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This Blog is named after an ancient gnoseological riddle which hints hidden, disseminated, omnipresent wisdom.
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Magic in the Bible

The Charm of Biblical Polytheism
Short outline of the presentation

What's wrong with magic?  Biblical Oracles: Rediscovering many surprising biblical divination practices.

Preceding two slides represent two artistic depictions of a famous story of the Witch of Endor (1 Sam 28). Rembrandt draws an almost mundane scene at the time when witch hunts were still regrettably quite common. William Blake in a more enlighten period and influenced strongly by the artistic style of Romanticism, depicts the same scene with vivid, almost psychotic, imagination.

This slide lists and explains the basic vocabulary of mantic. Definitions show that there is a very fine, often barely discernable, line between magic and religion. Prayer for instance is not a spell, yet, at least in its popular understanding, it also often attempts to influence and direct the supranatural powers.

This slide lists some common social science theories of the origins and explanations of magic.
Each approach has certain explanatory advantages but also serious drawbacks. For instance the evolutionary perspective is often presented as a simple linear function. Such a simplistic perspective then fails to explain why highly urban, secular, progressive and rationalistic Mannhattan is packed with so many shops of psychics and palm-readers. Similarly, the sociological explanation describes different functions and societal roles, but does not account for empire gathering and the communicating of teratomantic information.

Often the magical world view is described as logic gone crazy. Human intellect looks for cause and consequence even though there is very little to go by, often just irregular coincidences. In reality, magic is an alternative epistemological paradigm. The supranatural realm is postulated and used as an explanatory strategy for otherwise disconcerted phenomena or events.

This slide attempts to outline three dimensional categorization of mantic depending how the interpretation is A) obtained, B) performed and C) used.
According to this three-dimensional scheme a very similar mantic phenomenon can end up in completely opposing quadrants.
A personal dream is unrequested and can be interpreted with the help of a published dream-key, and be used by individual to fill the lottery numbers.
Royal incubation (a special ritual requesting a dream) in the time of a societal crisis can lead the king to visit a respected temple and perform an incubation ritual. The king’s dream can be interpreted by a special priest who delivers an explanation of the dream in a state of trance, and the result is anything but individual, because it influences societies of two neighboring nations bound for war.

The Bible generally rejects divination and other magic practices in a very unequivocal way (punishments declared are often very harsh). When magic is reported in narratives, they are criticized either directly or indirectly (contextually and teleologically/by their outcome).

The Bible often reports and ridicules the divination practices of other nations. Sometimes this ridicule is contextual and teleological. Superstition is ridiculed by its outcome; in the book of Esther the casting of the lots set the date of a planned pogrom a full year away and thus provides enough time to prepare a rescue.

The Torah (the Law) officially institutes two divination practices. The lots of Urim and Thumin and a divine judgement (Ordal) of the bitter water. Yet many more and very diverse divination practices are hinted at, reported and partly hidden in narrative parts of the Bible. For instance Gideon’s fleece (Judges 6) was clearly a divination practice, Jakob’s rods (Gen 30) hint at some kind of magic. Jonathan’s shooting of arrows was originally almost certainly a divination practice (1 Sam 20:20-23+35-38).

A positive appreciation of astrology is present in the Bible only indirectly through hints of a knowledge of celestial myths or myths associated with celestial bodies and constellations. Astrology is based on assumption that celestial divinities have direct influence over the lives of earthlings.

These are some possible examples of residual phyllomancy practices.

Two slides dedicated to examples of biblical incubation.

One of the highest-valued and also most-trusted methods of divination in the Ancient Near East was hepatoscopy; the divination of the liver of a sacrificial animal. When a sacrificial animal was slaughtered, its entrails would be closely inspected for any anomalies. The liver especially would be studied in detail and its form and shape interpreted by specially trained priests. Clay models of a liver for training purposes as well as reports of individual readings were discovered in ANE. It is possible that the prophet Amos was by profession (his training) hepatoscop.

Augury is generally associated with Hellenistic and Roman times. A hint of augury in Ecclesiastes fits well with its authorship often being dated quite late in this period.

       In general terms a magical world-view is operating with a different epistemology, is built more strongly on poetical - metaphorical thinking and preserves a charming holistic explanatory code of the world.
       On the surface, the Bible dismisses most of the magic and divination as illicit practices. Under the surface (hidden and partly censored by the later editorial work) is a vibrant landscape of diverse magical practices, which were never reserved only for the so-called popular religion, they were practiced in the royal court as well as in official religious sanctuaries.
       In different stages and to a different degree, magic was integral part of biblical stories. Later editors, influenced by the ascending orthodoxy, attempted to hide this reality, but never truly succeeded.

1 comment:

Meghan Medvescek said...

I absolutely love this. thank you.