Ghosts, Witchcraft, Demons and Books of Magic

Daniel Ogden. Night's Black Agents: Witches, Wizards and the Dead in the Ancient World, Hambledon Continuum, 2008.

Jeffrey R Watt. The Scourge of Demons: Possession, Lust and Witchcraft in a Seventeenth Century Italian Convent. University of Rochester Press, 2009.

Lynn Wood Mollenauer. Strange Relations: Magic, Poison and Sacrilege in Louis XIVs France. Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007. (Magic in History Series)
For several tens of thousands of years, human beings lived in a cosmos that was perceived as organic, personal and malleable to the human will, for good or ill. Despite the rise of mechanical modernity, these beliefs still persist, and not just in the rural backwaters beloved of romantic folklorists. These books give insights into the this world.

The supernatural world protracted by Daniel Ogden, that of ancient Greece, and especially Rome, is one in some ways quite alien to us, but in another way its echoes still resound. It is a bleak and savage place, reflecting a civilisation that sense it could so easily be pulled back into the wilderness. Its supernaturals, shape shifters, body eaters and soul devours, seem to exist on the frontier between wilderness and habitat, hence one of their main tricks is turning people into animals and back again. There is, says Ogden, "something of the arena" especially in Roman supernatural lore. Their ghosts are not the weightless, translucent largely ‘imaginary’ creatures of modern psychical research, they are more like vampires, palpable creatures who can make love and war, and whose realm is just another country, with its border crossing ferryman.

Lynn Wood Mollenauer shows in her study of the ‘Affair of the Poisons‘, even when invoking demons, grimoires were imbedded in the Christian culture of the period. The demons, symbols of ultimate wildness and rebellion, were to be summoned up by and bent to the will of the sorcerer-priest, representative of the habitat of Christian civilisation. These demons were to be domesticated, turned into beasts of burden and slaves. This was done with words, the products of the articulate language which creates human culture and separates human beings from wild nature. The Word is the Habitat.
Despite this diversification, the old grimoires survive, and Davies traces their numerous re-publications, and down-market descents. In parts of Africa and the Caribbean, the mystical West, the works of the American William Lauron Delaurence, part con-artist, part genuine idealist and pioneer of racial equality in a very hostile time, have the same iconic value as various representatives of the ‘mystic East’ have in the west. There is nothing new in this, as witness the charisma of the eastern mages in the classical world, discussed by Ogden. Almost by accident, these two books on magic, demonstrate just how fictive notions of cultural purity really are. We have long lived in a globalised world; how very old the ‘New Age’ really is.

Jeffrey Watt's study of possession in the convent of Santa Chirara, takes from these global concerns down to a micro community, the closed world of the nunnery and its tensions and jealousies, and to a world too like our own for comfort. What was once seen as magic we now see as sexual abuse, verbal bullying and psychogenic illness.There is the priest who preys on, rather than prays for, young nuns, the Princess-Abbess, who rules the place like a petty kingdom; the lone nun who never wanted to be there, and who likes the outside world and its temptations too much, who then becomes the scapegoat; the retired Duke now a monk, who still acts rather as a back seat driver to his successor son. Perhaps surprisingly for a modern audience, the voice of reason, which stops the witch hunt and insists that the women are not really possessed at all, is the Inquisition!

The court of Louis XIV as depicted in Strange Relations is several levels up in the ladder of tyranny from the convent. In many ways it is the prototype of the modern totalitarian state, in which the whims of the all powerful leader, and access to him, determine who is to have power or not. The practices which became the basis of later sensational claims of devil-worshipping black-magic, were part of the semi-Christian folk magic of the period, and a time in which poison and infanticide were commonplace parts of folk culture.

Of the four books here, that by Ogden is perhaps most opaque to the lay reader. Maybe its subjects are too remote and the writing too dense. Davies is a much more accessible writer, though you will probably learn more about the publishing history of grimoires than you might feel you need to know, Watt propels us through the rather arcane world of the early modern Italy, with the human interest of the characters, many of whom you could meet in any modern office; while Mollenauer contains warnings about the corrupting power of any totalitarian system.

The old magic may now have faded away to statistical anomalies in card guessing games and New Age banalities, but magic is not dead. The old cliché says a sufficiently advanced technology will look like magic, but it is nearer to the point to say that a sufficiently advanced magic is technology. The new magic of science and technology gives human beings powers for good or ill which the old magicians could never have envisaged in their most ecstatic visions or wildest nightmares. -- Peter Rogerson.

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