Saturday, November 23, 2013

"Inextricably Interwoven": Christianity, Modernity, and Racism

This post consists of a few excerpts from works by modern scholars on the nature of racism. These excerpts highlight two important features of racism: its modern origins and it's close association with the Christian religion.

The first excerpt is from George M. Fredrickson's 2002 Racism: A Short History. Fredrickson, who died in 2008, was one of the leading modern American scholars on the subjects of race and racism. He was a professor of history at Stanford, a Navy veteran, a Fulbright scholar, and a past president of the the Organization of American Historians. Here are obituaries of Fredrickson from the New York Times, the Stanford Report, and the professional journal Perspectives on History.

This is from Chapter One of Fredrickson's Racism: A Short History
It is the dominant view among scholars who have studied conceptions of difference in the ancient world that no concept truly equivalent to that of "race" can be detected in the thoughts of the Greeks, Romans, and early Christians. The Greeks distinguished between the civilized and the barbarous, but these categories do not seem to have been regarded as hereditary. One was civilized if one was fortunate enough to live in a city-state and participate in political life, barbarous if one lived rustically under some form of despotic rule. The Romans had slaves representing all colors and nationalities found on the frontiers of their empire and citizens of corresponding diversity from among those who were free and proffered their allegiance to the republic or the emperor. After extensive research, the classical scholar Frank Snowden could find no evidence that dark skin color served as the basis of invidious distinctions anywhere in the ancient world. The early Christians, for example, celebrated the conversion of Africans as evidence for their faith the spiritual equality of all human beings.

It would of course be stretching a point to claim that there was no ethnic prejudice in antiquity. The refusal of dispersed Jews to accept the religious and cultural hegemony of the gentile nations or empires within which they resided sometimes aroused hostility against them. But abandoning their ethnoreligious exceptionalism and worshipping the local divinities (or accepting Christianity once it had been established) was an option open to them that would have eliminated most of the Otherness that made them unpopular. Jews created a special problem for Christians because of the latter's belief that the New Testament superseded the Old, and that the refusal of the Jews to recognize Christ as the Messiah was preventing the triumph of the gospel. Anti-Judaism was endemic to Christianity from the beginning, but since the founders of their religion were themselves Jews, it would have been difficult for early Christians to claim that there was something inherently defective about Jewish blood and ancestry.
[pp. 17-18]
Michael Yudel, A Short History of the Race Concept
Historian Frank Snowden, looking at black-white contact before the sixth century A.D. found that although there is an "association of blackness with ill omens, demons, the devil, and sin, there is in the extant record no stereotyped image of Ethiopians as the personification of demons or the devil."3 In ancient Greece and Rome "the major divisions between people were more clearly understood as being between the civic and the barbarous," between the political citizen and those outside of the polis, and not between bloodlines or skin color.4 Most scholars now accept the viewpoint that in the ancient world "no concept truly equivalent to that of 'race' can be detected in the thought of the Greeks, Romans, and early Christians."5 Rooting human variation in blood or in kinship was a relatively new way to categorize humans. The idea gained strength towards the end of the Middle Ages as anti-Jewish feelings, which were rooted in an antagonism towards Jewish religious beliefs, began to evolve into anti-Semitism. These blood kinship beliefs rationalized anti-Jewish hatred instead as the hatred of a people. For example, Marranos, Spanish Jews who had been baptized, were considered a threat to Christendom by virtue of their ancestry because they could not prove purity of blood to the Inquisition.

Beginning in the eighteenth century, at the height of the Age of Enlightenment in Europe, these ideas were applied to explaining the diversity of humankind. This was driven in part by the experiences with new peoples during colonial exploration, the need to rationalize the inferiority of certain peoples as slavery took hold in European colonies, and the development of a new science to assess and explain diversity in all species. The Swedish botanist and naturalist Carolus Linnaeus also made lasting contributions to the race concept at this time. Linnaeus's "natural system," which became the basis for the classification of all species, divided humanity into four groups: Americanus, Asiaticus, Africanus, and Europeaeus. But while the term race existed before the 18th century, mostly to describe domesticated animals, it was introduced into the sciences by the French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon in 1749. Buffon saw clearly demarcated distinctions between the human races that were caused by varying climates. Buffon's climatological theory of difference was infused with notions of European superiority. To Buffon, the natural state of humanity was derived from the European, a people he believed "produced the most handsome and beautiful men" and represented the "genuine color of mankind."

The Swedish botanist and naturalist Carolus Linnaeus also made lasting contributions to the race concept at this time. Linnaeus's "natural system," which became the basis for the classification of all species, divided humanity into four groups: Americanus, Asiaticus, Africanus, and Europeaeus.

If racial science is science employed for the purpose of degrading a people both intellectually and physically, then beginning in the 19th century, American scientists played an increasingly active role in its development. Scientists like Samuel Morton, Josiah Nott, and George Gliddon offered a variety of explanations for the nature of white racial superiority meant to address the nature of physical and intellectual differences between races, the "natural" positions of racial groups in American society, and the capacity for citizenship of non-whites.

At the core of this work, known as the American School of Anthropology, was the theory of polygeny, the belief that a hierarchy of human races had separate creations. Samuel Morton's experiments oFgoldsn cranial capacity and intelligence sought to demonstrate this theory. Morton collected hundreds of skulls from around the globe, measured their volume, and concluded that the Caucasian and Mongolian races had the highest cranial capacity and thus the highest levels of intelligence, while Africans had the lowest cranial capacity and thus the lowest levels of intelligence.

More than a century after Morton's death, the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, using Morton's same experimental material and methods, could not replicate the earlier findings. Gould concluded that Morton's subjective ideas about race difference influenced his methods and conclusions, leading to the omission of contradictory data and to the conscious or unconscious stuffing or under-filling of certain skulls to match his pre-ordained conclusions.6 Indeed, the case of Samuel Morton illustrates how social conceptions of human difference shape the science of race.

3. Frank M. Snowden, Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983) p.107.
4. Ivan Hannaford, Race: The History of an Idea in the West (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1996) pp.14, 17-60.
5. George M. Fredrickson, Racism: A Short History. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002) p.17
6. Stephen J. Gould, Mismeasure of Man (New York: Norton, 1996), p. 70.

Henry Goldschmidt, Introduction to Race, Nation, and Religion in the Americas,:
[I]n the United States and throughout the Americas, from the fifteenth century through the twenty-first -- religion has been inextricably woven into both racial and national identities, to such an extent that "race," "nation," and "religion" have each defined the others. These seemingly distinct discourses of difference have at times borrowed and at times contested each other's rhetorical authority, reinforcing and undercutting each other's social hierarchies, mixing and mingling in unresolved dialectics irreducible to any one term. If we fail to appreciate the relationships among these categories of collective identity, we will be unable to grasp the contours of our own histories -- that of the United States, and those of the Americas more broadly.
[ p. 5]
Daniel B. Lee, A Great Racial Commission: Religion and the Construction of White America:
For the development of an enduring racial self-description, the late nineteenth century was a particularly innovative period for White people in America. The decade after the Civil War significantly changed the racial and religious landscape of the country. For the first time, Native Americans, emancipated Blacks, and new immigrants from all over the world challenged the cultural hegemony of Anglo-Saxon Christians with their undeniable presence. In the midst of an increasingly diverse population, many White Americans turned to religion as a source of racial and national unity . . . .

My analysis ... begins with the theoretical assumption that there is no natural way to be White, act White, or communicate as a White person. There is no a priori metaphysical bond or primordial solidarity between Whites or between the people of any other racial or religious group. White society first emerges when people communicate about sharing "Whiteness." Communities of people construct themselves and their others as they communicate. A society, such as Whites exchanging race talk, for itself and its environment in an entirely self-referential, autological manner.
[Lee's paper appears in Race, Religion, and Identity Formation in the Americas. Edited by Henry Goldschmidt and Elizabeth McAlister. Cambridge: Oxford University Press. pp. 85-110]

Friday, November 22, 2013

Contra Behringer: "Wise Women" and "Witches" Before "Romanticism"

In his book Witches and Witch-Hunts: A Global History, Wolfgang Behringer claims that "Only a few decades" after the last Witch execution in Europe (ca. 1782) "a completely new, post-rationalist interpretation turned up, inspired by Romanticism. Witches were reinterpreted as personifications of popular culture, or even of popular resistance, emphasizing the important role of women. Jacob Grimm (1785-1863), the godfather of language and folklore studies, redefined witches as wise women, bearers of ancient wisdom." [emphases added]

As noted, I have taken the liberty of adding bold emphases to Behringer's words. I have done this in order to draw the reader's attention to the amount of verbal effort expended by Behringer as he obsessively endeavors to crudely beat into the reader's head the false impression that there was something "completely new" about the idea of Witches as "wise women" and "bearers of ancient wisdom."

The problem for Herr Doktor Professor Behringer is that Witches were already referred to as "wise women" for many centuries before Anna Göldi was led out to a public square and beheaded in Switzerland in the year 1782, and even longer before Jacob Grimm published his groundbreaking studies (Grimm hadn't even been born when Göldi was executed).

Behringer's claim is quite clear: Witches were absolutely not thought of, or referred to, as "wise women", nor were they associated with "ancient wisdom", any time before the early 19th century (or, possibly, at the very earliest, the very end of the 18th). Moreover, when Witches were referred to in this way during the 19th century, this was emphatically something "completely new", a radical and discontinuous break with past practices.

Below are several instances that definitively prove Behringer wrong. In each case Witches are either referred to explicitly as "wise woman", or they are explicitly associated with "ancient wisdom".

The two earliest references cited below are dated four centuries before Anna Göldi's execution, and the latest one is dated 76 years before the appearance of Jacob Grimm's first published work. This is just a sample. Many more examples can be found here: Beneficent Witchcraft: One Hundred And Seven Sources.

Wycliffe Bible, 1385
"But there was a man in that citee, whos name was Symount, a witche, that hadde disseyued the folc of Samarie, seiynge, that him silf was sum greet man."

John Trevisa (transl.), 1387, Polychronicon Ranulphi Higden Monachi Cestrensis 
"In þat ilond is sortilege [L sortilegia] and wicchecraft i-vsed. For wommen þere selliþ schipmen wynde, as it were i-closed vnder þre knottes of þrede, so þat þe more wynd he wol haue, he wil vnknette þe mo knottes."

Tyndale Bible, 1526
"And ther was a certayne man called Simon which before tyme in the same cite vsed witche crafte and bewitched the people of Samarie sayinge that he was a man yt coulde do greate thinge."

Holinshed Chronicle, 1527
"But howsoeuer this matter standeth, and whether anie such thing was done at all or not, sure it is that the peo|ple of the said Ile were much giuen to witchcraft and sorcerie (which they learned of the Scots a nation great|lie bent to that horible practise) in somuch that their women would oftentimes sell wind to the mariners, inclosed vnder certeine knots of thred, with this in|iunction, that they which bought the same, should for a great gale vndoo manie, and for the lesse a fewer or smaller number."

Reginald Scot, 1584, Discoverie of Witchcraft
"And at this daie it is indifferent to saie in the English tong; She is a witch; or, She is a wise woman."

G. Gyfford, 1587, A Discourse of the subtill Practises of Devills by Witches and Sorcerers
"many in great distresse have bin releeved and recovered by sending unto such wise men or wise women, when they could not tel what should els become of them, and of all that they had. Shall not men take helpe where they can find it: Why do men go unto Phisicions: Let it be graunted that men finde helpe by Witches."

Henry Holland, 1590,  A Treatise Against Witchcraft
"Most men are wont to seek after these wise men and cunning women, such as they call witches, in sickness, in losses and in all extremities."

William Shakespeare, ca. 1600, The Merry Wives of Windsor
"... let's go dress him [Falstaff] as the witch of Brentford .... "
" ... was't not the wise woman of Brentford?"

Edward Phillips, 1656, The New World of English Words, or, a General Dictionary
"PYTHONESS: a Woman posses'd with a Familiar, or Prophecying Spirit, a Sorceress, or Witch."

Joseph Glanvill, 1667, Sadducismus Triumphatus
"The word Witch signifies originally  a Wise Man, or rather a Wise Woman. The same doth Saga in Latin, and plainly so doth Wizard in English signify a Wise Man, and they are vulgarly called cunning Men or Women."

Samuel Collins, 1671, The Present State of Russia
"These people are much devoted to Witch-craft, and count it an extraordinary piece of learning practiced by the chief Women in the Countrey."

Joseph Addison, 1712, Sir Roger de Coverly and the Gypsies 
"Sir Roger has brought down a cunning man with him, to cure the old woman, and free the country from her charms. So that the character which I go under in part of the neighbourhood, is what they here call a 'white witch'."

London Magazine, or Gentleman's Monthly Intelligencer, December, 1735, Some Account of Merlin and the Figures that attend him, in the new erected Cave at Richmond
"This Britomartis or Britannia is led by a lean elderly Lady whom some stile Glauce, mention'd by Spencer; others Melissa, from Ariosto; and others Mother Shipton, famous in British Story, but her Character and Office are better known, being allowed by all to be a sort of a Witch or Cunning-Woman, and something between Dry-Nurse and Governess to Britomartis, employed by Merlin in the blackest of his Art, viz. as his Priestess or Pope Joan. She is likewise a great Pretender to Science, and Diver into Mysteries."

Thursday, November 21, 2013

On the Christian Demonization of Magic

Preamble: Christian versus Pagan views of Magic

A while back ("There is no doubt that the ancient pagan and medieval Christian worlds defined magic quite differently") I highlighted a few passages from a paper by the historian Michael D. Bailey arguing that Christians and Pagans have very different conceptions of magic, and, more specifically, that the "triumph" of Christianity in the Roman world was accompanied by an aggressive Christian campaign to demonize magic generally (that is, magic qua magic).

I also explained in that post, very briefly, that this sharp distinction between Christian and Pagan approaches to magic is important to bear in mind because, despite being immediately obvious to any objective student of the history of magic, this radical and complete discontinuity between Pagan and Christian views of magic is brazenly and systematically obscured and even assertively denied by certain modern revisionist historians, many of whom are numbered among the most prominent scholars in the field of historical Witchcraft studies. And the motivation for this revisionism, often stated quite explicitly by these researchers, could not be more plain: for these historians are engaged in an ideological campaign to exonerate the Christian religion from any blame for the period of ferocious religious persecution known as the Burning Times, or, less dramatically, as the early modern Witch-hunts.

From the beginning, the Christian conception of magic has always been completly incoherent, not unlike the rest of Christian "theology". This inescapable incoherence derives from the fact that the whole Christian approach to magic is based on a capricious bifurcation of magic into those kinds of magic that are approved by the Christians and those that are condemned by them. Moreover, all officially approved magic is arbitrarily relabeled as something other than "magic". When healing, transfiguration, divination, exorcism,etc. are performed by Jebus and his followers, these are not magical acts, but rather "miracles" attributed to the Holy Spirit, angels and saints. But when precisely the same acts are accomplished by non-Christians (including, most especially, "heretics", who by definition are not considered Christians at all, but rather the most dangerous of all the enemies of Christianity), they are ("magically", one is tempted to say) transformed into "magic", which in the Christian sense of the term is something intrinsically evil, harmful and literally demonic.

In the article reprinted below (and, at least for now, freely available in full at the History Today website, link), P. G. Maxwell-Stuart explains how "triumphant" Christianity sought to establish a regime of thought-control over the minds of the 60 million inhabitants of the Roman world (notice, however, the delicacy of Maxwell-Stuart's phrasing: "As Christianity began to make an impact on the Roman world ...."). Basically, the word "magic" undergoes the same semantic perversion at the hands of the Christians as that meted out by them to the word "daemon".

Christians took Magic, a natural phenomenon that is governed by a set of interrelated over-arching principles, and obnoxiously asserted that some of this henceforth belonged exclusively to them, and that it is not magic at all, but rather the activity of their "Holy Spirit", while all the rest, arbitrarily demarcated by them according to the infantile whims of their "theology", was attributed to the Devil.

See also:
  • "The contemporary historical debate, 1400-1800", in The Historiography of Witchcraft, edited by Barry and Davies (Manchester University Press 2007)
  • Witchcraft: A History by Maxwell-Stuart (Tempus, 2000)
  • "Performing magic in the ancient world" in O. Davies (ed.), Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft and Magic (OUP, forthcoming)

[Below is an article by P.G. Maxwell-Stuart looking at the Christian view of Magic generally, and Witchcraft in particular. As mentioned above, the article was published in 2000, and the full text is available online at website of History Today (link). I am reprinting here in full both for my own convenience (to make it easy to refer back to) and also because I have learned, the hard way, that just because something exists today on teh interwebs is no guarantee that it will still be there tomorrow!

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The Emergence of the Christian Witch

P.G. Maxwell-Stuart examines the impact of early Christianity on notions of magic and definitions of witchcraft.

As Christianity began to make an impact on the Roman world, the new religion faced two major struggles. On the one hand, it faced a series of deviations from orthodox theology, in the form of heresies principally concerned with the exact nature of Jesus and his relation to God the Father. Second came the challenge of magic. Magical practitioners were ubiquitous in the pagan world, and their stock in trade consisted of claims to exercise powers beyond the merely natural or human.
Prospective converts looked to Christian priests and monks to work magic more effectively than their pagan equivalents, and this remained a requirement as long as there were sizeable areas of Europe to be converted, that is, until at least the twelfth century. Saints played a major role in this preternatural activity. They worked wonders, cured the sick, expelled evil spirits and, when death took them, their relics continued the good work. Hence, amulets of all kinds, re-cast in Christian guise, pursued the miraculous or magical ends once sought purely by pagan magic.

Yet when non-Christians realised that Jesus himself was credited with miraculous cures and exorcisms, and that the new Church was offering rituals, such as baptism and the Eucharist, which purported to protect its converts by driving away evil spirits, and to change bread and wine into the body and blood of the new god, they maintained that Jesus himself had been a magician, a wonder-worker of a familiar type, and that what his Church called ‘sacraments’ were no different from rites of magic.

This posed a problem for the Church. Christian missionaries could draw on pagan willingness to accept the possibility of the miraculous more or less without reservation, and hence belief in Christ’s resurrection and the efficacy of the sacraments; but they also had to explain why the miracles of Christ himself, or those of the Apostles or later saints were genuine, whereas those of pagan magicians such as the first-century AD Simon Magus or his contemporary, Apollonius of Tyre, were fraudulent.

As well as being accommodated by the Christians, magic was also re-interpreted in the light of the new religion’s developing theology. Crucial to this re-interpretation were the figures of Satan and the daimones, spirits conceived as intermediaries between the spiritual and material worlds of paganism. Daimones became evil spirits and in that guise were associated with every branch of magic because of the supposed pact between them and human beings. The Christian perception of creation itself underwent a change as everything took on a Manichaean aspect: God was mirrored by Satan, (even though Satan was always acknowledged, at least in theory, to be weaker and not divine); creation became a battle-ground between good and evil, with humans allowed, by free will, to choose which side they would fight upon; and angels were divided into ranks and had their counterparts in Hell.
Sources of malicious preternatural power, such as the evil eye, continued to exercise potent sway over people’s belief and imagination, although now they could be countered by rites and symbols made Christian, while those who inflicted the effects of the evil eye and malicious magical intention upon their neighbours were likely to be seen as adherents of Satan, and therefore idolaters and apostates from the Christian faith.

As a result, the early Christian state came to treat magicians of any kind and their clients as potential troublemakers or even enemies. The collection of edicts known as the Theodosian Code (AD 428), which contained legal pronunciamenti from more or less the whole of the fourth century, forbade consultation of magicians or diviners, regarded necromancy as highly dangerous, since it sought to foretell the future by raising and communicating with the dead, and imposed the death penalty on practitioners of magic. Those who confessed to working harmful or poisonous magic (maleficium and veneficium), or had been found guilty thereof by due process of law, were not allowed to appeal against their sentences and their families were liable to lose any possible inheritance; nor were convicted defendants able to benefit from any Imperial pardons issued in honour of Easter or to celebrate a birth in the Imperial family. Indeed, being a worker of harmful magic was considered sufficient cause for awoman to sue her husband for divorce, as though he were a murderer or a violator of graves, and some of the edicts went as far as to describe magic in medical terms, as a pollution which contaminates those who come into contact with it.

The state, being the state, consistently attached the death penalty to such practices as these. The Church, however, did not. Its condemnations were just as consistent and just as vehement, but it felt unable, whatever the provocation, to inflict the ultimate penalty. Eager to cure rather than punish what was perceived as spiritual illness, the Church tended to administer, in a spirit of stern rebuke tempered by maternal concern, spiritual remedies in the form of prescribed fasting and prayer. From a plethora of church councils between the fourth and eighth centuries, we can derive a picture of the range of magical activities attracted the wrath of the Christian Church. Women were forbidden to keep watch in cemeteries, presumably for fear that they might rifle the graves or invoke the ghosts of the dead; people were not to call angels by names not to be found in Scripture, a prohibition clearly aimed at the long-standing habit of including Hebrew and Egyptian names in magical invocations; while excessive devotion to certain legitimate angels, such as Michael, was also forbidden, presumably on the grounds that this might be mistaken for something akin to pagan worship.

'Witches’, magicians, diviners and the other practitioners of the occult sciences did not exist on the margins of society in late antiquity; nor were they confined to a particular group by virtue of their age, sex, or education. Anyone at all, cleric or layman, might practise magic in some form at one time or another. We should also avoid drawing strict boundaries between magic, religion and the natural sciences. Parents with a sick child, for example, might offer prayers for its recovery, turning to the priest for exorcism if the illness were of a kind which warranted that assistance, and seeking the help of an apothecary or amateur herbalist for infusions or poultices whose ingredients might or might not be gathered in accordance with astrological calculations, and put together and administered to the accompaniment of prayers or magical formulae or both. Magic was not an exotic recourse to which people turned when religion or ‘science’ in the form of medicine had failed or seemed to fail them. It was a valid alternative way of seeking to exercise power, or tap into the hidden forces of creation, for personal benefit, even if the official line of both church and state declared that magic was a dubious activity best left alone. In practice, even those very officials might ignore their own prohibitions and behave as everyone else. No one questioned the possible reality of at least some of the effects of magic. Yet it was the danger to the soul and body inherent in that reality that caused the church and state to fear the effects of magic; hence their condemnations, decrees and punishments against it.

In the world of late antiquity or the early Middle Ages, it is impossible to define someone as a witch (as opposed, for example, to an amateur herbalist, a heretic or a scold), and none of the legislation of the time attempted to do so. Offenders were designated offenders by virtue of their performing various actions or wearing certain objects declared by the legislation to be condemned or forbidden. For all practical purposes, the ‘witch’ had not yet been invented. There were only practitioners of various kinds of magic, both male and female, who might belong to any rank of ecclesiastical or lay society, and whose actions might, or might not, bring them within the compass of canon or secular law, depending on external factors which were usually local but could, from time to time, be more general.

Perhaps the most important factor to influence ecclesiastical and state authority in relation to magic was the ever-present problem of heresy. Deviation from doctrinal orthodoxy had been fought by the Church ever since the earliest years of its establishment, and it was therefore inevitable that it would take a dim view of any manifestations of magic which it did not itself approve or control. Thus, for example, Christian prayers offered with a view to affecting the weather were approved; pagan prayers and rituals offered to achieve the same were not. As a result magic and heresy were almost bound to be perceived as two sides of the same coin.

The consequences of this were significant. The more closely the two were associated, the more likely it was that official perceptions of magic would resemble official perceptions of heresy. Paganism and magic would come to be seen, not as hitherto a loose diversity of questionable activities which depraved or foolish individuals persisted in doing for their own selfish ends, but more an organised movement with its own quasi-theology and liturgy, a distorted mirror of the true faith and the true Church, one with its own god, its own angels, its own ‘miracles’, and its own worshippers. Once perceived in this way, the impulse to uproot heresy, as it was later to come to be uprooted with the help of the secular authorities doing their pious duty, became potentially very strong. Thus, in 1437, Pope Eugenius IV issued a bull addressed to all inquisitors, deploring the fact that so many people were practising various forms of magic, worshipping evil spirits, and making pacts with them. Inconsequence of this, he said, these people were to be arrested, brought before inquisitorial tribunals and, with the assistance of the local bishops, tried in accordance with canon law, after which they were to be punished. If necessary, the Pope added, the secular authorities should be called on to render their assistance.

By the later Middle Ages Christian teaching on daimones had become a key element in explaining how witches were able to operate and why God allowed them to do so. Alfonso de Spina (died 1469), writing in Latin but recording some Spanish terms for spirits and witches, noted some of their names and types.

Just as good angels and blessed souls are divided into nine ranks, so evil spirits fell from these nine into another nine categories, and damned souls along with them. Those evil spirits who belonged to the higher grades of the [heavenly] hierarchy became correspondingly worse and more inferior in that part of the meridian whose ruler the Psalmist has called ‘the destruction that wastes at noonday’. But there are popular names for many of these spirits and their various grades. Some are called fates, others (in Spanish) duende, others incubi and succubi. Some of them cause wars; others eat and drink with human beings and appear in their dreams. Some are said to be generated from the smell given off by a man and a woman during sexual intercourse, or from planetary rays. Some are hermaphrodites; some are clean and others filthy. Some deceive men and women who are called jorguinas or brujas in Spanish. Many people claim to have seen spirits of this type and stick to the truth of their assertion.
The significance of this for witches is plain. The daimones, in pre-Christian times neutral or even benign figures, had gradually been re-interpreted as evil spirits who mirrored in their organisation and graded powers the angelic hierarchy. By their fall from Heaven through the increasingly inferior stages into which the material world was divided, they arrived in the sublunary, elemental region, where they degenerated and suffered the same imperfections as humankind, though to a lesser degree and without the same limitations. They became associated with the practice of magic in any form, and the conception of magic was so tainted by this association that it became virtually impossible for Christian theologians to dissociate the practice of magic from traffic with evil spirits; when de Spina discussed jorguinas and brujas (different words for ‘witch’), he used a verb illudere capable of more than one meaning. The spirits, he said, ‘deceive’ them in the sense of ‘playing with’ them or ‘making fools of’ them, as well as ‘using them for sexual pleasure’. His is thus a complex description of a sinister relationship.

The notion of a pact between human beings and daimones became deep-seated, and in consequence any act of magic was liable to be interpreted as the effect of a diabolical alliance between an evil spirit and the human operator. Moreover, as the Middle Ages proceeded, the habit of blaming evil spirits for any kind of misfortune grew. God might be all-powerful and all-merciful, but he was prepared to permit Satan and his evil spirits to punish people’s sins or to test their faith, as the biblical case of Job demonstrated. The serried ranks of angels and evil spirits became opposing armies in a continual war between good and evil; it could therefore be argued that any human being who practised magic was liable to be doing so with the help of Satan and thus to be an enemy of God.
The situation was summed up by the fifteenth-century theologian, Pedro Ciruelo:
Anyone who maintains a pact or treaty of friendship with the Devil commits a very grave sin because he is breaking the first commandment and is sinning against God, committing the crime of treason or lèse majesté. His action is also contrary to the religious vow he made when he was baptised. He becomes an apostate from Christ, and an idolater who renders service to the enemy of God, the Devil.
Matters had now begun to reach the stage where the image of what is now seen as the typical early modern witch of the Sabbat could begin to emerge, although the grounds for the details of her behaviour had been laid a long time before the fifteenth century. In c.1115, for example, Guibert de Nogent recorded in his autobiography Monodiae (Solitary Songs) details of the behaviour of certain heretics from Soissons. They would meet, he said, in underground chambers where they would light candles and then, coming up behind a woman who was lying on her stomach with her naked buttocks on view for everyone to see, they would ‘present the candles to her’ (by which Guibert probably meant they inserted them briefly into her anus). After these ritual acts, the candles were extinguished, everyone shouted ‘Chaos!’ and indiscriminate sexual intercourse took place. Any baby which might result from this copulation was then brought to another meeting and thrown from one person to another throughthe flames of a large fire until the child was dead, after which its body was reduced to ashes, made into bread, and eaten as a kind of blasphemous sacrament.

These details were by no means unique, and similar tales had long been told of all kinds of heretics and, in the early days, of Christians themselves. Yet they were adapted with only certain changes to give the picture of witches’ Sabbats, which rapidly became the norm. By the beginning of the fifteenth century, for example, the heretical sect known as ‘Waldensians’ or ‘Vaudois’ had become identified with sorcerers and witches, and Vauderie and Vaudoiserie were used as synonyms of ‘sorcery’ or ‘witchcraft’; the amalgamation of the notion of heresy with the notion of magic was now complete and with magic, it seems, as a whole, although the emphasis did tend to be upon its maleficent operations.

But if the Sabbat itself could be related to anti-heretic propaganda, the witches’ flight thither had other, folkloric roots. A description of something similar is to be found in the Canon Episcopi, a piece of canon law dating from c.906.
Certain wicked women turn themselves round to face the other way behind Satan and, led astray by hallucinations and figments of their imaginations created by evil spirits, believe and maintain that during the hours of night they ride upon certain beasts along with Diana (a goddess of the pagans), or with Herodias and an innumerable host of women, traversing many areas of the earth in the silent dead of night; that they obey her commands as though she were their mistress, and that on specific nights they are called to her service.
Perhaps the most notable aspect of records concerning the flight is the degree of scepticism which attended them. The Canon Episcopi itself calls such stories hallucinations and figments of the imagination. Burchard of Worms, in the early eleventh century, condemned these and other claims to magical ability, and prescribed a penance of forty days on bread and water for seven consecutive years for anyone admitting to believe in them; while in the twelfth century John of Salisbury, in a passage devoted to dreams and visions, declared that there were some people, driven by their sins and the free rein they gave to their wickedness, who were allowed by God to come to such a pitch of madness that they believed (in the most wretched and lying manner) that something they were experiencing in spirit was actually happening to them bodily. He gives as an example attendance at a Sabbat in the train of the pagan goddess Herodias. The Dominican Jordanes of Bergamo introduced medical explanations into the discussion and in c.1460 gave it as his opinion that evil spirits worked upon the witch’s humours, stirring them up so that they ascended to the brain and there created all kinds of imaginings, which caused the witch to believe that he or she had the power to work magic, be transported from place to place, and attend the Sabbat to worship the Devil.

Despite these doubts, however, the story of witches’ flights had a certain allure. Thus in the mid-thirteenth century Thomas of Cantimpré recounted the anecdote of a nobly-born girl who, at the same hour each night, was carried away bodily by evil spirits, and although her brother, a monk, did his best to prevent this from happening by grasping her firmly in his arms, as soon as the hour arrived she disappeared. In the early fifteenth century, Johannes Nider, whose Formicarius is an important repository of key ideas in the development of the theory of witches’ behaviour, was told about the experience of a fellow-Dominican who arrived at a village to be confronted by a woman who claimed that at night she flew with Diana; and although neither Nider nor his informant believed her story, the fact of its being told is enough to indicate that belief in such flight was common. Then in c.1440 Martin le Franc, secretary to the anti-Pope Felix V, wrote a long poem, Champion des Dames, in which two speakers exchanged views on witches and their wicked practices. One of them described women going to the Sabbat on foot or on sticks, ‘flying through the air like birds’, and the manuscript illustrated the point with two marginal miniatures showing one woman astride a besom and the other riding a long, stout staff. Significantly, they flew under the heading ‘Vaudoises’.

By the second half of the fifteenth century, then, there had come into existence a notion of the witch which was not completely at variance with earlier conceptions and models of the magical operator, but which tended to concentrate on certain newly developed ‘theatrical’ (as opposed to everyday magical) aspects of her behaviour. In much of the literature which was beginning to specialise in these aspects, the witch now seems to have been visualised more or less as distinctively female. What is more, her activities were described as those of a person who was less a depraved individual and more a willing member or adherent of an organised anti-Christian sect of Devil-worshippers whose aim was to help Satan corrupt the society of the faithful and thereby swell the ranks of the damned in Hell.

P.G. Maxwell-Stuart is honorary lecturer at St Andrews University. His new book Witchcraft: A History is published by Tempus in November 2000.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Bones of Pagan History and Pagan Identity, Part One

What is the relationship between modern Paganism and ancient Paganism? That question splits people into two camps: 1. First of all there are those who hold that there is a significant relationship between modern and ancient Paganism. These people think of Paganism as "the Old Religion", although they might not use that terminology. 2. And then there are those who hold that there is no significant relationship between modern and ancient Paganism. These people think of modern Paganism as a purely "new" religion, lacking any deep historical roots.

Ronald Hutton famously captured the essence of the second position when he wrote that "the paganism of today has virtually nothing in common with that of the past except the name." (Although it should be noted that Hutton has himself consistently rejected this position at least going back to the publication of his Pagan Religions of the British Isles over two decades ago.)

If one is convinced that there is some significant (leaving aside for now how we define such "significance") commonality between modern Paganism and ancient Paganism, then one must conclude that modern Paganism therefore represents, in some meaningful sense, a survival and/or continuation of ancient Paganism. But it is precisely at this point that the fireworks commence. For there are those, including many who identify as "Pagan", who simply cannot tolerate any suggestion that modern Paganism can, in any way shape or form, be construed as a continuation of ancient Paganism.

To discuss these matters intelligently one must, before going any further, grapple with some thorny problems concerning the definition of terms. But where to begin? One might choose, for example, to quibble over what might be required to qualify as a "significant" relationship between ancient and modern Paganism. But the truth is there is no agreement about what is actually meant by saying that there is any "relationship", significant or otherwise, between one religious tradition that existed two thousand years ago and another one that exists (perhaps with the same name, perhaps not) today. But these are relatively minor questions compared to the core issue of how Paganism itself is to be defined.

It turns out, though, that the issue of how to define Paganism also requires us to investigate the question of relationships between various religious groups. For both modern Paganism and ancient Paganism, considered separately, each represents an extremely heterogeneous amalgam of practices, beliefs and experiences. This realization at first makes the posing of our question even more complex, and yet if we carry through without flinching at a little added complexity, the payoff is a coherent overall strategy for both defining Paganism and also for elaborating on the history of Paganism.

This general approach requires us to ask three questions:

1. What comprises the set of beliefs, practices and experiences that characterize ancient Paganism in general. That is, what did those ancient religious traditions that can be subsumed under the heading of "Paganism" have in common?

2. What comprises the set of beliefs, practices and experiences that characterize modern Paganism in general. That is, what do the modern religious traditions that can be subsumed under the heading of "Paganism" have in common?

3. What is the intersection of the two sets above?

The above three questions constitute a pretty bare bones framework for the elaboration of Pagan history and Pagan identity, and it highlights the fact that "history" and "identity" are simply two ways of looking at the broader issue of "commonality". The specific question of Pagan history approaches the issue of commonality in temporal terms. It will prove useful, at least in my opinion, to borrow from the lexicon of linguistics, and to refer to the problem of Pagan history as a problem of diachronic commonality. We can then also refer to the problem of Pagan identity as a problem of synchronic commonality.

Scholars who study historical linguistics address themselves to the way that languages change over time. This historical approach is referred to as diachronic analysis, a term that is used in contrast to the synchronic analysis of language variation at a given, fixed point in time.

Here is an attempt to illustrate how this combined concept of diachronic and synchronic can be applied to the investigation of Pagan identity and Pagan history:

Synchronic commonality 
Synchronic commonality refers to that which is held in common by groups that exist contemporaneously in time. This concept can be applied to the question of Pagan identity.

Example of synchronic commonality in reference to Pagan identity:  Christine Hoff Kraemer, in her book Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologies, has proposed a list of nine "attitudes" that are found widely among modern Pagans. Kraemer is understandably very careful to not overstate her case: "most Pagans hold most of the following attitudes." My own opinion is that she has accurately captured  a significant amount of the very real theological and cosmological common ground that is often difficult to discern just beneath the surface of the chaotic and contentious world of modern Pagandom. Briefly, here are Kraemer's nine areas of common ground shared by many modern day Pagans (in some cases my wording is slightly different from hers):
  1. Pantheism
  2. Polytheism
  3. Reverence toward nature and the body.
  4. Looking to pre-Christian religions and to contemporary religions that have resisted Christianization.
  5. The importance of ritual practice.
  6. Trust in personal experience as a source of divine knowledge.
  7. Acknowledgement of the principles of magick.
  8. Virtue Ethics and non-harming.
  9. Pluralism.

Diachronic commonality
Diachronic commonality refers to that which is held in common by groups that exist at different points in time. This concept can be applied to question of Pagan history.

Example of diachronic commonality in reference to Pagan history: Ronald Hutton, in his paper The New Old Paganism, has proposed that there exist a number of striking similarities between modern Paganism and "certain types of ancient religion" that existed in late antiquity. Here are what I consider to be the eight most important of these similarities that Hutton claims to have found:
  1. "Private and avant-garde" in nature.
  2. The strong influence of Platonic philosophy, especially that of Plotinus, Porphyry, Iamblichus and Proclus.
  3. The denial or qualification of polytheism.
  4. The strong presence of "exotic" (non-European) elements and influences.
  5. An emphasis on certain Gods and Goddesses who were not prominent in "traditional" polytheism, such as Dionysos, Pan, Natura and Hekate.
  6. The prominence of magic, and especially the positive way in which magic is viewed in general, and even more specifically the way in which Pagan religiosity is viewed as intrinsically "magical".
  7. Egyptophilia, Hermeticism, and Theurgy.
  8. A focus on "mystery religions" as opposed to more "traditional" cults.
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It should be noted that while I largely agree with Kraemer's proposed areas of commonality with respect to modern Paganism, I have serious disagreements with a number of the claims and characterizations made by Hutton with respect to late-antique Paganism. Nevertheless, both of these examples stand on their own to illustrate what I mean by synchronic and diachronic commonality, and especially by how I propose these terms can be usefully applied to the study of Paganism. Not to mention that any serious discussion of Pagan history and Pagan identity (and especially how they are interrelated) must take into account both Kraemer and Hutton.

Although both Kraemer and Hutton provide helpful illustrative concrete examples of the kind of general approach I am proposing, there remains the crucial issue of how one, both in practice and in theory, defines the category of "Paganism". Whatever this thing called "Paganism" is, and even assuming that it really exists at all, it definitely comprises a collection of things that are not all the same. So how do we coherently fashion an overall conception of Pagan commonality without denying the underlying undeniable reality of Pagan diversity?