Power and Identity

Project status update: I realized I’ve been doing this reading project for over three years; I’ve read 60 books, done write-ups on 13, and am over halfway through one side of one floor of the library. At this rate it would take me another 40 years. Time to pick up the pace.

Yvonne Chireau’s Black Magic describes the African-American tradition of “Conjure” as a way in which a subjugated people were able to claim control and assert agency in the face of oppression. Chireau complicates the distinction between religion as a source of explanation and magic as separate from belief- and these lines are clearly as permeable as the veils between worlds. Is a prayer to a “patron saint” that different from an invocation of an otherworldly spirit? What about charms/amulets/relics? Filipino martial artists have a tradition of “anting-anting,” or magical artifacts that give the warrior power that similarly could equally readily be natural oddities or Catholic artifacts. Perhaps it is a recognition of the difficulty in maintaining these distinctions for the ordinary worshipper that leads to the strongly iconoclastic elements of Judaism and Islam (more on this below). For people with limited physical possessions/ability to own and control property, there may also be comfort in having “secret items” whose value a prospective looter would not recognize, or that can only be activated/deployed by a knowledgeable or appropriate wielder. At the same time, Chireau notes that magic could be used for good or evil, unlike religious invocations- it defies ordinary use of language to think that one’s prayers could cause God or a saint to sin, while the magician is capable of achieving his or her own ends through magical means, whether virtuous or vicious. Magic as a tool, however, is an interesting extension of exceptional skill: a juggler or gymnast can perform feats that are impossible for most of us, while particularly perceptive and insightful people might seem to be capable of predicting the future. William Miller’s Why Is Your Axe Bloody? shows how Njal’s Saga exemplifies this contrast in Njal: he is described by other people as being prescient, but the narrator’s position is less clear. Though Iceland of the Saga age had little in common with American chattel slavery, they display a similar combination of admiration and fear for otherworldly abilities (or disabilities; Chireau discusses how unusual bodies or “caul babies” were seen as prone to magical aptitude).

Biblical Judaism’s injunctions against magic and consulting the dead are particularly radical in light of the frequency of these beliefs among subject peoples as a way of reclaiming some power (although it’s worth noting that the Bible does not deny the possibility of magic or necromancy, but enjoins Jews from performing it). In Moses the Egyptian, Jan Assmann outlines the ways in which the character of Moses (who was raised in the Pharaoh’s palace, and whose name is therefore not Hebrew, but probably derived from the Egyptian word for “child”) has been treated by Maimonides, Freud, and Renaissance scholars among others. He notes that Akhenaten’s attempt to introduce monotheism into Egypt provoked a strong negative reaction, as well as some of the ways in which Judaism could be seen as a particular rebellion/reaction against Egyptian practices.

  1. Life-focus v. Death. Where Egyptians built pyramids to their dead, Judaism minimizes the pomp or ceremony associated with the dead- the Psalms specifically refer to the inability of the dead to praise God, prioritizing our work in the present world.
  2. Vernacular v. Hieratic Language. Hebrew was the language spoken by Jews, without differentiated script limiting the accessibility of scripture to a priestly class. Hieroglyphics (meaning “sacred writing”) were not universally used, contributing to a distinction between those aware of the “mysteries” and those excluded from them.
  3. Monotheism v. Polytheism/Pantheism. The belief in a single god who transcends the natural world rather than simply inhabiting it was revolutionary. It’s certainly possible that Moses’ first exposure to monotheism was in the Egyptian court, if Akhenaten’s legacy persisted among subsets of the population. While raised as an Egyptian prince, he certainly would have been unlikely to discuss theology with Hebrew slaves.


Maimonides seems to have gone farther, defining almost everything in Judaism as reaction against supposed “Egyptian” practice, which may be questionable, but I found the central contrasts mentioned above to be compelling. Some Renaissance scholars felt that ancient cultures’ technological achievements must have connected to spiritual wisdom, so Assmann describes how Christian Egyptophiles attempted to identify a “secret monotheism” practiced by the high priests, and identified Isis with the “Hen Kai Pan” (one and all). It seems that the impulse to treat great engineers (or business people) as if they have access to truths of all sorts is not a new one. Freud’s theories of multiple Moseses are perhaps better explained in his own work; in Assmann’s description I felt them to be a contortion of the story to fit Freud’s own theory.

In my professional life, some of my clearest moments of self-realization have come through defining what I was not or did not want to be: when I realized I did not want to be someone who used to have interesting hobbies and broad talents, or when I decided I wanted to take on work where I did not believe that the next best candidate would have taken the same approach that I did. I sometimes worry that this just makes me a contrarian or a misanthrope, but a more positive interpretation might be that while a polymathic, well-rounded person can easily envision a wide range of interesting possibilities or opportunities, a particular circumstance that feels untenable is promptly recognizable. The challenge is building on that reflexive insight of what we oppose to find a constructive definition of who we are. Though I don’t believe in magical artifacts, I have often been drawn to souvenirs that remind me of a value from the place. Like the fringes at the end of a tallis, physical objects can invoke mental states in ourselves, helping us to tap into those parts of our identities that we wish to engage. Like magic, these personal attributes or elements of ourselves are not dependent on other people, and therefore potential sources of intrinsic self-satisfaction. A magician can take pride in his or her understanding of the subtle universe even if the dominant culture does not recognize it. Any area of expertise can have some of this benefit; likeminded people can appreciate the expert’s skill and the novice’s skill development. Unfortunately, hate groups and radicalizing terrorists tap into a similar psychological mechanism; learning a unique language, feeling privileged, and part of a broader mission all without requiring the approval of society at large. I’m not sure what the solution is, but thinking about this aspect of reaction to feeling marginalized makes clear to me that it’s not merely about professional opportunity. A society that does not respect and love people who do not excel in any particular way will leave them prone to such appeals.

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