Myth and Magic

Magic and religion are difficult to tell apart.  Scholars have known this for some time, but don’t often say anything about it for fear of offending.  A few days ago Religion News Service ran a story headlined “How the ‘Harry Potter’ books are replacing the Bible as millennials’ foundational text.”  While many reacted with shock, to me the fact that a foundational text can be identified at all is a relief.  You see, reading is good for you.  Really, really good for you.  One of the most hopeful things I observed as a parent was the increased quality and volume of young adult literature available.  Of course it’s produced to make a profit, but the fact is it showed that reading is alive and thriving.  If the young make a habit of it, well, let’s hope that habit’s hard to kick.

My own reading doesn’t always keep pace with my desire to do more of it.  I go for a couple of weeks sometimes without finishing a book.  I begin to feel depleted.  There’s something spiritual about reading, and fiction can reach parts of your soul that are on guard when non-fiction’s your subject.  And that’s like magic.  It took a couple years for me to catch on to the Harry Potter craze.  Eventually my wife and I broke down and bought book one and read it together.  As millions of readers can attest, that first book was a fishhook.  We all really hope the world does contain some magic.  Many people find that solace met with religion.  Either way, fiction can enhance the experience.  We read the original series, hanging tensely until the final volume came out.

Many of those who believe in a magical religion protested the sale of magical fiction.  We were still in Wisconsin at the time, but we saw the protestors outside a local bookstore the release day for one of the later volumes.  Like Death-Eaters the protestors opposed Harry Potter.  The root of the problem seems to have been unique truth claims.  Whenever a religion declares itself the sole harbinger of “the” truth, every other way of looking at things becomes evil.  Even if it expressly declares itself to be fantasy fiction for young adults.  Years have passed, and Harry Potter, like other forms of pop culture, has grown to the status of a religion.  Even Nones want to believe in something.  Magic and religion are, after all, very difficult to tell apart.

Quantum Magic

This history of ideas is perhaps the most stimulating of intellectual topics.  At least to me.  The pedigree of an idea tells us something of its validity—its authority, as it were.  I have been reading about the early days of science.  (Even the idea that science is modern is a mistaken concept; the earliest tool-makers were in some sense scientists.)   A book I was reading made the point that in the Renaissance, magic was a proper competitor to science.  Magic was sophisticated, based on much of what we would now call “science”—the belief was that the connections between an interconnected universe were hidden.  All things were tied together, nevertheless.  This presages not only the concept of evolution but modern cosmology as well.  The more I thought of this, the more it occurred to me that oppositional thinking, in some sense, dooms the possibilities of finding the truth.

Quantum mechanics, which I understand only on a lay level, has been puzzling over entanglement for some years now.  Entanglement was characterized by Einstein’s phrase “spooky action at a distance.”  Still, experiments have show that particles that have no way of “knowing” what each other are doing, are nevertheless connected.  That connection is nothing physical, nothing material.  Indeed, it makes materialists quite nervous.  The inert world of quanta should show no tendency towards “will” or “intention” at all.  So we call it something else—entanglement.  As I read about Renaissance magic, I realized that it was suggesting just this.  Of course, they had no means of observing what particle accelerators, such as that at CERN, reveal.  Their “science,” however, successfully predicted it.  Were it not for the history of ideas we could let materialists think they’ve discovered something new.  Historically, though, they haven’t.  (I’m not suggesting that quantum mechanics work on the macro level, but I’m observing that magic supposed some kind of entanglement existed.)

This is some kind of entanglement!

Often I have made bold to challenge Occam.  I wear a beard for a reason.  One size does not fit all in the entangled universe.  Some consider the exploration of spiritual aspects of life to be a waste of time.  Look at any university pay scales and be so bold as to differ.  The funny thing is, science is only now beginning to catch up with what we historically have called magic.  There seem to be multiple explanations to the behavior of the material world instead of a single one.  Once an idea becomes orthodoxy it becomes dangerous.  Reason is very, very important.  But reason sometimes get entangled in a world only revealed in the history of ideas.

Crafting Magic

There’s a disingenuousness about an extremely wealthy white man claiming he’s the victim of a “witch hunt.” Such super-slurring devalues the many thousands of lives lost in actual witch hunts, most of them female. Regular readers of this blog know that I’ve long been fascinated by witches, and since I have so little time, Very Short Introductions are appealing. Malcolm Gaskill’s such introduction on Witchcraft is a surprisingly sensitive book that manages to touch on many important aspects of those who spend time thinking. The relationship between religion and science, for example. Witches force that question in various ways. The main takeaway, however, is another that the witch-in-chief would do well to take to heart—we must learn from history. History may be the key to human survival.

Gaskill has an unnerving balance when it comes to witch hunts. In places his attempts at objectivity can appear a little cold—history has demonstrated that the numbers of people killed in Europe’s witch madness aren’t as high as often claimed. Still, the loss of over 100,000 lives to propitiate our collective fears is tragic. This little book crams a lot of information in and it carries an appropriately warning tone. We don’t really understand what witches are, and we do still live in a world where hunts for them take place. Our psychies, ever so rational, crave magic. Societies from earliest times feared as well as desired it. Our belief in witches, and witchcraft, betrays quite a lot of what it means to be human.

This quick study isn’t all about witch hunts, though. It also explores the world of witchcraft, both in ancient and modern times. From Mesopotamian diviners to Wiccans, “the craft” has always been with us and is believed in by a surprisingly large number of people in industrialized societies. Magic, of course, generally leads to unexpected results. And the metaphor of its power over our imagination is forgotten at a terrible price. As Gaskill makes clear, the “witch” can be a stand-in for the other—the other religion, the other nationality, the other we fear and, now with government sanction, drive out or destroy. There is no magic to a wealthy man buying the presidency of the nation. There is, however, a culpability, a reckoning, if you will, that must attend abuses of this metaphor. The GOP has become a party of familiars in this compact with the Devil, it seems. That’s just a metaphor. But then again, metaphors can sometimes truly be magic.

Hex Marks the Spot

Public versus private has been on my mind quite a bit lately. Partially it’s because I’ve been reading about magical beliefs and their persistence. It always amazes me how publicly we declare ourselves rational and uninfluenced by the supernatural. Once we get behind the closed doors of our domiciles, however, a transformation takes place. Our insecurities and uncertainties surface. Given the right circumstances we might even confess that we believe in magic. I know I’m generalizing here, but private space does allow for private thoughts and getting out with others can bring a much-needed relief. I was reading about Hex Hollow in an article a friend sent me from Roadtrippers. Hex Hollow is a small town in my native Pennsylvania where a murder took place over witchcraft. I won’t go into the details here—the Roadtripper story is quite brief and tells the tale—but it turns out a man was killed for being a witch. His murderer was also a witch who’d been sent to him by yet a third witch. The crime took place in 1928.

Think about the timeframe for a second. It was between the World Wars. Technology was fairly advanced. Witch trials had ended centuries ago. Still, some people believed enough in witches to kill for their conviction. Historians of religion have pointed out that Americans have never really outgrown the belief in magic that we deny so assiduously. I’m not trying to single out one nation here—there is widespread evidence that magical thinking is endemic to the human thought process. We aren’t so quick to let something go that, according to reason, has served us well. Had magical thinking been purely detrimental it should’ve died out long ago. We need our magic.

As yesterday, so today.

I’m not suggesting witchcraft is real. At the same time I know that it’s natural enough for thoughts to move into familiar terrain when stressed out. In Hex Hollow the man who did the murdering was convinced he’d been hexed by his victim. Perhaps he’d climbed the ladder of inference (what we tend to call confirmation bias) to a rung where the only way down was a criminal act of desperation. That’s no excuse to kill someone, of course, but it fits with what we know of an all-too-human form of stress relief. Nor is it rustic rubes to blame. Psychics in New York City are abundant and even US presidents have been known to consult the stars a time or two. Of course, once I step outside that door I’ll say it’s all nonsense.

Bible Use

In the current presidential race, it seems, the Bible hasn’t been as large an issue as it has been in the past. Bluff, bravado, and bullying seem more the order of the day. Goliath rather than David. This makes me think of the varied uses that the Bible has had in American life. It has been used as a spiritual guide, a textbook, a set of moral principals, a grimoire, and a science primer, as well as a political playbook. It is versatile, the Good Book. It has been prominent in American society from the very beginning, but clearly its prominence is starting to fade. Not likely to disappear any time soon, the interesting question is how people use the Bible, often without reading it. This is what scholars call the “iconic book” aspect of the Bible. It is performative—it acts in a way that has an outcome, no matter what the intent of the user. As I’ve argued in academic venues, it has become a magical book.

An iconic book (photo by David Ball)

An iconic book (photo by David Ball)

Wondering whether this is a new situation or not (I deeply suspect it’s not) I’ve been reading about the Bible in early America. Almost all the reference material points to the “official” uses of the Bible—that by statesmen and clergymen (both classes of “men” in the early days) with almost nothing of how it was used in private. This question involves some exercise of the imagination since there are few data. Would not a family, struggling to survive, see in the Bible a powerful book? And would not a powerful book be capable of subverting the laws of nature? Reading about the witch trials in Salem, we see that thunderstorms and other “prodigies” were considered magical. Surely one could use the Bible for unorthodox purposes? There’s little to be said in the absence of evidence. The use of magic in the colonial period, apart from the trails of witches, was not unusual.

How do we measure the ways the Bible was used when nobody beyond interested parties, such as clergy, wrote about it? Mr. Trump even tries to quote it from time to time, but since his citation that sounds like a joke opener, “Two Corinthians [go into a bar],” he seems to have let that hot potatoe drop. The Bible, seldom read, remains a powerful book. The source of its power, I suspect, is in its use by the common people. Many people are familiar with it, and believe in it. Some have even read it. It remains, however, one of the great mysteries among the early European settlers. We know they had their Bibles with them. How exactly they read them, when not under the eye of the preacher, we apparently have no way of knowing.

Grim Where?

An inordinate amount of my childhood time was spent on television. While the device of the day had been around for a decade already, I was among those who grew up learning that watching was easier than reading. Like most children, I took the path of least resistance. I watched. As a teen, however, I rediscovered reading and from that time television began to take a back seat to books. When the great switch-over to digital occurred we didn’t get a conversion box, and we could never really afford cable for as little TV as we watch. When a program gets commended, or if nostalgia takes too great a toll, we can always purchase programs—the price of watching television without the commercials. So it was that I began watching Sleepy Hollow. Very quickly in the first season the monster of the week trope was established as the plot grew more and more tangled. The Bible was so prominent in that season that I wrote an academic paper on it.

Sleepy_Hollow_-_Title_Card

Over the past few months my wife and I have been working through season two. The DVD version was delayed and we only watch on weekends. Recently we finished the eighteen episodes of the second installment. Clearly the budget had improved over the first season, but the Bible, it was also clear, had diminished. Throughout the first season the driving motif of the story was that biblical “prophecy” (from the book of Revelation) was unfolding in Sleepy Hollow. This is what one scholar has termed a “local apocalypse.” Throughout season two, however, the end of days is shut down. Molech, its architect, is killed. The headless horseman is less Death than a jilted lover. The second horseman, War, loses his armor and dies.

Magic, however, along with special effects, take on an increased roles. Instead of turning to the Bible to solve problems, the most helpful book to have on hand is a grimoire. Sleepy Hollow, which is anything but what its name suggests, is full of monsters. Powerful magic is required to contain them, and, it seems, the Bible is no longer needed as a tool to take down evil. Perhaps there is a parable at work here. I was drawn into the series by its biblical literacy, as well as its literacy in general. More action has been introduced, and fewer books. It’s a pattern I’ve seen before. I suspect I’ll watch season three presently. When I do I’ll be casting a wistful eye on the stack of books I have yet to read, and I’ll be wondering if reading may not have become easier than watching.

To the Tower

A recent article in The Independent shows once again how deep our human need of magic can be. The Tower of London, among the oldest buildings in the city, and often considered the most haunted, was apparently protected by magic. Archaeologists have discovered ritual marks on the support timbers of the representative of the Queen’s residence that they believe were intended to keep the devil out. Given that building has been around for a few hundred years, that’s really not all that surprising. The amazing aspect, at least to me, is that the signs are a rare admission on the part of those in power that they are occasionally not in charge. In any case, now that Halloween is in the air, it seems appropriate to think about how even the most rich and powerful aren’t secure from spiritual anxieties. It’s no wonder that bishops were so powerful, back in the day.

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Since I’m writing a paper that discusses grimoires, magic has been on my mind lately. Anyone who follows the books I post on either this blog or Goodreads might easily discern that. The concern that Medieval people had with witches was their supposed ability to work magic. Ironically, historians of science are now suggesting that the study of magic may have led to what we now think of as science. In order to manipulate the physical world, you have to understand how that world works. Magic might have had some benefits for society after all. And we are still prone to magical thinking. It is deeply embedded in the human psyche. Magic, like miracles, can be fortuitous, but the prudent know better than ever to count upon them.

The Tower of London was the, or one of the, castle(s) of the city. Political prisoners were held there and often left with their heads in separate compartments. Even a regular tour of the grounds will include references to ghosts. A city as large and as sophisticated as London still can’t escape the past. The hex marks found by archaeologists may date from the early modern period—the time of the Reformation and thereabouts—but the human mind has not much changed since then. While we may not put secret marks on our buildings any more, we still instill them with a sense of magic. And people move out of haunted houses so often that some states have requirements to reveal troubling histories of properties before someone decides to buy. We are a society enamored of technology and future progress, and yet we stop and wonder when Halloween is in the air.