Eros and Magic – Excerpts on the Astral Body

Eros and Magic in the Renaissance by Ioan Culianu

With modest commentary in brackets.

Intrasubjective Magic (p.130)

Since all magic that does not presuppose the intervention of demons is intersubjective, it is possible that the performer’s action is directed to himself, in which case we have to deal with an intrasubjective magic. This branch of magic is particularly important, representing, to some extent, the propaedeutics [ie., introduction] of all the more advanced activities of the pneumatic art.

Just as magic phenomena exist in nature (attraction by the magnet, to mention only the most common example) and in human society (the attraction of lovers), so also do born manipulators of magic exist, even though their field of action is reduced and not subject to control by the will. As a rule, however, with or without a natural gift, the magician becomes. And just as the student of psychoanalysis cannot practice without having first been analyzed himself, so the magician able to practice his art has first practiced it on himself. Since magic in general is a spiritual function, the individual who practices it must have certain qualities lacking in most mortals. Indeed, insofar as mortals are concerned, the ethereal body, originally transparent and pure, has become opaque and thick through contact with the body. All the filth of matter has become encrusted on it, jeopardizing its primordial luminosity and flexibility. Now, since spirit is the vehicle of the soul and the soul is the medium of liaison between the intellect and the natural world, this miraculous contact is broken as soon as the vehicle has become too slow to let the soul travel or too dirty for the phantasmic messages transmitted by the soul to reach the inner sense. The pneuma is a mirror with two faces, one of which reflects perceptions coming from the external senses and the other the phantasmagoria of the soul.

If the surface turned toward the soul is not sufficiently clean, the individual is reduced to a lower, almost bestial state. What can be done to remedy this situation common to most mortals? Well, nothing could be simpler: it is just a matter of polishing the mirror, removing its impurities-acquired, not congenital-restoring to the clouded spirit its original transparency as well as its purity, flexibility, and hardness.

For spirit [i.e spirit – pneuma – astral body] is the intermediary between the gross body of the world and the soul [i.e. foundational consciousness/awareness]. In it and through it there are stars and demons. . . . Man draws from it through his own spirit [i.e. energy-intelligence] , which conforms to the other by virtue of its nature. But that can be done mainly if this spirit, thanks to art, is made more compatible with the spirit [i.e energy-intelligence] of the world, namely, more heavenly. It becomes heavenly if it is scrupulously purged of its filth and everything tainted by it-purged of everything dissimilar to its heavenly essence.  It must be taken into consideration….

…not only that food entering the viscera dirties the spirit but that the stains are often caused by the soul, by the skin, by clothing, lodgings, and the surrounding air [i.e., chi sickness, lung disorder, psychic contagion]. (Vita coel., IV)

It is easy to comprehend that Ficino’s novice must submit to rigorous discipline to keep his distance from all that could contaminate and infect his pneuma [i.e. psychic body]. He is required not only to observe a very strict diet but also to practice purifications; to be careful of the cleanliness of his person, his clothing, and his house; to choose the route for his walks, the people he sees, the things he talks to them about; and, of course, to cultivate virtues [i.e, strengths of character]. All of these procedures, whose purpose is the expurgatio a sordibus, “the purging of filth,” are accompanied by more specific external methods: First, the spirit must be purified by sufficient medicines to remove the vapors that becloud it. Second, its luminosity must be restored by shiny things. Third, it must be treated in such a way as to make it more subtle and harder. And it will become celestial to the highest degree .. .

…if it is much exposed to the influence of rays and above all to the influence of the Sun, which is dominant among celestial things. (ibid.) Among the seven planets of the so-called “Chaldean” series (Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn), there are those which are especially beneficent (Sun, Jupiter, Venus), called by Ficino “the Three Graces.” Their influences, as well as the influence of Mercury, are fundamentally important to the purging of the pneuma. We already know that there are series of objects classified according to their planetary affiliation. When it is impossible to expose oneself directly to the rays of the beneficent planets, it will suffice to make use of them. To acquire the “solarization” of the spirit, for instance, one must observe a healthy diet, take walks in loci amoeni, in pure and mild air filled with light and the perfume of plants, but also to use substances such as wine and sugar (ibid., I), plants, metals, and precious solar or Jovian stones. When our spirit has been carefully prepared and purged by natural things, it is able to receive many gifts through stellar rays, from the spirit of cosmic life. Cosmic life is visibly propagated in grasses and trees, which are like the hair of the body of earth; it is also revealed in stones and metals, which are like the teeth and bones of this body; it circulates in the living shells of the earth, which adhere to stones. By making frequent use of plants and other living beings it is possible to gain a great deal from the spirit of the world. (ibid., XI) Precious stones, transformed into potions or worn as talismans, impress on the human spirit the qualities of the planets, protecting the organism from the plague and the effect of poisons, etc. (ibid., XI-XII; XIV). [i.e., tinctures, infusions, and alchemical products]

It can be said that pneumatic purging is one of the themes constantly taken up by Synesius, but the bishop of Cyrene does not go, in depth, into the theurgic procedures through which the purification is supposed to take place. These procedures can be found in a different context, that of the Chaldean Oracles edited by Julian the Theurgist, son of Julian called the Chaldean, in the second half of the second century A.D., partially preserved and commentated by them Neoplatonists and by the learned Byzantine Michael Psellus. “Telesmatic science,” Psellus tells us in his Commentary, “is that which, so to speak, initiates the soul through the power of substances from here below . … According to the Chaldean . . . we can only rise to God by strengthening the vehicle of the soul through material rites. Indeed, in his opinion, the soul is purified by stones, by herbs, by incantations and this works well to bring about its ascension.” The allusion to the vehicle of the soul does not refer to the authentic doctrine of the Oracles. Psellus must have come upon it when frequenting Neoplatonist commentators. On the other hand, the ritual procedures for purifying the soul to make possible its theurgic elevation are truly expounded in the Oracles. As we have seen, the theme of pneumatic purifications was already manifest in late Stoicism. The Stoics, taking their cue from Sicilian medicine, had worked out a rather complex animology, through which they tried to give an empirical basis for their deep moral preoccupations. Hence, according to Epictetus, to be virtuous means having a calm pneuma, pure and transparent; and, vice versa, the attainment of this clean and limpid “cardiac mirror” depends entirely on the individual’s moral life. [i.e., morality is the foundation of theurgic practice]

The “purification of the heart” through virtuous practices, as well as by use of efficacious sounds and other more or less “magical” procedures, represents a very ancient preoccupation in the Orient. The Upanishads develop a subtle physiology based on the role of a cardiac synthesizer called manas whose existence was never in doubt according to any school of Indian philosophy-except, perhaps, for a few materialists. During sleep, the energies, or prtinas, withdraw into the manas, or inner sense (a phenomenon called “telescoping of prtinas”); in the waking state, they circulate in the subtle body. In mystic practices, the “cavity of the heart” or “ethereal cavity” (tiktisti hrdaya) plays an essential part:

The little space in the heart is as big as this great universe. The heavens and the earth are there, the sun, the moon, and the stars, fire and lightning and winds are there also; and all that exists now and all that exists no longer: for the whole universe is in Him and He lives in our heart. (Chtil’J4ogya Upaniljad, VIII, 1)


It goes without saying that it is incumbent on the transparency of the tiktisti hrdaya to recognize in the heart the presence of the divinity or of the intellect; a number of mystical practices, including the preliminary stages of yoga, have as their goal the purification of the subtle organism, the restoration of its original purity. The hsin or heart is no less important in Taoism and in Ch’an Buddhism. Even when it is not named, it is understood that the Taoist finds the gods within a cavity of his own subtle organism which answers to tiktisti hrdaya. The procedures of visualization employed by the Taoist are analogous to those of Yoga and of the Western art of memory. As for the Sufi mystic in Iran, he makes use of a number of procedures to obtain the “cleansing of the heart” (qalb), the most important being the use of ritual formulas (zekr) or Persian mantras.

In turn, the Hesychastic mystic in Oriental Christianity is using a technique called “cardioscopy,” which consists in visualizing the space of the heart (kardia) and in trying to restore to it all of its purity and transparency. He too makes use of one or more formulas and increasingly slow breathing rhythms, like the yogin and the Taoist. We shall not dwell on those generalizations, for even a rough analysis of these basic problems of the history of religions would take up more space than can be given here. Can the conclusion be drawn that Indian philosophy is the source of all mystical speculations and techniques dealing with the “heart”? Though it cannot be excluded, such a conclusion is most unlikely.

Humans react to external stimuli through emotions producing immediate secretions of adrenaline. Every external stimulus is accompanied by an internal impulse, which is experienced in the “heart’s space.” The earliest “language,” the “verb,” is a corporeal expression, and verbal schemata “are the referentiality of all possible actions of Homo sapiens.”

Let us take some random verbal schemata relating to the heart: a person incapable of being touched by the suffering of another reveals “hardness of heart,” has “a heart of stone”; on the other hand, someone who reacts appropriately to his emotions has “a kind heart,” and he who has no evil intent in his social behavior, imagining that others have none either, has a”pure heart.” Another person has his heart in his mouth, wears it on his sleeve, has a heart of gold, but may also be heavy-hearted, faint-hearted, or sick at heart. It is possible to do things light-heartedly or even whole-heartedly, but it may happen that we lack the heart to do anything. When we have set our heart on something, we want to clear the matter up, and youthfulness of heart means a fickle heart. As to love affairs, they lead us to offer or to refuse our heart, and so on. There must surely be an extralinguistic truth in all these expressions, a truth which asserts that the heart is the seat of sensibility, of all emotional reactions, and is the preeminent moral (or immoral) organ.

If the Englishman thinks with his head, there are people like the Manchurians who “think [gun ‘imb’i] with the heart [gun’in].”s They are ill when their heart “is shadowy” [gun’in bur imbi], whereas healthy people have “a transparent heart.” S. M. Shirokogoroff finds nothing strange in these concepts: It must be recognized that the emotional perception of the “shadowed being” is altogether admissible and that the concept of the heart as organ of the process of thought is entirely positivist, for thought, in its emotional manifestations, is perceived by the heart. (According to the positivist point of view of Europeans, an effort is made to localize “thought” in particular sections of the brain, a naive conception of positivism based on various hypotheses that all depend on the idea of an abstract brain. Seen in this light, the European “positivist” point of view is not too far removed from that of the Manchurians, who have the right to speak of the localization of the thought process within the heart, because they feel it SO.) Aristotle denied that it was possible to think without phantasms. Now phantasms are colored emotionally, and, though they are able to occupy any space, the place that suits them best is the “heart,” for it is the heart that feels emotions. This bodily given, the real manifestation of emotional reactions in the space of the heart, includes the fact that several peoples in antiquity separately constructed analogous theories such as that of the manas in India and of the hegemonikon in Greece. Since it is impossible to deny that emotions have a concrete nature, it is also impossible to deny the existence of a place where they are made manifest, a place which corresponds more or less to the anatomical localization of the heart. In this localization there must lie the anthropological explanation of the genesis of the subtle organ called heart, which must be older than that of the discovery of the anatomical organ of the same name.

As a screen for projection of internal phantasmagoria, the “heart” must very early have obsessed the human spirit. By identifying bodily energies with emotions, Indian philosophy and Greek medicine transformed the heart into a depository for both, into the principal organ of life and of communication with the outside world. As for visionary activity, it is easy to agree that it could only be localized where phantasms have a predilection for manifesting themselves, namely in the very center of the subtle organism. What about the “head”? We can still rely on the huge documentation put together by Richard Broxton Onians and by Anders Olerud to form an idea about it. It seems that the dignity Plato confers on the human head in Timaeus (44d, 90a) rests on an intricate archaic problem differentiating two organs of consciousness: the “heart” (ker or kradie), seat of the vegetative soul (thymos), and the “head,” seat of the psyche. To Onians, thymos is the “blood-soul” and psyche the ”breath-soul,” but the original difference between the two concepts must not have been noteworthy, since the word thymos is itself related to Indo-European vocables indicating vapor or breath (Latin fum us, Sanscrit dhumah, Slavonic dymu and duchu). As to the psyche, like the Latin animus, it too is preeminently a “breath” since it derives from the verb psychein (“to breathe”), but its exclusive localization in the head is moot.  On the contrary, in a whole complex of beliefs, the psyche represents all bodily respiration, being linked to the sperma, which is a “genital respiration.”

It is in Platonic ontology and anthropology that there appears a precise differentiation between “head” and “heart,” plainly favoring the former. “The human head, resembling a sphere, is in the image of the cosmos. The head is the outstanding microcosm, the body and its limbs are an appendage, or, as Plato himself says, the body is a subordinate servant. In Timaeus (44d) he emphasizes that the soul lives in the head in exactly the same way as the soul of the world lives in the spherical cosmos.”  Plato adds, also in Timaeus: “For we are a plant, not earthly but celestial. And, indeed, it is from the top, the side where the original birth of the soul took place, that God suspended our head, which is like a root, and, in the same way, he gave our whole body erect posture.” It is on account of this ontological polarization expressed in terms relating to space (“top”-vs. “bottom”), which is simultaneously a moral polarization (“good”-vs-“bad”), that Plato postulates the doctrine of a tripartite soul to which corresponds the tripartition of the human body into “head” (rational soul), “breast” or “heart” (irrational soul), and “belly” (appetitive soul) (Timaeus, 69b sq.). Considered by Plato to be entirely subordinate to the “head,” the “heart” is the seat of the emotions, but it is not predominantly the visionary organ, that role being attributed, rather unexpectedly, to the liver.13 Not until the Stoics were the relations between “head” and “heart” posited in a new way so that virtues became associated with “purity of heart.” Renaissance magic derived from this concept, making the “cleansing of the heart” one of its main pursuits.

The word “theurgy” sometimes designates purifications whose purpose is to restore to the pneuma its original transparency, fineness, and flexibility. Ficino’s image of the theurgist, the practitioner of intrasubjective magic, did not amount to enough to run counter to the customs of the time. Far from evoking the spirits of the dead like the necromancer described by Benvenuto Cellini, far from flying up into the air and casting a spell on men and beasts like traditional witches, even far from applying himself to pyrotechnics like Henricus Cornelius Agrippa, or to cryptography like Father Trithemius, Ficino’s magician is an innocuous individual whose habits are neither reprehensible nor shocking in the eyes of a good Christian. We can be sure that if we look him up unless he does not consider our company to be respectable, which is very likely-he will suggest that we accompany him on his daily walk. He will lead us surreptitiously, to avoid undesirable encounters, to an enchanted garden, a pleasant place where sunlight, in the fresh air, comes in contact only with the scent of flowers and pneumatic waves emanating from bird song. Our theurgist, in his white wool gown of exemplary cleanliness, will perhaps apply himself to inhaling and exhaling air rhythmically, then, having noticed a cloud, will anxiously go home, afraid of catching cold. He will play the lyre to attract the beneficent influence of Apollo and the other divine Graces, after which he will sit down to a frugal repast of some cooked vegetables and lettuce leaves, two rooster hearts to strengthen his own heart, and a sheep’s brain to strengthen his own brain. The only luxury he will allow himself will be a few spoonfuls of white sugar and a glass of good wine-though on close examination this is mixed with an insoluble powder in which we can discern a ground amethyst, sure to draw upon him the favors of Venus. We shall notice that his house is as clean as his clothing and that our theurgist will wash himself systematically once or twice a day, in contrast to most of his compatriots, who do not have his good habits. We shall not be surprised that this individual, intent on bothering no one and who, into the bargain, was as clean as a cat, never aroused the anger of any authority, secular or religious. He was tolerated in proportion to his own tolerance or, rather, indifference toward his less advanced fellows, whose pneuma was never as transparent as his own.

(ii) Intersubjective Magic

Intrasubjective magic is only a special case of intersubjective magic, which functions according to the principle of the continuity of the universal pneuma. Wording of this principle changes little from Synesius to Ficino. Let us listen to this:

No one should think that, through the use of certain earthly substances, it is possible to attract the presence of numinous entities that appear immediately. On the contrary, what is attracted are demons, or rather [potius] gifts of the animate world and of the living stars. May it not be thought, either, that it is possible to bewitch [allici] the soul by means of material things. For it is the universal soul itself that makes the bait [escas] that suits the soul and with which it can be bewitched, and it stays there willingly. For there is nothing in the living world that is so deformed as not to possess a soul or, likewise, its gifts. Zoroaster designated these affinities of forms to the reasoning faculty of the universal soul by the term “divine enticements” [divinas illices], and Synesius corroborated their quality of magic charms [magicas illecebras]. (Vita coel., I) Many people aver that magic is a [technique that allows] men to attract, at favorable times, celestial presences through lower things corresponding to higher things. (ibid., XV)

These two passages require some clarification. Ficino states that the universal soul is itself the source of all magic because, in its freedom, it has chosen to create affinities between the higher and the lower worlds. By virtue of this principle, there are certain objects with which it is possible to invoke higher presences, and tradition has named them baits, decoys, lures, enticements, charms, seductions, etc. (thus it is possible to translate the words esca, illex, illecebra). The soul itself, in its goodness, has created the possibility, in certain circumstances, of surrendering itself to the wise man who is aware of the use of these objects. Nature exists so that man may use it: it is as though the fish itself, by wishing to feed man, taught him how to make the fish hook.

Ficino’s definition of magic is concise and clear: the purpose of magical maneuvers is to obtain far-off results by means of immediate causes, especially action upon higher things by the lower things that are their affinity (per inferiora consentanea) and that serve as “lures” (escae, illices, illecebrae), “enticing” them (aUici) at favorable times (temporibus opportunis). He speaks, to be more precise, of a transitive mechanism which, at first, puts in motion physical causes in order to obtain hyperphysical results. In turn, the results are changed into new causes, which produce new results of a physical kind. In order to form a clear idea of these maneuvers, we must analyze the meaning of the three components that constitute the operation of magic “seduction” (allici): the higher presences (superiora); the lower things that are their affinities or “get on well with them” (inferiora consentanea), or “lures” (escae, illices, illecebrae); and the “suitable times” (tempora opportuna).


“What is attracted are demons or, rather, gifts of the animate world and of the living stars” (sed daemones potius animatique mundi munera stellarumque viventium), says Ficino in the first chapter of his treatise De vita coelitus comparanda. A synthetic but exhaustive turn of phrase to describe the kind of aids the magician expects to obtain. The next chapter of this book will, in large part, be devoted to the various categories of demons, pneumatic beings between the worlds. It remains for us to define here “gifts of the animate world” and “gifts of the living stars.” The “gifts of the animate world” are the natural recipients of pneuma, which have the property of feeding the human spirit by virtue of the law of pneumatic solidarity of cosmic parts. We can incorporate more and more of quinta essentia by knowing how to isolate the alimentary compounds of which it is a part or by making frequent use of those things that abound mostly in spirit of a high degree of purity, such as noble wine, sugar, balsam, gold, precious stones, myrobolan, the things that have the sweetest perfumes and things that are shiny. (Vita coel., I) In the same way, through frequent use of plants and other living things, it is possible to draw a great deal from the cosmic spirit. (Ibid., XI)




  • Magic operates in and through the magician.
  • Magic happens in nature as an act of attraction regardless of conscious will being involved.
  • Certain qualities must be possessed or developed by the magician that sets him or her apart from the mass of humanity.
  • The pneuma is to be made clear and hard by the magician.
  • The description of the pneuma is like that of a mirror that faces in two directions and can be considered as the subconscious mind, or the laya in Vajrayana.
  • The ‘space of the heart’ is the key to realization and has been independently arrived at by various sources and systems across Europe, Asian, and the Middle East (and possibly elsewhere not mentioned by Couliano).
  • The ‘cleansing of the heart’ is one of the main pursuits of Renaissance magic.
  • The human body is a microcosm and can relate to the energies of the macrocosm through symbols, plants, minerals, and animals.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: