MAGIC, PART XLII: The Priest and the Magician

Calming a Storm - Wiliam Hole

If I were to tell you, devoid of any other context, about a man who could command demons, cast curses that caused living things to wither and die, or control the weather, then you might be reasonably forgiven for thinking I was talking about a wizard. Of course, these are all actually miracles of Jesus. The line between magic and divine power is a concept you see a lot in fiction—the powers of the gods and the powers of a human sorcerer do not spring from the same source. This distinction has not always been present in human beliefs, and is in many ways somewhat rare.

This is particularly true in the ancient world. We have a lot of surviving information about the magic practiced by the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians, and a common trait of all of them is that magic and religion are mixed together. A spell might call upon a spirit to complete some task, but it might just as easily command one of the gods to do it. In these situations the difference between a spell and a prayer can be unclear. In Egypt priests worked in the temples, conducting religious ceremonies, but in their free time they might charge a modest (or in some cases not so modest) fee to heal the sick with incantations, provide charms to ward off scorpions, or rid your house of ghosts, among other services.

There’s also shamanism, different forms of which are practiced around the world, from Mongolia to Brazil, and have existed for centuries. In cultures where shamanism is or has been prevalent, it was often the dominant form of religion for a long, long time. The shaman was the central figure, but pretty much did all the things you’d expect from a magician, like commanding spirits, summoning rain, and other such things. The line between a priest and a magician can be very murky, and often has been throughout human history.

The Christian tradition is an exception. Writings from the earliest days of Christianity argue that all the miracles of Jesus are divine, the will and action of God. Obviously, if you believe there is only one god, and that he grants miraculous powers upon his followers, then any other claims of such powers from people outside your religion must be false or the product of false gods. This idea has influenced Western writing for centuries, and in modern western fiction is the usual reason magic and religion are treated separately.

However, the idea that God’s miracles were entirely different from magic, despite any superficial similarities, wasn’t always consistent. Sure, the official church line in the middle ages was that magic was purely the act of demons, but there are thousands of examples of magic spells from the time, practiced by Christians, that call upon God or Jesus for magical aid. I even gave an example of one back in the Spell List article, where the Lord’s Prayer was re-purposed as a magic spell. Hell, most of the magic that survives in books of spells from the medieval era was written and practiced by members of the clergy. They were, after all, the people who were most likely to be literate. Sure, some of their spells involved commanding demons, but they usually used the different names of God and his angels to do the ordering. They reasoned that God had authority over all lesser spirits, and a holy enough man could put them to work for good purposes, like King Solomon.

This is not to say that magic didn’t sometimes have a stigma in other cultures. It did. The Greeks and Romans banned types of magic they thought were dangerous, like killing people with curses, and they were frequently wary of people who practiced any magic. After all, these people weren’t stupid. They knew any old jerk could go out in the streets and offer to sell prophecies for a reasonable price, then just make up some gibberish and run off with your money. Skepticism is not a modern invention. Even then, the people who believed in magic might distrust magicians. The idea that your neighbor has mysterious, supernatural ways to get ahead in life that you lack is not something that’s going to engender warm social relations.

So what am I getting at with all of this? Simply that in your writing, magic and religion are topics you can feel free to mix together in a variety of ways. You could tell a story about a mighty empire, where all the religious figures are powerful wizards, inspired by ancient Egypt and its magician-priests. Maybe take the approach that there are different kinds of magic, each with its own attendant gods and spirits. You could also take cues from Christian traditions, where society is monotheistic, but your religion gives you the authority to command lesser spirits and forces to achieve magical ends. Human cultures, and their views of both magic and religion, are extremely varied, and you can draw on it all, in whatever way you’d like.

Just be prepared to possibly upset some people.


1 Response to “MAGIC, PART XLII: The Priest and the Magician”

  1. 1 Michael September 27, 2013 at 4:58 pm

    Terrific article. Some great ideas for a book series.

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