Magic, Science, Inconsistency, and the Principle of Acceptable Variance

9781905297689I’m enjoying Jim Baker’s The Cunning Man’s Handbook, an exhaustive look at the practices of the cunning folk in England (and to some degree America) from 1550-1900, which I’m reading as research for the book I’m writing now (which has a cunning woman as a major character).

Baker’s text is full of (ie. basically, completely composed of) countless examples of what folk magic involved in different moments during modern English history, and it also has lots of interesting observations on how much of what neo-pagans claim as history is actually just “invented tradition” (in the sense that Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger discuss in The Invention of Tradition).

And, you know, you have to love a book where, right in the introduction, the author writes this:

So, gentle reader, if you are looking for the perky prose and cozy platitudes that characterise best-selling works on white witchcraft and kitchen magic, you are likely to be disappointed by the “dry” style of this book. If you find the historical assessments of Ronald Hutton and similar authors infuriating, you may expect to have that same reaction to what I have written. You have been cautioned! If, however, you are interested in the magical resources actually available to English-speaking folk magicians–the Cunning Folk–between 1550 and 1900, you may find the selections compiled here useful. You may even discover that my theories and conclusions about English folk magic as it was historically practiced are, if speculative, instructive. With these caveats in mind, we will now dig deeper into the activities of the Cunning Folk and their clients.

Baker doesn’t seem to actually believe in magic, which is probably a prerequisite to serious, intelligent research into the history of magical ideas: if you believe too much, you’re more likely to want things to be a certain way, and warp them to fit your preconceptions.

He’s also quite blunt about the 1970s “neopagan” revival: without being dismissive (he doesn’t seem to revile it as a horrible thing) he is pretty straightforward in explaining how this “revival” of folk magic and witchcraft wasn’t really any such thing: it was really more a co-opting, and one similar to the way “chemistry” co-opted all the cool, useful stuff from “alchemy” and then painted the latter as if it were absurd nonsense. (Alchemists were the folks who figured out how ti distill alcohol, how to make ink, and all kinds of other cool stuff we tend to think of as products of chemistry.) There’s also interesting stuff in at least one section–early on–dealing with late 19th and early 20th century folk magic in America, including both urban (New York City) and rural (often African-American) hoodoo workers, conjurors, and root doctors in the 1930s.

conjurewife(There’s a fascinating brief snapshot of the work of Rev. Harry M. Hyatt, who collected a lot of interviews with such folk on wax cylinder, and then compiled them into a multivolume account of this kind of folk magic, which is especially interesting since a lot of what black root doctors were doing in rural America is strikingly similar to what cunning folk in England were doing… and yet, the African-American version is often left out of accounts of cunning folk, says Baker. I can’t help but wonder whether Fritz Leiber didn’t read the Hyatt texts, or at least browser through them: there’s a good bit of stuff in the early part of his novel Conjure Wife about an anthropologist traveling the southern USA and interviewing various root doctors and swamp conjurors, and then discovering his wife has, compulsively and almost unconsciously, been practicing folk magic all her life…)

Anyway, Baker’s observation about numerology is interesting. He presents a few variations on the divination tool known as the Wheel of Fortune:

This one’s from page 104 of the Baker text.

… and notes that the accompanying charts and tables of numbers used in numerological calculations vary noticeably from version to version:

Comparing [different] versions of the wheel [of Fortune] raises an interesting problem in that, although the format is the same in each case, the signifying numbers differ betwee the versions–not enough to be very different, but inconsistent all the same. Living as we do in a scientific age, we expect strict continuity in numerical tables, with inconsistency denoting fatal errors. There can be only one accurate or authentic version of a formula, and only one which will function correctly. This was not necessarily true in the case of traditional magic. While avoiding error in any particular operation is vital, contradiction between sources was evidently not a concern.

He makes an analogy to the idea of “authentic recipes,” between which some degree of variation is expected or allowed, while still producing an acceptable final product.

We might call this the “principle of acceptable variance”, and it was a part of the world view of the Cunning Folk and their clientele. In many instances, there was no one correct version or method for effective divination or magical action, which may have been a hold-over from oral tradition where fixed texts have no existence. As with modern alternative medicine, effects [supposedly] could be achieved by a number of different approaches, rather than a single orthodox method or formula.

This also reminds me: I’ve noted a few parallels between Georgian London and modern Seoul–the eerie familiarity I feel reading about London in the 1720s-30s, and how it feels like Seoul in so many ways. The one I noticed recently was in the profusion of “medicinal” alcoholic drinks, and in folk magic being passed off as medicine, right down to the idea that certain types of people and certain types of meats do not match, or that some people are inherently “hotter” or “colder” and must eat carefully to match that. I know people who report positive effects from acupuncture, sure, but there are a lot of odder practices and ideas in hanyak (the Korean version of traditional Chinese medicine) that would not be out of place in The Cunning Man’s Handbook. (And, from online discussions, and experiences of past students, the effectiveness of actual “medicines” in this tradition aren’t so hot, either: I’ve known people who ended up in the hospital because of hanyak. I’ve been shown discussion boards full of accounts of patients dying because they pursued hanyak treatment in favor of “conventional medicine,” when practitioners claimed that hanyak could cure cancer. Uh, no. No, it can’t.)

And of course, this extends to folk beliefs in general, such as the dozens of different foods and drinks that supposedly help men with their (seemingly always-imperiled?) virility. Sometimes, the theory has a logical component: “long” foods like eel are good for a man’s virility, for example:

The theory is transparent: long foods, like eels, are good for your virility. (Photo by Jinho Jung. Click for source.)
The theory is transparently based on a notion of sympathetic magic, of course: “long” foods, like the eels, are good for your virility. (Photo by Jinho Jung. Click for source.)

… but so are things like dog soup and raspberry liquor, so it’s not always a straightforward like-induces-like, at least. People are quite tolerant of the idea that there are plenty of “valid” pseudomagical ways to ensure one’s virility… though, of course, there’s a good measure of irony mixed into these claims much of the time now (at least, when such claims are made in the company of non-Koreans like me); and not-coincidentally, some of the foods involved (like dog soup and roasted eel) are also more expensive, so a laughing justification probably plays a few different roles at once.

Baker notes that in England, the tolerance for inconsistency in systems and knowledge was culture-wide, too: people were likely to assume that some random (and relatively ineffective) folk remedy would serve just as well as a newly-discovered remedy to a condition (for example, citrus juice as a way of fending off scurvy) because people “were accustomed to accepting that any familiar remedy–or method–was as likely to be as good as any other.” However, in the real world, real consequences ensued: folk-remedies really were less effective than lemon juice, and eventually citrus  (or pine needle tea) won out. (Notably, for a while, beer was also believed, mistakenly, to be antiscorbutic–Henry Thrale sought to make a concentrated form of beer wort available to the navy for this purpose, as Peter Mathias tells us.) But in the world of magic, variances didn’t matter as much anyway… except, our aesthetic has changed, as a result of the Enlightenment: even people who literally believe in magic today are slightly troubled to the kind of variations that once were taken absolutely for granted as “acceptable variance” in occult practices and texts. The unregulated, inconsistent self-contradictions of magical practice in 1550, or 1730, or 1870, is troubling to someone whose world is so fundamentally framed by concepts like scientific repeatability, precision measurements, and so on.

"East side of stela C, Quirigua" by Maudslay - Cyrus Thomas (1904) Mayan calendar Systems II. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Click for source.
“East side of stela C, Quirigua” by Maudslay – Cyrus Thomas (1904) Mayan calendar Systems II. Click for source.

As a result, Baker explains, one finds in modern folk magic–astrology and divination and the like–that there is sometimes an effort to uncover some ancient, ultimate “original” list of propitious and unpropitious days… as if such a thing ever existed. (None ever did, of course: even if you find the oldest ones on record, they contradict one another.) The ancient Mayan calendar that so many silly people thought predicted the end of the world a couple of years back is another example, and I suppose it signals that we still haven’t truly, culturally, concluded the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns--the cultural dispute of whether all our new insights and learning really outdo what the ancients discovered and set down as truth.

What’s interesting is how this has affected fantasy: the appeal of the whole “rules of magic” conception of magical systems, or for example, in RPG systems, the concept of spells having specific somatic, verbal, and material components. (This was, at least, a major issue in first edition AD&D, as far as I remember; I think in 2nd edition some changes were introduced, including allowing substitute components to be used, sometimes in exchange for spell effectiveness.) The idea of magical spells being homogenous, logically-explicable procedures for harnessing some specific paraphysical force in the universe–the combination of the right sequence of words, gestures, and consumable spell components leading to a predictable effect–is a very scientific sort of conception of magic, one very compatible with, for example, learning to build electronic circuits. (The supernatural equivalent of arduino board hacking, for example.)

It also helps explain the interest in alchemy–including in my own ongoing writing project–makes sense since alchemy is really more of a form of proto-scientific investigation of the nature. Alchemy is about standarizable, regularized performance of specific procedures to achieve specific, repeatable ends. That’s what made alchemy such a storehouse of useful knowledge–ink-making, distillation, and so on–until all that got co-opted by the rebranded form of alchemy known as “chemistry.” (I’ll have more about that in an upcoming post soon.)

Finally, there’s the whole geekdom fascination with the idea of a Necronomicon as a specific, unified, homogenous text with limited or no variation from copy to copy, which–well, in the period in history from which the fictional Necronomicon is supposed to have sprung, that’s not how actual grimoires worked. Such a text would after all not be a stable construct: newer grimoires were regularly given ancient names and alleged ancient authorship; they were often subject to editing, emendation, rewriting, errors by copyists, corruptions, and weirdly inexplicable changes that might come down to idiosyncracy (or, in a world where magic is functional, there’s motives like obscurantism, malevolence, or whatever else you can think of). Which is to say, in the world of Cthulhu, there might actually be a single, original Necronomicon (though chances are it is lost to the sands of time): but there would also definitely be hundreds of different grimoires called The Necronomicon that got written through the ages, each purporting to be that original ancient text, each exhibiting varying faithfulness to the original text (some might have a lot, some none at all)–and each of varying power or connection to the original text’s purported demon-insect origins. There are lots of fun things possible when you have this older conception of magic, especially with a subject like the Necronomicon, but I’ll leave why as an exercise for the reader.

Old Book Bindings. (Photo by Tom Murphy VII, click for source.)
Old Book Bindings. (Photo by Tom Murphy VII, click for source.)

Oh, and interesting side note: while we now understand “necromancy” to mean calling upon the dead, back in the period Baker is talking about, it was actually broader than that: it meant dealing with any spirit, including devils, angels, spirits of nature, and so on. Which is why, though we don’t seen him call upon the spirits of the dead, some scholars sometimes call Prospero, Shakespeare’s wizard in The Tempest, a necromancer.

4 thoughts on “Magic, Science, Inconsistency, and the Principle of Acceptable Variance

    1. Thanks, glad you liked it! Baker’s book is quite fascinating.

      I have seen the article on Mana somehow or other–I can’t remember if it was you, or maybe someone else (I want to say Charles Tan?) posted it on Twitter? Anyway, it was definitely a fascinating piece!

      I have some posts on the South Sea Bubble, and on alchemy, coming soon that I think you’ll also enjoy. Primarily the alchemy stuff, but it all ties together, sort of. (Economic crisis in a highly supernaturalist society; scientific rebranding in a society trying to sort nonsense from sense.)

  1. Hi Gord
    Thank you for the thoughtful review — i’d hoped that the commentary would interest readers in addition to the selections. Also, I also thought that it could be useful to inform fiction. I’ll await your novel…

    1. Hi Jim,

      Thanks for your comment! I definitely found the commentary interesting, and think it’s of great use to fiction writers. I was very excited to find a book so recently published on the subject of cunning folk, since my own novel has a cunning woman working in London during the Gin Craze. I take some liberties, including the unfortunate fate of the poor woman–but then, people went crazy during the South Sea Bubble, so I think I can get away with it!

      In any case, thanks for all the work that went into the book. It’s fascinating. (I’m still working my way through it and just got to cockle bread, ha!)

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