Tuesday, May 21, 2013

On "Pagan Fundamentalism": Either get specific or Shut The Fuck Up

"I hold here in my hand a list of names of known Pagan Fundamentalists ...."

"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:

"They hate me not all." Sorcery and Maleficium in "The Pilgrimage of the Life of Man" (1426)

The Pilgrimage of the Life of Man is John Lydgate's 1426 Middle English translation of Guillaume de Deguileville's Le Pèlerinage de la Vie Humaine (originally written in 1330, followed by Deguileville's own revised redaction in 1355). For more on Deguileville look here: http://pilgrim.grozny.nl/0051.htm, and for more on Lydgate look here: http://www.luminarium.org/medlit/lydgate.htm. For the full text of Lydgate's "Englisht" version of Deguileville's work, look here.

Lydgate's Pilgrimage is of interest due to what it has to say about Sorcery and Maleficium, and, more importantly, its starkly contrasting lack of attention to Witchcraft. Here is a portion of the allegorical meeting between "The Pylgryme" and "Sorcerye":

The Pylgryme:

Than I stood in fful gret doute.
And as I tournede me aboute,
Myd off thys Ile that I off tolde,
And euery party gan beholde,
Myd off thys se, lookyng ech way
How I myhte eskape a-way;
And to-for myn Eye I fond
A Maryssh, or elles a merssh lond,
That peryllous was, and ful profounde,
And off ffylthës ryht habounde.
And thyder-ward as I gan hye
A vekkë Old me dyde espye,
Komyng with an owgly cher;
Vp-on hyr hed, a gret paner;
In hyr ryht hand (as I was war,)
An hand kut off, me sempte she bar.
And, or any hede I took,
She kauhte me with a crokyd hooke.
And as she gan me fastë holde,
I axede hyre what that she wolde,
And make a declaracïoun
Off name and off condycïoun.


Quod she: ‘vnderstond me thus;
My namë ys ‘Bythálassus,’
Wych ys to seynë, (who lyst se)
‘A ffamous pereyl off the se,
In wych (wyth-outen any grace)
Allë ffolk that forby pace,
And allë tho that thorgh me gon,
I make hem perysshen, euerychon.
‘And also ek touchyng my name,
I am callyd (by gret dyffame,
As som ffolkys specefye,)
‘Sortylege or Sorcerye.’
Many folkys thus me calle;
And yet they hatë me nat alle;
I am be-lovyd, bothe ffer and ner.
‘And I ber ek in thys paner
(Who that with-Innë lyst to seke)
Many knyves and hoodys ek,
Dyvers wrytës and ymáges,
Oynementys and herbáges,
Gadryd in constellacïouns;
ffor I obseruë my sesouns,
and make off hem elleccyoun
afftir myne oppynyoun.
And ‘Maleffycë’, folkes alle,
Off ryght, they shuldë me so calle.
I have ful many evel vságes
Off drynkës and off beveráges,
Wherby I makë (her and yonder,)
ffrendys for to parte assonder;
ffor, with fals coniurysouns
And with myn incantacïouns,
And many dyuers enchauntëment,
Sondry folk ben offtë shent.
And, with dyuers crafftys ek,
I kan makë men ful sek;
And somme also ful cursydly
ffor to deyë sodeynly.

So far as I know, no modern English version of this work exists, but it is not that difficult to make out the gist of things. "Sorcery" declares her name to be "Bythálassus ... which is to say, a famous peril of the sea." This is a fairly obscure reference, possibly, to the "five perils in the sea", three of which are the much better known Charybdis, Scylla and the Sirens, with the fourth being Bythálassus and the fifth, possibly, is Circe. If you are curious about this, see Katharine Beatrice Locock's Introduction in her The Pilgrimage of the Life of Man: Text Ed. from 3 fifteenth-century mss. in the British Museum.

But then Bythálassus goes on to say that she is also known as "Sortylege or Sorcerye". Under this guise she is held in "gret dyffame" by some, but she proudly insists that "they hatë me nat alle; I am be-lovyd, bothe ffer and ner." She then goes on to explain that she works by means of "diverse words and images, ointments and herbages." I'm not sure what "gathered in constellations" means precisely, but it is obviously a reference to astrology, as is "for I observe the seasons, and make of them elections after my opinion."

Then she declares: "And ‘Maleffycë’, folkes alle, Off ryght, they shuldë me so calle." She then returns to listing her areas of magical expertise, which include the ability to produce various "drynkës" and  "beveráges", and mastery of "coniurysouns", "incantacïouns", and "enchauntëment". With her great magical skills, she is able to curse her enemies with diseases and even cause them to die suddenly.

The important thing in all of this is that we see that the medieval Christian conception of maleficium was not associated with Witchcraft, but rather with Magic generally, explicitly inclusive of divination, potion making, and incantations. It is also quite significant that a close relationship between maleficium and Heatheny is strongly implied by the way in which the Pilgrim's confrontation with Idolatry, in the immediately preceding section, seamlessly transitions to the encounter with diabolical Sorcery.