Magic and Astrology

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Magic and Astrology

Renaissance Europeans used the term magic to refer to a set of beliefs and practices that had been known under that name since the 400s b.c. Theories of magic attempted to explain unusual or hard-to-believe physical events; the practice of magic sought to control such events. Renaissance thinkers saw links between magic and other practices such as astrology*, alchemy*, and witchcraft. Jewish traditions also played a major role in the Renaissance understanding of magic. Many Jewish scholars linked the practice of magic to the Kabbalah, a mystical* religious system that involved reading encoded messages in the text of the Hebrew Scriptures. Jewish thinkers shared their knowledge of Kabbalah with Christian scholars. As a result, Jewish and Christian theories of magic developed along similar lines during the Renaissance.

Magical Practices. According to Renaissance belief, an expert in magical theory—known as a magus—could predict the future, attract unearthly powers, summon angels, and drive away demons. There were strong links between Renaissance magic and astrology, which rested on the idea that movements in the heavens could influence events on earth. Renaissance magicians believed that they could cause changes in the heavens by arranging material objects—stones, plants, animals, and the like—based on qualities such as color, shape, texture, and taste. They thought that various features would attract or repel similar features in heavenly bodies, enabling them to draw the planets and stars into desired positions.

Heavenly bodies, however, were more than just material objects. They were also linked to the ancient gods and other figures of pagan* religions. The planet Mars, for example, bore the name of the Roman god of war. The Christian theologians* of the Renaissance saw these ancient gods as demons, and many of them frowned on magic as a demonic art. As a result, students of magic devoted considerable effort to explaining magic as a form of natural science. They likened magic to medicine, which often relied on the unexplained properties of natural objects such as herbs. Medical theories of the day could not explain why these herbs affected the body as they did, yet their properties were clearly natural and not demonic.

Theories of Magic. Several well-known Renaissance scholars devoted attention to the study of magic. Marsilio Ficino of Florence unearthed several texts on the subject by Neoplatonists, ancient thinkers who had studied and interpreted the works of the Greek philosopher Plato. Ficino expanded on the Neoplatonists' ideas in a 1489 work called Three Books on Life. He noted that since ancient times, people had recorded many wonders that they could explain only in magical terms. Ficino developed a complex and influential theory of magic, which held that magical influence moved downward from mind to matter, entering into the natural objects that magicians used. He gave weight to his theory by tracing the roots of his ideas back through a long line of ancient thinkers.

The Italian philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola also developed a theory of natural magic. In his 1486 Oration on the Dignity ofMan, he suggested that a life of study and discipline could raise humans to the level of angels and enable them to achieve a mystical union with God. However, he noted that in seeking to speak with angels, magicians ran the risk of calling up demons. To protect against this danger, Pico blended the Kabbalah into his theory of magic. He claimed that this ancient Jewish system had the power to ward off evil demons. Pico saw the letters of the Hebrew alphabet as holy shapes that held the power to tap divine energies safely.

Ficino and Pico both developed theories of natural magic designed to avoid the demons that they feared. Pietro Pomponazzi, by contrast, dealt with this problem by simply eliminating demons from his theory of magic. He claimed that while the concept of demons had meaning in theology, they did not exist in the natural world. Pomponazzi viewed magic as a form of natural science that explored the links between the heavenly and earthly realms. He developed a world system based on astrology, in which the human world was a microcosm, or small universe, that mirrored events in the larger universe or cosmos.

Several other Renaissance scholars, including the Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno and the German physician Paracelsus, developed their own theories of magic. Others, however, criticized the practice. The English philosopher Francis Bacon, for example, disputed ancient theories of magic. He sought to reform the practice of magic along scientific lines. Other thinkers of the 1600s, such as the French theologian Marin Mersenne, rejected the idea of magic altogether. Their views eventually won out, and magic fell out of favor with learned Europeans.

Jewish Magic. Magic played a significant role in Jewish culture during the Renaissance, both as a subject of scholarly study among intellectuals and as a popular or folk belief among ordinary people. In Renaissance Italy, Jewish and Christian scholars involved in the study of magic often worked together. For example, Pico gained his knowledge of Kabbalah from Rabbi Yohanon Alemanno of Florence. Alemanno, in turn, had studied under Ficino. However, while Christian scholars developed their theories of magic under the watchful eye of a church that tended to be hostile toward the practice, the Jewish interest in magic extended all the way up to leading rabbis. Some Jewish scholars even interpreted the religious rituals of their faith in magical terms.

Astrology also flourished in Jewish communities, especially in Italy. Many Jewish astrologers worked at the courts of royal and noble families. One of the most famous, Calonymous ben David, served in the court of Naples. Ben David, also known as Maestro Calo, wrote treatises* in Hebrew predicting events in the 1490s, with chapters on the fates of various religions, nations, and professions. Other well-known astrologers included Abraham Zakkut of Portugal and Bonet (Jacob) de Lattes of Italy, who predicted that the Messiah* would come in 1505. In the late 1500s, a Jewish astrologer named Eliezer, about whom little is known, wrote a treatise called A Valley of Vision. This work contains a detailed theory of astrology as well as comments on the horoscopes of famous Renaissance figures.

While Jewish scholars developed complex theories of magic, common people followed folk magic practices that had been around for centuries. Jewish popular magic often focused on telling fortunes through such methods as palm reading and astrology. It also involved the idea that spirits or demons, known as dybbuks, could take control of human bodies. Rabbis developed techniques to rid people of dybbuks, combining elements of Kabbalah, magic, and even Roman Catholic ritual.

Christians of the Renaissance tended to regard Jews as expert magicians. This view mingled respect and fear. Because Jewish women were thought to be skilled in magic, some found employment as fortune-tellers or as makers of medicines and potions. However, their supposed powers also brought them under suspicion. In 1600 authorities in Mantua burned an elderly Jewish woman, Judith Franchetti, to death at the stake for the crime of sorcery.

(See alsoAlchemy; Jews; Religious Thought. )

* astrology

study of the supposed influences of the stars and planets on earthly events

* alchemy

early science that sought to explain the nature of matter and to transform base metals, such as lead, into gold

* mystical

based on a belief in the idea of a direct, personal union with the divine

* pagan

referring to ancient religions that worshiped many gods, or more generally, to any non-Christian religion

* theologian

person who studies religion and the nature of God

see color plate 9, vol. 2


One of the best-known astrologers of the Renaissance was the Frenchman Michel de Nostredame, known as Nostradamus (1503–1566). In his most famous work, known as the Prophecies or Centuries, Nostradamus claimed to have predicted events up through the year 3797. The work took the form of a series of verses, written in veiled language that could be interpreted in a variety of ways, making their accuracy impossible to prove or disprove. The Prophecies have appeared in many languages, often with commentary on how the verses might relate to historical events.

* treatise

long, detailed essay

* Messiah

heroic figure in Jewish lore whose promised arrival would free all Jews from bondage and signal the birth of a glorious kingdom; the earliest Christians were Jews who believed Jesus Christ to be the Messiah

see color plate 8, vol. 2