Tuesday, May 21, 2013

"There is no doubt that the ancient pagan and medieval Christian worlds defined magic quite differently."

A common trope encountered among the crypto-apologist (aka "neodiabolist") faction of modern scholars of historical Witchcraft is that there is nothing special about the Christian demonization of magic, and that this demonization is in no way unique to Christianity, but is rather a nearly universal feature of human societies. In particular it is claimed that the Christian attitude toward Witchcraft is little or no different from attitudes found today in many non-European societies and also little or no different from attitudes about magic found in the ancient Roman world prior to its Christianization.

The definitive presentation of this thinly disguised attempt to exonerate the Christian religion from any direct responsibility for the early modern Witch-hunts is found in Wolfgang Behringer's 2004 book Witches and Witch-Hunts: A Global History. In fact, this revisionist, exculpatory narrative can be considered the main thesis of, and the whole raison d'être, of Behringer's book.

But, and quite obviously so, something out of the ordinary occurred in Europe during the three plus centuries from the Valais Witch-hunts in the early 15th century to the gradual petering out of trials and executions for Witchcraft well into the 18th century. Otherwise why all the fuss? And just as obviously, there are of course very real, qualitative differences between the Pagan and Christian attitudes towards magic. Fortunately, many contemporary scholars are well aware of these basic facts, and are willing to write about them, although they are not so willing to directly challenge Behringer and other crypto-apologists, at least not out in the open.

Below is an excerpt from a paper by Michael D. Bailey of Iowa State University on The Meanings of Magic, in which Bailey takes on, sort on, the specific claim of equivalence between Pagan and Christian attitudes toward magic. I say "sort of" because Bailey appears to have lost his nerve somewhere along the way, and as a result he muddies the waters with prevarications that are directly contradicted by everything else he has to say.

In medieval Christian Europe, for example, authorities regularly defined magic as drawing on demonic power, while religious rites, however similar in form or intended outcome, comprised a wholly separate sphere of action because they were believed to draw on divine force.13 Thus tied to Christian demonology, medieval European conceptions of magic became inextricably linked to Christian concepts of heresy, blasphemy, and idolatry, profoundly affecting the ways in which medieval authorities responded to supposed magical practices.

In classical Greece, on the other hand, what modern scholars might label as either ‘‘religious’’ or ‘‘magical’’ rituals were often conceived as evoking the same sources of power (frequently spiritual entities called daimones). Within this range of powerful and effective practices, mageia referred quite precisely to foreign cultic rites, specifically those of Persian priests or magoi. In its etymological origins, the Western term ‘‘magic’’ was defined first by simple geography. Because the foreignness of mageia carried dark and sinister connotations, the term gradually became extended to include many illicit, covert, or private rites performed by Greeks themselves, but opposed to the publicly approved civic cults of the Greek poleis. Yet mageia in this sense was not simply ‘‘religious’’ ritual transported out of the confines of public cults, for the ancient world knew private cults, particularly familial ones, as well as prophets and priests who operated outside of clear cultic sites. Such people might arouse more suspicion than temple priests, but they were not automatically magoi.

There is no doubt that the ancient pagan and medieval Christian worlds defined magic quite differently. As Christianity rose to dominance in the world of late antiquity, conceptions of magic underwent a profound shift that Valerie Flint has characterized as a ‘‘demonization.’’ Christian thinkers transformed classical daimones, creatures of often ambivalent morality, into demons, fallen angels, and servants of the devil who were inherently evil and inimical to humanity. Yet although classical and Christian culture had very different ways of separating magical operations from proper religion and cultic practices, they each posited such a division, and even described it in some of the same ways. In both pagan antiquity and medieval Christian Europe, the term ‘‘superstition’’ meant excessive or improper devotion or ritual practices. In fact, early Christian authors took the word superstitio directly from late-Roman usage. While to the Romans, Christianity was superstitious, in the Christian context a major element of superstition was the improper performance of rituals in honor of demons. This definition encompassed magic, but also the rites of all pagan cults. While this radical redirecting of superstition highlights the opposition between Christian and pagan culture, it also demonstrates that both pagan and Christian society, despite their very different understandings of magic, were similar in their identification of sharply differentiated spheres of ritual action.

Here is the full citation for Bailey's article:
"The Meanings of Magic", in Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft, Volume 1, Number 1, Summer 2006, pp. 1-23

And here is a link to the full text of the artcle in pdf format:

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