A journey through magic across three millennia

Brian Copenhaver’s learned discourse may prove impenetrable to those not already versed in the arcane mysteries

12 December 2015

9:00 AM

12 December 2015

9:00 AM

The Book of Magic: From Antiquity to the Enlightenment Brian Copenhaver

Penguin, pp.643, £30, ISBN: 9780241198568

With the briefest of introductions to each chapter, it is up to the reader to decide how they want to tackle nearly 600 pages of extracts from religious discourses, scientific tracts, demonologies, and literary works, expertly chosen and translated by Brian Copenhaver, an eminent scholar of intellectual magic and professor of philosophy and history at the University of California.

The structure is chronological, beginning with passages from the Hebrew Bible and the Greek New Testament, then moving on to the Greco-Roman writings of the likes of Plato, Pliny and Ptolemy. The chapter concerning Late Antiquity (between the third and eighth centuries) focuses on Hermetic and Neoplatonic ideas of a world governed by spiritual interconnectedness, notions that would remerge with renewed importance during the Renaissance.

Before Copenhaver gets on to that period, and the theories of such occult philosophers as Cornelius Agrippa, John Dee and Marsilio Ficino, there are a couple of chapters that emphasise the development of the Christian concept of the Devil and the medieval debates on what constituted legitimate and illicit magic. So the 11th-century Bishop Burchard of Worms asked:

Have you gathered plants for medicine while chanting spells that are neither the Creed nor the Lord’s Prayer, meaning the Credo and the Paternoster? If you have done those things, you shall do ten days penance on bread and water.

The rise of the European witch trial is covered briefly in extracts from the notorious Malleus Maleficarum or The Hammer of Witches. This lurid misogynistic text, printed in the late 15th century, was not as influential as its modern reputation suggests, but the passages on ‘Why Witches Must be Killed’ and ‘Why Most Witches are Women’ give a sense of how medieval concerns over mostly male magicians morphed into a campaign against supposed female servants of Satan.

The anthology ends with passages from the philosophical and scientific debates of the mid-17th century, out of which emerged new scientific paradigms that dismantled the venerable Neoplatonic conception of the world, and largely uncoupled magic from science.

A shaman in Paraguay attempts to divert a hurricane

A shaman in Paraguay attempts to divert a hurricane

This anthology complements a number of recent academic books that trace the journey of magic from eastern Mediterranean civilisation through to 18th-century Europe, including Copenhaver’s new monograph, Magic in Western Culture: From Antiquity to the Enlightenment (2015). Scholars will value such a broad-ranging collection of texts, but like any good anthology it can be appreciated as a ‘dipping’ book for the general reader.

That said, some of it will remain impenetrable to those without a more substantive grounding in the history of magical theory than is provided in the brief introductions. It is a pleasure to savour the richness of the language concerning magic and magicians across three millennia. There are biting, sceptical voices throughout each period. In the fifth century BC, Hippocrates critiqued the belief in and practice of magic as well as any Enlightenment intellectual over 2,000 years later. Regarding those who

profess to know how to bring down the moon, to hide the sun, to make the weather good or bad with rain or drought, to make the sea and the land barren and all that other nonsense, it looks to me like impiety.

What you do not get in this anthology is a feel for the richness of the magical tradition of other regions and civilisations. Apart from some extracts from the Arabic text the Picatrix, there is relatively little material illustrating medieval Arabic occult scholarship, though it had considerable influence on the Christian magical tradition. Neither, though understandably, are there extracts from the rich discourses on magic in ancient and medieval Chinese and Indian literature. To do those traditions justice would require another volume.

The spells, stories and arguments contained in the book represent the intellectual path of magic over the centuries. Copenhaver’s interests do not lie in the world of popular magic, other than through the learned condemnation of simple magical practitioners and everyday charms and spells. The learned and the popular, the literate and the oral aspects of magic were not mutually exclusive traditions, though ancient priest-magicians, medieval clergy, and educated cunning-folk of the witch-trial era, all provided services to the unlearned laity for health, protection and good fortune. The mundane magical practices of the illiterate were often underpinned by the same notions that were explored at length in the learned discourses cited by Copenhaver — interventionist spirits, astral influences, the use of holy words, and the occult or hidden sympathy between things that looked alike.

The Book of Magic ends as the Enlightenment begins, but the history of magic continues into our modern times. There has been much recent interest in the educated magical milieu of 18th- and 19th-century Europe. Mesmerism reframed Neoplatonic notions of invisible spiritual relations; spiritualism gave new credence to the old magical goal of tapping the spirit world for knowledge and wisdom. Dissatisfaction with orthodox Christianity led some to practise reformulations of ancient and eastern magical and mystical traditions. Meanwhile, in villages and towns across Europe, people continued to fear witchcraft, to kill suspected witches, and to rely on magic to protect themselves and their homes.

Copenhaver’s anthology is a fascinating and welcome illustration of the importance of magic in western thought and culture. Remember, though, that the Enlightenment did not disenchant the western world.

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Show comments
  • trace9

    Santa comes but once a year
    & Years will come in decades, dear
    Decades come in centuries,
    & None can tell What holds their lease.

    But ‘magic’s always bored me, except how mother managed to pile Santa’s gifts beside me as I slept.. Thanks.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      Black as midnight
      Black as pitch
      Blacker than the foulest witch…

      Yes, we’ve got some great rituals.

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