Differences between Alchemy and Magic

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Date: Sun, 17 Sep 1995 17:04:33 -0700 (MST)
From: Tom Willard

A question for the Adepti Retis (Net Adepts):

Was alchemy a form of magic in the Middle Ages?

I have come across a fine summary of medieval magic, in a twelfth-century guide or teachers. As I read (and translated) the list of offenders, I had to wonder here alchemists would fit, and suspected that they would be the worst ffenders - the jugglers or illusionists, whose patron is Mercury - if they figured here at all. (The same writer had some admiration for technology.)

"Zoroaster is credited as the first discoverer of magic. He was the king of the Bakrians [in the province of Balkh in modern day Afghanistan], and some say he as Noah's son Cham under a different name. Afterwards was Ninus, king of the Assyrians, who wrote his magic his books of wicked arts on the burnt skin of is battle victims. Aristotle himself wrote of this art of magic, which in its hundred thousand changes passed down to posterity. Democritus amplified the art, at the time when Hippocrates distinguished himself in medicine. Magic was not accepted into philosophy, being an overtly false profession. It teaches iniquity and malice, denying the truth and truly injuring souls. It seduces them from divine religion, commends the culture of demons, implants the ways of corruption, and impels them to do what is impious and wrong. It is generally accepted that there are five sorts of wickedness: mantica, which is divination; the vain mathematica; sortilegia, maleficia, and praestigia. Mantia, in turn, has several subspecies. The first is necromantia, which is construed as divination by the dead (Greek 'nekros' corresponds to Latin 'mortius', Greek 'nekron' to Latin 'cadaver') because this divination is done by sacrificing human blood to conjure demons and make them speak. The second is geomantia, which is divination with earth; the third, hydromantia, which is divination by water; the fourth, aerimantia, which is divination by air; the fifth, pyromantia, which is divination by fire. Varro named these last four himself, saying that divination was done by means of earth, water, air, and fire. The first form of magic, then, is necromancy because it pertains to the inferno; the second pertains to earth, the third to water, the fourth to air, the fifth to fire. Mathematics is divided into three species: haruspicium, augurium, and horoscopium. Haruspications are said over entrails of domestic animals (harae), inspected consider the future, or else are horuspices, the inspection of the hours (horae) observed in the events of things. Augury or auspices pertains sometimes to the eye and sometimes to the ear, and is called auspicium or avispicium according to the manner in which the information is attained: augury is heard, advice is seen. Horoscopy, also called constellation, is when facts about men are sought in the stars, by obseving nativities, as we read in the Gospel that the Magi did of old. Soothsayers are those (sortilegi) who seek divination by the casting of lots (sortes). Witches (malifici) are those who gain forbidden instruction and the cooperation of demons and all sorts of execrable remedies by the invocation and binding of demons. Jugglers (praestigi) are those who, through demonic art, trick the human seness with fantastic illusions. There are thus eleven types of magic, of which five are mantic (i.e., necromancy, geomancy, hydromancy, aerimancy, and pyromancy), three are mathematic (i.e., haruspication, auspices, and horoscopy), and the other three are soothsaying, witchcraft, and juggling. Mercury is said to be the inventor of juggling. The Phrygians invented augury. The Etrustans, and first of all their king Tages, taught haruspication and witchcraft. Hydromancy came from the Persians."

Tom Willard


Date: Mon, 18 Sep 1995 12:34:04 -0500
From: George Randall Leake III

>Was alchemy a form of magic in the Middle Ages?

Depends on:
1) who you talk to (after all, one man's magic is another man's religion)
2)what you mean by alchemy
3)what you mean by magic
IMHO, yes!

>I have come across a fine summary of medieval magic, in a twelfth-century guide
>for teachers. As I read (and translated) the list of offenders, I had to wonder
>where alchemists would fit, and suspected that they would be the worst
>offenders - the jugglers or illusionists, whose patron is Mercury - if they
>figured here at all. (The same writer had some admiration for technology.)

Don't believe everything you read! this opus is full of holes...

>"Zoroaster is credited as the first discoverer of magic. He was the king of the
>Bakrians [in the province of Balkh in modern day Afghanistan], and some say he
>was Noah's son Cham under a different name.

Yes; it was commonly believed by mediaeval historians in Europe (apparently a point of view which is hard to shake despite much lack of evidence) that magic originated with the Chaldeans

>Afterwards was Ninus, king of the Assyrians, who wrote his magic his books
>of wicked arts on the burnt skin of his battle victims.

Make the infidel look bad! I bet this guy had warts, conjured Satan, and boiled children alive in his big black pot!

>Aristotle himself wrote of this art of magic, which in its hundred
>thousand changes passed down to posterity.

This dude is famous for his erroneous (if beautiful and fanciful) description of the sun, moon, & planets rotating on crystal paths around the earth--I think later the church added something which amounted to the angels behaving as air traffic controllers as these Celestial Bodies would traipse about like golden madonnas on a circular catwalk in heaven

>Democritus

Look--forget this guy! I recommend you either take the art/literary route of the depiction of magic in the ancient world (e.g. Homer/Odyssey--Circe turning the men into beasts; or better yet Theocritus' poem in his Idylls 2) or you can go the academic/dry route (I'm not saying these guys are completely on the level, but just a lot better than Aristotle!) such as Iamblichus' On the Mysteries of Egypt or Plotinus' Enneads, or various works by Apuleius...all these and more are spoken about quite eloquently by Georg Luck in his fine book on Magic, "Arcana Mundi" (Baltimore & London: Johns Hopkins Univ Press, 1985; ISBN#
0-8018-2548-2[pbk])...ditch this cr-p you're quoting from and go get this!
His introduction addresses adroitly the definition of magic in the ancient and mediaeval world and its many forms, including alchemy. He makes the important distinction between THEURGY (all forms of high magic; the ancient Greeks would liken it to the uniting of the soul with the divine mind in some form or another) and GOETIA (low magic; "magic" you do for money; this would encompass potion-sellers, fortune-tellers, carnival jugglers, David Copperfield and his ilk, spiritualists, and so forth)

>Magic was not accepted into philosophy, being an overtly false profession.

Certainly the anti-Gnostic wing of the early Christian Church took up this point of view right away...some scholars postulate that sects of Gnosticism engaged in "magic"
Using Luck's distinction, I would of course agree that Goetic magic was not universally accepted as philosophy; one could well argue that Theurgic magic was not only accepted but widely practiced...for instance, what is the difference between an incantation and the Lord's Prayer? Many "spells" of the ancient world closely resemble prayers adopted by the early church, in fact I've seen spells which specifically name Yahweh and Jesus

> It teaches iniquity and malice, denying the truth and truly injuring souls

This is a bit long to quote and comment on in full, so I've saved a bit below...one thinks of the "who wrote his magic his books of wicked arts on the burnt skin of his battle victims" quote from above, or the time Lyndon Baines Johnson proposed that his campaign workers should spread the rumor that his political opponent engaged in bestiality with his farm animals - "Let's just see him deny it!"
There certainly was black or harmful magic in the ancient and mediaeval world--no doubt about that; there were laws against practicing it in many states in the Eastern Mediterranean, also; much more common was white, or healing/protecting magic

>Mathematics is divided into three species: haruspicium, augurium, and
>horoscopium.

This part is actually fairly factual...though I've never quite seen it divided up this way...for a much better treatment along THESE lines, I recommend the "occult encyclopedia" from the Renaissance, the recently edited work of Henry Cornelius Agrippa's Three Books of Occult Philosophy, 1993, Llewellyn Publications...write me back for a fuller treatment of this if you like

>Witches (malifici) are those who gain forbidden instruction and the
>cooperation of >demons and all sorts of execrable remedies by the
>invocation and binding of demons.

This is purely the ineffable propaganda of the mediaeval church which inexplicably remains today (like all the BS about the tarot); now—maybe it's "historical" to present that yes, this was what was 'thought' by many people--I sure hope one is not considering presenting such a statement as gilded 'fact'...

> Jugglers (praestigi) are those who, through demonic art
>There are thus eleven types of magic, of which five are mantic (i.e.,
>necromancy, geomancy, hydromancy, aerimancy, and pyromancy)
>[snip-snip!...]

See Agrippa

G. Leake



From: Jon Marshall
Date: Tue, 19 Sep 1995 09:53:14 -0700

As my knowledge of Hugh of Saint Victor comes from a cursory glance at Illich's Vineyard of the Text (which is an exploration of medieval modes of reading, focusing on the Didascalicon), don't take this too seriously.
According to Illich, Hugh wrote the Didascalicon around 1128, and given that alchemy is usually said to have re-entered Europe c. 1150 which is the date attributed to the translation of Morienus by Robert of Chester (and this date is disputed), and that the next works mentioning alchemy are usually said to be Bartholomew Anglicus 'Liber de proprietatibus rerum' or Vincent of Beauvais 'Speculum maius', both written later than 1200, and that Albertus Magnus or Roger Bacon who are among the first to show any experience with alchemy and that after 1245....
It is quite possible that Hugh had never heard of alchemy-

Jon


Date: Mon, 18 Sep 1995 22:04:54 -0700 (MST)
From: Tom Willard

Jon writes:

>>It is quite possible that Hugh had never heard of alchemy-<<

Good point! And if you like Illich's book, you might enjoy David Cayley's book, "Ivan Illich In Conversation" (Concord, Ontario: Anansi, 1992).

Tom Willard


Date: Tue, 19 Sep 1995 09:37:08 -0500
From: George Randall Leake III

Also very important is the fact that the Western Europeans lost their hold on the Holy Lands at this time...and as the Templars gained a taste for Eastern mysticism and lost elements of the occult, the European nobility gained a taste for spices...and guess who the middle man was?
I find it fascinating that the influx of Eastern culture came with military defeat...look also at the loss of Constantinople in the mid 15th century, and the resulting flood of classical learning in the West, flowering first in Venice naturally

G. Leake


Date: Mon, 18 Sep 1995 13:36:59 -0700 (MST)
From: Tom Willard

Thanks for G. Leake for a wise and entertaining response to the passage I posted.

>Don't believe everything you read! this opus is full of holes... >

It's the sheer certainty of an author who can list eleven kinds of magic—not ten or twelve--that amuses me! His work was very influential in the later Middle Ages. (This is Hugh of St. Victor, in point of fact.)

>Democritus
>look--forget this guy! >

Presumably these were "school of" Aristotle and Democritus: pseudo A and D.

>All these and more are spoken about
>quite eloquently by Georg Luck in his fine book on Magic, "Arcana Mundi"
>(Baltimore & London: Johns Hopkins Univ Press, 1985; ISBN#

Great book! AND it leaves no doubt where alchemy fit in the late classical world. (There is a separate section on alchemy, which includes the Emerald Tablet with Luck's commentary as selection 120.) Hugh mentions only one art of Mercurius, and that is juggling or illusion. There were alchemists working across the Seine, but he says nothing of them. The question behind my question:
What would a priest trained on Hugh's teaching make of an alchemist who was brought before him during the Inquisition?
I only know of one alchemist who is said to have got his methods from the devil, by force and fraud: one Illardus (no relation, I trust) whose story is told somewhere in Manget's Biobliotheca Chemica Curiosa.

Good luck,
Tom Willard


Date: Mon, 18 Sep 1995 17:21:42 -0500
From: George Randall Leake III

>It's the sheer certainty of an author who can list eleven kinds of magic--not
>ten or twelve--that amuses me! His work was very influential in the later
>Middle Ages. (This is Hugh of St. Victor, in point of fact.)

OOPS! I admit I thought you meant this was a guide to PRESENT DAY TEACHERS in instructing them in how to teach students ABOUT THE 12TH CENTURY (at least that's not as bad as when I thought the phrase "Soup de Jour" was French for "french onion soup")
I thought this was some Inquisition-esque revival led by the likes of the so-called Christian Coalition Conspiracy on a local level, set on hoodwinking kids on historical matters EVEN WORSE THAN WAS WHEN I WAS IN PUBLIC SCHOOL

>I only know of one alchemist who is said to have got his methods from the
>devil, by force and fraud: one Illardus (no relation, I trust) whose story is
>told somewhere in Manget's Biobliotheca Chemica Curiosa.

Course I guess this also depends on how one interprets the wisdom/ravings of Aleister Crowley.



Date: Mon, 18 Sep 1995 20:47:05 -0700 (MST)
From: Tom Willard

Thanks to G. Leake for the honest 'oops,' following on the indignant and very well informed response to the paragraph I posted from a teacher's guide. What a perfect example of how we interpret texts according to our 'prior theories'! If this is taken as a twentieth-century document, it reads very differently indeed than if it is presented as a chapter from a twelfth-century treatise by a venerable and generally humane teacher. In fact it was old hat even then, cobbled up from Isidore of Seville and sources like those discussed in Valerie I.J. Flint's excellent study, The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe (Princeton, 1991). It has all the biases of its time. It does seem a good taxonomy for the age, though.