Secrets of the dark arts

From medieval times to the modern day, most practitioners of magic have sought the same things

The Conjurer (oil on panel) by Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516).

CLOAKED IN ILLUSION, is the practice of magic one of history’s most closely guarded secrets? Those who study it from an academic viewpoint mysteriously say yes—and no—and maybe.

“Medieval magic is wrapped in the mythology of secrecy and the fact that it seemed only a few people were allowed to have access,” says Dr. Frank Klaassen, an associate professor of history in the College of Arts and Science. “In part, this was good marketing; literature was passed around with the caution that it was ‘the wisdom of the ancients only given to the worthy.’ ”

College of Arts and Science alumnus Samuel Gillis Hogan (MA’18) agrees. Gillis Hogan, Klaassen’s former master’s student, is now a PhD student at the United Kingdom’s University of Exeter.

“Oftentimes the notion that magic is secret is a conceit of writers,” says Gillis Hogan. “Even though they would say the book was secret, many, many people owned books of secrets.”

Other factors contributed to the notion of secrecy, he adds.

“One is that literacy rates were lower prior to the period of Enlightenment, so books of secrets were often only accessible to learned elite.”

Language had much to do with it, Klaassen says, noting texts once written in Greek, Hebrew and Chaldean were then transcribed in Latin.

“In part, the secrecy was real because if you couldn’t read Latin, you had no access to magic,” Klaassen says.

Dr. Frank Klaassen is the author of several books on magic history. [icon image] David Stobbe
Dr. Frank Klaassen is the author of several books on magic history. David Stobbe

There were levels to practicing the dark arts, he explains. Those books of secrets were generally full of methods to improve or enrich oneself, or to control others or the future. The darker magic of summoning spirits was reserved only for those who could control what they conjured.

At the University of Saskatchewan since 2000, Klaassen, the author of several books on magic history, notes his studies lately have focused on literature surrounding 16th-century magic and how it was affected by the Enlightenment period, when science was becoming more widely accepted.

“There were very few academics who had actually looked at magic from that time period. I’m interested not so much in the science but instead in what happens to magic traditions.”

He says academia hasn’t really investigated the subject. “It hasn’t been regarded as something that’s legitimate for inquiry because people are worried others will think you’re a magician. It’s a topic that has lain hidden, essentially—but, in the last 30 years, there’s been a group of us who have been trying to make sense of what’s there and what it actually looks like.”

Gillis Hogan says the Enlightenment changed people’s attitudes and helped push magic out of mainstream consciousness.

“With that time comes a thinking that magic is stupid or doesn’t exist,” he says. “We’re in a post-religious world with many rejecting the notion of the supernatural or anything beyond the physical world.”

Samuel Gillis Hogan (MA’18). [icon image] Submitted
Samuel Gillis Hogan (MA’18). Submitted

That thinking continues today, but it doesn’t mean people aren’t engaging in magic, he counters. “I wouldn’t say it’s completely dead. There are still some people who, in a very scholarly way, practice ritual magic but are afraid of being seen as primitive and uneducated.”

Klaassen quickly pulls more than a half dozen books from his shelves, all recently written about magic and its practice. He points to The Power of Positive Thinking or even the weather prognosticator as modern ways of attempting to divine and control outcomes using less-than-scientific forces.

“You don’t have to go any further than the New Age,” he says, citing a 1978 work, Creative Visualization: Use the Power of Your Imagination to Create What You Want in Your Life, by Shakti Gawain. “She’s talking about how a positive attitude could beat cancer. Want that car? Just imagine it. Want to slim up? Just imagine yourself getting skinny every day.

“It’s a diverse literature that hasn’t changed very much. If you think about modern, New-Age magic, which looks at love, money, influence in your career, securing your marriage, ensuring you’re financially secure, keeping healthy and essentially avoiding misfortune, that’s the same stuff people wanted to do in the 16th century. It’s the things we can’t control in our lives and a very human thing.”

Klaassen notes magic is very present in modern-day life and even in the local community. “Take a walk down 20th Street and you’ll find a magic store, owned by an admitted practitioner. There are two Wiccan churches in Saskatoon and a larger community of magic practitioners beyond that. Do a search on the Internet and you’ll find it’s actually very common.”

As present as it may be, Klaassen notes there’s still stigma attached to using magic.

“Even today, it’s something you wouldn’t tell people,” he says. “I think people have been embarrassed to admit it or think it’s something others wouldn’t understand. I’m not a practitioner, but if I was, I’d probably be expected to say I wasn’t.

“I’m not,” he specifies.

Gillis Hogan, who as a student once raised money as a tarot card reader, is also quick to clarify he’s not a practitioner: “I have only ever studied the practice. I am just a student of the theory of magic.”

This is where the two academics again converge; while the use of magic is not widely accepted or understood, they agree that studying it is very important.

“We may be living in a scientific age, but it’s clear this is all absolutely fascinating to many people,” Klaassen says, adding, “Is that a contradiction, or is it just an indication of how people think about the world? Are we hardwired to think of the world as an enchanting place and, if so, is it surprising that we do?

“Human beings are really good at connecting cause and effect—in part because we’re smart, but also in part because we’re naturally inclined to explore a whole bunch of things that don’t connect before we find the thing that does.”

Gillis Hogan says magic is a common denominator. “If you think of different fields of study as a Venn diagram, magic is the point of overlap between philosophy, religion, science, medicine and cultural studies,” he says. “In order to understand the history of magic, you also have to understand the history of all these.”

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