Magic and Superstition

Anthropologists, historians, and even modern day magic users argue about the definition of magic, and there really isn’t one that is used by most people. It seems to fall somewhere between religion and science. While modern people usually see it as closer to religion most people in the Middle Ages considered it closer to science, if not a branch of science. It would work 100% of the time if you just had the right formula.

In this class, we will largely consider two types of magic that were most popular in the Middle Ages: Demonic Magic and Natural Magic. Demonic magic, it was agreed, could work because it invoked demons. This type of magic may have been considered a subset of religion which was a perversion of religion, and punishable by religious authorities. Natural magic involved things you could do yourself which would cause a magical ending. This was closer to a science than demonic magic, and sometimes there have been actual scientific findings in the modern era to support what was done as magic back then.

Natural magic and science involved using more mundane or obvious powers of the natural order. Whether something fell under natural magic or science was a very tricky line to find, however. Even people who were actually doing the work might be unsure whether using a certain herb with a certain incantation was magic or science, and in many cases it might be both as herbs have been later proven to have many medicinal qualities, but the practitioners at the time believed it had to be plucked with your left hand on the third full moon of the year, which modern science has found no truth to.

Not everyone agreed that there was such a thing as natural magic. Chants used in natural magic were often gibberish and priests suspected that there were names of demons hidden in them. If strips of leather were used to heal epilepsy they suspected an animal sacrifice to appease demons. In other words, both types of magic could fall under scrutiny by the church and be punished by the Inquisition.

Magical systems were largely borrowed from the Greeks and Romans who did magic with the aid of their gods. Since Christians believed those gods were demons, it could be considered that all magic was demonic.

Many anthropologists have tried to talk about “the magic of the medieval church” but this is not a particularly useful concept if you’re trying to understand how people at the time actually thought about it. We might consider blessings, exorcisms, relics, and pilgrimage shrines to be indistinguishable from magic, but at the time they were not considered to be the same thing at all. There was magic in the world and it was separate from religion.

While some of the magic employed in the Middle Ages may strike modern readers as inane, it is important to remember that to medieval people, it was deadly serious. Judges who sentenced people to death took it very seriously.

Witchcraft was used by almost everybody. A book of household management from the 15th century shows how many household tasks were done by magic. We assume by the fact that the book was written in the vernacular that the author was not a priest or monk. The book contains information on nearly every aspect of running a household. It is likely that the author did not consider himself a magician. However, in addition to listing leaves to eat if you have a fever, it lists Latin words to write on the leaves before using them, before sunrise on three consecutive mornings. Using the leaves themselves counts as science, and the Latin prayers are religion, but the repetition and time of day are magic. More clearly magical is a cure for epilepsy in which one binds the neck of the sufferer with a piece of leather, and then binds the sickness to the strap, in the name of the Father and Holy Spirit, and finally buries the strap with a dead man.

For demonic possession, the book recommends reciting a long string of gibberish into the ear of the victim, or boiling juniper and putting them on the victim’s head without his knowledge. Or to ensure keen eyesight during the night, you should anoint your eyes with bats’ blood, presumably to absorb their ability to “see” at night. Where there are words to say, they tend to be either gibberish or come out of the Mass, but in most cases, there are no words to be said.

A later reader wrote in the margins to condemn some of the prescriptions as heretical and sorcery, and others he wrote “this would be good — if it were true!” So we can see that what one person considered science another considered magic or nonsense.

Magic is an area where popular culture meets with learned culture. Popular notions about witchcraft were taken up by learned people (here defined as people with degrees). Then they were spread from university to university and sorcerer to sorcerer. It may be true that natural magic was more likely to be used by normal people while demonic magic was more likely to be used and taught at universities, however, astrology and alchemy were natural magic and both were only practiced by the educated.

We don’t know as much about demonic magic as we know about natural magic. This is because most demonic manuscripts were burned by the inquisitors, but we do have enough of them to get an idea for the genre. One of these is a manuscript from Munich that describes a form of demonic magic called necromancy. It is in Latin, from which we assume that the author is clergy. It gives instructions for conjuring demons, controlling them once conjured, or compelling them to return to where they came from. It can be used to drive a person mad, arouse passionate love, gain favor at court, create illusions, or predict the future. Some elements seem to be from Jewish or Muslim magic, such as reciting names of God.

If you were to create a list of all of the forms of magic used by medieval people, the vast majority of forms would fall under the category of divination. Many people considered the world to be unchangeable, the will of God would be done. For these people, forcing change would be impossible, but determining what God’s will is would be possible.

While most records that discuss magic users report that it was primarily men using magic, it is women who most often burned in the bonfires that followed witchcraft trials.

One of the most famous magicians of the Middle Ages was John Dee, advisor to Queen Elizabeth I. He studied alchemy, divination, and philosophy. He is also credited with coining the term “British Empire,” and defining that as a goal. In the modern age we might consider it strange that someone would study academic sciences and witchcraft together, but at the time the two were considered one and the same. Alchemy and divination were taken seriously as academic subjects. Dee was an important mathematician who was invited to lecture at major universities already by his 20s. He also studied astronomy and was instrumental in learning how to navigate the seas. But in addition to astronomy he studied what would later become astrology, learning how the planets and stars governed life here on earth. He also spent much of his life trying to learn how to commune with angels, trying to achieve a pre-apocalyptic unity of mankind.

In 1555 he was arrested and charged with “calculating” a charge that meant he had cast horoscopes for important people, including Queen Mary and Princess Elizabeth. By 1558, Elizabeth had become queen after Mary and took Dee on as her personal astrologer, which he remained until the 1580s. At that point, failed predictions and recommendations about exploring the new world led him to be in search of a job.

Instead of a job he found himself with a much younger man who insisted he could communicate with angels and had personal messages for Dee. This man was Edward Kelley, and he was a pious Christian. All of his work was done in the name of God or angels. This relationship lasted until 1589 when Kelley told Dee that the angels had told him God wanted them to share wives. Although Dee consented to this for a short time, eventually jealousy overtook him, and he took his wife back to London. 9 months later, she had a son, whom most people believe was Kelley’s son, however Dee raised him as his own. Dee was 60 at the time, and Kelley only 32. His wife was much younger than himself.

When Dee returned from his travels he found his house burglarized and his extensive library vandalized or stolen. He tried to get another position from Queen Elizabeth, who appointed him Warden of Christ’s College in 1595. Occasionally, people tried to get his help on matters of witchcraft or demonic possession, and although he allowed them access to what was left of his library, he took little further personal interest in the questions.

When Queen Elizabeth died, James I took over and had no use for a court magician. Dee died in poverty in 1608 or 1609 at 81 years of age.

Magic is a crossroads between reality and fiction. While fiction written in period may not have been entirely accurate, we do see many times where it portrays what was actually done. Things that were taken for granted that they worked often found their ways into literature even if that literature was not meant to say anything about magic to the audience. A lot of authors who write about medieval magic use fiction as their source material. At least two of the authors I have read argue that this is problematic because fiction may have been written as fiction, and like modern authors who invent magical systems, it is difficult to know just from writing what was actually believed and what required willing suspension of disbelief.

One of the most well known magic users in classical literature is Circe who turned Odysseus’ men into pigs. Odysseus protects himself with magical herbs. Circe then instructs him how to bring back the dead and use them to foretell the future. We know that magical herbs were used for many purposes, but they were not used to turn men into pigs or bring back the dead. They were, however, used to tell the future, as in tea leaf reading. So part of this story required suspension of disbelief but part of it may have been something that was actually done.

Other Greek and Roman literature depicts magic used by women against unfaithful lovers, either to win them back or to destroy them. Literature was used to instruct. It parodied magic in many cases, which served to support the efforts of Roman authority who wanted to end its use.

The Bible, of course, also condemns witchcraft, but it also shows that it is possible when the Egyptian clerics performed all of Moses’ plagues right after he tried to use them to prove his God’s power. There were also the three magi who came to visit Jesus at his birth and it was simply accepted that magicians existed and would clearly follow a bright star in the sky.

Some of Jesus’ apostles were considered to have magical powers such as Peter’s shadow which would heal the sick. While the apostles seem to carry out a systematic campaign against magic it also appears to pagans and Jews as if they are merely trying to replace it with a superior form of magic.

Let’s start our discussion in the ancient world. Our first evidence of non religious magic comes from Ancient Egypt, and much of what was known about magic by the middle ages came from Roman mythology.

Archaeologists have dug up amulets from Ancient Egypt that could be used for protection or more sinister purposes. They also tried love magic using these amulets, or combinations of the two such as one that reads “bring him back or lay him low.” The oldest known example comes from the 1st century BC. This is a magical papyrus, and is probably love magic.

Romans often left inscriptions with nails pounded through them on houses or other durable objects. One such thing read “I curse Tretia Maria and her life and memory and liver and lungs mixed up together and her words, thought, and memory, thus may she be unable to speak when things are concealed.” They would either build these nailed inscriptions into houses or drop them into wells where it was thought they were closer to the spirit world.

We know that almost everyone believed in magic because we are told as much by Pliny the Elder. Also, Galen, who often railed against magic as nonsense did suggest mixing herbs with the left hand at midnight on the full moon, things which have no practical, nonmagical purpose.

We don’t have a lot of the information on Roman magic use since in one year Emperor Augustus had 2000 scrolls burned, and this was not uncommon behavior for the Romans, but some did survive. This scroll burning is especially true once Christianity took over and clerics warned against magic. However, they were not much listened to, even by their own flocks.

Romans considered people who had died painful or violent deaths to be particularly useful for necromancy, which has implications for Jesus rising from the dead and speaking to people. Perhaps this was not considered particularly unusual.

By the Middle Ages, not much of the actual magical methods survived and was known, but descriptions of magic and what it was capable of did survive, and terrified the population.

The magic used in Christian Germany came from many places. It was borrowed from the 12th century Arab world, from the pre-Christian Mediterranean world, and from the Celts and Norsemen. The study of magic thus becomes a way of looking at how ancient and medieval cultures interacted with one another. Beginning in the 11th century, Christian monks and priests began writing their own magical rituals that were not derived from pagan models. By the 14th and 15th century there was a further evolution in which poems in the vernacular were used for magical purposes.

Missionaries who traveled to pagan lands often found material remains of magic - amulets with gods’ names written on them, papers belonging to spells, or even buried remains of magical spells. They would often write these down so that future missionaries would know what they should look for in the field. They would also create Christianized versions of these in order to convince the local populace they weren’t losing anything by converting to Christianity. They identified the pagan gods as demons, and therefore any magic invoking them as demonic.

In Norse religion, the magician is a specialist who uses her skills to perform services for others. She uses ceremonies and magically charged objects, but the main source of her power is the written and spoken word. The Norse had runes which they used to engrave certain objects with both mundane and magical inscriptions. In a culture where most people were not literate, the written word could easily be seen as magical. Certainly it didn’t take long for the runes to take on magical qualities. The witch in Norse sagas were typically old women with special knowledge, but they were human, and not an outsider to society. The use of magic was not seen as extraordinary.

It is a common myth in the modern era that magic is a specialized activity performed by specific people. In reality, in most of the middle ages, nearly everyone believed in and performed magic. All of these people learned from each other, so there are not specialized forms of magic that belong to midwives, healers, monks, or housewives. Most of these people did not consider themselves to be using magic. However, they would use mandrake for mysterious powers and use charms to drive away the elves causing illness. Of course, they did not specify in their medical books which cures were natural and which were magical. Nonetheless, we consider those that had to be performed with specific rituals such as only being picked with the left hand at the full moon as magical. Also, we might consider cures that rely on arcane language as magical.

The boundary between magic and religion is hard to find in medicine. There might be three different types of language used in an incantation. The first is prayers, which are addressed to God, Jesus, Mary, or a Saint. The second is blessings, which are addressed to the patient and include well wishes. The third is adjurations or exorcisms which are addressed to demons, elves, or other agents responsible for an illness. Occasionally there are prayers to “lady moon,” as in one cure for a toothache. These are obviously throw backs to pagan religions, but usually prayers are to Christian subjects. Prayers can also be used in otherwise magical rites, taken out of context and used as general chanting Latin,

Monks practiced magical medicine. Local priests performed rites to ensure ample harvests. There were more specialized people who worked as diviners, but monks and priests would also dabble in these arts. Midwifes might perform magic for their clients, but also might procure bodies of miscarried children to use in rites for other problems such as curing leprosy.

Almost everyone used charms for various reasons, but many people might have been unable to distinguish this from religion, while others would count them as magic, and perhaps the majority would never consider the question. Amulets, too, could be magical or could be religious, and it is hard to tell the difference. Magical gems could be used to detect poison. People whose job it was to protect holy objects that could be stolen and used as amulets would not likely consider this magic but rather the improper use of a holy object, or superstition. Others saw no difference between magic and superstition.

If it is hard to tell religion from magic, it is even harder to tell white magic from black magic. Black magic is sometimes prosecuted for causing bodily harm or even death. In Italy, love magic was often asserted as a basis for a legal case. One common form of love magic was to feed a man a woman’s menstrual blood believing that this would cause him to fall in love with her. The difference between black and white magic does not lie in any actions taken, but rather the purpose of the magic.

Easier to tell apart is popular magic and divination. Popular magic was an attempt to manipulate the world while divination was an attempt to know the future or unknown events in the past. One method of divination was the interpretation of thunder. The direction it came from was important, and the month of the year in which it was heard was even more important. Certain days of the month or days of the week were particularly lucky or unlucky to hear thunder.

In the 12th century, Europeans learned astrology and alchemy from the Arabs. These people would have thought of themselves as scientists, not magicians, but their enemies may have labeled them magicians. In the process of intentionally learning from Muslims, the Christians also inadvertently learned from the Jews, as well.

On the other hand, some things which we now know to be scientific were described as occult by thinkers at the time. These included magnets, and purgative properties of rhubarb.

Universities really started to exist in the 14th century. Magic indirectly affected the university curriculum in as much as astrology was taught in the liberal arts. The most basic use of astrology was making horoscopes for the time of birth or other auspicious moments in life. It was also used for queries, such as “if a trip is taken at this time, what will the outcome be?” It can also be used to determine when the most auspicious time would be to undertake a specific action. Further, it had implications for medicine and a doctor might make a different diagnosis depending on the stars, or might suggest harvesting plants for medicine under a specific sign. There was considerable debate as to whether the stars could cause events or merely predict them.

Alchemy was also taught at universities. It was assumed that if everything was created from the same four elements (earth, air, fire, water), that all things should be able to turn into any other thing. It was often considered that bad things happened to alchemists, such as going insane, or other cautionary tales. Many people considered alchemists scoundrels or fools.

Necromancy flourished in the middle ages. This is the use of dead people for fortune telling. Usually it was assumed that demons had taken on the appearance of dead people and were telling the future. Clerics, more than anyone else, were accused of being necromancers. Monks and friers were also accused of necromancy frequently. All of them were at least somewhat educated.

Later necromancy was used to describe any kind of demonic magic and it was believed that one could conjure a boat or a horse to take him wherever he wished to go, or he could conjure a feast and eat. It could also be used to discern unknown things. This is where magic circles began. All necromancy has a magic circle, a conjuration, and a sacrifice. Sacrifice is usually an animal but is sometimes milk, honey, ashes, flour, or salt.

Finally, we turn to Jewish magicians in the middle ages.

Between the fall of the second temple in 70AD and the middle ages, Judaism changed in many ways. It developed the legalism that it is so well known for, but along side this it created a kind of folk religion, or ideas and practices that never got support from the rabbis, but which were so popular they can’t be ignored. This includes demonolgy, angels, and magic, which never broke with faith but often stretched the bounds of it nearly to a breaking point. The rabbis sought to get rid of these practices but were almost never successful and had to grant them grudging acceptance.

Almost everyone believed in sorcery in the middle ages, and oftentimes, Christians looked at Jews as automatically being sorcerers because they weren’t Christians, and therefore had an allegiance to Satan. Christians made this allegation and it often led to pogroms. Individual Jews were also stoned as sorcerers. The mezuzah, a box with scripture written in it hung on the doorposts of Jews homes, was considered a magical device and led to accusations of witchcraft. Jewish physicians were more scientific than their Christian counterparts, and when more of their patientis survived, they were accused of witchcraft.

In 1267, Christians were forbidden from buying foodstuffs from Jews because it was assumed that the food was poisoned. Jews were also regularly accused of ritual murder. Christian medieval magic is full of uses for human body parts, and the belief that bodies were used for magic combined with the assumption that Jews were sorcerers led to a belief that Jews used human bodies in Passover rituals.

Of course, this is all bigotry. But what was the truth behind the legend? Jews did, in fact have a tradition of magic that dated back to prehistoric times and came to its highest level of evolution in the middle ages. We find practices that date to Canaan as well as imports from Hellenistic Greece and Roman conquerors. We even find Egyptian magic dating from the slavery days. Despite these, we don’t find anything that is specifically Jewish until the late 500s AD

Sources indicate that Jews were familiar with all of the things Christian magic could do, from inducing disease and death, arousing and killing passion, forcing people to do their bidding, and employing demons for divinatory purposes. Sorcerers could change their shape and wander the woods as an animal. There are numerous stories of people fighting off animals only to be confronted by a person with the injuries they dealt the beast.

Jewish magic avoided any association with the Devil, despite what Christians were doing at the time, because Jews do not believe in the Devil. Instead Jews called upon the names of God, and the forces of good. These angels could not be expected to carry out any evil orders or go against their good natures.

Although women were more often considered sorcerers, in reality they were kept from the knowledge of Hebrew and Aramaic and scripture in general that was needed to perform the magic. Women might be folk magicians, or use herbs for healing, but they were not sorcerers.

The Bible condemns sorcery, but the Talmud, or Jewish legal teachings, allow for certain types of magic anyway. Similar to the Christians, Jews believed that there were three main types of magic. The first was things you do yourself. The second was things you commanded an angel or demon to do. The third used the names of God to accomplish a task. The first was forbidden under penalty of death, as prescribed by the Torah. The second and third were common.

Categories such as good and bad, or black and white magic were foreign to the Jews because it was not the purpose that made magic legal or illegal, but rather the methods. Also, angels couldn’t do anything bad, so most magic, which used angels, was good magic.

Medieval Jews believed in a “middle world:” a world that was neither flesh nor spirit. Demons and angels inhabited this middle world. During the early middle ages, there was a movement believing that demons had no place in Judaism, but it was impossible to remove them from folk belief. However, they occupied a relatively minor position in Jewish magic, and were almost only used in divination.

Some people wondered where these demons came from. The most popular answer was the dead, but most people saw the dead as harmless, or even beneficial. The spirits of the wicked, however, might become bonafide demons. There were also different kinds of demons, some of which resembled humans and others had wings.

One superstition stated that one should not impede the path of demons or angels by closing a door or window. Instead, a small hole should be drilled in the door so that the demon, which is on a proscribed path, can pass unimpeded. Unclean places were considered the homes of demons, especially privies. Unwashed hands are a good place to find a demon, and food touched by unwashed hands may become contaminated and kill whomever eats it.

Bad luck might cling to a person or family because once demons have decided to torment a person, it is almost impossible to get rid of them. Therefore one must avoid people who have had bad luck or else the demons might come to you as well.

Demons like the moon and shadows of trees, especially nut trees. Children who are moon struck might be accused of being demonically possessed. Sorcerers might turn into werewolves and eat a man who was caught alone in the woods. Kobolds might use a man’s voice to bewilder him and cause him to get lost in the woods.

It’s hard to imagine what the medieval psyche must have felt about being surrounded by demons, but we do find one text in which women are admonished to pray for their husbands whenever they are away that they are not beset by demons. It is amongst the four most dangerous things in the world that this text lists, the others being evil spirits, wild animals, or evil men. However, we must not imagine that it was so terrifying that people could not adapt. Occasional remarks seem to minimize the danger, such as telling people that demons only harm those that anger them.

People were in the most danger when they traveled far from home. One charm to ensure safe travel was to put a splinter from the door of your house into your hat. Also, one must not drink liquids left over night or at night because demons might come into them.

The moment of birth was crucial and demons might inhabit either mother or child at this time. There might be demons present for the first 8 days of a child’s life, until the boys are circumcised. According to Jewish stories, God said to Abraham, that because of the merits of circumcision, his descendants would be safe from demons.

Marriages, too, were fraught with danger as demons would try to prevent the act that led to more humans being born.

Death was considered to be the time when one succumbed to demons, and the clothing of the dead was never used again, and unnecessary contact with the dead was forbidden. One was considered unclean after any contact with the dead.

Demons might take possession of a body, and they particularly liked to possess scholars, seen as the highest form of human. However, they find it easier to possess women, and so usually did so. If this happened, it required a powerful exorcism.

Aside from demons one had to beware humans who might possess the evil eye and do harm to everyone they look at. Pope Pious IX was said to possess the evil eye and women made charms against him under their skirts. There is also a second type of evil eye which dates from pagan days and suggests that God envies humans their successes and will act to take them away if too much attention is paid to them.

A vow or curse is a very serious matter. Spritis love to exact vengeance for a broken vow, and a curse is literally a command to spirits to do their worst to a person.

People considered their associations to be more than lifelong, and they would haunt places and people who had been important to them in life. Man has several spirits inside him already. One departs for heaven as soon as the body is interred. One wanders forlornly between his former home and his grave for a week, and then departs or haunts his grave. The final one never forsakes its body and stays with the corpse even after interment. All three were called the soul interchangeably. A girl whose family had been too poor to dress her properly might return to the family and ask that her body be exhumed and dressed properly. Someone who was buried with a torn sleve returned to ask that it be mended.

The Talmud discusses at length whether the dead are capable of knowing events happening amongst the living. By the middle ages this had been decided in favor of believing that they did know everything that happened. Spirits could choose to help or harm the living. Tradition said that people were awarded one favor when they reached heaven, but popular tradition gave the dead much more power than this. However, saint worship was never a part of Judaism, and this fell into disuse by the end of our period.

People assumed that the world was thickly populated by angels, and they played a unique role in nature. These angels were how God maintained a presence on Earth, and also how he knew what was happening on earth. Every single thing on earth, living and not, has a unique angel living in heaven. This included each person, each insect, each unique blade of grass, and even each stone. So there were a lot of angels. The angels belonging to birds and grass mete out punishment if you abuse their charge. The angels of rocks and wood are punished if anyone is injured by their charge.

Each man is also accompanied by a star which governs his existence. Every action a man takes is approved by the angel governing his star. There’s a little bit of duplication here. If a man’s prayers are answered, they must first be relayed through the angel of his star to the Throne of Glory.

These angels were the main source of magical power. If one could learn to manipulate them, he could accomplish anything. If one made a doll of another person and then pushed pins into it, the magicians deputy would perform the punishment on the victim’s deputy, and the victim’s deputy would then perform it on the victim. Sometimes there was a third agent - the deputy of the doll.

Angels were assumed to be monolingual, and only speak Hebrew, so magic was only available to people who studied Hebrew since it was no longer a spoken language. This also made certain that women could not perform magic.

Names were very important. For humans, they decided a child’s fate, and naming them was a grave responsibility. Jewish tradition held that a man’s entire being is in his name, and many people beleived this meant that the name was the soul. In practice, this meant that a child could not be named after any living person because there was a fear that the soul would leave the first person with that name and enter the child, thus depriving the elder version of their life.

Also, a widow or widower should not marry someone with the same name as their deceased spouse, because the soul of the departed one might come back and enter the body of the living spouse. Confronted with two people of the same name, the spirits were as likely as not to bring their fortune, good or ill, to the wrong one.

It was considered that if you knew a spirit or person’s name you could manipulate him magically. More importantly, God has a name in Judaism, and although it has long been forgotten, people in the middle ages would claim to know it and be able to manipulate God through the use of his name. Kabbalists insisted that a thorough grounding in logic and theory was necessary to manipulate the names of God, but most magicians were happy enough just to take the names and try to use them.

While manipulating God was possible, most magical acts attempted to manipulate angels. There were three angels which were most often called upon: Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael. However, there were billions upon billions of different angels. Sometimes names were borrowed. Aphrodite shows up in Jewish magic, as does Hermes.

Most people have heard of the golem, a protective monster made of clay with Hebrew letters inscribed upon him who destroys Christians who come to harm the Jews. This seems to indicate that Jewish magicians thought they could create life, but in reality it was considered that not even demons could create life. Rather, they could reassemble primal matter that already existed into life. Most jews acknowledged that creating a golem was not really possible.

The line that separates magic and religion is tenuous at best, especially because some religious items are considered so holy that they posess magical powers, and magicians regularly attempt to steal or appropriate them for themselves. The Torah scroll was considered so holy that there were many proscriptions about how to treat it. One could not touch it with an unclean hand, kiss it immediately after kissing wife or child, or have intercourse in its presence. However, when a child refused to sleep or a woman was racked with labor pains, the Torah was sometimes brought out and placed on top of them to magically soothe them. The Torah scroll was also a powerful charm against forces of evil.

Biblical verses were often used to heal all sorts of minor maladies, despite rabbinic disapproval of the practice. One rabbi went so far as to explicitly outlaw all medical uses of the Torah, though, he insisted, it was legal to use them for protection. Most often, the magical verses were recited with the addition of mystical names.

No magical action was entered into lightly. It always had the potential to backfire on the practitioner. The task could even cost a man his life. Astrological considerations were vital for every magical act. However, in Jewish magic, we often see things done at the expiration of the Sabbath and the beginning of the new week.

Despite the fact that people were recognized as “son of” their father, for magical uses they were identified by their mother’s name. This is even enshrined in the Talmud. Lots of magic involved doing things backwards. One could be required to walk backward, put ones clothing on backward, or throw things behind one’s back. Biblical incantations were often recited backwards. Palindromes were especially prized. Anything that was repeated three times was magical was an often quoted proverb. Seven was also a magical number. Nine is a popular number in Kabbalah as the number that is three times three, but it hardly features at all in medieval magic.

The use of human body parts in magic was common across Europe, but exceedingly rare amongst Jewish magicians. Commandments against eating blood or consuming an animal that was not ritually slaughtered prevented Jews from using human body parts in magic.

One of the most popular magical devices was the amulet, worn on the person or attached to objects or animals. Judaism officially condoned the use of amulets to heal or protect, however only certain amulets were legal to use on the sabbath. Hebrew amulets had two sorts, the written word and objects such as herbs, fox tails, or stones. They were used to heal or protect. It could prevent miscarriage.

Precious and semi precious gems have been given magical properties since religion has existed. However, the written amulet was far more popular, and contained the names aspect of magic that has previously been discussed.

A garment still worn by orthodox men, the tzitzit or fringes, was believed to drive off demons and probably began life as an amulet which later evolved into a religious law that has lost all vestiges of its former use. The mezuzah, or a small box with parchment inside it posted on doorframes, maintained a life as an amulet despite religious authorities’ attempts to make it a purely religious symbol.

There were three main methods of warding off spirits. First, one could drive them away. Second, one could bribe them with gifts, and third one could deceive them. In the first category, spirits were believed to be powerless on Yom Kippur because blowing the shofar scared them away. Study was another form of protection. An appeal directly to God might also win one safety. Fasting and charity also scared away demons. The most obvious means of protection was to post a guard over the individual in question. Fire, metals, salt, and Water can all protect.

A dread of unnatural behavior led to anything abnormal being killed, such as a cow that birthed twins or a chicken that laid two eggs in one day. In one case a child born with a tail was narrowly saved by the words of a wise man.

Still observed today in hasidic communities was the habit of transferring sins into a chicken and then swinging the chicken over the head until its neck broke and it died. This was the most common form of sacrifice.

Least used was the idea of deceiving the spirits. It was used at weddings, however, and burials Also, people might change their names so that spirits could not find them if they were invalid or having a run of bad luck.

At childbirth, a Torah scroll was laid upon the woman’s bed, candles were lit for her, and she would keep a knife with her when she was alone The key to the synagogue was placed in her hand while she was in labor. A circle was drawn with the words “Adam and Eve barring Lilith” in the room with her. After birth the first 8 days were considered especially dangerous but the circumscision on the 8th day eliminated that risk. It was customary to set a table with an extra place for spirits on the 7th day.

On a wedding day, both bride and groom fasted. For a while after the wedding, the groom was forbidden to go outside alone. Despite broad daylight, the procession was followed with lights, which were occasionally thrown into the air and discordant music followed them. Breaking a glass was originally to scare off demons. The wedding ceremony also consisted of several instances of giving gifts to the spirits.

The same motifs are repeated with regards to dying. Dying men should never be left alone. Bedding containing chicken feathers was removed because chickens were seen to prolong agony. Placing the key to the synagogue under the head of the dying man was common, although forbidden by the rabbis.

After death one should close the body’s eyes and sprinkle salt on it. Then the living should light a light at the body’s head. These things will confuse the spirit of the recently dead, which terrified the living.

There was a superstition that conceiving a child on the first three days of the week would cause the child to be born on the sabbath, so it wasn’t done. However, Friday night was a popular time to conceive because it was thought that the sabbath would make the child holy. The mother’s thoughts were considered to affect the child, as well.

Supernatural agency was considered the number one cause of disease. Certain epidemic diseases were caused by angels.

As with Christian magic, the number one form of Jewish magic was divination. It was considered that the broad outline of a life was set from birth by the stars, but a man could still choose good or evil. The simplest form of divination is watching for natural signs. Animals were also watched for signs. Lighting a candle on Rosh Hashanah and then waiting to see if it went out was common. If it went out before Yom Kippur, one would die in the coming year. A related belief Is that the reflection of a man who is about to die will have its eyes and mouth closed even though they are open.

Casting lots, flipping coins, or rolling dice were common methods of predicting the future. The most common form however required a reflective device and forcing a small child to look at it until they saw the future. Necromancy was less common amongst Jews than Christians.

Trial by ordeal or trial by combat were essentially magic, and Jews did use it occasionally, but again not as commonly as Christians.

Astrology was so important we have almost nothing to compare it to in modern life. Angels controlled the planets and also things on earth, so the stars and planets could be used to discern what would happen on earth. Solar eclipses threw Medieval society into disarray.

In many sources we see the prejudice that magic is not real and was imagined by people in the Middle Ages. One of these sources recounts the story of a man who walked by an ill woman and told her she was bewitched. He claimed he could cure her and cut a hole in the bottom of her shoe with his knife and then rubbed some kind of substance on her hands. She didn’t get better and he came back and stabbed a knife into her door in order to do the witch harm. He came back a week later and she still wasn’t well so he rubbed more of the substance on her hands and feet. She wound up suing him for not curing her and the court decided that he and his daughter were charlatans and ordered him to repay her the money she had paid him for a cure.

Stories such as this indicate that perhaps many people during our time period believed that magic was not real, or at least that a lot of magicians were not really doing anything. However, it is important to remember how real witchcraft was in the eyes of those who did believe in it. For people from a society without much in the way of medical care, getting sick must have been a terrifying situation. Even something like a cold or flu, if you don’t understand what it is, can be frighting, especially if people you know have died of something similar. Witchcraft represents an attempt to control the uncontrollable.

People believed in it as thoroughly as they believed in medical science, and given the state of medical science, they probably had good reason to. People who practiced magic took it seriously as a science and studied it as one would study any other academic subject. As we saw from our story of John Dee, some very learned and intelligent people studied witchcraft and completely believed in it.

During the middle ages, People in courts often alleged that others used magic for assassinations and love magic. This was true both in court and outside of court. It is possible that we only know more about what happened at court because there are more ample records. Diviners were particularly in demand in courts.

In addition to almost everyone being a magician there were specialized magicians who performed tricks, although theses were often looked down upon by higher members of the court. It is easy to suppose there are two categories of people - diviners sent to help the court and magicians sent to amuse the court, but it is not always that easy to tell the difference.

During the middle ages, magic was a pejorative term, but later, it became the opposite as evidenced by words such as enchanting, magical, charming, and fascinating. For background on this shift we must look to courtly behavior. The beginning of magic being seen without sinister connotations was in literature where it could achieve good goals fictionally.

Magic is often used as a symbol in literature for some other psychological state. It may find itself more or less useful even within the same story, such as one story in which a love potion irrevocably seals the fate of two lovers and is blown off by two others. Magic is often a background fact to a story with an enchanted castle existing because of fairies or an enchanter being the location a story took place. Magicians are almost always secondary characters in these stories.

People opposed magic for several reasons. The demons were dangerous. It was frivolous and vain, even as entertainment. It invaded the secrets of God. It can do grievous harm to other people. It may rely on demons when it claims to use natural forces. It makes sacrilegious use of holy objects. These objections eventually led to legislation. There were two kinds of legislation against magic: Secular and religious. Kings and lords could make laws against it, and the Church could also forbid priests and clerics from using it. They could each enact various penalties, including death, for using magic.

Early law codes of Germanic people often included proscriptions against magic. Charlemagne declared that those who were convicted of divination should be sold as slaves while those who performed demonic magic should be killed. Later rulers had a death penalty for love magic, even if no one were harmed, indicating that the magic itself was evil. Other rulers would torture a confession out of people, but only require imprisonment until they agreed to do penance.

Some people were accused of denying their baptism by using magic, and thus sentenced to death for idolatry. Trials for magic increased in the later middle ages. Eventually, women who used healing herbs were suspected of witchcraft because demons knew about healing properties and could teach them to their friends. Even if magic did not appeal to demons, it could still be influenced by them. Many of the women condemned for sorcery were widows or old women with no family to support them.

In the early middle ages, A trial was only started when someone made an accusation and also claimed liability for proving it. If they could not prove it, they were often subject to the consequence the defendant would have suffered if found guilty. By the high middle ages, witchcraft trials were most often performed by inquisitors. Assemblies of witches were called a synagogue and they were accused of getting together on a sabbath, which was straight up antisemitism in action.

The 15th century started what we know of as the witch trials when so many women were killed for witchcraft. People were accused of protecting witches, and thus witchcraft themselves if someone they knew was convicted of witchcraft. This led to widespread condemnations, and entire villages turning on each other.

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