SCG Daily – The Folklore of Magic #11

Adam returns with further tales of Magic folklore. Today, he talks of the nature of folklore, and sets the scene for the coming week, promising a thought-provoking series of intellectual debates.

Note: Some readers have made clear their wish for greater annotation in these articles. Although I would very much like to provide bibliographical details, there is no good way of doing so in the StarCityGames format, and an article on this website ought not be expected to live up to the bibliographic standards of an academic paper. Nevertheless, I have sought –and believe I have achieved – throughout this series to provide sufficient annotation to show from whom I have derived ideas, and all quotations, at least, have been attributed to a name (or two). That this style of annotation is not enough to allow interested readers to look up the precise source for themselves is something I apologize for but view as unavoidable. Needless to say, if anyone wishes for more detailed information, I will be glad to provide. I approach this subject on a scholarly level beyond my writing for this website, and even though the full scholarship is not always evident in this context, it should be assumed to be present behind-the-scenes.

I tried to make clear in my previous series of SCG Daily articles that folklore of the supernatural isn’t just something that happens to other people. It is not the last resort of ignorant peasants who misunderstand perfectly comprehensible phenomena. On the contrary, it was believed in by most of the greatest minds in the West, until at least the beginning of the 19th Century and experienced a renaissance amongst the elite in the latter decades of the 1800s and the early years of the 20th Century. This is so much the case that it is far more useful to single out historical personages who were somewhat sceptical – like Thomas Hobbes and Reginald Scot – than those who whole-heartedly accepted the supernatural’s existence. As the studies of Frances Yates (of whom we’ll hear more later in this series) made evident, occultism and belief in the supernatural was not merely something that coexisted alongside the Enlightenment; it was a driving force behind the movement.

However, in his From Paracelsus to Newton, Webter points out how apt we are to ease the task of studying the past by setting people and periods into illusorily-distinct categories, by separating scientists from occultists at all costs. Thus, Paracelsus – a controversial figure but also undeniably one of the most important doctors in medicinal history – is today commonly ranked amongst the superstitious occultists and alchemists of the pre-Enlightenment period while our historical memory of Bacon, Newton, Copernicus, and other “enlightened” thinkers is studiously cleared of the occultist debris that undoubtedly exerted great influence on their research. Once clued in on what to look for, one need not be an expert in folklore in order to note the myriad of supernatural or “unscientific” ideas in the writings of the Enlightenment’s great scientists, yet historians who focus on the history of science rather than the history of the occult usually either make excuses for their honoured scientists’ apparent lapses in judgment, treat their supernatural beliefs as some kind of aberration in otherwise brilliant minds, or pretend not to notice that anything is amiss whatsoever. It is time to stop making excuses for people, to stop feeling embarrassed on past genius’ behalves.

The other day, an opinion piece in the Danish, left-leaning newspaper, Information, claimed that “religion has the power to make people believe things which otherwise only mentally-ill people would believe.” As the issue at hand is Islam, this statement probably finds wide approval in Denmark, but considered at some objective distance, it is spectacularly incorrect. If a respected astronomer today went about holding the occult views of Kepler, he might well be deemed insane, but unless we are willing to consider the vast majority of people who lived prior to the 1930s insane, this would be a grave error. Besides, it’s worth remembering our point that “folklore isn’t just something which happens to other people.” Those who don’t believe in ghosts (and they’re fewer in number than you probably think, even if you are a believer yourself) tend to view ghost belief as absurd, insane – Folkloric. Those who do believe in ghosts don’t see it as superstitious or folkloric at all. But belief in fairies? Now, that’s folklore. Likewise, people who believe in both ghosts and fairies will nevertheless draw the line somewhere, will view as folkloric some other concept which is not a part of their belief.

This is getting a bit off-topic however, and generally, when I speak of folklore or occultism, I’m doing it in such a way as to exclude religion. Furthermore, as the above discussion shows, it’s pointless to say that folklore of the supernatural is inherently incorrect or false; it’s simply a convenient term to describe a set of beliefs on which, despite many people’s best efforts, the collective jury is still out.

Webter, who we mentioned previously, does a fine job of placing Enlightenment-era occultism in context. One of his special interests in millennialism, belief in an imminent Christian apocalypse, something which was general amongst academics in the 16th and 17th Centuries. Take, for example, Webter’s analysis of the great Danish astronomer, Tycho Brahe:

“Closer inspection demonstrates that Tycho Brahe was by no means alienated by the speculations of the earlier period. His tract containing an account of the new star of 1572 briefly concluded that this remarkable event presaged disturbances in the north of Europe which would spread elsewhere and prepare the way for a new secular and religious order. The appearance of what seemed to be the first new star since the star of Bethlehem gave considerable grounds for reflection. Among the more ingenious observations, it was pointed out that the nova had blazed for seventeen lunar months and then vanished twice seven years before the first lunar eclipse predicted for the fateful year of 1588 (as well as 171 lunar months 111 days before the second eclipse), when Saturn, Jupiter and Mars would meet in the moon’s house. Such observations could be tied up with a parallel series of calculations based on apocalyptic numbers in the prophetic books, which also pointed to the significance of 1588. […]

“In 1577, more than in 1572, Tycho drew astrological conclusions from his observations, predicting ‘great alteration and reformation, both in the spiritual and secular regimes.’ In particular he was struck by the observation that the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in Aries expected in 1603 was an event occurring once every 800 years, and therefore had happened only seven times since the beginning of the world [This is significant because history was thought to be divided into eight eras]. It could therefore be presumed that “the eternal Sabbath of all Creation is at hand in this maximum conjunction”. The comet of 1577 accordingly led to Tycho’s first serious commitment to the reform of the world system, and it alerted him to the idea that the end of the world and establishment of a Golden Age could not be far distant.”

Most of us will agree that the Medieval-inspired fantasy world of Magic is no more than a fantasy. It is highly unlikely the dragons and goblins of Magic ever actually existed. Still, the mindset behind the actions of characters in the card game is – although divested of Christian-influence – often correct enough, and well beyond the Middle Ages as well. Webter also shows how the founders of the Royal Society were by no means adverse to the idea that witchcraft existed, and Yates (in her Rosicrucian Enlightenment) goes a step further by proving that many of the Royal Societies founders were staunch believers in the practising of Christian magic, that the Society was, in some way, intended to revive this magic. This hope for magical revival did not last long though, and the forces of reaction soon set the Society strongly against witchcraft, even involving it in witch trials.

Not quite incidentally, we’ll be taking a look at witches tomorrow.


Adam Grydehøj
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