Kit’s Crit: Magic In Western Culture (Brian P. Copenhaver)

Copenhaver

Magic In Western Culture: From Antiquity to the Enlightenment (New York: Cambridge UP, 2015)

Brian Copenhaver’s Magic In Western Culture traces occult beliefs From Antiquity to the Enlightenment.  His study starts in Ancient Iran, Greece, and Rome, and moves through the early Christian Church to the influential thinkers of the Renaissance.  Magic is treated as a tradition that derives from classical philosophy, as Copenhaver examines why European intellectuals “repudiate magic in the Enlightenment, after having previously accepted it for more than two millennia” (xiii).

Copenhaver suggests that before the Enlightenment most educated Western people believed in magic – a tradition handed down from Herodotus.  But the early Catholic Church claimed any supernatural activity in The Bible was the result of divine miracles (not earthly magic), which created little problem until Thomas Aquinas insisted that if there were heavenly angels there must also be hell’s counterparts – demons.  Thereafter, devils were seen as tempting the faithful with magic powers and turning them into witches.   This belief persisted into the Middle Ages and beyond.

As further medical advances were made, traditional magic was superseded by new therapies – regimen, pharmacy, and surgery.  Doctors of Physic practiced a natural philosophy whereby physical treatment (not ritual or religious) aimed to produce the correct mix of humors in the body.

During the Renaissance, natural philosophy gradually gave way to mechanical science, particularly after the invention of the telescope and microscope.  Men like Descartes favored reason, method, and metaphysics over occultism, but this was not a clear-cut process.  Isaac Newton, for example, spent much of his scientific career as an alchemist searching for the Philosopher’s Stone, and was later called “the last of the magicians” (288).  But over the centuries, magic gradually succumbed to the dual pressures of religion and science until it fell out of fashion with the European intellectuals.

Magic In Western Culture is a dense, scholarly book, lightened in part by the rich illustrations.  Copenhaver has sifted through the murky realms of early belief to piece together a well-researched, cohesive analysis of the occult tradition.  His section on Newton is particularly fascinating.  I also enjoyed the references to Shakespeare’s plays that highlight the intersection between intellectual development and common folklore.

If you have an academic or historic interest in the rise and decline of magic you will find this book an impressive read.  Highly recommended!

Magic Or Medicine?

Magic Or Medicine?

Doctors / Physicians

Doctor   Hans Brock der Altere (c. 1584)

Throughout history, people have consulted doctors to diagnose and treat their ailments, but educated physicians were rare, expensive, and often dangerous. There was no understanding of how germs spread disease.  Indeed, well into the seventeenth century practitioners still followed Galen’s Greek notion that the body was made up of four humors – blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile – and when one of these fluids got out of balance the body fell sick.  Leeches and blood-letting were common practices because fevers were thought to originate from having too much blood in the body.

Barber-surgeons

Quack  Franz Anton Maulbertsch (c. 1785)

The first barber-surgeons were monks who aided parishioners in their monasteries.  They often advocated a heavy dose of fasting and prayer to accompany their herbal remedies.

Later on, barber-surgeons  were found on battlefields tending the wounded.  In the age before anesthetics, surgery was considered a lowly occupation and these quacks performed many of the procedures that physicians refused to do, including barbaric amputations, teeth-pulling, enemas, and blood-letting for those who could not afford a physician.

Apothecaries

Apothecary

If a person knew what was wrong and merely required a cure, they could visit the apothecary.  These were early pharmacists who made medicines, salves, and potions, and also gave out advice on surgery and midwifery.  Their tonics consisted of herbs, minerals, animal parts, urine, honey, and a variety of fats.

Cunning Men and Wise Women

Cunning Folk

If you could not afford any of the above, a cure might be found with a folk-healer.  Cunning men and wise women used magic, prayer, herbal lore, and family experience to tackle the everyday ailments of the townsfolk, villagers, farmers, and their livestock.  They were cheaper than apothecaries and could be paid by trading goods instead of money.  The cunning folk also provided an array of services for specific problems that could be dealt with very discretely – contraceptive powders, abortion, love potions, impotence cures, and poisons.

Some of the more unfortunate – or unpopular – cunning folk got caught up in the witch hunts that swept across Europe throughout that period.  But when people began realizing these healers were not only useful, but necessary, new regulations appeared that differentiated between good magic and bad.  Lighter sentences were handed out – time spent in the pillory or jail – and capital punishment was only awarded to witches – those in league with demons, who conjured up devils or committed murder.

By the end of the Seventeenth Century extensive advancements had been made.  William Harvey discovered how the heart controls blood circulation in the body; Ambroise Pare made important breakthroughs for treating war wounds; Marcello Malpighi invented the microscope; and the first blood transfusions were carried out at the Royal Society in London.  But it took a great many years for these advancements to permeate throughout England.  In the meantime, the common people continued to pray and turn to the wise women for help!

 

Magic Colors

rainbow-ribbon-flames[1]

Colors have always affected the human psyche.  They create atmosphere, change moods, signal danger, hide flaws, disguise predators, indicate states of mind, and relieve stress.  And because they trigger such potent reactions in people, many cultures have used them to influence, honor, or impress their gods.

Medieval cunning folk were no exception.  They used sacred clothing, color-coded surroundings, or dyed candles for their rituals.  But the meaning of certain colors can vary – for example, a black candle might be lit in a shape-shifting spell, while its partner stone (onyx) could be used for protection.  Sorcery and alchemy were complicated arts.

Even today, the meanings associated with color are open to personal interpretation, for what is pleasing and soothing to one eye might be unpleasant and jarring to another.  Yet within modern Wicca there appears to be a loose agreement on the following associations.  Choose whichever works for you!

WHITE: purity, protection, peace, happiness, spirituality, balance

GREEN: health, money, luck, acceptance, growth, fertility, beauty, employment

ORANGE: attraction, success, creativity, fun, opportunity, celebration

YELLOW: pleasure, intellect, confidence, inspiration, wisdom, psychic power, divination

RED: strength, passion, survival, courage, good fortune, health, power, sexual potency

PINK: love, self-improvement, friendship, fidelity, compassion, nurturing, maturity

GRAY: peace, neutrality, contemplation, solitude

BROWN: health, home, healing, blessings, stability

BLUE: forgiveness, psychic awareness, healing, sincerity, peace, sleep, focus, organization

BLACK: banishing, the void, protection, shapeshifting

PURPLE: wisdom, healing, power, luck, scrying, reversing

SILVER: female energy, victory, stability, intuition

GOLD: masculine energy,  attraction, justice, health, luxury

 

Sources:

“Llewellyn’s Witches’ Calendar” (Korea: Llewellyn, 2015)

“Understanding the Meaning of Colors in Color Psychology.” available at http://www.empower-yourself-with-color-psychology.com/meaning-of-colors.html (2/26/2015)

Shakespeare’s Recipe For Disaster

In Act IV – Scene I of Macbeth, Shakespeare’s three “weird sisters” prepare a “hell-broth” to produce a series of apparitions for Macbeth that set in motion a chain of deadly events.  Written only six years before the Lancashire Witch Trials, this script provides a good insight into some of the magical beliefs of that time.

 

out of; (c) Royal Shakespeare Company Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

“Round about the cauldron go;

In the poison’d entrails throw.

Toad, that under cold stone

Days and nights hast thirty one

Swelter’d venom sleeping got,

Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot.

Double, double toil and trouble;

Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Fillet of a fenny snake,

In the cauldron boil and bake;

Eye of newt, and toe of frog,

Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,

Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting,

Lizard’s leg, and howlet’s wing,

For a charm of powerful trouble,

Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

Double, double toil and trouble;

Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,

Witches’ mummy, maw and gulf

Of the ravin’d salt-sea shark,

Root of hemlock digg’d i’ the dark,

Liver of blaspheming Jew,

Gall of goat, and slips of yew

Sliver’d in the moon’s eclipse,

Nose of Turk, and Tartar’s lips,

Finger of birth-strangled babe

Ditch-deliver’d by a drab,

Make the gruel thick and slab:

Add thereto a tiger’s chaudron,

For the ingredients of our cauldron.

Double, double toil and trouble;

Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Cool it with a baboon’s blood,

Then the charm is firm and good.”

The Jacobean audience believed that witches brewed such diabolical charms, and seeing this dramatic scene live on stage they would likely have been terrified, fascinated, mesmerized, and revolted by the disgusting ingredients – exactly as Shakespeare intended.  But let us take a closer look at his recipe.

The bard was not only a master playwright, he was also a shrewd psychologist who understood the minds of the masses who flocked to the London theatres. Therefore, it is not surprising that one of the first things thrown in the pot is the fenny snake, a nod to the snake who tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden.  The Catholic Church claimed that all women were necessarily evil because of Eve’s transgression, and that explains why the majority of accused witches were female.  The next three ingredients – eye of newt, toe of frog, and wool of bat – are added to the first item swelter’d toad venom – highlighting four nocturnal creatures that are often associated with witches and their familiar spirits.  The liver of blaspheming Jew endorses the common anti-Semitic beliefs of that era, alongside the racial prejudices held against the Turk and Tartar.  And Shakespeare further played into the beliefs of his class-conscious, biased audience by having a good man like Macbeth brought down by his scheming wife and a band of wicked hags.

A country audience, however, may have interpreted Macbeth’s cauldron quite differently from the royal courtiers and city dwellers.  Many of these exotic ingredients are actually poetic variants on the common names for herbs.  Fenny snake = chickweed; Eye of newt=mustard seed; Toe of frog = frog’s foot or bulbous buttercup; Wool of bat = bog moss; Tongue of dog = hound’s tongue; Adder’s tongue = adder’s tongue fern; Lizard’s leg = ivy; Howlet’s wing = henbane; Scale of dragon = dragonwort; Tooth of Wolf = wolf’s bane; Hemlock root = hemlock; Liver of Jew = Jew’s myrtle or box holly; Gall of goat = St. John’s Wort or honeysuckle;  Slips of Yew = yew tree bark; Nose of Turk = Turk’s cap; Tartar’s lips = ginseng or tartar root; Tiger’s chaudron = lady’s mantle; and the Finger of birth-strangled babe= foxglove, also known as “bloody fingers”.   The remaining items – toad venom, powdered mummy, shark, and baboon’s blood – were all widely thought to have medicinal properties.

Why did Shakespeare choose these fierce-sounding ingredients?  Joyce Froome (Wicked Enchantments) argues that, for the wise women of Pendle, these herbs would be part of their everyday folk magic.  Catt Foy (Witches & Pagans) suggests that maybe “Shakespeare knew a little more about herbcraft than he was letting on,” and Nigel Beale (Literary Tourists Blog) believes he chose names “designed to gross out the masses, to stop them from practicing magic.”

But William Shakespeare was  also a poet.  He knew the magic of words and  rhythmical power of his hypnotic witch chant.  It did not matter that these characters may have been throwing armfuls of common hedgerow roots and leaves into a boiling cook pot.  Much more important were the awful-sounding names that conjured up terrifying images in the minds of his audience – and at this he was an unsurpassed wizard!

Witch Circle

Sources:

Beale, Nigel. “Macbeth and what was in the Witches Brew” (Literary Tourist) http://literarytourist.com/2009/10/macbeth-and-what-was-in-the-witches-brew/ accessed 2/2/2015

Foy, Catt. “A Witch’s Brew: Recipe by Shakespeare” in Witches & Pagans #29 (Oregon: BBI Media, Spring, 2014) pages 24-26.

Froome, Joyce. Wicked Enchantments: A History of the Pendle Witches and their Magic (Lancaster: Carnegie Books, 2010)

Stuart, Malcolm. The Encyclopedia of Herbs and Herbalism (London: Macdonald & Co., 1987)

Love Potions

Night hearts

The topic for this Valentine’s week is love potions!  What are they made from?  Who uses them?  Do they work?

In Wicked Enchantments, Joyce Froome describes an array of magical charms used throughout the ages and recorded in the Museum of Witchcraft in Cornwall, England.  These include: sticking a certain number of pins into an apple or onion while chanting a rhyme; specific astrological symbols engraved on a box as a love talisman; carrying henbane root to make you appear more attractive; piercing knotted cords with pins; throwing salt on the fire while reciting a chant on three consecutive Fridays;  melting a wax heart over a hot tile while casting a charm that will bind the lover to your will;  and pushing pins in the sleeve with a prayer for each one so you will dream of your future spouse.  And quoting from The Book of Secrets of Albertus Magnus, Froome explains that a typical magical drink contained items such as periwinkle, houseleek,  and earthworms!

Candle hearts

Over the centuries love potions have appealed to young women in search of a husband; those who’ve lost their sweethearts and wish to lure them back; lovers in search of willing bed partners; and insecure people needing outside support, especially when they’ve already been rebuffed.  Cunning folk were only to happy to oblige and had a fifty-fifty chance of providing satisfaction, though of course they were conjuring up sexual allure and attraction, rather than genuine love.

There is some scientific research suggesting that modern-day “love potions” may actually affect human mood  – for example, those based on odors containing jasmine, rose, and vanilla.  Smells can trigger pheromones and create longing, attraction, or remind the person of happy erotic memories from their past.  Several products on the market contain chemical pheromones which supposedly make the wearer sexually irresistible.  Likewise, in the time before Viagra, certain herbs were used to increase the blood flow and stimulate arousal.  But did they really work?  What do you think?

Source:

Froome, Joyce. Wicked Enchantments: A History of the Pendle Witches and Their Magic (Lancaster: Carnegie, 2010)

Fairy Dust

A few wires –

a leap from reality –

and Peter Pan took flight

through fairy dust

in front of us

on an ordinary weekday night.

And glitter

shone in the eyes of the child

sat there all evening

stock still – grinning –

finger in mouth –

catching his breath and believing

every tick

of the crocodile’s tock-clock,

and each brave sword blow,

walking the plank –

taking the plunge –

without ever needing to slow.

Peter Pan

And I ask

myself why the magic is

sham and corrupt,

in failing to

 ward off those

pirates of old –  our growing up?

(Degrassi Wiki Gif in Public Domain)

What Do You Believe?

For thousands of years people believed in magic.  They were simple folk – often afraid and confused – unable to grasp the scientific world around them.

Sabbat

They struggled to:

* explain natural events

* understand why bad things happened

* barter with fate

* accept their place and rank in society

* influence things around them

* blame unseen forces when things went wrong

* believe in, and belong to, something bigger than themselves

* grapple with supernatural forces and events

* worship a greater power as part of a divine plan

* and find solace in a harsh, unfair world.

 

According to Sigmund Freud, each civilization passes through three distinct stages of development.

In the Magical Phase the primitive does not understand a natural phenomenon like rainfall, but he knows he needs water to survive.  By creating a ritual – rain dancing for example – he believes he can influence the weather to obey his wishes.

As society progresses the community enters the Religious Phase.  The rain-seeking ritual develops into an intricate rite of prayer, song, dance, and sacrifice, whereby the worshippers barter with the gods for their precious water.

But once the mechanics of rainfall are understood as a process of evaporation and cloud formation, that society progresses into the Scientific Phase.  At this point, Freud argues, there should be no more need for religious or  superstitious belief.  “Religion is a system of wishful illusions together with a disavowal of reality” without which the masses “could not bear the troubles of life and the cruelties of reality.”

Was Freud correct though?  Even in today’s super-scientific space age a huge portion of the globe still follows the religious beliefs of their ancestors, and paganism is on the rise.

It turns out science does not have all the answers.  It might satisfy the mind but it cannot soothe the wounded soul!

Source:

Freud, Sigmund. The Future of an Illusion.  New York: Norton, 1989.