Building a fortean library
22. WORDS, SPELLS AND SILENCES
Words, spells and silences THE HIEROPHANT’S APPRENTICE
Defining what ‘magic’ is can be a tricky business. Apart from witnessing some highly accomplished stage magicians, i.e. conjurers, our own first acquaintance, in early youth, with the subject was with Black Magic, as retailed by Dennis Wheatley in The Devil Rides Out (1934), an entrancing classic of questionable fiction if ever there was one, and written in a suitably febrile fashion to boot. Actual magic, as opposed to skimpy excuses and implausible rituals designed to facilitate combat on the astral plane as well as monstrous orgies and mass shaggings al fresco, is a rather more laborious affair than the likes of Wheatley would have one believe, but none the less interesting and provocative for all that.
Performing proper magic, whether for good or ill, requires dedication, erudition, and plain hard work. To do it safely the magician must protect himself within a circle or pentagram drawn upon the ground (or floor). Dr Faustus, renowned seller of his soul to Satan, fornicator with spirits, and subject of Kit Marlowe’s finest play – you needn’t bother with Goethe’s dewy-eyed version – requires no less than this: “The circle… has to be cut out in sheet metal. With every stroke of the hammer, one has to pronounce: ‘Made strong against all evil spirits and devils.’ The triangle in the centre has to be formed by three chains taken from gibbets and nailed down with those nails that have gone through the forehead of executed criminals, who were broken upon the wheel, and other such horrors. Then the magician addresses himself to God with holy prayers… intermingled with exclamations: ‘yn ge tu y ge se San mim to chu’.” Hard to find a criminal who’s been broken on the wheel these days, never mind those nails. But one can’t help noticing that if one’s to deal with demons, one has to invoke the protection of God. Who, it is assumed, will duly provide same. So does God allow contact with demons on the grounds that He granted free will to mankind – and Devil take the hindmost – or does He in fact, for His own famously inscrutable reasons, approve of such intercourse? Magic is full of ambiguities like this.
Kurt Seligmann’s Magic, Supernaturalism and Religion does pretty much what it says on the tin, although it doesn’t have much to say about the supernatural and, apart from a few such quotations scattered throughout, is pretty thin on the practical business of magical performances, potions and recipes. Even if it bears a more accurate title than its original History of Magic, it is a history nonetheless, starting with the Chaldeans and ending in the 18th century with an entertaining account of the Count St Germain – so no Fulcanelli, Golden Dawn and so on. Seligmann’s initial thesis is that religion and magic were virtually indistinguishable. According to him, the Chaldean world is shot through with good and evil gods, perpetually at war, who must be propitiated through ritual and deflected by precaution. People are not in control of their world, and “man would have been the prey of chaos had he not employed magical arts to protect himself against evil influences.” This is not so different from the essentially pagan outlook of the ‘folk’ in mediæval Europe. (To argue with Seligmann would require erudition far in excess of his scarcely inconsiderable reading, and the consensus may have changed since 1948: so we report and comment on what we find, and no more.) Inevitably a clan or cabal of specialists grew up to deal with the situation, viz. a priesthood. By the time the ancient Egyptian religion had become formalised, the priests were keeping their secrets close, but gods and demons had come to be at their beck and call: “The Egyptian gods could be deceived, menaced and forced into obedience… The priests filled papyrus scrolls with magical formulas enabling the deceased to withstand his judges in the world beyond.” Whether this combination of cajolery and threats worked for the living, Seligmann doesn’t say.
Somewhere in between came Zoroaster, whose dualistic conception of the warring gods was crowned by a supergod: “This single power is Zrvan Akaran, boundless time, which rests in its glory, so incomprehensible to man that we can but honour it in awed silence.” One is reminded of the Tetragrammaton (YHWH, in its Latin transliteration) the name of God that devout Jews never speak aloud, and Seligmann points to other parallels between Zoroastrianism, Judaism and Christianity – “the doctrines of angels and demons… of a new kingdom, the coming of a saviour, the belief in resurrection, a general judgement and a future life” are shared by all three. And so we pass to the ancient Hebrews and the gods they rejected but would occasionally return to, to the wrath of the Almighty. Among them is the Philistine fish-god, Dagon, who looks remarkably like one of Robert Temple’s celebrated Nommo of the Dogon. With a name like that, how could he have missed her? Next stop on this magical mystery tour is Greece, whose Asclepian medicine was partly based on magic (in particular in healing through dream interpretation), as was the Eleusian mystery. But ‘magic’ could sometimes be the by-product of shrewd forethought. “Agathocles (361–289 BC) carried with him ‘lucky owls’, birds sacred to Pallas Athene, on a foolhardy expedition to Libya. And as his army