Banned Magic

Grimoires“If you believe in the power of magic,” Eric Woolfson plaintively sang, “then I can change your mind.” A song that bewitched my younger years, when the atmosphere is just right, it can still bring a silent tear to my eye. Magic is a powerful elixir.

On my own personal almanac of holidays, Banned Book Week is one that takes the most preparation. In anticipation, for it is next week already, I read Owen Davies’ Grimoires: A History of Magic Books. Since this blog doesn’t get nearly the readership of a banned book, I might explain that witches are among my favorite topics. Despite that, and despite growing up with constant curiosity about religion, I only learned about grimoires recently. Davies makes it clear in his book that apart from some standard texts that have been around for a few centuries, the idea of a magic book is really relatively recent. Yes, the Egyptians and Mesopotamians had books of magic, but the concept of a grimoire only really fits the Zeitgeist of medieval Europe particularly well. Such books may draw on or cite oriental wisdom, frequently stepping into the forbidden territory of Arabic learning and alchemy, but they reflect the worldview of the Middle Ages when magic still seemed possible. In earlier centuries conjuring seems to have been subsumed under the miracles associated with Jesus, and we don’t hear much about magi beyond people like Simon Magus.

Davies packs a lot of information into his book, but my reason for focusing on it here, now, is the banned nature of grimoires. Many of them are considered rare and valuable books today, but in their day they were dangerous and forbidden. The concept that an idea can be suppressed is an odd one. In fact, many ideas have a very difficult time finding receptive minds. Once it is written down, however, an idea can circulate. The surest way to guarantee that it will is to ban it. People want to know what is so dangerous about this idea that it must be kept hidden. It makes an idea powerful, esoteric. Forbidden fruit, we all know if we’ll only be honest, is the sweetest.

Grimoires were considered most efficacious when written by hand. Although it took the printing press to proliferate such books, magic was believed to be most potent in the hand-written form. By writing text, one engages intimately with it. This is a reality we are in danger of losing in the computerized age. I grew up with only a second-hand typewriter acquired by my family when I was in high school. Most of what I wrote—for inspiration seldom comes when you’re sitting at your desk—was done by hand. My own little grimoires. Now we’ve added the interface of a keyboard. It is faster, and more efficient. Clinical even. But often the magic seems to be gone. And that is testified in many banned books. They especially, I would aver, believe in the power of magic.

Any Witch Way

Witches&WitchHuntsIt’s easy to feel smug over the past. At every moment of human civilization we deem ourselves higher than those who came before. There’s no doubt that the eradication of the thought-processes that led to the witch hunts of past centuries seems decidedly positive for all parties involved. Wolfgang Behringer’s Witches and Witch-Hunts, however, is a surprising book. I’ve read a fair number of studies of those dark ages when people were cruelly tortured and murdered in horrendous ways because they were deemed to be in league with Satan. As usual in such books, Behringer begins with that history. What makes his study surprising, however, is that he doesn’t stop in the eighteenth century when, in what we’re usually told, the witch trials ended. Behringer points out that witch hunts are still happening, and that the rates of those killed perhaps rival those, per capita, of the numbers during the Middle Ages. How can this be? In an era of global awareness, we sometimes forget that the focus isn’t always on Europe or America.

In many parts of the world, witches are still part of local belief systems. Not all of these are women, by the way. Many cultures favor the male witch. What these cultures do have in common, however, is their natural fear of black magic being suppressed by colonialism. More “civilized” westerners came and enacted laws which, to the minds of the locals, protected the witches! Local tradition of eradicating those who practice black magic was considered righteous, and now the government forbids it? That seems strange, especially when many of the colonizing forces were also interested in Christianizing as well. Missionaries wanted to affirm belief in the supernatural, and, ironically, often became the vehicles that allowed beliefs in witchcraft to continue. As Behringer points out, some populations converted to Christianity precisely because it allowed the continued belief in physical evil—therefore witches—and the eradication thereof.

This creates a vexing problem. When cultures meet they inevitably attempt to assert their values. When the technologically superior force their ways of life on those behind on that front, a kind of pressure of misunderstanding builds. Instead of bringing witches to trial, they lynch them instead. It seems we may have underestimated the pull that belief in witches has on people. Traditional societies uninfluenced by the developments in Europe also came up with the idea of witchcraft independently. Witches, it seems, stand for the classic issue of theodicy—explaining why things go wrong in a world that should be ordered by deities. Coincidence is always cold comfort in explaining loss. Even the rule of law breaks down. At the same time, how can it be right to allow the murdering of those suspected of witchery even in the enlightened twenty-first century? This fear is one of our most abiding demons, and the solution remains out of reach, unless, of course, we allow ourselves to resort to magic.

Devil’s Advocate

At fives and sixes, the Pope who gave us the devil's advocate.

At fives and sixes, the Pope who gave us the devil’s advocate.

When two people in completely isolated incidents tell me the origins of the term “Devil’s advocate” within a week, I figure it’s time to do a post about it. We’re all familiar with the term, and we know that it means taking the point of view of the “bad guy,” just for argument’s sake. In fact, the Devil’s advocate may not believe his (usually it is a he) own arguments, presents them to make sure the results are correct. The Devil’s advocate was an official office in Roman Catholicism beginning in the late 16th century. The actual title was Promoter of the Faith and the reason such an office was necessary was that so many people had been put forth as potential saints that the church experienced an embarrassment of riches. Canonization, the process of becoming a saint, has a number of hurdles to clear for the would-be paragon. Claims, often extraordinary, were made for miracles associated with the favored ones and the Devil’s advocate was intended to research and present contrary evidence. This made it more difficult to achieve sainthood, but in theory, at least, kept the number of candidates down to only the most deserving. There was no literal devil involved.

Those of us who grew up Protestant often had recourse to only faulty knowledge of Catholicism. We were sometimes taught that it was based on magic, what with the priest speaking in Latin and making mysterious motions with his hands. That meant, for some, that Catholics seemed particularly gullible and would believe things the rest of us wouldn’t. The Catholic Church, however, has often providing its own policing. Not as eager as Pentecostals to accept mundane miracles, when a pareidolia-inspired leakage of water or an anomalous burning of toast occurs, the Catholic Church is quick to debunk claims of miracles just because an underpass stain or a bit of bread looks like a famous religious figure. If you squint enough. The Devil’s advocate was a similar safeguard.

On the opposite side of the equation, I’ve often heard sermons among some evangelical groups claiming that we’re all saints. (Their membership, that is.) Who shouldn’t claim the name when they walk the walk? Many of these saints fail to inspire in the way of those of yore. Some of the beloved cultural heroes that keep coming back in various forms have saintly origins: Santa Claus and Saint Valentine are two that come to mind at this time of year. Some Protestants who may not have been perfect, however, should somehow qualify. Martin Luther King, Jr., another figure of the winter season, by his contributions to justice issues, might be one who would qualify. I’m sure there are many others. The fact is that making a principled stand against the wickedness that sometimes passes for the status quo is difficult and leaves one open to criticism and resentment. A Devil’s advocate might be just what society needs when looking to make saints out of mere mortals.

The Power of Magic Again

7laws Magic is everywhere. It may not be real (or it just might). There’s no doubt that Matthew Hutson believes the supernatural has nothing to do with it. The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking is a provocative book in that regard. An atheist who argues that we shouldn’t discourage magical thinking because it is so darned human, Hutson is a rare kind of treasure indeed. The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking begins by pointing out that we can’t psychologically accept what is really real. Reality always eludes us. Our brains are hardwired to accept what Hutson calls magic (including what I call religion). Those who enjoy provocation can take some satisfaction in knowing that either side can add another layer to the shell: physics explains everything, but maybe magic is responsible for making the universe conform to the laws of physics. And so it goes.

Although I enjoyed Hutson’s book–and he’s clearly a gifted writer—I couldn’t help but wonder at a very deep parity between the determinism he believes is really real and the magical view that is implied by such self-help manifestos as The Secret—the things that happen to you are meant to happen. I know, I know—Hutson’s point is that there’s no agency involved in determinism, but my point is that the end result is still the same. You end up where you are. I’m not so sure. Determinism has always left me cold. But since I’m no God I guess I can’t change that, yet I wonder if there might not be something outside this closed system after all. No one can peek and tell.

Neurology may tell us more than we want to know about the mechanics of the brain, but consciousness is reality. Science may some day lay its cold hands on consciousness, but it will always be someone else peering into my head wondering what I’m thinking. I’d have it no other way. I was strangely cheered to note that Hutson ends his whimsical study with a “stab at a secular spirituality” (a good stab, that is—not the malicious kind). I’m sure that many materialists will find such an a gesture as pandering to the masses. I think Hutson is sincere, however. Even the über-rationalists, as he points out in the book, slip into magical thinking and metaphors. It is the human condition. Those who watch Star Trek (original series, please!) know that the most tormented crew member of the Enterprise is Mr. Spock. The rationalist who can’t connect with emotion is a soul in torment. Even if that soul is a myth. The rest of the crew, I am certain, believes in the power of magic.

Which Lethbridge Witch?

witcheslethbridge Thomas Charles Lethbridge was a twentieth-century explorer. I knew his name only from book covers, and since books published before the cynical 1980s have a feel of the parsimoniousness to them, I tend to be trusting. As a former academic, my choice of reading is, in an odd way, sequential. You see, academic research is often a matter of following leads, rather like Sherlock Holmes with his clues. One thing leads to another. I’ve been learning about paganism at work, and so when I noticed T. C. Lethbridge’s book, Witches: Investigating an Ancient Religion, I figured that I might learn something about belief in witches in the Middle Ages. The book was published by the Routledge Kegan Paul phase of my employer in 1962. I quickly learned that Lethbridge was far from conventional, even in the twenty-first century.

Lethbridge’s book on witches turned out to be a romp through mostly Celtic mythology, with a bit of Norse and ancient Near Eastern myth thrown in for good measure. It turns out that Lethbridge literally did believe in the power of magic and was no slouch when it came to dowsing. In the great Frazerian tradition, Lethbridge brings together some elements that are probably best left separate, but the result is undeniably interesting and entertaining. I’m not sure he would be considered a balanced source for research purposes today, yet his book does contain unexpected insights. But no witches. Witches, according to Lethbridge, were adherents of the old gods. Their worldview collapsed with geocentrism and there was little left for magic to do in an empirical world.

Lethbridge’s constellation has dimmed from the scholarly zodiac. In recent days he has found a new set of disciples, however, who see his work as profoundly prophetic, in a manner of speaking. Lethbridge was an occult investigator before such pursuits became big business. Among mainstream academics these ideas still fall into the category of bogus, naive, or superstitious, but that is beginning to change in some quarters. Lethbridge, as it quickly becomes apparent, reserved a kind of scorn for establishment academics. It is true that stepping out of line has its consequences even in the rarified halls of higher education, but the results of the research are often of high quality. Even witches can be studied with an academic eye. The difference seems to be that T. C. Lethbridge believed what the witches said. That makes him a real explorer.

Explanatory Value

The dividing line between superstition and religion is thin and growing more effaced all the time. Nowhere does this become clearer than in studies of the history of religion. One of the critiques early made between “true religion” and superstition is that the latter involved magic, but today anthropologists find that line difficult to discern as well. Many religions are defined by their insistence on supernatural occurrences. The world as is, is by definition, secular. That’s one of the reasons Euan Cameron’s Enchanted Europe: Superstition, Reason, and Religion, 1250—1750 is so interesting. Cameron, an historian with a precise grasp on theological nuance, traces Christian responses to the world of the supernatural through the Middle Ages. Various theological responses are then explored as the author searches for that elusive distinction that makes one belief religious and another superstitious. It is really a matter of perspective.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the late Middle Ages. As Cameron notes, physics, to the mind attuned to God’s direct intervention in the cosmos, looks like the occult. How could a person seriously believe that two physical bodies, such as the sun and earth, or earth and moon, could attract each other? If you put God back into the equation just to take him out for an instant, this sounds extremely occult. Does not attraction imply volition? How can physical objects attract one another? Thus scientists such as Galileo and Newton often found opposition for their ideas based on the fact that science and superstition can also bear a passing resemblance.

As science’s superior empirical evidence became clearer, the God who’d stepped out of the room temporarily was eventually locked out. This vast universe could be explained without the supernatural at all. What was needed was better glasses. Microscopes and telescopes, and now cyclotrons and space telescopes, provide a consistent and ever sharper image of a universe that gets along just fine without the divine. But what of superstition? Has it gone away? We still routinely construct buildings without thirteenth floors. The sigh of relief from the worker or guest on floor fourteen seems never to be obviated by the fact that they are really on a renamed, empirically thirteenth floor. Your daily newspaper (although quickly growing extinct) will still offer you your horoscope before you hurry off to the lab. Call it what you will—superstition, religion, occult, magic—as long as we’re human no scientist or theologian will ever convince us that there’s not at least some whisper of a ghost in the machine.

Anubis Rising

As if reality weren’t haunting enough, I’ve been continuing my quest to find the scariest fiction book written. I’ve borrowed suggestions from others, but it seems that the fear factor is a decidedly personal thing. Nevertheless, the suggestions are often enlightening as well as provocative. I recently finished Dan Simmons’s A Winter Haunting. Simmons’s work had previously been unexplored by me, so this was a foray into the unknown. Of course, I read horror with an eye toward the sacred and I’m seldom disappointed. In A Winter Haunting the sacred appears in the form of Egyptian religion. Simmons makes very effective use of hellhounds, tracing them back to Anubis.

Now Anubis lays me down to sleep

The religion of ancient Egypt had a morbid preoccupation with death – or maybe it was just a healthy recognition that it is inevitably coming. Many of their gods eventually ended up patronizing the dead in some way. Andjety, Ptah, Min, Osiris, Isis, Nephthys, Maat, and Thoth, as well as Anubis, regularly appear in the cult of the dead. And, of course, pyramids represented the stairway to heaven long before Page and Plant. Death and its psychological angst have been crucial to the development of religion from the beginning. The Egyptians honed it to a fine art.

Anubis was likely associated with the dead because of the scavenging of wild canines at shallow graves. Magic, a phenomenon anthropologists have difficulty distinguishing from religion, dictates that the source of the problem should be appropriated as its cure. To protect the dead, the scavenger of the dead transformed into Anubis. Simmons did his homework, for this transformation is well represented in A Winter Haunting. Without knowing this particular plot device, I had been reading about Egyptian funerary cult independently of the novel and this coincidence proved entertaining as well as informative. I won’t be sleeping with the lights on, though. The search continues.

Mythology Gone to the Dogs

Today’s New Jersey Star-Ledger reports an inter-species religious scandal that highlights the vast difference between god and dog. Last month a Canadian Anglican priest fed a dog a communion wafer. The gesture, a spur-of-the-moment reaction to a visitor who brought his dog to church (somewhat of a rarity in itself) was likely just a reflex to seeing that inevitable lolling tongue at the communion rail. Priests see lots of lolling tongues, mostly human.

In my long years at Nashotah House, where daily communion was a requirement of all faculty and students, I’m sure I consumed several pounds of communion wafer. I also received many stern warnings that this particular food item – if communion wafers can really be considered food – was unlike any other and must be treated with the utmost sanctity. Ironically, more than once I was handed a wafer by a priest with an out-of-control head-cold who’d clearly just contaminated an entire paten full of the sacrament with an eager virus. Within a week most of the student body would be hacking up an holy phlegm, not dissuaded from sharing the common cup. Despite the obvious fact that the ritual had become a disease vector, the mythology of its sanctity lived on.

The history of Christian ritual is a specialized field with experts who know the minutiae of each subtle gesture and the history of each preposition in the Anaphora. The ritual itself has become an object of worship. For some the fate of the wafer has become the fate of the world. This is mythology in action. Nevertheless, I have often received unbelievable hostility from those crowned with righteousness. As long as the right words are pronounced in the right order with the appropriate gestures, it is perfectly acceptable to stab another human being in the back.

I grew up with dogs. With the rare exception of the occasional biter, canines have treated me very well. Some on the verge of worship. If it comes down to choices, I’ll take my chances with the dog with a lolling tongue rather than with the priest with the magical bread.

Belief in dog is not a bad thing

Bible vs. Bible

Back in December I wrote a post about a mother (Estelle Walker) who was put on trial for starving her children (who survived). The reason the poverty-stricken mother did this was that, as she read the Bible, God would provide for her. She prayed mightily, but the children still went without food. She was found guilty of child endangerment, and at her sentencing this week the judge, interestingly enough, cited the Bible. Noting that the Bible presents a nurturing image of mothers, the judge, Peter Conforti, said, “The court has read the Bible too. Mothers are told to love their children.” Walker’s attorney cited a “‘delusional disorder’ that caused her to have an overreliance on God,” according to Joe Moszczynski, of the New Jersey Star-Ledger. An overreliance on God, or on the Bible?

This entire sad scenario highlights the danger of viewing the Bible as a magical book of answers. In a scene that is reminiscent of the Scopes Trial, both sides of the case cite the Bible for their actions. Which is correct? Is it not both? Does this not show the problems that arise when considering a lengthy book written over a period of at least a millennium by perhaps a hundred different authors as a uniform source of legal code or ethical conduct? Yet, when swearing to tell the truth, people lay their hand on the self-same Bible while thinking it means something highly idiosyncratic.

As a teacher of Bible I have a great admiration and respect for this problematic book. One of my recurrent concerns is that a storehouse of human experience and wisdom is treated as if it were a font of magic. As if finding a statement in the Bible somehow assures us that our viewpoint is correct. The Bible is used to justify crimes and noble actions. If clergy could have a more enlightened view on just what the Bible is, perhaps believers would not be led to destructive behavior because of simple misunderstandings. Perhaps children would be fed and judges could spend their time judging cases where the Bible simply doesn’t apply.

Prosperity Fail

Every so often I receive unsolicited mailings from impersonal churches intimately addressed to “Resident.” Invariably these churches tell me that God wants me to prosper (although he has a funny way of showing it sometimes), offer to send me some totem to make it possible, and assure me of their general goodwill. Yesterday’s mail brought me a packet from Saint Matthew’s Churches offering to help me become wealthy by receiving a free golden cross just for responding — post paid! — to their offer. Clearly such mailings are intended to target readers down on their luck. Since I’ve been without a full-time job since July, I meet their demographic rather well. My response, however, may not be what they hoped for: I plan to send no money.

I wonder how deeply these prosperity clergy consider the impact of an unemployed individual receiving their vain promises. Sometimes when the under-employed receive such hollow promises it feels like a god-slap. Oh! If only I had been wearing this free cross I wouldn’t have had to suffer such bouts of depression and self-doubt! It was just that simple! And the Holy Bible says so too!

Those of us who’ve tried to make a living of studying the Bible don’t just read the cheery bits. The Bible is full of suffering, despair, and difficulty endured by those who tried to do the right thing. So, in fairness to the spirit of empirical inquiry, I’ve decided to respond to this offer. The control will be the last seventeen years of my professional life, during which prosperity has eluded me. It may take another seventeen years, but if I carry my free cross around, things are sure to turn my way. The accompanying literature says so. I’ll set myself a task in Outlook for 2026 to see if, A. the world hasn’t ended in 2012, and B. the magic golden cross really works.