Advice For The New Dark Ages
Imagine a world governed by these rules:
Your first child will always be a girl.
Illness can be cured by urinating on a loaf and feeding it to your dog.
Tying a bell on an ox stops it from beng struck by lightning.
The wearing of a gold earring prevents eye complaints.
Curses can never be cancelled once uttered.
In the Dark Ages it was thought you could cure illnesses by analogy, so if you had heart disease you ate a heart-shaped leaf. In these modern times we tend to associate magic with ancient belief systems that were supplanted first by religion, then by rational knowledge. And yet magical rites were sometimes based on surprisingly sensible concerns stemming from our desires to take positive action in times of uncertainty and misfortune.
The need for magic was always there, a need to influence our fate and produce happier fortunes. In magic there is no chance or coincidence, only direct cause and effect. In a world of inexplicable disasters, where crops failed, precious livestock sickened and mothers died in childbirth, where starvation and death were as likely as survival, simple precautions could be taken to reduce the risks to home and family.
From this working system of prevention came rituals aimed at actively improving one’s life. The provision of food could be aided by rites affecting agriculture and animal husbandry. Good weather, fertile marriage and healthy births could by assured by performing appropriate acts. Omens could be divined through the observation of nature.
Magic was pervasive and all-embracing. It offered practical solutions and quantifiable results, and required no intermediaries, no church or priests, only a trusting clientele. It was not a marginal activity or an esoteric mindset, but was central to the concerns of most people, regardless of their background.
‘Oi, Dennis, there’s some lovely filth down here!’ Monty Python got it right. Stephen Wilson’s book ‘The Magical Universe: Everyday Ritual And Magic in Pre-Modern Europe’, explores the beliefs of pre-modern Europe in this wider context, detailing the rituals Europeans developed relating to food, fertility, disease, healing and death, and he reveals the universal belief in omens and signs.
It’s a huge subject, and hard to discover how specific beliefs evolved. What made the cry of an owl more ominous than that, say, of a curlew? Why did some magical beliefs die and others stay with us into the present day? And why would certain omens appear simultaneously in different parts of the continent when there was little contact between secluded rural areas?
The problem is that low levels of literacy prevented the collation of records. Besides, why would such records be kept? In fact magic was such a widely absorbed belief system that it would have been far odder to question its existence.
Many incantations and rituals stem from the most basic human feelings. In a time when one child in four died before the age of one, everyone knew that birth was a painful, dangerous business, so it made sense for the mother to be kept warm and protected, just as it seemed reasonable for her – and everyone else – to scream loudly during delivery.
It was certainly a crafty move to question unwed mothers about the paternity of their children during labour. Given the high risks of infection, confinement also made some sense – although not for the period it was held – as did the arrival of midwives with their own equipment. Surprisingly, in some areas men were encouraged to share the sensation of birth by imitating the actions of the mother, and breast-feeding was recognised as a bonding experience.
But to these gut reactions were added ideas that were horribly wrong-headed. With the child’s appearance a shared lunacy took over, so a passing cat might be blamed for a troubled birth, and babies were lugged up flights of stairs to ensure that their fortunes would always rise. Sound sense mixed with nonsense, and while a baby’s first bath was seen as a rite of purification and separation, the infant might also be spat on to protect it from the evil eye.
At the other end of the life-scale, things became scarier. The process of death was treated with respect but also drew out a collective madness, so that the sound of a churchyard watcher’s cart might presage death, and Sicilian mazzeri, specified ‘killers’ in a village, would hunt animals in their dreams to determine who would die next.
This kind of hostile magic could be brokered into power, as curses and bewitchments became very real threats. There was a belief that toads and frogs were formed from corrupt matter or menstrual blood, and could invoke disease or even death. Many invocations and protections involved the tying or untying of knots; European clothing had many more laces and ties than modern dress, and inevitably carried their own mythologies.
With magic invading every part of the life-cycle, complex protective gestures kept the forces of darkness at bay. The universe was not indifferent but actively hostile, and magical ritual operated on a general principle of sympathy that eventually invaded and colonised religion.
Magic utilised objects found in everyday life, and was so user-friendly that you were a fool not to trust it. If the past is another country, then magic is the launch-pad for understanding this extraordinary world. Thinking about some of the rituals and what’s happening right now, we might as well adopt some just to be on the safe side!