Religion and Magic
Richard Kieckhefer, Northwestern Univ.
Winter 1998

Originally published in the Societas Magica Newsletter No. 5 (1998)

This highly selective course (developed for the quarter system) begins with a nod in the direction of anthropological conceptions of religion and magic, then for purposes of comparison turns to aspects of the subject in Asia. More sustained attention is then devoted to the relationship between religion and magic in the West: in Graeco-Roman antiquity, in early Christianity, in Judaism, and late medieval Christendom. Finally, the class focuses on modern ritual magic.

One reason for examining Asian religions before turning to Western traditions is that fewer students bring to the topic preconceived ideas about what constitutes "religion" and how it differs from "magic", and it is thus relatively easy to show the complexity of the relationship. Even in the Atharvaveda one finds formulas similar to those in the other Vedas, and addressed by the same brahmans to the same deities; it is useful to discuss why the Atharvaveda has a distinctive status among the Vedas, and to trace the complicated story of its reception, without falling back on a simplistic distinction between the "magic" of the Atharvaveda and the "religion" of the other Vedas.

Gananath Obeyesekere's "Sorcery, premeditated murder, and the canalization of aggression in Sri Lanka," Ethnography, 14 (1975), 1-23, provides further material for reflection on the complicated relationship between religion and magic: Obeysekere shows how the religious authorities in the Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim shrines of Sri Lanka invoke the powers of deities and saints for purposes of sorcery. Apart from challenging any sharp distinction between religion and magic, Obeysekere gives useful reflection on the moral implications of harmful magic, on the practitioners' expectations of efficacy, and on the criteria used to determine whether sorcery has been efficacious--all of which remain key questions throughout the course.

Further reflection on the connections between religion and magic can be developed from reading of the life of Milarepa, which is usefully seen against the background provided by Ádám Molnár, in Weather-Magic in Inner Asia (Indiana University, Research Institute for Inner Asian Studies, 1994). (One word of caution: after I had lectured on the weather-magic of Milarepa and of other Asian magicians, one afternoon in mid-January, I returned to my office, looked out the window, and discovered that my lecture seemed to have had unexpected efficacy--about five inches worth. For the rest of the term, my students blamed me every time it snowed.)

Lee Siegel's Net of Magic: Wonders and Deceptions in India (University of Chicago Press, 1991) presents magic as a form of playfulness and downright charlatanry. The magician's illusion does become an analogy for Shiva's working of maya, but what the students are likely to take from this book more than anything else is a sense that magicians are mountebanks. However one responds to this perception, it is in any event one that calls for discussion, and Siegel gives an appropriate stimulus. Again the relationship between religion and magic is raised: in their garb and in their patter, modern Indian street magicians adapt the traditional sacred vocabulary of both Hinduism and Islam, depending on their audience.

Among other works on religion and magic in Asia, another book particularly worth citing is Philip A. Kuhn's Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768 (Harvard University Press, 1990). One might assign this to students or use it for lectures.

Readers of this newsletter are likely to be well familiar with the issues and the literature for study of Western magic. I should mention, however, that Michael D. Swartz's Scholastic Magic: Ritual and Revelation in Early Jewish Mysticism (Princeton University Press, 1996) is especially helpful on the development of a characteristically Jewish form of magic. For this middle part of the course my purpose is first to give further attention to the issues already raised (the complex relationship of religion and magic, the morality of magic, its efficacy), and secondly to trace the historical continuities and discontinuities from late Antiquity through the Middle Ages, and between Graeco-Roman, Jewish, Muslim, and Christian cultures.

At the end of the course we skip all the way forward to twentieth-century magic, which we examine chiefly through T.M. Luhrmann's Persuasions of the Witch's Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England (Harvard University Press, 1989). This book gives the practice of magic a special relevance to students, because the practitioners discussed are educated Westerners of the late twentieth century. It reveals not only the beliefs and practices of the magicians but also something of their lives and cultural settings. And it brings further sophistication to the key question why it is that intelligent and educated people believe in magic and its efficacy. Furthermore, one cannot examine the belief systems, ritual practices, and moral views of Luhrmann's subjects without recognizing that for them the magical fellowship is a form of religion. In short, Luhrmann's book brings all the key questions of the course nicely into contemporary focus.

What follows is the syllabus of readings and discussions for the nine-week class, allowing two periods for introduction, conclusion, or break:

A. Anthropological conceptions of religion and magic

1. Classical theories of religion and magic.

2. Religion and magic in tribal cultures. Read Navajo "Prayer of the First Night Male Shooting Chant Evil", from Gladys A. Reichard, Prayer: The Compulsive Word (1944); and the account of a sorcerer from Arnhem Land, from W. Lloyd Warner, A Black Civilization (1964).

B. Religion and magic in Asia

3. Magic in early India: the Atharvaveda. Read selections from Hymns of the Atharva-Veda, Together with Extracts from the Ritual Books and the Commentaries, trans. Maurice Bloomfield (Clarendon, 1897; Motilal Banarsidass, 1964).

4. Weather-magic from Tibet to Central Asia.

5. Trials for magic in Asia.

6. Magic in modern India: discussion of Lee Siegel, Net of Magic.

C. Religion and magic in Graeco-Roman antiquity and in early Christianity

7. Curse tablets and magical papyri in the ancient Mediterranean. Read selections from John G. Gager, Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World (Oxford University Press, 1992), and Hans Dieter Betz, ed., The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, Including the Demotic Spells, 1 (University of Chicago Press, 1986).

8. Early Christian magic. Read selections from Marvin Meyer and Richard Smith, eds., Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power (1994).

9. Miracle and magic: Christ and the saints. Read Paulinus, Life of St. Ambrose, vi.20, in Roy J. Deferrari, ed., Early Christian Biographies (Fathers of the Church, 1952), pp. 44-45; St. Jerome, Life of St. Hilarion, cc. 20-22 and 33, ibid., pp. 258-61 and 270-71; deeds of St Equitius and Fortunatus, from Gregory I, Dialogues, bk. 1, trans. Odo John Zimmerman (Fathers of the Church, 1959), pp. 16-18 and 42-43.

10. Anglo-Saxon charms and other Germanic texts. Read selections from G. Storms, ed., Anglo-Saxon Magic (Nijhoff, 1948): sayings of O&#eth;inn (=Woden) from the Hávamál (pp. 2-4); Second Merseburg charm (p. 110); charm against a dwarf (no. 7, pp. 166-67, from the 11th-cent. Lacnunga manuscript); field ceremonies (no. 8, pp. 172-77, from a 12th-cent. manuscript); nine herbs charm (no. 9, pp. 186-91, from the Lacnunga manuscript); charm against theft (no. 13, pp. 206-07, from an 11th-cent. manuscript); remedies against the Devil and insanity (no. 28, pp. 260-61, from a 10th-cent. leechbook); remedies against witches and elvish tricks (no. 32, pp. 268-69, ibid.); use of the Sator-Arepo formula for aid in childbirth (no. 43, p. 281, in Latin, from an 11th-cent. manuscript).

D. Religion and magic in Judaism

11. Texts from late antiquity. Read excerpts from Michael A. Morgan, trans., Sepher ha-Razim: The Book of Mysteries (Scholars Press, 1983), and F.C. Conybeare, ed., "The Testament of Solomon," Jewish Quarterly Review, 11 (1899), 1-45.

12. Texts from the medieval Judaism. Read excerpts from "The Sword of Moses," ed. Moses Gaster, in Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1896, 3-52, reprinted in Moses Gaster, Studies and Texts in Folklore, Magic, Mediaeval Romance, Hebrew Apocrypha and Samaritan Archaeology, 1 (1928; repr. Ktav, 1971), 288-337.

13. Mysticism and magic in Kabbalah. No reading.

E. Religion and magic in late medieval Christendom

14. Christianized Jewish magic: the Liber iuratus and the Liber visionum. Read Daniel Driscoll, trans., The Sworn Book of Honorius the Magician (Heptangle, 1983), and G.G. Coulton, trans., Life in the Middle Ages, 1 (Cambridge University Press, 1928), 162-63, from the Grandes Chroniques de St Denis, vol. 5, 269.

15. The "common tradition" of magic. Read excerpts from The Book of Secrets of Albertus Magnus, of the Virtues of Herbs, Stones and Certain Beasts, also a Book of the Marvels of the World, ed. Michael R. Best and Frank H. Brightman (Oxford University Press, 1973), and W. Braekman, "Magische experimenten en toverpraktijken uit een middelnederlands handschrift," Verslagen en mededelingen van de Koninklijke Vlaamse Academie voor Taal- en Letterkunde, 1966, pp. 53-118; also published separately (Ghent: Seminarie voor Volkskunde, 1966) (trans.).

16. Arabic astral magic and its impact in Europe: Picatrix.

17. The Munich manual of necromancy: discussion of Richard Kieckhefer, Forbidden Rites: A Necromancer's Manual of the Fifteenth Century (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998).

18. Christian Hermeticism: Marsilio Ficino. Read excerpts from Marsilio Ficino, Three Books on Life: A Critical Edition and Translation with Introduction and Notes, by Carol V. Kaske and John R. Clark (Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1989), Book Three--On Obtaining Life from the Heavens [De vita coelitus comparanda].

19. Christian Cabala: Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Johannes Reuchlin. Read excerpts from Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Conclusiones sive theses DCCCC Romae anno 1486 publice disputandae, sed non admissae, ed. Bohdan Kieszkowski (Droz, 1973), conclusions regarding magic (trans.).

20. The late medieval condemnation of magic. Read B.H. Putnam, Early Treatises on the Practice of the Justices of the Peace in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries (Oxford, 1924), 241; Kors and Peters, 80-96; Cloud of Unknowing, c. 55, trans. James Walsh (Paulist, 1981), 227f.; excerpts from Heinrich Kramer and Jakob Sprenger, The Malleus maleficarum, trans. Montague Summers (Pushkin, 1928); Fifth of the Lollard Twelve Conclusions, 1395, from Anne Hudson, ed., Selections from English Wycliffite Writings (Cambridge University Press, 1978), 25f. (modernized).

21. Trials for magic in late medieval Europe. Read excerpts from G.G. Coulton, trans., Life in the Middle Ages, 1 (Cambridge University Press, 1928), 160-62, from the Grandes Chroniques de St Denis, vol. 5; L.S. Davidson and J.O. Ward, eds., The Sorcery Trial of Alice Kyteler (1324), Together with Related Documents in English Translation, with Introduction and Notes (Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1993), 26-30, 56, 62f.; Montague Summers, The Geography of Witchcraft (New York, 1927), 82-84; G.O. Sayles, ed., Select Cases in the Court of King's Bench under Edward III., 5 (Quaritch, 1958), 53-57; C. L'Estrange Ewen, Witchcraft and Demonianism (London, 1933), 33f.; Gene A. Brucker, ed., The Society of Renaissance Florence: A Documentary Study (Harper & Row, 1971), 260-73; Domenico Mammoli, The Record of the Trial and Condemnation of a Witch, Matteuccia di Francesco, at Todi, 20 March 1428 (Res TudertinŠ, 1972), trans. pp. 28-40; Reginald Hyatte, intro. and trans., Laughter for the Devil: The Trials of Gilles de Rais, Companion-in-Arms of Joan of Arc (1440) (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press; Associated University Presses, 1984); and John Silvester Davies, ed., An English Chronicle of the Reigns of Richard II., Henry IV., Henry V., and Henry VI. (London, 1856), 57-60 (trial of Eleanor Cobham, Roger Bollingbroke, Thomas Southwell, and Margery Jourdemain).

22. From magic to witchcraft in late medieval Europe. Read excerpts from Saint Bernardino of Siena, Sermons, ed. Nazareno Orlandi, trans. Helen Josephine Robins (Siena: Tipografia Sociale, 1920), 166f.

23. The saint and the witch. Read testimony from the canonization proceedings for Dorothea von Montau, from Richard Stachnik, ed., Die Akten des Kanonisationsprozesses Dorotheasvon Montau von 1394 bis 1521 (B÷hlau, 1978), 44, 455f.

F. Modern ritual magic

24. Ritual magic in contemporary England and America.

25. Ritual magic in contemporary England and America: discussion of T.M. Luhrmann, Persuasions of the Witch's Craft


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Posted 15 May 2004