Magic in the West
With the rise of Neopaganism in the West over the past century or so, modern practitioners of magic have often argued that magic is a tradition or practice separate from and even opposed to Christianity. This has historically not been the case. Though there is a long tradition of Christian religious authorities condemning magic and arguing that it is pagan or from the devil, a great many or perhaps even the majority of magic workers in the West (by which, in this case, I primarily mean Europe and colonized North America) in the last millennium have identified as Christian or drawn on Christian theology, ideas, symbols, and scripture for magical practices.
Many contemporary magic workers are aware to some extent of the Christian links of their forbears, yet they often seem to believe that magical practices are easily separated from Christianity. They tend to believe that the magic they practice or read about is at its base pagan or a pagan survival in the age of Christianity. I argue that much magic in the West, historically speaking, is fundamentally Christian. The idea among magical practitioners that magic is pagan or non-Christian and can be separated from Christian belief and practice is fairly new in the western history of magic.
First, we should address what counts as “Christian.” Many readers will argue that magic cannot be Christian because Christianity and Christian scripture teach against magic. One could turn to various biblical passages, such as Exodus 22:18, which reads famously in the King James translation, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” In Galatians 5, the apostle Paul lists “sorcery” alongside idolatry as one of the “works of the flesh” that ought to be condemned. Acts 19 describes former magicians in Ephesus recently converted to Christianity by Paul burning their magical books. And the practice of certain kinds of magic has certainly been frequently condemned by Christian leaders in the centuries since the biblical texts were written.
In spite of this, many people who identified as Christian over those centuries also practiced the very types of magic Christian leaders condemned. Not only that, but these magical practitioners incorporated Christian ideas and scripture into their craft. As I will show later, magicians often sought to invoke or summon the angels mentioned in Christian writings, or they used the words of Christian scripture in their workings based on the belief that the words of scripture held supernatural power. Who gets to decide whether or not these magicians were Christian? Ironically, many modern pagans and magic workers seem to want to let the Christian elites and authorities they otherwise denounce determine who is and is not a Christian.
We do not have to define “Christian” based on what certain Christian teachers say. We could, instead, trust the testimony of historical magic workers themselves and the many people who used their services. They practiced magic but still claimed to be Christians. They had ways of understanding scripture and their faith that allowed them to practice magic and still see themselves as good Christians. If you do not want to trust any of the historical actors I have listed, many contemporary academic scholars of religion talk about “Christian magic” and identify these historical magical practitioners as “Christian.”
Now that we have argued that, according to scholars and many people who identify as Christian, you can indeed be a Christian and practice magic, let us look at how magic and Christianity have interacted over the past two millennia. Some of the earliest magical texts known to contemporary scholars are the Greek magical papyri, a body of papyri from Greco-Roman Egypt that were written from the second century BCE through the fifth century CE. As the name implies, the Greek magical papyri are a collection of magic spells written in ancient Greek on papyrus. Hans Dieter Betz, the scholar who has most famously edited the English translations of the papyri, explains that the texts are highly syncretic, containing influence from “Egyptian, Greek, Babylonian, and Jewish religion, with a few sprinkles of Christianity” (Betz xlv). Some of our earliest magical texts after the advent of Christianity, then, contain Christian elements. For example, one spell (labeled by modern scholars PGM LXXXIII) prescribed for “fever and shivering fits” conjures “Michael, archangel of the earth.” The spell includes a paraphrased line from the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy will…” Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Solomon are all biblical figures referenced in the spell (Betz 300).
The idea that paganism survived long into the Christian era in Europe in the form of witchcraft often loosely veiled in Christian imagery to hide its pagan nature has been popular at least since the writings of Margaret Alice Murray (1863-1963). As historian of European magic Owen Davies explains, Murray was a respected Egyptologist at University College London. Influenced by scholar of religion and folklore James Frazer, and drawing on the writings of Jules Michelet and Charles Leland, Murray argued in her 1921 book The Witch-Cult in Western Europe that “those tried as witches [in early-modern Europe] were secret followers of a fertility religion dating back to Palaeolithic times. They formed themselves into covens of thirteen and worshipped a phallic horned god. Each coven was led by a man…who impersonated this god and who would let himself be sacrificed to ensure the fertility of the crops if need be” (Davies, Paganism 99-101) Unfortunately, Murray’s evidence for this thesis was thin and her reasoning was often flawed, leading some scholars of her day and most twenty-first century scholars to dismiss her conclusions. Nevertheless, this theory of pagan “survivals” proved influential for decades among certain folklorists, anthropologists, and historians, and her ideas still hold sway in the Neopagan popular imagination.
In reality, it can be difficult to discern to what extent pagan beliefs and practices persisted after a European people’s Christianization and, as Davies argues, it is “difficult to substantiate” claims that “people were wilfully venerating pagan gods a couple of centuries after the formal adoption of Christianity” (Davies, Paganism 43). There was certainly a long transition from paganism to Christianity in Europe and significant syncretism between Christianity and paganism certainly occurred. Even some modern Christian belief and practice is marked by roots in pre-Christian paganism. Nevertheless, folklorists have sometimes been overly eager to find ancient paganism where little exists. In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century in particular, European folklorists often found traces of paganism in modern folktales and practices where there were none. Davies provides an illustrative example of this phenomenon. A New Year’s Eve “fire festival” at Allendale in northern England during which burning barrels were carried was believed by some locals in the mid-twentieth century to be of pre-Christian origin. In reality, “the burning of the barrels was introduced to help light the open-air, nighttime Methodist hymn services conducted on New Year’s Eve” and only dated back to 1858 (Davies, Paganism 95).
Historian of British paganism Ronald Hutton has remarked that nineteenth- and twentieth-century calendar customs, which many suppose to be from pagan antiquity, are actually the survivals of the region’s medieval Catholicism (Davies, Paganism 96). All of this is to say, while paganism has certainly marked Christianity in the West, there is little evidence that it survived into the modern period as a robust and independent strain of religion.
What we think of today as Western Esotericism has its roots among Christian thinkers of the Renaissance. Western Esotericism is hard to define and there is endless scholarly debate about how to define it, but ultimately Western Esotericism is something like a Western intellectual tradition that has focused on recovering hidden magical or divine divine knowledge that is first found among pagan thinkers in antiquity and is to some extent found within all true religions. Elite Renaissance magic and later Theosophy are manifestations of Western Esotericism. Many scholars would argue that Neopaganism has significant roots in Western Esotericism. The idea of the occult (the name of which refers to something “occluded” or “hidden”) arises out of Western Esoteric thought. Many modern popular practices and ideas among Neopagans, such as tarot and astrology, have their roots in Western Esotericism or have been heavily shaped by the tradition. Historian of Western Esotericism Wouter Hanegraaff explains that Western Esotericism and the occult have their roots in Renaissance Christian attempts to incorporate newly rediscovered pagan wisdom into their religious worldviews. The Renaissance, which began in around the fourteenth or fifteenth century CE, was a time when European intellectuals were rediscovering primarily Greek and Roman pagan writings that had been lost to the European West for centuries during the medieval period. Thinkers and writers at the time sought to demonstrate that timeless truth could be found in the pagan sources and to “make clear how those trajectories harmonized or coincided with the unquestionable truth of Christian doctrine” (Hanegraaff 5). Ultimately, these Renaissance thinkers were interested in pagan thought as “ancient and universal wisdom.”
Therefore, “simply because this wisdom was true and divine in its very nature and origin, it was ‘Christian’ by definition, regardless of where it was found” (Hanegraaff 56). Though it has its source in pagan writings, the occult ultimately was shaped into its modern form by committed Christians, and It was not until the eighteenth century that esotericism and the occult came to be widely seen as something separate from Christianity. Many magical practitioners interested in history have probably heard of Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535), one of history’s foremost occultists and the author of Three Books of Occult Philosophy. He, for example, identified as a Christian and saw his occultism as perfectly compatible with his Christianity. His writings, in fact, are steeped in Christian concepts and imagery. Agrippa, who was later accused by some Christian leaders of being a demon-worshipper and practitioner of black magic, wrote that all human arts and sciences are uncertain and vain compared to God’s revelation in the Bible, which, Agrippa wrote, “cannot be grasped by any judgment of our senses, by any reasoning of our mind, by any syllogism delivering proof, by any science…in short, by any human powers, but only by faith in Jesus Christ, poured into our soul by God the Father through the intermediary of the Holy Spirit” (Hanegraaff 84). Even after the eighteenth century, many occultists, such as the Christian Theosophists, in the tradition of Agrippa, still identified as Christians.
Many twenty-first century Neopagans and witches in the West look to European folk practices as a source for their magical practices. Most practitioners of European folk magic in the past few centuries have strongly identified as Christians. Let us take, for example, the cunning-folk of England. Owen Davies argues in his book on cunning-folk over the several centuries leading to the twentieth that it does not really make sense to call cunning-folk “pagan.” He explains, “by the medieval period the church may not have obliterated all signs of pre-Christian beliefs and practices in England, but it had effectively suppressed all vestiges of paganism as a religion and as a mode of worship.” He argues that the pre-Christian beliefs and practices remained only is as much as they were “assimilated into the Christian corpus of belief.” Certainly in the twentieth century there were healing charms that had “direct origins in known pagan charms” with the names of Germanic pagan gods replaced by biblical figures, yet the “process of assimilation was so complete that…to label it pagan is to misrepresent the people who used it and the context in which it was used” (Davies, Popular Magic 185). In early modern England, cunning-folk identified as Christian and practiced in a Christian context. Of course, it is true that many Christian clergymen denounced the practice of magic and the cunning-folk, but as we explored earlier, this gives us no reason to reject the testimony of the cunning-folk and those who used their services that they were Christian. An examination of some of the work cunning-folk did reveals their Christian milieu. Reginald Scot, a member of parliament who wrote a book to dispel belief in witches reports a popular spell used to keep witches and bad spirits away from buildings. It reads, in Latin, “Omnis spiritus laudet Dominum: Mosen habent et Prophetas: Exurgat Deus et dissipentur inimici ejus,” which translates, “Let every spirit praise the Lord: they have Moses and the Prophets: Let God arise and his enemies be scattered.” The second line comes from Luke 16:29 in the New Testament, and the last line comes from the biblical Psalm 68. Charms like this one reported by Scot have indeed been found or recorded in England in the twentieth century and earlier (Davies, Popular Magic 150-151). In another example, as part of a cure for witchcraft, a Yorkshire cunning-man ordered his patients to read Matthew 10:4-42 and Psalm 70, then read Deuteronomy 28:15-25 seven times at 11:00 at night. Davies reports, “from a popular point of view, [cunning-folk] were only doing what the Anglican Church should have been doing more of – using the power invested in the Bible for practical as well as spiritual purposes” (Davies, Popular Magic 62). We can conclude with a summary comment by Davies: cunning-folk were “essentially Christian. Whether conscientious churchgoers or not, they employed the Bible and Christian rites and rituals.” This is in contrast to many late-twentieth- and twenty-first-century “hedge witches” who mostly identify as pagan (Davies, Popular Magic 196).
Folk magic as it has developed in colonized North America has also been practiced and passed down primarily by Christians until recently. Scholar of African American Conjuring or Hoodoo Yvonne Chireau makes clear that Black American folk magic, for instance, was thoroughly situated in a Christian milieu even if Conjure also drew on elements of non-Christian African and Native American spirituality. She demonstrates that, “from slavery days to the present, many African Americans have readily moved between Christianity, Conjure, and other forms of supernaturalism with little concern for their purported incompatibility” (Chireau 12). Many Black American Christians in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries condemned Hoodoo as un-Christian, but just as many embraced Conjure and still saw themselves as good Christians. As one example, Chireau presents William Adams, a former slave and “self-proclaimed preacher, and healer in a 1930s Texas community.” Chireau explains, “as did others in his day, [Adams] found in the Christian scriptures a timeless collection of potent spells, charms, curses, and esoteric lore.” When confronted with the fact that some people do not understand how he can practice magic as a Christian, he comments “’Member the Lord, in some of His ways, can be mysterious. The Bible says so.” He argues that supernatural abilities are divinely gifted by God (Chireau 5). Chireau describes how inscriptions from the Psalms were thought by those who embraced Conjure to provide luck and prosperity to those who wore them. She quotes renowned twentieth-century Black ethnographer and novelist Zora Neale Hurston, who claimed that many Conjurers viewed the Bible as the “greatest Conjure book in the world,” and Moses, seen as a powerful African miracle worker, was “honored as the greatest Conjurer” (Chireau 25). Similar entanglement with Christianity and large number of self-identified Christian magical practitioners can be found among other folk magical traditions that have become popular among twenty-first century North American witches and Neopagans, such as Appalachian folk magic and Powwow with its roots among the Pennsylvania Dutch.
Ultimately, I am not arguing that magic in the West has no roots in various world paganisms. I am arguing that in many or most cases before the end of the twentieth century, magic was just as much Christian as it was anything else, and it was viewed as such by those who practiced magic. Western magic of the last 1500 years is shot through with Christian ideas, imagery, and scripture. Magic was practiced primarily by people with sincerely held Christian faith. There are some movements among Western Neopagans and witches today to try to “purify” magic of its Christian elements. Ironically, this is exactly what Christians were trying to do for centuries when they persecuted magical practitioners and taught against magic – they were trying to “purify” Christianity from magic while refusing to recognize that magic could be legitimately practiced by committed Christians. I am not arguing that such efforts by Christians or Neopagans are wrong, I am simply arguing that modern Western magical practitioners should seriously reflect on how Christianity provides some of the core substance of the magical systems from which they are drawing. Does Appalachian folk magic still stand when stripped of its Christian elements? Does African American Conjure? These questions should at least be raised. Many contemporary Western practitioners of magic have been burned by Christianity, and the marks of Christianity are sometimes a mark of colonization, so it is understandable that they would want to divorce their practice from the religion. I am just calling on readers to think carefully about how magic and Christianity interact and to recognize that a large proportion, perhaps even a majority, of magical practitioners of the past 1000 years in the West have likely been Christians.
- Betz, Hans Dieter, ed. The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.
- Chireau, Yvonne P. Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
- Davies, Owen. Paganism: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
- Davies, Owen. Popular Magic: Cunning-folk in English History. New York: Hambledon Continuum, 2007.
- Hanegraaff, Wouter J. Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.