Welcome to the archive of the John Barleycorn blog, produced by Howard Gayton and Rex Van Ryn during the process of creating their graphic novel John Barleycorn Must Die. As part of that process, you'll find discussions of magic, of creativity, and 'Around the Table' discussions with a range of internationally known artists, writers and film makers. The graphic novel was printed in a limited edition, so if you managed to get one, good for you! Although this project is over now, we're leaving this blog online as an archive and as a snap shot in time.

Friday, 18 March 2011

mens agitat molem

Study - David Wyatt.

H - This week we start to look at magic....

R - Wow!

H - Yes, quite, wow. Next week, we’ll have an around the table discussion with a magician, Dharmaruci, a long time friends of yours Rex, is that correct?

R - It is. I’ve known Dharmaruci for about thirteen years, and we’ve been on various expeditions together - both physically, to the shamans of the Peruvian jungles, and metaphysically, to various altered states of consciousness. 

H - And he is a magician?

R - Yes. Definitely!

H - I look forward to it. In preparation for this, I want to begin our exploration of magical philosophies by looking at the medieval and Renaissance magic tradition – since this is precisely the tradition that our comic's magician, John Barleycorn, comes out of.  
Before we can talk about “magic,” however, we must decide what it is we mean by the term – and that's not an easy thing to do.  The Oxford Dictionary defines magic as the “supposed art of influencing the course of events by occult control of nature or spirits; witchcraft; conjuring tricks; inexplicable or remarkable influence.” The French magician Eliphas Levi, in The History of Magic, says that magic is “that which it is, drawing on itself only, even as mathematics do, for it is the exact and absolute science of Nature and her laws.” In Magic and Mysticism, esoteric historian Arthur Versluis points out how difficult it is to differentiate magic from mysticism: “Many magicians seem rather mystical in inclination; and conversely, some mystics seem rather close to magic in what they espouse and claim.”  

There is no single, clear-cut definition of magic because it has so many facets. Shrouded in mystery, it is connected to charlatanism, religion, politics, science, and even art. It asks questions about the deepest levels of the human experience: the nature of and reasons for existence, the nature of life and of death; and in so doing, it taps into primeval fears and desires.  For the purposes of this post, however, I will define magic as this: the manipulation of occult, hidden connections at a foundational level of being in order to bring about changes in the material realm, including changes within the body or psyche of the magician.
The foundations of Western magical thought lay in the Platonic philosophies and mystery schools of the ancient world -- beliefs which were carried forward, in revised form, with the Christianization of the Roman Empire, and the subsequent collapse of the Holy Roman Empire. The philosophies that would go on to play a decisive role in Renaissance magic were carried through the Middle Ages in various strands: In Persia, the magical tradition was kept alive by Moslem scholars, alchemists, and astrologers. In Moorish Spain, the Jewish Cabala was advanced; in the Byzantium empire, Hermetic and Platonic magical texts, forgotten in the West, were still to be found in monasteries and libraries. In Europe, these strands of magic can be broken into two broad types: ‘Folk’ and ‘Scholarly’ (with the magician and alchemist Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535 c.e.) joining the two in the early Renaissance).  In this post, I am going to concentrate on Scholarly magic, because that's the tradition John Barleycorn comes out of, rather than on the herblore, charms, prayers, and beliefs of the Folk tradition (interesting as they, too, may be).
The foundations of Scholarly magic are found in pagan Platonic and Neoplatonic views on the nature of reality – which, in simplified form, suggest that there is a One, beyond definition, which emanates through a series of levels (or worlds), eventually giving rise to the material world which humans inhabit. The power of the One, manifesting as different archetypical energies, is transferred through each of the levels: the Super-celestial, the realm of ideas, beyond the stars; the Celestial, the metaphysical correspondences of the stars and planets; and the Material. Because each level gives rise to the level below it, there is an occult connection between all parts of creation. The archetypal energy of Love, for example, may have a correspondence in the material world with a rose, through the influence of Venus. The working mechanisms that oversee the interchanges between the levels are daimons, spirits that act as intermediaries. 
Much pagan philosophy was lost by the Middle Ages, but smatterings of it were purloined by the early Church Fathers to act as a basis for Christian theology. In this way, some pagan thought was incorporated into Christian studies. It is not surprising then, that we find “magic” appearing in the writings of certain monks throughout the Middle Ages. The Church, of course, had long promoted what to all intents and purposes was magic: the miracles of Christ, the Apostles, and the early Saints, but a distinction was drawn between the work of God, and the work of the devil. The dividing line between the two, however, was not always clear, and monks like Albertus Magnus (1200-1280 c.e.) and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 c.e.) would claim that their own beliefs and practices were legitimate because they practiced only natural magic -- that is, working with the occult properties of the natural world -- as opposed to magic which relied on the agency of demons. 
Reactions to magic throughout history has been split between those who believe in its efficacy, and those who do not. Those who believe are further split into those who see all magic as dangerous, and those who accept certain types of magic as legitimate. The Middle Ages were no exception to this, and debate about acceptable and unacceptable practices raged within the church throughout the period. Demonic magic, however, was almost universally condemned. 
In the early Middle Ages, St. Augustine (354 – 430 c.e.) wrote The City of God, in which he created a hierarchy of angelic beings -- and in so doing, effectively turned all pagan daimons into demons. In her interesting book The Art of Memory, Frances Yates gives a good account of how these demons were turned into caricatures and used as preaching tools in the later medieval church. Thus popular images of demons, perhaps fueled by the ravages of plagues and famine, became almost cartoon-like at the time. This is an example of what I see as general trend in medieval magic: that its beliefs and practices gradually became two-dimensional, ‘black and white,’ and superstitious. Astrology, for example, lost many of its original ideas about the occult channels of energy via the metaphorical stars and became more about the stars controlling the Fate and Destiny of man. As often happens when dogma becomes rigid, the metaphorical ideas behind it are lost. Symbols loose their nuanced, layered meanings, turning into flat images. This was to change quite radically in the Renaissance. 
At that time, Europe was undergoing the humanist revolution, and was opening up to new ideas. In magical thought, ideas from the Islamic East re-introduced strands of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy to the West; while mystical systems of Cabala, which were evolving among Jewish sects in Spain, influenced Italian culture when Jews expelled from Spain in the fourteenth century settled in Italy. Likewise, refuges from the Byzantium Eastern Church fled to Italy during the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, bringing with them “lost” texts that were to have a profound impact on magical thinking. 

The most influential of these magical texts was undoubtedly the Corpus Hermeticum. The Corpus is a collection of writings from around the second century, c.e. -- although throughout the Renaissance, it was mistakenly attributed to Hermes Trismegistus and thought to be contemporaneous with Moses. Widespread belief in a former Golden Age (from which mankind had fallen) meant that the Corpus was accorded great esteem -- because the older a religious text was believed to be, the more wisdom it was thought to contain.
Marsilio Ficino (1443-1499 c.e.) translated the Corpus in 1463. The underlying Hermetic philosophy within it made magical thinking more theologically acceptable, and in this we see a clear distinction between medieval and Renaissance magic. There were, of course, backlashes within the church against magical practices, and the Inquisition was gaining ground, but Hermetic philosophy was now used to justify a certain type of magical practice within Christianity -- and this, in turn, resulted in a greater experimentation and philosophizing on the nature of magic. Some of the calcification that had happened to magical practices in the Middle Ages was now broken down. Ficino, for example, reinvigorated ideas about the occult influences of the planets, rehabilitating astrology from the superstitious medieval concept that the planets decided the destiny of those on earth. Imagination, an important part of magical practice, was freed by the new ideas, and was now used in guise of the Hermetic mens as the connecting point between mankind and the realm of Plato's Ideals. The God of the Middle Ages, separate from man in his Heaven, was now immanent in Nature. 
 In The Art of Memory, Frances Yates states clearly the importance of the imagination:
"We come back here to that basic difference between Middle Ages and Renaissance, the change in the attitude to the imagination. From a lower power which may be used in memory as a concession to weak men who may use corporeal similitudes because only so he can retain his spiritual intentions towards the intelligible world, it has become man’s highest power, by means of which he can grasp the intelligible world beyond appearances through laying hold of significant images."
Perhaps the greatest philosophical distinction between medieval and Renaissance thought is given voice by Pico della Mirandola (1463-494 c.e.). In his famous Oration on the Dignity of Man, written in 1486, Pico exclaims, “What a great miracle is Man, O Asclepius, a being worthy of reverence and honour.” Ficino had placed mankind in an exulted position on the ladder of the hierarchy of being, but Pico freed man from the ladder entirely. Man could either become divine or be like a beast. In terms of Christian theology, this was absolutely revolutionary. Man was no longer subject to Nature, Fate, or God. He could now act upon creation, as a god. Pico’s Oration was, of course, condemned by the church; but the spread of its ideas gave permission for man to investigate, and led to new types of magical thought.
Giordano Bruno (1548-1600 c.e.), who joined the Dominican order in Naples in 1565, was certainly a man who investigated. He was accused in 1576 of having studied prohibited books, and subsequently left the Dominicans. Through these, and his subsequent studies, he came to understand the power of symbol and image. In our own image saturated world, we’re aware of the power of image to move and effect the mind; the political propaganda posters of Stalin and Hitler are good examples of how powerfully images can be manipulated. Modern politics, too, is obsessed with image, and advertising industries spend vast sums of money using image to brand companies.  Image and symbols are, without doubt, powerful tools in the manipulation of mankind's psyche. Hundreds of years ago, Bruno understood this, and he used this understanding to develop a complex system of 'memory magic' which  pulled together several strands of magical thinking (including pagan symbolism and astrology) into an 'art of memory' that still influences esoteric philosophies and practices to this day. But that is a whole essay in itself, and we'll save it for another post.... 
To conclude today: Many of the ideas on which medieval magic was based can still be found in Renaissance magic, though often in a more refined form. The occult influence of the stars and planets, the system of angels and demons, and the use of symbols as conduits for astral influence were present in both periods; but the discovery of the Corpus Hermeticum at the beginning of the Renaissance changed the underlying philosophy, and thus practice, of magic in a deeply fundamental way. The imagination was released, as if a creative movement, a mixing, was suddenly allowed.  Renaissance magicians built upon medieval beliefs to create exciting new forms and philosophies of magic . . . which in turn created fertile ground for many modern strands of thought in psychology, magic, science and the arts. 


  1. Thank you once again for your comments, we love receiving feedback. It is actually helping us to shape the characters. Just as we have learned that Reeve is more sartorially eloquent than we had imagined, now we are considering giving Vali a larger role than we had initially intended. Keep those comments coming!

  2. With a topic like this, I'll be glued to the refresh button on Monday. Very much looking forward to another great round-the-table discussion. :)

  3. "Ficino had placed mankind in an exulted position on the ladder of the hierarchy of being, but Pico freed man from the ladder entirely...this was absolutely revolutionary. Man was no longer subject to Nature, Fate, or God. He could now act upon creation, as a god."

    This attitude prevailed through the 'enlightenment' and into the modern scientific age, and often not for the best, I think. The belief that 'mankind' (for a long time specifically 'man') was above and apart from the rest of creation, and therefore not affected by (or accountable for) changes we caused within it, is how we come to be in the current environmental crisis. That's why the 'Scholarly' type of magic never appealed to me, a feeling of arrogance within it...it seemed extremely hierarchical, dogmatic, domineering (commanding spirits etc, rather than asking nicely!), and most definitely a patriarchal all-boys club pretty much like the church was at the time...men wearing fancy robes and gold chains, wielding power and generally being pompous! Whereas the 'folk' type was always much more interesting to me, seeming more embedded within nature and more egalitarian (more, well...'Green'!), and was probably looked down upon at the time because it was something women traditionally did. Having said all that, I've never formally studied any of this, just read a lot of odd stuff in my time, so maybe I've just developed peculiar stereotyped ideas about it all! ;-)

    So the reason I like Vali so much is because he seems 'folky'... earthy and real, shaman rather than magician, tattooed skin, bare feet and dirt under his fingernails. I like the fact that he is the Chariot, though I think more in terms of a cart than a war chariot...a gypsy, a traveller, who journeys far and brings back stories and knowledge from mystical places. Funny, you've only mentioned him twice I think, and already I've got a fully formed idea of him in my head...which is probably entirely different to how he really is!

    Ok, that's this week's novel done!

  4. Okay, you guys are blowing my mind now. This is a very interesting post (not only post but the comments in response), and not what one usually expects to find on a comics blog. But I'm learning to expect the unexpected here. An interview a real magician next?! Fantastic.

    The whole John Barleycorn project just keeps getting richer, deeper, stranger, more compelling, more addictive. I CANNOT WAIT to reach the part of the story where we finally meet this magician.

    It makes sense to me that a magician sleuth would be a cerebral kind of guy and come out of the more cerebral Scholarly strand of magic traditions you describe. Yet in Vali (and the tribal-seeming world he comes out) you have a contrasting Folk magic character. An interesting dynamic, for sure.

    Please keep those pages coming, gentlemen!

    - Jon (in LA)

  5. Great review of the influence of medieval and Renaissance traditions on magic! Also a treat to see my favourite Wyatt image.
    Thanks, Howard and Rex

  6. I just started reading this blog and I am intrigued since I'm also learning more about Kabala because I read the ' Promethea' graphic novel series...I don't enough to contribute much yet but I love the progress and discussion. Thank you!

  7. Hello. I looked through this blog because I am looking for the image, an engraving I think, of a shepherd whose head has broken through the vault of the stars and he is staring dumbfounded at the forces behind, represented by mystical mathematical figures. If you know of a link please send to zenboychik@earthlink.net