Parallel to the so called witch-hunts in Europe, there is also a history of Renaissance magic called “Natural Magic” (by Marsilio Ficino) and “Occult Science” (by Pico de la Mirandolla).
See Case Study Occult Science P.1:
The rhetorical oppositions between theurgy, necromancy, and magic, or illicit and licit religious practices, however were operative within Neoplatonism itself. For example Porphyry accuses the theurgists of attempting to manipulate and entice the gods with incantations and sacrificial vapours. Like the Catholic Bishop, Augustine, Porphyry worries that the true objects of theurgic rites may be daimons disguised as divinities. In his Letter to Anebo, Porphyry implies that theurgists are confused about the nature of the gods, since they seem to hold that immaterial gods are attracted by material sacrifices (Iamblichus, De Mysteriis, 211.19-212.3, ed. des Places). In On the Abstinence of Animal Food he goes further: the true objects of blood sacrifices are daimons, disguised as divinities.
How then can divine theurgy be clearly and safely distinguished from daimonic magic?
Iamblichus’s response to Porphyry, though it sheds much light on the character of theurgy, works largely within the same polemical categories: theurgy raises us to the gods, whereas magic attempts to draw the gods to us; theurgy invokes the gods through the appropriate, natural receptacles, whereas magic constructs artificial receptacles, like idols, through which to contain and manipulate divine powers). Iamblichus distinguishes sacred visions attained through theurgy from the residual phantasms artificially produced through sorcery (apo tês goêteias technichôs, De Mysteriis 160.15-18, ed. des Places). Likewise, he distinguishes theurgy from the animation of statues, which is also effected through magical artifice (technikôs 170.9).
Similar can be found in the Chronographia of George Synkellos, the 9th century Byzantine chronicler, who preserves a fragment from the Hermetic philosopher, Zosimos of Panopolis where he refers to ‘ancient and divine scriptures’ in the ancient Hebrew scriptures, specifically the Book of Enoch. And as we have seen in our above Case Study Occult Science P. 1, the charge of "magic" in fact was part of a rhetorical strategy employed by Christians, Hellenes and Jews alike, sometimes against one another and sometimes against rival factions or schools within their own religious traditions. One important aspect of this polemical use of the category "magic", evident also in the Book of Enoch, is the notion that magic, wittingly or unwittingly, works through the wrong powers, through daimons or fallen angels, to the ultimate enslavement and destruction of the magician).
Seen in this context, Tertullian’s appropriation of the Enochian story makes good rhetorical sense. It allows him to legitimate the Christian religion in contradistinction to other "false" or "illicit" religions. What is perhaps more difficult to understand is the fact that some, including Zosimos, were also sympathetic to this account, which seemed to play so neatly into the hands of their detractors, and potential persecutors. In two of his more theoretical works, On the Letter Omega and the Final Quittance, Zosimos develops a distinctive daimonology. According to this, the daimons who inhabit the upper regions of the world are the earthly ministers of the planetary rulers—the gnostic archons—who determine the Fate of the individual and of the whole physical cosmos. These archons and their daimonic servants are intent on maintaining the ignorance and enslavement of fallen humanity. And the goal of what Zosimos termed ‘alchemy’, is liberation of the spiritual part of the human from the bonds of matter and Fate—from the clutches of the archons and their daimons. However, alchemy cannot simply ignore these forces, or wish them away. Thus in working through these problems Zosimos articulates a distinction between two kinds of alchemy: one profane, the other sacred; one aimed at the material ends of transmutation, the other aimed at a spiritual "baptism"; one utterly enslaved to daimons, the other a means of salvation. Zosimos joins Enoch in condemning profane alchemy, while insisting on the integrity of the true Hermetic Art. Thus the rhetorical categories of licit and illicit religion, and his reasons for appropriating the Enochian story turn out not to be so different from Tertullian’s: both employ the Enochian myth to legitimate their religious and ritual practices, in distinction from their spiritual competitors. The notion that alchemy proceeds on the basis of the revelations of unscrupulous daimons, or that it derives its very efficacy from astrologic and daimonic principles, is a central and persistent concern of Zosimos’s theoretical writings on alchemy. However, in endorsing and indeed developing the Enochian account of daimonic influence, Zosimos does not view himself as undermining the divine status of alchemy. True alchemy, Hermetic alchemy, is above reproach, because it operates—as far as possible—independently of daimons and astrologic principles, employing a natural methodology based on the natural sympathies and antipathies of substances. When Zosimos speaks approvingly of the Enochian account, it may be that he has chiefly in mind that other school of "so-called" alchemists, who are too lazy for laboratory work and have no interest in the purification of their bodies and souls. For them the tincturing of metals is surface deep, lacking entirely the spiritual implications of "baptism" that Zosimos finds philosophically expressed in his Hermetic sources. Their version of Chêmeia is indeed ‘of no advantage to the soul’. Zosimos joins the Book of Enoch in condemning these base practitioners of the occult sciences, who are slaves to their own passions and to the daimons who rule the world of Fate and matter. More in particular Zosimos in the above shows his familiarity with the folk legends of Solomon as a magus and exorcist, who holds divine dominion over daimons. (See for example Testament of Solomon, trans. D.C. Duling).
Probably he read the Testament of Solomon, in which Solomon describes how he harnessed the powers of the daimons, with the aid of their angelic superiors, in order to complete the construction of the Temple. Solomon, through the divine power of his ring, commands each demon, in turn, to reveal its name, its distinctive activity, its planetary or zodiacal designation, and the angelic or divine power that thwarts it. So long as he maintains a pious relation to God, he is able to control the demons, through their divine superiors, and harness their powers for sacred ends. But when his piety is compromised, and he sacrifices to pagan gods, his control over the demons is lost, and he becomes enslaved to them: ‘. . . my spirit was darkened and I became a laughingstock to the idols and demons.’ (Testament 26.7-8). There is disagreement as to the date of the Testament, but the consensus seems to place it between the 1st and 3rd centuries CE, in which case Zosimos could be familiar with it. If the "Mambres" of Zosimos is the Egyptian sorcerer Jambres, mentioned in the Testament (25.4), then the connection is strengthened (see Duling, 950-51, nt. 94).
Fact is that, the Testament of Solomon, is a monotheistic response to the problem of the malevolent astral powers, and the subordination of the astral powers to the Jewish God and His angelic ministers neutralizes their malevolent potency, so that Solomon can harness their powers in the sacred work of the Temple’s construction. What the Europe of the witch hunts concerns however, this debate re-emerged in the 1460s, when a Byzantine monk brought a group of texts known as the Corpus hermeticum from the collapsing eastern empire to the Medici court in Florence. Here, a humanist working under the patronage of Cosimo de' Medici (1389-1464), was one of the principal proponents of Platonic thought in the fifteenth century, already engaged in translating works of Plato when the manuscript containing most of the books of the Corpus hermeticum came into Cosimo's possession.
Mistakenly believing the Hermetic texts to be far older sources that had influenced Plato (in fact, the lines of influence ran the other way, the Corpus hermeticum being infused with Neo-platonic thought dating at least five centuries after Plato's death), Cosimo de' Medici (1389-1464), ordered Ficino to leave Plato aside and turn his attention to Hermes Trismegistus. Medieval scholars had known of these texts and actually possessed a Latin version of one Hermetic work known as Asclepius, but the main body of Hermetic writings only became available in the West through Ficino's translation. Although the influence of Hermetic thought on all aspects of learned magic in the Renaissance has often been overstated, the undeniable impact of this body of supposedly ancient texts nevertheless reveals much about the nature of Renaissance magic.
Hermes Trismegistus as the founder of “Natural Magic”depicted in a floor mosaic in the Siena cathedral:
In 1489, Ficino wrote his own major work of magical thought, De vita caelitus comparanda (On Life connected to the Heavens), which was above all a treatise on medicine and the human body. That Ficino developed his magical system primarily in a medical context indicates the degree to which he conceived of his magic as being entirely natural rather than in any way demonic and how critically concerned he was to present it in that light. The key concept in Ficino's magical system was spiritus. This was not the human spirit or soul in a standard Christian sense. Rather, while spiritus was not entirely physical, it was a natural aspect of the human body and provided the medium though which ephemeral and occult forces radiating through the universe, above all astral forces, could affect the human body and mind. Ficino's active magic entailed manipulating the spiritus by various means to make it more susceptible to particular forces, the strong influence of which was desired at a particular time. For example, the spiritus could be attuned to the martial energies of the planet Mars before a battle, or to the energies of Venus in preparation for an amorous pursuit. Negative influences, such as those that caused disease or melancholy, could also be warded off by making the spiritus less susceptible to them and more receptive to countervailing forces. Spiritus might be attuned to a particular astral influence in many ways, including consuming certain types of food or drink, burning various kinds of incense, or surrounding oneself with materials that were naturally sympathetic to the desired planet's influence. Gold was naturally attuned to the beneficial energies of the sun, for example. Another major means of making the spiritus especially susceptible to specific influences was through music, as particular songs or melodies were believed to be (rather literally) in tune with certain astral emanations and would alter the spiritus subtly to be more influenced by these forces.
By conceiving of his magical rites as directly affecting only his own spiritus or that of others to make them more receptive to particular astral forces, rather than manipulating those forces directly, Ficino avoided a major pitfall. Christian authorities had for centuries condemned any attempts to control astral forces by words or rites, claiming that such actions were actually forms of communication with demons who then manipulated natural forces or otherwise produced the desired magical effects. Ficino further hoped to demonstrate how ancient magical practices could still be regarded as both effective and permissible within a Christian conception of the universe. He maintained, along with most Christian thinkers of his day, that some natural substances were particularly attuned to certain astral forces and could be used to attract or amplify these. Deliberately crafting figures from these materials, however, especially if they were inscribed with symbols or writing was more problematic, since these then seemed like a form of communication with some (demonic) intelligence. The degree to which Hermetic thought shaped Ficino's magic, as opposed to Platonic, Neoplatonic, or other influences, is still debated. Certainly after translating the Hermetic corpus, he must have been infused with Hermetic ideas. Yet he mentioned Hermetic writings directly only a handful of times in the whole of De vita. Basic ideas of the interconnectedness of the human body (the microcosm) with the natural forces of the larger universe (the macrocosm), as well as ideas regarding powerful emanations from higher astral spheres to the earth, were central to Neoplatonic thought. There is no need, then, to think of Hermeticism as the direct source of all of Ficino's magic. Yet Hermetic ideas, themselves largely reflective of Neoplatonism, certainly influenced his thought, and perhaps especially his desire to explain and justify supposed ancient magical practices in terms that could be acceptable to Christian theology. He was, for example, fascinated with an account in the Hermetic Asclepius of how Egyptian priests had fashioned statues and infused them with the power of demons. Ficino wanted to salvage this rite from condemnation by arguing that the priests actually used astral forces and so their practices were not in fundamental conflict with Christian doctrine. Thus Renaissance magic was based in sources that supposedly stemmed from deepest antiquity and that were therefore, in the minds of Renaissance thinkers including occultists and esotericists today, profoundly admirable and authoritative.
Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), as we have seen, initially was considered a quintessential humanist because of his famous Oratio de hominis dignitate (Oration on the Dignity of Man) of 1487. Although he was opposed to many aspects of astrology, which he felt could become overly deterministic and detract from human achievement, he was deeply interested in magic. To the heady mix of Neoplatonism and Hermeticism already circulating in Italy, he added the study of Kabbalah, a Jewish system of mysticism that had developed mainly in medieval Spain but that, not unlike the Corpus hermeticum, Renaissance scholars thought was far more ancient. The essential Kabbalistic principle was that the entire universe existed as a continual emanation from the divine. Since in the Book of Genesis God created the universe by speaking, Kabbalah became centered on words and letters, particularly the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the ten senrot (or sephiroth), names representing aspects of the power of God descending through the universe. Through the careful contemplation of these, one could ascend toward the divine. Since' Hebrew could be conceived as the original language spoken by God, learned magicians had long believed that Hebrew words might carry particular power, and so the move from mystical contemplation to more active magical manipulations involving Hebrew words could be slight. In his Kabbalistic magic, Pico focused on the use of Hebrew language and mystical systems to achieve the magician's own self-purification and refinement of spirit.
By basing his system of magic on the manipulation of the human spirit so that it became more receptive to higher powers, Pico, like Ficino, endeavored to avoid charges of invoking and worshiping demons. He certainly would have wanted to stay clear of any such charges. In 1487 he had suffered a papal condemnation for some of his philosophical opinions. He had fled Florence, suffered imprisonment in France, and had only been released through the Medicis' intervention. Yet Kabbalistic magic was by no means entirely safe from accusations of demonic involvement, for Kabbalah posited spiritual forces, either angels or demons, depending on a given authority's attitude toward them, closely associated with the various levels of ascent toward the divine. But his Kabbalistic magic integrated easily with other Renaissance magical systems. Pico's contemporary, the German humanist Johannes Reuchlin (1455-1522), in his De arte cabalistica (On the Cabalistic Art), extended Pico's ideas and pushed them more openly in the direction of angelic (or demonic, in the minds of his critics) magic.
Another, was the formerly mentioned Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486 1535). Born and educated in Cologne, Agrippa was drawn to magical studies very early and had already compiled his compendium of magic, De occult philosophia (On Occult Philosophy), by 1510, when he was scarcely twenty· four years old. Unlike most previous major Renaissance magicians, who tried dilligently to present their magic as entirely natural and non demonic, Agrippa freely admitted the angelic and/or demonic nature of Renaissance magic. In 1519, while serving as civic orator in the town of Metz, he had come to the defense of a woman accused of witchcraft, arguing that simple old women were not likely to be involved in any real demonic magic.
Although he vigorously rejected all aspects of demonic magic, also Paracelsus strongly advocated ‘natural’ magic. Like Ficino, Paracelsus believed that astral forces exerted vital influence on the human body. Thus he felt that all physicians needed to be skilled astrologers and to some extent astral magicians. Another major physician and astrologer of his time was the Italian Girolamo Cardano (1501-1576), who was trained at Pavia and later became a professor of medicine at the University of Bologna. Like most educated men of his day, he firmly believed in the important connection between medicine and astral forces. In1534 he moved fully into the realm of astrology, publishing his first collection of general prognostications, now a popular genre, thanks to the printing press. Cardano intended his astrological publications to spread his reputation and gamer him new clients. Clearly his strategy worked, because his name became known across Europe, and. he was summoned from as far away as Scotland in 1552 to treat the archbishop of Edinburgh. On his journey north, he spent time at many of the courts of France and England, encountering various important people. A minor celebrity in France at this time, who like Cardano was both a physician and an astrologer, was Michel de Nostredame (1501-1566), better known by his Latinate name, Nostradamus. He and Cardano do not appear to have met, but like Cardano he published prognostications to build his reputation and attract clients. He issued the famously obscure rhymed verse prophecies of his Centuries in 1555. Thanks to enduring interest in this work, he has earned a unique reputation in the modem world, yet in his own day there were many of his ilk, and he hardly ranked among the most important, successful, or influential Renaisance magicians.
An important figure, and someone whom Cardano certainly met on his travels, was John Dee (1527-1608), probably the most significant sixteenth-century English mage. The son of a minor official in the court of Henry VIII (reigncd 1509-1547), Dee traveled to the continent to continue his studies of mathematics and navigation at the University of Louvain in the Low Countries. In addition to pure mathematics and nautical knowledge, he became fascinated, in the course of his education, with alchemy, astrology, Kabbalah, and Hermetic magic. Returning to England, he turned down university posts in favor of direct noble patronage for his services, notably from Robert Dudley, Earl of Leister, but also from the royal family. Court magicians had been common since the Middle Ages, and such patronage allowed Renaissance mages (as well as other scholars and scientists) the advantage of more time for their own often esoteric studies than university positions permitted. Involvement with political figures and court intrigue carried risks as well, of course. During the brief reign of Mary Tudor (reigned 1553-1558), oldest daughter of Henry VIII, Dee was imprisoned on charges of sorcery-accused of forecasting the queen's death for her political rivals. When Mary did die and her younger sister Elizabeth ascended to the throne (reigned 1558-1603), Dee was restored to favor and provided Elizabeth with astrological services, as well as with his mathematical and navigational expertise.
Like many Renaissance mages, Dee suffered throughout his life with rumors that he was actually an evil sorcerer in league with demons. Such rumors were no doubt only exacerbated by the fact that, later in life, he did indeed come to focus on angelic magic, seeking to communicate with angels via a crystal ball. For this, Dee employed the services of young apprentices who would actually see the angels and report on what they said. Most notably among these men was Edward Kelly, whose exact status as honest assistant or opportunistic charlatan history has never been able fully to determine. In 1583 Dee and Kelly left England for the promise of better patronage on the continent. Dee's neighbors in England were clearly relieved at the departure of the suspected sorcerer and promptly burned down his house. On the continent, first in Poland and then in Bohemia, Dee never found patronage fully to his liking. He also seems to have grown disenchanted with magical pursuits and especially his attempts with Kelly to communicate with angels. Dee finally broke with his assistant and returned to England, where he died penniless. His remarkable career illustrates the heights to which a skillful Renaissance magician could rise as well as the risks this profession entailed and the depths to which one could fall.
It was only with The True Christian Religion (1771), by Emanuel Swedenborg that the occult tradition found it's recognised place in Europe and beyond. Here Swedenborg approaches the difficulties in extracting holy truth from the Bible:
"The natural man, however, cannot thus be persuaded to believe that the Word is divine truth itself, in which are divine wisdom and divine life; for he judges it by its style which reveals no such things. Yet the style of the Word is a truly divine style, with which no other however lofty and excellent can be compared. The style of the Word is such that it is holy in every sentence, in every word, and sometimes in every letter; and therefore the Word unites man to the Lord and opens heaven."
The Christian magical tincture of this sentiment needs hardly to be spelled out. Indeed, Swedenborg's theory of correspondences, when specifically applied to Scripture, takes on more than a superficial Christian kabbalistic tone:
That everything in nature and in the human body corresponds to spiritual things is shown in Swedenborg's Heaven and Hell. But what correspondence is, has been hitherto unknown, although it was perfectly understood in the most ancient times; for to the men of that time the science of correspondence was the science of sciences, and was so universal that all their manuscripts and books were written by correspondences. The book of Job, a book of the ancient church, is full of correspondences. The hieroglyphics of the Egyptians and the myths of antiquity were the same. All the ancient churches were representative of spiritual things; the ceremoniallaws of their worship were pure correspondences; so was everything in the Israelitish church. The burnt-offerings, sacrifices, meat-offerings and drink-offerings were correspondences in every detail; so was the tabernacle with everything in it; and also the feasts of unleavened bread, of tabernacles, and of first fruits; also the priesthood of Aaron and the Levites and their holy garments ... Moreover, all the laws and judgements relating to their worship and life were correspondences. Now, because divine things manifest themselves in the world by correspondences, the Word was written by pure correspondences; and for the same reason, the Lord, because He spoke from the divinity, spoke from correspondences. For everything from the divinity sparked a chain reaction of new religions that sought to interpret what did not happen.
Like the Christian Kabbalists, Swedenborg also thought that the very words and letters of the Bible had mystical powers, which awaited deciphering by the illuminati, meaning in this case the 'initiated'. Heaven, he revealed, was constituted as a homo maxim us, a giant man, with the parts of his body consisting of angels. Swedenborg testified that he had 'conversed with all my relatives and friends, also with departed kings, dukes and men of learning, and this continually for twenty seven years.'
Sometimes entrance was gained by the technique of taking one breath every thirty minutes. Apart from spirits and angels, some other sources for Swedenborg's interesting biblical theology suggest themselves. Chief among these is Jacob Boehme (1575-1624), the German mystic who became notorious for stressing the dualism of God, which required evil as a complement to His divine goodness.