The Power of Magic

I was curious about the idea of magic. I thought how odd it was that magic and magicians actually existed in history and how that was possible. How could a head of state or the people buy into the idea of magic? How could they believe something that by today’s standards seems so preposterous? And I wanted to learn more about the history.

I read Mesopotamian Magic in the First Millennium B.C.

Finally, diviners, or baru, solicited omens from gods and interpreted the resulting signs. Often, this was done through a practice known as extispicy, the action of reading the entrails of a sheep (86.11.378b), or reading celestial and terrestrial phenomena. The baru typically worked for the Assyrian king as either a court scholar or a member of a military retinue. All these specialists were the beneficiaries of years of training and centuries of knowledge production.

What stands out to me is that the diviners and the leaders weren’t uneducated people. They weren’t just studying ceremonies and superstition. They were educated in many topics related to statecraft and engineering. And so you have a combination of things happening.

  • A mind that has practical knowledge of how things work. A mind that is rooted in fact and science. A mind that has opinions of objective and practical action.
  • A superstitious mind that is looking for an external sign using invented rules and guidelines. They’re looking in the sheep entrails or the stars or in nature. They’re reading the tea leaves or the cards or whatever the divination tool is.
  • A mind that combines the expected and the random and interprets that information using both scientific and self-created, superstitious knowledge.

And I ask myself, why create the superstition? Why was it created and why would educated people accept it? For example, why believe in the power of objects?

In addition to texts and ritual practices, there were objects that worked alongside, or independently of, textual traditions. Images were believed to have been enlivened and capable of acting of their own independent wills.

And the article goes on to explain the different statues and facades that were build to protect structures and rooms in the kingdom.

The multivalent powers of these supernatural creatures were meant to bolster and protect the king’s reign.

And I think that sentence really gets at the big reason. It was “meant” to do something. Were these statues actually doing anything? Did they actually possess supernatural powers? As a rationalist I would say no - but that’s not to say they weren’t powerful. They had a powerful psychological impact on the minds of the people. The statues animated their mental state because there was a feedback loop between the belief system and the world around them. This might have been on purpose (engineering) or a coincidence (emergent social behavior) - Either way, the society created a powerful, self-imposed thought structure that wasn’t trivial. It was functional. It motivated people and depressed people and created meaning in their reality. Magic and the supernatural were a big part of the culture’s self-created reality. Magic was a society-wide meme.

The Power of Memes

The real power of magic was that it was a meme that could spread and shape perceptions. And the anti-magic meme was similarly powerful…

From Britanica’s History of magic in Western worldviews

The influential manual Malleus maleficarum (“The Hammer of Witches,” 1486) by Jacob Sprenger and Henry Krämer describes witchcraft in great detail (e.g, the witches’ sabbath, a midnight assembly in fealty to the Devil); moreover, this oft-reprinted volume is responsible for the misogynist association of witchcraft with women that becomes the dominant characteristic in the early modern period. This conspiracy theory of demonic magic contributed to the early modern “witch craze” that occurred at a time of growing tension between magic, religion, and nascent science.