Magic in the Graeco-Roman world is a disputed concept among modern historians, whose interpretation has changed significantly over the last 200 years of study. In studying it we may either focus on terms from ancient languages translatable as “magic,” or examine materials and practices that may be classified as “magic” according to modern definitions. Ancient terminology centers around terms such as the Greek word mageia, and its Latin cognate magia, referring to superhuman practices that often involved the manipulation of the natural and divine worlds through secret knowledge and ritual. Objects identified by modern scholars as magical include curse tablets, written objects intended to injure, bind, or render harmless their victims, magical handbooks written on papyrus, providing instructions for rituals, and amulets, often in the form of semiprecious stones inscribed with images of deities and short texts. While some of these practices are reflected in ancient literary sources discussing magic, literary texts also show an exaggerated discourse, in which magic-users may be stereotyped according to their ethnicity (exotic magicians from Egypt, Syria, or Judaea) or gender (lurid images of witches), and practices are depicted as fantastical and extreme, involving acts such as human sacrifice. Popular images of magic and actual practice come together in laws and regulations against magic and its users, primarily from the period of the Roman Empire. These may be in the form of imperial law, or else Christian and non-Christian cultic rules, which prescribe social exclusion or even death, so that accusations of magic could be a potent tool in social conflicts.
Kathryn A. Edwards
In the 15th- and early-16th-century German-speaking lands, reports circulated of spirits shaking the walls of houses, comets presaging imminent doom, and dwarves warning miners to leave their tunnels. Widely accepted, such accounts point to a worldview in which the natural was believed to encompass a far broader swath of beings and activities than modern definitions of the term. Humans were enmeshed in a world where forces beyond human experience and, at times understanding, were active; they accepted their place in it and manipulated it, if necessary. When studying such attitudes and the practices surrounding them, scholars of late medieval and early modern religious movements must move beyond truisms about “magical” or “enchanted” worlds to understand the impulses driving both reformers and those they wished to reform. Certainly 15th- and 16th-century Germans accepted that the divine permeated all creation, as creation was a product of God, and they saw divine manifestations throughout their world. Based on this truism, scholars have debated the extent to which pre-modern Europe was an enchanted world for approximately a century. Yet the powers imbuing that world had a more complex relationship to divinity than the somewhat romantic connotations of “enchanted” found in various modern works. Magicians, witches, devils, and other entities were all created beings who could access powers beyond the normal ken but were certainly not divine, despite any claims they might make to the contrary. Because such powers were imbued into nature itself, they were accessible to ordinary humans as well. And access them humans did! They were invoked to protect a village, cure ill children, and ward off injuries to livestock. They could also be used for evil, and archival and print documents attest to the practice of maleficent or demonic magic by learned clergy and illiterate peasants alike. When Protestant reformers demanded recognition of God’s omnipotence, they implicitly condemned this applied, occult magic and, in the process, practices that reflected a complete cosmology, that is, an understanding of how this world and the heavens operated. In this circumstance, it is not surprising that even the early reformers themselves could seem reluctant to abandon this immanent occultism.
Chas S. Clifton
Paganism is based largely in an Enlightenment-era rejection of Christianity and Romantic-era ideas of the individual experience, emotion, and creativity, combined with a search for true ethnic culture in the lore and practices of the pre-Christian past and a rejection of universal transcendental religion, in favor of the local, the particular, the polytheistic, and the animist. Particularly in the United States, Pagans have challenged governmental accommodations for existing religions by demanding equal status in public spaces. Contemporary Pagan groups began forming in the 1930s, but the largest, Wicca, emerged in the United Kingdom in the early 1950s.