In the beginning
Each culture has its own mythology, a tale of their creation. Some believe mankind came about through the spilled seed of a mighty god, whilst others believe that their maker fashioned them from the clay of the earth. Perhaps the universe was fashioned from the corpse of a great monster or from a vast pool of chemicals which coalesced into planets, mountains and man.
The dawn of Magic
In early times, man could not explain the coming of rain and winds, while lightening flashed from the sky, why some were struck down by disease and others were not. These mysteries caused man to fear as they could not control or predict it. However, some men of greater insight could recognise the coming of these events and, once they could could be recognised, they could be predicted. However, these men were still bound by their fear of the unknown. They interpreted these signs as portents from unknown, supernatural agents and when they saw no signs, they would appeal to these agents, placating them with prayers, sacrifices and complex ritual. This practise of magic in its most primitive form as a component of hysterical supersition formed the basis of early religion. Gods were fashioned from the sun and the rain, and through religion man began to construct his first great civilisations.
Customs and rituals developed over time from priest-magicians, descendants of those men of wisdom, who were charged with placating and diving the future from the gods. Their tradition was recorded through the generations from father to son and mother to daughter. The few that were written down survived many centuries and gave those who could decpiher their dead language an inestimable headstart in the mastery of magic.
A cult was essentially a group of individuals who united under a common purpose with similar methods and a core belief system. Man found he could not blindly believe in a shapeless and faceless deity and therefore added features to their gods so that they might better identify them. In those primitive times it was enough to follow a totem animal, a god likened to a particular beast for familiarity and in the hope that the cult members would gain part of their god’s strength or cunning.
The great intuitive leaps occured when man finally began to apply human features to his invisible gods. The traditions and rituals, as well as the facets of these totem animals, were preserved and lived on in these anthropomorphic deities.
During the dyasties of Egypt, the priest-magicians were at their height. They had drunk deeply of science and mathematics, slaked their thirst with magic and ritual, and created a religious oligarchy that would ensure that their chosen Pharoah, often merely a child, would prosper and permit them to guide and advise him. In return for permitting them to shape the nation, the Pharoah was promised immortality. Only a fraction made it quite that far and their remains are scattered around the world on show to the masses.
The later civilisations maintained their pantheons of gods and imagined thir interactions in legends and tales of great deeds. Most still carried a vestige of their primitive past with Gods of Thunder and Rain, Goddesses of Hunting and, of couse, the mighty all-father who sired an entire race of Gods. Gods at this time were petty creatures, much like their subjects, mostly concerned with appearances, lust, greed and dominance.
The more advanced cults adopted the gods of earlier religions into their mythology, renaming them for their own uses and to ensure acceptance with their own people. The Eqyptian Thoth is possibly the most famous of these. By the Romans, he was known as Mercury but more importantly he was known to the Greeks as Hermes.
Hermes, according to legend, was the author of the Emerald Tablet. This tablet, if it ever existed, was inscribed with thriteen tenets central to the nature and working of magic. The collected works, Corpus Hermeticum, formed the basis of occult learning though it was later thought that many of the works dated to much later than originally suppposed. Despite the proof, many groups, both magical and religious, were inluenced by this work and its effect on their subsequent development cannot be ignored. It has provided a hypthetical link between the gods of ancient times and Classical Occultism.
Hermes was also known as Hermes Trismegistus, ‘The Thrice Great’, his power attaining his threefold blessing from God, according to Gnostic Jewish and Christian legend. That the works resurfaced in the Middle Ages and sparked off an interest in magical Antiquity and a subsequent reaction from the Church indicates their importance, if not their veracity.
The Greeks and Romans documented their religion (and, by inference, their magic) in their art, literature, oral history and widespread travels through the world. Their combined influence formed much of the basis of magical thought in Europe and their traditions are still upheld. There were other influences from the Germanic, Celtic and Norse peoples.
Magic also belonged to the common man in ways that religion could not. While religion and the gods were mainly the province of priests and the higher workings of magic were revealed only by magicians, a common tradition of magic was based on the occult virtues of natural or common things. This magic crossed the boundaries of society and gave simple chrms andblessings to the common people. It was not uncommon to hear part of the Liturgical Word intermingled with pidgin Greek and Latin as a medicinal or spiritual cure administered by ignorant lower clergy.
Even from its humble beginnings, Christianity began to see magic as a competitor. The people would never completely accept the new religion in place of their ancient pagan traditions. To combat this problem, they employed syncretism. They canonised some of the pagan gods, establishing them as saints in the Chirstian hierarchy and attributing their miracles to the power of God. Pagan temples were to be reconsecrated and festivals given a new Christian meaning. Stories of the old gods would still be told, but by the new clergy and where Wotan had once ruled, now a Nazarene took his place in legend.
For the commmon man, Natural magic or Occult virtues presented a viable alternaive to Chritsian prayer. In times of adversity, magic could be relied on to provide a solution where prayers seemed powerless. The Church began to preach against such activities, citing the examples laid down in biblical texts as a warning to those who would consort with demons. They even preached against the use of simple charms and the creration of brews which, though they may not deal directly with demons, were another form of idolatry. Magical practices were used and described by midwives, monks, physicians, priests, folk healers and diviners. Even common men and women who had no formal training or special talnet could harness some of this potential. Before science and medicine became enshrined in universities, it was hard to see how a physician would differ from a lay healer.
The higher echleons of the surviving cults spotted the inevitable outcome. They were greatly outnumbered and even though some of their number were members of the Church, it would not save them from the war to come.