Published: 10 February 2016Witches at their Incantations, c.1646, by Salvator Rosa (161573) Photograph: SuperStock
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How could magic happen? In the pre-Christian era as in the Christian one, the primary idea was to summon an entity with astounding power an angel, or a demon, or a god. These beings behaved more like Marvel superheroes than magicians; they could travel incredibly fast, or they had astonishing strength. But with Christianity came the problem what did the entities themselves want? First to try to find a workaround from the idea that all magic is demonic was Albert the Great, who tried to make the astrological influence of the planets systematic. Medieval thinkers already knew that the suns rays could turn common soil into gold. It followed that alchemists might hope to do the same by using the rays of the planets intelligently; it also followed that as above, so below. Since the heavens affected life on Earth, the bite of a scorpion for instance might be cured by pressing the image of a scorpion into incense while the moon is correctly aligned with Scorpio. Worryingly, Scorpio itself and its many faces are, Brian Copenhaver thinks, gods and demons, but these can be used innocently because of the as above, so below rule; they are not working for the magician, but simply working in the way they always do.
This kind of question preoccupies most of those writers summoned by Copenhaver in The Book of Magic, an impressive and well-edited anthology. Those writers also pondered and indeed fretted over the relation between powerful entities and the laws governing matter; they raised scruples about how far the alien energy of summonable beings is connected with their usual function, or is pulled from that norm by the action of the magician. When Shakespeares Puck speaks of putting a girdle round the Earth in forty minutes, he is offering an explanation of what he can achieve and of how he achieves it.
To say complications ensue is putting it mildly. Schemas are confounded by efforts to find a legitimacy for magic. The English word comes ultimately from Greek magike (in which the original Persian word is spliced with tekhne, art), while the Persian magos one of the members of the learned and priestly class ultimately derives from magush, to be able, to have power, from which we may also derive the word machine. So my social hierarchy is your magic, and my magic might be your craft or even your machinery. My religion is your magic. Your religion is my fairy lore. Or your religions might be a mass of fakery and trickery and foolery. Hence in making magic into an intellectual discipline, I theorize based on my observations, which might not be mine but those of others, heritable observations. But because what I do looks very like empiricism, as I examine materials for the tricks or fooleries, or for the real alterations, checking my results against descriptions of previous experiments, what I do feels like science, feels like the template for Baconian empiricism and its great instauration.
What fascinates Copenhaver is the overlap between magic and science. His anthology probes the moment when the author of a scientific encyclopedia wrote that the skin of a hyena will ward off the evil eye. Drawing on Max Webers idea of a disenchanted world, Copenhaver uses the unusual form of the anthology to trace the arc of disenchantment. Magic, Weber thought, was ritual while religion is ethical; magic coerces, but religion supplicates. Yet, by Webers standards, Moses and Jesus were magicians (as Christopher Marlowe also noted, allegedly saying that Moses was but a juggler, and one Harriot, Wat Raleghs man, can do more than he). Copenhaver seems unaware of other recent responses to Weberian thinking, notably Morris Bermans The Re-enchantment of the World (1981), which takes a hard and critical look at Cartesian rationality and materialism.
While Protestant polemicists went to inordinate lengths to portray their Catholic opponents as either jugglers or as actual Satan-worshippers, these endeavours did not make them appear rational, but simply fearful
Yet Copenhavers choice of texts does little to unsettle the assumption that Protestants are sceptical. While Protestant polemicists went to inordinate lengths to portray their Catholic opponents as either jugglers or as actual Satan-worshippers, these endeavours did not make them appear rational, but simply fearful. Later, the idea of Catholic demon-worshippers was turned into the equally fictive idea of Catholic witch-hunters, even though many of the worst witch-hunts took place in Protestant-dominated places. For Whigs, magic eventually collapses into science, and alchemy into economics and mercantilism, while household theurgies are displaced by insurance policies and the welfare state. But what about all the people for whom this doesnt appear to have happened?
All anthologies aim at being representative, even when they are not. With Copenhaver in hand, few of the most diligent would look for more; the volume is 643 pages long. And yet there is more, much more, and on that more may hinge the big shifts in magical thinking choreographed but not explained in these pages. He has evidently decided to omit Northern European magic, the magics of the Gaelic-speaking lands and also the seir and trolldomr of the Scandinavians. Admittedly, these magics are less easy to manage in the framework of the history of ideas; they are messier than Graeco-Roman magic, involving the intrusive and the invasive rather than the control and management of subordinate nature. Yet, a comparison of the transformative becoming-animal magics of British Insular myths and sagas with the alchemy derived from a symbiosis of Hellenic and Egyptian cultures might have been fruitful, allowing readers to think about the ways in which one idea of magic necessarily excludes another. Nor is Copenhaver especially interested in magical narratives, so we do not venture into German lands, except as post- Roman subjects. The result is to leave the cultural divisions of Europe very much where they were, with anywhere north and east of Paris not only marginal but absent. The rationale might be that all Western ideas of magic in high culture derive from the classical world on one hand, and the Near Eastern world on the other.
Similarly, Copenhaver is much more at home with swashbuckling intellectuals like Pico della Mirandola than he is with the average village cunning folk. Yet he does discuss the idea of fascinatores, the natural evil-eyed persons, and both he and Cornelius Agrippa struggle with intentionality: is the eye a natural phenomenon, or an intended will to harm? He cites the sceptics Burchard of Worms and Reginald Scot, both amusedly reporting folkloric practices which may have been as rational as alchemy, as well supported as astrological mineralogy. In the case of the female votaries of Diana and the English cunning folk, belief may have been underpinned by a complex web of mythological story and ideas of the liminal, the environment and a more fuzzily bounded concept of personhood which allowed people to influence one another in the manner believed to be possible for the planets and constellations.
It is telling and dispiriting that the elimination of the folkloric also turns out to eliminate women, who do not appear in the anthology at all as authors or compilers. It is wrong to imagine that nothing survives; Jayne Archers work has shown that many housewives had a solid working knowledge of alchemy, while the average peasant male and female knew all about the alleged effect of the waxing moon on growth. But in this volume, women and the lower orders feature mainly as blockages in the progress of knowledge, though only a very little more delving might have brought to light a female magic of household charms that outlived the theological speculations on which the anthology is firmly centred. While clearly lauding Scots braying scepticism, Copenhaver does not seem fully aware of his reception. The Bodleian Library copy of Reginald Scots Discoverie of Witchcraft (Bodley MS. Add B1) was used by a cunning magician, who evidently took Scots meticulous reportage of popular magic as a sourcebook for his own practice of it. Scot himself drew on a manuscript called Secretum secretorum, itself the grimoire of a pair of cunning men. The weaving in and out of the learned and the popular illustrates that only naivety would seek to separate them from one another.
Another problem with Copenhavers scope is a mild tendency to round up some rather usual suspects. Three of the eleven subsections of this anthology are made up of texts which its likely readership probably already owns, including the Old and New Testaments in modern translations, and the literary works of well-known poets and dramatists such as Marlowe, Spenser, Jonson, Shakespeare and Molire. Copenhaver could have chosen far less well-known dramas by Peele, Middleton, Dekker, Rowley and Ford, with far more illuminating results for the general reader. A good deal of the demonology here is well known, too, with the Malleus Maleficarum hiked into an unduly prominent position; we leap into that intellectual catastrophe suddenly, rather than working our way to it via the Formicarius and the heresy trials and the particularities of Alpine folklore. The result is that the witch trials spring out as an unpredictable mass of unreason rather than as a development from reason itself in general and scholasticism in particular.
Where the collection really shines is its compilation of mage thinking, the posh university-educated magic deriving ultimately from texts like The Emerald Tablet and On the Mysteries of Egypt; texts which in turn took their prestige from misunderstood hieroglyphics and mistranscribed or misunderstood top slices of Zoroastrianism. Yet mages hoped for true hearing. When Marcilio Ficino imagined magic as the act of singing to the stars, he also imagined the spirit imitating their movements, and that imitation could then move through warm breath to the ear of a listener, inspiring further imitation. But was this really magic at all, or did it simply feel magical? The same kind of question might be asked of Pietro Pomponazzi, who spoke of magnetism as real but argued that it was caused not by demons, but by the planets. After reason, the anti-magicians used satire, in rather the manner of Richard Dawkins duping the tarot card reader in his documentary film Slaves to Superstition; nobody wanted to be like the dupe, the victim of the cold reading. I want to take on the enemies of reason is a ringing call, but the awkward fact that emerges here is that the religious impetus to define magic led to a number of important scientific discoveries and breakthroughs. Magic, science and religion are entangled, and reading this rich collection allows each of us to cut our own path through the dense snarls of the history of a body of ideas which ultimately came to carry a heavy body count.
Diane Purkiss is Professor of English at Keble College, Oxford.