence and commitments to the rest of the world; and science provides distance and techniques for manipulating the physical aspects of the universe.
Magic, religion and science all reach inside us to designate various human capabilities: our empathetic qualities through magic; our feeling of wonder at the scale and beauty of the cosmos through religion; and our technical skills and abilities through science. All elements of the triple helix of magic, religion and science are necessary, as they help us to reach out to the universe, exploring and connecting with it in various ways. No one strand is inherently more important than the other two, and magic is certainly not the least of the three. (431-432)
That’s the end of the review. Hope you learned something! Here’s an interview with the author:
A sweeping history of magic – from witchcraft to shamanism (History Extra)