The idea of “good magic” versus “bad magic” has not been around forever, and hasn’t been present in every part of the world. So how has it become so very all-pervasive in the mythology and fantasy stories of today’s Western culture?
The idea that there is a fundamental distinction between “Good Magic” and “Bad Magic” is everywhere in our culture! It is the Good Witch versus Bad Witch dichotomy of the Wizard of Oz. It is fairies versus goblins in classic folklore. It is legal magic versus the “Dark Arts” in Harry Potter. It is Gandalf versus Sauron in the Middle Earth. And even though it goes by a different name, it is the obvious inspiration of the “Light Side” and the “Dark Side” of the Force in the Star Wars universe. Terms that reinforce a basic, underlying difference between qualitatively different types of magic permeate our cultural imagination. They tell us that there are two different types of magic that draw on different forces, are used by different types of people, and have different consequences.
Of course, there is no reason why the idea of magic should necessarily be divided in this way. It’s easy enough to imagine a myth or fictional universe in which magic is just a tool, a neutral craft or skill that can be used for good or bad purposes. A number of stories in contemporary fantasy fiction have explored this view of magic. But these generally represent a deliberate modern revision of the more “classic” view. The book and musical “Wicked” is one example: questioning what it means to call someone a “bad witch” and whose point of view is used when making that evaluation.
But these post-modern revisionist tales only make sense, culturally, because they are reactions against the much more all-pervasive idea in our collective consciousness: the distinction between “good” magic and “bad” magic.
Where did this idea come from? The history of magic draws from a wide variety of sources and cultural influences, so there is not likely to be any single answer. However, there is an interesting point in history, specifically medieval renaissance history, that I think can give us some very strong insights about how this idea became so widespread and so deeply embedded in today’s culture.
Before getting to the renaissance, however, we have to set the stage by going a little earlier: the first few centuries CE. Renaissance historian Frances Yates talks about the cultural mindset in the Roman Empire at this time: The world is relatively peaceful, and the intellectual world has stagnated. Most high philosophy is Greek, but the abstract dialectical method doesn’t have a lot of impact on the average person, who is more concerned with luck and health than abstract dialectics, cosmology and metaphysics. People are frustrated with the fact that studying the “Greek masters” doesn’t seem to be revealing anything new or useful.
Christianity is on the rise, but competing with that are a number of other cults and philosophical movements. Among these is Hermeticism, a kind of hippie-like adoration of supposedly “ancient” mystical religions from the far east and from Egypt. I call this movement “hippie-like” (Yates does not, just to be clear), because much like the hippies — who constantly tried to borrow terms and ideas from Buddhism and Egyptian symbology but rarely actually understood the cultures and religions that they were cannibalizing — these early mystics and gnostics wrote huge volumes of text that claimed to be inspired by or based on Egyptian or far-eastern religion, but contained very very little authentic content from either.
These early mystics and magic folk were also shameless about producing forgeries. All kinds of writings cropped up in the years 200-300 C.E. that claimed to be the writings of great ancient priests and pharaohs. We shouldn’t really target the mystics and gnostics with blame for this behavior: it was culturally endemic. Many, many “Gospels” of early Christianity that were supposedly written by actual apostles of Jesus were, in fact, also written during this same period. This kind of behavior–writing a work and attributing it to some older, wiser, more well-known person–was so common in the first few centuries that some scholars have argued that it was actually accepted practice and should not be considered “forgery” at all. (For a notable counter-argument, though: Bart Ehrman in his book “Forged” points out that just because something is common doesn’t mean that it was accepted, and cites a number of cases where people who were caught were in fact punished horribly.)
So the stage is set: Greek philosophy is useless, people are itching for something new. What will they choose? Christ? Or Hermetism: the magic “revival” that is rooted in paganism and draws on terms and symbols (if not the actual ideas) from Eastern and Egyptian religions?
This is the environment that sets the stage for hundreds of years of Christianity basically bad-mouthing magic. You have to understand, magic was, in essence, the competition when it came to winning the hearts and minds of the common people.
Celsus says, “Hey! The Egyptians knew how to invoke spirits to heal people and get luck. If a person wants to be healed or have luck, why shouldn’t he invoke these things?”
Origen replies, “That’ll lead to hell. If you want luck or healing, just say ‘in the name of Jesus’ and that should work for you.”
(These are, of course, paraphrased. But that’s the gist of their basic arguments.)
This is the core of the debate. And as the next 1000 years of history show… Christianity soundly won that argument.
Which is not to say that magic was stamped out. People still went to magicians and sorcerers in times of desperation. But it was done in the dark of night, and these were not respected people. They had been driven underground by the church. Magic was solidly no bueno for a millenium.
Now we are ready to move up to the Renaissance. The entire Western world is now very solidly held in the grip of Christianity, which has declared magic to be “of the devil” and downright blasphemous. But just as there are “revivals” going on in other fields–philosophy, medicine, and the arts–there is a movement for the “revival” of magic, as well.
Or maybe a better word would be “rehabilitation”.
Let’s imagine you are living in the 1400’s and you are fascinated by magic. You have found these ancient scripts that claims to be written thousands and thousands of years ago by ancient Egyptian and Mosaic prophets (they were actually written around 200 CE, as I said earlier, but you don’t know that), and you think that you are tapping in to a long-forgotten but powerful source of antique wisdom.
How do you write about this, without getting into trouble with the Church?
Marsilio Ficino found a way. He took a selection of these supposedly-ancient and supposedly-Egyptian writings and examined them, and lo! and behold, this is what he concluded: There may have been ancient sorcerers who invoked demons for their magic, but the magic of Hermeticism is not like that. This is a natural magic. It’s basically like science. All that it does is seek to take advantage of the natural relationships and order in the universe. Astrology is science and mathematics, not demons! And if you create a talisman that arranges the correct colors and figures to draw on the power of Mars from the heavens in order to help you in your battles… well then nothing could be more natural! This has nothing to do with “demons” … it’s just nature at work!
To push the point home event further, Ficino analyzed Egyptian creation myths and found things that sounded very suspiciously Christian! There are places where the act of creation is referred to as “the word”, just as in the Bible! There is even a place where the phrase “son of God” is used, which means that these ancient Egyptian priests foretold the coming of Christ! How can any good Christian possibly be against these writings?
Of course, the arguments were pretty frail; and they appear even weaker still, when one knows (as we do now) that the “ancient Egyptian” texts are really Roman forgeries written about 200 years after Christ. But still, this was Ficino’s sales pitch. It was popular, and he was only reprimanded a handful of times for his writings by the church. Things could have been a lot worse.
Pico della Mirandola, a student of Ficino, continued with Ficino’s work and doubled down on the same type of argument. Pico wrote that “modern magic” (by which he presumably meant the type of magic most people were aware of at the time, and the type of magic roundly condemned by the Church) is demonic and evil and should be avoided, but there is this other kind of magic that is older, that is not demonic. Although the church is right to condemn magic that is based on demons (duh!), the magic that Pico wants to talk about is what is called “natural” magic: it is based on the spiritual properties of the earth and the heavenly spheres, and the relationships between them!
Pico did something else, as well: he integrated Ficino’s natural magic with elements of Caballah, which was Jewish in origin. Since Christians still held Old Testament wisdom in high regard, this helped to seal the validity of his perspective on magic. Now, magic involves not only talismans and signs from ancient Egypt, but the invocation of biblical angels and the various holy “names of God” written about in Judaic mystical tradition. And again, the emphasis was this: YES, the church has banned “magic” as being demonic; BUT, this type of magic is different. This is a totally other type of magic that is ok to use, because it is based on nature and angels, not on evil spirits and sprites.
This same kind of talk is used again and again by philosophers throughout the renaissance, and gained a great deal of traction. And why not? It provided the perfect loophole for people who thought that magic was cool, and a practical alternative if you felt like praying to Jesus just wasn’t healing your mother’s ailments quickly enough. Don’t worry: you can turn to magic, just as long as you make sure that you are using the good kind of magic, not the bad kind of magic. The bad magic will draw you down to hell; the good magic is nothing more than using the “forces of nature”. The good kind of magic is what the Christian God would want you to use.
Personally, I find this fragment of history absolutely fascinating. It gives a kind of perspective, whenever I read a modern fantasy story or see a modern fantasy movie. I encourage you to keep this bit of history in the back of your mind, as well.
The next time you watch “Charmed” or “Harry Potter” or even “Star Wars”, and they talk about the battle between the Good type of magic and the Bad type of magic, keep this in the back of your head: 600 years ago, there was a group of people who were on a P.R. campaign to convince good Christians that there was a way that they could get away with using magic… as long as it was the right kind.
That is where–at least in part–the whole idea of “good magic” and “bad magic” came from.