In Search of a Holy Magic - Explorations on the Renaissance of Magic during the early 16th century - Part 5

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6. The Industrialisation of Western Magic

Looking from the outside in one could come to the conclusion that by the late 15th century ritual magic had degraded into a mummified, fractured and fallen version of a once golden antique past. Sigils, circles, recipes and barbaric names were copied from manuscript to manuscript and seemed to lose more and more of their original and integral meaning each time a scribe put their hand to them. Ultimately the genre was perceived to degenerate to a cryptic extravaganza, a marginal phenomenon within a dark and largely unchartered ecclesiastic subculture.   

“Eventually, a set of texts regarded as standard appeared, having passed through a process in which they were edited, supplemented, and/ or reorganized. Although some of these texts settled into a relatively stable textual tradition, they often traveled in the form of extracts or fragments, as a result of which the integrity of the original text was lost.” (Klaassen, p.83)

In this atmosphere the new Latin translations of the classical Greek texts of Platon, Plotin as well as the Hermetic Codex by Marsilio Ficino created major furore amongst scholars and clerics. Quickly they turned into a clarion call to rediscover the long lost philosophy behind the fractured texts and fragments that magic had become. The central ideas of Platonism, Neoplatonism as well as the living spiritual world of the Corpus Hermeticum opened an exciting new vista into the golden age of antiquity - beyond dry repetitions of the teachings of Aristotle. Most importantly, they challenged the encrusted medieval worldview, scholastic philosophy, and early scientific teachings - as well as all the authorities that upheld these. With the newly-gained authortiy of the old Classics a legitimate study of pagan source texts and thus a radical transformation of the medieval knowledge society suddenly seemed possible.

The most significant philosophical renewal the classical Greek texts offered was a way to overcome the medieval dogma of a world dominated by duality. By the early 15th century the Roman Catholic paradigm of an eternal fight between the forces of good and evil had permeated every fabric of life. The physical world had turned into a theatre of war where this raging fight took place day after day - with no end in sight and no escape possible except for salvation in the afterlife. For many potentates as well as the Roman Catholic Church maintaining such a negative worldview towards the material world wasn’t a matter of comfort but of (financial) survival. How else could one force whole European peoples into accepting miserable life circumstances, constant exploitation by the powers and not a spark of hope for betterment except through physical and financial service? 

The ideas of Neoplatonism in particular challenged this worldview in the most radical way. From a place of eternal antagonistic duality they turned the world into a place of divine interconnectedness of all living creatures and substances. If the motto of medieval times had been ‘protection through service’ it now turned into ‘harmony through understanding’. Evil, illness and suffering no longer were expressions of the world’s natural state after the fall - from which only Christ the saviour could protect his defenceless flock - but of man’s failing attempt of restoring harmony amongst all its living beings and forces.

With such a shift in world-views can you see how the role of a ruler had to change as well? In the former his role was to supervise a world naturally torn by flaws. The best he could do was to offer protection against the constant threat of the forces of evil; yet no one expected him ever to win such an eternal battle. If large parts of society suffered this didn't form a threat to authorities in principle, but could be regarded as a feature of God's own world. Ideals, blessings and bliss were all reserved for the afterlife. Being the boss in medieval times had been a blast! -- Now, according to the new worldview the potentate's role was radically different: Here the manifest world was meant to directly reflect divine principles. Within a few decades at least in spirit the stonewall between the garden of Eden and the material world had collapsed. The ruler's role, thus, was to rise as an expression of a spiritual principle that eradicated evil through re-establishing divine harmony in all spheres of human influence. What quickly turned into a nightmare for orthodoxy, for scholars held the promise of finally mending a torn world back into one

What scholars were in need of, however, to prove their point and actively begin this transformation was a principle that could bridge the spiritual and physical world. What was needed was a prove. The sacred gate had stayed locked for centuries, the bridge that had been crossed by the saviour and the saints alone needed to be re-opened to the masses. What was needed was a set of techniques that promised to merge the promised blessings of the afterlife with the grim reality of the Medieval physical world. Whatever this principle was, from the viewpoint of the Medieval scholar it needed to make the impossible possible. Quickly it turned out only one word fit such daring exploit, and that was magic.

Now, at the advent of the 16th century the problem with research into magic was that it could still land you quickly in prison or on the pyre. Writing under patronage of royal families wasn't an option if you wanted to dig into the actual subject matter rather than skimming the surface. Hell, even premising your grimoire with a public statement that you denounced all magic and only published this book as a deterrent didn't help a lot. Inquisitors and city authorities really tried to keep a stable boat - and were prepared to throw out anyone who rocked it. What was needed was a much more radical transformation, a complete re-branding of the term magic as well as of all the ideas behind it. And within a few decades this is exactly what late Medieval and early Renaissance scholars attempted to do. 

Let's return to what we had found about the state of magic at the beginning of the 16th century: On the one hand people on the outside perceived magic to be in a highly fractured and disfigured state, a shadow at best of its once glorious past. People on the inside, at whom we will look later on and who still knew the living philosophy and principles of magic from their own practice, on the other hand, had retreated even further into silence and closed circles. So in the absence of their living voices, the early Renaissance scholars had an easy game plundering the carcass of Medieval magic.

I’d like to think of the ‘rebirth’ Renaissance brought to magic a little bit like this: Imagine a world where for some reason all carpenters have been wiped out. Their workshops are empty and have been since centuries - at least that is how it seems to the public. Their craft has been forgotten and people’s quality of life deteriorated without anyone realising its cause. Everybody just accepted that that old wooden houses, chairs, tables and window-frames fell apart and couldn’t be replaced. Instead all things now needed to be made from stone. Stone houses, stone tables, stone chairs… You can imagine the scene - the masons had a blast and only the riches enough money to pay them. Of course the common folk rebelled every now then - they too wanted houses from stone or a table or chair to sit on. Yet, they simple couldn’t afford to pay for the expensive process of making one. Ultimately wars were fought over quarries and large parts of Europe’s useless forests were burned down in search for more raw stone to build the most basic things in life for the few people who could afford.

Then, centuries later, a group of scholars rediscovered manuscripts written in a foreign language on a craft called ‘woodwork’. It promised to solve all of people’s needs and everyday problems almost immediately. Yet, unfortunately it was written in code. The code was extremely hard to crack and yet strangely consistent. All of the authors on the matter had used the same cryptic approach to writing their manuscripts: they used the metaphor of creating things of daily life not from stone, but from plain wood. Of course the use of wood was a cipher, a symbol only - as no one would ever be able to do such things they described from wood alone. Their imagination seemed abundant: they had invented so many symbols in forms of ‘woodwork’ tools, traditions, practices, guilds, etc. The scholars knew it would take centuries to break through this code. 

Unfortunately while none of the scholar actually broke the tricky code, they still all began publishing books on the craft of woodworking. Much to their pleasure the reaction of the public was astounding! Within a few years only a whole cult had formed around this secret craft, its mythical founding fathers, its tools of practice and the occult philosophy that lay hidden in their cyphered writings. Almost nothing was known about what these books really tried to convey or how one would apply their instructions - and yet its occult nature just seemed to increase people’s appetite for it…  

The religious orthodoxy of course wasn’t pleased at all seeing such seed of a possible new religion spreading so quickly amongst its most educated men. So they decided to consider anything remotely connected to ‘woodworking’ a heresy and burned all of its public advocates. On pyres made from wood.

See, the funny thing is, once we have grown accustomed to a world of stone, the idea of doing woodwork will sound so ridiculous to us, we simply wouldn’t believe it. Solutions to problems that have been around for centuries, cost millions of people’s lives and led to the fall of whole nations, just need to be more complex than that. We’d rather create a new religion, throw all our faith and hope against a completely unproven theory, then to get out a knife, grab a piece of wood and try out for ourselves. Man is a funny species. And magic - once practiced as a craft and not adorned as a cult - much more practical, powerful and potent than most of us would ever dare to dream. 

In their attempt to make magic legit - or at least sub-sections of it - our Renaissance forefathers leveraged the lack of expert voices on the matter as well as the huge amount of ambiguity that had marked this topic for centuries in the public eye. As radical philosophical reformers they set out to reinvent the notion of magic - and make it fit their bill of overcoming the intellectual stalemate the Medieval worldview had brought upon the academic world. Now, I do assume Ficino, Pico and many others at the time did everything they did with the most positive intent, trying to be true to the spirit of magic while making it relevant to the climate of their own times. The same happened again in the late 19th century when self-proclaimed spiritual scholars mixed up Buddhist concepts with the accelerating Western sciences and claimed that magic could be explained through the newly discovered electro-magnetic forces. They probably did everything they did with positive intent as well. Ruining a tradition doesn’t mean anybody has to act with malicious intent, lacking integrity or playing for their own gain alone. In most cases it simply means people involved weren’t sufficiently grounded in the actual practices of a craft. Instead they approached things from a theoretic perspective predominantly: While we know Ficino read the Picatrix and ‘squeezed out all of its juice’ for his own works (Zambelli, p.9), we don’t know how much of it he actually practiced? Look, people who believe woodworking is a new religion, aren’t bad people. They simply might have benefitted more from building a chair first, rather than re-inventing the secret philosophy of woodworks straight away?

“Ficino and Pico brought to light a number of ideas that were already to be found in patristic and scholastic times, but had received limited attention from professional philosophers. From the end of the fifteenth century these had become dominant among the elites and soon spread abroad among academic and literary circles. The Neoplatonic and Hermetic theories of the two Florentines on the cosmos, the ‘spirit’ and the forces of nature had given rise to a new idea of magic.” (Zambelli, p.2)

So what exactly did this new idea of magic consist of?

“Thus the universe is a machine ruled by imagination in the general picture of sympathy between astral bodies and elementary bodies with the boundless automatism of the astral movers. But these must not be considered either anthropomorphic or modified by human agency. They are pure intelligences, neither demons nor angels. (…) The magic which Ficino defined as natural promised to make men capable of working many wonders, but it claimed to exclude the invocation of demons.” (Zambelli, p.6/7)

Let’s step back and simplify. Here is the genius trick our Renaissance forefathers applied to magic: To them magic was nothing but a forgotten set of tools for exploration. What these tools were applied to, was a matter of each practitioner’s choice and ultimately would decide whether one’s magic was ‘black’ or ‘white’. The path they attempted to establish as a legitimate and safe one was to apply these tools on the exploration of the natural world - on stones, herbs, plants, animals, or even on humans for healing. The opposite path led into self-guided exploration of the spiritual world - and that was where the smell of a burning pyre remained just around the corner.

Think of our modern day research into genetics - and how easy it seems for all of us to intuitively distinguish ‘good’ genetic research (e.g. overcoming genetically caused diseases) from ‘bad’ research within the same field (e.g. genetic modification of stem cells or forbidden cloning). Then mix in the emotions of a largely fundamentalistic religion that held such a strong powerbase in society it could wipe out large sections of researchers by publicly burning them on the pyre if they were perceived to be engaged in the ‘wrong’ type of research. Our modern day public debate about where precisely the line should be drawn between legit and ilegit types of genetic research, might be a good comparison to the ambiguities and sensitivities our Renaissance forefathers were confronted with. With the exception that in their case what was at stake for them personally was not only their reputation as a researchers, but their actual lives.

In light of this context it doesn’t surprise that many authors picked up on the artificial dichotomy introduced to magic and established their own terms and versions of it. Here is a brief selection of ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ types of magic that we find in early Renaissance literature:  

As we can see ‘natural magic’ overall emerged as the accepted term of the type of magic that hopefully wouldn’t land one in prison immediately. Applying these ‘tools of exploration’ on the elements of the physical realm at first glance seemed a safe bet to avoid involvement of demons. Yet, a careful balance needed to be maintained. Denying the existence of demons altogether - in favour of a purely scientific worldview - was just as risky as as trying to engage with these powers (Zambelli, p.7). After all for the Catholic Church to maintain is social stronghold in late Medieval society it was still dependent on the constant threat of evil powers. Without demons the need for orthodox spiritual protection would have radically diminished. Thus our ‘natural magicians’ were slightly hard pressed to explain how precisely they believed magic would work if it didn’t involve any sort of spiritual being besides the actual magician themselves. 

“(…) by analogy with the farmer, he is a cultivator of the world. Nor does he on that account worship the world, just as the farmer does not worship the earth; but just as a farmer tempers his field to the airs for the sake of human welfare, so that wise man, that priest, for the sake of human welfare tempers the lower parts of the world to the upper parts; and just as a farmer sets the hen [to brood upon] eggs, so the wise man fittingly subjects earthly things to heaven that they may be fostered. God himself always brings this about and by so doing, teaches and urges us to do it in order that the lower things be produced, moved and ruled by the higher.” (Marsilio Ficino, Three Books on Life, quoted after Zambelli, p.25)    

The goal of re-branding the term ‘magic’ thus was to establish its followers as “humble and honest interpreter and husbandman of nature, not as a pagan worshipper of earth” (Zambelli, p.25). In order to achieve this their practice needed to: 

  • (1) focus on establishing harmony and alignment between the ruling influences of the planets and stars and the substances and dynamics governed by them within the sublunar realm as well as
  • (2) ensure to exclude any dealings with living spiritual beings in the process.

They key to this trick lay hidden in the power of words: Our forefathers revived the Neoplatonic idea of a cosmos full of celestial chains that stretched all the way from the creator down to the smallest element of creation. Thus the microcosm was directly linked to the macrocosm, the foundation of astrology remained intact and a niche for the performance of a legit form a ‘natural magic’ was established. What they stripped away though was the essential Neoplatonic idea that every link in this chain indeed was constituted by a living being. In the most significant paradigm shift our Western tradition experienced over the last millennium our Renaissance forefathers wiped out the spirits from the spiritual map of the West and replaced them with the idea of abstract intelligences and astrally governed, yet essentially mechanically working influences and forces. The role of the magician thus turned into an operator, a machinist whose job it was to keep the celestial part of the world-engine connected with its physical counterpart.

Here you have the foundations to the Industrialisation of the Western magic and to the most significant loss our occult tradition ever experienced. Most of the deformities, distortions and aberrations of modern Western magic can be traced back to this turning point: the over-stylised central role of the mage and the space taken by immature male fantasies of omnipotence, the loss of a living connection to the beings around us and the ongoing retreat of fairies and elemental beings from human settlements. In short: the inability of most modern day magicians to understand they are but one tiny link in a huge chain of living beings and not the mean or end of where this chain emerges from or leads to. Our role is not to rule, but to connect.

With the switch from a pantheistic worldview where the mage was surrounded by living beings, to a mechanistic world-clock that needed us as its flawed engineers to constantly stay on time, we lost our greatest good: The ability to blend in. The ability to become a part of something so much larger than ourselves. By putting ourselves into the centre of the world we needed subdue all things to our desire for control. And that turned the world into a tiny, shabby place, because our limited human grasp of power doesn’t allow for anything more meaningful.