Saturday, 21 July 2012

Renaissance Magia, in Theory and Praxis

Thomas Cole, Expulsion - Moon and Firelight, 1828.

In the Renaissance context, magic operated through a theory of esoteric correspondences, the doctrine of spiritus, and demonic intervention.[1] In regards to introducing the theory of correspondences employed by Renaissance magicians, Hanegraaff wisely indicates that the classic Tylorean/Frazerian perspective on the doctrine of correspondences based on an error of reasoning is anachronistic and fails to recognise that Renaissance theoreticians who employed the theory of correspondences in their esoteric discourses were sophisticated intellectuals grounded in a Christian and Hermetic worldview. The theory of correspondences as a dominant Renaissance framework can be defined as “the assumption that the world has been created in such a way that resemblances (whether formal or structural are the reflection of real connections.”[2] Not neglecting how these correspondences might appear arbitrary, Hanegraaff does highlight that the level of complexity and subtlety of these correspondences that constitute creation are appropriate to the Creator, and hence are partly hidden from us. This in itself inspired Renaissance to adopt ritual praxis as practical experiments to discover and identify which correspondences truly existed and which were erroneous flights into fancy, along with scrutinising Nature as God had created Nature and imbued it with signs revealing insights into divine mysteries. Echoing various Hermetic axioms, Renaissance magicians also believed that as their very constitution was the microcosm reflecting the macrocosm, these divine mysteries also dwelled within themselves. Hence, knowledge of these divine mysteries as a key to unravelling the mysteries of creation consisted in self-knowledge that required an exalted visionary state transcending normal human consciousness.

Whereas the theory of correspondences allowed the Renaissance magician to charter the structure of a pre-established harmony, it was the concept of spiritus that postulating the functional value of these correspondences through a subtle medium that permeated all of creation, and which through magical influences were transmitted. In Ficino’s formulation, later copied by Agrippa, “Spiritus is a very tenuous body, as if now it were soul and not body, and now body and not soul.”[3] Agrippa further explains this by writing,

As the powers of our soul are communicated to the members of the body by the spirit, so also the virtue of the Soul of the world is diffused through all things by the quintessence… By this spirit therefore every occult property is conveyed into herbs, stones, metals, and animals, through Sun, Moon, planets, and through stars higher than the planets.[4]

Hence, spiritus served to explain, as being the subtle medium intermediate between body and soul, the physical and psychological effects that resulted from the ritual employment of the imagination, coupled with faith and desire, and combined with certain corresponding verbal utterances and symbolic actions.
The theory of esoteric correspondences and the doctrine of spiritus were presented by Renaissance magicians as pertaining to magia naturalis. However, ecclesiastical authorities were eager to refute the ‘naturalness’ of such claims by referring to the active belief in the magical effects caused by the intervention of demonic beings, which immediately conjured visions of pre-Christian, and hence demonic idolatry. This accusation was always in response to Ficino’s and Agrippa’s claim that the planets were ‘gods’ and that the magician could ‘drawn down’ their powers, reminiscent of older forms of magic invoking ‘pagan’ gods.

Hanegraaff, citing the work of D. P. Walker,[5] although he does recognise Walker’s neglect of the role of imagination and reason, presents a conjectural framework through which Renaissance magic transformed the esoteric philosophy into occult practice. As described by Walker, magicians such as Ficino, based upon his De vita coelitus comparanda, in their attempt to invoke the power of the Sun would have burnt the appropriate solar incense to stimulate the sense of smell; to stimulate hearing they would have listened to the sound of a lira da braccio and sung the Orphic Hymn to the Sun; sight would have represented by the presence of a talisman; and finally, during the day he would be in full sunshine, and at night he “represents the sun by fire.”[6] It is obvious here how the senses and various symbols and gestures are employed to stimulate the apothegm “that which is above is like that which is below; that which is below is like that which is above” from the Tabula Smaragdina, which is the foundation of the Renaissance theory of correspondences. In addition, an altered inward state of mind would have been initiated through the occult use of the imagination, due to the recognition that within a Neoplatonic and Hermetic context “the ‘outward’ ritual could not possibly be effective unless it were complemented by an appropriate ‘inward’ state of mind” and that imagination was the was considered the ‘tool’ that could combine the sensual and intellectual world.

[1] Although on many occasions these three theoretical frameworks appear to exclude one other, there was a tendency for them to mingle and overlap, and with the protagonists of Renaissance magic emphasising different theoretical frameworks at different moments, without worrying excessively about ambiguous incompatibilities.
[2] Wouter J. Hanegraaff, ‘How magic survived the disenchantment of the world’, in Religion, 33: 4, 2003, page 361.
[3] Quoted in Wouter J. Hanegraaff, ‘How magic survived the disenchantment of the world’, in Religion, 33: 4, 2003, page 361.
[4] Quoted in Wouter J. Hanegraaff, ‘How magic survived the disenchantment of the world’, in Religion, 33: 4, 2003, page 361.
[5] D. P. Walker, Spiritual and Demonic Magic from Ficino to Campanella, 1958, pages 30-35.
[6] D. P. Walker, Spiritual and Demonic Magic from Ficino to Campanella, 1958, page 30.

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