Thursday, September 1, 2016

Review: Icons of Power

I just had a chance to read Naomi Janowitz: Icons of Power: Ritual Practices in Late Antiquity: Pennsylvania State University Press: 2002.

This was a fun book! Ritual practices in Late Antiquity were full of cosmic secrets and divine names! Many hoped for alliances with superhuman powers. There was a crazy wide diversity of rituals. And many secular scholars today claim that “magic” just names the rituals your group finds suspect. Magic is, however, separable from mysticism, insofar as mysticism looks for union, rather than alliance.

The author explains that we ought to understand ritual efficacy more like a speech-act – and here inclusive of sign-events – which is not the same thing as the old sympathetic theory of magic.

The chapters work down a kind of continuum from the highest “magic” being purely “verbal” with the pronunciation of divine names, through letters and sounds with cosmic pragmatics through combined words and deeds such as the Angelic imprecations in the Book of Secrets finally to purely material, almost nonverbal “magic” in the form of metallurgical alchemy.

Now here is something crazy cool: Vowels were associated with the spheres of the heavens, consonants with the material. Every act of speech was an incarnation of a form into a body. Thus “nonsense” syllables could still have magical affect, with the emphasis on the pragmatics of the performative gesture over any semantics of words themselves. These even jives with our intuitive sense that "holier," "lawful" speech sounds "beautiful," light and full of vowels; while the "dark speech" sounds ugly, heavy and full of consonants. Fascinating, right?

The ancient ritual text known as the Book of Secrets has 6 “levels” of spells (I kid you not!), corresponding to the 6 levels of heaven. Because the 7th heaven is holy, reserved for God alone, and therefore there is no “imprecation” possible.

Now I just love the descending scale or continuum. Perhaps "clerical magic" is the purely vocal (without elements) invocation of divine names. Chaotic clerical magic invokes demons. Lawful magic invokes cosmic powers. Chaotic magic invokes the dead and the chthonic. Neutral magic builds from metallurgical and plant spygerical alchemy.

The term “alchemy” is medieval. In late antiquity the equivalent was known as the “Sacred,” or “Divine Art,” or “the Great Work.” Alchemy developed from a ritualized approach to metallurgical transformation, purification and use of metals. It is evident that they had developed some kind of means of changing the color of metals, with the goal being to color them “gold” such that they became gold. The alchemist moved through a ritual metallurgical process whereby the metal changed colors several times. Metal is not static because the cosmic system is dynamic. The metal is “cooked” to perfection, just like the material elements in man in order to become virtuous. Alchemy puts to rest any kind of Gnosticism or agnostic interpretation of Plato or the philosophia perennis, because in alchemy material is no longer contrasted with the spiritual. Rather, the material forms one pole along a continuum that includes the spiritual as its compliment. Therein and thereby, the material may undergo transformations that mediate and participate the spiritual.

Nothing like a little research into the medieval and ancient world to build campaign material!

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