Once upon a time, operative mages in the Western world could quite easily pick up a newly published novel or a magazine fresh from the press, and read stories that featured real magic of the sort they themselves practiced. I’ve been reminded of that in recent weeks, after spending some of my free time reading old issues of Weird Tales. There was an entire genre of stories, awkwardly labeled “occult detective” stories, that pitted a protagonist with some degree of occult knowledge and training against anything and everything the magical lore of the time could throw at him: vengeful ghosts, mages gone wrong, incantations lingering from the distant past, Satanists looking for that perfect sacrifice for the Evil One—and all of it based on a good practical knowledge of occult philosophy.
There were quite a few of these occult detective stories. Algernon Blackwood wrote some fine atmospheric stories about his “psychic doctor,” Dr. John Silence. Seabury Quinn, who had the perfect Weird Tales day job as a specialist in mortuary law, kept readers of that magazine enthralled with the exploits of ze verry French doctor Jules de Grandin. Manly Wade Wellman, arguably the best of the lot, had no fewer than three characters in the genre: Silver John, the Appalachian balladeer; John Thunstone, an engaging blend of occult adept and two-fisted adventure-story hero; and Lee Cobbett, an Everyman with a knack for blundering into and out of an assortment of occult scrapes. It’s an irony of literary history that contributions of actual occultists to the genre, such as Dion Fortune’s Adventures of Doctor Taverner, were decidedly second-rate by comparison.
These days? Compared to much of what passes for magical fiction nowadays, even Aleister Crowley’s pompous and derivative The Scrutinies of Simon Iff looks pretty good. The problem, at least from my perspective, is that very few of the people who think they’re writing magical fiction these days know much about magic, and what they do know is generally derived from books of Neopaganism and pop-culture occultism written by people who generally don’t know much about magic either. The Harry Potter novels were about par for the course here; despite the smattering of occult lore J.K. Rowling used for local color in the first book of the series, her “wizarding world” has precisely nothing to do with any kind of magic anyone has ever or will ever actually practice.
Does that matter? Clearly not to Rowling’s many readers. Still, it’s worth thinking about what would have happened to science fiction if SF writers had decided to stop using actual science in their stories, and then compare that to what’s happened to fantasy fiction in recent decades. Back in the day, to an extent that very few people are willing to talk about, authors of fantasy knew their way around magic, even if they didn’t practice it—and a great many of them did. How many people these days know, for example, that L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wizard of Oz, was an occultist—a full member of the Theosophical Society at a time when that required serious study and commitment—who wove quite a bit of occult philosophy into The Wizard and its sequels? (Here’s a hint: consider how the members of the party that followed the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City relate to the five elements of occult theory, and you may just catch Baum’s far from subtle wink.)
A revival of magical fiction worth the name might be a worthwhile project one of these days. Still, that’s a discussion for another time. The point I want to raise here has to do with one of the common tropes of modern fictional pseudomagic: the notion that the author needs to come up with some exotic and original way to explain where magical power comes from.
It’s understandable that this should be a concern. The worldview of contemporary scientism—that is, the materialist ideology that claims that only those phenomena are real that can be proved to the satisfaction of The Amazing Randi—systematically excludes any force or phenomenon that would be capable of explaining the results that operative mages routinely get from their work. People raised in a culture dominated by scientism, who nonetheless want to write about magic, thus need to find a gimmick to explain why something they believe is impossible still manages to work anyway. That’s where you get the phoenix feather in Harry Potter’s wand, the handwavings toward quantum uncertainty, and all the other gimmicks that get trotted out like trick ponies in fantasy fiction.
We can put the trick ponies out to pasture with those telepathic horsies with big blue eyes that played so large and saccharine a role in one wildly popular series of pseudomagical fantasies a while back. Still, inquiring minds—whether they belong to mages or not—might be wondering: so where does magical power come from? What is it that gives operative mages the ability to do what they do?
Thereby, as the authors of an earlier generation might have put it, hangs a tale.
The sources credited by operative mages and occult philosophers for the powers on which they draw in magical workings have varied significantly over time, and the changed closely track certain cultural transformations well documented by historians of ideas. A survey of all the different places from which mages have drawn power around the world and across the millennia would be better suited to a book than a blog post, so we’ll limit the focus of this discussion to Europe and the European diaspora over the last two and a half millennia or so. As it is, that’s going to take more than one post to cover.
As the curtain comes up, the goetes and magoi of ancient Greece and their equivalents elsewhere in ancient Europe are busy chanting spells, fashioning amulets, and doing all the other things that operative mages do. Goetes, by the way—the singular is goes—practiced a homegrown Greek form of magic, while magoi claimed imported wisdom: magos had almost exactly the same connotation in fifth-century Greece that “swami” had in 20th-century America. We know a fair amount about what the goetes were up to, at least, because one of their main practices involved writing incantations on pieces of lead and dropping them into open graves and shrines of underworld deities, where they’ve been nicely preserved for today’s archeologists.
Thus it’s no secret where the goetes believed magical power came from: it came from the deities of the Greek underworld, who could be induced to put a whammy on somebody if you made the right offerings. With appropriate apologies to Pluto, Persephone, et al., I tend to think of this as the Marlon Brando theory of magic: you ask the Godfather, and in this case the Godmother as well, and if you ask nicely and do something to make it worth their while, they send a couple of toughs to have a little talk with the guy who’s been giving you trouble. It’s a very widespread theory of magic in polytheistic societies, and tends to be the default option until philosophers get into the act.
In ancient Greece, that started happening shortly after the curtain went up, as intellectuals started having trouble making sense of traditional Greek religion. That’s a common difficulty faced by intellectuals in every literate society at one point or another in its history, but the ancient Greek examples of the species found an ingenious way around it. It so happened that just then, the starlore of the ancient societies of Mesopotamia was in the process of mutating into something close to the kind of astrology we practice today; astrology in those days was simply the practical side of astronomy, and so had no shortage of intellectual respectability. Thus it was easy, even inevitable, for Greek intellectuals to end up thinking of astrological influences as a—or more precisely, the—source of magical power.
For the next two thousand years, that was the answer that mattered. There was, by the way, nothing supernatural about magic at all, in the minds of those who practiced astrological magic: everything in the world of the four elements—yes, that would be the one we inhabit—happens because of influences descending through the planetary spheres from the primum mobile, which was the source of all change and motion and was to be found on the far side of the stars. Magic is just a matter of knowing what those influences are, how they’re affected by the movements and relative positions of the planets, and knowing what substances down here on Earth will absorb and hold any influence you happen to want. Notice that this implies that people don’t have magical power; the universe has the power, and doing magic is purely a matter of knowing how to tap into the power as it flows from heaven to earth.
That makes it sound simple. In point of fact, it became enormously complex as the tradition matured and flourished. There were, broadly speaking, three ways you could tap into the flow. You could simply gather together material substances that naturally stored and radiated an influence you wanted; that was called natural magic. You could fashion an object so that its form and the symbols on it would resonate with the influence you wanted, and make it at the right moment, when that influence was particularly strong and unhindered by contrary forces; that was called mathematical magic (in Roman times, the word mathematicus meant “astrologer”). You could also use ceremonies and incantations to get into contact with the intelligences of the planets, who were vast, cool, but by no means unsympathetic, and would work with you under certain conditions; that was called ceremonial magic.
You could also combine any two of these, or all three of them. What’s more, the planetary intelligences weren’t the only options, not by a long shot. Each sign of the zodiac had its own spiritual influence; so did each of the 28 mansions of the Moon, which were the stations through which the Moon moves night by night against the stars; so, ultimately, did every star in the heavens. All this was based on the same principles as the physics taught at every ancient and medieval institution of learning in the western world; the idea of an opposition between magic and science would have been laughed out of court by everyone at the time. Christian churches objected to magic’s morality, not its scientific basis.
Those same churches had even more strenuous objections to another kind of magic, which was going on in a hole-and-corner fashion at the same time. Remember the Marlon Brando magic of the ancient Greeks? There were versions of that all through ancient Europe, and cutting deals with the underworld stayed an option even when the powers of the underworld were redefined, dressed in red, and made to wear a set of horns surreptitiously borrowed from the great god Pan. Some of what later got defined as witchcraft had its roots in those practices, but they also moved in a different direction, thanks to the Catholic Church’s enthusiastic practice of exorcism.
There were, as the middle ages ripened, manuals of practice for exorcists, teaching them how to command demons to depart by means of the holy names of God. There were also Jewish manuals that had similar material in them, some of which ended up in the hands of the church through various more or less brutal means, and over time, material from those books found its way into the exorcist’s manuals. There was also the Marlon Brando folk magic just mentioned—and in due time, you inevitably got exorcists who decided that, since they could command demons, maybe it would be worth seeing if they could get the demons to do something other than depart.
That’s where the magic of the grimoires came from: a fusion of Christian exorcism, Jewish lore about demons and the names of God, and native medieval folk magic, in which the symbolism of Jewish and Christian faith was put to use extorting favors from the minions of Satan. (The word grimoire, by the way, is an old French version of “grammar;” these were presented as introductory books, or as we’d say now, ABCs of the art of magic.) The writers and users of the grimoires had no doubt where magical power came from; it consisted of what demons could do for you, whether by commanding them using the mighty names of God, or signing one of those friendly little contracts with them—the latter was considered the easier approach, though everyone knew about its eventual drawbacks.
The grimoire tradition might have remained a footnote in the history of magic, except for Nicolaus Copernicus. Even among those who use Copernicus as an icon for the greater glory of science, not many realize just now much of a shock it was when the heliocentric position elbowed the old, elegant Ptolemaic geocentric system out of the way. The disproof of some scientific theory today wouldn’t begin to have the same effect—by this time, most people are used to hearing that this or that theory has been disproved. If astrophysicists announced tomorrow that the Big Bang never happened, there would be some fluttering in intellectual dovecotes, but even among the scientifically literate, most people would read the article, chat about it with colleagues, and go on with their lives.
Imagine instead that something kicks down the foundations of science as a whole—for example, it turns out that the Sun and the planets are actually intelligent beings, as the Greeks thought. Imagine that there are no laws of astrophysics, just whatever the heavenly bodies happen to feel like doing on any given day, and all the other apparent laws of nature are equally extrapolations from what various beings embodied in supposedly inanimate nature happened to be doing when we were watching them. That’s the kind of vertigo-inducing jolt the Copernican revolution imposed on the European world, except in the other direction. Everyone had been used to living in a world full of intelligent, purposive beings; suddenly they were tossed into an unfamiliar universe that was mostly composed of black silent emptiness, and found themselves precariously perched on a lump of rock in the void.
The heliocentric theory of the solar system was a shock to everybody, but it was a body blow to the old astrological magic, since the whole theory of that end of magic depended on the belief that everything that happens on Earth is controlled by what happens in the heavens. Once the Earth was yanked out of its position just above the bottom of creation and exalted to the third heaven, the entire scheme fell apart. Mind you, the magic still worked, and there were people who kept on practicing it straight through the Copernican revolution and out the other side, but the sense of intellectual respectability that had once justified the tradition in the popular imagination went right out the window.
That cleared the way for an explosion of interest in the grimoire tradition. Disbelief in the planetary spheres and their intelligences didn’t require disbelief in God, Satan, and their respective servants—quite the contrary, the absence of the familiar spheres made people cling all the more tightly to the Bible and the teachings of religion. While the location of Heaven was a matter of some perplexity after Copernicus, furthermore, no one doubted that Hell was where it always had been. (Go into a mine—late medieval Europe had no shortage of deep mines—and the further down you go, the hotter it gets; this was considered evidence for the probable location of Beelzebub and his pals.) The invention of movable-type printing also helped feed interest in the grimoires, as printers found they could reliably rake in money hand over fist by churning out manuals of demon-summoning for fun and profit.
Grimoires duly appeared on the shelves of booksellers. Some of them were authentic magical manuals; others were pretty clearly cooked up for sale by enterprising promoters. When the legend of Johann Faust became popular in Germany, for example, boatloads of books hit the stands claiming to be the authentic manual Faust had used to summon up Mephistopheles, and nearly all of them were focused with the exactness of a well-tuned laser on the fantasy of getting rich quickly by metaphysical means—Rhonda Byrne’s heavily marketed opus The Secret is part of a long tradition, though she somehow didn’t get around to telling her readers how to sell their souls to Satan. (I think she assumed they’d just go ahead and donate them without additional encouragement.)
Like The Secret, the published grimoires of the early modern period were a mass market phenomenon. Like most mass market phenomena, they were dismissed by the cognoscenti as vulgar impostures, and to be quite honest, most of them deserved the accolade. Still, their understanding of the nature of magic and the sources of its power became standard in popular culture all through Europe and the European diaspora. From then on until quite recently, magic was by definition the art and science of getting spiritual beings to do things for you.
Not all the beings in question were evil ones. I’ve mentioned here before that there’s been a rich tradition of Christian magic in the western world down through the centuries, and the age of grimoire magic saw no shortage of that. An example that comes to mind is The Long Lost Friend, one of the few very widely used American grimoires. It was written and published in 1840 by Johann Georg Hohmann, a braucher or folk magician of Pennsylvania Dutch (i.e., Pennsylvania Deutsch, a descendant of German immigrants) extraction. It’s a collection of charms, spells, and household hints, just the kind of thing you want if you’re a small town farmer in 1840s Pennsylvania.
The charms and spells in The Long Lost Friend are resolutely Christian, both in symbolism and in intention. What hoodoo doctors call “bad work” does not feature there, nor does any trafficking with devils. The good Christian wizards of 19th century America wrote charms on paper invoking the blessings of Christ and the saints, recited specific Psalms to heal this disease or protect against that evil influence. Where their opposite numbers were taking copies of The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses out to the crossroads at midnight to command the obedience of Mephistopheles—yes, he’s one of the spirits in there—those who followed the counsel of The Long Lost Friend weren’t commanding anybody; like their more conventionally devout neighbors, they were counting on the blessings promised by the Bible to those who love God and pray to him.
Despite the theological and moral differences separating them, these forms of magic had a crucial point in common: they started from the presupposition that human beings didn’t have magical powers. Only spiritual beings, whether good or evil, had such powers, and the only way human beings could arrange for magic to be used on their behalf was to make some kind of arrangement with spiritual beings of one kind or another. That’s still a common belief among many people today, and it was all but universal until the modern era of magic began; we’ll discuss that next month, in the next part of this post.