ESSWE Workshop Report: Magical Traditions and Medieval Religions of the Book

Figure 1 (big)

On Thursday 7th July the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE) ran a one-day thesis workshop at the Warburg Institute, London, for current and prospective Masters and PhD students, organised by Inner Lives Co-Investigator Sophie Page. The workshop was focussed on ‘Magical Traditions and Medieval Religions of the Book’ and formed part of ESSWE’s strategy to advance the academic study of the various manifestations of Western esotericism from late antiquity to the present.

The first presentation of the day, ‘Jewish Aramaic magic bowls from late antique Mesopotamia: No Longer in the Margins’, was given by Siam Bhayro of the University of Exeter. Professor Bhayro explored changing scholarly responses to magic bowls which have increasingly placed them at the centre of early medieval Jewish society. Professor Bhayro argued that the professional scribal hands used in the bowls’ magical inscriptions demonstrated that these bowls were the product of an elite professional group rather than arising from a common magic tradition or the rabbinic community.

Liana Siaf (Faculty of Oriental Studies, Oxford) gave the next paper: ‘At the Margins of Orthodoxy: Magic in Medieval Islam’. Dr Siaf’s paper focussed on the limitations of terms such as ‘magic’ and ‘esotericism’ from Western European discourses for the occult theories and practices within Medieval Islam. She argued that it was better to discuss magic in Medieval Islamic culture through the lens of terms used in the Qu’ran, for example, working with concepts that differentiated between true meaning (Ta’wil) and inner meaning (Batin).

Next, Adelina Angusheva-Tihanov from the University of Manchester presented on ‘Slavic amulet books and Greek Orthodoxy’. Slavic amulets were shown to reveal a certain hybridization, integrating Christian, pagan and magical images. Many amulet books had the owner’s name inscribed in them, others reveal copyists leaving space for the client’s name, and some had multiple names scored through, evidence of multiple ownership. Dr Angusheva-Tihanov argued that these amulets are best seen as the product rather than process of magic.  Her presentation was followed by a response from Will Ryan, Emeritus Professor of Russian Studies at the Warburg Institute. In Russia the trend was more toward spell books. Professor Ryan argued that Russian and other amulets can reveal a conscious treatment of the relationship between religion and magic, as the mainstream elements of one religious culture were frequently repurposed for magical effect by another.

Figure 2

Will Ryan and Yuri Stoyanov with a powerpoint slide of a Slavic amulet to cure headaches.

The keynote paper was given by the eminent historian of magic Jean-Patrice Boudet of the Université d’Orléans on ‘Magical Traditions and Medieval Religions of the Book: Common Topics and Mutual Influences’. Professor Boudet argued that across Medieval Christianity, Judaism and Islam magic was a force that was theoretically prohibited yet practically tolerated. This talk was largely centred on the interconnected nature of magic across the religions of the book, including direct transfers of Arabic astral magic to the Latin West and the use of the Hebrew alphabet in some Christian magic texts. Professor Boudet came to the conclusion that, across these cultures, what usually distinguished magical texts was that they violated or circumvented the moral and religious norms prevailing in the society in which they were copied.

Figure 3

Hebrew letters in a Christian work on ritual magic: the Tabula Semamphoras in Beranger Ganell’s Summa sacre magice (1346) in Kassel, Univ. Bibl., MS 4° astron. 3.

The remainder of the workshop consisted of a student-led roundtable discussion. Topics ranged from magical experiments to create hybrid animal-humans, to spiritual enlightenment as a goal of magic, marvels, fairies, the relationship of magic and technology, and the role of magical illusions. The topics of students’ research revealed the great variety of research currently taking place within the field of ‘Esotericism’. The final events of the day were MA and Early Career advice sessions running simultaneously.

The presentations were all enlightening, revealing the scope of Esotericism studies across one thousand years and different religious groups and parts of Europe and the Middle East. A theme which permeated all the discussions was, of course, the issue of using terms such as magic and esotericism in scholarly writing. Whether one decided to avoid such terms or to give them qualified definitions, everyone agreed that the terminology of historical sources must be examined with direct reference to the thoughts, feelings and experiences of their authors, readers and practitioners.

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