Saturday, 29 October 2016

Informal magic

Daily Draw: The Golden Tarot, The Visconti Sforza Deck, The Magician 

Today I have had time to indulge my love of history - magic in the informal sense of the word! Here is what I have learned. 

In late antiquity the boundaries between magic and religion were not clearly established. Romans engaged in a plethora of magical practices and these were often integral to or very similar to religious rituals. 

They divined the future by examining the entrails of animals, constructed formulas or amulets to attract good fortune, enchanted objects and cooked up potions. They meditated with hidden spiritual forces, made ointments and recited charms to heal, protect or harm other people. These practices were not so different from the sacrifices, ceremonies and prayers offered up to the Gods. 

By the fifth century BC the Greek word Mageia was being used to describe the practices of the Zoroastrian priest from Persia who were know as the magoi. 

The beliefs and practices attributed to the magoi were thought to be dark and dangerous because they were different to the Greek religion. Over time the word mageia was used pejoratively to refer to the practices of Greek and Roman peasants which deviated from the official religious practice of the Roman Empire. 

In Roman times the word mageia (magic) sedimented in the Latin language being used to denote deviant or different practices from the official code. During this time the word came to be used to refer to trickery or deceit. 

Loaded with this meaning the word magic was transmitted to the Latin rooted languages in the medieval period. The ancient idea of magic came to be conflated with the Christian concept of superstition. 

With the arrival of the monotheistic religions at the end of the Roman era attitudes towards magic were fundamentally changed. Believing only in one true God, Christians came to perceive a whole host of beliefs and practices as false or superstitious. Rituals performed by ancient peoples came to be seen as evil, related to demons thus in need of eradication. 

The new religious authorities wanted nothing less than the complete extirpation of allegedly superstitious beliefs. However magic was to occupy a central position in the medieval mindset with magical beliefs shared by medieval people at all levels of society. 

Source for today's post: Coursera: Introduction to Medieval Magic


  1. From the Jewish Encyclopedia:
    "More abundant information is found in post-Biblical literature, especially in the Babylonian Talmud, where the great number of the passages alluding to magic furnishes incontrovertible evidence of its wide diffusion. It was, however, only the practise of witchcraft which was prohibited, for a knowledge of magic was indispensable to a member of the chief council or of the judiciary, and might be acquired even from the heathen."

    1. Thanks! Unit 2 of the online course I am following is the Jewish idea of magic. So this reference came just at the right time! Interesting that learned scholars practiced magic and lower orders witchcraft. History of intellectual thought so interesting.

  2. don't forget the prophets...good gig if you got in early :) Isn't Coursera an amazing gift? And I've been out in the sunshine and fresh air...all the magic I need. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Good observation! Coursera is fab (ideal on a rainy day ) as well as learning about history it is giving me lots of ideas for how to improve online resources for my own students. Glad you enjoyed your fine Autumn day. :)