On science, magic and so on Part 2

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When you live in such a frightening world and the stories that help you understand that world are filled with demons, ghosts, vampires and witches, all of whom have the ability to do you harm, it is not surprising if you are more than a little suspicious of anyone who might be linked to these frightening creatures.

Scholars suggest that all these factors played into the witch trials which occurred from the 14th through the 17th centuries. The witch trials of this period were well documented and followed generally agreed upon procedures and standards of evidence, even if they were rather strange by today’s standards.

In most cases the offender was a woman. She was frequently a widow whose husband had been killed in one of the many wars that rolled across parts of Europe. She lived on the edge of town where she tended a garden to provide for her physical needs. Often, she had special skills that were of use to the community. She might prepare herbal remedies or be a midwife. It was not uncommon for her to be familiar with the practices associated with the ancient religion of the region and employ that knowledge in her work.

When all was going well, she might be considered an eccentric but useful member of the community; valued by some and merely tolerated by others. However, if bad fortune hit the community and a scapegoat was needed, she was the first person accused of witchcraft. She dealt with materials and skills that few people understood, so she was an easy target. If it could be shown that she dabbled in pagan religious practices, church authorities had a basis for accusing her of heresy along with witchcraft. As a widow, she often lacked a strong social support network to protect her from accusers, so she was easy pickings for the witch hunters.

When one religious tradition moves into the territory of another religious tradition it is common to see the spirits of the indigenous culture being transformed into versions of the invading culture’s pantheon. So, when Rome took over a nation it would allow the people to keep the names of their traditional deities but overlay them with the Roman gods. The Greek Zeus became the Roman Jupiter and Aphrodite became Venus. When Christianity became the dominant religious tradition in Europe ancient pagan deities became Catholic saints. For example, the Celtic goddess Bridget became Saint Bridget, and so on for many other saints of the era. In this way, many ancient pagan elements were “baptized” and given a Christian meaning. 

We see this same process occurring in a negative way as well. Trickster spirits in the pagan tradition, such as Loki, were transformed into demons from the Christian perspective. So, when indigenous practitioners of magic incorporated pagan ideas into their practices, it was common to accuse them of consorting with demons.

The available evidence suggests that about 20,000 people, mostly women, were executed during the Middle Ages, having been accused of witchcraft. Though some scholars argue that the number is closer to 100, 000.

Scholars argue that much of contemporary science has its roots in the ancient magical traditions of many cultures, as the practical magic that was used for healing was based on careful observation of nature and insight from that observation used in home remedies. While viewed as part of the magical tradition of the culture, it was an early form of medicine and chemistry. The scientific method is one of observing nature, experimentation and learning what works through trial and error, which is essentially what the traditional shaman did.

This practice is not uncommon in the islands. When I arrived on Saipan back in the late 70’s to work at the CJPA, I developed a foot infection that would not go away. I tried over the counter remedies and even a few prescriptions from Dr. Torres Hospital with no success. Eventually, I sought help from a Carolinian suruhanu who gave me a small bottle of oil with some herbs mixed in. Within a week or so of using the oil the infection cleared up! 

In the minds of many people magic and religion tend to overlap. Yet, there are important differences that separate them from one another.

Religion deals with our relationship with God and how we incorporate that relationship into our lives. Different religions may have different understandings of God but the day to day practice of that religion deals with relating our understanding of God to the details of our lives. Ultimately, religion is about relationship.

Magic is a form of technology. It is an attempt to apply our knowledge of the world to the details of our daily lives. The intention is to exercise control over our environment. Ultimately, it is an exercise in power.

For example, if someone is sick, they might pray to God for healing. This is an exercise in religion because the person is turning to God for help. The person acknowledges that he or she has no real control over the illness but seeks God’s help. The person is relying on his or her relationship with God. There is no guarantee of a healing, as God is a free agent and may have a different idea in mind then our desire for a healing.

An alternative option would be to go to the suruhanu for help. While the suruhanu may pray during the ritual or in preparing the appropriate potion, the means of bringing about the magical healing is through the ritual or potion.  The suruhanu is carrying out activities to take control of the situation, at least from the perspective of the culture in which he or she is operating. The methods being used have been used before many times with a reasonable degree of success. This second approach has more in common with science than with religion.

In my silver years, I have tried to become more of an athlete than I was in my youth.   I usually walk five or more miles most days. The exercise has been an important part of my efforts at improving my health. I mention this because as I walk, I hear voices telling me stories or playing music. Occasionally, I will see another walker carrying on a conversation with no visible person. If I get thirsty, I will stop at a Starbucks and a drink will be waiting for me to grab and go. When I drive home, I may stop at a pizza shop and grab a pizza in a similar manner. If I go to other stores, I will wave a “wand” over another object and pay for what I’m buying without ever touching money or even debit/credit cards. In recent months the possibility of buying a car that I don’t have to drive but will take me where ever I tell it to is becoming more and more of a reality.

None of this is magic, though it sounds a lot like magic. It is simply contemporary technology. The voices I hear are coming from my iPhone via wireless ear buds. The man walking down the street talking to no visible person is talking on his cell phone. The ability to grab and go coffee or pizza is the result of ordering on-line, again via my iPhone, which is also the “wand” I use to pay the cashier at shops that don’t have on-line ordering. Of course, the driverless vehicles are showing up more and more on city streets, though they are still quite expensive.

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