Renaissance magic and superheroes

Here’s another chapter of the little unpublished book / long essay I wrote in 2008, called Everything Is Full of Gods, about the connection between comics, animation, and magic / animism. The intro chapter is here. In this chapter, I talk about Renaissance magic, and how it influenced contemporary comic culture.

The Magus

Florence 1463 AD. In the library of the Villa Careggi, Marcilio Ficino, the greatest scholar of the age, is hard at work. He has recently been made head of a new Platonic academy, based in the Villa Careggi and sponsored by Cosimo De Medici, the ruler of Florence and one of the richest and most powerful men in Europe. Ficino is bent over his desk, translating manuscripts of Plato’s lost works, which have recently been re-discovered and brought over from Byzantium.

But then the door of the library flies open. It is Cosimo De Medici himself. The boss. He is almost 80 years old, frail and sick, but his eyes are shining like a young boy’s, and in his quivering hands is an old and dusty manuscript.

De Medici is an avid book collector, and he has a vast network of scouts sent out across the known world, like so many Indiana Joneses, to discover lost and ancient manuscripts, magical texts that promise superhuman powers to those who find them.

No manuscript has been more sought after than the one he now, finally, holds in his hands — the Corpus Hermeticum, which contain the secret teachings of the great Hermes Trismegistus, the ancient Egyptian prophet, the mightiest magus of them all. He hands over the manuscript to Ficino and tells him to get to work translating it immediately. Plato can wait.


The discovery of the Corpus Hermeticum had a revolutionary effect both on the status of magic in Europe, and on the status of man himself. As Renaissance magic grew in stature, so too did man, who seemed suddenly possessed of great and long-dormant powers — the power to control planets, to command angels and demons, to create gods, practically to become a god himself. As the Corpus put it: “unless you make yourself equal to God, you cannot understand God…Make yourself grow to a greatness beyond measure… raise yourself above all time, become Eternity.”

Somehow, for a century, Renaissance magi managed to disseminate such heretical notions under the eyes of the Vatican. Man, briefly, became a superman. But it was inevitable that there would be a backlash, and when it came, thousands of witches, and even some scholarly magi, were burnt at the stake.

Until the 15th century, the Catholic Church had exercised a ruthless monopoly on magic. Only Christian magic was allowed, such as the Eucharist, exorcism, or the Cult of Saints, and these accepted forms of magic were only allowed to be practiced by official representatives of the Church. Other, more illicit, forms of magic were still quietly practiced in rural communities by the village witch or cunning man. But they were considered vulgar and plebeian by the intellectual elite.

But when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire in 1453, a steady stream of ancient manuscripts arrived in Europe by the likes of Plato, Porphyry, even the great Hermes Trismegistus himself, and these texts were far from vulgar. Their discovery and translation during the Renaissance gave a huge amount of intellectual credibility to magic, so that it captured the minds of leading scholars like Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, or Giordano Bruno.

What gave the Corpus Hermeticum such great intellectual credibility was its supposed antiquity. It was generally believed to be the words of Hermes Trismegistus, a magical Egyptian prophet thought to have lived in Egypt in the time of Moses.

The authority for this dating was, chiefly, the third century Church father, Lactantius, who wrote of the powerful and prolific Hermes Trismegistus, who lived many years before Plato and Pythaogoras, and who managed to prophesy the coming of Christ.

Hermes was thus seen by scholars like Ficino as being a very early source for ancient wisdom and magic — earlier than Plato, earlier than Christ, perhaps even earlier than Moses. And this seemed to be borne out by the similarity between the Corpus Hermeticum and Christian, Platonic and Neoplatonic texts, which suggested that Hermes had indeed prophesized Christ’s coming, and had also been the original source of many of the ideas of Plato.

Actually, like many beliefs and suppositions in the history of magic, this turned out to be false. In 1614, the scholar Isaac Casaubon proved more or less unanswerably that the Corpus Hermeticum must have been written many centuries after Plato, probably around the second or third century AD.

That is why it is so full of Neoplatonic and Gnostic ideas — not because it anticipated and influenced Plato, but because it was written centuries after him, and after Christ, in the heady mileu of the second and third century AD, the golden age of Gnosticism, Neoplatonism and magic.

Still, Ficino and other Renaissance magi did not know this, and fully believed that the Corpus Hermeticum was almost as holy and ancient a text as the Bible. The Egyptian magus rose quickly to the status of an honorary prophet of Christianity, on a par with Moses. He appeared on a mosaic in the centre of Sienna Cathedral, and even (scholars believe) in a mural on the walls of the Vatican itself.

Moses learning from Hermes Trismegistus

The various short works within the Corpus Hermeticum were not just philosophy. They were magic, believed capable of granting supernatural powers to those magi wise enough to understand them and follow their instructions. They promised to unravel the secrets of nature, which is why Hermetic philosophy was often known as natural philosophy.

Hermeticism, like Neoplatonism, had an animistic view of the universe. Nature was animate, teeming with spirits. The sky was filled with angels and devils. The stars and planets were animate beings. The whole universe was animated, filled with the divine spiritus or pneuma, the celestial matter that connected all beings.

This animate universe was filled with symbols, secret messages and hidden correspondences. Images, words, musical notes and objects here on Earth held mysterious connections to planets, demons and angels in Heaven. ‘As above, so below’, as the alchemical saying put it.

The wise magus could, with the help of his magical texts, learn these hidden correspondences and manipulate them, thereby drawing down spirits from the heavens above into material objects below, or even into his own person. He could marry heaven and earth together, and the offspring of this marriage would be the super-empowered magus himself.

If the magus could unite his mind with the divine mind, then he could travel anywhere he wanted, as fast as the speed of thought. Thus in the Corpus Hermeticum we read: “Command your soul to be in India, to cross the Ocean; in a moment it will be done. Command it to fly up to heaven. It will not need wings; nothing can prevent it. And if you wish to break through the vault of the universe and to contemplate what is beyond — if there is anything beyond the world — you may do it.”

The Gnostic magic of the Corpus promises to free man from his material prison. For example, it asserted that humans are imprisoned by the determinism of the planets, which emanated their good and bad influences through the spiritus mundi. But with Hermetic magic, the magus could escape this determinism, could “break through the envelopes” of the stars.

This particularly impressed Ficino. He was a great believer in astrology, and was terrified by the malevolent influence of the planet Saturn, which was supposed to bring bad luck and depression to those under its influence, particularly bookish scholars like him.

The Hermetic texts claimed that the bad emanations of Saturn could be counter-balanced by the more positive influence of other planets, such as the Sun, Jupiter, Mercury and Venus. The magus could draw down the powers of these planets by using certain plants, colours, metals and songs. He could also inscribe images of the planets onto objects, and use these as talismans to “capture the stars” as Ficino put it.

Thus the magus was like the Greek hero, who gained his superpowers through the favour of Jupiter, Venus or Neptune. But while the Greek hero gained the favour of these planet-gods through his genes, the magus was much more in control. He could manipulate the planets as and when he wanted, using his astral magic.

Venus, for example, was a good counterbalance to the bad vibes of Saturn. Ficino recommended singing and playing certain Orphic hymns to bring her influence down, as well as surrounding oneself with green objects (Venus was attracted to the colour green) and invoking her using a talisman engraved with the image of “a woman with her hair unbound riding on a stag, having in her right hand an apple and in her left, flowers, and dressed in white garments”, as the Medieval text the Picatrix describes it.

Astrological talismans, we note in passing, would play a major role in the symbolism of comics half a millennia later. For example, in the DC universe, bored playboy Ted Knight invents a gravity rod that can draw down ‘powerful infra-rays from distant stars’, transforming him into the superhero Starman. The schoolgirl heroines of Sailor Moon, the very successful manga series, transform into Zodiac forces — Sailor Moon, Sailor Mercury, Sailor Mars and so on. Lili, the heroine of the manga comic Zodiac PI, uses astrological forecasts and her magic ‘star-ring’ to solve crimes. And the family at the centre of the manga series Fruit Baskets are possessed by the animal spirits of the Chinese Zodiac.

While Ficino was content to try to use astral magic to avoid the depressive influence of Saturn, his bold young apprentice, Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola, had altogether grander ambitions for his magic. In 1486, at the tender age of 23, Pico set off for Rome with 900 theses he had written, which he thought would synthesize all knowledge, combine all magical systems, and possibly trigger the second coming of Christ.

The 900 Theses, and the introductory Oration on the Dignity of Man, are an incredible assertion of confidence: both the young Pico’s confidence in himself, and his confidence in the potential of man, and above all his confidence in the power of magic. Indeed, the leading historian of Renaissance magic, Frances Yates, called his Oration “the great charter of Renaissance magic”.

Like a true Gnostic, Pico thought that man was capable of attaining “divine perfection” in this life, and the surest way to do that, he believed, was through the Jewish magic of Kabbalah. This was, for Pico, the essential ingredient in the caldron of Renaissance magic. As he declared in his Theses: “Nothing really effective is possible in magic, unless you add the work of Kabbalah…”

Kabbalah, like the Corpus Hermeticum, was revered by Renaissance scholars like Pico partly because it was thought to be extremely ancient. Its most famous text, the Zohar, was published by a Spanish Rabbi called Moses de Leon in the 13th century, who claimed he had discovered the manuscript, and that it contained the actual sayings of a famous 2nd Century Rabbi, Shimon bar Yochai.

However, like the Hermetic works, it may not have been as ancient as was generally believed. The great scholar of Kabbalah, Gershom Scholem, points out certain telltale signs in the Zohar that suggest it was written much later than the 2nd century, such as the text’s lack of knowledge about the geography of Israel, and some references to events which happened long after the second century. He believes that Moses de Leon himself is the most likely author.

For Scholem, medieval Kabbalah was actually something relatively new in Jewish history, something that first appeared in Provence in the twelfth century, and then flowered in Spain in the thirteenth century. A new mystic and magical strain suddenly appears in Jewish thought, and Scholem believes the source of it was Gnosticism — either the Gnostic ideas circulating in the south of France before the Albigensian Crusade, or from some other source not yet recognized.

In Kabbalah, then, we have similar Gnostic ideas as we meet in the Corpus Hermeticum: the idea that nature is a living, animate being, which is full of hidden symbols and connections if the observer is wise enough to perceive them. Kabbalah also shared with Hermeticism the radical Gnostic idea that the human soul could rise up from its material prison, ascend through the orders of demons and angels, and attain ecstatic union with the Divine in this life, through mystical meditation, and through magic.

This Medieval version of Gnostic magic and mysticism, refined by the learned Jewish community in Spain, was then introduced into the mainstream of western ideas following the expulsion of the Jews from Spain by the Spanish Inquisition in 1492, though Kabbalah was at that point already known to a few Hebrew specialists such as Pico.

What supernatural powers did Kabbalah promise? One form of Kabbalist magic, used to tell the future, involved the manipulation of concentric circles, on each of which was written the 22 letters of the sacred Hebrew alphabet. The Kabbalist would then ask a question of the device, and turn the circles at random to see what mystical response it would give.

Kabbalists such as the 13th century scholar Abraham Abulafia used this technique, known as the ars combinatoria, to achieve mystical states of consciousness and to predict the future. A similar sort of device, using letters on two or three concentric wheels, was used by the Christian mystic, Ramon Llull, who also lived in 13th century Spain.

This sort of magical device was the inspiration for the Golden Compass, or alethiometer, which Lyra can magically use to discover the truth in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. The alethiometer, like Llull’s device, has 36 symbols on its perimeter. Pullman said in an interview with the literary magazine ‘textualities’: “the alethiometer came out of my interest in the Renaissance, the world described so vividly by Frances Yates in The Art of Memory and The Rosicrucian Enlightenment. During the Renaisssance there was a rediscovery of Greek philosophy, and a fascination with what we now call the occult, astrology and alchemy.”

Another form of Kabbalist magic involved the incantation of names, both of angels, and of God Himself. The universe was angels (301,655,172 of them, to be precise), and the magus can invoke them by name, and through them approach the sacred tree of life which Kabbalists, like Shamans, believed connected Earth and the Heavens.

The Kabbalist magus would solemnly invoke the names of angels in the celestial hierarchy, and if the magus’ heart was pure and his incantation correct, he could bring the spirit of the invoked angel down into his being. Pico refers to this magical practice when he says in his Oration: “we invoke Raphael, the celestial healer… In us, now restored to good health, will dwell Gabriel, the force of the Lord, who…will present us to Michael, the high priest…”

Kabbalists ‘discovered’ the existence of hundreds of other angels they could invoke, whose names usually ended in ‘-el’ (which means God in Hebrew), as in Raphael, Michael, Gabriel or Tzadkiel. The creators of Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, would draw on this tradition when they gave Clark Kent the secret name Kal-el.

This beautiful idea in Kabbalah, of the almost domestic proximity of angels to humanity, and the ability of the artist-magus to bring them down to earth, is perhaps one key to the wonderful images in Renaissance art of angels stepping into the rooms of Renaissance homes, like Superman calmly appearing on the balcony of Lois Lane.

The Kabbalist magus could also use angels and demons as functionaries, if he had the cheek. The late sixteenth century magician Johannes Trithemius believed he could use a network of angels for telepathy, to transmit messages from himself to others, as well as to inform him of “everything that is happening in the world”. As in The Matrix, Gnostic magic seems to have combined with information technology.

And the Kabbalist can also use the many sacred names of God as spells, such as the all-powerful Shemhamphorasch, the 72-letter name of God, which Kabbalists believed that Moses had used to part the Red Sea and defend the Jews from the Egyptian army.

Moses’s use of magic to defend the Jewish community from persecution was typical — Kabbalah magic was only supposed to be used for self-defence, never for attack. There were many legends of Kabbalist wonder-workers, called Ba’alei Shem, or masters of the names, using their powers to protect their communities from Christian persecution.

Of particular interest for our history are the tales of the Tzadikim Nistarim, or ‘hidden saints’. The legend grew up in Kabbalist circles that there are 36 hidden superheroes, possessed of great supernatural power, who are in special favour with God, and on whose continued existence the world depends.

The Nistarim are as humble as they are powerful, and hide their secret identities beneath the exterior appearance of being insignificant, awkward or even cowardly. They don’t even know who the other 35 Nistarim are. They may not even know they themselves are one of the 36. But they will sometimes reveal their great powers to protect the Jewish community from persecution, before disappearing again back into obscurity.

It seems to me possible that this idea influenced the development of the modern superhero, who hides his identity beneath the appearance of being a nebbish like Clark Kent or Peter Parker. We note that there are 36 hidden heroes on Mohinder Suresh’s list in the NBC show Heroes, though not all of these heroes are particularly saintly.

Thus, armed with the power of Hermes and the power of Kabbalah, we see before us the Renaissance magus in all his glory: he was a healer and doctor, who could use astral magic to overcome depression, or use the images of alchemy and astrology as archetypes to guide the sick mind back to health, as Jung would do 500 years later. He was a chemist, working in sooty laboratories to discover the essence, or ‘spirit’ of substances in his search for the fabled Philosopher’s Stone. He was an advisor to princes and Popes, telling them what the angels and the stars had told him of the good and bad luck that would befall their kingdoms.

And he was above all an artist. One cannot have a theory of magic that is not at the same time a theory of art, of the power of art to change the world, and of the supreme dignity of the artist-magus.

Thus, in Ficino’s natural magic, the magus’ astrological images have the power to draw down beneficial energies from the planets. This idea, believes Frances Yates, was behind some of the finest Renaissance paintings, and their timeless depiction of classical figures, such as Botticelli’s Primavera.

Renaissance music was considered to have magical powers, like the Orphic hymns that Ficino would sing to the planets to draw down their benevolent influence. The Renaissance writer was also a magus, whose sacred words were able to command angels and demons, as Prospero, Shakespeare’s alter-ego in The Tempest, is able to command Ariel and Caliban.

And the Renaissance magus was also a master of animation, in the original sense of one who can introduce a soul into an inanimate object. He was a god-like creator, able to channel the spirits and give them a form on earth. Thus Shakespeare describes the poet:

“The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,

Doth glance from heaven to Earth, from Earth to heaven.

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.”

The most secret and illicit teaching of both Hermetic philosophy and Kabbalah was the idea that it was possible to draw down spirits from the ether and use them to animate statues, or to create artificial beings.

Thus the Hermetic text, the Aesculapius, tells us that the magus is God-like in that he can himself make gods. The magus could evoke “the souls of demons or angels”, and then introduce them into statues or idols, “so that the idols had the power of doing good and evil”.

This old magic idea of animating inanimate objects and then using them to do your bidding has a long history in western art. It appears in the 2nd century AD in a comic fable by Lucian called the Philopseudes, which tells of the hapless friend of a priest of Isis, who overhears the priest saying a animating spell and decides to try it for himself. He animates a pestle, but can’t control it and the pestle goes on the rampage.

The story was picked up and adapted many centuries later by Goethe in his poem The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. And it eventually appeared in animation, appropriately enough, in Walt Disney’s Fantasia, where Mickey the sorcerer’s apprentice casts a spirit into some brooms, who then go beserk and fill a bath until it overflows. In Fantasia, the priest of Isis is called Yensid — Disney backwards. So Disney was directly linking the new art of animation to the ancient and magical tradition of the magus as animator.

The idea of the magus as animator played a deep role in Kabbalist legends as well, in the myth of the Golem, or artificial man. This legend was particularly attached to the famous chief rabbi of Prague, Judah Loew ben Bezalel. Prague was, at that time, probably the centre of Renaissance magic, thanks to the enthusiasm for the occult felt by the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolph II, who lived in Prague Castle, and devoted a whole wing of the castle to alchemical experiments.

We know that Rudolph II asked for a private meeting with the rabbi in 1592. It is not known what they discussed, though we do know that rabbi Loew was not a great advocate of magic. Nonetheless, this meeting of a rabbi with the most powerful man in Christendom, taking place as it did on the centenary of the Jews’ expulsion from Spain, was taken by the Jewish diaspora as a confirmation of the rabbi’s wondrous and magical powers.

One particularly popular legend surrounding the rabbi was that he had constructed a man out of clay, a Golem, and then animated it by writing one of the names of God, EMETH, or Truth, on its forehead. The Golem then worked as a domestic menial — we hear the story of how it was ordered to fill a bath and then went beserk and over-filled it.

But the Golem was also, according to some legends, used by the rabbi to protect the Jewish community from anti-Semitic persecution. This doesn’t quite fit with the fact that Jews had a relatively safe existence in Rudolph’s Prague, compared to other parts of Europe. However, Jews in other, less safe parts of the world, such as Poland, seemed to draw much comfort from these tales of the supernatural protection of the Golem.

It has been suggested that the tales of the Golem also helped to influence the modern creation of the superhero. There are some direct examples of the Golem’s influence on comics — the Golem was a superhero in Marvel Comics in the 1970s, a member of the Howling Commandoes, and enemy of the evil ‘Kabbala the Unclean’.

Wonder Woman was also supposedly made out of clay by her mother, Hippolyta.

Others have argued the figure of the Golem has underlined the whole concept of the superhero, invented as it was by east European émigrés whose families had fled European anti-Semitism. Superheroes were also magical animated beings who would fight anti-Semitic persecution in legendary tales.

Thus in the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon, the hero is a young artist from Prague who escapes the Nazis in a coffin, accompanied by the remains of the Golem. He then moves to New York, becomes a comic book artist, and invents a superhero called the Escapist who battles the Nazis in the comics he writes. By the end of the book, the artist realizes how he is unconsciously drawing on Jewish folklore, and begins a graphic novel about the Golem.

Kabbalist magic had its dangers, however. In some versions of the Golem legend, the monster goes on the rampage, and even kills its creator. Kabbalist spells were also risky. If you uttered the Shemhamphorasch and weren’t sufficiently pure of heart, you could die instantly — this is the premise of the film Pi, by the director, comic book writer and Kabbala-enthusiast Darren Aronofsky. The film tells of a maths and computer genius who discovers the Shemhamphorasch, but almost kills himself in the process.

Kabbalah could connect you to angels, but it could also confront you with demons. If you got your spells wrong, you could become possessed or even devoured by a demon or fallen angel, such as Azazel, Ba’al, or the fearsome Lilith. We are reminded here of the superhero comic, ‘Dial H for Hero’, about a boy who discovers a mysterious dial with letters round the edge, rather like Abulafia’s Kabbalah device. If he spells out H-E-R-O, he is transformed into any one of a thousand superheroes. But if he spells out V-I-L-L-A-I-N, he is possessed by evil spirits.

The greatest risk for a Kabbalist was to be confronted by the King of the Jewish demons, Asmodeus. Alan Moore, the famous writer of comics and also a practicing Kabbalist magus, claims that Asmodeus once appeared to him in the form of a multidimensional red spider, though Moore describes him as witty and slightly smug rather than the embodiment of evil.

But this was the problem with magic in general — there was the risk that it would be seen by the ignorant as demonic and evil. Worse, there was the risk that it really was demonic and evil. After all, didn’t the Aesculapius openly and impiously talk of bringing down demons into statues, and thereby creating your own Gods?

This negative view of magic as demonology existed as far back as Simon Magus, who was supposed to have attained his superpowers by making a pact with devils. In Acts, Simon Magus tries to impress Peter and Paul, in Rome, by levitating off a building, but Peter removes the demons holding him up, and Simon falls to his death.

As the 16th Century progressed, more and more magi found themselves accused of Satanism and demonology. There was Cornelius Agrippa, for example, who was supposedly followed around by a black dog that was really the Devil in disguise. There was Paracelsus, the great alchemist, who was nick-named ‘the Devil’s doctor’, and was frequently kicked out of towns for practicing his dark arts. There was the great English magus, John Dee, who was accused by the Church of being a spy and a Satanist, and who narrowly avoided being sent to the Inquisition when he visited the Holy Roman Emperor in Prague.

There were the legends of the magus Faust, another resident of Prague, which were printed in 1587 and became very popular in the late years of the 16th Century. The tales told of a magus who, in his hunger for fame and knowledge, signed a contract with the Devil giving him supernatural powers for a few years, until his soul is dragged down to hell.

Even the magic-loving emperor himself, Rudolph II, was suspected by the Vatican of having made a deal with Old Nick. Cardinal Filippo Spinelli wrote to Pope Clement VIII in 1600: “It is generally agreed among Catholics in Prague that the Emperor has been bewitched and is in league with the Devil. I have been shown the chair in which His Majesty sits when holding conversations with the Prince of Darkness himself.”

The ugly fate of the hapless emperor seemed to spell out only too clearly the dangers of dabbling in the occult. First his son Don Guilio went mad, and was locked up for raping and mutilating a barber’s daughter. Then the emperor himself went crazy, hiding himself away for weeks in Prague Castle, running through the darkened corridors screaming that his back had changed place with his stomach. He was eventually forced off the imperial throne by his brother, Matthias, who claimed Rudolph spent so much time delving into magic, he was neglecting the affairs of the empire.

Even if you were sceptical that magi could really converse with, command or make deals with devils, it is still easy to see why the Vatican perceived them as a dangerous threat.

Firstly, magi were politically dangerous. They were sometimes spies with Protestant sympathies (as John Dee probably was) and were frequently Messianic revolutionaries as well. Thus Pico believed his Theses would help bring about a cosmic revolution, when all religions would be synthesized into one uber-religion and peace would reign among men. John Dee believed a similar cosmic revolution was on the way, which would bring about the reconciliation of Catholic and Protestant Europe and a new era of amity and concord.

Giordano Bruno, an outspoken and ecstatic Italian magus who wandered around Europe spreading his Hermetic theories towards the end of the 16th century, believed a new age of love was dawning when the Egyptian mysteries would reign once more, and occult priests like himself would rule the world.

The magi might sound like fun-loving anarchist Gnostics, but there was a darker side to their political beliefs. Many of them saw in Hermeticism not just a way to reach God, but a way to rule the world as well. They were drawn to passages in the Corpus Hermeticum that spoke of a perfect city that Hermes Trismegistus had founded, called Adocentyn, which were watched over by statues, magically animated with the spirits of demons.

These magic statues would make sure that everyone in the city was virtuous. Indeed, they would have no choice but to be virtuous, because the magic would control all their actions, turning them into little marionettes. This Utopian dictatorship appealed greatly to magi like Bruno or Tommaso Campanella. In the idea of a elite of artist-intellectuals manipulating the dumb masses through art and propaganda, it would foreshadow the dreams of Modernist authoritarian elitists and the totalitarian dictatorships of the 20th Century.

But, besides their politics, the magi’s religious beliefs were, of course, deeply heretical. The official Church doctrine was that man could not reach God except through Christ, and only in the afterlife. And yet the magi seemed to be claiming the ability to achieve divine perfection in this life, not through the grace of Christ, but through all sorts of other means — star-demons, planets, talismans, Chaldean oracles. In other words, not grace and submission but skills, technologies, will-power. Some imprudent magi even suggested that Jesus Himself was, basically, a magus.

This was the rash claim made by Giordano Bruno, who may be the prototype for Lord Asriel in Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights. Bruno, like Asriel, visited Oxford in 1582, and there engaged in furious debate with the Oxford scholastics (or ‘pedants’ as he insisted on calling them) about the possible existence of multiple worlds, just as Asriel would do.

This idea of multiple worlds, which one also finds in the Kabbalah, would have a deep impact on fantasy literature and on comics. It is a key feature of American superhero comics, with a famous DC comic being called Crisis on Multiple Earths.

It also plays a key role in Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, where Lord Asriel is imprisoned by the Church for heretically asserting the existence of multiple worlds. Eventually, Asriel manages to escape and kill God. Giordano Bruno’s fate was rather more grisly — he was arrested by the Inquisition, kept in prison for eight years, and then burnt at the stake in 1600. His crimes included claiming Jesus was a magus, and “claiming the existence of a plurality of worlds”.

When Bruno was burnt at the stake, it marked the nadir of the fortunes of the artist-magus in European society. It was downhill from there. For 100 years or so, the magus had been an all-powerful, superhuman figure. He had enjoyed audiences with queens, Popes and emperors. He had combined the prophet, the courtier, the healer, chemist and artist, and all these disciplines had assumed a sacred character in his person.

Sadly, the cosmic revolution that many magi believed they were helping to bring about did not happen. The Age of Love failed to materialize. Instead, Europe tore itself apart in a century of bloody religious violence, in which magic itself would be a victim, with thousands of ‘witches’ being burnt at the stake during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. And out of that violence was born the modern world, one ruled by rational theories of science, physics, economics and statecraft

Ironically, magi like Giordano Bruno may have helped bring about this new rational age, because their natural philosophy, as strange and occult as it may have been, was still experimental, and thus helped to bring down the Catholic Church’s more speculative and theoretical Scholasticism. Modern chemistry grew out of Renaissance alchemy, and modern astronomy grew out of Renaissance astrology. So perhaps, like Lord Asriel, the magi really did help to kill God, although this was far from their intention.

With the 17th century clampdown on magic and the coming of the age of rationalism, the idea of an animate universe that could be controlled by magi was gradually pushed to the margins of popular belief. But a few wild souls still cherished this idea, and many of them would end up working in comics.

Some of the most magic-inspired comic and fantasy writers, such as Alan Moore, John Crowley or Neil Gaiman, would often look back to the Renaissance magi for inspiration. Thus Gaiman’s graphic novel 1602 takes Marvel superheroes like the X-Men and Spiderman, and re-imagines them as figures in the court of Queen Elizabeth, with Doctor Strange becoming a John Dee-like magus to the Queen. And Moore has told me that he sees himself as a magus “in the European tradition of Agrippa, Paracelsus, and Giordano Bruno”.

And the magi’s history of clashes with the Catholic Inquisition would also cast a long shadow over superhero comics, in which superheroes like the X-Men would often face persecution by the authorities for their powers, or simply for being different. In 1602, for example, Charles Xavier of the X-Men, or Carlos Javier as he has become, fights to defend his mutants from the Inquisition; while Tomas de Torquemada, the chief inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition who expelled the Jews and Kabbalah from Spain, would appear as one of the most famous comic book villains, in the pages of 2000AD.

Author of Philosophy for Life and other books. Honorary fellow, Centre for the History of the Emotions.

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