Medieval Magic

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Medieval Magic

In the belief of the medieval professors, the science of magic conferred upon the adept power over angels, demons (see demonology ), elementary spirits, and the souls of the dead, the possession of esoteric wisdom, and actual knowledge of the discovery and use of the latent forces and undeveloped energies resident in man. This was supposed to be accomplished by a combination of will and aspiration, which by sheer force germinated an intellectual faculty of psychological perception, enabling the adept to view the wonders of a new world and communicate with its inhabitants.

To accomplish this magic, the ordinary faculties were almost invariably heightened by artificial means. The grandeur of the magical ritual overwhelmed the neophyte and quickened his senses. Ceremonial magic was a spur to the latent faculties of human psychic nature, just as were the rich concomitants of religious mysticism.

In the medieval mind, as in other periods of human history, it was thought that magic could be employed both for good and evil purposes, its branches being designated "white" and "black," according to whether it was used for benevolent or wicked ends. The term "red" magic was also occasionally employed, as indicating a more exalted type of the art, but the designation is fanciful.

White magic to a great extent concerned itself with the evocation of angelic forces and the spirits of the elements. The angelology of the Catholic Church was undoubtedly derived from the ancient faith of Israel, which in turn was indebted to Egypt and Babylon. The Alexandrian system of successive emanations from the eternal substance evolved a complex hierarchy of angels, all of whom appear to have been at the bidding of the magician who was in possession of the Incommunicable Name, a concept deriving from that of the "Name of Power" so greatly used in Egyptian magic.

The letters that composed this name were thought to possess a great measure of occult significance, and a power which in turn appears to have been reflected upon the entire Hebrew alphabet (see Kabala ). The alphabet was endowed with mystical meaning, each of the letters representing a vital and creative number. Just as a language is formed from the letters of its alphabet, so from the secret powers that resided in the Hebrew alphabet were magical variations evolved. [Comparable concepts existed in esoteric Hinduism (see AUM ).]

There are many species of angels and powers. More exalted intelligences were conjured by rites to be found in the ancient book known as the "Key of Solomon the King," and perhaps the most satisfactory collection of formulae for the invocation of the higher angels is that included in the anonymous Theo-sophia Pneumatica, published at Frankfurt in 1686, which bears a strong family resemblance to the Treatise on Magic by Arbatel. The names in this work do not tally with those that have been already given, but as it is admitted by occult students that the names of all unseen beings are really unknown to humanity, this does not seem of such importance as it might at first sight.

It would seem that such spiritual knowledge as the medieval magus was capable of attaining was insufficient to raise him above the intellectual limitations of his time, so that the work in question possesses all the faults of its age and type. But that is not to say that it possessed no practical value, and it well illustrates the white magic of medieval times. It classifies the names of the angels under the title of "Olympic or Celestial Spirits," who abide in the firmament and constellations: they administer inferior destinies and accomplish and teach whatever is portended by the several stars in which they are insphered. They are powerless to act without a special command from the Almighty.

The stewards of Heaven are seven in numberArathron, Bethor, Phaleg, Och, Hagith, Ophiel, and Phul. Each of them has a numerous host at his command, and the regions in which they dwell are 196 in all. Arathron appears on Saturday at the first hour and answers for his territory and its inhabitants, as do the others, each at his own day and hour, and each presides for a period of 490 years. The functions of Bethor began in the fiftieth year before the birth of Christ until 430. Phagle reigned till 920 C.E.; Och till the year 1410; Hagith governed until 1900. The others follow in succession.

These intelligences are the stewards of all the elements, energizing the firmament and, with their armies, depending from each other in a regular hierarchy. The names of the minor Olympian spirits are interpreted in diverse ways. Generically, they are called "Astra," and their power is seldom prolonged beyond 140 years. The heavens and their inhabitants come voluntarily to man and often serve even against the will of man, but come much more if we implore their ministry.

Evil and troublesome spirits also approach men through the cunning of the devil, at times by conjuration or attraction, and frequently as a penalty for sins. Therefore he who would abide in familiarity with celestial intelligences should take pains to avoid every serious sin. He should diligently pray for the protection of God to vanquish the impediments and schemes of Diabolus, and God will ordain that the devil himself shall work to the direct profit of the worker in magic.

Subject to divine providence, some spirits have power over pestilence and famine; some are destroyers of cities, like those of Sodom and Gomorrah; some are rulers over kingdoms, some guardians of provinces, some of a single person. The spirits are the ministers of the word of God and of the church and its members, or they serve creatures in material things, sometimes to the salvation of soul and body, or, again, to the ruin of both. But nothing, good or bad, is done without knowledge, order, and administration.

It is unnecessary to follow the angelical host further here, as it has been outlined elsewhere. Many preparations, however, are described by the author of the Theosophia Pneumatica for the successful evocation of these exalted beings. The magus must ponder during his period of initiation on the method of attaining the true knowledge of God, both by night and day. He must know the laws of the cosmos, and the practical secrets that may be gleaned from the study of the visible and invisible creatures of God. He must further know himself, and be able to distinguish between his mortal and immortal parts, and the several spheres to which they belong.

Both in his mortal and immortal natures, he must strive to love God, to adore and to fear him in spirit and in truth. He must sedulously attempt to find out whether he is truly fitted for the practice of magic, and if so, to which branch he should turn his talents, experimenting in all to discover in which he is most naturally gifted. He must hold inviolate such secrets as are communicated to him by spirits, and he must accustom himself to their evocation. He must keep himself, however, from the least suspicion of diabolical magic, which has to do with Satan, and which is the perversion of the theurgic power concealed in the word of God.

When he has fulfilled these conditions, and before he proceeds to the practice of his art, he should devote a prefatory period to deep contemplation on the high business he has voluntarily taken in hand, and must present himself before God with a pure heart, undefiled mouth, and innocent hands. He must bathe frequently and wear clean garments, confess his sins, and abstain from wine for the space of three days.

On the eve of operation, he must dine sparely at noon and consume only bread and water for the evening meal (remembering that prior to modern refining techniques that bread was a very substantial food). On the day he has chosen for the invocation, he must seek a retired and uncontaminated spot, entirely free from observation. After offering up prayer, he compels the spirit he has chosen to appear. By this time he should have reached a state of awareness in which it is impossible that the spirit should remain invisible to him.

On the arrival of the angel, the desire of the magus is briefly communicated to him, and his answer is written down. No more than three questions should be asked, and the magician then dismisses the angel to his special sphere. Besides having converse with angels, the magus also has power over the spirits of the elements and may choose to evoke one or more of them.

To obtain power over the salamanders, for example, the "Comte de Gabalis" of the Abbé de Villars was largely concerned with the elementals and prescribed the following procedure:

"If you would recover empire over the salamanders, purify and exalt the natural fire that is within you. Nothing is required for this purpose but the concentration of the Fire of the World by means of concave mirrors in a globe of glass. In that globe is formed the 'solary' powder, which being of itself purified from the mixture of other elements, and being prepared according to Art becomes in a very short time a sovereign process for the exaltation of the fire that is within you, and transmutes you into an igneous nature."

There is very little information extant to show in what manner the evocation of elementary spirits was undertaken, and no ritual has survived that will acquaint us with the method of communicating with them. In older writers, it is difficult to distinguish between angels and elementary spirits; the lower hierarchies of the elementary spirits were also frequently invoked by the black magician. It is probable that the lesser angels of the older magicians were the sylphs of Paracelsus, and the more modern professors of the art.

The nineteenth-century magus Éliphas Lévi provided a method for the interrogation and government of elementary spirits, but he did not specify its source, and it was merely fragmentary. It is necessary, he claimed, in order to dominate these intelligences, to undergo the four trials of ancient initiation, and as these are unknown, their room must be supplied by similar tests. To approach the salamanders, therefore, one must expose himself in a burning house. To draw near the sylphs he must cross a precipice on a plank, or ascend a lofty mountain in a storm; and he who would win to the abode of the undines must plunge into a cascade or whirlpool.

The air is exorcised by the sufflation of the four cardinal points, the recitation of the prayer of the sylphs, and by the following formula:

"The Spirit of God moved upon the water, and breathed into the nostrils of man the breath of life. Be Michael my leader, and be Sabtabiel my servant, in the name and by the virtue of light. Be the power of the word in my breath, and I will govern the spirits of this creature of Air, and by the will of my soul, I will restrain the steeds of the sun, and by the thought of my mind, and by the apple of my right eye. I exorcise thee O creature of Air, by the Petagrammaton, and in the name Tetragrammaton, wherein are steadfast will and well-directed faith. Amen. Sela. So be it."

Water is exorcised by the laying on of hands, by breathing and by speech, and by mixing sacred salt with a little of the ash left in an incense pan. The aspergillus is made of branches of vervain, periwinkle, sage, mint, ash, and basil, tied by a thread taken from a virgin's distaff, with a handle of hazelwood which has never borne fruit, and on which the characters of the seven spirits must be carved with a magic awl. The salt and ashes of the incense must be separately consecrated. The prayer of the undines should follow.

Fire is exorcised by casting salt, incense, white resin, camphor, and sulphur therein, and by thrice pronouncing the three names of the genii of fire: Michael, Samael, and Anael, and then by reciting the prayer of the salamanders.

The Earth is exorcised by the sprinkling of water, by breathing, by fire, and by the prayer of the gnomes. Their signs are the hieroglyphs of the bull for the gnomes who are commanded with the magic sword; of the lion for the salamanders, who are commanded with the forked rod, or magic trident; of the eagle for the sylphs, who are ruled by the holy pentacles; and finally, of aquarius for the undines, who are evoked by the cup of libations. Their respective sovereigns are Gob for the gnomes, Djin for the salamanders, Paralda for the sylphs, and Necksa for the undines. These names, it will be noticed, are borrowed from folklore.

The "laying" of an elementary spirit is accomplished by its adjuration by air, water, fire, and earth, by breathing, sprinkling, the burning of perfumes, by tracing on the ground the star of Solomon and the sacred pentagram, which should be drawn either with ash of consecrated fire or with a reed soaked in various colors, mixed with pure loadstone.

The conjuration of the four should then be repeated, the magus holding the pentacle of Solomon in his hand and taking up by turns the sword, rod, and cup, this operation being preceded and terminated by the kabalistic sign of the cross.

In order to subjugate an elementary spirit, the magus must be himself free of their besetting sins, thus a changeful person cannot rule the sylphs, nor a fickle one the undines, an angry man the salamanders, or a covetous one the gnomes. (The formula for the evocation of spirits is given under necromancy. )

The white magician did not concern himself as a rule with such matters as the raising of demons, animal transformations, and the like, his whole desire being the exaltation of his spiritual nature, and the questions put by him to the spirits he evoked were all directed to that end. However, the dividing line between white and black magic is extremely ambiguous, and it seems likely that the entities evoked might be deceptive as to their nature.


De Villars, L'Abbé de Montfaucon. Comte de Gabalis. Paris, 1670. Reprint, London: Old Bourne Press, 1913.

The Greater Key of Solomon. Translated by S. L. MacGregor Mathers. London: George Redway, 1888.

Lévi, Éliphas. The History of Magic. London: William Rider, 1913. Reprint, New York: Samuel Weiser, 1971.

. Transcendental Magic. London: George Redway, 1896. Reprint, New York: Samuel Weiser, 1970. Shah, Sayed Idries. Oriental Magic. London: Rider, 1956.

. The Secret Lore of Magic. London: Frederick Muller, 1956.

Waite, Arthur E. The Book of Ceremonial Magic. London: William Rider, 1911. Reprint, New York: Bell, 1969.

. The Holy Kabbalah. London: Williams & Norgate, 1929. Reprint, New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1960.

Walker, D. P. Spiritual and Demonic Magic: From Ficino to Camperella. South Bend, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1975.

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Medieval Magic

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