A History of Magic - notes, part 2
Rome and the East
When you think of Ancient Greece and Rome, you probably think of things like philosophy, logic, reason, and democracy. By the second century CE, people were feeling that these virtues, while great achievements, were not fulfilling them as humans. There was a spiritual boom - maybe not unlike what we’re seeing today in the 20th and 21st centuries - with people taking an interest in magic and mysticism.
When Alexander the Great conquered so many different civilizations, they eventually started to mesh together. Roman and Greek ideas mingled with Babylonian, Jewish, Persian, and others. This increased the people’s yearning for something more.
The word “magic” always had a sort of othering effect. Religious and traditional practices were not considered “magic,” and still often are not, according to the practitioners. For example, I can name a religious group that meets regularly to symbolically eat their god who rose from the dead to save them. That’s Catholics. What makes it different from magic? Just the fact that it’s a commonly accepted religious practice. The term “magic” has come to encompass a lot more than it used to, but we can see how it’s still got a certain connotation.
A distinction is made between "high magic" and "low magic." High magic is about transcending the material world and interacting with the spiritual realm. Low magic is about getting things to go your way here on Earth.
Pliny (it isn't stated if they mean the Elder or the Younger, but my guess would be the Younger based on the years) called magic "the most fraudulent of arts," but Pythagoras was totally on board. You probably know that name from middle/high school, since he's credited with the Pythagorean Theorem, a formula to figure out the dimensions of right triangles. Who knew math was magical? Mathematicians, I guess.
Anyway, my boy Pythagoras is pretty much the most famous magician from Ancient Greece. He practiced "high magic," as defined above. He founded a secret society that would allow men and women (!!!) who could pass the tests and adhere to a life of vegetarianism, silence, purity, and self-examination. They had to put the left shoe on before the right shoe. That doesn't seem important, but it's funny. I always do it the other way. Maybe I should switch?
Pythagoras, whose students never called him by name opting instead for "the divine one" or "himself," believed that understanding the universe was the key to salvation. He was positive that the secret to understanding the universe was with numbers, so he and his group were responsible for a lot of the formation of numerology in the west.
Pythagoras was apparently good at many magical things, and I highly encourage you to look him up and see all of his crazy achievements, but I need you to know this: he made an ox stop eating beans. I didn't even know oxen ate beans, but this one didn't anymore.
That's about all there is to say about my mathematician friend for now, so we'll wrap this post up here. Next time we'll get into a couple other old Greek dudes. I bet they put their shoes on wrong.