Good and Bad Magic

Khem Caigan saw the following phrase in one of my Abramelin posts and requested clarification:

Traditionally, magic in Judeo-Christian culture has been separated into natural magic, that knowledge of the secrets of the universe God has granted to the dedicated, and demonic magic, which uses evil spirits who make a pact with the operator. That’s what they say, anyway.

Khem asks who “they” are, what “traditionally” means, and whether this reflects a modern academic theory.

Actually, this is a pretty common motif throughout magical writing in learned culture dating from the latter Roman Empire to the early modern era.  Khem mentions Agrippa, so I’ll cite him from Peterson’s site:

I do not doubt but the Title of our book of Occult Philosophy, or of Magick, may by the rarity of it allure many to read it, amongst which, some of a crasie [languid, feeble] judgement, and some that are perverse will come to hear what I can say, who, by their rash ignorance may take the name of Magick in the worse sense, and though scarce having seen the title, cry out that I teach forbidden Arts, sow the seed of Heresies, offend pious ears, and scandalize excellent wits; that I am a sorcerer, and superstitious and divellish [devilish], who indeed am a Magician: to whom I answer, that a Magician doth not amongst learned men signifie a sorcerer, or one that is superstitious or divellish [devilish]; but a wise man, a priest, a prophet; and that the Sybils were Magicianesses, & therefore prophecyed most cleerly of Christ; and that Magicians, as wise men, by the wonderful secrets of the world, knew Christ, the author of the world, to be born, and came first of all to worship him; and that the name of Magicke was received by Phylosophers [philosophers], commended by Divines, and not unacceptable to the Gospel.

This sort of split between the “magician” and the “sorcerer” typifies the sort of distinction that it was common for authors on magic who wished not to offend the religious hierarchy to make.  To zero in on one particular element, references to the Magi, said to have visited the infant Jesus with gold, frankincense, and myrrh, are common features of such texts.

I’d rather not turn this into a dissertation on the topic, but I would recommend Lynn Thorndike’s History of Magic and Experimental Science for those who wish to pursue the topic further.

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Published in: on July 22, 2008 at 2:42 pm  Comments (5)  

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  1. Just wanted to drop and quick note and say thanks because you constantly point out good material to keep my library account full. Another good source for the history of the separation of natural vs demonic magic is traced in Simon During’s Modern Enchantments: The Cultural Power of Secular Magic.

  2. You still haven’t answered my question, Dan.

    Was it you, after all, that decided to equate the word “Natural” with “Magician” in your essay?

    Or does that turn up later in Agrippa, too, alongside his three-fold system of Natural/Elementary, Mathematical/Celestial and Theological/Intellectual Magic?

    It looks like you are privileging the accounts of the respective theological hegemonies here, with ‘lawful vs criminal’ and ‘angelic vs demonic’ dyads.

    This approach makes hash of the significance of performing the Tikkun, or Repair, that rescues the fallen angels from their Exile in the later stages of the *Mystical Kabbalah* of Abraham Elim.

  3. I believe it is in “Conjuring Spirits: Texts and Traditions of Medieval Ritual Magic” where the argument is made that those practicing grimoire magic were often precisely members of the clergy and not outside of the hierarchy except that they might not have their own church and have to find other ways of making money–like selling grimoires they “found.” Is that what you meant by them being outside of the hierarchy? Because apparently these fellows were often actually priests. The way I understand it, using Christian symbols and names to “force” demons to do one’s will was not considered wrong. The wrong came in when instead of commanding them, one made a pact with these critters or treated them as either superior (the Devil) or as equal, as witches did with their familiars or with Fairies.

  4. A tangential point: some may find it relevant here to look into Ludwig Klages’s employment of the terms “geist” and “seele” as well as his interactions with Walter Benjamin (and Benjamin’s discussion of same with Gershom Scholem—the source materials are beyond my non-academically-affiliated cyber-grasp).

  5. […] Papers Falling from an Attic Window Dan Harms: Barber, Dentist, Purveyor of Fine Curios, And Official Franchisee of ‘Abramelin’s World Famous Cobra Oil Elixir’ « Good and Bad Magic […]


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