Last week I pointed out that the various systems of Western magic fall into two rough categories, folk magic on the one hand and on the other, natural philosophy, the attempt on the part of European intellectuals of the Renaissance and Reformation eras to develop a unified view of the universe from a magical/mystical point of view. The two categories have certain ways of thinking in common while differing wildly in others.
The roots of both, however, go back to very ancient times. Folk charms and spells have probably been part of the human way of thinking from the Paleolithic era at least. Cave paintings such as those at Lascaux show some attempt to control at least a part of the environment by symbolic acts, the drawing and then “killing” of various prey animals. The walls also display hand prints, perhaps of the artists, perhaps of the hunters. In some cases the fingers of these hands have been folded under (not cut off — let’s be practical here) in various ways that might be symbolic. Perhaps they were meant to ward off evil, perhaps to signal other hunters in the party. We’ll never know.
In among the beautifully realistic pictures of prey, we can find the occasional odd figure, such as a man wearing a bird mask. He lies on his back, apparently dead, with a staff lying beside him. An early wizard? A spirit? Again, we can’t say for sure, but we can be certain that he’s not one of the ordinary hunters portrayed as stick figures here and there throughout the painting. In some the cave paintings geometric figures appear: patterns of lines, the outline of squares, and occasionally a square or circle divided into quarters. We have no idea what they meant to the people who made them, but I bet they had meaning. Scratching lines into rock is not the easiest thing to do by the smoky light of tallow lamps. You don’t do it to doodle.
Certain figures appear in various early rock carvings overground in Europe and North Africa, the quartered circle, crosses, shapes like an eye, circles with radiating lines around them, the much-maligned swastika, as well as rough human-ish shapes now and then. Some of these carvings date back to the Mesolithic, when the ice sheets were melting. The same symbols appear all throughout human history in the West, (and for all I know, in Africa and the East, as well. Again, I apologize for my ignorance.) Generally they have been regarded as magical by the people who still make them. I think we’re on safe ground in assuming they had some kind of non-ordinary meaning in earliest times as well.
Some of them, particularly the quartered circle, appear in the most elevated of magical systems as well as in the charms of ordinary people. And of course, folding or extending various fingers of an upraised hand still carries meaning today, whether the person doing the folding means an obscene insult or a prophylactic gesture. Prophylactic charms and gestures, that is, things meant to “ward off” various evils, are an important and ancient part of folk magic. Besides various hand gestures, charms against the evil eye have been popular down through the ages, particularly in the Mediterranean world.
Anyone writing a fantasy book set in a non-technological culture, or even for that matter in a more developed world, can use various symbols and gestures as part of the common magic for more than peasants. Plenty of highly educated people in various civilizations believed or half-believed in them, too. Perhaps, like some of the Roman writers who’ve come down to us, they were rather embarrassed by their belief, but they would never have deprived their son of his bulla nor failed to make a sign of warding if a reputed witch passed them in the street.
As well as symbols and gestures, both folk and educated systems of magic shared certain principles. I’ll post more about that next week.