Chapter 6: Introduction

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The practice of magic and sorcery began in Paleolithic times, at least 50,000 years ago, when early humans began to believe that there was supernatural power in a charm, a spell, or a ritual to work good or evil. As such beliefs progressed, certain tribal members were elevated in status to that of magician, sorcerer, priest, and priestess by their demonstrable abilities to influence the weather, to heal the sick, to communicate with the spirit worlds, and to interpret dreams. The four main principles behind early magic remained constant throughout the evolution of magical practices: 1.) A representation of a person or thing can be made to affect the person or thing it depicts. 2.) Once objects have been in touch with each other they continue to influence one another even at great distances. 3.) An unseen world of spirit forces may be invoked to fulfill the magician's will. 4.) As above, so it is below; as within, so it is without. There is nothing in heaven or in Earth that is not also in humankind.

Primitive animism, such as imitating the animal of the hunt through preparatory dance, cutting off a bit of an enemy's hair or clothing to be used in a charm against him, and invoking evil spirits to cause destruction to competing villages, eventually gained a higher level of sophistication and evolved into more formal religious practices and the rudiments of early science. The word "magic" comes from the Greek "magein," denoting the science and religion of the priests of Zoroaster (or according to some scholars from "megas," signifying the "great" secret science, i.e. knowledge). So it is that by the time of the historic period, the great civilizations of Egypt, Babylonia, and Persia had fully developed magical systems with entire hierarchies of sorcerers, priests, seers, and magi. Greece and Rome supported both a state religion of gods and goddesses and a loosely structured priestcraft as well as a healthy respect for those magicians who could prove their worth as dependable soothsayers. In addition, the mystery schools in Greece and Rome were popular with aristocrat and commoner alike and kept alive the mystical impulse in both cultures. Many researchers have drawn comparisons between certain of the mystery school traditions and the great festivals, the Sabbats of the witches as they gathered in the forests of Europe.

When Constantine the Great (d. 337) legally sanctioned Christianity throughout the Roman Empire, he in effect granted the early Church Fathers a kind of dominion over their constituents that they had not previously enjoyed. As the influence of the Christian clergy grew in the empire, many of them expressed their opinions that magic and sorcery were not harmonious with the teachings of Christ. At the Ecumenical Council of Laodicea held in 364, a canon was issued that forbade Christian priests to practice magic, astrology, or mathematics. By 525, with the influence of Christianity growing ever stronger, the Council of Oxia prohibited the parishioners from consulting sorcerers, diviners, or any kind of seer. A canon passed by the Council of Constantinople in 625 prescribed excommunication for a period of six years for anyone found practicing divination or who consulted with a diviner. The Council of Tours in 613 ordered all priests to teach their congregations that magical practices were ineffective methods by which to guarantee the health of humans and animals and were not to be employed as a means of bettering one's lot in life. With each subsequent church council issuing stronger canons and edicts against magic and sorcery, those who dared to continue practicing the occult arts were forced to go underground.

European magic remained a pastiche of older pagan practices and ancient rituals until the Crusades of the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries. Warrior knights, nobles, and clerics returned from their encounters with the Muslim armies with a great appreciation of their science and their sophisticated levels of magic. Other crusaders remained after battles had been won or lost to explore the arts of the Eastern sorcerers and to learn for the first time of the alchemical works of the magi of old Persia and the scholars and magicians of the Byzantine Empire. Many Christian adventurers returned with the secrets of what they called "Constantinople magic" and began to experiment with the ancient teachings in hidden laboratories. By the twelfth century, a school of medieval magic built on the magical systems of the Spanish Moors and the Jewish Kabbalah had begun to achieve popularity among the intellectuals of Europe, who found in alchemy a perfect expression of their quest for God and for gold. The true alchemist sought the transcendent powers of the material and immaterial dominions that could transmute base metals into gold and transform the baser human instincts into a purity of spirit.

Although the church had issued many canons forbidding the clergy to practice magic and commanding them to teach their parishioners that the teachings of Christ were all that was necessary to achieve peace on Earth and salvation in heaven, it had taken little real action against those learned men practicing magic or the common folk practicing witchcraft other than an occasional excommunication or expulsion from the congregation. Organized persecution of magicians or witches was practically unknown. In 906, Abbot Regino of Prum recognized that earlier canon laws had done little to eradicate the practices of magic and wizardry, so he issued his Canon Episcopi to condemn as heretical any belief in witchcraft or the power of sorcerers. If anyone believed in such alleged powers, Satan was deceiving them, declared Abbot Regino. In 1000, Deacon Burchard, who would later become archbishop of Worms, published Corrrector, which updated Regino's work and stressed that only God had the power to change one thing into another. Alchemists could not change base metals into gold, and witches could not shapeshift into animals.

Church punishment of those who persisted in practicing magic or witchcraft remained virtually nonexistent until exaggerated claims of the powers of the Cathar sect reached the ears of the papacy. According to startling reports, the Cathars were practicing foul sorceries, blasphemous heresies, and black magick. What was worse, they appeared to be prospering in their cities in southern France. In 1208, Pope Innocent III (1160 or 11611216) ordered a crusade launched against the Cathars, who were able to resist the armies sent against them until their central city of Montesegur fell in 1246. Hundreds of Cathars were burned at the stake as heretics, witches, and sorcerers, for by the time their besieged sect had fallen, the Holy Inquisition had been founded in 1233 to stamp out magic, sorcery, and witchcraft.

After it became quite apparent that the church and state had undergone a dramatic change in attitude toward the practice of magic, the alchemists/magicians and the magi became much more cautious in sharing the results of their experimentations. Because the practitioners of "higher magic," such as Paracelsus, Agrippa, Roger Bacon, Albertus Magnus, and others emphasized the mystical, the practical, and the appropriate religious imagery in their work, they did not suffer the severe persecutions directed toward the practitioners of so-called "lesser magic," the witches, the wizards, and the sorcerers who were condemned as black magicians. They were, however, kept under close scrutiny by the church and were subject to constant attacks by their more conventional peers in the medical and clerical professions. For any of them to have become too outspoken regarding their magical practices would have won them their own time of interrogation and torture at the hands of the Inquisition.

Paracelsus may well have expressed the credo of the alchemist of higher magic when he said that nature does not produce anything that is perfect in itselfit is humankind that must bring everything to perfection. It is the sincere alchemist-magician who fulfills nature. God, Paracelsus said, did not create objects made of iron. God created the metal that must be enjoined with fire in order to fashion useful items. Nothing has been created in its final state. Everything is first created in its primary state. It is the alchemist who must bring the fire of creativity to make art. Alchemy is the art that makes the impure into the pure. Higher magic can separate the useful from the useless and transmute it into its final substance and ultimate essence.

Delving Deeper

caron m., and s. hutin. the alchemists. translated by helen r. lane. new york: grove press, 1961.

seligmann, kurt. the history of magic. new york: meridian books, 1960.

spence, lewis. an encyclopedia of occultism. new hyde park, n.y.: university books, 1960.

williams, charles. witchcraft. new york: meridian

books, 1960.

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Chapter 6: Introduction

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Chapter 6: Introduction