History of occultism (II): The Middle Ages


The Middle Ages is undoubtedly the historical moment in which the vast majority see a hotbed of magic and occult arts, although occultism as such is still a few centuries away from being born. However, as has already been mentioned on previous occasions, the Middle Ages was a time, more than a creator, a recipient of all the traditions of antiquity whose religion, magic, philosophy and sciences were confused and admired. There are, however, multiple facets of this Middle Ages, divisible by its territory, something that is often ignored when discussing this issue, as if the medieval communication routes had been fast and efficient throughout the territory.

In the south of Western Europe, the knowledge of the Arabs enters through the Iberian Peninsula, which coexists with the Jewish sciences and the Christian traditions of the territory, together with an unstable political situation, distributed in multiple independent kingdoms; Italy was always a means of communication through which multiple knowledge entered, despite pressure from the Pope of Rome. In Western and Central Europe, there would be the perfect breeding ground between ecclesiastical pressure and pagan rites until leading to the ordeal and terrible inquisitorial trials. In the British Isles there was as much traditional magic (medicinal, amulet) as there was a legal prohibition of it.

In Eastern Europe we have the Christian Byzantine Empire, stopping the Turkish advance, promoting the Crusades to defend its borders, until the quarrels of the different lordships allowed Mohamed II to defeat Constantine (1435). This did not prevent good work from being carried out prior to this on esoteric and religious disciplines, such as angelology or divination. In the Slavic countries, where magic was always a cultural phenomenon, magic was above all of an agrarian nature, a terrain where the Orthodox Church could not reach, hidden behind rural rites, festivities, weddings, dances and songs, not exempt, on the other hand, from the threat of the Turks and the clashes between their own nations. On the other hand, the Scandinavian countries move between Latin and runic, between the traditions of the towns and the emerging large cities, in addition to the unification of the Baltic states (Norway, Sweden and Denmark).

Magic or witchcraft

The most notable thing about this period is the Christianization, or rather, the "de-paganization", and the change in vision of magic: although the categories of good magic and bad magic have always existed, Christianity will link practically the entire from magic to demonic arts, always giving it a negative aspect, except in cases where the Christian God may have offered help, such as through bibliomancy with the Bible or Epistolaries, or astrology, given that the universe is a divine creation . Furthermore, the Church, to maintain its territorial and spiritual control, had to fight against sects and heresies, thus hardening any act that could deviate from ecclesiastical norms and judgment. The main problem that they had to face in this control was powerful individuals or individuals with a certain social status who were adept at pagan issues, especially if these were magical, as could happen with those kings who frequented fortune tellers and fortune tellers, interpreters of dreams or healers, and more loosely, with rural traditions, most of which they did not eliminate, but rather reconverted them by linking them to saints or religious situations.

Magic until the 10th century was simply punished, in the same way that happened with heresies, with degradation, in the case of public or ecclesiastical positions, or with excommunication. It was in the 12th century, following the suppression of the Cathar heresy, when heresy and magical practice merged in the medieval imagination, and all heresy, and therefore magic, carried the demonic presence. Magic will quickly be glimpsed as the wonderful and inexplicable, which is not acceptable as a miracle is, but is not necessarily harmful, as was the case with astrology or prodigious stones. But apart from this magic, which is in itself viewed with suspicion, there will be a branch whose purpose is always evil, which evidently cannot but be associated with the devil and seek the destruction of Christianity and humanity, and that will be witchcraft. Of course, in a short space of time, everything considerably dangerous on a religious, social, economic, moral, political level, etc., will be considered demonic and will be associated with it, adding a series of exaggerated and invented qualities that will instill fear. in the population, such as the sacrifice of children to Satan or copulation with him. It is the already mentioned difference between natural magic and daemonic magic, taken to the extreme.

It is likely that without this demonic association, the persecutions and fears would have remained in popular quarrels and ecclesiastical reprimands against pagan agrarian traditions, without having unleashed the entire inquisitorial process. However, it should not be forgotten that it was already in the 15th century, that is, at the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Modern Age, when the Inquisition caused its ideological massacres. Part of the blame was, unintentionally, the great dissemination that the printing press, invented in 1453, was able to give to the works that condemned it.

Although there were many intellectuals and scholars, and also religious people, of the time, who tried to redirect magic towards a scientific environment, or at least detach it from its diabolical connotations, their words were not well attended: in fact, the first Christian document in which witchcraft was mentioned, the Canon Episcopi of the year 906 by Regino de Prüm, indicated that it was the priests' function to tell the people that all the stories about flying witches and sorceries were false things, lies and in any case, hallucinations. Despite this, accusations continued, and meanwhile, many scientists were also persecuted, such as Pietro d'Abano (c. 1257 - 1316), who died in prison, accused of heresy and atheism for his medical, philosophical and elemental works. ; o Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), who rejected Jewish Kabbalah but studied Christian astrology and Kabbalah, and who was excommunicated and forced into exile for his works, in which, for example, he reconsidered free will and the right of the human being to disagree. Roger Bacon (1214 - 1294) was imprisoned for his mechanical predictions, some of which, like suspension bridges, were taken for prophecies and revelations arising from the practice of witchcraft. Practically in the Renaissance we will have Agrippa von Nettehesheim (1468-1535), who wrote various works on occult sciences but was accused, precisely, of defending a woman accused of witchcraft.

Other characters, however, were contradicted on a few occasions, and their knowledge was attributed to the Holy Spirit. This is the case of Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), who had mystical visions that she wrote down and who was also said to be knowledgeable about multiple medicinal treatments with herbs; or Albertus Magnus (ca. 1195 - 1280), a doctor of the Church who was able to openly discuss alchemy and astrology, among other scientific subjects. Specifically for the latter, the magical production was later and falsely attributed, expressing those aspects of his work that gave rise to it, but in which the author had not dared to investigate too much. Perhaps the greatest example of the scientist who was never questioned at such levels was Paracelsus (1493 - 1541) and so-called hermetic medicine.

Types of crimes

The practice of agrarian rites, as stated above, was converted or, if any act stood out for a very suspicious practice, the guilty party was excommunicated, with the consequent "exit from society" and absolute abandonment that it then implied. But if there was physical evidence of a magical act, such as symbols or objects, then the macabre imagination was triggered. All the more so if the person involved was a woman, about whom texts circulated about her role as a condemner of humanity, and especially when it involved widows, midwives or prostitutes.

Among the many crimes we find, of course, necromancy, because it is contrary to the Christian faith, which reserves the Resurrection to God on the Day of Judgment, and poisoning: filters and potions, ointments, all of which gave rise to the modification of the will and to illness and death, which is why it was closely monitored, all the more so because it is always an activity that is carried out in secret, and for very specific purposes: it is of no use to poison a farmer, but it is of no use to poison a nobleman. whose lands the interested party is going to inherit. But beyond the possible concoctions or medicines (which would also be among quackery), the concern came from the supposed components: animal blood, insects, scorpions, spiders, rats and other animals, along with the collection of many other disgusting elements. which, to greater religious horror, were believed to be collected at auspicious astrological moments.

On the other hand, magic crime using wax figures was relatively common. Many of these supposed magical ceremonies were directed at high officials, and for a time it was believed that there was a conspiracy of sorcerers against the Pope of Rome. Likewise, ties of parchment or rope were persecuted, or rituals whose nature was clearly superstitious or magical, such as burying animals in the doors of a house to affect the person who lived there, spitting or urinating on the thresholds (due to the magical power of saliva and urine), the use of meat, blood or animal skin for purposes other than food or fur, the suspicious use of glass and mirrors, and a long etcetera. And all this taking into account that, for common people, reading and writing were unattainable, so that among people of high birth there was the incentive of magical texts, mathematical operations, secret names, pagan names and diabolical names. .

Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274) in his Summa Theologicae exposes a division, which we will take advantage of here, of the three medieval superstitions: The first is related to pagan religions and all the acts derived from it, which sin by not worshiping to the true God. This included all kinds of acts that could be strange.

The second is divination, which also had a great role in these prohibitions and persecutions. With the exception of astrology in its meteorological aspect, all divination practices were illicit, since fortune tellers (divini) claim to know the future, something that only belongs to God, and in which, to satisfy men, the gods intervene. demons, showing visions, signs and forms, the latter in geomancy, hydromancy, molybdomancy, pyromancy, aeromancy or aruspicium or observation of animal entrails, common among many ancient peoples. Thomas Aquinas also distinguished these divinatory arts from those that, according to him, did not need the help of demons, but were simply superstition, such as omens, the flight of birds, palmistry, the different ways of casting lots. , or astrology itself.

In third place are amulets and talismans. Those of religious content had divine power in themselves and were acceptable: but any amulet that had any pagan or unknown sign, or objects considered powerful in themselves (herbs, minerals).

Jews and Arabs

The Jews and Arabs will push for the rapid recovery of the traditions of antiquity, along with the inclusion in the West of their own. Mysticism, Kabbalah, astrology, alchemy. And every new treatise on magic that appears will be attributed to them.

The Jews, although they will be court wise men, doctors and scientific collaborators, as occurred in the court of Alfonso ends up dumping all the hostility and unrest on the Jews, under religious pretexts as those guilty of the condemnation of Christ, of carrying out witchcraft acts, among which were included, according to such fervent accusations, sacrifices of Christian children, and on the other hand, envy towards their privileged positions in self-proclaimed Christian courts, or suspicions about the prosperity of their communities and businesses. Its connection with magic can be noted in how the covens took the name of synagogues and sabbats, sacred places and days of the Jews, during the Late Middle Ages, or the accusation in the 11th century that some Jews had killed the bishop of Trier through the use of wax figures, blessed by a bribed priest, and burned until completely melted on a Sabbat. However, that same accusation forgot that on the Sabbath it is not only prohibited to work, but it is prohibited to light fires.

Several scholars have wanted to see in the representations of the medieval magician a caricature of the Jew (prominent nose, long beard, peaked cap). Although magic was practiced at different levels from the Christian perspective - which, for its part, reserved the knowledge that interested it - the truth is that the Talmud and the Torah condemn the practice of magic, which does not change that Many Hebrew pseudo-religious practices were purely acts that could be called magical due to their praxis.

As far as the Arabs are concerned, in the Middle Ages the use of incense against djinn, talismans and magic squares was widespread. Likewise, they also studied mysticism, kabbalah, and had recovered astrological traditions from ancient times. The belief in effective magic existed in their beliefs: magic had been shown by the angels Harut and Marut to men, whom they urged not to imitate, but those who did it became sorcerers: most of them, of course It could be otherwise, they were Babylonians. Also around the figure of Muhammad we find that the commandments of the Koran were written in sadj, a popular verse that, on the other hand, was also considered oracular. Another story tells us that Muhammad undid a curse that a Jew had placed on him with a wax figure, finding it and reciting verses from the Koran.

Of all the works of Babylonian and Greco-Roman knowledge that the Arabs introduced into Europe, except in the south, where they did settle, and in the eastern areas where the Turks entered, it was the Jews who spread the Arab works. It is notable that the medieval alchemical madness began with the Arabs, as well as the search for the philosopher's stone.

Alchemy and hermeticism

Alchemy was taught in universities during the 13th century. This science, precursor of chemistry, had two different aspects: the first, the conversion of base metals into gold; the second, the philosophical and spiritual interpretation of this same procedure, in other words, spiritual improvement and perfection. Without a doubt, politically speaking, the first had more influence: many courts had prestigious alchemists working for them, and their functions were evidently focused on obtaining gold. The most famous alchemist was perhaps the Frenchman Nicholas Flamel (ca. 1130 - 1418), a scribe and bookseller who amassed a fortune relevant to his position and time, making impressive donations in life and death. This, together with the fact that King Charles IV of France requested his help, and after which porticos, asylums, hospitals, sculptures were built... led to people thinking that he had indeed found a way to extract gold from vile materials, and that for that reason the king would have claimed him. Furthermore, in his work Book of Hieroglyphic Figures (1399), he tells of the discovery among his books of a grimoire loaded with incomprehensible symbols and images, rushing to consult the wise Spanish alchemists and cabalists, when completing the Camino de Santiago. All in all, the text seems as cryptic as the one he sought to decipher, playing with theological and hermetic symbolisms, such as colors and minerals with double meanings.

Not far behind are the alchemists Miguel Escotus (ca. 1175-ca. 1232), a Scottish admirer of the work of Averroes, who was said to have invoked his spirit to help him, as well as to have developed great gifts for prophecy and hypnotism; The Catalan Arnau de Vilanova (ca. 1238 - 1311), doctor, philosopher, theologian and polyglot, earned fame as an alchemist for his continuous travels and his learning stay in Montpelier, where it was considered that medicine was impregnated and nourished by the semitic occult sciences; Roger Bacon (ca. 1214 - 1294), accused of witchcraft for the spread of Arab alchemy, although some historians believe that, in reality, the accusations were a product of his theological inclination towards Franciscan poverty, and that it was precisely the fame as an alchemist and later sorcerer who brought his figure out of oblivion; and finally, the already mentioned Alberto Magno. There are those who include Thomas Aquinas among the alchemists, precisely because of these encrypted, symbolic languages, and because of a correspondence with his friend Reinaldo, whom he urged to focus on the salvation of souls, rather than on a science that offers great material advantages, but temporary.

Studies on alchemy also took into account astral influences on the elements used for alchemical mixtures, as well as other hermetic issues. Influenced by the text of the Emerald Table, a mythical emerald table, or twelve of them, which included the precepts of the so-called Great Work, expounded by the wise Hermes Trismegistus. Its text, transferred in a thousand formats, is much more cryptic than long, and brings together what are considered the principles of occult knowledge, highlighting what has become one of the most repeated and recognized sentences in the occult and esoteric world. to this day: As above so below and as below so above. A maxim that equates the celestial with the earthly, and vice versa, as well as macrocosm and microcosm, and a long etcetera that allows us to strengthen and justify astrological relationships, physical or homeopathic correspondences, and practically any situation in which the existence of a greater power or destiny, or a predisposition.

Among other hermetic sciences were the three sacred sciences: number, architecture and geometry, related to the spirit, body and soul. This leads to the application in the construction of cathedrals, whose shapes and spaces represented a place in communion with the laws of the universe, and allowed the faithful to be part of that order in the most spiritual moment. God was, without a doubt, the great architect, creator of a world where everything fit together.


Kabbalah, a Jewish mystical science that attracted great attention in its beginnings, was later viewed with suspicion and included in the persecuted and misunderstood esoteric practices. In the 11th century we have the French Bahir, a text as brief as it is incomprehensible outside the context of Jewish mysticism. The Zohar and the Sefer Yetzirah of the 13th century will be the main works on which the Jewish Kabbalah is based, which due to ethnic and religious separation will end up developing the Christian Kabbalah. From the studies of Kabbalah, the use of gematria will also be extracted, that is, the interpretation of words by assigning a number to each letter, widely used in esoteric issues even to this day, as well as hermetic issues. about angelology and demonology, reinterpreted from the sefirot (virtues) and the qlifot (impurities).

Associated with the Jewish people, with what it entailed in the moments when everything turned to its criticism and expulsion, the Kabbalah was associated with witchcraft partially by the sectors least interested in its study, or by those who found themselves at a crossroads of accusations of witchcraft and had cabalistic texts that could seem like magic, although it was often studied as philosophy, since for many it was still an exposition of divine creation through the development of virtues, coming from God, that human beings they could reach; Likewise, others accepted the mystical aspect of the profound interpretation of religious texts, many of which (such as Genesis or prophetic texts of the Old Testament) were shared by the Christian religion.

What connection, as such, was so evident to the accusation of Kabbalah magic? Most likely the dark and mysterious air that his interpretation had, along with the ideas shared with hermetic thoughts of relationships between macrocosm and microcosm, between man and God, because he is made in his image and likeness, and also the proximity to Gnostic thought. , which had a lot of influence, but recognized as Christian heresy. Within the magical doctrine, the Kabbalah contained principles that today are basic in ritual occult ideas, such as that the Lógos, the word, the thought, the voice, were a tool of creation. And its tools, letters and numbers, are imbued with power in themselves. The power may be less than that of the Creator, but it will still be a real power. This is inconceivable in a hierarchical monotheism.

However, as was the case with astrology, it had its "saviors" among the nobility and scholars, reaching the point of being considered a form of divine revelation (despite being Hebrew), and including it in the acceptable practices of magic naturalis. , as Heinrich Solter (1648) belatedly indicated. For many, Kabbalah is only deeply understood by a select few, who have a natural predisposition to its interpretation. Due to its numerical peculiarities, there are many who ventured into it, the best known being, perhaps precisely because of its open exposition, the missionary Ramón Llul (1232 - 1316); Dante Aligheri (ca. 1265-1321) whose trace can be seen in his work The Divine Comedy; Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), accused of heresy, and considered the father of Christian Kabbalah; or Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486-1535) in his De Occulta philosophia, speaking of the hidden properties of matter.

Spain that the Jewish Kabbalah was recovered and reunited again, as a mark of ethnic identity. By the time Jewish Kabbalah was again recognized, Christian and Hermetic Kabbalah already existed throughout Europe, causing an even greater closure that, in many ways, continues today.

Mythology and symbolism

The Middle Ages will enjoy, despite the imposition of monotheism, multiple pagan remains in its popular mythologies, as well as folkloric traditions. Elves, gnomes, dwarfs, fairies, pixies, brownies, trolls, giants, ogres, mouros, meigas, ghosts, mermaids, basilisks, unicorns, dragons and of course, wizards and witches. We also find imps in popular tradition, more identifiable with mischievous spirits than with the dark image of the Christian devil. All this and many other creatures were part of the imagination, and to this day in many areas these beliefs and traditions continue. Its expression in literature, bestiaries and travel books clearly shows the magical thinking of people. There will be minor myths, and major myths such as the Arthurian cycle, with Merlin as a beneficial magical figure, and Morgana le Fay as a negative figure, in this case a fairy or sorceress. On the other hand, different hidden symbolisms can be seen in Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals, coming from pagan and hermetic traditions. The colors, the animals, the heraldry, everything had a deep meaning. Many anthropologists have investigated the linking of human personalities to animal characteristics or behaviors, or to biblical symbolism.

Without a doubt, the medieval individual had a much more universalist thought than what we understand today when they are presented to us as illiterate characters driven by an exacerbated faith. However, for them the invisible affected everything visible. A separate issue will be that of women as scapegoats for this entire environment of political, social and religious, and why not, intellectual confrontation. It has been preferred not to open that door in this article for two reasons: first, that the true witch hunt madness will begin at the gates of the Renaissance, and it will be, incredibly, in modern times when the madness is unleashed, despite giant advances in other fields. The second, because we are talking about the origins of occultism, and occultism has always considered magic a ritual, philosophical and intellectual study, in which unfortunately women were not able to enter until very recently. And thirdly, that this aspect of witchcraft, femininity, requires separate articles to be covered properly, without falling into a series of poorly exposed prejudices that are currently clouding true gender studies in this regard.

Pietro Viktor Carracedo Ahumada - pietrocarracedo@gmail.com


- Cantera Montenegro. Los judíos y las ciencias ocultas en la España Medieval. "En la España Medieval" nº 25, 2002, (47-83)

- Daxelmüller, C. Historia social de la magia. Herder, 2009

-García Fernández, E. Reflexiones históricas sobre la ciencia y la magia en la Edad Media. Cuadernos del CEMYR nº8, 2000 (11-52)

- Gérin Ricard, L. Historia del Ocultismo. La Otra Realidad. Barcelona, 1961

Related posts:

> History of occultism (I) : ideas of Antiquity

> Magicology (I) : daemoniac magic  and Magia naturalis.

> Christian Demonology in Middle Ages

> Modern Era and pagan cults: witchcraft in Western society,

> Jewish Kabbalah. Introduction.

Licencia de Creative Commons
Este obra está bajo una licencia de Creative Commons Reconocimiento-NoComercial-CompartirIgual 4.0 Internacional.