Monday, 7 January 2008

The Magi and Magic

Who were the Magi, the three kings who came bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh? We know of them through the Gospel accounts and through the church's tradition, but not all the sources we have have been unanimous about them. Indeed, St. John Chrysostom claims that there were forty of them! However we do not need to become bogged down in historical analysis and facts, for even if the accounts of tradition are not historically true, they are instructive enough.

We know that their names were Caspar, Balthasar and Melchior, that they were wise men from the east, and that they came to Bethlehem by following a star. They were kings, but importantly, far more than kings. They were astrologers and magicians of the old pagan order.

According to Charles Williams, one of the Inklings and an associate of C.S. Lewis, there were two kinds of magic in pre-christian times. First there was the dark occult magic that was base and concerned with achieving the practical result of manipulating the world, which alas still exists today. But secondly there was also a white magic, which was a very high art which sought to understand the nature and the mysteries of the universe, and to discover its inner meaning. Tolkein wrote of the practitioners of this kind in the the Lord of the Rings, particularly in the wizard Gandalf.

If this is right, it is highly likely that the Magi were astrologers and white magicians of the pre - christian times, and it was by their arts that they came to find the saviour in Bethlehem. However as the church fathers clearly teach, is most important to realise that their white magic and arts came to an end at the moment they knelt before the infant saviour. For God is no longer a mystery to be attained through magic and esoteric initiation: the word has now been made flesh, and has dwelt among us.

Indeed in the gifts they bring the Magi recognise him for what he is: in offering Gold he is king, in frankincense he is priest, and myrrh he is the future lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. For truth has been revealed to us in a person, a person who holds the entire universe and its destiny in his hands.

From now on there can be no revival of the old pagan religion and white magic,despite what many today think. For all such practices now are a deliberate refusal of the incarnation, motivated not by desire for truth but power and control, which ultimately lead to self worship and despair. Mystery has been replaced by revelation, and fate has been replaced with divine providence. Of fate and astrology, I have more to say tomorrow.


Anonymous said...

Actually in a draft letter to Naomi Mitchison in 1954 Tolkien pointed out that neither the "good" magia nor the "bad" goeteia was really good or bad in the moral context of The Lord of the Rings: 'Neither is in this tale, good or bad (per se), but ony by motive or purpose or use. Both sides use both, but with different motives.'

Certain people tried to re-heat this controversy about a decade ago during the early Harry Potter debates. (They did not succeed.)

Oliver Hayes said...

Thankyou for pointing this out. I will however say that then I referred to the practice of 'white' magic I failed to mention that while this was a very high art which pointed to the divine, leading the Magi to the saviour, it was not by nature entirely good, and nor was it distinct from dark practical magic. For that reason it was to be ended by the adoration of the Magi.