Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Magical and Folk Beliefs

Triple Hecate Stele from Constantinople, second-third century AD. London, British Museum. Hecate is the Great Goddess in her darker and more sinister aspects: the goddess of graveyards, crossroads and nocturnal conjurations. According to Plutarch, the Moon is the domain of both a chthonic and a uranian Hecate, meaning that the particular power which she represents exists in earth, moon and sky, the domains of the three Fates. Alternatively she can be seen as a goddess of the Moon alone, in the three phases originally ascribed to her: waxing, full and waning. In either case she reigns over maleficent forces, and it is as well to be on good terms with her.

The exoticism of the Oriental religions and the snob-appeal of the Imperial cult held little attraction for the conservative Italian peasantry. They lived, nevertheless, in a universe thronged with immaterial beings whose anger or favour must be considered at every turn. Superstition is the philosophy of the peasant, and magic his Mystery religion. Neither is to be despised, any more than his age-old wisdom of root and branch, wind and weather, seed-time and harvest. Folk beliefs and folk art often contain doctrines and symbols of an authentic kind, deriving from the primordial revelation to the race, and they often preserve ideas in all their purity long after 'fine' art has abandoned them to chase its own aesthetic chimeras. Fairy tales are one example of this (consider the tale of Sleeping Beauty, for instance, as a myth ofthe soul's descent and rebirth); geometrical art, with its spirals and swastikas, is another. Unfortunately for us, the materials of peasant art are usually organic and ephemeral (wood, cloth), in contrast to the official media of bronze and stone, so comparatively little of it has lasted from antiquity.

Middle-class artefacts, but ones which are informed by beliefs common to the folk as a whole: beliefs in witches, fairies and hobgoblins, in gnomes of the garden and ghosts of the dead. The strains of black and white magic intertwine, shading off into a kind of grey magic which, while not usually vicious in intent, still serves only the earthly interests of the operator. Some would see evidence here of what they call the Old Religion, of the god of the witches with whom we associate phallicism, sympathetic magic, spells and charms. Others would identify these Lares and Lemures with the Spirits of Place, with subterranean currents, dragon lines and the like. Both are right in their own way, for the folk have always known something of both realms: the sublunary spirits and the energies beneath the earth. The co-operation of both is necessary before the humblest weed can sprout, and without them both peasants and patricians would have long ceased to eat.

No comments: