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Black Magic

Black magic, also known as dark magic, has traditionally referred to the use of supernatural powers or magic for evil and selfish purposes,[1] specifically the seven magical arts prohibited by canon law, as expounded by Johannes Hartlieb in 1456.[2]

Black Magic


In 1597, King James VI and I published a treatise, Daemonologie, a philosophical dissertation describing contemporary necromancy and the historical relationships between the various methods of divination used in black magic. This book is believed to be one of the main sources used by William Shakespeare in the production of Macbeth.

The seven artes prohibitae or artes magicae, arts prohibited by canon law, as expounded by Johannes Hartlieb in 1456, their sevenfold partition reflecting that of the artes liberales and artes mechanicae, were:[2]

The division between the four "elemental" disciplines (viz., geomancy, hydromancy, aeromancy, pyromancy) is somewhat contrived. Chiromancy is the divination from a subject's palms as practiced by the Romani (at the time recently arrived in Europe), and scapulimancy is the divination from animal bones, in particular shoulder blades, as practiced in peasant superstition. Nigromancy contrasts with this as scholarly "high magic" derived from High Medieval grimoires such as the Picatrix or the Liber Rasielis.

Practitioners of necromancy or demonic magic in the late Middle Ages usually belonged to the educated elite, as the contents of most grimoires were written in Latin. Demonic magic was usually performed in groups surrounding a spiritual leader in possession of necromantic books. One such case in 1444, Inquisitor Gaspare Sighicelli took action against a group active in Bologna. Marco Mattei of Gesso and friar Jacopo of Viterbo confessed to taking part in magical practices.[4]

The art of geomancy was one of the more popular forms of magic that people practiced during the Renaissance period. Geomancy was a form of divination where a person would cast sand, stone, or dirt on the ground and read the shapes. The Geomantic figures would then tell them "anything" based on geomancy charts that were used to read from the shape.[5]

Like its counterpart white magic, the origins of black magic can be traced to the primitive, ritualistic worship of spirits as outlined in Robert M. Place's 2009 book, Magic and Alchemy.[11] Unlike white magic, in which Place sees parallels with primitive shamanistic efforts to achieve closeness with spiritual beings, the rituals that developed into modern black magic were designed to invoke those same spirits to produce beneficial outcomes for the practitioner. Place also provides a broad modern definition of both black and white magic, preferring instead to refer to them as "high magic" (white) and "low magic" (black) based primarily on intentions of the practitioner employing them. He acknowledges, though, that this broader definition (of "high" and "low") suffers from prejudices because good-intentioned folk magic may be considered "low" while ceremonial magic involving expensive or exclusive components may be considered by some as "high magic", regardless of intent.[12]

During the Renaissance, many magical practices and rituals were considered evil or irreligious and by extension, black magic in the broad sense. Witchcraft and non-mainstream esoteric study were prohibited and targeted by the Inquisition.[13] As a result, natural magic developed as a way for thinkers and intellectuals, like Marsilio Ficino, abbot Johannes Trithemius and Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, to advance esoteric and ritualistic study (though still often in secret) without significant persecution.[13]

While "natural magic" became popular among the educated and upper classes of the 16th and 17th century, ritualistic magic and folk magic remained subject to persecution. Twentieth-century writer Montague Summers generally rejects the definitions of "white" and "black" magic as "contradictory", though he highlights the extent to which magic in general, regardless of intent, was considered "black" and cites William Perkins posthumous 1608 instructions in that regard:

In particular, though, the term was most commonly reserved for those accused of invoking demons and other evil spirits, those hexing or cursing their neighbours, those using magic to destroy crops, and those capable of leaving their earthly bodies and travelling great distances in spirit (to which the Malleus Maleficarum "devotes one long and important chapter"), usually to engage in devil-worship. Summers also highlights the etymological development of the term nigromancer, in common use from 1200 to approximately 1500, (Latin: niger, black; Greek: μαντεία, divination), broadly "one skilled in the black arts".[14]

In a modern context, the line between white magic and black magic is somewhat clearer and most modern definitions focus on intent rather than practice.[11] There is also an extent to which many modern Wicca and witchcraft practitioners have sought to distance themselves from those intent on practising black magic. Those who seek to do harm or evil are less likely to be accepted into mainstream Wiccan circles or covens in an era where benevolent magic is increasingly associated with new-age beliefs and practices, and self-help spiritualism.[15]

The links and interaction between black magic and religion are many and varied. Beyond black magic's historical persecution by Christianity and its inquisitions, there are links between religious and black magic rituals. For example, 17th-century priest Étienne Guibourg is said to have performed a series of Black Mass rituals with alleged witch Catherine Monvoisin for Madame de Montespan.[16]

The influence of popular culture has allowed other practices to be drawn in under the broad banner of black magic, including the concept of Satanism. While the invocation of demons or spirits is an accepted part of black magic, this practice is distinct from the worship or deification of such spiritual beings.[15] The two are usually combined in medieval beliefs about witchcraft.

Those lines, though, continue to be blurred by the inclusion of spirit rituals from otherwise white magicians in compilations of work related to Satanism. John Dee's sixteenth century rituals, for example, were included in Anton LaVey's The Satanic Bible (1969) and so some of his practises, otherwise considered white magic, have since been associated with black magic. Dee's rituals themselves were designed to contact spirits in general and angels in particular, which he claimed to have been able to do with the assistance of colleague Edward Kelley. LaVey's Bible, however, is a "complete contradiction" of Dee's intentions but offers the same rituals as a means of contact with evil spirits and demons.[17] LaVey's Church of Satan "officially denies the efficacy of occult ritual"[17] but "affirms the subjective, psychological value of ritual practice",[17] drawing a clear distinction between.

Voodoo tradition makes its own distinction between black and white magic, with sorcerers like the Bokor known for using magic and rituals of both. But their penchant for magic associated with curses, poisons and zombies means they, and Voodoo in general, are regularly associated with black magic in particular.[19]

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