Well, there’s magic – and then there’s magic

Last week I wondered what would induce an ordinary, well-meaning 13 year-old boy to make a pact with a demon. Traditionally demons are evil and scary, and using magic to summon one to your aid is a dangerous step to take, right?

The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst Cover for MATADOR

The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst, out 28 August 2015

Not necessarily, according to the Elizabethans. For them, magic wasn’t always a bad thing. Witches, curses and evil spells – yes, these were terrible and people feared their power.

But there was also a belief in a good kind of magic flowing through all creation, whose very existence – being a miracle brought about by God – was somehow magical. This magic was present in all nature – in stones, herbs, animal bones, the stars, geometrical shapes – and, with the help of various charms, you could unlock it and so discover the secrets of the universe.

SLIDE 13  John Dee with Edward Kelley skryingOr you could enlist the aid of one of the thousands of spirits who were also part of God’s creation. A number of natural philosophers – the precursors of scientists – saw nothing irrational in this.  The famous mathematician and astrologer, Dr John Dee – thought to be the inspiration for Shakespeare’s benign  magician, Prospero, in The Tempest – created tables of ‘angelic codes’ and used a crystal ball, through which he believed the archangel Uriel spoke to him.  In short, he called up ‘good spirits’ to help him in his scientific enquiries.

Crystal ball for skrying. Museum of the History of Science, Oxford.

Crystal ball for skrying. Museum of the History of Science, Oxford.

And there I had it.  If a great mathematician like Dr Dee could call on the aid of ‘good spirits’, then why shouldn’t my 12 year-old Elizabethan boy, John Striven, do the same?

It is unfortunate, for John, and for Henry 430 years later, that the spirit who arrives is…

Mephistopheles.SLIDE 14 Mephistopheles

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