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Witches, Warlocks and Wizards

August 30, 1948

W.G. Phillips/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It is perhaps not surprising that we fail to acknowledge the debt we owe to magic. One reason is that the relation among magic, science and religion is imperfectly understood; another is that it goes against the grain to admit the extent to which ancient fears, ignorance, and superstition continue to shape our actions. A study of the place of magic in intellectual development is a worthy undertaking in itself. In confused and unreasoning times it is especially appropriate to examine the persistent human inclination to magical practices and beliefs.

Unfortunately, Kurt Seligmann's The Mirror of Magic (Pantheon Books; $8.50), a large, well-illustrated history of magic by a surrealist painter who has made a scholarly hobby of the occult—and has not, I judge, escaped unsmitten—does not fulfill the need for general enlightenment. As a popular catalogue of the magical arts it is adequate and, in small doses, entertaining. As an account of magic's contribution to scientific and cultural development and of the enduring influence of magic on social ideas and behavior, it is altogether superficial. Those drawn to the subject—and it is hard to imagine anyone not in that category slogging through Seligmann's 300 pages—had best turn to the works of Thorndike, Frazer, or Kittredge.

Among anthropologists, psychologists, and historians of science who have studied the evolution of magic, there is, as one might expect, little agreement as to its exact relationship to religion and science. Sir William Dampier makes a rough differentiation, which avoids some of the brambles of controversy. "Magic," he says, "attempts to compel outward things to obey man's will." Religion, in primitive form, enlists the help of God or gods to achieve the same purpose. Science, on the other hand, observes the way things behave in nature and then seeks by obedience to these laws to adapt natural forces to men's needs.

A single instance may illustrate the basic differences. Frogs croak when it rains; the savage, therefore, dresses as a frog and imitates its croak in order to bring rain. (That "like produces like" is a fundamental principle of magic.) The cognate belief that nature is ruled by a stern but loving parent who will grant favors if properly bidden leads religious men to pray for rain. Science on its part strives by various means—windmills, dams, reservoirs and, recently, artificial rainfall—to make man independent of the irregularities of weather. One hears often of the "triumph of invention," but one seldom hears it accurately described. The triumph of invention, I think it should be said, is not the success of the invention itself but rather the final realization that the physical world will sometimes yield to the inventor but never to the conjurer or theologian.

Seligmann emphasizes correctly the role of magic in shaping the Mosaic and Christian religions. Its legacies and effects are everywhere: in religious tenets, in ritual and ceremony, in the scripture, in natural, revealed, dogmatic, and speculative theology. Inevitably, organized religion came to oppose the mystery religions and magic as "illicit tampering with God's power" and, more practically, as threats to its established authority.

While the Church was strong and its supreme position unchallenged, it was inclined to be lenient. Magic was forbidden, but the penalties for practicing it were not severe. As the authority of the Church weakened, with the coming of the Reformation and widespread upheavals in the social order, the edicts against sorcery, alchemy and the like became stern. Protestants, no less than Catholics, elaborated the arts of torture and persecution. In witch-burning, temporal and spiritual leaders alike discovered an effective means for disposing of dissidents while agreeably diverting the public mind. Estimates differ as to the number of men, women and children who were incinerated during the two centuries of Europe's witch-hunting orgies, but three-quarters of a million is a conservative figure.

From the great basin of the magical arts issued innumerable small streams which, after centuries of sluggish flow, widened into the rivers of science. Astrology became astronomy; alchemy, chemistry, whose origins are traced to Hellenistic Alexandria in the first and second centuries of the Christian era. And in the number magic and mysticism of the Pythagorean school lay the kernels of many of the basic concepts of mathematics. In fact, although the idea appealed to them primarily as a part of their mystic cosmology, the Pythagoreans may be credited with the invention of the abstract concept of number, perhaps the single most useful and important advance in the history of science.

It would, of course, be incorrect to infer from these examples that magic itself was an early version of what we define as science. As Lynn Thorndike has pointed out in his monumental History of Magic and Experimental Science, the "growth of magical superstition" coincides with a decline in straightforward scientific pursuits, and science has usually moved against and not on the tide of magical beliefs. And yet magic undoubtedly stimulated and enriched the observational and experimental method; like Goethe's Mephistopheles, it was often a force for good and reason where it intended only evil and unreason; and it is impossible to resist the conclusion that man had to pass through a magical phase, and to outgrow it, before he could cross the threshold of science.

Strange names, grotesque practices, uncommon objects, and common objects used in uncommon ways crowd the pages of Seligmann's story. There is a sameness about the branches of magic which makes the subject as a whole unendurably dull. Under this handicap, Seligmann does surprisingly well. One learns of necromancy (especially through wonderful passages from the Egyptian Book of the Dead); of the virtues of various talismen; of the potency of the Word; of Osiris, Asmodeus, Zoroaster, Beelzebub, and the Sphinx; of geomancy, astrology, alchemy, lycanthropy, horoscopy; of divination by moles and warts. Included in the wherewithal of the arcane arts are philtres, fauns, homunculi, incubi, succubi, werewolves, vampires, moles (the kind that move underground), and an assortment of hearts, spleens, livers, eyelashes and entrails (preferably quivering).

Over this conglomerate paraphernalia broods fear, terror, dark loneliness, and a sense of human powerlessness in the face of evil—yet also a contradictory sense of human power to placate the gods, exorcise demons, raise the dead, move mountains, cure the sick, cheat the devil, make gold, recapture the past, and determine the future. Above everything there is an identification with the swarm and slime and infinite variety of nature.

One disquieting fact forced itself upon me repeatedly throughout the book. I realized as never before to what extent the worst tendencies of magic, exhibited in the persecution of witches, still flourish in the world today. We do not, to be sure, practice torture in quite the same way, but the improvements do us no honor. Men are today pilloried for their opinions no less than was Paracelsus. We are more in thrall of the word than was the most gullible sorcerer's apprentice. Social and political heresies are as ruthlessly ferreted out by legislative committees as were theological heresies by the inquisitorial commissions of Rome. The auto-da-fe, while less severe, is no less malignant. Men and women were once condemned on the proof that they were related to witches or too friendly with them. Today we have our Virden cases and the doctrine of guilt by remote consanguinity, not to say of guilt by association.

"Give me two lines written by a man," said the seventeenth-century Councilor of France, Lombardemont, "and I will hang him." We have officials who would do more with less. Under the Salic Law of the Franks, the punishment for sorcering was "One year of penance, if he is a clown of low estate; if he be of a higher degree, ten years." Contemporary justice is inclined to reverse the Salic principle. Clovis I decreed heavier punishment for those who unjustly defamed a person by calling her (or him) a witch than for witchcraft itself; Parnell I makes it the custom to libel first, and look for proof later.

There is excellent material in this manual for legislative committees, loyalty boards, and our various intelligence corps, investigators and secret policemen. Those of us not so engaged would do well to take notice of the concluding lines of the famous "Essay on Witchcraft" (1718) by Francis Hutchinson:

I have shown plainly that accusing and prosecuting and hanging in that case does not cure but increases the evil; and that when a nation of people are in such a state, they are under a very great calamity.