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Magic in the pre-christian germanic and modern world

You’re likely thinking at this point, “Okay, but that only works on humans, right? What about influencing the weather and the behavior of animals and plants, activities with which sorcerers, shamans, and the like from all over the world are credited?”

It’s a perfectly valid question, and it can be answered by pointing out that this sort of magic typically takes place in a cosmological context that’s very different from our own. The pagan Norse and other Germanic peoples believed that spirit could be found in countless things throughout the world, rather than exclusively belonging to mankind. This included even things that we today would consider to be nonliving, inanimate objects. And if something has a spirit, then in some sense it is conscious and has a will of its own. Thus, humans weren’t the only beings who could be influenced by magic. Inasmuch as a storm, or a cat, or a ship partook of spirit, it, too, was subject to the workings of magic.

For the ancient Germanic peoples, magic was a fairly normal part of the fabric of everyday life. The practitioner of magic worked with the basic principles that were thought to underlie the workings of the cosmos rather than against them. If he or she was set apart from other people in any way, it was in his or her level of knowledge concerning the cosmos in general and those upon whom he or she was working. It’s worth pointing out that this is something Bruno emphasizes as well: the person who binds most successfully is the person who knows the beings to be bound and their desires the most thoroughly.

The Old Norse vocabulary of magic revolves around conceptions of knowledge. As Professor Catharina Raudvere, a specialist in Norse magic, explains, “the verb kunna, meaning both ‘to know, to understand, to know by heart’ as well as ‘to have insight in the old traditions and lore’…is at the core of this semantic field.” The most common and general word for “magic” is fjölkyngi, which is derived from kunna and means “great knowledge.”

Magic in the pre-christian germanic and modern world

In addition to the knowledge of magical techniques and knowledge of the beings involved in the working, another form of knowledge at the heart of traditional Germanic magical practice is the knowledge of fate. In Raudvere’s words:

The importance of destiny must not be understood to mean that the Norsemen held purely fatalistic beliefs. Rather it must be understood in terms of knowing the future, in order to keep it under some kind of control. Divination rituals and the performance of seiðr [a type of Norse magic discussed below]… were expressions of ways of finding the keys to hidden parts of reality and measuring what was given. The results of divination marked the limits of individual free will and after the divination ceremony strategies could be made for acting within these limits. Hence, prophecies, dreams and dream interpretations, and curses were treated with the greatest concern. … They reveal a tension between freedom and dependence. Nevertheless, there can seem to be a contradiction in terms: the conceptions of destiny could also be viewed as a definition of personal freedom. On the one hand, the limits are set and it lies within the human condition to identify them and act within the given space; on the other, choices and their consequences over a longer period of time is an important theme in the sagas. …

Destiny was in one sense given, but there were still opportunities for developing different strategies… in connection with the fundamental structure of the perception of time.

Magic, therefore, is (amongst other things) the ability to discern fate and work with it to accomplish one’s purpose.

When modern people speak of magic, they often make a distinction between “white magic” and “black magic,” the former being “good” magic and the latter being “evil” magic. This is as common in anthropology as it is amongst the general populace. Such a taxonomy, however, is nowhere to be found in the conceptions of magic held by the pre-Christian Germanic peoples, who had radically different moral standards than those of what we today call “morality.”

Were there any truly indigenous categories or divisions within Germanic magic, then? There were, but we know frustratingly little about them today. The only type of Norse magic that is clearly marked off from other kinds of magic in Old Norse literature is seidr, a form of “high” ritual magic practiced only by women and “unmanly” men such as the god Odin. Men who practiced magic typically delved into the amorphous complex of “warrior shamanism” practiced by initiatory military societies. The Old Norse word galdr, derived from galan, “to crow,” denotes magic that centrally involves the use of runes and incantations, and may have referred to another particularly organized magical system, but, due to the absence of sufficient evidence, this must remain an intriguing speculation.

Magic in the pre-christian germanic and modern world

Magic was an integral part of the Western world up to and including the Renaissance. However, that “Rebirth” of Classical culture, arts, and sciences was crushed beneath the boot of the fearfully pious and reactionary elements of the European society of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which included the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Counter-Reformation, the Inquisition, and the Witch Trials. Out of understandable concern for their own safety, philosophers and scientists – formerly among the most likely to be avid practitioners of magic – stripped their crafts of anything that might seem “magical,” rebranding them as the study of inert, mechanistic phenomena. This brought their disciplines into harmony with the dominant strains of Christian theology, wherein the visible, tangible world is an unthinking, unfeeling artifact created by a god who is utterly separate from his creation. Consciousness was dismissed from the world – except, conveniently, from the human mind, but even the workings of the human mind were reframed in mechanistic, as opposed to animistic, terms. Magic had been banished from the world – and, it should be noted, for purely ideological reasons.

Or, at least, polite society demands that we speak as if this revolution had actually been successful in removing magic from Western civilization.

Politeness aside, however, the “mechanistic philosophy” of René Descartes, Isaac Newton, and their ilk has utterly failed to erase magic from the modern world, or even to diminish its influence. Magic occupies as prominent a place in modern society as it ever has. We just prefer to call it things like “psychology,” “sociology,” “advertising,” “marketing,” and “personal development” rather than “magic.”