In his Natural History Volume 30, Pliny the Elder wrote “at some length” on “the most delusive of all the arts”, magic. With authority he claimed knowledge of its origins and evolution. I often see Pliny’s coverage of the topic held up as a sort of appeal to authority by pseudo-skeptics, or those who claim skepticism (reservation of judgement) and then promptly pass not only judgement, but certainty of judgement on the whole of magical affairs. Is Pliny’s position, now immortalized by history, accurate?
This brief article takes a point-by-point look at Pliny’s effort to publish a smug and somewhat scathing overview of the magical arts of his time, so far as he chose to concern his attention. Allow me to emphasize right off the pull that I’m not even slightly interested in convincing the self-labeled skeptic to have another look into the matter of magic.
If we’re honest, any examination at all would likely be the first rather than the follow-up. In general people find it easy to summarily dismiss the faintest possibility of veracity where magical claims are put forth. How can I blame anyone for such a stance, given the ample nonsense coming out of New Age bookstores and unending silliness the metaphysical industry propagates? Not sure, but I do manage (to blame/judge the faux skeptic).
Back on track we go: Pliny credited Osthanes, the Magi who accompanied Xerxes during his war with Greece, and who “spread the germs of his monstrous art (magic)” wherever he went, as the first to write on the topic of magic. We now know this is definitely not the case, with Papyrus from Egypt dating around 300 years before the life of Osthanes. That’s just off the top of my cluttered head, I dare say there have been older finds.
Obviously Pliny’s statement that magic was an invention of “the East… Persia” with assurances that “all authorities agree in this.” was also bunk. Pretty strong evidence exists, from around the globe, that stone-age humans had their own systems of natural and ritual magic.
There’s definitely merit to the case the Elder built for the three foundational arts of magic, these being medicine, religion, and astrology. It’s a fair game I think to suggest, perhaps even in that order, these were the precursor disciplines, gradually married and bred to bear the formidable methodology carried by the Magi of Persia, the Celtic Druids, and so forth.
Why Such Disdain from Pliny and Others?
The general tone of Pliny’s discourse on magic, in natural History and elsewhere, is disdain and condescension. This is interesting given the generally accepted efficacy of magic during his time.
Based on how much he got wrong, and the fact that he lived nearly 2,000 years ago in the relative absence of any useful technology (that might be used for debunking, etc.) I’m going to assert that his attitude has little to do with rigorous investigation and the apparent facts he uncovered. Philosophers of his era were virtually in a social class of their own, mingling with political elites and the upper crust of society. As a statesman and former military commander on top of his philosophical occupation, Pliny could be dubbed thrice-snobbish.
Maybe he was a little butthurt about the idea of being upstaged by an art he didn’t understand. Or perhaps he dated and suffered heartbreak at the hands of a magician. I don’t honestly know the man’s agenda, or know if he even had one, as it’s possible he just told it as he thought it to be.
I just wanted to highlight, in very small part, one of the foundational templates the world has used to sell us all down the river with the whole “There’s no such thing as magic.” line. When things aren’t going well, and when you doubt your capability, you don’t have to start drinking the kool-aid and looking for a way back to the mundane mindset you had before. It might just be you were deluded then and only now are you in the light. Don’t waste time doubting yourself, put that energy into another ritual or another set of magical drills. 😉
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