These days, we tend to associate magic either with the sleight of hand tricks performed by magicians and illusionists, or with the fictional universes of the likes of Game of Thrones and Harry Potter.
Belief in magic predates any form of religion and in ancient times the belief that magic could be used to do harm led to counter-forms of defensive magic and to the later distinction between good and bad, or black and white (malefic and benefic) magic. In antiquity, Roman law forbade the use of harmful magic or sorcery. Throughout the Middle Ages, in Christendom, although all forms of magic were often viewed with suspicion, it was generally malefic magic that was most feared and most aggressively prosecuted.
By the Renaissance, magic in many forms, pervaded every aspect of life, from the fate of individuals and entire nations (astrology) to medical astrology that combined ‘natural’ remedies with the use of astrological almanacs and calendars. For example, a doctor might prescribe a herbal remedy but also stipulate that the patient recite a charm or incantation or perform some other ritual; moreover, the taking of medicine and the performance of the associated rituals must take place at astrologically auspicious times. Such practices often blurred the line between regular or orthodox Christian practices (for example the recitation of prayers like the Pater Noster) and the charms or spells that combined folklore and magic with Christian prayer and the liturgy. And bloodletting, a very popular (and potentially fatal treatment) that sought to rebalance the body’s four ‘humors’ (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm. and blood), was performed only after consulting a bloodletting calendar — an astrological calendar that not only enumerated the best times for treatment but the best places from which one should be bled.
But how did magic survive in an climate of puritanical medieval Christian fundamentalism? Simply because miracles (and what are miracles but magic by another name) were an integral part of the Christian tradition – water to wine, parting the red sea, raising the dead, the doctrine of the Eucharist and transubstantiation, for example. For hundreds of years, most were able to safely navigate the blurred supernatural hinterland between the kinds of magic that could be performed with impunity and those that could land you on the pyre or the gallows. Not everyone succeeded. Giordano Bruno (1548–1600), the brilliant and insatiably curious Dominican friar, fell foul of the Inquisition because he claimed that distant stars were in fact suns orbited by other worlds and that the universe was infinite (a direct challenge to the Aristotelian view adopted by the Church). But the final nails in his coffin – or kindling to his pyre – were his views on magic. He was sentenced to death, his tongue cut out and he was hanged upside down and burned at the stake.
The first printed books to deal with magic are those on astrology and other minor treatises on the occult and witchcraft. The most infamous treatise against witchcraft, the Malleus maleficarum (‘Hammer of Witches’) by Dominican monk Heinrich Kramer was first printed in 1487 by Peter Drach in Speyer, Germany; and was popular enough to go through six reprints before the end of the century. For Kramer, any kind of magic, either benefic or malefic, was heretical because both required consorting with demons.
Kramer’s obsession with witches (arguably a product of his medieval misogyny and sadism) led him to conclude that witches were worse than fallen angels: ‘So heinous are the crimes of witches that they even exceed the sins and the fall of the bad Angels’; and that their sins were even worse than those of the devil himself because they “sin against the Creator and the Redeemer.’
As research for this article, I decided to read Malleus maleficarum. I have yet to finish it but can already tell you that it truly is one of the most bizarre books I have ever read; but I recommend it (not as a beach book) for its insight into religious absolutism and as an object lesson in how easy it is to intellectualize and justify unconscionable cruelty and malevolence.
In one part, Kramer argues that among women who have been made pregnant by an incubus, some might in fact simply be suffering from wind:
“At time also women think they have been made pregnant by an Incubus, and their bellies grow to an enormous size; but when the time of parturition comes, their swelling is relieved by no more than the expulsion of a great quantity of wind.”
And watch out for women who use conditioner!
“Incubus seem chiefly to molest women and girls with beautiful hair; either because they devote themselves too much to the care and adornment of their hair, or because they are boastfully vain about it.”
Much of Kramer’s evidence is anecdotal. In one such story, recounted as proof that witches have the power to transform men into beasts, he writes of a man who travelled to the East (apparently a hotbed of witches), to Salamis in Cyprus. He is about to depart on his ship to return home but is a little peckish, so he decides to buy some eggs from a local woman. Subsequently, he is bewitched and transformed into a donkey. As a donkey he cannot return home aboard the ship (obviously!) and is forced to work for the witch who sold him the eggs. What’s more, everyone but witches see him as an ass.
After three years working as a beast of burden for the witch, he is one day being led by a church during Mass. In desperation, he decides to kneel as though ready to receive Communion. A Genoese merchant who witnesses the kneeling donkey, instantly understands what’s going on (another miracle!). Subsequently, the ‘witch’ egg-seller was tortured, confessed and executed and the man restored to his usual form. The moral of the story is not so much be careful who you buy eggs from, as women from the East are more likely to bewitch you.
These are just a small sampling of the hundreds of anecdotal stories presented as evidence of witchcraft. ‘The Hammer of Witches’ quickly became the Inquisition’s text book and instrument of the most profound cruelty and ignited a craze that persisted for some 300 years, resulting in the murder of tens of thousands of innocent people, mostly women.
Three transformed witches (with the heads of a donkey, a cock and a dog ) flying on a pitchfork from Ulrich Molitor’s De lamiis et phitonicis mulieribus, c. 1489 [by Johann Prüss in Strasbourg]. Image courtesy of Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel. (On the origins of ‘witches on broomsticks’ see here.)
But if Kramer’s book was instrumental in reinventing the witch and witchcraft, then Johann Weyer’s De praestigiis daemonum (‘On the Illusions of the Demons’) was a partial antidote (at least in the Netherlands). The Dutch doctor and occultist, demonstrated a compassion alien to the sixteenth-century Church, claiming that witches did not exist and that those found guilty of witchcraft were affected by a mental disorder, rather than demonic possession. His book undoubtedly saved many lives and his psychopathological explanations sowed the seeds of modern psychiatry. Others like Ulrich Molitor (c. 1442–c. 1507), condemned the Inquisition’s use of torture in witch trials ‘for the fear of punishments incites men to say what is contrary to the nature of the facts.’ His treatise on witchcraft, De lamiis et phitonicis mulieribus (‘On Witches and Female Soothsayers’) was the first such treatise to be illustrated and as such proved influential on the developing iconography of the witch. One of the woodcuts depicts three witches piloting a pitchfork.
Molitor was only a moderate in comparison to the likes of Kramer. Molitor, although concluding that witches were in fact powerless, believed that they still deserved to burn – not for being witches but for being duped by demons into believing that they were possessed of supernatural powers.
Johannes Trithemius’s (1462–1516) was a cryptographer and author of the first printed work on cryptography, Polygraphia (1518). But he was also interested in the occult and his Steganographia, a collection of three books, written around 1499, but not printed until 1606 in Frankfurt. Steganographia was swiftly banned and entered into the Catholic Church’s list of banned authors and works, the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, where it remained for 300 years!
Stenographia’s principal theme is how to send messages over long distance, via a kind of telepathy aided by angelic messengers invoked through spells and incantations. For many years Stenographia was considered as one of the most significant early modern demonological treatises and controversy over its true nature (cryptography or demonology) raged for centuries. The ciphers for the first two books were discovered early on and the cryptographic key of the third book was discovered in 1996 (see Reeds, p. 314). But if the book is solely concerned with cryptography, did Trithemius use talk of spirits and angel magic simply as an engaging rhetorical device or was cryptography part magical art?
When it comes to the intellectual legacy of the Renaissance, it is humanism that first comes to mind with its obsessive resurrection and reinvention of Graeco-Roman antiquity and the rediscovery or re-appreciation of Aristotle, Plato, Lucretius, Livy and Cicero. But the Renaissance is also characterized by a renewed interest in magic, in alchemy, astrology, witchcraft and Hermeticism. The rediscovery of Hermeticism is perhaps the most intriguing. It was a philosophy based on an ancient collection of texts known as the Corpus Hermeticum attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, who, during the Renaissance, was generally considered to have been a contemporary of Moses. Around 1460, Cosimo de’ Medici (1389–1464) came into possession of an almost complete manuscript of the Corpus Hermeticum (also known as Pimander) and gave it to Marsilio Ficino to translate from Greek to Latin. Ficino completed his translation in 1463 and it circulated widely in manuscript before its first edition in print in 1471 by Gerardus de Lisa, the Flemish printer who introduced printing to Treviso in northeastern Italy in the same year. Ficino’s translation was titled, De potestate et sapientia Dei (‘The Power and Wisdom of God’).
Hermetic: dealing with occult science or alchemy, from Latin hermeticus, from Greek Hermes, god of science & art, who was identified by Neoplatonists, mystics & alchemists with the Egyptian god Thoth as Hermes Trismegistos ‘Thrice-Great Hermes,’ who supposedly invented the process of making a glass tube airtight (a process in alchemy) using a secret seal. Hence, ‘completely sealed’ implied in hermetically. Source.
Ficino’s own writings were influenced by Plato and Hermeticism, and he began to form his own ideas of the cosmos as a mirror image or reflection of humans, an analogy that can be traced back to Pythagoras and Plato. In Plato’s Philebus, the universe and humans alike are made up of four elements, earth, water, air and fire — bound together by the soul — and as the universe and humans are mirrored, then it follows that the cosmos too possesses a soul. This was also a dominant theme in later Gnostic and Hermetic texts that led to the cosmos as macrocosm and humans as microcosms analogy. Although not an explicitly Christian doctrine, it is restated beautifully by the Church Father, Origen of Alexandria (c. 184–c. 253), who wrote,
‘Understand that you are another world in miniature and that there is within you the sun, the moon and the stars.’
–Origen’s Homilies on Leviticus, 1–16, p. 92
And is not all that different to the words of Carl Sagan who, 1,800 years later, said, on TV – not on Leviticus:
"We are a way for the universe to know itself. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff.”
After Cosimo’s death in 1464, Ficino turned from translator to author. His De vita libri tres (‘Three Books on Life’) was written in the 1480s and first printed in December 1489 by Antonio Miscomini in Florence. Just two months before this first printed edition, a magnificent illuminated manuscript copy was produced.
* Again based on Pythagorean, Platonic and Hermetic ideas and later expounded by Boethius.
One of the most attractive concepts in Ficino’s ‘Three Books on Life’, an esoteric mix of theology, astrology and magic, is the notion that the cosmos produces music,* that the motions of the stars, planets and the celestial spheres produce music and that for our own purification and enlightenment, we should seek to attune our souls to this divine cosmic harmony.
However, it was Robert Fludd (1574–1637), the English physician, scholar and occultist who most fully developed the microcosm-macrocosm analogy. He even began writing an entire history on the relationship between microcosm and macrocosm, De naturae, seu technicamacrocosmi historia, first published in 1618 and beautifully illustrated with numerous copper engravings, including depictions of macrocosm and microcosm. It also set off a prolonged and heated debate with Johannes Kepler.
In addition to philosophy and magic, Fludd even takes a look at the military arts, proposing the use of nested pentagons [cue X-Files theme music] for military fortifications.
Arthur C. Clarke wrote that, ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ Three hundred years before Clarke, the Italian philosopher, Tomsaso Camponella wrote, ‘technology is always called magic until it is understood.’ Both views are rational but reductionist. For thousands of years, our ancestors practiced various forms of magic – in fact, it informed their entire worldview and ultimately shaped ours. Most importantly, what is common to all of these natural philosophies and sciences is an impulse to learn and a desire to comprehend where we fit into this cosmic puzzle. And, if as the brilliant Polish anthropologist, Bronisław Malinowski, wrote, ‘the purpose of magic is to ritualize human optimism’, then perhaps we would all benefit from a little more magic. ◉
Header image: Detail from Le Médecin guérissant Phantasie, Mattheus Greuter, 1620 (Bibliothèque nationale de France)
Reference and further reading:
Michael Allen & Valery Rees (eds), Marsilio Ficino: His Theology, His Philosophy, His Legacy, 2002
Edward Bever, The Realities of Witchcraft and Popular Magic in Early Modern Europe, 2008
Celenza, Christopher S., ‘Marsilio Ficino’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
Brian Copenhaver, Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius in a New English Translation, with Notes and Introduction, 1995
Ioan P. Culianu, Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, 1987
Faracovi, O. P., ‘Man and Cosmos in the Renaissance: “The Heavens Within Us” in a Letter by Marsilio Ficino’, Diogenes, 52(3), 2005, pp. 47–53
Barry, J., Hester, M., & Roberts, G. (eds), Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe: Studies in Culture and Belief, 1996
Richard Kieckhefer, ‘The Specific Rationality of Medieval Magic’, American Historical Review, 99:3, 1994, pp. 813–36
Hyun-Ah Kim (2017) ‘“Music of the Soul” (animae musica): Marsilio Ficino and the Revival of musica humana’, Renaissance Neoplatonism, Reformation & Renaissance Review, 19:2, 2017, pp. 122–34
Natalie Kwan, ‘Woodcuts and Witches: Ulrich Molitor’s De lamiis et pythonicis mulieribus, 1489–1669’, German History, Volume 30, Issue 4, December 2012, pp. 493–527
Jim Reeds, ‘Solved: The ciphers in book III of Trithemius’s Steganographia’, Cryptologia, 22 (4), 1998, pp. 191–317
Lyndal Roper, Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany, 2004
Victor Scholderer, ‘A Fleming in Venetia: Gerardus de Lisa, Printer, Bookseller, Schoolmaster, and Musician’, The Library, volume s4-X, Issue 3, Dec. 1929, pp. 253–73
Wayne Shumaker, The Occult Sciences in the Renaissance, 1972
Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, 2003
Gregory Zilboorg, The Medical Man and the Witch During the Renaissance, 1935 (2011)
Video: BBC Radio Four, In Our Time: Renaissance Magic
[This concludes part three in my series on Remarkable Renaissance Books]