Saturday, June 21, 2014

The All Seeing Blind Man

I have been reading Huxley's The Devils of Loudun, and noticed something interesting. Throughout the book. he is at great pains to note how the nuns who accuse Grandier of sorcery followed a well-established pattern, the expected behavior of the possessed, and how common folk beliefs informed the supposed eye witness reports of Grandier's witchcraft. And to that point, I agree with him completely. Even as late as the 17th century, when these exorcisms and trials took place, there was a common belief in witchcraft, and common superstitions about how witches behaved, and so, when accusing witches, it was ordinary to shape the charges to match the superstition.

However, Huxley then starts arguing that there was also real witchcraft, based on the work of other academics. Now, operative magic, as he describes it, I don't doubt. This was simple folkways, the crossing fingers to ward off bad luck, avoiding black cats type of folk magic, and I have no doubts it has existed at all times and will always exist. Today it may take the form of belief that flashing your headlights makes certain red lights turn green, or that gangs ride around with their headlights off, but though replaced now by "urban legends" there has always been some layer of superstition in every society, and likely always will be. As people try to make sense of the world, and look for patterns, inevitably some will find invalid patterns, without any causative link, and the few that come to enjoy popularity will become our new folkways.

What I find amusing is that Huxley accepts that "ritual magic" persisted as well, that somehow paganism, the sort of formal paganism from which modern "Wiccans" claim to descend, survived into the 17th century. Considering that the Gaulic druids had supplanted many of the simple folkways even before the Romans came, and then the common folkways had almost universally been absorbed into the greater Roman classical framework by the 1st or 2d century, with Christianity being quite strongly established in Gaul from the fifth century at the latest, it seems almost impossible to imagine the survival of formal, organized pagan substratum from the pre-Roman, pre-Gaulic era*. I know this is a popular idea among Wiccans, as well as fans of Campbell and The Golden Bough, but the truth is, much of what they imagine are signs of pagan survival is more likely a sign of a common type of error.

For example, thaumaturgy the twin ideas that things that look alike can effect each other (doctrine of signatures), and that things that were once together can effect one another when apart (sympathetic magic), has evolved independently in many places and time. And it should be obvious why, the two ideas are very simple ways of connecting things to explain inexplicable events. Suppose, for example, a man's best ox dies, without obvious cause, but someone recalls, at the same time, the man had broken a stick shaped like an ox horn, it seems that we have an explanation. Without any better explanation, it serves, and the superficial similarity makes sense. (For those who doubt this, look at much of the Truther literature and you can see the modern version of this. Basically, anything that resembles a questionable event, not only raises questions, but proves unquestionably that a conspiracy is at work. In short, the superficial resemblance is taken as proof. It is not precisely thaumaturgy, but it is quite close, and given that our society still has too many remnants of rationalism for the existence of widespread magical thinking, it is the most common sort of folk supersitition -- apart from "urban legends" we are likely to find today.) And this common human experience, or rather an expression of a common human trait, the need to explain even when we lack enough information, means that, rather than the survival of ancient paganism, or signs of a transmission of ideas, it might just be the emergence of the same idea in two different places or eras**.

The things that makes me truly surprised that Huxley buys into the idea of pagan survival and of ritual magic is that he is analyzing the case he is. Given that the court records of these trials "establish" the existence of Sabbaths, esbats, rituals, witchcraft, sacrifices, sorcery and the whole package, none of which ever existed, cannot Huxley see that the works upon which these academics rely could be of the very same nature? If one witchcraft trial is a complete fabrication, we must ask if others are as well. And given the climate, the many motives for supporting such trials -- many of which Huxley enumerates quite astutely -- why should we not postulate that the trials, and rumors and other sources, upon which academics relied, were no more reliable? After all, it is possible, as the academics suggest, that the folk description comes form a real tradition of pagan survival, but is it not even more likely that it comes from popular superstition? And if there are traces of true paganism, do not forget the inquisitors and lawyers and judges and even more erudite accusers were trained in clerical schools where the reading went back to the doctors of the earliest era of the church, who cast the pagan gods as demons. So would they not expect pagan elements in their demons? So why would not the popular image absorb some of that expectation from preachers? From trials they witnessed? From the discussions of the more educated? And so, what reason is there to assume a very improbable pagan survival, when superstition, misapplied learning and a lengthy tradition of witch trials could explain it just as well?

I write about this for two reasons. First, simply because I found it interesting that someone who proves so insightful in so many other ways could be so blind in this one, accepting academic opinion as proof of something which he is decisively dismissing in the rest of his work. Second, because Huxley is hardly alone in this. Time and again I have found writers who know very well what they are arguing, and make a decisive case for it, and then turn around and accept a belief absolutely contradictory. For example, many is the writer who explains why everyday commerce, medical care, and so on can be left to the free market, why good or bad, people's motivations will still drive them to benefit others, and so on, but then turn around and argue that the Federal Reserve needs to be maintained, the SEC is essential, or deregulating airlines would result in crisis. For some reason, it seems many of us can see an argument clearly in some areas, but when it comes to others, they accept a case they would reject in their area of expertise. Strangely, even when we are brutally consistent in our beliefs, it seems there arises some area, some topic, where we simply forget ourselves and, from habit, from tradition, from desire of a certain outcome, for whatever reason, we accept an argument we would reject on any other matter***.

I shall not go on at greater length right now, but I wanted to make mention of this, as it is a topic worth visiting again. Some would foolishly label it hypocrisy and accuse those discussed of giving in to self serving positions. More often than not, even when the results are beneficial to the believer, the motives are far more complicated. And so, it is a topic I shall likely examine again.


* I must distinguish between various types of paganism, as it is obvious that the sort of claimed as a foundation by Huxley (or modern Wiccans, though their claims are even less plausible), were neither part of the Druidic faith nor the classical Roman faith. Yes, under both of those regimes old folk faiths likely persisted, given polytheism's tolerance of other gods. However, the Druids very clearly dominated religion by the time of the Roman conquest, and the Roman faith was widespread, near universal, by the time of, say, Hadrian. Since we are claiming a widespread underground survival, it would have to have been the majority faith at the time it went underground. But, that would mean this pagan stratum had been persisting in hiding (as no classical authors noted it) from the time that the Gauls replaced local faiths with Druidic beliefs. This seems, to say the least, massively implausible. And, as I say in the essay proper, any traces of remaining true pagan beliefs are more likely grafted on from the early doctors who conflated paganism and devil worship, rather than proof that some underground pagan faith persisted for more than a dozen centuries. (I feel the same explanation probably applies to traces of various other groups found in Masonry. Most likely the elements of the chivalric orders of crusaders were grafted on by antiquaries, rather than showing, as some allege, that the Templars survived many centuries to become the Masons.)

** Ioan Culianu in The Tree of Gnosis, makes a similar argument about gnositc beliefs. He argues that the many claims for transmissions, say from Manichean faith to the Bogomils, or from the Bogomils to Cathars, is absurd, unsupported by records and highly unlikely given time and distance as well as lack of records. His thesis, which I find quite convincing, is that there are only so many ways to answer questions about Christ's nature, and given that, similar beliefs will spring up from time to time, and the broad categories, such as gnosticism, will appear regularly when groups begin to inquire into certain matters. Thus, the various Gnostics are not descended from one another, or very few are, they represent the appearance of similar answers to theological questions, perhaps made more similar for being based on the same initial doctrines, or even the same later theorists, such as Origen, the neo-Platonists and others. I think this analysis can actually be applied much more broadly in the history of ideas in general, which makes it a shame this work is not better known.

*** At times, it is not the theory itself, but the evidence which is accepted despite its obvious lack of substance -- much as in this case -- but the result is much the same. So rather than muddy the main essay with this sort of aside, I decided to just muddy the footnotes.

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