Elizabethan Spirits

William Empson

  • The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age by Frances Yates
    Routledge, 224 pp, £7.75, November 1979, ISBN 0 7100 0320 X

Something badly needed has got left out from the great structure that Dame Frances Yates has been building as an exposition of her view of the Occult tradition. I have felt it since her book on Bruno (1964), though I am ill-equipped to complain. Still, my ideas derive from a critic who had something of her own range of knowledge, and she seems to ignore his views, so I may speak up.

C.S. Lewis, in the first chapter of his survey of English 16th-century literature (1954), said that earlier writers had treated magic as fanciful and remote, but in this period they felt it might be going on in the next street; and one reason was a thing they surprisingly called ‘Platonism’: ‘the doctrine that the region between the earth and the moon is crowded with airy creatures who are capable of fertile union with our own species.’ Another reason for feeling at home with the spirits was the doctrine ‘that the invisible population of the universe includes a whole crowd of beings who might also be called theologically neutral’. That is, they die like the beasts, and never come before the Judgment Seat; they are ‘far from Heaven, and safe from Hell’. They are not morally neutral, being a mixture of good and bad like ourselves: but they are not angels or devils, permanently engaged in a Manichean battle, wearing the uniform either of God or Satan. Clearly, this makes them likely to be useful to us, perhaps even to tell the secrets of Nature, if we have something to offer in return. It is an important change. But Dame Frances will have none of it, and so she does not mention the names of Puck or Ariel.

Lewis used his dubious phrase about neutrality to introduce the idea, I think, because the full doctrine is seldom stated. It would be considered heretical, and would anyhow be shocking: but the feeling of it, or an approach to it, is widespread in the period. One of the chief reasons for wanting some kind of belief in Middle Spirits was the reverence felt for the newly recovered classics, together with the belief, often expressed, that it would be impudent to deny experiences which had once been generally attested. Apollo could not have been nothing, and it was very disagreeable to believe him a devil. It was clear that he had lasted a long time, say two thousand years, and pretty certain that he was now dead; to believe he had been a Middle Spirit fitted very well. It would be unfitting if he were summoned to the Day of Judgment, so the educated tended to assume that this would not happen. Cornelius Agrippa does not face the question, but he was a very adroit writer who maintains a splendid ease, considering how likely he was to be burnt alive; and maybe, if he had faced it, his treatise would not have been available in ten of the Cambridge College libraries, including Marlowe’s, when Marlowe was up.

The only man in the period who supports it thoroughly, I think, is Paracelsus, a roving magic doctor who did not publish the De Nymphis during his lifetime. But it was printed at Basle while Marlowe and Shakespeare were boys, first in German as the author had demanded, and two years later in Latin; and, though he had defied the doctors’ organisations, his writing had continued to be searched for secret cures. A huge complete edition of them was published in Amsterdam from 1590 onwards, which proves that there had been an interest in the earlier texts. A grand house in London always had a library, if only for show, to which readers of Latin were admitted if properly introduced. And the De Nymphis is the only at all readable thing ever written by Paracelsus: only about five thousand words, and packed full of anecdotes which became sources for later German romantic authors. Some friends would be likely to put Marlowe onto reading this, even granting that he did not read much in Latin after leaving college.

Paracelsus begins by saying that Middle Spirits are not spirits at all, having bodies made of more subtle kinds of matter than ours, but adds that a creature who can pass through a stone wall is bound to be called a spirit, and it is no use quarrelling with common language. However, all creatures with material bodies will eventually die, so if we find them around they must be capable of breeding, though not often as they are long lived: whereas the angels and fallen angels, being real spirits and totally immortal, must be totally incapable of breeding, or they would clutter the place up.

A number of consequences follow from this, providing useful tests. For example, Middle Spirits can move at great speeds, but angels and devils do not really live in space, so they can poke into it anywhere, as if at an infinite speed. Also there are practical consequences. Devils can easily be induced to help men, because they want to corrupt them: but Middle Spirits do not consider that we have much to offer. Here there is a loophole: Middle Spirits are indignant at being rejected from Heaven, and want to go there, and Paracelsus agrees that it is very queer of God to have allowed humans to enter Heaven, but not these greatly superior beings. Of course, the acts of God are often beyond our understanding. But if a nymph has a proper marriage with a human man, she at once acquires an immortal soul, just as a woman marrying an American gets an American passport. Paracelsus earnestly warns his younger readers that it is dangerous to jilt a nymph: there have been several well-known cases where the result has been murder. And one cannot blame the nymph, he reflects: a human woman has no business to do it – what has she got to lose? – but a nymph has an infinite amount to lose. Undine and Melusina were already familiar. If Marlowe read this, he would at once feel that a passionate friendship between males must at least allow of a sacrifice in the same field. At any rate, the De Nymphis is enough to justify the assertion of C.S. Lewis.

Perhaps Dame Frances would say that Paracelsus was being facetious. And it is agreed, after an exhausting day in the surgery (leaving him, as an honest man, anxious whether he had done good or harm), he would drink after his dinner, since he rejected sex, and dictate theories, getting sillier as the evening wore on. He might have a good reason for dictating the De Nymphis, even if he thought it nonsense: his patients were terrified of having devils inside them, and so he pretended the devils were far away. He also believed that their bodies could not even tick over normally without good spirits working for them, but he may have found that it did no good to tell them so. It has been suggested that he was merely echoing the beliefs of the miners, to whom he gave a good deal of time, inventing Industrial Disease to describe their troubles; but he also liked to insist that the learned professors were all wrong, and that the common opinion was more sensible. His assertions might be derived from the miners and yet be sincere. But he also argues from these beliefs, arriving at his own conclusions. In more specialist works, he also announced belief in independent resident spirits, themselves sometimes needing medical treament, and governed by an ‘archeus’ for each region, like the mayor of a city subject to a central government. The archeus of the belly is the chief of them, but with no supreme power. This is a splendid insight and, as I understand, justified by modern medicine, though it can have been of no use in his time for a cure. He is imagining the internal affairs of the body as a reasonable system, just sufficiently democratic. He is not peculiar here: we are echoing the same deep confusion when we speak of aeroplane ‘spirit’ or the poisonous ‘spirits of salt’. If you had shown one of the authors of the Hermetica magnified photographs of the germs of plague, with a full account of their behaviour, he would answer: ‘Yes, that’s just what I said – a very low form of spirit.’ Apollo, who was the god of plague, was a spirit too, of a higher grade. All spirits, including men, had regular reincarnations, as animals or angels, up or down the scale: so for a pagan there was no problem about it. For a Christian trying to be ‘syncretist’ about pagan belief, this might make it slightly easier, though still a problem, to think that Middle Spirits, like animals, did not have to attend the Last Judgment.

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