New Advent
 Home   Encyclopedia   Summa   Fathers   Bible   Library 
 A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z 
New Advent
Home > Catholic Encyclopedia > O > Occult Art, Occultism

Occult Art, Occultism

Please help support the mission of New Advent and get the full contents of this website as an instant download. Includes the Catholic Encyclopedia, Church Fathers, Summa, Bible and more — all for only $19.99...

Under this general term are included various practices to which special articles of the Encyclopedia are devoted: ANIMISM; ASTROLOGY; DIVINATION; FETISHISM. The present article deals with the form of Occultism known as "Magic".

The English word magic is derived through the Latin, Greek, Persian, Assyrian from the Sumerian or Turanian word imga or emga ("deep", "profound"), a designation for the Proto-Chaldean priests or wizards. Magi became a standard term for the later Zoroastrian, or Persian, priesthood through whom Eastern occult arts were made known to the Greeks; hence, magos (as also the kindred words magikos, mageia, a magician or a person endowed with secret knowledge and power like a Persian magus.

In a restricted sense magic is understood to be an interference with the usual course of physical nature by apparently inadequate means (recitation of formularies, gestures, mixing of incongruous elements, and other mysterious actions), the knowledge of which is obtained through secret communication with the force underlying the universe (God, the Devil, the soul of the world, etc.); it is the attempt to work miracles not by the power of God, gratuitously communicated to man, but by the use of hidden forces beyond man's control. Its advocates, despairing to move the Deity by supplication, seek the desired result by evoking powers ordinarily reserved to the Deity. It is a corruption of religion, not a preliminary stage of it as Rationalists maintain, and it appears as an accompaniment of decadent rather than of rising civilization. There is nothing to show that in Babylon, Greece, and Rome the use of magic decreased as these nations progressed; on the contrary, it increased as they declined. It is not true that "religion is the despair of magic"; in reality, magic is but a disease of religion.

The disease has been widespread; but if one land may be designated as the home of magic it is Chaldea, or Southern Babylonia. The earliest written records of magic are found in the cuneiform incantation inscriptions which Assyrian scribes in 800 B.C. copied from Babylonian originals. Although the earliest religious tablets refer to divination and in the latest Chaldean period, astrology proper absorbed the energy of the Babylonian hierarchy, medicinal magic and nature magic were largely practiced. The Barupriest as the diviner seems to have held the foremost rank, but hardly inferior was the Ashipu-priest, the priest of incantations, who recited the magical formularies of the "Shurpu", "Maklu", and "Utukku". "Shurpu" (burning) was a spell to remove a curse due to legal uncleanness; "Maklu" (consuming) was a counter-spell against wizards and witches; "Utukki limmuti" (evil spirits) was a series of sixteen formulae against ghosts and demons. The "Asaski marsuti" was a series of twelve formulae against fevers and sickness. In this case the evil influence was first transferred to a wax figure representing the patient or an animal carcass, and the formulae were recited over the substitute. Ti'i tablets, nine in number, give recipes against headache. The "Labartu" incantations repeated over little figures were supposed to drive away the ogres and witches from children. All these formulae pronounced over the figures were accompanied by an elaborate ritual, e.g.,

A table thou shalt place behind the censer which is before the Sun-God (Statue of Shamash), thou shalt place thereon 4 jugs of sesame wine, thou shalt set thereon 3 x 12 loaves of wheat, thou shalt add a mixture of honey and butter and sprinkle with salt: a table thou shalt place behind the censer which is before the Storm-God (Statue of Adad) and behind the censer which is before Merodach.

The magicians mentioned above were authorized and practiced "white", or benevolent, magic; the "Kashshapi", or unauthorized practitioners, employed "black" magic against mankind. That the latter had preternatural powers to do harm no one doubted; hence the severe punishment meted out to them. The Code of Hammurabi (c. 2000 B.C.) appointed the ordeal by water for one who was accused of being a sorcerer and for his accuser. If the accused was drowned, his property went to the accuser; if he was saved, the accuser was put to death and his property went to the accused. This of course took place only if the accusation could not be satisfactorily proven otherwise. The principal god invoked in Chaldean Magic were Ea, source of all wisdom, and Marduk (Merodach) his son, who had inherited his father's knowledge. A curiously naive scene was supposed to be enacted before the application of a medicinal spell: Marduk went to Ea's house and said: "Father, headache from the underworld hath gone forth. The patient does not know the reason; whereby may he be relieved?" Ea answered: "O Marduk, my son, what can I add to thy knowledge? What I know thou knowest also. Go, my son Marduk"; and then follows the prescription. This tale was regularly repeated before use of the recipe.

Without suggesting the dependence of one national system of magic upon another, the similarity of some ideas and practices in the magic of all peoples must be noted. All rely on the power of words, the utterance of a hidden name, or the mere existence of the name on an amulet or stone. Magic was supposed to be the triumph of intellect over matter, the word being the key to the mysteries of the physical world: utter the name of a malignant influence and its power is undone; utter the name of a benevolent deity and force goes out to destroy the adversary. The repeated naming of Gibel-Nusku and his attributes destroyed the evil influence in the wax figure representing the person concerned. The force of the Gnostic Iota-Alpha-Omega was notorious. In Egyptian magic a mere agglomeration of vowels or of meaningless syllables was supposed to work good or evil. Their barbarous sounds were the object of ridicule to the man of common sense. In many cases they were of Jewish, or Babylonian, or Aramaic origin and because unintelligible to Egyptians, the words were generally corrupted beyond recognition. Thus on a demotic papyrus is found the prescription: "in time of storm and danger of shipwreck cry Anuk Adonai and the disaster will be averted"; on a Greek papyrus the name of the Assyrian Ereskihal is found as Eresgichal. So potent is a name that if an inscribed amulet be washed and the water drunk or the charm written on papyrus be soaked in water and this taken, or if the word be written on hard-boiled eggs without shell and these eaten, preternatural powers come into play. Another prevalent idea in magic is that of substitution: the person or thing to be affected by the spell is replaced by his image, or, like the "ushabtiu" figures in Egyptian tombs, images replace the protective powers invoked, or lastly some part (hair, nailparings, garments, etc.) take the place of the whole person. The almost universal "magic circle" is only a mimic wall against the wicked spirits outside and goes back to Chaldean magic under the name of usurtu, made with a sprinkling of lime and flour. If the medical wizard or the Indian sorcerer surrounds himself or others with a rampart of little stones, this is again but the make-believe of a wall.

After Babylonia, Egypt was foremost in magic; the medieval practice of alchemy shows by its name its Egyptian origin. Coptic exorcisms against all sorts of diseases abound amongst the papyri pertaining to magic, and magic claims a great part of ancient Egyptian literature. Unlike Babylonian magic however, it seems to have retained to the last its medicinal and preventive character; it rarely indulged in astrology or prediction. Egyptian legend spoke of a magician Teta who worked miracles before Khufu (Cheops) (c. 3800 B.C.), and Greek tradition tells of Nectanebus, last native King of Egypt (358 B.C.), as the greatest of magicians.

That the Jews were prone to magic is evidenced by the strict laws against it and the warnings of the Prophets (Exodus 22:18; Deuteronomy 18:10; Isaiah 3:18, 20; 57:3; Micah 5:11; cf. 2 Kings 21:6). Nevertheless, Jewish magic flourished, especially just before the birth of Christ, as appears from the Book of Enoch, the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, and the Testament of Solomon. Origen testifies that in his day to adjure demons was looked upon as specifically "Jewish", that these adjurations had to be made in Hebrew and from Solomon's books (In Math., xxvi, 63, P.G., XIII, 1757). The frequency of Jewish magic is also corroborated by Talmudic lore.

The Aryan races of Asia seem somewhat less addicted to magic than the Semitic or Turanian races. The Medes and the Persians, in the earlier and purer period of their Avesta religion, or Zoroastrianism, seem to have a horror of magic. When the Persians after their conquest of the Chaldean Empire, finally absorbed Chaldean characteristics, the magi had become more or less scientific astronomers rather than sorcerers. The Indians, likewise, to judge from the Rigveda, were originally free from this superstition. In the Yajurveda, however, their liturgical functions are practically magic performances; and the Atharvaveda contains little else than magical recitations against every ill and for every happening. The Sutras, finally, especially those of the Grihya and Sautra ritual, show how the higher aspects of religion had been overgrown by magical ceremonies. Against this degeneration the Vedanta makes a vigorous stand and attempts to bring the Indian mind back to earlier simplicity and purity. Buddhism, which at first disregarded magic, fell a prey to the universal contagion, especially in China and Tibet.

The Aryans of Europe, Greeks, Romans, Teutons, and Celts were never so deeply infected as the Asiatics. The Romans were too self-reliant and W practical to be terrified by magic. Their practice of divination and auguries seems to have been borrowed from the Etruscans and the Marsi; the latter were considered experts in magic even during the empire (Verg., "Æn.", VII, 750, sqq.; Pliny, VII, ii; XXI, xii). The Dii Aurunci, to avert calamities, used magical power, but they were not native Roman deities. The Romans were conscious of their common sense in these matters and felt themselves superior to the Greeks. In the first century of our era Oriental magic invaded the Roman Empire. Pliny in his "Natural History" (A.D. 77) in the opening chapters of Bk. XXX, gives the most important extant discussion on magic by any ancient writer, only to brand all magic as imposture. None the less his book is a storehouse of magic recipes, e.g.: "Wear as an amulet the carcass of a frog minus the claws and wrapped in a piece of russet-coloured cloth and it will cure fever" (Bk. XXXII, xxxviii). Such advice argues at least a belief in medicinal magic. But among the Romans it may be said that magic was condemned in every age by many of the best spirits of their day: Tacitus, Favorinus, Sextus Empiricus, and Cicero who even demurred against divination. Officially by many laws of the empire against "malefic" and "mathematici" magic was forbidden under Augustus, Tiberius, Claudius, and even Caracalla; unofficially, however, even the emperors sometimes dabbled in magic. Nero is said to have studied it; but failing to work miracles, he abandoned it in disgust. Soon after the magicians found an imperial supporter in Otho, and tolerance under Vespasian, Hadrian, and M. Aurelius, and even financial aid under Alexander Severus.

The Greeks regarded Thessaly and Thrace as the countries especially addicted to magic. The goddess Hecate, who was thought to preside over magical functions, was originally a foreign deity and was probably introduced into Greek mythology by Hesiod. She is not mentioned in the Iliad or Odyssey though magic was rife in Homeric times. The great mythical sorceress of the Odyssey is Circe, famous for the well-known trick of changing men into beasts (Od., X-XII). In later times the foremost magician was Medea, priestess of Hecate; but the gruesome tales told of her express the Greek horror for, as well as belief in, black magic. Curse formulae or magic spells against the lives of one's enemies seem to have found no mightier name than Hermes Chthonios. As earth-god he was a manifestation of the world-soul and controlled nature's powers. In Egypt he was identified with Thoth, the god of hidden wisdom, became the keeper of magic secrets and gave his name to Trismegistic literature. Greece, moreover, welcomed and honoured foreign magicians. Apuleius, by education an Athenian, in his "Golden Ass" (c. A.D. 150), satirized the frauds of contemporary wonder-workers but praised the genuine magi from Persia. When accused of magic, he defended himself in his "Apology" which shows clearly the public attitude towards magic in his day. He quoted Plato and Aristotle who gave credence to true magic St. Hippolytus of Rome (A Refutation of All Heresies, Bk. IV) gives a sketch of the wizardry practiced in the Greek-speaking world.

Teutons and Celts also had their magic though less is known of it. The magical element in the First Edda and in the Beowulf is simple and closely connected with nature phenomena. Woden (Wodan) who invented the runes, was the god for healing and good charms. Loki was a malignant spirit who harassed mankind and with the witch Thoeck caused the death of Baldur (Balder). The magic of the mistletoe seems to be an heirloom from earliest Teutonic times. The magic of the Celts seems to have been in the hands of the druids, who, though perhaps mainly diviners, appear also as magicians in Celtic heroic literature. As they wrote nothing, little is known of their magical lore. For modern magic amongst uncivilized races consult especially Skeat's "Malay Magic" (London, 1900).

Magic as a practice finds no place in Christianity, though the belief in the reality of magical powers has been held by Christians and individual Christians have been given to the practice. Two main reasons account for the belief: first, ignorance of physical laws. When the boundary between the physically possible and impossible was uncertain, some individuals were supposed to have gained almost limitless control over nature. Their souls were attuned to the symphony of the universe; they knew the mystery of numbers and in consequence their powers exceeded the common understanding. This, however, was natural magic.

But, secondly, belief in the frequency of diabolical interference with the forces of nature led easily to belief in real magic. The early Christians were emphatically warned against the practice of it in the "Didache" (v, 1) and the letter of Barnabas (xx, 1). In fact it was condemned as a heinous crime. The danger, however, came not only from the pagan world but also from the pseudo-Christian Gnostics. Although Simon Magus and Elymas, that child of the devil (Acts 13:6 sqq.) served as deterrent examples for all Christians, it took centuries to eradicate the propensity to magic. St. Gregory the Great, St. Augustine, St. Chrysostom, and St. Ephraem inveighed against it. A more rational view of religion and nature had hardly gained ground, when the Germanic nations entered the Church and brought with them the inclination for magic inherited from centuries of paganism. No wonder that during the Middle Ages wizardry was secretly practiced in many places notwithstanding innumerable decrees of the Church on the subject. Belief in the frequency of magic finally led to stringent measures taken against witchcraft.

Catholic theology defines magic as the art of performing actions beyond the power of man with the aid of powers other than the Divine, and condemns it and any attempt at it as a grievous sin against the virtue of religion, because all magical performances, if undertaken seriously, are based on the expectation of interference by demons or lost souls. Even if undertaken out of curiosity the performance of a magical ceremony is sinful as it either proves a lack of faith or is a vain superstition. The Catholic Church admits in principle the possibility of interference in the course of nature by spirits other than God, whether good or evil, but never without God's permission. As to the frequency of such interference especially by malignant agencies at the request of man, she observes the utmost reserve.


R. CAMPBELL THOMPSON, Semitic Magic (London, 1908); THORNDYKE, The Place of Magic in the intellectual history of Europe in Stud. Hist. Econom. of Columbia University XXIV (New York, 1905); BUDGE, Egyptian Magic (London, 1899), SCHERMAN Griechische Zauberpapyri (Leipzig, 1909): KIESEWETTER Gesch. des neuren Okkultismus (Leipzig, 1891); WIEDEMANN Magic und Zauberei im alten Egypten (Leipzig, 1905), LANG, Magic and Religion (London 1910), HABERT, La religion des peuples non cirilises (Paris, 1907 IDEM, La Magic (Paris, 1908); ABT, Die Apologie des Apulejus u.d. antike Zauberei (1908), WEINEL, Die Wirkung des Geistes . . . bis auf Irendus (Freiburg, 1899); DU PREL, Magic ale Naturewissenshaft (2 vole., 1899); MATHERS, The Book of Sacred Magic (1458), reprinted (London, 1898); FRASER, The Golden Bough: a Study in Magic and Religion (3 volt., London, 1900). This last-mentioned work is indeed a storehouse of curious information, but is to be used with the utmost caution as it is vitiated by the author's prejudices. Readers are warned against the following works, which are either books on oonjuring or produotions of the RATIONALIST PRESS AGENCY CONYBEARE Myth, Magic and Morals; EVANS, The Old and New Magic; THOMPSON, Magic and Mystery.

About this page

APA citation. Arendzen, J. (1911). Occult Art, Occultism. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Arendzen, John. "Occult Art, Occultism." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Matthew Daniel Eddy.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. February 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

Contact information. The editor of New Advent is Kevin Knight. My email address is webmaster at Regrettably, I can't reply to every letter, but I greatly appreciate your feedback — especially notifications about typographical errors and inappropriate ads.

Copyright © 2023 by New Advent LLC. Dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.