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.