Literature as Magic, Magic as Literature

By Emily Selove
Submitted to Session P4878 (The Occult in Islamicate Society: The Cases of Magic and Alchemy, 2017 Annual Meeting
LCD Projector without Audio;
In the introduction to her volume Magic and Divination in Early Islam, Emilie Savage-Smith recommends that future researchers of the poorly-understood field of esoteric magic tackle the question of “To what extent did the ideas expressed in the magical/divinatory literature invade or reflect the realms of poetry, history, biography, and storytelling?” (xliv). This presentation will demonstrate that not only did magical literature “invade or reflect” these literary genres, but that in many cases, they can be said to be the same thing. Poetry and its bewitching eloquence are often described as a kind of “licit magic,” and this is more than a metaphor, as will be shown with reference not only to definitions of magic found, for example, in Ghayat al-hakim, and in scholarly works like Bürgel's Feathers of Simurgh, but also to Jonathan Culler’s famous analysis of the centrality of apostrophe to lyric poetry. As for prose, the use of saj adds a powerful hypnotic quality to the speech of the maqamat’s tricksters as they ensnare their listeners, just as it gives the magician power over the spirits that he summons. It will also be shown that astrological knowledge, like medical knowledge, was likely to have been part of the learned writer’s basic vocabulary in the medieval period, and therefore can be found in genres that our modern expectations might mis-lead us to believe to be quite distant from “scientific” concerns. Lastly, the possibility that obscene or satirical literature could have an apotropaic force in Arabic (as in Greek and Latin), will be explored. Robert Elliot and others have proposed a magical origin to satirical speech, but can scatological humour be used not only to stain and wound the enemy, but to ward off the evil eye, like the phallic amulets and their literary parallels found in Ancient Rome? This presentation will examine both the literary qualities of magical texts and the magical qualities of literary texts in its attempt to answer these questions.