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.

Friday, 20 July 2012

In Defence of the Theurgical State of Being

Gustave Doré, The Empyrean, 1857.

In defence of theurgy in a disenchanted world yearning for a dimension of irreducible mystery based upon an experience of the sacred as present in the mundane world, I would like to respond to the instinctive rejections of the theurgical state of being held by the modern scientific mind on the one hand, and on the other condemned by sterile religious dogmatism, that for the individuals undergoing theurgical operations their experiences are as real as one experiences physical objects empirically. Although I am not claiming that mystical experiences induced by theurgical ecstasy are hallucinations, are not visions in a state of altered consciousness real in themselves? Do they not inhabit their own space and time, and are visually experienced in one form or the other? In addition, what these arrogant critics need to take into consideration is the fact that such spiritual experiences that transcend the common human condition with their surpassing beauty of vision and revelation might in themselves be ineffable and inexpressible, due to the fact that the rational structure of language at times is inadequate to express such experiences. The conclusion that ordinary sense experience is the only true way for obtaining knowledge and formulating an understanding of the world is merely an expression of contemporary Western European culture. To end I shall quote an anecdote from the Apophthegmata Patrum,

The abbot Olympius told the following story: A pagan priest once came down to Scetis, entered my cell and spent the night there. When he observed the lifestyle of the monks he said to me: “Leading this kind of life, do you see anything of your God?” I said to him: “No.” Then the priest said to me: “When we perform the sacred rites for our God, he hides nothing from us but reveals his mysteries to us. But you, after so many labors, vigils, periods of silence, ascetic exercises say: we see nothing? Altogether it would seem that, if you see nothing, you keep evil thoughts in your hearts which separate you from your God and that because of this he does not reveal his mysteries to you.” I went away and reported the words of the priest to the elders, and they marveled and said that is was so; for unclean thoughts separate God from humans.[1]

[1] Quoted in Richard August Reitzenstein, Poimandres: Studien zur Griechisch-Ägyptischen und Literatur, 1904, page 34.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Jan Van Baal, Spells, and a Magical Worldview

John William Waterhouse, Circe Invidiosa, 1892.

In Van Baal’s ethnographic opinion, the universal element of magic is the ‘spell’, and the effect it has is essential for understanding the magical worldview as a religious phenomenon as “it evokes the weird atmosphere of mystery, in which things have power, in which things are more than they are and hold out to man danger and promise at the same time.”[1] This atmosphere of mystery is essential for magic to form within a worldview. Although, according to Van Baal, mystery has become a rarity in Western cultures, in non-Western cultures mystery is intertwined with the uncertainty of life and it is the magical spell that evokes the participatory element in this worldview, which is crucial for magic and reinforced through myth and symbolism “as a means of expressing his experience of and against an uncertain power-charged world, which makes its mystery felt in that uncertainty.”[2] From a scholar’s perspective this can indeed be tenuous for systematic research, but this should not be understood as a negative indication, for “it is enough to know how it is driven away, we must know how the experience of mystery originates, or at least what favours its appearance.”[3] Another essential purpose that this mystery fulfils is that it eases life’s harshness, and at times pointlessness, by allowing for the presence of some mysterious yet intentional agency, which implies that through magical means those participating in a magical worldview believe that through spells they might be able to control this.

However, despite those who participate in a magical worldview expressing their experience of the world in terms of mystery, they do not merely just confine themselves to this. On the contrary this mystery is addressed through myth and symbol, and then spells are cast in the endeavour that this addressing will cause an effect, an effect though that is not always expected to yield any tangible result. This though, according to Van Baal, is irrelevant as

In magic a result is expected, though not in the pragmatic sphere – at least not in the first instance, for a magic act is no substitute for a technical one – but in the atmosphere of mystery and intentionality surrounding the object… By giving expression to the mystery and the arbitrariness of the object by the secret language and acts applied, man himself has become part of that mysterious atmosphere, has penetrated it and has perceived something of what lies behind the object. As long as that mystery was outside him and he was outside it, it was dangerous, but it becomes manageable as soon as he himself enters that atmosphere by acting mysteriously too.[4]

Van Baal concluded that despite all reassurance, this reassurance must be accompanied by an effect initiated by the spell, even though this magical act does not replace the technical one. What is essential here is that it connects the practitioner with the aura of mystery that permeates through the magical worldview, and for Van Baal, this in itself has been an obstacle in the path of further understanding the nature and technology of magic.

How then, with magic being such a vague phenomenon, along with insufficient and limited effects attributed to it, has it maintained itself long after the rise of scientific empiricism and Western rational paradigms? In response to this, Van Baal wrote,

There is only one possible answer to this… because magic is such an important religious phenomenon. It permits people to live not in a cold world of cause and effect but in a world which, for all its faults, is one of which one may expect anything.[5]

[1] Jan Van Baal, ‘Magic as a Religious Phenomenon’, in Higher Education and Research in the Netherlands, VII. 3/4, 1963, page 16.
[2] Jan Van Baal, ‘Magic as a Religious Phenomenon’, in Higher Education and Research in the Netherlands, VII. 3/4, 1963, page 16.
[3] Jan Van Baal, ‘Magic as a Religious Phenomenon’, in Higher Education and Research in the Netherlands, VII. 3/4, 1963, page 17.
[4] Jan Van Baal, ‘Magic as a Religious Phenomenon’, in Higher Education and Research in the Netherlands, VII. 3/4, 1963, page 19.
[5] Jan Van Baal, ‘Magic as a Religious Phenomenon’, in Higher Education and Research in the Netherlands, VII. 3/4, 1963, page 19.