Monday, May 20, 2024

    White vs. Black Magic in the Renaissance

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    Before the Renaissance and the new acceptance of magic, there was the ruling Roman empire. All magic was rejected by Rome and its followers and thus magic entered into Europe on a negative note. It wasn’t until the 13th century, the beginning of the Renaissance, that people began to look at magic in a new light (Flint). Being that “renaissance” means rebirth or revival, it seems fitting that the rejection of magic was slowly diminishing. The study of magic was, in fact, being begin actively encouraged (Flint). The people of the renaissance began to believe that if the relationship between humans and the supernatural was strengthened it would be largely beneficial to human life (Flint).

    White magic is magic used to do good in the world. This new practice, in the case of the Renaissance, was used to further Christianity, as Christianity was presumed to be the ultimate good for everyone at the time (Flint). Much of what is believed of magic is based upon religion; paganism or primitive religions seem to better describe what some think of as magic and to equate magic with a miracle would even offend some. In the renaissance however, magic was more the study of phenomena (Flint). It was a time of learning and ideas and experiences, a time of trying to understand the world instead of fearing it. In nature, where there is no human control, the forces that seemed hostile combined with the lack of knowledge about nature made the idea of preternatural interference greatly feared (Flint). When knowledge of the workings of nature grew, as it did in the Renaissance, the fear of the preternatural control of nature, along with the fear of the unknown was greatly reduced.
    With the pre-renaissance fear of magic (paganism) greatly diminished and magic (as miracles or phenomena) becoming something able to contribute to Christianity, any person gifted in white magic (called a magus) became highly respected and revered (Jones). It was believed that a magus was a master of techniques that could bring a human soul closer to God and the more ancient the magic was, the more powerful it must be (Jones).

    During the renaissance, just as they are now, magic and science were at odds. The goal of science is to come up with rational explanations for supposed mysteries. Naturally, some of the mysteries that science attempts to solve are what Christianity deems miracles (magic). The line between the two blurs throughout the span of the Renaissance though, mainly in an effort to define what magic falls under black magic and what magic (white magic) can be used to further Christianity. Black magic is generally defined as the use of spirits to effect events in the world . It is used solely for the advancement of one person, the practitioner, and thus did not fall into the moral category of Christianity (Flint). It is a commandment breaking practice because of the requirement to pray to spirits other than God. Ultimately the rise of magic, though blurred in places, depended entirely upon the churches’ preservation of magic that might serve it.

    According to Flint, the general belief was that magic was acceptable and even wonderful if it had some effect that would advance the church or cure illness. This is not to say that everyone of the time approved of magic. There were still people who operated on the theory that all magic has the potential to turn evil and become uncontrollable. These people generally believed that magic should be destroyed, some even went as far as saying that magi (practitioners of magic) were a product of the union of mother and son and therefore must be inherently evil (Flint). Not all of the fear of magic had dissipated yet, the lines between black and white were still blurred. How was it possible to know for sure who practiced what kinds of magic of who had what abilities?

    Despite the leftover fear of magic from the Roman Empire, the Renaissance was a time for rebirth and discovery and among the many important happenings in this period of time was theatre. This was the time in which Shakespeare lived and wrote and it is evident in his plays. In The Tempest we have a magus, Prospero, who is a supposed benevolent practitioner of white magic, living alone with his daughter on an island. Prospero was the Duke of Milan, but got too far into his studies and began letting his brother run his lands. His brother, Antonio, decides he wants these lands for himself because he runs them and decides to have his brother killed. Gonzalo saves Prospero and his daughter Miranda, and they land on an island where Prospero studies magic and plots to get home and get his lands and title back.
    Prospero, as a magus is “the most fully developed expression of renaissance hopes for the development of humankinds moral, intellectual, and spiritual potential (Mebane).” Though a magus was the ultimate expression of the hope of the renaissance, it may be that Prospero fell short. He, as a practitioner of magic, is a vague character with rather questionable morals.

    Prospero got so into his studies, specifically his occult books, that he had his brother, Antonio, run his kingdom, could he really have been all that surprised when Antonio wanted the title of “Duke of Milan” for himself? His studious nature is generally admirable, but to ignore his duty to his people and his king does not argue well for his values or morals. What of his daughter while he locked himself away in his libraries? She was young and lacked a mother, being raised by nurses and attendants. Had he paid more attention to her instead of being buried in his books, he may have seen what was happening about his kingdom and wouldn’t have ended up on that island to begin with.

    It is assumed that Prospero is a practitioner of white magic and that his “art is a means through which God’s will is accomplished (Mebane).” There is evidence toward this; through his studies of magic and language, he gains the ability to control the forces of nature and to make their effects fruitful rather than destructive (Jones). With his control over the storm at sea, he wrecks Alonso’s ship, leaving everyone alive, but separating them into groups to fit his scheme to get his title back. One of the results of his power over the storm is his daughter Miranda falling in love with the Prince Ferdinand. He clearly loves his daughter, he tests Ferdinand to make sure that his love is true and he isn’t going to break Miranda’s heart, and while this is beneficial to them, it was only a bonus to his original scheme to get his title back.

    As a supposed practitioner of white magic, Prospero’s talents are said to come from his “attainment of an unusual degree of harmony” between the physical and spiritual aspects of his nature (Jones). With white magic being the use of magic to do good in the world, and Prospero’s peace within himself, the assumption that he actually DOES practice white magic is not absurd. However this doesn’t explain his control over Ariel, a spirit. In act 1, scene 2, line 195, Prospero asks Ariel if he carried out the storm as he ordered. This certainly makes it seem that Ariel was ordered to direct the storm and separate the passengers of the ship, as demanded by Prospero. As previously mentioned, black magic is the use of spirits to effect events in the world; perhaps Prospero is not as great a man as was originally assumed.

    Prospero is often referred to as benevolent, but I fail to see how he is much different from Sycorax, Ariel’s first master. She was the original inhabitant of the island Prospero and Miranda land on, as she was banished from Algiers for practicing black magic on other people. Sycorax became angry with Ariel for refusing to carry out her terrible orders and imprisoned him in a pine tree and died before she could free him. Prospero freed Ariel, becoming his new master and then used him in the same way Sycorax did. He was still just a tool to do their bidding.
    In the final act of The Tempest, Prospero gives up his magic and frees Ariel. He does not do this out of his strong moral character, or because he cares for Ariel. He gives up his magic because the Boatswain gives his account of what happened during the storm and how the ship is, miraculously (magically) all in one piece and fit to be sailed. This breaks the illusion of coincidence, allowing the rest of the characters to see that the entire situation was Prospero’s doing. As to be expected, Prospero has a fail-safe, should the king be angry. Miranda and Ferdinand have fallen in love and are to be wed, joining the two families and thus, requiring civility between the king and himself.

    Perhaps Shakespeare was trying to suggest that you never really know people. Maybe it was a subtle reminder that the person standing next to you in the audience of the Globe could be secretly practicing black magic and you should probably NOT push him out of your way. It could be that he was just inspired by the general excitement of the Renaissance and wasn’t thinking one way or the other about what kind of magic Prospero practiced, perhaps he was just enjoying writing and didn’t care.

    Whatever Shakespeare may have been thinking while writing this play, whatever his veiled intentions (if any) were, this play is just another prime example of how magic was slowly accepted into the culture, be it black or white, and in a way became general knowledge. It was known that black magic was the use of spirits to effect events, and it was known (in truth or superstition) how to ward oneself against them. Magi were revered as practitioners of white magic because they were closer to God and knew ways to help others achieve that closeness and security. It was a time of revival, of a quest for further knowledge in any and all subjects. It was a time of truth and of extricating the fear of the unknown.

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