SCG Daily – The Folklore of Magic #13

Adam continues his intriguing series of articles examining the folklore behind Magic: The Gathering.

These next two days will spent covering a single issue, and the full importance of the issue won’t be evident by reading just one of the articles.

Today, belief in ghosts and omens is widespread, but one still need not try too hard to find these who believe in fairies. Typically, these believers will be working under the assumption that the fairies they believe in are more or less the same as the fairies of 18th or 19th Century folk belief, but as we saw in The Folklore of Magic #1, this is a mistake. Nevertheless, it’s interesting that belief in fairies rarely comes alone and is usually a part of an occult worldview, of that which is often called “New Age” but which we will here, in order to be most inclusive, call Spiritualism. There is no single conception of Spiritualism today, nor has there ever been. For example, there are significant differences between Wicca and freemasonry though both may be linked to the same historical events.

Now, Spiritualism is at once a narrower and broader subject than folklore of the supernatural. At one level, spiritualism can be seen as the “academicizing” and systematizing of folk belief, yet it also reaches beyond folk belief, into the realm of metaphysics and philosophy. It is not my intention to debate the relative merits of the different schools of present-day Spiritualism, and indeed, I don’t know enough about them to be able to do so. We will, rather, be looking at the ways in which these movements evolved. I suspect that some readers affiliated with one of these movements could be disturbed or offended by what we’ll find, just as there were surely some faithful Christians and Jews who looked turned their noses up at what we saw in the Folklore of Magic #9-#10, but it will be always be the case that movements will attempt to cover their historical tracks. In the case of the Free Masons, it may be in order to provide themselves with a mythical or nobler heritage. For the Wiccans and Germanic Neopagans, it may be so to provide a historical basis that doesn’t otherwise exist. That the historical ideas held within these movements are often incorrect does nothing to lessen the value of what the movements believe ought to be done in today’s world.

The search for the origins of Western spiritualism can be brought as far back as you please, but it is probably best to start our analysis at the spot where the field-exploding Frances Yates started hers, in the Renaissance. Throughout this article Yates will be a primary point of reference, though not the only one.

In 1453, the Ottoman Empire captured Constantinople, and many of the resident Greeks fled to the West, bringing with them historical texts that had been famous by reputation in Western Europe but unavailable throughout the Middle Ages. Among these were the works of Plato. This may not appear too significant, but it must be considered that although educated men of the Middle Ages would have been able to debate Platonism until the well ran dry, they lacked direct sources of this ancient Greek, the most important philosopher of the Catholic Church. One notes with shock, for example, while reading Gervase of Tilbury’s immensely learned Otia Imperialia from 1215, that he everywhere assumes that Plato and the other Greek philosophers were familiar with the Old Testament, having encountered it in Egypt. Whole portions of Plato’s philosophy were thought to either have been inspired by Judaism or composed in response to Judaism, something that we now know to be untrue. The fall of Constantinople might have recovered Plato for West and shown people that he was free from Biblical influences, but it caused further, far more significant confusions.

Besides the works of Plato, the fleeing Greeks brought to Italy a series of texts written in Greek that came to be called the Corpus Hermetica. The Corpus Hermetica was thought to have originated in ancient Egypt at about the time of Moses and consisted of writings about a priest-king named Hermes Trismegistus (Hermes the Thrice-Great). The texts describe an Egyptian magical religion as well as a utopian City of the Sun. It was not until the 1600s that people realized that the Corpus Hermetica had been written in the 2nd and 3rd Centuries AD by pagan Greek Gnostics who had borrowed ideas from the New and Old Testaments and the Ancient Greeks. Gnosticism was a philosophical movement that stressed personal spiritual development, and it was the Christian Greek Gnostics of the same time period who wrote the non-canonical New Testament works (for example, the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene) that are mentioned in The Da Vinci Code as describing Jesus’ marriage to Mary Magdalene. However, in the 1400s and 1500s, the Hermetic writings were still considered to be very old.

What amazed the Renaissance scholars of Italy was that, even though Hermes had apparently lived 7000 years before Jesus and 5000 years before Plato, his philosophy contained aspects of both Christianity and Ancient Greek thought. Hermes was, then, seen as a prophet of Christianity. At around the same time, the Jews began to be persecuted in and expelled from Spain, and their subsequent spread throughout Europe led to Christian interest in Cabala or Jewish mysticism. The then-famous second-generation Hermetic scholar, Pico della Mirandola, realized how well Hermeticism, Cabala, and the angelic hierarchies of Pseudo-Dionysis fit together, and his synthesis of these three religious movements would persist until long after the Corpus Hermetica itself ceased to be viewed as ancient. Although the legendary Hermes Trismegistus did not practice Christianity, his vague prophesizing of it allowed most Hermeticists (from here on, this term will be used for adherents to the Hermetic-Cabalist-Pseudo-Dionysian synthesis) to place Hermetic philosophy within a Christian framework. This philosophy was magical and essentially aimed at opening the practitioner up to influences from the angels. Cornelius Agrippa’s De occulta philosophia of the early 1530s brought various strands of Pico-inspired philosophy together and truly popularized Hermeticism, becoming the primary Hermetic textbook for scholars. Although Agrippa was hounded as a black magician even during his own lifetime, opinion against became far blacker after his death, and he became a sort of symbol of Satanic influence, as is evidenced by the similarities between himself and Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, a play which Yates convincingly portrays as a piece of anti-Hermetic propaganda.

Come back again tomorrow for this story’s exciting conclusion!


Adam Grydehøj
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