Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Magic and Fantasy Fiction Part 1--What is magic?

(A Babylonian cylinder seal above shows a worshipper standing in between the goddess of love, Ishtar, on his left and the sun god, Shamash, on his right. Note the abundance of magical symbols including the crescent moon and stars.)

A fair amount of discussion has been going on recently among my fellow Christians who write speculative fiction on the nature of magic in relation to fantasy fiction. E. Stephen Burnett in Speculative Faith especially has made some comments that have inspired this particular blog post.

I would say there is a real connection between fantasy fiction and the practice of magic--or there is a possible genuine connection anyway. But that connection doesn't really lie where people who worry about such things (usually fellow Christians) think it does. It is not true that the very mention of magic or the practice of magic is somehow dangerous.

However, those who dismiss such concerns with a wave of the hand are not really correct in their understanding of the situation, either. For example, I believe E. Stephen would have to be fairly classified among Christians who think there are a lot more important things to worry about in the world than anything that occurs in fantasy fiction magic. (If he has ever stated that concern about the supernatural in fiction on the part of some Christians has any validity at all, I have not witnessed it--though I haven't read everything he's written, either.) And he's recently opined that some Christians perform what he called "white magic spells" which are worse than fantasy magic.

The crux of his reasoning centers around people believing that certain specific actions compel God to act. That such a quid pro quo is in contradiction to prayer, which is asking God for things and recognizing He may deny the request. Therefore the actions compelling God to act are really "white magic"--since Mr. Burnett identifies magic as making things happen in the supernatural realm in exchange for other things happening. Intellectually it's a compelling way to look it things because it's straightforward and unambiguous. Quid pro quo = bad. Non quid pro quo in relation to God = good.

The problem with such elegant simplicity is that it is unfortunately not entirely true. Magic doesn't always equal a quid pro quo exchange and a relationship with the God of the Bible does not mean God has never promised to perform some actions in response to other actions.

This is a multifaceted concern and it merits more than one post. I have already addressed the issue of how I think Christians ought to write magic, by the way, in my 7 Ways to Deal With the Problem Magic Poses Christian Fantasy Writers post. This post will be different in that I will explore different aspects of the topic than before. Specifically the aspect of quid pro quo in relation to magic.

Or more fundamentally, what IS magic? Why is the Bible so critical of magic?

Volumes could be written (and have been) on what magic is. But one thing is clear is that ancient human beings as a whole saw the world very differently than we do. They were as a whole animists--which means they believed that every single thing that exists has a spirit dwelling inside it (treating everything as if it were human in a hidden way). Animists believed there were a number of actions one could take to appease such spirits, to appeal to them, to convince them to help a person in need, or to ward off their wrath. A not all that different concept is found in pantheism, the idea that a single spirit permeates all of nature and has aspects that can be appealed to or manipulated.

Certain symbols were special for certain spirits or aspects of the one pantheistic spirit and would be useful in getting their aid. Words spoken in ritual, especially words only understood by the inner circle of those who made a living from the practice of magic (shamans) formed part of the means to reach the spirits, as did special gestures and the performance of such acts at specific times. Animal sacrifices were also often part of such rituals, as were many, many other things.

Anthropologists study such actions among the people who still practice them today and again, have written volumes about them. But the essential thing to note for this post is that the animistic or pantheistic view of magic did not really see the use of magic as a this for that exchange (quid pro quo). Not entirely.

The offerings, gestures, and symbols were all seen as ways to get on the good side of the spirits--but it was always possible for a spirit to refuse to do what it was supposed to do. Even the pantheistic spirit so similar to the Force of Star Wars could manifest a will of its own. 

Shamans thought of most of the spirits as not being particularly bright--a certain herb or symbol might work nearly every time with a certain spirit, because it would frighten it or trick it. They believed they could at least most of the time control or manipulate the spirits. But they did not believe that the spirits had no choice in the matter as to whether or not to come through and do what they were supposed to do. Spirits at times would misbehave--and while the shaman could and did do everything possible to minimize such acting up on the part of the spirits, they recognized they did not have ultimate control over them.

The religions of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt were the first to employ a formal priesthood. The priests supported the kings in various ways, were literate, and kept temple records. Conditioned by millennia of monotheism, we may think that once priests came into existence, a sharp division was created between religion and magic. We might think that priests prayed, while the magicians who continued to exist in ancient civilizations did something fundamentally different.

No, not really. The ancient priesthoods formalized the magic of the past, but they saw no distinction between performing rituals designed to appease the gods--whom they saw as the greater, more noble, and more powerful spirits--and the rituals used to appeal to the lesser spirits.

So when Ba'al, one of the gods of Canaan, needed to be appeased by his worshipers having sex with one another (they believed such actions would cause him to bring rain), that was seen as legitimate ritual. Priests and priestesses organized and participated in such things as much as they did animal sacrifices. Or the use of magical symbols. 

Words spoken in ritual by a priest (what we might call prayer) were not fundamentally different from words spoken by a private practitioner of magic (what we might call spells). Ancient Pagans saw this all as a suite of similar things--yes, the priests were different because their role was for public ritual and they were formally trained. They worked in the temples. But their rituals were still designed to appeal to invisible spiritual powers--their incantations were still thought of as appeasing their gods. Their appeals to Ra or Marduk were no less magical to them than the shaman praying to--or casting spells with--local spirits (please note the image I've included above from ancient Babylonian worship, with magic symbols linked to worship of the gods). And the priests, the polytheistic temple magicians, still believed it was possible that the spirits of the gods could say, "no."

Over time, in some places, the concept of magic evolved so that the rituals were seen to appeal to power that did not emanate from specific spirits. This eventually developed a concept that magic is the manipulation of vague powers that do not really emanate from spirits at all. But all historical references I've seen make it clear this is much more modern than the animistic or pantheistic and polytheistic versions of magic. Yes, this type of magic employs a lot of directly quid pro quo thinking. But even these practitioners believe spells can fail for totally unknown and unknowable reasons. The fundamental nature of the supernatural they regard as being unpredictable to a certain degree, something a believer in the one God of the Bible usually will say is true of God's will. We can only know it to a degree.

However much believers in one God may in fact agree with magical practitioners that the nature of reaching out to the supernatural is an appeal and not a quid pro quo situation, we are quite different. For one thing, we monotheists have a clear division in our minds between religion and magic and prayer and spells. It is OUR concept of that division which has affected the modern views of magic as practiced by Neopagans and as portrayed in Fantasy fiction, believe it or not. Ancient man, prior to formal monotheism, saw no division between magic and religion.

Copious texts we would call magical exist from the ancient world prior to the formal entrance of monotheism into history via the official establishment of Judaism through Moses (though the Bible itself maintains belief in one God is original to humanity and humans became corrupted with false ideas after the fall of man). None of these ancient texts actually USE a word that means "magic" as opposed to a prayer or ritual to appease the gods. Magic and prayer and ritual were all aspects of the same thing.

The first book in the history of the world to use the term "magic" in reference to a spiritual power separated from prayer is the Hebrew Bible itself, in Deuteronomy 18, Isaiah 8, and other places. All concepts of magic that see it as separate from prayer are in fact influenced by the Bible, the first book in world history to delineate a difference between the two things.

So how does the Hebrew Scripture define the difference between magic and prayer? Does the one involve quid pro quo and the other not?

No, not all all. The Bible shows numerous situations in which a condition is created for God's blessing, from things as morality-based as the behavior of the kings of Israel to as seemingly random as Moses needing to keep his arms elevated for Israel to win a battle against the Amalekites. There are some clear examples of quid pro quo in the Hebrew Bible.

The Bible in fact draws the difference between magic and prayer in that magic is the use of power by appeal to supernatural forces other than the one, legitimate God. That includes ALL versions of such supernatural powers and is linked to the worship of other gods, which the Bible routinely condemns. Divination and necromancy were quite popular versions of magic in Bible times and get specific mention in Bible passages--but ALL of it, all supernatural power other than that coming from the one God of the Bible is all condemned and seen in the same light. The condemnation cannot be limited to necromancy or divination alone. 

Nor can magic be solely thought of as just a quid pro quo arrangement. Often it was, nearly always in fact, since the spirits only acted up on occasion in the view of the practitioners of magic--but that's entirely beside the point, Biblically speaking. The Biblical condemnations of magic do not care a niggle if quid pro quo was involved in the magic or not--if a supernatural power came from a source other than God, it was condemned by the Bible under the banner of "magic" or as going after other gods, which were two aspects of the same thing. Period.

My references to the Bible's view of magic have been to the Hebrew Scriptures up of this point. Does the specifically Christian New Testament see this issue differently? Do Christians have a legitimate reason to think we can get God to perform specific actions for us, quid pro quo? Is thinking so "white magic"? And how did Christianity influence the understanding of magic in the world? Is the use of symbols, spells, and rituals specifically anti-Christian?

These issues and a few others I'll address in my next post on this topic. Please stay tuned.