Ordinary Magic

ConjuringSpirits copyThe concept of grimoires, as well as being seasonal, has been on my mind as I finish up my paper for the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting next month. Grimoires, books of magic, have eluded, for the most part, the interests of scholars. Who takes magic seriously, anyway? Slowly our gaze is working its way away from our noses and out to the magical world beyond. Conjuring Spirits: Texts and Traditions of Medieval Magic is a textbook example of what happens when you bring the two together (scholars and magic, that is). Like most collected works, the pieces range from fascinating to somewhat magical in their ability to cause the eyes to close. Nevertheless I learned quite a bit from this book edited by Claire Fanger. Magic is not nearly so rare as we like to claim it is.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from these essays is that grimoires were not only written by witches. Indeed, in the Middle Ages many of them were written by clerics and monks. They were avidly used by doctors, as science likely has its roots in magic rather than in some sudden enlightenment that matter is all there is. Medicine was still beholden to Aristotle, Hippocrates, and Galen. Humors and stars could make you unwell, and the wise physician would do well to pay attention to magic as well. Today we’re too sophisticated for that, but we still call the unexplained the placebo effect.

Although the church became the great enemy of magic, it was also one of its main sources. The Mass, with transubstantiation, seemed alchemical. Miracles of healing, known throughout the Bible, suggested that the improbable was indeed possible. A number of grimoires contained instructions to work such wonders. One of the most vehemently condemned was a book informing how to attain the beatific vision—a worthy enough goal—but it did so in a way that circumvented the power of the church. Garden variety magic was also available, of course, as were recipes calling for brain of black cat and blood of bat. Witches, after all, were mainly sought out by the church. Those with power are not easily compelled to relinquish it. It should surprise no one then that magic continues to thrive.

Pagan Religion

TriumphMoonFraming. Much of what we call “religion” has to do with framing. At one time it was standard practice to assume “pagan” was distasteful, if not downright evil. “Witch” was a pejorative term intended to humiliate and excoriate. Ronald Hutton is one of the few scholars who has taken the time to consider Wicca and related religions seriously. The Triumph of the Moon: a History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft has been on my reading list for quite some time. It is a big book, but this is a complex subject that can’t be dealt with briefly. Taking the time to get to know witches, with a historian’s patience, Hutton has given the world a valuable, balanced resource. Without prejudice, he traces how paganism, Wicca, and witchcraft are religions difficult to define or even categorize. There is little to frame them.

Rumor and hearsay make poor substitutes for understanding a religion. Most of what I grew up learning about witches was, in short, completely wrong. I wonder how much more pleasant the world might be if people assumed religions all to be similar in many ways. They are varied attempts to find ways of being moral in a world that gives little clear instruction on the matter. Witches and pagans are only evil in the uninformed opinions of more powerfully established religions. Religions of empire, whether real or only imagined. Those that had political backing and brute force to anathematize those who were different. Theirs is still a stigma that persists.

The Triumph of the Moon recounts the development, since the early part of the last century, of a somewhat organized experiment of religion as it grows organically. Without a leading figure or spokesperson, radically egalitarian, these groups, while sometimes in conflict, coalesce around the practice of finding something magical in the world. Theirs is an educated, literate world that does not judge other religions. It isn’t perfect, but then what religion is? The belief structure isn’t so different than many established religions except in the matter of degree. It is private and secretive in a way that we could only wish in many religions, if they could be counted on to behave themselves. I’m not likely to do a sky-clad spiral dance any time soon, but I would say that if we took religions at their word for being what they say they are, we might have a lot more resembling that of the noble pagan.

Musical Magic

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In-flight magazines aren’t a place I turn for inspiration. Having been raised in poverty, I’ve never found the jet-set interests to be at all engaging. I can’t turn my brain off, however, even when on vacation. Still, I hate to miss anything and I know I’ve got plenty of time in the air ahead of me. I was flying Alaska Air, so the in-flight magazine possessed a native exoticism. This particular issue focused on music. Music reveals a tremendous amount about the interior life, it seems to me. Some people live their lives to a constant soundtrack, while others listen to music seldom. Music, like religion, has the capacity to stir profound pleasure centers in the brain and, if I might be so bold, where your music is, there your heart is also.

One of the music festivals highlighted in the magazine was Voodoo Music and Art Experience in New Orleans. Right across the page was Sasquatch! Music Festival in Washington state. This unusual juxtaposition caught my eye. New Orleans, in the popular imagination, at least, has an association with the “exotic,” hybrid religions of the Caribbean. Voodoo is particularly feared by those who believe that somehow the supernatural can break into this mundane realm. Magic, although difficult to define, persists even in Richard Dawkins’ neatly ordered world. What better way to celebrate it other than music? There’s a homespun charm to it. Magic, despite the best efforts of many, won’t go away.

Since I was flying to the Pacific Northwest, the Sasquatch! Festival demanded my attention. Sasquatch, while disputed, has become the gentle giant frequently connected with magic. The stigma associated with believing in a New World ape has been eroding slowly, although it’s still on the list of “woo” factors for many. Like Voodoo, Bigfoot is an American concept that keeps a belief in magic alive. Well, we were in the air by now, and many had their earbuds in, passing the time with their own soundtracks. For me, music is often looking out the window while making no demands on that probable harmony the rational know as magic.

Magic Faith

MakingWe all like to believe we don’t believe in magic. In this day of sophisticated materialism, the idea that unseen forces might work upon the world seems terribly naive and not a little embarrassing. Randall Styers’s Making Magic: Religion, Magic, and Science in the Modern World has been on my reading list for a few years now. Not so much a history of magical thought, Styers offers a history of thought about thought on magic. There are several takeaways from a study like this. One is that magic and science share common ancestors. In fact, some theorists trace the origins of science to magical thought. The height of alchemy was also the period when experimental analysis of the natural world was blossoming. There was a mysterious sense to what we now think of as impassive particles whirling around for no particular reason. Making Magic makes clear that we can’t divorce developed thinking from magical outlooks. In many ways it is difficult to distinguish religion from magic.

Not that Styers advocates magical thought. He does, however, invite us to think about it. Another takeaway from this study is that magic, when described by religious writers, is a foil. Magic is used to show how the unenlightened think about things. Those of us here in the true light would never think such backward thoughts. Indeed, magic, as Styers makes clear, often served as a kind of social control. Lower classes think magic works wonders. The upper classes know that power lies in exploitation. Magic, in other words, can’t be divorced from politics. Those in the know would only encourage magical belief to continue. Invisible forces indeed.

Magic as a regulatory force is indeed the thesis with which Styers is working. The difference between prayer and magic is somewhat effaced when closely examined. Religious belief is seen as benefiting society while magic is for selfish benefits. I do wonder, however, where the modern magical religions, such as some branches of Wicca, would fit into this scheme. They also seek the good of society. Magic need not be selfish. Making Magic is concerned with the analysis of magic by scholars who’ve shown a surprising interest in the topic. It doesn’t really address those of today who, after finding the atomic world strangely vacuous, have turned to magic to re-enchant a world grown dull and dry. Whatever one may say about magic, it still exists, and its believers are among us. Our world with its solemn, feelingless answers could, at times, use a little such conjuring.

Magic Tricks

Magia SexualisTo a scholar who has spent many years studying ancient religions, new religions hold a strange appeal.  After all, we are trained to look at obscure texts from forgotten cultures and to decipher the mute clues they have left behind.  New religions have the benefit of being (generally) documented in ways that ancient religions aren’t, and often exist in societies more literate than those of the remote past.  Finding out about them may be easier, but understanding them may be just as difficult.  In my research on magic, I was led to Hugh B. Urban’s Magia Sexualis: Sex, Magic, and Liberation in Modern Western Esotericism.  I’ve always found Urban’s work engaging, and since this book is one of the few academic studies to investigate magic seriously, I was eager to see what he had to say.  As usual, I wasn’t disappointed.
 
Sex magic is frequently at the heart of magical beliefs.  Urban shows that this has been the case from ancient times.  Those of us who’ve studied ancient Syrian, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, or Aramaean religions aren’t surprised by this.  Those cultures inhabited a world pummeled by magic, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that sex might have had something to do with it.  The majority of Urban’s book, however, concerns figures starting in the nineteenth century who introduced new religious forms of sexual magic into the occult circles of their times.  Focusing on a specific practitioner in each chapter, he brings us up to the present with some familiar, or often less familiar, names.  Magic, by its very conception, is a religious idea.  Even if some of the more notorious modern magicians such as Aleister Crowley and Anton LaVey took religion in a darker direction, it was still religion.  The founding of Wicca by Gerald Gardner naturally receives some attention.
 
As Urban notes from the beginning, sex magic is not a topic for titillation.  It involves some transgressive, but also original thought about something that is so basically human that we all know about it even if we won’t discuss it.  And the dark practitioners have seemingly exhausted the vaults of extremism regarding sexuality that even a straight-laced, nay even Presbyterian, culture may find itself with no further options.  Where does one go when the foulest of profanities has been executed?  Certainly not back to the beginning, for we’ve come too far for that.  The postmodern world deconstructs itself leaving us to wonder if there can be any magic left at all.  It is no wonder, I should venture, that Harry Potter was gathering steam even as Urban wrote his book.  Magic will, by its nature, always find a way.

Don’t Answer Me

Non-directed reading sometimes follows its own track and a reader might become kind of an accidental expert. I wouldn’t claim that for myself, but I have noticed that scholars, until very recently, tended to give the cold shoulder to anything with a whiff of magic about it. Ancient magic is fair game, of course, but anything like post-Enlightenment magic is anathema, a veritable shibboleth of philistine sensibilities. No scholar worth their diploma would study such a lowbrow topic, let alone give it any credence. Popular culture, and increasingly political culture, tend to ignore academics, however. I have, in my exile from academia, become interested in those who consider themselves witches. I have, I realized recently, read quite a bit about the phenomenon and have been casting about for academic treatments that might fill in some of the gaps. It is a fascinating subject.

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Ironically, many religion scholars who swear by a mythological worldview of the first century, devalue magic, or Wicca. Many who study it handle it like a peculiar bug, something that might profitably be placed under the microscope as a living curiosity. The thing is, and I realize that academic institutions often shelter their inmates from the real world, many people still do believe in a kind of magic. It may not involve Harry Potter spells and wands, but everyday life outside the academy sometimes defies explanation. Scientists say it’s impossible, and scholars of religion are quick to lock step. Yet the number of those either openly or clandestinely joining occult groups appears to be increasing. Maybe they know something that the experts don’t?

While working on my academic paper for the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting, I have run into the amazing void of interest in contemporary magic. The television series Sleepy Hollow has revived some popular fascination with the topic. The curious, however, have few scholarly resources to consult. Here is perhaps the paradigm that shows most clearly why higher education runs into trouble. Could it be that in the academy the Lowells talk only to Cabots, and the Cabots talk only to God? Have they forgotten how the common folk live? Those of us who grew up common are often not welcome in the academy. Our downmarket ways and simian brows mark us as the sort so gullible as to believe in some kind of magic. But the numbers are on our side. And the only option sometimes is to become your own expert.

Different Bites

SharkGodThe South Pacific brings to mind light-hearted musicals, uncomplicated lifestyles, and Gilligan’s Island. For those of us born in the eastern parts of North America it can seem pretty exotic. Especially since we can seldom afford to go there. Since my income has wavered around the subsistence level of a reluctant urbanite, I instead travel there in my mind. I came across Charles Montgomery’s The Shark God at a recent book sale. I generally scour the anthropology tables since I find the belief systems of others so fascinating. Montgomery, a journalist, traveled to Melanesia to trace the route his great-grandfather took as a missionary. A non-believer himself, Montgomery wanted to see the magic that a former generation believed in firsthand. Noting that missionaries often despoil the cultures they are trying to “convert,” his tale is full of insights and observations and disappointments. My kind of book.

Montgomery is remarkably open minded. Like many of our generation, he outgrew the religious fervor that seemed so strong just a few decades ago. Still, he is open to the possibilities in the lesser understood cultures of the South Pacific. He notes that E. E. Evans-Pritchard, the famous anthropologist, opined that non-believers made poor anthropologists. Even missionaries might make better, he suggested, since at least they know what it is to believe. And here is the driving tension of Montgomery’s narrative. Sometimes you simply have to be open in order to see. Not all evidence is empirical. He recounts little “miracles” that he later reflects may have been mere diversions. Nevertheless, the world opens up when it is seen through native eyes.

Missionaries, although they may be better equipped to understand foreign (or native) believers, nevertheless try to change them. What I found most fascinating is how even those who fully identify as Christians in the south seas have combined that belief with their indigenous religions. Christianity, even among the clergy, is an overlay for culture. In ways that shock and frustrate missionaries, those converted maintain elements of their culture that fit uncomfortably with doctrine. How do you convert the converted? Or maybe the word is more properly “pervert.” Belief systems grow in cultures and tend to introduce high moral standards, no matter the deities (or non-deities) known. The Shark God is a wonderful window open on the South Pacific, a place to which some of us will only ever be able to travel in our limited minds. We are, after all, products of our culture.