Manual Magic: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

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  1. William Allan
  2. Owen Davies
  3. Very Short Introductions
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Rituals, spells, and taboos were endemic, and the open frontier between this world and the next elaborately constructed. Greece and Rome followed the Egyptian lead. For all its grandeur and glory, the classical world was steeped in the dark manipulation of spirits; here was the means to alleviate anxiety, deploy anger, and satisfy desire. Nor was this residual or eccentric, a precursor to the arts and sciences later celebrated by an ascending West. When tracing our social ancestry back to the ancients, we should take the rough with the smooth — that is, the superstitious with the rational.

This is a thorny problem: how to describe contemporary ideas faithfully using the idiom required by a modern audience. Unconsciously we draw lines between religion and magic, religion and science, science and superstition; but to our ancestors distinctions were less stark. To the Greeks and Romans — or even to most 17th-century Europeans — astronomy and astrology meant roughly the same thing.

Names make our world and they beguile us. But history can help too. The philosopher also taught that the meaning of a word is determined by its use. In all ages, rulers, theologians, and jurists, like modern lexicographers, have tried to pin witchcraft down; but its ontological status is volatile, the picture kaleidoscopic. In the most famous play about witchcraft, Macbeth greets the weird sisters Fear 2. Quite so. We depend on words, but they can get in the way.

William Allan

Since magic was unregulated power, these men and women were seen to assume state authority and so fell foul of the law. Despite consensus that witchcraft was real, the more Romans thought about it, the harder it became to say exactly what it was.

The taxonomy grew ever more complicated. And yet each of these events was accompanied by increased persecution of witches, a livid symptom of social and political turmoil. This is partly what makes witchcraft such a good peephole for historians and anthropologists. Far from being an end in itself, the study of witchcraft is a means to get at something else, something hidden or intangible.

Some witchcraft scholars are interested in the state: not just polities and institutions, but dynamic relationships between households, communities, councils, and courts — micro and macro in urgent and endless reciprocity. From here they can survey the changing reality of power, and witchcraft is all about change and power.

The centrifugal pull of government maintains its integrity: the regulation of conduct upholds authority and keeps order. Religion has long been of utmost importance here; orthodoxy and loyalty go hand in hand.

Owen Davies

The Greeks and Romans 13 Witchcraft condemned religious error, called deisidaimonia by the former and superstitio by the latter. Both cultures suppressed excessive fear of spirits and consequent devotion to unorthodox e. Egyptian gods and cults. This concern formed a template adapted and applied repeatedly in the Christian era, most famously in Europe between the 16th and 18th centuries amid intense political and legal centralization.

But the distinction grew fainter, legal intolerance of magic more pronounced. Then, in 33 bc, a nervous Senate banished all sorcerers and necromancers to protect public virtue and the viability of the state.

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What was the relationship between magician and spirit? Was it some kind of pact, and, if so, did this constitute a false allegiance or, worse, heresy or treason? Should magic itself be punished, or only its destructive effects? How might one distinguish natural from preternatural phenomena? Were daimones good and bad, as Socrates had implied, or just bad — the opposite of gods?

Imperialism tests political strength.

Very Short Introductions

Romans came to see witches as 14 ruthless and lawless criminals, blaspheming, murdering, and messing with nature. Colonization also brought Romans face to face with terrifying magic. Tacitus describes the assault in ad 60 on the Isle of Anglesey, where British warriors and their witch-like women made a last stand. Witchcraft is particularly shadowy, maddeningly ungrippable.


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Our separation of religion and magic would have meant little to the ancients. Instead, they observed a distinction between, on the one hand, their own orthodox religion and magic, and distasteful foreign equivalents on the other. The philosophers, priests, and legislators of the Christian era inherited these ideas, and were to complicate and muddle things up even more. Witchcraft earlier generations.

From the advent of Christianity in the West, it was suggested that Jesus was a skilled magician like Simon Magus, a charismatic Samaritan adept at levitation. It was the early Christian writers who forced the distinction: Christ was God incarnate; Simon at best a charlatan and wizard, at worst a demon or heretic. And so heresy became the label orthodox Christians attached to dangerous beliefs, although the absolute veracity of their own faith was easier to declare than demonstrate.

The substance of debate was too metaphysical, too sublime, for that. This cut both ways. In ad , Christians at Lyons, self-styled warriors against Roman devilishness, were themselves accused of ritual black magic, incest, and cannibalism. When, in the 4th century, Emperor Constantine converted and the Roman state gradually Christianized, the demonic threat shifted to Islam.

Meanwhile within the empire newly adopted beliefs supported Manichaeism: the dualistic notion that God grappled with an equivalent Satan, a primeval battle between light and dark. For ordinary folk, therefore, there was a right way and a wrong way to worship, something harder to maintain in polytheistic cultures where virtues and vices were spread across a panoply of deities.


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Now political and religious obedience converged: a good Christian was also a good citizen. Unfortunately it was hard to enforce. But ordinary people were unwilling or unable to grasp such distinctions; their religion was 16 practical rather than abstract, rooted in quotidian routines and hazards. In most communities, certain individuals were respected and feared as specialists able to dispense helpful magic.

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What could be done with these miscreants? On the ground, however, things looked different: old attitudes were too entrenched. Popular religion blurred lines between Christianity, paganism, and magic to produce a uniquely vigorous social resource. Between the 6th and 9th centuries, reformers worked to absorb paganism, infusing old beliefs and rites with new meanings. Uniformity remained a political ideal.

Frankish victory was consolidated theologically and ideologically. The extra-terrestrial framework of this struggle for territory and power saw Christian soldiers locked in combat with demons and their earthly servants. Previously the Manichaean habit of treating God and Satan as opposing equals had tended to predominate, but here a different picture emerges. Everything in the universe now sprang from divine providence.

Certain degenerates, it was claimed, abandoned God and as a consequence adhered to Satan, thus causing their spiritual damnation. Practitioners were to be exhibited as exempla of wickedness, then banished from Christian society. In this way, more than ever before, witchcraft and magic became linked to apostasy and heresy. Witchcraft 3. But the search for 18 knowledge could not advance without considering the power that supplied it. Could this really be a Christian practice? Was high magic not sacrilegious, demonic even?

The more deeply scholarly magicians probed universal mysteries, the more morbid the fear that they were devilish necromancers. This was the Satan of the New Testament rather than the Old: an explicit adversary to Christ and commander-in-chief of heretics and sorcerers. The thought followed that some of these deviants had sex with him. Take the Cathars and the Waldensians. These French dissidents from orthodox Catholicism, both with 12thcentury roots, were persecuted as sinister anti-Christians in league with Satan.

Rumours about subversive Jewish rituals rubbed off too.


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  4. We might see only ruthless kings and clerics here, cynically advancing power through terror. The same applies to terminology. In the Jacobean state, crown and subjects alike defended themselves with language, logic, and the law. The historian Stuart Clark made a brilliant study of this called Thinking with Demons — a title which perfectly sums up the idea. Witchcraft Secrecy and conspiracy By , the Church feared that a depraved, clandestine cult was engaged in anti-Christian conspiracy. The belief that heresy was satanic and organized owed much to hostility towards Waldensians.

    These ideas crept out of the ivory towers and into the courts. Although learned demonology and the mechanisms of the law were essential factors, so too was the distress of farmers ruined by harvest failure. By the 20 Heresy 4.