This is the second post in a four-part series describing a brief history of humanity’s attempts to define magic (here’s the first post). In this post, I explore some specific points in Western history worth our attention when discussing the history which the word “magic” has weathered over time. A voluminous quantity of writing from academia and various religious groups have struggled over what magic is, whether it exists, what the word itself means, and what the concept means about the world in which we live. There is also a huge volume of discussions about the nature of magic in many doctrinal religious groups—Buddhism, Hinduism, and the Judeo-Christian paradigms immediately come to mind. Modern mages need to understand the history to grasp the degree to which our perceptions of magic have been set off-kilter.
Many ideological groups whose doctrinal fundamentals are based in fantastical or otherwise “supernatural” forces employ magic as a distinction between taboo and “natural” forces. Great examples of this would be the Judeo-Christian community in the heart of the Roman empire. In an attempt to stand out from the other Pagan monotheistic movements, early Judeo-Christians drew a line in the sand between Godly miracles and supernatural phenomena.
The Christian narrative does not explicitly deny the existence or efficacy of magic: they have plenty of cool folks in the canonical scriptures that are both mages and aren’t inherently wicked people. They’re just not Godly because magic is definitionally not Godly (where laying on hands, or John the Baptist’s ecstatic rites are). Take Simon Magus, a magician who converts to the Church and spends his days casting spells for money—when he comes upon Peter and John praying for folks, Simon offers the apostles money for prayers, and is castigated. Some Christian readings of Simon’s actions emphasize that because he joined the Church to heighten his power, he wasn’t doing it for the right reasons.
Later, Christianity assumed a major role in modern intellectual history (the last 800 years) and ultimately re-shaped our social conception of the supernatural’s role in our lives by banishing superstition to the realms of irrationality and further distancing the Church from its Pagan cousins. This had a peculiar effect: the Church was forced to further retreat into its cloistered definition of Godly influence and rationalism reared its head, further pushing back the domains of knowledge that the Church presided over (planetary physics would be a great example).
As science slowly emerges as a major ideological hegemon, institutional religion’s skirmishes with un-godly magic ultimately contributed to the arsenal of skepticism, rationalism, and anti-superstition that brought science against the Church. When the so-called Copernican Revolution came, both the Church and their enemies suffered.
While Christian history is considered boring and pedantic, its undue influence on the Western World deserves attention. Paganism, and even modern Christianity, have started to dramatically wane in the face of a non-religious majority and an increasingly secular society, but these events initiated an explosive set of ideological reactions, the effects of which we can still see in modern secular thought today.
I would argue that Christianity’s early attempts to define itself differently from its competitors in the Roman Empire laid the intellectual foundation for its own downfall. The line between miracles and magic is a pretty blurry distinction in hindsight from a non-Christian perspective. The Enlightenment only took this to a further extent by establishing Christianity as strictly non-superstitious, pushing it further into an essentialist corner, which only made the Copernican revolution all the more devastating.
Let’s take a quick step into cultural mythology. One of my favorite myths is the story of sacred thieves or tricksters. Lewis Hyde calls tricksters beings that “violate principles of social and natural order, playfully disrupting normal life and then re-establishing it on a new basis.” It’s a really cool trope: most often a being neither man nor God sees the potential to take something, does so, humanity benefits, the gods are enraged and punish the trickster, but humanity is left to enjoy the spoils. Every story has variations, so the ones I’m reviewing are but quick examples of these myths, but there are some really strange underlying premises in most of these stories. Trickster myths often hash out the relationship between cosmos, divinity, humanity, and all that runs in between. Tricksters aren’t unified in identity or symbols but they are the actors of big-time transgression: they’re cosmic plot devices.
The Myth of the Raven
There’s the story of Raven, who stole the sun. Most variations of the the story involve the world being originally dark, sad, and generally inhospitable. Raven makes their way into the household of the gods, where the sun rests in a box. Some tales say Raven uses transformative powers to change its guise to get himself re-birthed as a child of the Gods. At some point Raven catches sight of a box with a brilliant object (the sun), and employs wiles such as throwing tantrums for gifts and gets his hands on the box. Once he gets his hands on the sun, he transforms back to its original form and flies out into the sky with the sun. Some tales say that before the theft of the sun Raven was pure white, and holding it in his beak turned Raven completely dark. From one perspective, this is a story about hubris: a being neither divine nor ordinary steals something extraordinary and is permanently changed for their transgression. What’s curious about is the fact that the creator Gods are portrayed as mankind, and the world’s emissary (Raven) is but an animal.
The Myth of Prometheus
There’s the story of Prometheus. While a Titan, he pitied mankind’s lack of fire, stole from the Gods, was promptly punished to spend the rest of existence having his liver torn out by an eagle each day (only to regrow a new one). Like Raven, each iteration of the myth is told slightly differently with different lessons. What’s unified across each telling is the fact that Prometheus remains a Titan, parent to the rulers of Olympus. Hesiod’s telling begins with Prometheus tricking Zeus on a sacrifice day to take a pile of bones wrapped in fat (because it was pretty) over a pile of meat wrapped in entrails (not so pretty). Some tellings say Zeus deliberately picked the meatless, superficial sacrifice because he was deceived, in other tellings Zeus does this so he has an excuse to confiscate fire from humanity. In all tellings, Prometheus steals fire and gifts it to humanity and is tortured by Zeus. There is some really weird cross-generational stuff here. The titans are effectively the grandparents to humanity (the Olympians created humanity).
The Myth of Chang’e
There’s the myth of Chang’e. In one telling, she was husband to Hou-Yi, legendary archer who shot down 9 of the 10 suns out of the sky, preventing the oceans from boiling. Hou-Yi was awarded an elixir of immortality, decided to not immediately drink it. While out hunting, somebody breaks into their home and attempts to force Chang’e to hand over the elixir. One thing leads to another and Chang’e drinks it herself, flies to the moon and takes residence there, breaking her husband’s heart in the process. In another telling, Hou-Yi is promptly crowned the Emperor (thus a mortal God) after shooting down the suns and grows cruel and corrupt. Hou-Yi, fearing death and loving his power, commissions an elixir of immortality. Chang’e upon hearing this steals the elixir. In some tellings, she does this for fear that Hou-Yi becomes unkillable, thus saving mankind from an evil, immortal king. In some tellings, Chang’e takes the elixir for herself because immortality is a pretty big deal. Also, she doesn’t always willfully take residence on the moon: sometimes a side effect of the elixir is an unbearable lightness that floats her to her domain or the Emperor confines her to the rock. This provides a really weird contrast to the Mid-Autumn (i.e. Moon) festival which is regarded as an important family reunion.
There’s something strange about the fact that in each case, a power is concealed from humanity and is sprung out of the boundaries of the divine. While each thing stolen helped humanity, tricksters can be seldom attributed to deliberate goodwill toward humanity. In some takes, Prometheus takes sympathy upon humanity, or is it just for the hell of it? Chang’e steals the Emperor’s elixir sometimes for herself, in other times, it’s for the sake of stemming the tide of eternal tyranny. In some tellings, after Raven steals the sun the only reason it’s in the sky is because it gets so hot he drops it. Each of these stories exist in extremely different cultural backgrounds with diverse contexts of what purpose is, these characters make choices that cross boundaries and upend what’s supposed to be. As cosmic plot devices, the tricks tricksters turn are ultimately for furthering the plot of the sacred drama the universe has in store of us!
Source 1: Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes World
Source 2:Yang Lemei, China’s Mid-Autumn Day
Source 3: Theft of fire
Source 4: The story of Raven
Pamela Smith is the Smith of the Waite-Smith tarot deck, the most well-circulated tarot deck in the world. She was a bi-racial American artist, designer, editor, and writer who was born in England; she spent a significant part of her childhood in Jamaica. Her art was primarily known for its striking originality drawing from a range of influences. She wrote and published several books (including an illustrated collection of Jamaican folk tales, Anansi, which is still published today) and started her own magazine.
Cognizant of difficulties many Anglo-Americans had in determining key facts about her, such as her age and ethnicity, Pamela also wrote under the pseudonym “Pixie.” “This difficulty of readily “placing” her age, ethnicity and class translates into a tendency both to exoticize her background and to depict her as simple and naive.”
Her approach to Tarot could be considered much more modern than many of her peers, as evidenced:
Note the dress, the type of face; see if you can trace the character in the face; note the pose…First watch the simple forms of joy, of fear, of sorrow; look at the position taken by the whole body…you have found how to tell a simple story, put in more details …Learn from everything, see everything, and above all feel everything! …Find eyes within, look for the door into the unknown country. From “Should the Art Student Think?” published in The Craftsman, July 1908.
Having met William Yeats, Pamela made her way into “the Society of the Hermetic Students of the Golden Dawn, where she met Edward Rider Waite—the person who commissioned her now famous tarot deck in 1909. “Here she met Arthur Edward Waite, with whom she co-created the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot, and Aleister Crowley, creator of the Thoth Tarot. The group later disbanded and Colman Smith and Waite both ended up in a splinter organisation, and meanwhile, he asked her to illustrate the tarot he had conceived.” Pamela was the first person to ever illustrate the cups, pentacles, wands and swords with scenes on them rather than simply showing the number of units on them.
In 1971, U.S. Games bought the right to publish the deck and published it under the title The Rider Tarot Deck (because of differences in U.S. and U.K. copyright law, the extent of their copyright in the Waite-Smith deck is disputed). In later editions they changed the name to Rider Tarot and then Rider Waite Tarot. Today most scholars, in order to recognize the importance of Smith’s contribution, refer to the deck as the Waite-Smith Tarot. Tarot writers often refer to the deck with the simple abbreviation of RWS, for Rider-Waite-Smith.
Most sources say that she received barely any money at all from the Tarot deck which her other partners profited from. She made various attempts to make money throughout her life but none succeeded. In 1911, she converted to Catholicism. In 1918 she moved to Cornwall, UK, and lived quietly. The century since the deck’s first printing, there have been dozens of editions put out by various publishers; for some of these the Smith drawings were redrawn by other artists, and for others the cards were rephotographed to create new printing plates.
Magic is a word that comes up in a lot of moments and places, and everybody seems to mean the same thing, but in a slightly different way. When I started writing this blog post, I immediately thought, “Let’s write out a working definition of magic for the blog,” which then I realized could span an entire blog itself. Instead, I’d like to share three of the many moments in history we’ve tried to define what magic really is.
One of the most prominent groups in recent history to brush up against “magic” was the Judeo-Christian community in the heart of the Roman empire. In an attempt to stand out from the other Pagan monotheistic movements, early Judeo-Christians drew a line in the sand between Godly miracles and supernatural phenomena. Later, Christianity assumed a major role in modern intellectual history (the last 800 years) and ultimately re-shaped our social conception of the supernatural’s role in our lives: banishing superstition to the realms of irrationality and further distancing the Church from its Pagan cousins. The Enlightenment was one of the many attempts to draw a line between religion and superstition (magic, and other “unchristian” practices).
A second attempt to define magic comes from the annals of western anthropology. For at least a hundred years, anthropologists in the west had attempted to create prescriptive and descriptive cultural models to make sense of the cultures they encountered along the path of colonialism. The concerted effort to create a working definition of religion brought light to exactly how blurry the categories between the mundane, the magical, and the religious really were. The deeper some scholars dug into the question of how to define magic and the supernatural, the more their subject matter and subjects blurred into shades of ambiguity and paradox.
A third worldview that has made attempts at defining magic is the scientific community. There is a considerable segment of scientific literature that specifically engages and challenges religious pseudoscience and the supernatural. The current milieu of scientific skepticism relate to the supernatural/magical effect on reality as lacking a causative force, thus magic does not exist. Take the James Randi’s prescriptive definition of magic:
“An attempt to supplant natural processes and events by means of incantations, spells and/or offerings. Approximated by conjuring and often attempted by prayer. Magic and science are exact opposites in every way. Magic can be divided into three very general categories: divinatory (determining hidden information), sympathetic (affecting some aspect of nature by performing upon a similar object/person/symbol), and ritual (reciting a prayer, incantation, charm, or carrying out an accepted formality).”
Randi’s definition of magic hinges upon the idea that magic tampers with the “natural” world. In a sense, Randi’s prescribed types of magic (divinatory, sympathetic, and ritual) all focus on causative “if a then b” changes. There is nothing wrong with Randi’s definition. However, while I cannot speak for the vast diversity of people and schools who work with magic, very few schools of thought can look at Randi’s definition and say “yes, this is what we do and how we do it.” Prescriptive definitions often struggle to model the phenomena it seeks to study. Considering how slippery and general the term magic is, it only makes the scientific definition, modeling and creation of methods incredibly challenging.
Obviously this post is incredibly brief, and over the next few weeks, you’ll see me exploring these topics in the next three blog posts. I’d like to put a disclaimer here that I’m learning about these subjects with you, dear reader. This series of magical history is my way of sharing what I’ve learned but also exposing myself to new interesting sources and theories that cross my path. Please share interesting historical sources and tidbits of fact you find with me!
The fields we touch on are vast, with foundations of knowledge beyond a single person’s scope of thought, and as I grow and learn, I’ll do my best to articulate that in future posts. I think of these posts as foundational musings, a way for me to have a common vocabulary with you in the future.