There are magical elements in religion, and there are religious facets to the practice of magic, as succinctly summed up by Sir Walter Raleigh: “The art of magic is the art of worshiping God.” That’s how I feel and what I see during my Dutiful Sunday Morning Masses, the ancient rite of the Church, a perennial panoply of syncretism with its splendid paraphernalia of prayers and the liturgical ceremony of rites and mechanical recitation of prayers; it is the melding of religions or beliefs of the similar elements but of different origins. Hence, to come upon an article in the recent issue of BBC History Magazine about an academic study by a certain British scholar of the existence of fairies in the context of the validity of cultural and historical artifacts gave me an uncanny pleasure.
In fact, Religion (that is, Christianity) and Magic (in the forms of divination and sorcery) are not to be seen as polar opposites and antithetical systems of belief because they are interdisciplinary agencies of attempting to seeking and offering a panacea to our dilemmas – physical, metaphysical – competing for supremacy in propitiation. Such mysteriously syncretic elements of the two different agencies of beliefs became the academic subjects of intellectuals, such as Francis Bacon and John Aubrey who accepted the potentialities of physiognomy as an infallible guide to predicting one’s character and argued for the validity of non-Christian practice based on certain intellectual bases therein. With this in mind, you would not be surprised to learn that fairy summoning rituals were all the rage in the Renaissance period (15th~17th centuries), indiscriminately practiced by all strata of society, learned or ignorant, rich or poor, Christian or pagan. The author of the article informed the reader that the early Renaissance idea of fairies was pretty nebulous and varied with a wide arc of wonder and trepidation and that the dainty image of ever famous “Tinker-bell” was a Victorian construction of the whole fairy race.
Then, how did the “real” fairies look? Although there is no magisterial, definitive version of the physiognomy of a fairy, a collective description gleaned from various records boils down to it as a supernaturally attractive man/woman imperiling the souls of whoever it was summoned to, which is reminded of incubus/succubus, consecutively. Notwithstanding the dubious nature of fairies, the invocation of fairies halfway between angels and devils was widely used in hope to (1) acquire medical knowledge, such as whereabouts of herbs and their properties; (2) delight in the highest degree of sensual ecstasy; and (3) reveal the future and prevent from misfortune in advance. Be it as it may seem wholly pagan, the summoning ritual was surprisingly required for God’s intervention because it included periods of purification through abstinence, fasting, and prayer in preparation, all of which would testify to the sanctity of the performer ministering to the moral and ethical character. God willing, a fairy at request manifested to the summoner, but he should not come out of the circle he had drawn because it protected from sudden maleficence of the ambiguous fairy.
In sum, the article was an elegant primer for a further interdisciplinary study of literature, religion, and folklore from the medieval times to the Reformation period and possible stretching to this date. The exemplary texts that spring to my mind are Religion and The Decline of Magic by Keith Thomas and Christopher Marlowe’s version of the legend of Dr. Faust, both of which are excellent testaments to the contextualization of the esoteric knowledge on the grounds of intellectual bases into academic studies of social, cultural, and historical facets of different zeitgeists, which also serve as invaluable literary artifacts to epochal changes. But for all that is worth, this relation between religion and magic is commensal, exhibiting a mesmerizing consilience of gods and God, profane and holy, pagan and ecclesiastical, forbidden, and disciplined, as superbly unfolded in the Sistine Chapel fresco, prodigiously expressed by Michelangelo.