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The Magic of the Middle Ages

Viktor Rydberg


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Tags: Occult » History

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The Magic of the Middle Ages by Viktor Rydberg was first published in 1865. Chapters include: The Cosmic Philosophy of the Middle Ages, and its Historical Development; The Magic of the Church; The Magic of the Learned; and, The Magic of the People and the Struggle of the Church against it. 'A belief in magic is found among all nations. With those of unitarian views it was destined to be forced more and more into the background by the growth of speculation and natural science. With them there was also but one form of magic, although those in possession of its secret were considered able to exercise it for a useful or an injurious purpose alike. Only among nations holding dualistic views do we meet with magic in two forms: with the priests a white and a black,—the former as the good gift of Ormuzd, the latter as the evil gift of Ahriman; with the Christians of the Middle Ages a celestial magic and a diabolical,— the former a privilege of the Church and conferred by God as a weapon to aid in the conquest of Satan; the latter an infernal art to further unbelief and wickedness.'

This book has 64 pages in the PDF version, and was originally published in 1865. This translation by August Hjalmar Edgren was first published in 1879.

Production notes: This ebook of The Magic of the Middle Ages was published by Global Grey on the 21st July 2021. The artwork used for the cover is 'Morgan-le-Fay' by Frederick Sandys.

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Excerpt from 'The Magic of the Middle Ages'

Wherever religious thought divides the empire of the world and humanity into two absolutely opposed powers, a good and an evil, there it also distinguishes two kinds of magic: the divine and the infernal. So with the Persians who knew a white and a black magic. So also in the Middle Ages of Christianity. The Greeks, on the contrary, knew nothing of this distinction. The world being to them a harmonious whole, both in moral and physical respects, magic was with them only a means of finding out and using the secret powers in the harmonious cosmos; and the wonder-worker who could not be thought of as deriving his powers from an evil source, was undoubtedly a favorite of the gods and an equal with the heroes, not unworthy of statues and temples, if he used his art for the benefit of humanity. For the rest, magical speculation was with the Greeks more and more pushed aside by philosophy,—by scepticism and rational investigation, until on account of the nearer contact between Europe and Asia, after the death of Alexander, it began again to exercise its influence, and finally celebrated its triumph in that dualistic form of religion which by the name of Christianity took possession of the Occident.

The struggle which the spirit of orientalism waged on its march through Europe, first against the Hellenic paganism, and then against the Christian paganism which had penetrated into the Church itself, has been briefly sketched above. When Christianity had spread later among the Germanic and Slavic nations, there arose a new process of attraction and repulsion between it and the natural religions of the barbarians, the elements of which were partly blended with it and partly repelled by it. The gods were transformed into devils, but their attributes and the festivities in their honor were transferred to the saints. Pope Gregory the Great ordained that the pagan festivities should be changed only gradually to Christian, and that they were to be imitated in many respects.

In the time of Boniface there were many Christian priests in Germany who sacrificed to Thor and baptized in the name of Jesus at the same time. Of especial influence on the rapid spread of Christianity was the maxim of Gregory not to be particular in the choice of proselytes, because hope was to be placed in the better generations of the future. To be allowed to attend divine service, and to be buried in the churchyard, it was only necessary to have the benediction of the priest. Gifts to the Church, pilgrimages, self-scourgings, repeating of prayers in Latin, opened the gates of heaven to the proselytes easier than virtue and bravery those of Valhall to the heathen. For the rest the pagan could enter the community of the Church while retaining his whole circle of ideas. The Church did not deny, but it confirmed, the real existence of every thing which had been the object of his faith, but it treated these objects in accordance with its dualistic scheme, sometimes elevating them to the plane of sanctity, and again degrading them to something diabolical. Thus, for instance, it changed the elementary spirits—which the Celts and Germans believed in—from good or morally indifferent natural beings into fallen angels, envying man his heavenly inheritance; and if a thinking heathen could before accept or reject the existence of such beings at his pleasure, it now, when he had become a proselyte, became a matter of eternal bliss to believe in them. There was no superstitious idea gross enough not to receive the signet of the Church; nay, the grosser it was, the more likely was it to be appropriated. Even so cultured an intellect as Augustine, the most prominent of the fathers and authors of his time, declared it to be “insolent” to doubt the existence of fauns, satyrs and other demoniac beings which lie in wait for women, have intercourse with them and children by them. Thus was laid the foundation of that immense labyrinth of superstition in the darkness of which humanity has groped during the thousand years of the Middle Ages.

In the rupture between the Church and the natural religion of the northern peoples we find, in a certain sense, the same spectacle repeated which we have seen in the struggle between the Christian and the Greco-Roman culture. If the Neoplatonicians held up their Appolonius of Tyana as a type of the Christian sorcerers, Celts, Germans and Northmen had also their soothsayers endowed with supernatural powers whom the Christian missionaries must excel in the power of working miracles, if they would gain consideration for the new religion. There are many accounts of bishops and priests who have worn gloves of fire, walked on white-hot iron, and so forth, before the eyes of the astonished heathen. If the miracles worked by the apostles of Christianity had their source in divine agencies, then those performed by its opponents must have their origin in the assistance of the devil. Already here the white magic stood opposed to the black magic, the immediate and supernatural power of God in His agents to the devil: and if the chief significance of the Church was to be an institution for deliverance from the devil; if all her magical usages from the sacrament to the amulet were so many weapons against his attacks; if the pagan religions which had succumbed to Christianity were nothing but varied kinds of the same devil-worship, and their priests, seers and physicians but tools of Satan; then it was natural for all traditions from the pagan time which the Church had not transformed and appropriated should be banished within the pale of devil-worship, and partly also that every act to which supernatural effects were ascribed, but which was not performed by a Christian priest, or in the name of Jesus, should be referred to a black magic, partly in fine that the possibility of an immediate co-operation, a conscious league between the devil and men should be elevated to a dogma.

A struggle between good and evil, between God and Satan, between church and paganism, which is carried on with the weapons of miracles by two directly opposed human representatives of these principles, was a theme which must by necessity urge the power of creative imagination into activity, and we find also in one of the oldest monuments of Christian literature a tale of this character. It is Simon Peter, the rock on which the Church is built, who fights there against Simon the magician of Samaria, mentioned in the Acts. When the cities of Asia Minor had witnessed their emulation in miracle-working, the decisive battle was fought out to the end in Rome. In the presence of the assembled people, Simon the magician attempts an ascension into heaven, but falls and breaks his legs because Simon Peter had commanded the evil spirits who were carrying the magician towards the sky to let him drop. This fable appears still further embellished in later ecclesiastical authors. It is soon accompanied by others, such as that of Cyprianus, Theophilus, Militaris, Heliodorus, and many others, who from love of earthly glory abjure Christ and enter into solemn covenants with the devil. In the biography of the holy Basilius, archbishop of Cæsarea and Cappadocia (he was a contemporary of the apostate emperor Julian), there is a story of a young man who had obtained from a heathen sorcerer a letter of recommendation to Satan. When the young man, according to the precept of the magician, had gone to a heathen grave and there taken out the letter, he was suddenly taken up and borne to the place where Satan, surrounded by his angels, sat on a throne.

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