In Search of a Holy Magic - Part 1
Researching this subject has been a such humbling experience on so many levels. First and foremost, I’ll have to say, because of the incredible academic publications that have come out on the topic in recent years. Neglected for centuries by scholars of all ways, ritual magic has found its way back into universities and into scholarly circles since the late 1980s. If interest at first was sparked from a purely sociologist and historic perspective, tides have slowly turned. Today books such as Frank Klaassen’s outstanding ‘Transformations of Magic’ approach this complex matter with more respect for and sensitivity to our living tradition than found amongst many modern books on magical practice.
Secondly, it has been a humbling experience because of the limitations I discovered in my own perspective on the topic. I now understand much better what sparked sociologists’ interest in medieval and Renaissance magic in the first place. Coming from a tradition of practicing magicians myself, it took a while before I allowed myself to look at our own past through the eyes of an academic outsider. Once I managed to shift perspectives, however, it was breathtaking to see how much there is to learn about a certain period, culture or even community just by understanding they way they practiced, preserved and passed on magical techniques. No different to any cultural artefact produced for practical purposes, we can decide to ‘use’ these artefacts and thus learn directly about their application and impact. Or we can choose to ‘read’ them as expressions of people’s beliefs, assumptions and everyday realities of their times. The former is the approach of the experimental practitioner, the latter of the academic researcher. In the case of medieval and Renaissance ritual magic - a subject of so much more ephemeral nature than e.g. a Renaissance chair or chain-mail - bringing these two perspectives together is of a power that I had significantly underestimated.
Finally, I have been humbled by my research into the topic as it presents such a vast field, so interconnected to so many factors of people’s everyday lives; thus constantly requiring to reach deeper and further back in time. At best, the below pages are scratching the surface, and certainly cannot replace reading the fascinating literature on the subject oneself. What I hope to be able, though - as it is unlikely this paper will ever find its way back into academic circles - is to spark further debate and research on the subject amongst practicing magicians. Misperceptions of our own past can exert powerful influences on our present of course, and magic is no exception to this rule. Man is a story-telling species. It is the stories - not the blank facts - that create meaning and identity and thus exude control over who we believe we are, or have to be, or maybe once were.
Giving oneself permission to understand these stories for what most of them truly are - mythical patterns at best, wishful thinking at worst - is an equally painful as liberating act. Either way, without such openness no truly new and unique stories will ever be able to emerge and find their place within our hearts and blood. Our readiness to let go equals our readiness to discover the new.
May the serpent bite its tail.
As a first step on any new journey I’d like to ask myself ‘Why does this matter?’. In our present case more precisely I’d like to ask: ‘Why does it matter to better understand how our tradition of Western Magic was reconstructed during the early 16th century?’. I asked myself this question at the beginning of my journey and at its end (for now) and certainly many times in between when pondering what I had learned and found and how to make sense of it… Well, here are the main points that emerged on why this question truly matters. The answer is centered around three essential drives of the human species.
- Magic is the most archetypical personal relationship with the divine man ever invented. While mysticism in large part depends on an aspect of divine grace, that is not true for its promethean twin. Whatever the purpose and goal of the magician - how morally high or low, how pragmatic or sublime - he never accepts second-hand mediation but pushes through boundaries of time, space and substance to experience the divine with his own human senses. As such magic is a testament to man’s unruly drive to escape his own mortality and reconnect with his divine or daemonic origins - not theoretically or philosophically, but through direct sensual experience. – At the beginning of the 16th century for almost 1400 years such attempts had been heavily sanctioned and pushed into the underground by the Catholic Church. Yet, Renaissance scholars dared to challenge the most powerful authority on the planet and aimed to bring back magic into the social discourse - and possibly even into actual practice. What prompted them to take such risks is a matter of significance importance in order to understand how they approached this possibly lethal task.
- Even magicians - once such sensual contact to the divine is established - cannot escape man’s eternal drive to create coherence and meaning from the new material gathered. We are all story-telling beings at the end of the day. – During the turn of the 16th century this process took the most fascinating turn. After centuries of oblivious forgetfulness the writings of the Greek and Arabic philosophers suddenly resurfaced in the Christian heartland of Europe and prompted a radical re-evaluation of Christian doctrine and orthodoxy.
- Finally, even where scholars resisted the temptation of filling in the blanks of their own experience through the words of the ancient Greek, they still found magic to be one of the most promising tools of exploration. Magic - and ritual magic in particular - claimed to provide instructions which if followed accurately would open the same mental or even physical doors each time the same procedure was applied. Not only did magic promise to make the practitioner independent of divine grace, but it was perceived to fulfil the most basic requirement of any scientific research we still adhere to today: same process produces same results every time. In short, magic promised an ever increasing level of control over an ever increasing base of knowledge and power. – During a time filled with heretic revolt and social revolution such prospect was incredibly tempting.
- The above description wouldn’t be complete without pointing out that by the end of the 15th century all of these three essential human drives had been blocked off successfully by the Catholic Church. Experience of the divine was only allowed through the Church’s intervention and heavily prosecuted and sanctioned elsewhere. The reservoir of collective stories from which individual and cultural meaning was created had turned repetitive for decades at least: People lived under the impression that all major discoveries had been made and with authorities such as Aristotle in philosophy, Geber in medicine and the Church fathers in orthodoxy no new advancement in human knowledge and civilisation should be expected. Of course the Church tried hard to keep its prerogative of interpretation on the status quo; and yet the new, rather secular young sciences emerging in the Arabic countries and the multi-cultural melting pot of 15th century Spain shone a bright light through the first cracks of European’s so-called medieval darkness. – All of this made the subject of magic not only tempting to Christian scholars and potentates. It essentially required a complete re-interpretation of this infamous category of heretic knowledge and practice - a re-branding we would call it today - in order to allow legitimate access to doors whose keys had been exchanged in secrecy only for centuries.
Another aspects needs to be highlighted as part of this introduction. Many of the recent studies on magic have attempted to differentiate their ambiguous subject into several clear categories and thus narrow down their own focus of research. Often times this is why we come across a term labelled as ‘learned magic’ or ‘high magic’. This makes sense in so far as we have to assume that at any point in time currents and common practices of magic existed that never were captured in books. The term ‘learned magic’ thus acknowledges the limitations of a written tradition during a time when writing and reading still formed a privilege of the learned and rich. However, it is not helpful to distinguish the magical practice of cunning folks, wandering healers and countryside witches from more complex ritual structures forming an altogether separate category of so-called ‘high magic’. At least for medieval and early Renaissance times such distinction is artificial and rather detrimental to a better understanding of the subject. The magical literature of these times shows no attempt to uphold such differentiation or separation of categories. Quite the opposite: Scribes were perfectly comfortable to place recipes for the healing of toothache next to a rite for enlightenment and we might find a basic love-spell traveling next to an elaborate ceremony to attract an astral spirit-guide. While even Renaissance scholars might have differentiated between these two categories - and in search of a re-definition of the entire category of magic rightly tried to do so - our own practicing ancestors might have laughed at their highly sophisticated and yet completely superfluous interpretation to a practice that ultimately always held very pragmatic goals. Irrespective from which layer of society the neophyte of magic stemmed, their essential goal never changed too much from time immemorial to the present day: to lead a happy life, to live free of enemies, illness, poverty and in blissful absence of all threat or crisis. Whatever alley chosen the ultimate goal of magic always remained protection, power and prosperity.
So what makes the beginning of the 16th century stand out in this ancient tradition of man’s strive to re-establish the Garden of Eden in the present day world? Well, towards the end of the 15th century all three of the above mentioned drives were not only blocked off by the Catholic Church, but equally experienced a critical tipping point that supported revolt against the established power-balance. This uprising wasn’t done with swords and shields, but with paper and with the help of the recently invented letter-press and resulted in dramatic changes to our perception of the Western magic tradition - whether founded on facts, faith or forgery we will examine further. The 16th century formed the heart of the Italian Renaissance, saw the beginning of the Protestant Revolution as well as the Discovery of a New World in the West. It was home to many of the most influential figures of our tradition to the present day - Marsilio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, Faust, Trithemius, Agrippa, Dee, Shakespeare - whose larger-than-life shadows began to cast darkness on the living magical tradition they had borrowed from. The 16th century thus forms the foundation of how we like to remember our Western magical past in the 21st century.
2. The Role of the Church
At the turn of the 16th century Agrippa of Nettesheim was a young man of fourteen about to immerse himself into a life weathered by more storms than many of us could imagine today. For decades already these storms had been gathering forces over the continent. Now they were about to unfold on what we have come to know as Europe today, overthrowing and changing the very foundations of society as people had known it and never questioned it for centuries.
To highlight some of the epicentres of these storms from the middle of 15th to the early 16th century, let’s take a look at a few historical dates:
- 1231: Gregory IX begins Medieval Inquisition
- 1434: Cosimo de'Medici (d.1464) becomes ruler of Florence
- 1438: Under the patron-ship of Cosimo de Medici Gemistus Pletho establishes the Platonic Academy in Florence
- 1442: Johann Gutenberg’s invention of the letter press begins to revolutionise the distribution of knowledge
- 1451: Pico della Mirandola publishes his major work De animae immortalitate
- 1452: Birth of Leonardo da Vinci (d.1519)
- 1453: Fall of Constantinople to the Turks
- 1478: Sixtus IV authorises the Spanish Inquisition
- 1484: Marsilio Ficino’s collected translations of Platon’s work are published
- 1486: Marsilio Ficino finishes his translation of Plotin’s Enneads
- 1486: Pico della Mirandola publishes his 900 theses Conclusiones philosophicae, cabalasticae et theologicae and offeres to pay the expenses of any scholars who came to Rome to debate them publicly
- 1487: Pope Innocent VIII proclaims thirteen of the 900 theses as heretical
- 1492: Columbus discovers the New World
- 1492: Jews and Moslems are expelled from Spain
- 1498: Girolamo Savonarola is publicly burned on the pyre in Florence
- 1500 Birth of Charles V of Hapsburg, who became Lord of the Netherlands in 1515, King of Spain in 1516, and was elected Holy Roman Emperor (German-speaking region) in 1519. He ruled most of Europe until his abdication in 1556.
- 1509: Henry VIII ascends the throne of England. He rules until 1547.
- 1515: Leo X institutes pre-press censorship
- 1517: Martin Luther nails his 95 theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. Beginning of the Protestant Reformation.
Now, what do these dates really tell us? Well, what I am taking away from much smarter people than me who explored the intellectual climate at the turn to the 16th century is this: For centuries the power base in Europe’s mainland had been firmly established around the sacrosanct authority of the Catholic Church. In a world that knew no national states, but only rising and faltering lineages of rulers, it was the blessing of the Catholic Church that justified or prevented the claim to power. Yes, that authority had been under threat many times. During the 15th century Europe had gone through a phase of revolt with up to four competing popes at once. However, even this political game of chess had not questioned the general power-base of the Church - but only who held the key to it and how it was gained. Whoever would be able to establish ‘his pope’ would still emerge as God’s blessed king. Because the sceptre of the highest ruler needed blessing by the highest institution on God’s earth. These were the rules of the checkerboard that was perceived to be the eternal centre and surface of a flat world, Europe.
What these dates show us are flashlights of how for the first time the Catholic Church ran risk of loosing its institutional power-base - as well as the countermeasures it willingly took to defend it at all costs. The foundation of the Spanish Inquisition as well as the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain were not measures the Catholic Church took from a position of strength - but to re-establish such strength where it had almost been lost. Most concerning, at its heart this threat did not stem from a famous king, ruler or even a competing religion - but from the free-spirited community of scholars and emerging scientists that had begun to blend and exchange vast amounts of uncontrollable knowledge across cultural boundaries which used to demarcate communities for centuries. This battle wasn’t won by defending or extending physical boundaries, but by defending the way people thought about the world and their position in it. The threat was not an enemy in robe or uniform, but an intangible chaotic swarm of free-thoughts, of wildly flowering imagination of what might be possible after all as well as the first groping attempts to test these limits through literature, science and art…
While this mental war began to rage and pyres across Europe lit up, completely unexpected another, very physical one broke out: a New World, wide open and unexplored was discovered far out in the West. From one day to the next the checkerboard expanded - and quickly boundaries of power and the rules of the game needed to be equally extended. An entire army of missionaries needed to be built from ground up. They had a world to conquer - to baptise whole tribes and kingdoms of indigenous souls or to burn them to the ground.
And then, just when you think it cannot get worse you are betrayed by your own kind! A crazy, Jew-hating professor of theology in Germany nails his ninety-five heretic theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg - preaching that one of the most critical sources of Church revenue, the selling of indulgences is actually against the spirit of Christ? No longer should it be subordination to the church’s authority and the ongoing payment of indulgences that buys your path out of hell, but the genuineness of your faith in Christ alone? Worse still: that crazy professor dares to hold the mass in German, even translates the Bible into German, and allows the plebs to understand the word of God that had been held in secrecy for centuries. Confining the hearts of uneducated farmers through self-righteous morals, suffering statues and colourful pictures is a pretty different basis of power than needing to explain your authority based upon a one-thousand-five-hundred years old collection of cryptic stories.
To make a long story short: by the beginning of the 16th century, when a New World dawned and Renaissance was catching the hearts of scholars across Europe, the Catholic Church was facing its worst crisis ever. In order to defend it they were more than happy to demonise, torture and burn more than 60,000 people across Europe in less than two-hundred years to follow. What they needed more than anything was a bold, fresh enemy that re-united their scared and defenceless flocks under the only available protection - their own.
It’s against this colourful, raging and cruel background that we shall take a look at magic at the turn of the 16th century. Two major forces were gearing up to reclaim ownership of this ancient and highly ambiguous term. On the one hand it was the Catholic Church - for all the motives described above. There simply was no better projection screen than the collective fears and uniting menace of an army of witches and magicians killing kings and children, ruining crops and weather, poisoning health and morals of entire peoples. If the war the Church fought was not about physical territory but mental realms, than no weapon was sharper than the indistinct fear of a constant thread to your health, safety and wellbeing by your actual neighbour. Whatever ‘magic’ ever really had been, it was clear what it needed to become in order to do the job for the Church. And so the biggest, most bloody PR campaign the world had ever seen was about to unfold.
Trying to oppose the Church’s interpretation ex cathedra of what magic was and how it threatened everyone’s lives, was amongst the most foolish things one could have done. And yet, it was during precisely the same time that a select group of courageous scholars did exactly that. All of them held positions visible to the public eye - or at least the inquisition - and all of them over the course of their short lives needed to manoeuvre smartly between the protection of worldly potentates, the persecution of a raging Church and their genuine desire to renew the intellectual climate of their time.