Good and Bad Magic, Part 2

As a followup to yesterday’s post on natural and demonic magic, Khem Caigan asks:

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?

I’m following Richard Kieckhefer’s definitions of the terms, as best summed up in the introduction to Magic in the Middle Ages, expanding their significance outside the periods he explicitly covers.  Yes, I know I should discuss this more for those who don’t have the book handy, but it’s a really good book that makes my point much better than I’m capable.

To continue:

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.

I wouldn’t say I’m “privileging” that view, so much as calling attention to something that even the writer of a book of magic couldn’t ignore.

Concerns about the legality and divinity of magic were very much in the minds of magicians and theologians alike.  Was magic permitted by God?  If so, in what forms?  Sure, you weren’t supposed to sign a pact with the devil, but some said an “implicit” pact might be made by other means, such as burning incense, sacrificing animals, or using nonsensical words in incantations.  Contact with demons wasn’t necessarily bad – Jesus and the apostles cast them out, after all – and contact with angels wasn’t necessarily good – they could be demons in disguise, and even if they weren’t, it might be meddling with God’s will.

Under these circumstances, confusion abounded.  You had prayers done in the church as part of the liturgy on one hand, and written pacts with Satan on the other, and a whole mess of material in the middle that might be defined as natural (and therefore divinely approved) or demonic, depending on the viewpoint of the reader.  A writer on magic therefore needed to stress up front that the work was natural magic and not demonic, even if not all readers would agree, to minimize the chance that his work – or he himself – would be tossed into the fire.  And a solid way to make that contrast was to point to some hypothetical people out there who were doing all sorts of nasty stuff with demonic magic.

Thus, my next sentence in the original post:

Usually natural magic turns out to be what the speaker is doing, and demonic magic what those nasty folks somewhere else are using.

The significance of the book by Abraham Elim is that it seems to be a work of magic that not only rhetorically, but also in terms of substance, sets itself off from previous works on magic by dissociating itself from barbarous words or astrological timing (and yes, I’ll be getting to Khem’s comments on that).  That doesn’t mean that it didn’t need to stress that it was divinely inspired, or that some readers of it wouldn’t think that it was demonic.

As for the role of tikkun in the process – I don’t recall this being part of the original Abramelin work, but maybe someone can point me to the specific passage.  At any rate, the question would be whether the demons could be redeemed through the ritual, or if it was merely a pretense they used to ensnare others.  Those readers who saw the first as possible would likely classify the text as natural, while others who believed the second would see it as demonic.

How’s that?

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Published in: on July 23, 2008 at 10:51 am  Comments (3)  

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  1. I was going to post this in the earlier entry on the subject, but here’s my tuppence…

    In the light of these discussions I’m going to have to revisit Conjuring Spirits & Magic in the Middle Ages. IIRC in medieval England, before the abolition of the monastaries, university students were all eccelesiastical clerks; students of Oxford and Cambridge wore ecclesiastical garb and were subject to the same laws as the clergy. I can’t recall whether the conception of the ‘clerical underworld’ (a la Kieckhefer) extends to university students or not, although it seems that, historically, students were the chief practitioners of what we consider the more ‘learned’ forms of magic (encompassing both of what, for the sake of this argument, are here being labelled ‘demonic’ and ‘natural’ magic). Thorndyke and Keith Thomas’ Religion & the Decline of Magic are useful sources for contemporary anectodes of student magicians.

    One thought regarding “privileging the accounts of the respective theological hegemonies here” – it seems to me that it is not Dan at “fault” since Agrippa and his contemporaries who obviously had very good reasons for taking stuch a stance. Although in Agrippa’s day the Council of Trent had yet to draw the conclusion that neoplatanism and hermeticism was no better than witchcraft and there were sympathetic patrons to be easily had, it still makes sense (to me) that they’d want to argue that they shoudl be associated with those things deemed lawful/angelic/wise than otherwise. Quite what this means about tikkun I’m not sure – I’ve not read the new version of Abramelin and it’s an area I know nothing about… but would it really be surprising for the author of a ‘grimoire’ to be (self-)contradictory?

  2. Regarding the above digresson about English universities – I also meant to bring it round to the topics at hand by adding:
    I can’t recall whether the conception of the ‘clerical underworld’ (a la Kieckhefer) extends to university students or not – nor whether continental universities were organised along similar lines – etc.

  3. Students being legally clerics holds for all of medieval Latin Christendom, or so I understand.


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