Yahweh, Ra and Rumpelstiltskin

Thursday, 11 March

My conversation with Leonard on the organ bench on Sunday evening was very interesting indeed, to say the least. We spoke for a while about the importance of secrecy in our modern-day society and why a wise individual would be advised to keep his or her personal details hidden from thieves and fraudsters. Leonard mentioned that secrecy played an important role in biblical times too and it even features prominently in the Gospel stories as Jesus’ miracles are shrouded in secrecy and Jesus repeatedly warns the healed, demons and the disciples to keep quiet about his miracle-working activities. He confessed that no-one knows why Jesus demanded secrecy in this way and it seems that the Gospels writers did not understand the significance of these warnings either as the authors of Matthew and Luke consistently omit passages from Mark’s Gospel in which Jesus issues a demand for silence, which suggests that the Gospel authors were confused or embarrassed by them. Being aware of the many issues relating to the messianic secret from my biblical studies lectures, I offered a few well-known theological explanations for this emphasis on secrecy in Jesus’ ministry but Leonard dismissed each theory in turn, even stopping me mid-sentence once or twice which frustrated me greatly. He clearly had no time for these arguments and he was keen to offer his own explanation.

Leonard said that there was another individual in antiquity for whom secrecy was of paramount importance and this mysterious figure was the magician. He said that historians, theologians and occultists agree that one of the defining characteristics of ancient magic is its inclination towards secretive and reclusive behaviour, which was surprise to me because I had assumed that all magicians roamed the land showing off their skills and cursing their enemies willy-nilly. But seemingly this was not necessarily the case. Instead Leonard explained that most magicians lived a solitary existence within society and they deliberately isolated themselves from mainstream religion and there were four distinct reasons for why secrecy was so integral to their operations...

First, the magician had no need to engage with mainstream religion and form part of a communal worship group because a) he sought to achieve specific objectives for the immediate needs of the individual rather than serve the general and continual needs of a group and b) it was difficult for the magician to commit to one belief system since if his spell failed to work then he would modify his technique and change the names of the gods that he was addressing in order to find a more effective method of achieving success.

Second, the magician would keep his activities secret because it was commonly believed that sharing divine secrets would offend the gods and the gods would punish the magician for revealing their special knowledge to the masses.

Third, and perhaps most significantly, secrecy was a method of protection. There were strict laws against the practice of magic in antiquity and if a magician was caught practicing his magic openly in public then he would suffer persecution at the hands of the religious and socio-political movements of the time. But it was not only persecution from the official authorities that the magician would seek to avoid - he also used secrecy as a method of protection from magical rivals too. If a magical rival became aware that he had been subjected to a spell or a curse then there was a strong possibility that he would try to overcome it or attempt a counter-attack or, worst of all, he might use his knowledge of the magician’s identity – particularly the magician’s name – as a means of gaining the upper hand over him.

I found our subsequent discussion on the magical use of an individual’s name and identity to be very intriguing. Leonard explained that the idea that personal names held immense power was a magical motif that was consistent throughout the ancient world and knowing the secret name or true identity of a person, god, angel or demon was thought to grant the bearer absolute control over that person or spirit and therefore the ability to command, manipulate or harm them. Consequently personal names were highly guarded by magicians for fear that disclosing them could cause the magician serious harm (and not as an early form of identity fraud prevention, as I teasingly suggested).

At that point the door to the vestry banged shut, causing us to both to flinch and glare down the church towards the source of the noise. The sides-persons had left and I had assumed that we were alone in the church except for a few remaining choirboys changing out of their cassocks and their impatient parents who were waiting for them in the porch outside. Then I saw the silhouette of Mr. Parry (the elderly churchwarden at St. Bartholomew’s who keeps me in a constant supply of sherbet lemon sweets) fall across the altar and, realising that he would be locking up the church soon, I encouraged Leonard to press on with his impromptu lecture without delay…