[This is the fifth in a series on What is Paganism?]
What’s Love got to do, got to do with it?
In his Witches Druids and King Arthur, Ronald Hutton claims that ancient Pagans (in addition to having no theology at all) made a “sharp distinction” between religion and magic, whereas modern Pagans “dissolve” such distinctions. For many decades it was fashionable to insist, as Hutton still does here, on a nice straight bright line separating magic from religion in the ancient world. But “scholarly consensus” is ever fickle in her affections, and now she is no longer returning Hutton’s phone calls. Here is what one group of experts wrote in 2003 (the same year that Witches Druids and King Arthur was published) in their Introduction to a collection of papers presented at a conference that had occurred in 2000 (emphases added):
[R]ecent work has provided compelling documentation for the broad area of overlap between ‘religion’ and ‘magic’ in the Graeco-Roman world. From the courtrooms of classical Athens, there is ample evidence for the deployment of magical rituals, objects, and words. These written, spoken, or sung words–whether we call them spells, incantations, or charms–draw upon a ritual and conceptual vocabulary closely linked to the ‘official’ forms of civic and public prayer. In contrast to earlier scholarship, which tended to see such shared elements as evidence for magicians’ surreptitious appropriation of public religion, recent scholarship has preferred to view ‘magical’ and ‘religious’ practices as part of a continuum that encompassed both individual and communal forms of piety.
[Prayer, Magic, and the Stars in the Ancient and Late Antique World, p. 2]
I suppose one cannot expect scholars to just come right out and admit that they had been barking up the wrong tree, let alone an imaginary tree. And therefore they must claim that “recent work has provided compelling documentation” …. to the effect that they had been very wrong about the nature of the relationship between religion and magic. The problem is almost certainly attributable to hyper-specialization, for anyone familiar with Plato would know full well that according to one of the most famous passages in all of ancient philosophy, the priestess/philosopher Diotima had taught young Socrates, as part of his education in Love, that through the good offices of Eros
all divination is made possible, and the science of the priests and of the specialists in sacrifices and initiations and spells, and all prophecy and goeteia.
The Greek goeteia is variously translated as “sorcery”, “magic”, “witchcraft”, “enchantment”, and so forth, whereas the Greek word here translated as “spells” is epodas, which is often translated as “incantations”. The important thing is that “divination … the science of priests … sacrifices and initiations … and all of prophecy” – are all very conventional aspects of traditional Greek Paganism. But the same principle (Eros) lies behind those mainstream, respectable aspects of Pagan religion and also behind “spells” and “sorcery”. The implication is that “proper” religion (divination, priestcraft, sacrifice, initiation) and “magic” (incantations and enchantment) are just different manifestations of, or possibly even just different words for or ways of looking at, the same underlying phenomenon.
The same section of the Symposium also tells us this about Eros:
being in between both [Gods and humans], it fills the region between both so that the All is bound together with itself.
As already mentioned in a previous post (but this definitely bears repeating) Plato’s Symposium posits a Cosmos densely populated with many different varieties of spiritual beings, and among these are Eros and the other Daimones, who are liminal, intermediary beings actively “binding” everything in the Cosmos to everything else. So not only was there, undeniably, Pagan theology centuries before Christianity existed, this theology was both magical and erotic.
Magic as a subversive activity
Lets look more closely, and practically, at the relationship between “magic” and “religion” in ancient Paganism. James Rives gives some indication of just how false the “magic versus religion” dichotomy is when he discusses “Religious options” in his Religion in the Roman Empire:
In the Roman world as in our own, different people had different tastes in matters of religion. Some found comfort in the familiar, and valued the practices and beliefs that were current in their communities and that they had known all their lives. Others, by contrast, were attracted to what seemed remote from ordinary life, esoteric traditions reputedly handed down from the distant past or imported from an exotic foreign culture. In the Roman world, as in our own, the two qualities “ancient” and “foreign” often went together, since Greeks and Romans believed the cultures of the Near East to be much older than their own (in many cases quite rightly). Yet the Greek tradition had its own ancient religious authorities, and they also played an important role….
While anyone could pray and make offerings, and even interact directly with the Gods through oracles, dreams, and visions, some people claimed a special connection with the divine that gave them insights and abilities unavailable to ordinary people. Within the normative Graeco-Roman tradition, the socio-economic elite tended to view such charismatic religious leaders with suspicion, inasmuch as they constituted a potential threat to their own authority … [y]et they flourished all the same, if more often on the fringes of the mainstream Graeco-Roman tradition than near its center.
Rives describes a spectrum of religious options, as he calls them, available to ancient Pagans. These options included local, well established practices that were conventional and respectable in the most dull and ordinary senses of those words. Another option might consist of foreign practices that were nevertheless even more ancient, and in some cases perhaps even more prestigious and respectable, than one’s own local cults. Or one could go further afield and explore religious options that left both familiarity and respectability far behind. But, as Rives also discusses in his book, Roman law criminalized certain options, including, especially, “magic”.
A superficial interpretation of just such legal proscriptions against magic (combined with, among other factors, ignorance of Plato) helps to explain the falsely imagined dichotomy between magic and religion that characterized much of late 20th century scholarship. What, exactly, was actually meant by laws prohibiting “magic”? An invaluable source for understanding this is Apuleius’ Apology, the only written account that we have from the ancient world of a trial in which someone is accused of illicit magic. In his account (of his own trial) Apuleius spends little time denying the specifics of the charges against him, according to James Rives (in the above mentioned book):
Apuleius denies very few of these allegations outright, and argues instead that his accusers have misinterpreted his actions, which in fact result from his philosophical and religious interests.
Before looking at Apuleius’ trial in more detail, lets first stop and take a moment to look at a more recent, and, to us, far more famous, legal proceeding.
In a letter written from a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., explained that ‘We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal”‘.
King then goes on to state that he had
almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
Interestingly, the name of Socrates is invoked three times in that famous letter. According to King, Socrates “practiced civil disobedience”, had an “unswerving commitment to truth”, and “felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal.”
I bring up Martin Luther King in order to highlight just how ambiguous our notions of “criminality” and “legality” can be. Hitler did not break any laws, but the “founding fathers” did, as did civil right activists during the 60’s. Apuleius’ trial also highlights this same ambiguity (albeit in a very different way – although perhaps not as different as one might think at first) as discussed by Rives here:
The trial thus seems in an important sense to have turned on the issue of acceptable religious behavior. The great interest that some people had in religious arcana must have appeared to others as beyond the pale; if in addition they perceived it as in any way a direct threat, they could attack it as magic…. If, as Apuleius apparently did, the accused could persuade the presiding official that his behavior fell within the limits of the normal, he could hope to be found innocent; if he failed to do so, however, the official would have little hesitation in condemning him. In this respect, trials for magic were at their heart a context in which Roman authorities and the people of the empire could work together to determine the limits of acceptable religious interests and activities.
It’s important to emphasize that where “magic” was viewed as a crime in the Graeco-Roman world, this only applied to malefic magic, either in the sense that it is intended to harm specific individuals, or in the broader sense that it is seen as harmful to society in general. I should point out that the the modern Wiccan tradition that I belong to also absolutely prohibits any kind of malefic activity of any sort. And, for that matter, the Wiccan Rede itself forbids anything that violates the principle “an it harm none”. And just such an absolute commitment to non-harming also lay at the heart of the non-violence philosophy of the civil rights movement of the 60’s. In a very real sense, both King and Apuleius present the same basic answer to their accusers: their actions, far from being harmful to others (or to society as a whole), were based on sound philosophical and religious principles that, in theory, society at large upholds and recognizes as beneficial.
There is, of course, nothing more subversive in the eyes of the powers-that-be than exposing the ignorance and hypocrisy of the leaders and rulers of society. If we now set Apuleius aside for a moment, we can see that just this kind of subversion was central to the “missions” of both Socrates and King. In Socrates’ case he exposed the fact that those who were thought most wise by their fellow Athenians did not, in fact, understand the true meanings of either virtue or piety, nor did they possess even the beginnings of self-knowledge. When brought to trial Socrates mounted a philosophical defense, and treated the jury just as he had treated the politicians, poets and shoemakers. As for King he argued that those “white moderates” who imagined themselves to be the best friends the civil rights movement had, were, in fact, “the Negro’s great stumbling block” because they were “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.” In their devotion to order, these white moderates exposed their ignorance of the underlying principle of Justice, the principle of which social order should be a reflection. Like Socrates, King paid for his convictions with his life, and did not hesitate to do so.
Apuleius’s case is rather different, but also has important parallels to that of Socrates and King. Apuleius’ accusers were powerful individuals, but they did not enjoy the broader societal support of either Socrates’ enemies or the white moderate clergymen addressed by King in his letter. Nevertheless Apuleius still makes the same basic kind of appeal by showing that the those who had brought charges of “magic” against him did so only out of their own ignorance of the basics of religion and philosophy. Socrates, Apuleius and King all address themselves to “higher” principles that go far beyond the mindset of those who oppose them.
Precisely here is revealed the great danger, in the eyes of some, posed by people like Socrates, Apuleius and King. Such individuals pose a challenge to those who want to control who is authorized to speak about virtue, piety, philosophy and justice. Those who are able to convincingly present themselves as understanding and even personally representing such principles have tremendous potential power, a power that is truly magical in its seemingly “supernatural” ability to work outside of or even in direct opposition to the established “order”.
The “sharp distinction” that Hutton and others have tried to insert by assertion between magic and religion is not, after all, only a figment of the imagination of misinformed scholars. There are always those who wish to exert control over who is, and who is not, an authority on matters pertaining to religion and morality. But even when they succeed their success can only ever be partial. In part this is because of the natural tendency of people (or at least some people), if only out of curiosity (a major theme of Apuleius’ most famous work, The Metamorphoses), to explore and experiment with various religious options (including magic). Even worse, though, for those in power (or who wish to be, or imagine themselves to be) is the case of individuals who have made it their business “to create a tension of the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal.” This leads to (possibly deadly) conflict with those who prefer “a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
What I am talking about (and what Socrates, Apuleius and King clearly represent) is not mere “anti-authoritarianism” for it’s own sake. Fortunately there is something far more subtle, profound and powerful than a juvenile rebelliousness directed against all those in charge. This is resistance to those who exercise their power unjustly, or who attempt to do so. There is no escape from this criterion. It is not authority itself that is opposed, it is injustice. “Order” is not rebelled against just because it is “orderly”, but precisely because it is only superficially orderly, because it fundamentally diverges from the inherent order of the kosmos. But natural “laws” can never be truly violated. If an apple appears to fall up, that just means some force has impelled it upwards, and if one continues to observe the apple carefully it’s trajectory will trace out a parabola, or “gravity’s rainbow” as Thomas Pynchon called it.
In addition to the complacency of those committed to “order”, King also had to face the accusation that in Birmingham he was an “outside agitator”. To which he responded:
I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all.
King’s appeal to “interrelatedness” is a good place to end this rambling investigation into religion and magic. Interrelatedness is not only fundamental to both Martin Luther King’s ethical world-view, and to Plato’s erotic cosmology, it is also a key principle of Mahayana Buddhism, as I discussed earlier in a post on “Fractal Buddhism“. And it is the essence of Wicca as a magical religion.