Build­ing a fortean li­brary

22. WORDS, SPELLS AND SI­LENCES

Fortean Times - - Contents -

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

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