Wednesday, 28 September 2016


THE difficulty of a writer on magic is to treat the subject so as to keep a just mean between that extreme scepticism which would annihilate all religion on the one hand, and that extravagant credulity which would give the most stupid of superstitions on the other.
 Magic includes beliefs and practices based on fact and fancy; religious doctrines and inextricable confusion. It is a world created by priests, poets, philosophers, and people working sometimes together, sometimes independently of, or even in opposition to, one another, to the same end; and is intimately bound up with the intellectual and moral life of every nation and race on the earth, whether savage or civilised.   
 Magic, inclusive of sorcery, is, generally speaking, the science and philosophy of men in a primitive state of culture and civilisation. No race of men exists, and we may go even so far as to say that no race of men ever existed, without some form of magic. Everywhere the purpose sought to be effected by magic may be summed up as health, wealth, and long life. The means used to bring about these ends have a corresponding similarity, and consist generally of methods supposed to be powerful for forcing good or evil spirits to carry out the intentions of the operators. The methods are made up partly of rites and ceremonies by which spirits of an inferior order are subjected to the control of other spirits of a superior order, and partly of the use of natural substances, whose properties (which depend upon supernatural beings) have been discovered by chance.
 In regard to the magic of Western Europe, since the establishment of Christianity, some singular evidence has been forthcoming from the discoveries made on the sites of ancient Nineveh and Babylon by Sir Henry Layard and other explorers, followed by the investigations of scholars of the present day based on those discoveries. A whole literature has been disentombed, and its contents have been partially deciphered. This literature consists of tablets of clay, written on in a cuneiform character, and is made up of treatises on the-ology, magic, astronomy, agriculture, and mathematics, most of it upwards of three thousand years old.
 The magical treatises consist of nothing but Litanies, indicating the rites used for the expulsion of evil demons, and for salvation from their operations. The descriptions given of these evil demons show clearly that they were what we nowadays term diseases, such as fever, plague, leprosy, and whatnot, as also poisons. Diseases were looked upon by the writers of these tablets, as they are to this day by uncivilised people, as evil spirits which took possession of their victims, and it was imagined that by the utterance of proper words, and by using suitable rites, they could be expelled, or prevented from causing mischief, or that good spirits could be brought to operate against them.

 Painful fever, violent fever
 The fever which never leaves a man ;
 Unlimited fever,
 The lingering fever, the malignant fever,
 Spirit of the heaven conjure it !
 Spirit of the Earth conjure it !

 The above is a specimen from a magical treatise of twenty-eight formulæ, given by M. Lenormant in his book on Chaldean Magic. In another of these formulæ, some very well known witchcraft superstitions, as the charming away of a person's life by means of a waxen image, the evil eye, and the chance utterance of a phrase or word of ominous import, are alluded to.

 He who forges images, he who bewitches,
 The malevolent eye, the evil eye,
 The malevolent mouth, the malevolent tongue,
 The malevolent lip, the finest sorcery.
 Spirit of the Heaven conjure it !
 Spirit of the Earth conjure it !

 These superstitions turn up in the most unexpected places, even to-day, to those able to recognise them. Among these remains of ancient lore are found instructions for making amulets and talismans, as also some of the talisman themselves. The amulets and talismans were of various kinds. In general they were figures or images in what were supposed to be the likenesses of the spirits, and were either worn on the person or placed in certain positions to ward off the evil demons.
 The monster winged bulls and lions, found at Nineveh and Babylon, belong to this category. The gods, or good demons, were supposed to remain where their images were set up ; thus those monstrous forms were really, in the eyes of the ancient Assyrians, the spiritual guards.

 Bulls and lions carved in stone,
 Which with their majestic mein
 Deter wicked enemies from approaching
 The guardians of the footsteps, the saviours
 Of the path of the King who constructed them,
 Right and left I placed them at the gates.

Some of the talismans are grotesque figures made up of various animals. The odd reason for making such figures is that the chaldeans held the demons, which they represented, to have been the first of living things which came into existence when the world issued from chaos. The reason for making and rearing such ugly images was still more odd, it being that the demons had only to see them selves as they were to turn away in horror and disgust. A rather singular anticipation of Pope's adage :

Vice is a monster of such hideous mien,
That to be shunned needs only to be seen.

It may be incidentally remarked that the practice of wearing jewellery, especially as finger-rings or necklaces, is really a survival from the ancient practice of carrying about amulets and talismans to protect the persons from the assault of evil demons, and as a continual propitiation of the gods. The belief in the efficacy of talismans is not yet al together extinct, for the present writer, only a short time ago, had shown to him a recently written manuscript, for which the possessor had paid a guinea. This manuscript was a list of talismans, with figures and instructions for making them, selected and apparently from Agrippa's Occult Philosophy and Burrett's Magus. If the efficacy of the talismans depended on the recognition by the spirits of their names, it is to be presumed that they would not be found very effective, as the unwary scribe had made a sad mess by mistaking the Hebrew letters in which the names were written.
According to the best authorities, the old clay treatises on magic found at Nineveh and Babylon are not written in Assyrian, a language allied to Hebrew and Arabic, but in Akkad, a tongue belonging to the family of languages spoken by the Tartar races, such as Laplanders, Samoyedes, Chinese, etc. This fact is very significant, as the greater part of the tribes and nations who speak these languages are inveterate believers in magic and sorcery. Among the tribes which yet remain pagan, the shaman, or wizard, is the religious minister; and even when, like the Chinese, a higher form of thought has taken hold, the ancient Nature-worship, of which magic and sorcery are the expressions, still keeps its ground. Lapland witches, all through the Middle Ages, were reckoned the most powerful, and used to do a somewhat extensive business in selling fair winds to their neighbors and other Scandinavian seamen. Speaking of seamen and their superstitions, a child's caul is still accounted by many an efficacious magical preventive of shipwreck, and such things are still advertised for sale.
The Akkad magical doctrines were considerably modified by the astronomico theology of the Assyrians, who seem to have been the originators of the idea that the planets and signs of the zodiac were ruled by angels. This notion played a greater part in the angelology and demonology of later times. Those curious on this point will find a sufficiently elaborate account in Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy. The doctrines were transmitted to Europe— losing nothing on the way — through the Neo-Platonists and Gnostics of Christianity, they become most influential factors in moulding Christian thought.
Another point in the history of magic must not be overlooked. A large proportion of the religious offices of the Greeks and Romans consisted of augury and soothsaying, and many of the temples, as those of Apollo and Esculapius, were, in their way, hospitals for the cure of the sick. The priests and priestesses of these temples, being largely dependent on voluntary offerings for their support, would have to add to any natural sagacity they might possess as much practical knowledge as they could gather, if they meant to keep up the credit of their gods. So there is every reason for believing that a large amount of practical knowledge — such as weather-wisdom, the properties of drugs, the nature of diseases, and even of the less easily obtained knowledge of some of the principles of action of the physical forces — would be collected, and all this would be carried down through the ages in more or less clear tradition.
After the rise of Christianity some of the Fathers of the Church denounced the Gentile religion as a worship of demons, and, on the forcible suppression of paganism by the successors of Constantine, there happened in such cases. Some parts of the old religions were taken up into the popular theology, and the old worship of the gods was still carried on in secret by the country people, the only difference being that the old gods were degraded into devils, and that the priests were looked upon as wizards and witches.
After the confusion consequent on the breaking up of the Roman Empire, and the settlement of the barbarians within its territories, science emerged as a farrago of Chaldean magical and astrological superstitions, Platonic metaphysics, popular myths, and more or less clearly ascertained natural facts. It was therefore looked upon with extreme suspicion, and scientific enquiry was exceedingly risky to those who followed it. Even Popes like Sylvester the Second were not free from being suspected of unholy arts, in consequence of having scientific tastes. The lot of students of science was at that time not one to be envied. They were often banned by the Church, driven from one hiding-place to an other whilst alive, and after they were dead their characters were libelled. They entered on their studies with fear and trembling : perhaps, even they themselves thought to the eternal peril of their souls. Devotion to science during the Middle Ages was an act of sublime self-renunciation. It was the certain loss of happiness, so far as this world was concerned, and to the majority of contemporaries even of that in the world to come. The student of those days was lucky if some strong-armed magnate took him under protection, and gave him an asylum, as some times was the case. Luther, stowed away for safety in the Castle of Wartburg, by the Elector of Saxony, is not an uncommon type of student-life in the Middle Ages. Not all students of science were so lucky ; some, like Roger Bacon and Campanella, were imprisoned, others like Giordiano Bruno and Vanini, were caught by the Inquisition and burnt. In fact, the usual fate of these pioneers of science, if they were not lucky enough to get powerful patrons, was to be burnt, either as magicians or as atheists— that is, for having too much to do with supernatural beings, or for having too little to do with them. Even if they died a natural death, they were buried like dogs, unless they had made their peace with the Church. This is said to have happened to no less a personage than an Archbishop of York of the eleventh century, by name Girald. It is said of him that he was " a wytch, and evyl doer, as the fame tellyth, for under his pile when he deyde, in an erber was found a boke of curyous craftes, the boke hight Julius Frumous, in that boke be redde pryvely in the under tydes, therefor unnethe the clerkes of his church wold suffre him be buryed under heuene, without hovly church." Julius Frumous is supposed to mean Julius Firmicus, a Latin writer on astronomy. So the poor Archbishop, for trying to improve his mind, was refused Christian burial.
The popular imagination had peopled the woods, the fields, and rivers with a sometimes useful, sometimes mischievous, but always merry crew of elfs, fairies, dwarfs, pixies, brownies, undines, etc., which the lugubrious imaginations of monks and churchmen duly transformed into demon rabble. All nature thus became the seat of sorcery and witch craft. Then, on the introduction of the plague and other epidemic diseases by the Crusaders, the utter collapse of the Crusades, and the advancing conquests of the Saracens and Turks, all society was thrown into a state of panic. And from the twelfth century down wards, came the hideous witch persecutions, the story of which forms one of the most revolting and disgraceful chapters in the history of religion and of the human mind. Those persecutions struck at all classes of society — neither learning, rank, age, nor sex was spared ; but their full force fell on the female sex.
During the long period of time stretching from the twelfth century to the end of the eighteenth, thousands of women, rich and poor, young and old — especially the latter — were submitted to the most frightful tortures that can be imagined or described, and then burnt alive. A large number of these were merely insane, and some were actually put to death because, having picked up a little knowledge during a long and laborious life, they had applied it to alleviating the ailments of their neighbors. In those charges of witch craft nothing seems to have been too absurd —such as worshipping the devil, raising storms, blighting crops, and causing diseases and death to man and beast. These charges were made mostly against crazy old women.
England has the honour of having been less infected with the witch-mania than any other country. How far this is owing to the national obtuseness to religious terrors, or to the fact that the English were too busy fighting for the Red and White Roses, it is difficult to say. The worst periods were during the reign of James the First and during the Puritan fanaticism of the Commonwealth. The last trial for witchcraft took place the same year as the foundation of the Royal Society. The last execution for witchcraft in Germany was carried out at Munich, in 1710, on Maria Renata, a nun, seventy years old. A witch was burnt in Switzerland so late as 1785, and in Spain an execution of this sort occurred later still.
Modern research goes to show that the whole of the witch superstitions were founded on debased reminiscences of ancient paganism, garbled traditions of old scientific knowledge, and the phenomens of idiocy, epilepsy, hysteria, and mania— the latter, in a great degree produced by the unsettled and disturbed state of society at that time, and grievously misunderstood.
In the year 1303, a Bishop of Coventry was accused at Rome of a series of crimes, and amongst others that he had done homage to the Evil One. It was one of the chief charges against the Knights Templar that they had renounced God and Christ, and taken to worshipping a he-goat and a black tom-cat. This he-goat is evidently no other than the ancient country god Pan — whom the shepherds used to hear with his pipe, haunting the reedy banks of the river or the woodland thicket— but degraded to be the arch enemy of man-kind, and set out with all the qualities which a depraved imagination could conceive. The prominence which the cat takes in the witch trials is easily explainable. The cat was the emblem of Isis, or the Moon ; and she is identifiable as Diana, who, as Hecate, is goddess of the subterranean or infernal world, and queen of the dead. The witches, again, are said to have held great festivals when they did homage to Satan, feasting and dancing, to the notes of a fiddle made of a boree's head, or of a pipe consisting of a cat's tail. These high festivals occurred at such places as the Brocken, in Germany, which in olden times were chief seats of the old heathen worship. They were said to have been celebrated on Friday— the day dedicated to the Norse goddess Freya or Venus. It is singular how the moon and the planet Venus are mixed up in the old mythologies. It can only by accounted for from the influence of astrological theories. Cyprus, for instance, our most recent acquisition in the Mediterranean, was anciently a chief seat of the worship of Venus. Astrologers say that the island is "ruled " by Taurus. Now the sign Taurus is, according to them, the "house" of Venus and the "exaltation" of the Moon. Then, again, women were mostly guilty of sorcery and with dealings with unholy beings. This is merely a reminiscence of times when, among the northern nations, women were the chief soothsayers, physicians and prophetesses. The witch inquisitors laid down the reason in these way. They said it was because of women being given to squabbling and being stiff necked, for Eve was made from Adam's crooked rib, and because in Eve there was want of faith ; femina — woman — being derived from fe, faith, and minus, less.
 The composition of the witch potions and ointments of toxicant herbs, like hemlock, henbane, belladonna, and the poppy, points to the true nature of the delusions when artificially produced.
At the beginning of the seventeenth century a few enlightened men made bold to attack the superstition of the times, but with no small danger to themselves. Among them may be mentioned Reginald Scott, in England, whose book was replied to by James the First ; Wier, physician of the Duke of Cleves ; and two Jesuits, Adam Tanner and Frederick Spee. But the most efficient instrument in suppressing the old superstitions of magic and witchcraft has been the progress of experimental science, and the diffusion of knowledge through the medium of the press. The miracles ascribed to the old wizards and witches have been thrown into the shade by the common practical applications of science at the present day. In spite of the strange paths into which the search for knowledge has led, the aim has always been the same— namely, to give men power over the forces of Nature, with the aid of gods and demons if possible, in spite of them if need be. When we look upon the patient, untiring throb of the steam-engine, driving crowds of looms and spindles, at the snorting locomotive, or at the telegraph and telephone, almost annihilating space distinctions, we see the speculations of the old magicians as matter-of-fact reality.
The practical scientific man of the present day is the exact analogue of the ancient magician, just as our dynomitards and others who use knowledge for purposes of mischief are the modern analogues of the old sorcerers and witches. The very existence of two-thirds of our population is dependent of the fact that the elemental forces of Nature have been reduced by human knowledge to become the servants of human will.

Shoalhaven Telegraph (NSW : 1881 - 1937), Wednesday 7 July 1886, page 2

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