Stone Age man painted handprints and varied images on the walls of sacred caves in southern Europe. Anthropologists believe these were attempts to strengthen the clan’s relationship with spirits who would help them achieve good health, fertility, or a successful hunt.
Magic was an integral thread in the fabric of ancient Egypt. Egyptian texts contain spells to be used against serpents and other pests. People wore amulets or placed them outside their homes for protection. An ankh was worn to bring knowledge and power. The nefer was worn to attract success, happiness, and friends. The Egyptian god, Thoth (also known as Hermes Trismegistus) was credited with bringing medicine, astrology, and magic to mankind.
The greatest Greek philosophers – including Plato and Aristotle – believed in the reality of magic. Magical rings could extend your life or make you invisible. Sorcerers flew through the sky at night, and could turn men into plants or animals with their rituals and ointments!
The Druids (Celtic priests of Europe and Great Britain)had profound knowledge of divination, crystals, spells and potions. The Celts also wore amulets, including the continuous Celtic knot symbolizing the process of spiritual growth, and the triskel, a solar symbol representing endurance and courage.
Most of the Roman emperors opposed magic. Tiberius (42 B.C.E. – 37 C.E.) banished magicians and astrologers. In 529 C.E., Justinian ordered the official suppression of all ancient learning, science and philosophy.
But pagan knowledge did not disappear, and for a time, there was little distinction between magic, philosophy, and science. The ‘black’ magician sold his soul to the devil for the control of evil spirits, performing spells he found in black books called grimoires. Hermetists – those who followed the teachings of Hermes – studied ‘white’ magic, ancient languages, astrology, and the Cabala (a doctrine of Jewish mysticism). They believed disease could be prevented or cured by amulets, incantations, herbs, prayer, and practical medicine such as bleeding and purging.
One of the earliest philosopher/scientists was Albertus Magnus (1193 – 1280). He conducted scientific experiments and described the virtues of stones, such as amethysts to foster the acquisition of knowledge and intelligence, and emeralds to determine if a girl was a virgin. (If after drinking a potion containing emerald fragments she retained the potion, she was a virgin. If she vomited, she was not!)
The growing Christian church crusaded against pagans and heretics. The old pagan rituals were labelled witchcraft and heresy. All magic was seen as the work of Satan. Witches were blamed for everything from illness to poor weather. In 1484, a papal bull condemned “incantations, spells, conjurations and other accursed charms and crafts”. By the end of the 18th century, at least 50,000 people had been put to death for heresy or witchcraft in Europe and Great Britain.
The witch hunt frenzy eventually came to the New World, where the Salem witch trials of 1692 – 1693 ended with 20 people being hung or crushed to death for witchcraft.
No longer forbidden, magic in the 21st century is associated with the Cabala, some branches of New Age spirituality, and Wicca (a movement founded in Great Britain in the 1950’s, and now a recognized religion in several countries). It even has its place in popular culture, as witnessed by the immense success of novels and films featuring a boy wizard named Harry Potter.