High and low magic

Weaving, agriculture, architecture, hunting, trade, cooking and blacksmithing: the seven mechanical arts, as described by the philosopher and theologian John Scotus Eriugena, inspired the characters of the Vestarian, the Agriculturian, the Architecturian, the Venatorian, the Mercaturian, the Coquinarian and the Mettalician.

In the strictly hierarchical society of medieval Europe, the mechanical arts were inferior to the liberal arts of mathematics, literature, philosophy and the sciences, which were considered more fitting for study by free men. In A Skin of a Dragon, the liberal arts are replaced with alchemy and rituals, astronomy and illusions. A distinction is made between these higher disciplines and the more lowly mechanical ones in that the Guild members who practise mechanical magic are ‘junior members’, while Emerson Prye, Clement Atwood and Bridget Blyth occupy the ‘senior member’ positions.

The notion of high and low magic is not a construct I invented for A Skin of a Dragon; it is present in the attitudes and practices of many cultures throughout history. ‘Folk magic’, as practiced by the village cunning man or woman, usually involved simple spells or charms, often made of natural or ‘found’ objects, to protect a person, household, livestock or crop against illness, attack or failure. Their mundane uses reflect the concerns of the people who consulted the practitioner; crop failure, disease or the death of livestock could decimate a family or entire community at a time when there was no protection against such misfortunes. Attributing their occurrence to magic or malevolent forces was a way of making sense of them at a time when the causes of such things were poorly understood. Thus, magical protection was a logical insurance against calamities. The Pitt Rivers museum of anthropology in Oxford has a vast collection of magical objects used in folk magic, including hag stones, amulets, and even a slug impaled on a thorn, which was intended as a cure for warts.

In contrast to the temporal concerns of folk magic, alchemy and other strands of esoteric magic were concerned with the purification and perfection of the alchemist in the hope of attaining a state of spiritual enlightenment. European alchemy is an interesting blend of Ancient Greek, Egyptian and Islamic teaching. It was the pursuit of educated and wealthy men only, on account of the expensive equipment required to set up an alchemical laboratory and the highly allegorical writings that accompanied the practice. The symbolism of such texts is lost on the casual reader, but their mystical nature, and the romantic notion of arcane knowledge revealed to only the initiated few, adds to the mystery and allure of characters such as Nicolas Flamel, John Dee and Edward Kelley.

 

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