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Sam showing us he's a pyromaniac at heart... 
 
It's called Supernatural, so of course magic is everywhere, even quotidian one might say, the highways and byways of America full of pointy-capped Gandalfs spreading joy and expensive special effects. Forgive me being painfully and uncomically glib, but I've rewritten this intro at least 79 times so let's get right to the heart of this essay: is there magic in Supernatural, and if so – it is indeed so, Number One, duh – how is it both defined and presented?

Every society throughout history has cultivated over time its own, perennially shifting, definition of what constitutes magic, and America, that bastard offspring of millennia-old European, Near Eastern, African and native (and various other infusions along the way) traditions, has its own as well. But if I may be permitted to generalize the show's mise-en-scène, I'd like to quote from the introduction of Witchcraft and Magic In Europe: The Middle Ages:

This tripartite approach [of this book] is in some ways like eating an artichoke, by stripping the  outer layers of the modern constructs to expose the inner medieval, predominantly Christian, concepts arising out of the heart of the matter, magical practices themselves.

 
Oh, don't scoff, it'll all make sense in the end. And if not, I only wasted a few minutes of your life.

The core of those medieval, predominantly Christian concepts of magic, let's begin there. The first step is differentiating between "high" and "low" magic. The former is a theoretical system to affect the universe, and requires both knowledge of proper ritual and a purity that often took the form of avoiding certain foods or, even worse, sexual activity. Yes, that goes even for us potential Manwitches. Dammit. Anyway, the latter can thus be considered practical or applied, a magic that doesn't require intense, hermetic study in order to effect change.

The question before us is, does this generalization apply to Supernatural? Tune in next paragraph (and subsequent ones) for the exciting conclusion!

High as a Kite

When most of us think of magic, at least those of us well versed in geekdom, we immediately conjure vistas of flash n' dash, Tolkien-esque high fantasy and its creative predecessors and antecedents such as the witch of Endor, Merlin, Elric, Mordenkainen, Bigby’s Interposing Hand, the students of Hogwarts, and so on and so forth. Despite the occasional bits of bombast and rockets' red glare, Supernatural is generally devoid of lightning bolt legerdemain. There are however hints, and the occasional glimpse, into this world of ritual theory.

The, er, high point of high magic commenced with the "rediscovery" of ancient texts during the Renaissance, the most important of which were Greek and Arabic magical treatises carried to the West in the aftermath of the Byzantine Empire's collapse and ultimate defeat by the Ottomans. Coupled with a renewed emphasis on Roman law – even the pre-Christian installment of the empire publicly frowned upon private consumption of such practices – one better understands the proliferation of witch hunts and the works that fueled them: Jean Bodin’s De la demonomanie des sorciers, George Gifford’s Dialogue Concerning Witches and Witchcraftes, and, most famous of all among the hundreds of works, Heinrich Kramer and Johann Sprenger’s Malleus Maleficarum.
In short, sorcery, necromancy and affiliated blasphemies were treated not merely as an affront to god, but to the law itself -- and it’s no wonder that one could proclaim the early modern era as an age of wizardry. The kicker is that the most celebrated dabblers were those seeking not the devil, but a way to the divine, men such as Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, Giordano Bruno and a man whose work is best known to fans of the show, John Dee.

Who, you say? Where do you think "Old Enochian" came from?

In time, polemics against witch hunting began appearing, such as the De praestigiis daemonum of Agrippa student Johann Weyer, a work which, according to William E. Burns in Witch Hunts in Europe and America,
denounces ecclesiastical countermagic and exorcism rites involving sacramentals such as holy water. All countermagic was invalid as relying on material things rather than the power of faith.
This white magic vs. faith dialectic finds a modern-day parallel in superstition vs. science. In both eras, magic is found in the shadow, a world that Supernatural obviously calls home. However, the problem still remains: if high magic requires a purity, a devotional asceticism, and such accusations of demonic pacts were merely a power-hungry church throwing its ostentatious weight around, then does Supernatural even contain examples of such practice?

Of course it does, and even if it didn't, you know I'd simply make some up to prove my point. Just kidding. Ahem. The most obvious example is Ruby's never-attempted spell during Jus In Bello. Ostensibly a white hat at the time – for the sake of argument, let’s pretend as much – we can infer even from the lack of explicit detail that this magic would require a bit more than simply the heart of a virgin. If the end result, besides the hoped-for success, is the immolation of the caster, then some program of specific demands, trials, whatnot must have been met beforehand, although in the world of Supernatural, one can plausibly assume that whichever gender is the spellcaster, avoiding sex is probably not on the menu.

Dean Anti-Shrine...no seriously, look at the thing. This has bad mojo written all over it.

Comments  

elle2
# elle2 2010-08-13 21:14
Randal,

That was entertaining as well as enlightening! Until you start listing all the times that summonings and aspects of rituals (bones, altars, incantations, etc.) I'd forgotten how much magic is intertwined in Supernatural.

The suburbanite witches reminded me ever so slightly of the Charmed ones...living amongst the 'norm' with no one the wiser (perhaps they should have watched Charmed...never cast a spell with personal gain...bites the hand every time!)

Thank you for this entertaining look into the magical world of ... magic!
Jasminka
# Jasminka 2010-08-15 03:39
Randal, magic? Yes, magic! Thank you for this great account of the magic in Supernatural and its background.

As you know, I have an extensive library at home, but some books you mentioned I had a look at but would not dare to keep them at home. I come from a Balkan background and people there still believe in magic and black threats. So I grew up in that mode of thinking and am superstitious in some ways.

I do practice some rituals myself (that being said, I might still be a pagan at heart), like - the night you call Halloween, is believed to be a sacred night, not a night to party but to honour those who died, as the veil between the worlds is thin then. I always put some food on a plate on a table, as a ritual, with a prayer, in case the dead come to visit and are hungry. (I don't know, though, what I'd do, if I found an empty plate there in the morning :o)

There are more rituals I have grown up with, heard of. So the world of magic in its simplest form has always been familiar to me, but I needed to grow up and read about it to understand it.

I do believe there is more between heaven and earth, as Shakespeare said, and I have a lot of respect for that. I would never even dare to tackle it for an experiment - you will never hear me say the Mary-words to a mirror or take part in a séance.

Perhaps when we die, we will find out what it's all about. Perhaps not.

But, as you wonderfully showed in your article, it has been a topic, people have tried to wrap their minds around - and some of the books you mentioned should have never been written, in particular the Malleus Malleficarum. Don't get me started on how much damage that did -ah, you know that, brilliant mind that you are.

I better stop rambling. My migraine is better and here I am, babbling again... :-).
Cheers to you Randal for this awesome stuff! Jas
Randal
# Randal 2010-08-17 08:21
Thanks, gang!

elle2, there are tons of instances, more or less depending on how one defines magic. I do think from a storytelling standpoint, that the higher forms requiring a bit more work can be a useful plot element, but from a dramatic standpoint, the fact that *anyone* has access to this crazy stuff w/o knowledge and/or experience, can make for good TV.

Jas, just make sure that whatever food you put out for Santa Claus is spiked with arsenic. You don't want to end up a meal for any pagan gods. :D

My take on the here and now and the afterlife differs from yours, but in the end, that's almost a moot point. It's these cultural artifacts that enrich our lives. Would Macbeth be as groovy without the witches? The Odyssey without Circe? These are mirrors upon ourselves, and we need them.

Dany, well I thought about writing something psychological, but then Jas, after having cursed me for treading on her expertise, would diagnose me as certifiably nuts and have me locked away as further revenge. ;-)

To further your point, which I agree with, we would also have not-very-entert aining teevee. Asceticism is kinda boring to watch.
Karen
# Karen 2010-08-17 08:31
Hi Randal
Loved the article.
Looks like Supernatural has dabbled into both the High and Low world of magic.
I like the idea of the amulets, charms and the pouring of salt. I think I could even handle the drawing of the devils trap and the anti possession tattoo, but citing rituals or exorcising anyone, no way. Pronouncing any words over six letters or in another language, I would definitely be in trouble. Instead of sending a demon away I would probably translate it to an invite for dinner. Or end up summoning up a ferocious animal like Monty Python’s killer rabbit or a rabid chipmunk.
So I think I will stay away from any books on Witchcraft, the Dark Arts, even if they were called ‘Witchcraft for Dummy’s’ or ‘Black Magic for Beginners’?
I wonder if these old musty books came with a warning of any kind.
‘Only to be used by a professional’ , ‘Use at own risk’, ‘May cause greed, intensify the need for power or induce murderous tendencies’. :-?
Jasminka
# Jasminka 2010-08-17 10:49
Randal, dear, you are not afraid of me, are you? Should that worry or please me? :D
Don't worry, I never venture into dark magic... :shock:

abracadabra... Jas
Tim the Enchanter
# Tim the Enchanter 2010-08-17 12:27
I think it was Stephen King who once said something along the lines of when he was young his mother (or brother) told him that if he slept with his foot outside the bedcovers, a monster would grab a hold of it, drag him under the bed and eat him. Obviously, being a kid, he believed it. Now he’s older he KNOWS there’s no such thing as monsters under the bed but there’s no way he’ll ever sleep with his foot out, just in case, one night, a cold, slimy claw reaches out and grabs his ankle.....

That’s my attitude to magic. There are no monsters under my bed but my foot is staying in, just in case. The Bermuda Triangle, Stull Cemetery, King Tut’s Tomb etc; do I believe in these? There’s about 98% of my brain that says ‘Magic, monsters, curses; no way. Science has proven...’ However, then there’s the remaining 2% of my brain that’s saying ‘Tim, you sure about that...’ and that 2% is wicked persuasive. So despite all the science and physics etc I’m going to err on the side of caution. Let’s face it, being stuck on a boat over The Bermuda Triangle would be an awful bad time to realise you were wrong!

Today, words like magic and wonder are taboo. Fact and reason are the new religion. This religion is tangible, it can be handled and it sates our desire for superiority because we can now ‘explain’ everything. But let’s face it; it’s not too long ago we were burning witches at the stake and making sacrifices to Gods and this was considered the norm. These beliefs must have had some concrete foundations because let’s face it, you can’t fool all of the people all of the time!

That’s what I like so much about this article. It gives the ‘fact’ behind the magic and it satisfies my desire for curiosity. Thanks Randall!
Randal
# Randal 2010-08-18 10:36
Karen, just remember to pronounce Latin Cs as hard, not soft, and you'll be alright. :-)

Jas, my lips are zipped!

tim, dude, every time I see your name my mind is going to replay that scene. :D

I don't buy magic whatsoever; I'm firmly in the Scully camp when it comes to this stuff, but I think as stories, as myth, as a reflection of our humanity, such tales and conceits have an important purpose.

To pick the most vital example, love can be boiled down to a complex series of chemical reactions. Doesn't mean poetry doesn't have its place or that a kiss from a loved one doesn't move us. I think therein lies the magic, the abstract space that bubbles up from our unconscious mind. It doesn't matter what enzymes are interacting, as long as the sentiment is 'tangible.'
Ardeospina
# Ardeospina 2010-08-26 16:31
That was fun and very informative, Randal. I had never stopped to think about how accessible magic, and some extremely powerful magic at that, is in the Supernatural world. Rank amateurs can cause just as much trouble as the demons and witches and people who actually know what they're doing.