Tuesday, April 29, 2008

What Is Magic?

To add a little fuel to the fire, I present as food for thought the following quotation from Karen Louise Jolly's article "Magic" in Medieval Folklore, a fine two-volume set, now out of print, that I like to bring up from time to time in order to send you all to the confessional for covetousness.

Magic: An alternate mode of rationality, frequently portrayed as deviant because of its divergence from the religious and scientific rationalities; a cluster of practices (ranging from astrology and alchemy, to the use of charms and amulets, to sorcery and necromancy) that all operate on the principle that the natural world contains hidden powers that human beings can possess or tap for practical purposes, both good and evil.

Medieval notions of magic must be seen in the context of the systems of thought and organization that produced the concept and in the context of the intellectual, religious, and social changes from late antiquity to the Renaissance. Because magic is an evolving concept, a wide variety of things believed and practiced between 500 and 1500 could have fallen into the category at one time or another form someone's perspective. In particular, the so-called Twelfth-Century Renaissance altered the intellectual paradigms for understanding knowledge and nature such that magic was defined in new ways, and this created a widening gap between intellectual modes of rationality and popular, or folk, understandings of the natural world.

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The view of the most influential late-antique theologian, St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), became dominant in the medieval West: he condemned magic utterly, but he also believed that the created world contained virtues, or powers, that could be legitimately tapped for good purposes (see his City of God, Books 8-10).

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The Latin term magic was employed by Christian authors to describe a whole range of practices for which there was no single equivalent in the vernacular languages. Witchcraft, sorcery, charms, necromancy, and divination were lumped together with things pagan and demonic as excluded from a Christian worldview. But the belief in hidden virtues, or powers, in the natural world survived--a belief held in common in the classical world, the Christian Church, and the Celtic and Germanic peoples, allowing for certain kinds of assimilation of older within newer beliefs and practices.

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At the crossroads of magic and religion there is the belief in the power of words to effect change in natural objects. This power can be seen in the Christianized Germanic practice of charms, incantations that bring out the effective virtues of an herb, as well as in the Christian liturgy (the Eucharist and exorcisms, for example).

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In the medieval worldview, the ambivalent relationship between magic and science is linked to the radical intellectual changes that began in the twelfth century in the universities of Europe.... Some forms of magic were condemned as demonic, while others were defended as intellectually viable science (natural magic), consistent with the created order.

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This increasingly complex understanding of the natural world through human sense observation and reason in the twelfth through the fifteenth centuries also led to a widening gap between the view of nature held by those who regarded themselves as an intellectual elite and the far more popular view that was still immersed in an animistic view of nature. ...Hence, magic became part of a growing "underworld" of unorthodox practices, such as necromancy, witchcraft, and heresy--all forms of deviance from a norm now asserting itself in greater clarity than ever before.

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Scholars of various eras, from the twelfth to the twentieth centuries, have thus defined magic as unacceptable, but for different reasons. In many ways these definitions illuminate the worldview of their makers more than they do the field of magic. [vol. 2, pp. 611-615]
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