History of Magic


History of Magic


The earliest traces of magical practice are found in the European caves of the middle Paleolithic Age. These belong to the last interglacial period of the Pleistocene period, which has been named the Aurignacian, after the cave-dwellers of Aurignac, whose skeletons, artifacts and drawings link them with the Bushmen of South Africa. In the cave of Gargas, near Bagneres de Luchon, occur, in addition to spirited and realistic drawings of animals, numerous imprints of human hands in various stages of mutilation. Some hands had been first smeared with a sticky substance and then pressed on the rock; others had been held in position to be dusted round with red ochre, or black pigment. Most of the imprinted hands have mutilated fingers; in some cases the first and second joints of one or more fingers are wanting; in others the stumps only of all fingers remain. A close study of the hand imprints makes it evident that they are not to be regarded as those of lepers. There can be little doubt that the joints were removed for a specific purpose, and on this point there is general agreement among anthropologists. A clue to the mystery is obtained by the magical custom among the Bushmen of similarly removing finger joints. Mr. G. W. Stow in his The Native Races of South Africa makes refer­ence to this strange form of sacrifice. He once came into contact with a number of Bushmen who "had all lost the first joint of the little finger" which had been removed with a " stone knife" with purpose to ensure a safe journey to the spirit world. Another writer tells of an old Bushman woman whose little fingers of both hands had been mutilated, three joints in all having been removed. She explained that each joint had been sacrificed as a daughter died to express her sorrow. No doubt, however, there was a deeper meaning in the custom than she cared to confess, F. Boas in his Report on the N.W. Tribes of Canada gives evidence of the custom among these peoples. When frequent deaths resulted from disease, the Canadian Indians were wont to sacrifice the joints of their little fingers so as, they explained, " to cut off the deaths." Among the Indian Madigas (Telugu Pariahs) the evil eye-is averted by sacrificers who dip their hands in the blood of goats or sheep and impress them on either side of a house door. This custom is not unknown even to Brahmans.

Impressions of hands are also occasionally seen on the walls of Indian Mohammedan mosques. As among the N.W. Canadian tribes, the hand ceremony is most frequently practiced in India when epidemics make a heavy toll of lives. The Bushmen also remove finger joints when, stricken with sickness. In Australia, where during initia­tion ceremonies the young men have teeth knocked out and bodies scarred, the women of some tribes mutilate the little fingers of daughters with purpose to influence their future careers. Apparently the finger chopping customs of Paleolithic times had a magical significance. On some of the paintings in the Aurignacian caves appear symbols which suggest the slaying with spears and cutting up of animals. Enigmatical signs are another feature. Of special interest are the figures of animal-headed demons, some with hands upraised in the Egyptian attitude of adoration, and others apparently dancing like the animal-headed dancing gods of the Bushmen. In the Marsonlas Paleolithic cave there are semi-human faces of angry demons with staring eyes and monstrous noses. In the Spanish Cave at Cogul several figures of women wearing half-length skirts and shoulder shawls, are represented dancing round a nude male. So closely do these females resemble such as usually appear in Bushmen paintings that they might well, but for their location, be credited to this interesting people. Religious dances among the Bushman tribes are associated with marriage, birth and burial ceremonies; they are also performed to exorcise demons in cases of sickness. "Dances are to us what prayers are to you," an elderly Bushman once informed a European. Whether the cave drawings and wood, bone and ivory carvings of the Magdalenian, or late Paleolithic period at the close of the last ice epoch, are of magical significance is a problem on which there is no general agree­ment. It is significant to find, however, that several carved ornaments bearing animal figures or enigmatical signs are perforated as if worn as charms. On a piece of horn found at Lorthet, Hautes Pyrenees, are beautiful incised drawings of reindeer and salmon, above which appear mystical symbols. An ape-like demon carved on bone was found at Alas d'Azil: on a reindeer horn from Laugerie Basse a prostrate man with a tail is creeping up on all fours towards a grazing bison. These are some of the instances which lend color to the view that late Paleolithic art had its origin in magical beliefs and practices—that hunters carved on the handles of weapons and implements, or scratched on cave walls, the images of the animals they desired to capture—sometimes with the secured co-opera­tion of demons, and sometimes with the aid of magical spells.

Coming to historic times we know that the ancient Egyptians (See Egypt) possessed a highly-developed magical system, as did the Babylonians (See Semites), and other pristine civilizations. Indeed from these the mediaeval European system of magic was finally evolved. Greece and Rome (both of which see) also possessed distinct national systems, which in some measure were branches of their religions; and thus like the Egyptian and Babylonian were preserves of the priesthood.

Magic in early Europe was, of course, merely an appendage of the various religious systems which obtained throughout that continent; and it was these systems which later generated into witchcraft (q.v.) But upon the foundation of Christianity, the church soon began to regard the practice of magic as foreign to the spirit of its religion. Thus the Thirty-sixth Canon of the (Ecumenical Council held at Laodicea in 364 A.D. forbids clerks and priests to become magicians, enchanters, mathematicians or astrolo­gers. It orders, moreover, that the Church shall expel from its bosom those who employ ligatures or phylacteries, because it says phylacteries are the prisons of the soul. The Fourth Canon of the Council of Oxia, A.D. 525, prohibited the consultation of sorcerers, augurs, diviners, and divina­tions made with wood or bread; and the Sixtieth Canon of the Council of Constantinople A.D. 692, excommunicated for a period of six years diviners, and those who had recourse to them. The prohibition was repeated by the Council of Rome in 721. The Forty-second Canon of the Council of Tours in 613 is to the effect that the priests shall teach to the people the inefficacy of magical practices to restore the health of men or animals, and later Councils practically endorsed the church's earlier views.

It does not appear, however, that what may be called "mediaeval magic" took final and definite shape until about the twelfth century. Modeled upon the systems in vogue among the Byzantines and Moors of Spain, which were evolved from the Alexandrian system (See Neoplatonism), what might be called the "oriental" type of magic gained footing in Europe, and quite superseded the earlier and semi-barbarian systems in use among the various countries of that continent, most of which, as has been said, were the relics of older pagan practice and ritual. To these relics clung the witch and the wizard and the pro­fessors of lesser magic; whereas among the disciples of the imported system we find the magician—black and white.— the necromancer and the sorcerer. The manner in which the theosophy and the magic of the East was imported was probably two-fold; first, there is good evidence that it was imported into Europe by persons returning from the Crusades; and secondly, we know that in matters of wisdom, Byzantium fell heir to Alexandria, and that from Constantinople magic was disseminated throughout Europe, along with other sciences. It is not necessary to deal in the course of this article with the history of witchcraft and lesser sorcery, as that has already been done in the article "witchcraft"; and we will confine ourselves strictly to the history of the higher branches of magic. But it is competent to remark that Europe had largely obtained its pneumotology from the orient through Christianity, from Jewish and early Semitic sources; and it is an open question how far eastern demonology colored that of the Catholic Church.

Mediaeval magic of the higher type has practically no landmarks save a series of great names. Its tenets ex­perienced but little alteration during six centuries. From the eighth to the thirteenth century, there does not appear to have been much persecution of the professors of magic, but after that period the opinions of the church underwent a radical change, and the life of the magus was fraught with considerable danger. However, it is pretty clear that he was not victimized in the same manner as his lesser brethren, the sorcerers and wizards; but we find Paracelsus con­sistently baited by the medical profession of bis day, Agrippa constantly persecuted, and even mystics like Bcehme imprisoned and ill-used. It is difficult at this distance to estimate the enormous vogue that magic experienced, whether for good or evil during the middle ages. Although severely punished, if discovered or if its pro­fessors became sufficiently notorious to court persecution, the power it seems to have conferred upon them was eagerly sought by scores of people—the majority of whom were quite unfitted for its practice, and clumsily betrayed themselves into the hands of the authorities. In the article entitled "Black Magic," we have outlined the history of that lesser magic known as sorcery or "black magic," and there have shown what persecutions overtook those who practiced it.

As has already been mentioned, the history of higher magic in Europe is a matter of great names, and these are somewhat few. They do not include alchemists, who are strictly speaking not magicians, as their application of arcane laws was particular and not universal; but this is not to say that some alchemists were not also magicians. The two great names which stand out in the history of European magic are those of Paracelsus and Agrippa, who formulated the science of mediaeval magic in its entirety. They were also the greatest practical magicians of the middle ages, as apart from pure mystics, alchemists and others, and their thaumaturgic and necromantic experiences were probably never surpassed. With these mediaeval magic comes to a close and the further history of the science in Europe will be found outlined in the division of this article entitled "Modern Magic."

Scientific Theories regarding the Nature of Magic 

General agreement as to the proper definition of magic is wanting, as it depends upon the view taken of religious belief. According to Frazer, magic and religion are one and the same thing, or are so closely allied as to be almost identical. This may be true of peoples in a savage or barbarian condition of society, but can scarcely apply to magic and religion as fully fledged, as for example in mediae­val times, however fundamental may be their original unity. The objective .theory of magic would regard it as entirely distinct from religion, possessed of certain well-marked attributes, and traceable to mental processes differing from those from which the religious idea springs. Here and there the two have become fused by the super-imposition of religious upon magical practice. The objective idea of magic, in short, rests on the belief that it is based on magical laws which are supposed to operate with the regularity of those of natural science. The subjective view, on the other hand, is that many practices seemingly magical are in reality religious, and that no rite can be called magical which is not so designated by its celebrant or agent. It has been said that religion consists of an appeal to the gods, whereas magic is the attempt to force their compliance. Messrs. Hubert and Mauss believe that magic is essentially traditional. Holding as they do that the primitive mind is markedly unoriginal, they have satisfied themselves that magic is therefore an art which does not exhibit any frequent changes amongst primitive folk, and is fixed by its laws. Religion, they say, is official and organized, magic prohibited and secret. Magical power appears to them to be determined by the contiguity, simi­larity and contrast of the object of the act, and the object to bs effected. Mr. Frazer believes all magic to be based on the law of sympathy—that is the assumption that things act on one another at a distance because of their being secretly linked together by invisible bonds. He divides sympathetic magic into homeopathic magic and contagious magic. The first is imitative or mimetic, and may be practiced by itself; but the latter usually necessi­tates the application of the imitative principle. Well-known instances of mimetic magic are the forming of wax figures in the likeness of an enemy, which are destroyed in the hope that he will perish. Contagious magic may be instanced by the savage anointing the weapon which caused a wound instead of the wound itself, in the belief that the blood on the weapon continues to feel with the blood on 4 the body. Mr. L. Marillier divides magic into three classes: 

  • - The magic of the word or act; 
  • - the magic of the human being independent of rite or formula; 
  • - and the magic which demands a human being of special powers and the use of ritual. 

Mr. A. Lehmann believes magic to be a practice of superstition, and founds it in illusion. The fault of all these theories is that they strive after too great an exact­ness, and that they do not allow sufficiently for the feeling of wonder and awe which is native to the human mind. Indeed they designate this "strained attention." We may grant that the attention of savages to a magical rite is " strained," so strained is it in some cases that it terrifies them into insanity; and it would seem therefore as if the limits of "attention" were overpassed, and as if it shaded into something very much deeper. Moreover it is just possible that in future it may be granted that so-called sympathetic magic does not partake of the nature of magic at all, but has greater affinities (owing to its strictly natural and non-supernatural character) with pseudo-science.

Magic is recognized by many savage peoples as a force rather than an art,—a thing which impinges upon the thought of man from outside. It would appear that many barbarian tribes believe in what would seem to be a great reservoir of magical power, the exact nature of which they are not prepared to specify. Thus amongst certain Ameri­can-Indian tribes we find a force called Orenda or spirit-force. Amongst the ancient Peruvians, everything sacred was huaca and possessed of magical power. In Melanesia, we find a force spoken of called mana, transmissible and contagious, which may be seen in the form of flames or even heard. The Malays use the word kramat to signify the same thing; and the Malagasy the term hasma. Some of the tribes round Lake Tanganyika believe in such a force, which they call ngai and Australian tribes have many similar terms, such as churinga and boolya. To hark back to America, we find in Mexico the strange creed named nagualism, which partakes of the same conception—every­thing nagual is magical or possesses an inherent spiritual force of its own.

Theories of the Origin of Magic 

Many theories have been advanced regarding the origin of magic—some author­ities believing that it commenced with the idea of personal superiority; others through animistic beliefs (See Animism); and still others through such ideas as that physical pains, for which the savage could not account, were supposed to be inflicted by invisible weapons. This last theory is, of coarse, in itself, merely animistic. It does not seem, how­ever, that writers on the subject have given sufficient attention to the great influence exerted on the mind of man by odd or peculiar occurrences. We do not for a moment desire to advance the hypothesis that magic entirely originated from such a source, but we believe that it was a powerful factor in the growth of magical belief. To which, too, animism and taboo contributed their quota. The cult of the dead too and their worship would soon become fused with magical practice, and a complete demonology would thus speedily arise.

The Dynamics of Magic 

Magical practice is governed by well-marked laws limited in number. It possesses many classes of practitioner; as, for example, the diviner or augur, whose duties are entirely different from those of the witch-doctor. Chief among these laws, as has been already hinted, is that of sympathy, which, as has been said, must inevitably be sub-divided into the laws of similarity, contiguity and antipathy. The law of simi­larity and homeopathy is again divisible into two sections : (i)—the assumption that like produces like—an illustration of which is the destruction of a model in the form of an enemy ; and (2)—the idea that like cures like—for instance, that the stone called the bloodstone can staunch the flow of bleeding. The law dealing with antipathy rests on the assumption that the application of a certain object or drug expels its contrary. There remains contiguity, which is based on the concept that whatever has once formed part of an object continues to form part of it. Thus if a magician can obtain a portion of a person's hair, he can work woe upon him through the invisible bonds which are supposed to extend between him and the hair in the sorcerer's -possession. It is well-known that if the animal familiar of a witch be wounded, that the wound will react in a sympathetic manner on the witch herself. This is called " repercussion."

Another widespread belief is that if the magician procures the name of a person that he can gain magical dominion over him. This, of course, arose from the idea that the name of an individual was identical with himself. The doctrine of the Incommunicable Name, the hidden name of the god or magician, is well instanced by many legends in Egyptian history,—the deity usually taking extra­ordinary care to keep his name secret, in order that no one might gain power over him. The spell or incantation is connected with this concept, and with these, in a lesser degree, may be associated magical gesture, which is usually introduced for the purpose of accentuating the spoken word. Gesture is often symbolic or sympathetic; it is sometimes the reversal of a religious rite, such as marching against the sun, which is known as walking " widdershins." The method of pronouncing rites is, too, one of great impor­tance. Archaic or foreign expressions are usually found in spells ancient and modern; and the tone in which the incantation is spoken, no less than its exactness, is also important. To secure exactness rhythm was often em­ployed, which had the effect of aiding memory.

The Magician 

In early society, the magician, which term includes the shaman, medicine-man, piage, witch­doctor, et cetera, may hold his position by hereditary right; by an accident of birth, as being the seventh son of a seventh son; to revelation from the gods ; or through mere mastery of ritual. In savage life we find the shaman a good deal of a medium, for instead of summoning the powers of the air at his bidding as did the magicians of medieval days, he seems to find it necessary to throw himself into a state of trance and seek them in their own sphere. The magician is also often regarded as possessed by an animal or supernatural being. The duties of the priest and magician are often combined in primitive society, but it cannot be too strongly asserted that where a religion has been superseded, the priests of the old cult are, for those who have taken their places, nothing but magicians. We do not hear much of beneficent magic among savage peoples, and it is only in Europe that White Magic may be said to have gained any hold.

Medieval Definition of Magic 

The definitions of magic vouchsafed by the great magicians of mediaeval and modern times naturally differ greatly from those of anthropologists. For example Eliphas Levi says in his History of Magic: "Magic combines in a single science that which is most certain in philosophy with that which is eternal and infallible in religion. It reconciles perfectly and incontestably those two terms so opposed on the first view—faith and reason, science and belief, authority and liberty. It furnishes the human mind with an instrument of philosophical and religious certainty, as exact as mathematics, and even accounting for the infallibility of mathematics themselves. .....There is an incontestable truth, and there is an infallible method of knowing that truth ; while those who attain this knowledge and adopt it as a rule of life, can endow their life with a sovereign power, which can make them masters of all inferior things, of wandering spirits, or in other words, arbiters and kings of the world." Paracelsus says regarding magic: "The magical is a great hidden wisdom, and reason is a great open folly. No amour shields against magic for it strikes at the inward spirit of life. Of this we may rest assured, that through full and powerful imagination only can we bring the spirit of any man into an image. No conjuration, no rites are needful; circle-making and the scattering of incense are mere humbug and jugglery. The human spirit is so great a thing that no man can express it; eternal and unchangeable as God Himself is the mind of man; and could we rightly comprehend the mind of man, nothing would be impossible to us upon the earth. Through faith the imagination is invigorated and completed, for it really happens that every doubt mars its perfection. Faith must strengthen imagination, for faith establishes the will. Because man did not perfectly believe and imagine, the result is that arts are uncertain when they might be wholly certain." Agrippa also regarded magic as the true road to communion with God—thus linking it with mysticism.

Modern Magic 

With the death of Agrippa in I535 the old school of magicians may be said to have ended. But that is not to say that the traditions of magic were not handed on to others who were equally capable of preserving them. We must carefully discriminate at this juncture between those practitioners of magic whose minds were illuminated by a high mystical ideal, and persons of doubtful occult position, like the Comte de Saint-Germain and others. At the beginning of the seventeenth century we find many great alchemists in practice, who were also devoted to the researches of transcendental magic, which they care­fully and successfully concealed under the veil of hermetic experiment. These were Michael Meyer, Campe, Robert Flood, Cosmopolite, D'Espagnet, Samuel Norton, Baron de Beausoleil, and Van Helmont; another illustrious name is also that of Philalethes. The eighteenth century was rich in occult personalities, as for example the alchemist Lascaris (q.v.) Marlines de Pasqually, and Louis de Saint-Martin who founded the Martinist school, which still exists under the grandmastership of Papus. After this magic merges for the moment into mesmerism, and many of the secret magical societies which abounded in Europe about this period practiced animal magnetism as well as astrology, Kabalism and ceremonial magic.

Indeed mesmerism powerfully influenced mystic life in the time of its chief protagonist, and the mesmerists of the first era are in direct line with the Martinist and the mystical magicians of the late eighteenth century. Indeed mysticism and magnetism are one and the same thing, in the persons of some of these occultists (See Secret Tradition) the most celebrated of which were Cazotte, Ganneau, Comte, Wronski, 0u Potet, Hennequin, Comte d'Ourches, and! Baron de Guldenstubbe, and last of the initiates known to us, Eliphas Levi (all of which see).

That Black Magic and sorcery are still practiced is a well-known fact, which requires no amplification in this place (See Devil Worship) : but what of that higher magic which has, at least in modern times, attracted so many gifted minds? We cannot say that the true line of magical adepts ended with Levi, as at no time in the world's history are these known to the vulgar; but we may be certain that the great art is. practiced in secret as sedulously as ever in the past, and that men of temperament as exalted as in the case of the magicians of older days still privately pursue that art, which, like its sister religion, is none the less celestial because it has been evolved from lowly origins in the mind of man, whose spirit with the march of time reflects ever more strongly the light of heaven, as the sea at first dimly reddened by the dawn, at length mirrors the whole splendor of day.


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