53. Renaissance magic and witchcraft
Dmitrij Sergejevič Mereškovski began his novel The Resurrection of the Gods with an episode of great interest. A party of peasants, engaged by some humanists, are requested to excavate the countryside around Rome and for vestiges of pagan antiquity. Eventually, a diaphanous sculpture of a Roman deity emerges from the ground like a ghostly apparition. «The Gods rise again», the exultant humanists think, and with them they plan to resurrect the pre-Christian civilization. In reality, what they unearthed is an idol that indeed was a divinity in the classical age, but that at the time of the dig is nothing but a receptacle of inferior influences that hence are set to free to spread everywhere, changing the general mentality.
In the Hindū tradition the icons of the Gods must be consecrated and animated with the prāṇapratiṣṭhā ritual. The vital force that the celebrating brāhmaṇas instil in inert matter must be constantly nourished by offerings of the devotees and rituals constantly repeated by the pūjārīs. The image (mūrti) of a God abandoned by devotees and celebrants, gradually loses effectiveness, returning to be a simple mass of stone or metal. If the image is broken, mutilated or even simply scratched, it cannot longer represent the divinity and, through the rift, harmful influences can creep in, those same influences haunting ruined shrines or abandoned temples. If an unearthed mūrti appears intact, after appropriate reconsacration, can be reused; but if it were damaged in some part, it would be dealt with as a fearsome subtle entity such as piśāca, bhūta, bīr (vīra) or rākṣasa and thus confined to a safer place.
This is what really happened at the end of the Middle Ages. Previously, the situation had remained for long centuries under the control of initiatic organizations and of ecclesiastical and imperial structures. In some peripheral areas, only later converted to Christianity, legends and superstitions of the ancient Latin, Celtic and, mostly, Germanic religiosity remained. As often happens, among the lower strata of the society survived the obsession of the most morbid aspects of ancient beliefs. In particular, the memory of the Roman Goddess Trivia lived on; a nocturnal deity who procures abortion and leads to the underworld of the dead, but who also nurtures necromancy and the return of the larvae to the world of the living when duly invoked in the crossroads on moonless nights. On the equinox nights, when the gates of hell are believed to remain open, the Goddess is said to lead the dead to a wild hunt. On those nights, the inhabitants of the countryside used to lock themselves in their homes waiting for dawn and, with it, the return to the normal order. In the early Middle Ages this figure already overlapped that of Frau Hölle, the Lady of Hell of Germanic folklore.
What is certain is that in the medieval period the beliefs of the plebs and the very subtle influences of these remnants of bygone religions were carefully avoided and kept under control. In fact, when in 1231 Pope Gregory IX established the Inquisition, this new institution for a long time only committed itself to repressing cases of abnormal religious cults. Its main function was, therefore, to pursue heresies such as, for example, the Albigensian, Waldensian or Dulcinian ones, or doctrinal distortions of the spiritual Franciscan or Joachimite Franciscan sort. The very Hermetic magic was thwarted more for its ability to induce its followers to assume heterodox positions, rather than to prohibit the production of paranormal phenomena. Only in 1326 Pope John XXII, with the bull Super illius specula, extended the application of the laws against heretics also to magic practices, without however defining them doctrinally and dogmatically heretical. It is a fact that up until about 1420 or so there were not many magic trials. The imputations of diabolical sorcery only increased after 1450.
By sorcery is meant the confluence of two different phenomena; the first is that of possession, the second consists in magic as an empirical science. Possession is generally connected with a psychic imbalance from which the individual is disturbed from birth. This pathology can worsen in the adolescent period, giving rise to a complex and differentiated phenomenology case by case. The person has the sensation of hosting an alien presence that tends to control the will of the possessed person. In some cases, when he is at the mercy of such a subtle suggestion, he experiences certain paranormal powers. Among these are often the sensation of flying in the air and penetrating the bowels of the earth, the ability to assume animal forms, and the ability to hear voices spoken by invisible beings. All things considered, the phenomenon of possession in other non-monotheistic religious contexts would have led to the practice of shamanism. Beside possession, we find the practice of magic in ceremonial form for the purposes of incantation, curse, clairvoyance, medicine and pharmacopoeia, the latter particularly aimed at the preparation of love filters.
The end of the Middle Ages represented the end of the control of tradition over society, with the spread of an anti-religious mentality even among the lowest strata of society. If in the past everything that was forbidden or reprehensible was kept at a distance, with the beginning of humanism also the people turned their attention to the acquisition of miraculous powers that religion seemed no longer able to guarantee. Instead of locking themselves in their homes fearful of the wanderings of purgatorial souls in Lady Hölle’s wake, a profusion of witches and sorcerers committed themselves to take part in the Wild Hunt. In the absence of a flight favoured by air spirits, witches and sorcerers relied on certain magic ointments. This magical expedient, unknown in the Middle Ages, is clearly taken from Lucian of Samosata’s Metamorphosis, which demonstrates how widespread was the humanistic cultural influence also at a popular level. Soon, the frightening air procession of souls on their way out of the hells of the medieval hunt turned into a grotesque swarm of witches converging on the orgiastic Sabbath to meet Satan in person.
As has been said, from the end of the 14th century the Inquisition began to investigate this new phenomenon with growing concern due to its spread. In 1398, the University of Paris affirmed that the magical powers were real and not purely illusory, contradicting Gratian’s Decretum, which in the 12th century, on the basis of St. Augustine and the Canon Episcopi, had supported the illusory nature of phenomena such as night flight, denying any effectiveness to the various evil warped by witches.
A well-known case concerns the trial of Joan of Arc for witchcraft, although subsequent falsifications of documents have made it difficult to display historical evidence. The sentence was decreed mainly on account of the mysterious voices that, since adolescence, the maiden of Orleans claimed to have heard at the “fairy tree”, voices that she attributed to St. Michael the Archangel and Saints Margaret and Catherine. Various circumstances attest to the correctness of the verdict; moreover, the divine mandate for Joan’s mission appears completely untenable, since it is difficult to understand why God had to be against Burgundians and English and partisan of the King of France. Furthermore, from the point of view of the legitimacy of succession, the true King of France was certainly not the infamous Charles VII. What seems more disturbing, however, was the collaboration and friendship of Joan with the Marshal of France Gilles de Rais.
Since the beginning of the Renaissance there was a sudden increase in witchcraft. The historical turning point was marked by two ecclesiastical stances: the bull Summis desiderantes affectibus by Pope Innocent VIII in 1484 and the publication in 1487 of the Malleus Maleficarum by the Dominicans Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger. These two documents testify to a sudden intensification of the witchcraft phenomenon throughout Europe. The bull gave orders to the Inquisition to intensify the repression of the new phenomenon, while the Malleus Maleficarum was an instruction manual for inquisitors on the different forms of witchcraft. In both cases the paranormal phenomena were described in real terms, demonstrating the poor discernment of Catholic theologians during the Renaissance period. On the other hand, what is beyond doubt is the uncontrolled spread of pseudo-religious, heathenish or openly diabolical practices at the popular level, parallel to the emergence of the pseudo-esoteric magic of Hermeticism among the educated classes. The ecclesiastical reaction, therefore, was justified in practice, although not supported by as much doctrinal clarity.
It is estimated that from the middle of the 15th century to the end of the 18th century about fifty thousand people were condemned for witchcraft. It is not clear what percentage of death sentences were carried out in these trials. What is certain is that the brazen Protestant propaganda unleashed all its fury against Catholicism and, in particular, against the Spanish Inquisition. However, the reality is quite different: while in Catalonia alone from 1450 to 1630 little more than one hundred death sentences were carried out, in the rest of Spain they were just forty-nine. Moreover, abundant documentation proves the constant ecclesiastical exhortation to the courts of the Kingdom not to resort to torture.
On the contrary, in the countries controlled by the Protestant Reformation, burning and torture were the order of the day, under the banner of the same cruelty described in the previous article “The Protestant Reformation. Luther’s emulators”. The inflexible and moralistic mentality of the various Protestant sects also spread overseas, where the ruthless repression of witchcraft took on forms of collective alienation.
Gian Giuseppe Filippi