Magic & Pandemics

May 28, 2021

‘Spiritual medicine is more potent than physical medicine, though the two should always be combined to ensure the best health outcome’

Humans often appear to react irrationally in the face of disease, as the COVID-19 pandemic has shown. Many cling to religion or become superstitious. Others become fatalistic. In times of plague and trauma, we moderns seek to protect ourselves with prayers, charms, sigils and spells as much as any medieval peasant. That a surgical mask is hygienic doesn’t make it any less of a magical symbol.

But perhaps magic – particularly plague magic – isn’t so irrational. Have humans always pursued the occult arts because they actually work, at least sometimes?

Despite the often blood-soaked history of the use of the term ‘magic’, we must remember that Western history is filled with thinkers who have defended its honour as good natural science – a tried-and-true technology for harnessing interactions between minds and bodies, human and otherwise. And their empirical claims were never tested more than during the centuries of plague.

During the previous millennium, the biggest boom in the practice of magic coincided with the Black Death in the mid-14th century. It was the deadliest pandemic in human history, killing as much as half the population of Asia, Africa and Europe – around 200 million souls. It caused major social and political transformations in the process: slaves, raiders and mystics became kings, and new empires were founded on predictions of the end of time. Plague isn’t merely a medieval curse, either; the bacterium responsible, Yersinia pestis, is very much still with us, genetically unchanged.

The Islamic world, my own area of focus as a historian of science and empire, was hit particularly hard by the plague – termed ta‘un in Arabic, meaning ‘smiter’. There, it helped give rise to what I call the ‘occult-scientific revolution’, where various occult sciences – astrology, alchemy, kabbalah, geomancy, dream interpretation – became an important basis for empire more than ever before.

The ability to predict the future with divination, then change it with magic, was of obvious political, military and economic interest, and associated with Alexander the Great in particular. Western Europe saw a parallel upsurge of occultism – much of it from Arabic sources – which we now call the Renaissance. The scientific revolution that followed continued the same trend: historians now admit that saints of science such as Johannes Kepler, Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton were likewise raving occultists.

Medicine, too, was often classified and practised as an occult science among premodern Muslim, Jewish and Christian physicians. Many considered it alchemy’s sister, both sciences being predicated on the harnessing of cosmic correspondences and natural sympathies to restore elemental equilibrium in the human body – the definition of health. Techniques for life-extension were also central to the alchemical quest. The sweeping physical and sociopolitical imbalances wrought by plague were accordingly answered by an upsurge in medicine, occult and otherwise.

The Ottoman empire is a prime example of just such a sociobiological transformation. It controlled increasingly large areas of Asia, Europe and North Africa between the 14th and 20th centuries, and plague persisted there for its entire duration. In the name of public health, the Ottoman state sought to purge cities of both physical and moral contaminants, including prostitutes, beggars, illegal immigrants, criminals, bachelors and bachelorettes.

While we haven’t gone so far as to outlaw bachelorhood, the effect of our own pandemic is comparable: 2020 and 2021 saw a ramping up of state control, too. Not unlike their modern counterparts in epidemiology and public health, the authors of the most important Ottoman plague treatises were leading scholars striving to combat this existential threat to state and society. They presented plague as a social problem, a disease of the body politic, just as much as an environmental problem. Unlike those of today’s experts, however, their manuals were often emphatically magical.

Wherever the pandemic hit hardest and longest, the occult arts boomed – as a scientific response

The most sophisticated and extensive of these manuals was the Treatise on Healing Epidemic Diseases by Taşköprizade Ahmed (1495-1561). As an imperial judge in Bursa and then Istanbul, as well as a famed encyclopaedist, historian and astronomer, Taşköprizade’s approach to this topic was very much cutting edge. His Arabic masterwork deals with the full range of legal, ethical, religious and especially medical responses to plague current by the 16th century, with an emphasis on experimentally proven methods.

Taşköprizade first offers a strong argument in favour of rational responses to plague: obviously, one should avoid or flee plague-stricken areas if possible. Here, he counters earlier Arabic plague treatises that denied the contagiousness of the disease and contested the legal permissibility of fleeing it. He also condemns the fatalistic attitude of some of his contemporaries, singling out mystics for derision.

The correct procedure is to have faith in God – then protect yourself and others, preferably medically. Taşköprizade then categorises plague medicine as being either physical or spiritual. The first type includes standard pharmaceuticals derived from plants, animals or minerals; the second includes Quranic prayers and invocations of divine names, planets, angels or jinn by means of mathematical talismans.

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