The Great Conversation:
By Gabriel Blanchard
From The High History of the Holy Graal to Macbeth to The Lord of the Rings, we seem to have an inveterate taste for magic.
It may seem strange to say that something which most people would say does not exist should appear among the great ideas. But this does not really reflect how the great ideas work; to take a parallel example, there is no shortage of agnostics and atheists who take an interest in God and religions as ideas. The philosophical implications of a concept may be worth exploring, whether the concept describes reality accurately or not. Besides which, of course, there are many figures in the history of the Great Conversation who did believe quite seriously in magic.
It is probably impossible to determine when beliefs or practices we could describe as “magical” first arose. Even in the oldest world literature—the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Hebrew Bible, the I Ching—magic is taken for granted, a thing no more calling for explanation than the sun and moon. Indeed, insofar as magic means “something that happens which we cannot explain,” all things are magical at first, especially in a pre-scientific age, and many things remain magical to this day. (The relationship between magic and science is quite paradoxical, and we shall have cause to return to this.)
However, the idea that humans have any ability or right to command magical powers is more strange, and less predictable. Here, explanations abound. Mere force of will was sometimes considered the underlying power in the practice of magic, and rituals or training might be little more than an aid. In some cultures even today, the “evil eye”—an envious gaze that can bring down misfortune or even death upon its target—is considered something anyone can do by looking with sufficient ill-will at someone else. The “evil eye” is one of the most widespread and enduring magical beliefs, appearing even in the New Testament: in a catalogue of sins related in the Gospel According to St. Mark, though it is often translated idiomatically as envy or jealousy, the sixth sin listed in 7.22 is literally “an evil eye.” Many societies have developed folk methods of averting the evil eye, known as apotropaics (from the Greek for “that which turns away”) or, in the case of objects, as amulets.* Spitting on the ground, sometimes between the fingers, is a typical and very ancient apotropaic; this will be familiar as a recurring gesture to viewers of Fiddler on the Roof. In Arabic-speaking cultures, paying a direct compliment to a beautiful object such as a fine piece of clothing is generally avoided, so as not to draw the evil eye: instead, one who wishes to praise something will say Mashallah, “God has willed it.”** Popular amulets include the nazar, a brightly colored glass pendant or bead resembling an eye, and the hamsa, a stylized hand which may feature an eye in the palm.
On the other hand—and here ancient magic draws nearer to ancient religion—sorcery could claim to draw power not from oneself, but from something else. Many ancient spells claim to tap into some elemental order. Sometimes this meant accessing the deep laws of how the universe operates, seeking universal correspondences, such as those that supposedly explained astrology. (In a sense, it is by this road that magic will ultimately find its way into the beginnings of modern science. Many self-professed sorcerers throughout history would unhesitatingly describe our harnessing of atomic power as a magical feat of the first order.) But other priests took a rather more anthropomorphic view. The would-be magician could appeal to spirits of one kind or another, controlled by some formula: a sacred language, a set phrase, a series of ritual gestures. Knowing the carefully-guarded true name of a spirit was often the key to controlling it (which remains a standard element in the rare but ongoing Catholic practice of exorcism), and appropriately balancing powerful knowledge with the wisdom needed to use it was a vital magical task.
The exact nature of the spirits so commanded varied, culture by culture. Some forms of magic professed to control human spirits, or at least to communicate with them, as mediums claim to this day. More typically, spirits of some other kind were the object of the magician’s appeal: the gods themselves or, more often, the servants of the gods, who might be more likely to deign to grant mere humans’ requests. Our English word “demon” comes from the Greek term δαίμων (daimōn), which originally referred to minor deities or demigods, and especially to a person’s guardian or tutelary spirit; we are most familiar with this usage from Plato’s rendition of the Apologia of Socrates. The term δαίμων was used to translate the Latin word genius in the age of the Roman imperial cult, so that Christians were charged with the crime of refusing to worship the emperor’s δαίμων.
Of course, all this may prompt scorn or skepticism in many readers. Does anyone really believe in this sort of thing—amulets and horoscopes and all of that? That is a difficult question to answer, partly because “belief” in the magical or the supernatural is not a black-and-white, yes-or-no sort of thing for most individuals or societies. G. K. Chesterton hit the nail on the head in The Everlasting Man when he wrote, “Men do not believe as a dogma that God would throw a thunderbolt at them for walking under a ladder; more often they amuse themselves with the not very laborious exercise of walking round it.” Or, a little earlier in the same book: “We may say, if we like, that it is believed before there is time to examine it. It would be truer to say it is accepted before there is time to believe it.” The spirit of the thing is rather well summed-up in a story related by a professor: he took some students on a trip to Ireland, where they observed a “fairy fort,” an ancient circular structure typically featuring some vegetation growing from it. (There are many thousands of these in Ireland, dating back to the Iron Age.) Folktales report that fairy forts are imbued with magic and that those who even disturb them may be cursed or killed as a result. The professor asked his students if any of them believed in fairies, at which they scoffed and affirmed their definite disbelief. He then asked if any of them would like to go and break a twig off of the fairy fort; after a short pause, a young gentleman replied, “What do you think we are, stupid?”
However much or little conviction really lay behind it, belief in magic in ancient societies was at any rate strong enough that people had recourse to it and even made laws about it. It was customary from ancient times to divide magic into white and black, beneficent and malignant. Magic as such was rarely banned; black magic often was, and people could be and were tried for practicing it, long before there was any question of the state being Christianized. Tiberius Cæsar, though he retained a court astrologer as part of his official duties, banned all others from the city of Rome—it was all too easy for disaffected political groups to find some upcoming planetary conjunction that would favor their plans to, for example, assassinate the emperor. Conversely, the African poet Lucius Apuleius† was acquitted of sorcery in a trial prompted by his unusual good fortune in farming; as part of his defense, he ordered his estate’s agricultural implements to be paraded in the court, making the sarcastic remark “Behold the weapons of my witchcraft!”
When Christianity enters the historical picture, we find an interesting series of movements and reversals, intellectually and (in the long run) legally. But to examine those properly—and especially to do justice to that word witchcraft and the ideas it represents—we will need another installment.
The Epic of Gilgamesh
Virgil, The Æneid
Tacitus, The Annals
William Shakespeare, The Tempest
Charles Williams, All Hallows’ Eve
Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea
*The words amulet and talisman are, for some reason, often confused. An amulet specifically wards off evil, whereas a talisman may have any sort of purported magical powers, protective or not.
**In the present author’s opinion, the mashallah custom compares favorably (in both theology and tastefulness) with the more familiar Western habit of the recipient of a compliment replying with a self-deprecating remark.
†Apuleius was the author of Metamorphoses (not to be confused with Ovid’s work of the same title, or Kafka’s short story in the singular), also called The Golden Ass. This was a popular novel whose main character is transformed by magic into a donkey, and enjoys, or is subjected to, many adventures. The spell is finally broken by the merciful intervention of Isis, who returns him to human form and accepts him as her devotee. Apuleius wrote Metamorphoses partly to promote his real-life practice of the mysteries of Isis.
Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s editor at large. He has a degree in Classics from the University of Maryland, College Park, and lives in Baltimore.
If you enjoyed this piece, check out some of our profiles of great writers like Averroës, Geoffrey Chaucer, and Margaret Cavendish. And be sure not to miss out on our podcast, Anchored. See you next week!
Published on 2nd February, 2023. Page image of a wedjat or Eye of Horus, a common type of Egyptian amulet dating as far back as the Old Kingdom (photographed by Jon Bodsworth).