My Stars

Graham Hough

  • The Magical Arts by Richard Cavendish
    Arkana, 375 pp, £4.95, October 1984, ISBN 1 85063 004 6
  • Astrology and the Third Reich: A Historical Study of Astrological Beliefs in Western Europe since 1700 and in Hitler’s Germany 1933-45 by Ellic Howe
    Aquarian, 253 pp, £5.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 85030 397 4
  • The Astrology of Fate by Liz Greene
    Allen and Unwin, 370 pp, £9.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 04 133012 9
  • Dreams, Illusion and Other Realities by Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty
    Chicago, 361 pp, £21.25, June 1984, ISBN 0 226 61854 4
  • Fruits of the Moon Tree: The Medicine Wheel and Transpersonal Psychology by Alan Bleakley
    Gateway Books, 311 pp, £9.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 946551 08 1

Some little time ago the art of printing with movable types was developed, and this has meant in the end that everybody can know everything. There is no hidden knowledge. There is no longer any point in seeking out the venerable archimage behind the iron-studded door in some darkling alleyway of the old town. He has no secret doctrine; there are no more arcana; the ancient wisdom has all been reprinted. Prospero’s book has been brought up from the depths and published in paperback, and the fatal treatise that led Faust to his damnation is edited with an introduction and notes and suggestions for further reading. In the High Street bookshop the occult section is settled comfortably beside gardening and cookery; and the only person who has not noticed is the Dean of Emmanuel College Cambridge, who recently gave six lectures on television about the decline of the supernatural. He spoke of ‘The Sea of Faith’, and found it to be at a very low ebb. Perhaps he should have looked a little farther. The water may be receding over the mudflats on his stretch of coast, but round the corner it is flooding strongly. The black tide that Freud was so afraid of in the early years of the century has been making a steady advance. When I was a boy no one knew the signs of the zodiac: now everyone does. Most people under forty seem to believe in reincarnation. In my own immediate family there are no less than five copies of the I Ching, and every village in England has its quota of resident yogins, astrologers and cabalists.

Guidebooks to these regions abound. Richard Cavendish in The Magical Arts makes an ambitious survey of the whole field – numerology, the Cabala, alchemy, astrology – and then, crossing the boundary between the dubiously permissible and the outright dangerous, goes on to ritual magic designed to raise spirits, and finally to commerce with the evil powers. It is soberly done and very well-informed, relying for the most part on sound secondary authorities. The theoretical bases of alchemy and astrology (for they have theoretical bases) are not generally understood, and they are expounded here with admirable lucidity. And since these beliefs have informed our culture for more than two thousand years, the elucidation is worth having. It is not till we get to witchcraft and the Black Mass that a certain ghoulish sensationalism makes its appearance, and then no more than is inherent in the material.

We can group all this under the head of magic. The word is vague, but it should mean at least two things: 1. that parts of the world are controlled by forces other than ordinary physical causation; and 2. that through occult knowledge and special procedures these forces can be influenced or even controlled by man. These beliefs were of course deeply affected by deficient knowledge of ordinary physical causation. The greater part of what we now think of as magic, ‘natural magic’ as it was called, was simply misguided natural science, ruled by logical but erroneous doctrines of sympathy and analogy. By pissing towards the sky you make it rain; by putting salve on a weapon you heal the wound; because a mandrake root looks like a human form it helps women to bear children. This vast swampy area should be viewed with understanding by the 20th century, for, though its boundaries have changed, it is today as extensive as ever. And, as ever, most of the activity is on the medical fringe – dianetics, radionics, black boxes, macrobiotics, homeopathy, acupuncture, reflexology and the dietary fads that sweep through the newspapers every week. Apart from the real addicts, innumerable quite ordinary people feel on occasion that since science hasn’t done them much good they will try what a little magic can do – and wear a copper bracelet against rheumatism. The archetypal roots of these practices are sometimes evident. In general they are the reverse of the Hitlerian Strength through Joy: for the most part, they are decidedly anti-joy. Fibre is abrasive, so to consume quantities of food textured like old doormats is equivalent to wearing a hairshirt, and will bring corresponding benefits. Salt in alchemy is earthy, female, and symbolises the body: by eschewing it we free ourselves from carnal taint. The superiority of everything brown to everything white (bread, rice, sugar, more recently, I notice, pasta) seems to spring from some quite non-functional sympathy with the Third World. But few people have carried the physical side of natural magic to the point of doing themselves much harm. The psychic aspect is a different matter.

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