Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Science vs mageía: The Greeks' polemic view

710 ἔθελγέ μ᾽:  he bewitched me

Before we discuss the nature of charm in The Women of Trachis, let's take another quick look at how Sophocles quietly makes us aware that the heroic career of Heracles begins and ends with Centaurs. Chiron stands at the beginning, the divinely wise master of the greatest Greek heroes. Nessus, after bewitching Deianira, sends Heracles a "gift" that ends his labors, and his earthly life.

What's worth noting is the symmetry: these two centaurs are positioned like bookends at either end of the hero's life. One brings enlightenment, skills, the powers of the mind and body, medicine; the other brings delusion, error, and death.

Deianira links the two in her momentous epiphany. Nessus, she says,
bewitched me in order to destroy the man who had shot him. And now too late I gain the knowledge of this, when it can no longer help. Yes, I alone—unless my outlook prove mistaken—I, miserable one, shall completely destroy him! For I know that the arrow which made the wound harmed [715] even the god Cheiron, and that it kills all varieties of beasts that it touches. Since it is this same black venom in the blood that has passed out through the wound of Nessus, must it not kill Heracles also?
Deianira is beginning to work out, to reason about, what has happened. She is no longer in thrall to the dark power of the charm.

Today we are confident that if we mix vinegar and baking soda, we can make a bottle rocket. It's a recipe or formula that produces a predictable result so long as the materials are combined in the prescribed manner.

The ancient world was suffused in charms that had designs upon people. I recently came across a collection of ancient Mesopotamian charms which in fact were counter-charms. They were used to ward off, or neutralize, the work of other people's charms.

Here's a sample counter-charm from Babylonia taken from a scholarly collection at the Universitat Wurzburg:
[If a m]an is constantly frightened (and restless) on his (sick)bedhealways suffers from [depres]sion4he has [ver]tigo (and) his feet cause him a stinging pain5figurines of that man have been buried in the tomb of a dead person6[In the mornin]g you purify the claypitYou take clay from the clay pit7You make [two figur]ines.[For the] male [figurine]8[You take] a bronze ring [an]d you press(it) on [his] wais[t]9[... of ced]ar wo[od ...] you press (it) on her[wa]ist10You have them stand [...] ... [...]11[...]you libate beer.12[...] ... [
While this practice made for an elaborate system in the Middle East, it was not received without skepticism by the Greeks, according to the authors of the Wurzburg site:
from the very beginning, mageía is not a word that objectively refers to ancient Near Eastern practices, but a term that carries a value judgment prompted by Greek perceptions of the Middle East. Therefore, the origins of ‘magic’ may well be regarded as an early example of ‘Orientalism’, and, characteristically, a blend of fascination, contempt and misunderstanding has accompanied the concept of magic ever since its inception.

Indeed, the authors go on:
Early on Greek authors used the term mágos, a direct loan from Old Persian maguš, not only as a designation for Iranian experts in religious matters, but also as a pejorative term for ritualists whose practices, in the author’s view, lack piety. Derived from mágos, the term mageía soon ubiquitously carried the same polemical connotation. Usually it served as a derogatory label for ritualistic activities that are, by using this designation, characterized as obscure, irrational and impious. Ultimately, in this line of argument, mageía is a powerful deception performed by shrewd practitioners on their immature, credulous victims.
This is not to say the Greeks didn't enjoy elaborate narratives involving magic. But if we think of a character like Circe in the Odyssey, we find a localized "shrewd practitioner" whose powers are not unlimited, and in fact are thwarted by Odysseus with the help of a counter-charm Homer calls moly. For the Greeks, the world was shaped less by rote charms and more by relations between humans and the gods.

One can almost feel the Greek contempt for the roteness of magic formulae. To succeed, a charm does not depend upon anything other than the proper repetition of a series of actions. One need not know chemistry or science, one simply (mindlessly) follows a set of instructions, with the idea that a certain result is guaranteed.

We might suggest a basic distinction here between a charm and a scientific experiment. If one is applying knowledge of materials, of chemical properties, to discover new facts about the world, and follows a set of procedures to that end, this is cognitive: one learns something about the properties of materials and about the world.

But if one simply follows instructions that purport to convey power, or perform some act, there is no burden of inquiry, no yield of discovery. Rather, there's mere repetition of a set of actions. If the actions are properly executed, they produce an effect - somehow. A charm is a technique -- a power that can be accessed by anyone who can access designated materials and follow a set of scripted actions. It's dark technology, causation divorced from any understanding of its nature.

The only thing is, from the standpoint of an outside observer, it might be difficult to tell whether someone is working a charm or performing a scientific experiment -- they share a good deal of external attributes, even as the thinking and intent behind them can be entirely distinct. These happen to be the alternatives embodied in our two Centaurs: Chiron the wise teacher of science and medicine, and Nessus, persuasive Hydra-bile salesman.

The next post will look at a few more aspects of the charm motif in The Women of Trachis.

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