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Renaissance magic and superheroes

Here’s another chapter of the little book / long essay I wrote in 2008, called Everything Is Full of Gods, about the connection between comics, animation, and animism. In this chapter, I talk about Renaissance magic, and how it influenced contemporary comic culture.

The Magus

Florence 1463 AD. In the library of the Villa Careggi, Marcilio Ficino, the greatest scholar of the age, is hard at work. He has recently been made head of a new Platonic academy, based in the Villa Careggi and sponsored by Cosimo De Medici, the ruler of Florence and one of the richest and most powerful men in Europe. Ficino is bent over his desk, translating manuscripts of Plato’s lost works, which have recently been re-discovered and brought over from Byzantium.

But then the door of the library flies open. It is Cosimo De Medici himself. The boss. He is almost 80 years old, frail and sick, but his eyes are shining like a young boy’s, and in his quivering hands is an old and dusty manuscript.

De Medici is an avid book collector, and he has a vast network of scouts sent out across the known world, like so many Indiana Joneses, to discover lost and ancient manuscripts, magical texts that promise superhuman powers to those who find them.

No manuscript has been more sought after than the one he now, finally, holds in his hands – the Corpus Hermeticum, which contain the secret teachings of the great Hermes Trismegistus, the ancient Egyptian prophet, the mightiest magus of them all. He hands over the manuscript to Ficino and tells him to get to work translating it immediately. Plato can wait.


The discovery of the Corpus Hermeticum had a revolutionary effect both on the status of magic in Europe, and on the status of man himself. As Renaissance magic grew in stature, so too did man, who seemed suddenly possessed of great and long-dormant powers – the power to control planets, to command angels and demons, to create gods, practically to become a god himself. As the Corpus put it: “unless you make yourself equal to God, you cannot understand God…Make yourself grow to a greatness beyond measure… raise yourself above all time, become Eternity.”

Somehow, for a century, Renaissance magi managed to disseminate such heretical notions under the eyes of the Vatican. Man, briefly, became a superman. But it was inevitable that there would be a backlash, and when it came, thousands of witches, and even some scholarly magi, were burnt at the stake.

Until the 15th century, the Catholic Church had exercised a ruthless monopoly on magic. Only Christian magic was allowed, such as the Eucharist, exorcism, or the Cult of Saints, and these accepted forms of magic were only allowed to be practiced by official representatives of the Church. Other, more illicit, forms of magic were still quietly practiced in rural communities by the village witch or cunning man. But they were considered vulgar and plebeian by the intellectual elite.

But when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire in 1453, a steady stream of ancient manuscripts arrived in Europe by the likes of Plato, Porphyry, even the great Hermes Trismegistus himself, and these texts were far from vulgar. Their discovery and translation during the Renaissance gave a huge amount of intellectual credibility to magic, so that it captured the minds of leading scholars like Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, or Giordano Bruno.

What gave the Corpus Hermeticum such great intellectual credibility was its supposed antiquity. It was generally believed to be the words of Hermes Trismegistus, a magical Egyptian prophet thought to have lived in Egypt in the time of Moses.

The authority for this dating was, chiefly, the third century Church father, Lactantius, who wrote of the powerful and prolific Hermes Trismegistus, who lived many years before Plato and Pythaogoras, and who managed to prophesy the coming of Christ.

Hermes was thus seen by scholars like Ficino as being a very early source for ancient wisdom and magic – earlier than Plato, earlier than Christ, perhaps even earlier than Moses. And this seemed to be borne out by the similarity between the Corpus Hermeticum and Christian, Platonic and Neoplatonic texts, which suggested that Hermes had indeed prophesized Christ’s coming, and had also been the original source of many of the ideas of Plato.

Actually, like many beliefs and suppositions in the history of magic, this turned out to be false. In 1614, the scholar Isaac Casaubon proved more or less unanswerably that the Corpus Hermeticum must have been written many centuries after Plato, probably around the second or third century AD.

That is why it is so full of Neoplatonic and Gnostic ideas – not because it anticipated and influenced Plato, but because it was written centuries after him, and after Christ, in the heady mileu of the second and third century AD, the golden age of Gnosticism, Neoplatonism and magic.

Still, Ficino and other Renaissance magi did not know this, and fully believed that the Corpus Hermeticum was almost as holy and ancient a text as the Bible. The Egyptian magus rose quickly to the status of an honorary prophet of Christianity, on a par with Moses. He appeared on a mosaic in the centre of Sienna Cathedral, and even (scholars believe) in a mural on the walls of the Vatican itself.

The various short works within the Corpus Hermeticum were not just philosophy. They were magic, believed capable of granting supernatural powers to those magi wise enough to understand them and follow their instructions. They promised to unravel the secrets of nature, which is why Hermetic philosophy was often known as natural philosophy.

Hermeticism, like Neoplatonism, had an animistic view of the universe. Nature was animate, teeming with spirits. The sky was filled with angels and devils. The stars and planets were animate beings. The whole universe was animated, filled with the divine spiritus or pneuma, the celestial matter that connected all beings.

This animate universe was filled with symbols, secret messages and hidden correspondences. Images, words, musical notes and objects here on Earth held mysterious connections to planets, demons and angels in Heaven. ‘As above, so below’, as the alchemical saying put it.

The wise magus could, with the help of his magical texts, learn these hidden correspondences and manipulate them, thereby drawing down spirits from the heavens above into material objects below, or even into his own person. He could marry heaven and earth together, and the offspring of this marriage would be the super-empowered magus himself.

If the magus could unite his mind with the divine mind, then he could travel anywhere he wanted, as fast as the speed of thought. Thus in the Corpus Hermeticum we read: “Command your soul to be in India, to cross the Ocean; in a moment it will be done. Command it to fly up to heaven. It will not need wings; nothing can prevent it. And if you wish to break through the vault of the universe and to contemplate what is beyond – if there is anything beyond the world – you may do it.”

The Gnostic magic of the Corpus promises to free man from his material prison. For example, it asserted that humans are imprisoned by the determinism of the planets, which emanated their good and bad influences through the spiritus mundi. But with Hermetic magic, the magus could escape this determinism, could “break through the envelopes” of the stars.

This particularly impressed Ficino. He was a great believer in astrology, and was terrified by the malevolent influence of the planet Saturn, which was supposed to bring bad luck and depression to those under its influence, particularly bookish scholars like him.

The Hermetic texts claimed that the bad emanations of Saturn could be counter-balanced by the more positive influence of other planets, such as the Sun, Jupiter, Mercury and Venus. The magus could draw down the powers of these planets by using certain plants, colours, metals and songs. He could also inscribe images of the planets onto objects, and use these as talismans to “capture the stars” as Ficino put it.

Thus the magus was like the Greek hero, who gained his superpowers through the favour of Jupiter, Venus or Neptune. But while the Greek hero gained the favour of these planet-gods through his genes, the magus was much more in control. He could manipulate the planets as and when he wanted, using his astral magic.

Venus, for example, was a good counterbalance to the bad vibes of Saturn. Ficino recommended singing and playing certain Orphic hymns to bring her influence down, as well as surrounding oneself with green objects (Venus was attracted to the colour green) and invoking her using a talisman engraved with the image of “a woman with her hair unbound riding on a stag, having in her right hand an apple and in her left, flowers, and dressed in white garments”, as the Medieval text the Picatrix describes it.

Astrological talismans, we note in passing, would play a major role in the symbolism of comics half a millennia later. For example, in the DC universe, bored playboy Ted Knight invents a gravity rod that can draw down ‘powerful infra-rays from distant stars’, transforming him into the superhero Starman. The schoolgirl heroines of Sailor Moon, the very successful manga series, transform into Zodiac forces – Sailor Moon, Sailor Mercury, Sailor Mars and so on. Lili, the heroine of the manga comic Zodiac PI, uses astrological forecasts and her magic ‘star-ring’ to solve crimes. And the family at the centre of the manga series Fruit Baskets are possessed by the animal spirits of the Chinese Zodiac.

While Ficino was content to try to use astral magic to avoid the depressive influence of Saturn, his bold young apprentice, Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola, had altogether grander ambitions for his magic. In 1486, at the tender age of 23, Pico set off for Rome with 900 theses he had written, which he thought would synthesize all knowledge, combine all magical systems, and possibly trigger the second coming of Christ.

The 900 Theses, and the introductory Oration on the Dignity of Man, are an incredible assertion of confidence: both the young Pico’s confidence in himself, and his confidence in the potential of man, and above all his confidence in the power of magic. Indeed, the leading historian of Renaissance magic, Frances Yates, called his Oration “the great charter of Renaissance magic”.

Like a true Gnostic, Pico thought that man was capable of attaining “divine perfection” in this life, and the surest way to do that, he believed, was through the Jewish magic of Kabbalah. This was, for Pico, the essential ingredient in the caldron of Renaissance magic. As he declared in his Theses: “Nothing really effective is possible in magic, unless you add the work of Kabbalah…”

Kabbalah, like the Corpus Hermeticum, was revered by Renaissance scholars like Pico partly because it was thought to be extremely ancient. Its most famous text, the Zohar, was published by a Spanish Rabbi called Moses de Leon in the 13th century, who claimed he had discovered the manuscript, and that it contained the actual sayings of a famous 2nd Century Rabbi, Shimon bar Yochai.

However, like the Hermetic works, it may not have been as ancient as was generally believed. The great scholar of Kabbalah, Gershom Scholem, points out certain telltale signs in the Zohar that suggest it was written much later than the 2nd century, such as the text’s lack of knowledge about the geography of Israel, and some references to events which happened long after the second century. He believes that Moses de Leon himself is the most likely author.

For Scholem, medieval Kabbalah was actually something relatively new in Jewish history, something that first appeared in Provence in the twelfth century, and then flowered in Spain in the thirteenth century. A new mystic and magical strain suddenly appears in Jewish thought, and Scholem believes the source of it was Gnosticism – either the Gnostic ideas circulating in the south of France before the Albigensian Crusade, or from some other source not yet recognized.

In Kabbalah, then, we have similar Gnostic ideas as we meet in the Corpus Hermeticum: the idea that nature is a living, animate being, which is full of hidden symbols and connections if the observer is wise enough to perceive them. Kabbalah also shared with Hermeticism the radical Gnostic idea that the human soul could rise up from its material prison, ascend through the orders of demons and angels, and attain ecstatic union with the Divine in this life, through mystical meditation, and through magic.

This Medieval version of Gnostic magic and mysticism, refined by the learned Jewish community in Spain, was then introduced into the mainstream of western ideas following the expulsion of the Jews from Spain by the Spanish Inquisition in 1492, though Kabbalah was at that point already known to a few Hebrew specialists such as Pico.

What supernatural powers did Kabbalah promise? One form of Kabbalist magic, used to tell the future, involved the manipulation of concentric circles, on each of which was written the 22 letters of the sacred Hebrew alphabet. The Kabbalist would then ask a question of the device, and turn the circles at random to see what mystical response it would give.

Kabbalists such as the 13th century scholar Abraham Abulafia used this technique, known as the ars combinatoria, to achieve mystical states of consciousness and to predict the future. A similar sort of device, using letters on two or three concentric wheels, was used by the Christian mystic, Ramon Llull, who also lived in 13th century Spain.

This sort of magical device was the inspiration for the Golden Compass, or alethiometer, which Lyra can magically use to discover the truth in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. The alethiometer, like Llull’s device, has 36 symbols on its perimeter. Pullman said in an interview with the literary magazine ‘textualities’: “the alethiometer came out of my interest in the Renaissance, the world described so vividly by Frances Yates in The Art of Memory and The Rosicrucian Enlightenment. During the Renaisssance there was a rediscovery of Greek philosophy, and a fascination with what we now call the occult, astrology and alchemy.”

Another form of Kabbalist magic involved the incantation of names, both of angels, and of God Himself. The universe was angels (301,655,172 of them, to be precise), and the magus can invoke them by name, and through them approach the sacred tree of life which Kabbalists, like Shamans, believed connected Earth and the Heavens.

The Kabbalist magus would solemnly invoke the names of angels in the celestial hierarchy, and if the magus’ heart was pure and his incantation correct, he could bring the spirit of the invoked angel down into his being. Pico refers to this magical practice when he says in his Oration: “we invoke Raphael, the celestial healer… In us, now restored to good health, will dwell Gabriel, the force of the Lord, who…will present us to Michael, the high priest…”

Kabbalists ‘discovered’ the existence of hundreds of other angels they could invoke, whose names usually ended in ‘-el’ (which means God in Hebrew), as in Raphael, Michael, Gabriel or Tzadkiel. The creators of Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, would draw on this tradition when they gave Clark Kent the secret name Kal-el.

This beautiful idea in Kabbalah, of the almost domestic proximity of angels to humanity, and the ability of the artist-magus to bring them down to earth, is perhaps one key to the wonderful images in Renaissance art of angels stepping into the rooms of Renaissance homes, like Superman calmly appearing on the balcony of Lois Lane.

The Kabbalist magus could also use angels and demons as functionaries, if he had the cheek. The late sixteenth century magician Johannes Trithemius believed he could use a network of angels for telepathy, to transmit messages from himself to others, as well as to inform him of “everything that is happening in the world”. As in The Matrix, Gnostic magic seems to have combined with information technology.

And the Kabbalist can also use the many sacred names of God as spells, such as the all-powerful Shemhamphorasch, the 72-letter name of God, which Kabbalists believed that Moses had used to part the Red Sea and defend the Jews from the Egyptian army.

Moses’s use of magic to defend the Jewish community from persecution was typical – Kabbalah magic was only supposed to be used for self-defence, never for attack. There were many legends of Kabbalist wonder-workers, called Ba’alei Shem, or masters of the names, using their powers to protect their communities from Christian persecution.

Of particular interest for our history are the tales of the Tzadikim Nistarim, or ‘hidden saints’. The legend grew up in Kabbalist circles that there are 36 hidden superheroes, possessed of great supernatural power, who are in special favour with God, and on whose continued existence the world depends.

The Nistarim are as humble as they are powerful, and hide their secret identities beneath the exterior appearance of being insignificant, awkward or even cowardly. They don’t even know who the other 35 Nistarim are. They may not even know they themselves are one of the 36. But they will sometimes reveal their great powers to protect the Jewish community from persecution, before disappearing again back into obscurity.

It seems to me possible that this idea influenced the development of the modern superhero, who hides his identity beneath the appearance of being a nebbish like Clark Kent or Peter Parker. We note that there are 36 hidden heroes on Mohinder Suresh’s list in the NBC show Heroes, though not all of these heroes are particularly saintly.


Thus, armed with the power of Hermes and the power of Kabbalah, we see before us the Renaissance magus in all his glory: he was a healer and doctor, who could use astral magic to overcome depression, or use the images of alchemy and astrology as archetypes to guide the sick mind back to health, as Jung would do 500 years later. He was a chemist, working in sooty laboratories to discover the essence, or ‘spirit’ of substances in his search for the fabled Philosopher’s Stone. He was an advisor to princes and Popes, telling them what the angels and the stars had told him of the good and bad luck that would befall their kingdoms.

And he was above all an artist. One cannot have a theory of magic that is not at the same time a theory of art, of the power of art to change the world, and of the supreme dignity of the artist-magus.

Thus, in Ficino’s natural magic, the magus’ astrological images have the power to draw down beneficial energies from the planets. This idea, believes Frances Yates, was behind some of the finest Renaissance paintings, and their timeless depiction of classical figures, such as Botticelli’s Primavera.

Renaissance music was considered to have magical powers, like the Orphic hymns that Ficino would sing to the planets to draw down their benevolent influence. The Renaissance writer was also a magus, whose sacred words were able to command angels and demons, as Prospero, Shakespeare’s alter-ego in The Tempest, is able to command Ariel and Caliban.

And the Renaissance magus was also a master of animation, in the original sense of one who can introduce a soul into an inanimate object. He was a god-like creator, able to channel the spirits and give them a form on earth. Thus Shakespeare describes the poet:

“The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,

Doth glance from heaven to Earth, from Earth to heaven.

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.”

The most secret and illicit teaching of both Hermetic philosophy and Kabbalah was the idea that it was possible to draw down spirits from the ether and use them to animate statues, or to create artificial beings.

Thus the Hermetic text, the Aesculapius, tells us that the magus is God-like in that he can himself make gods. The magus could evoke “the souls of demons or angels”, and then introduce them into statues or idols, “so that the idols had the power of doing good and evil”.

This old magic idea of animating inanimate objects and then using them to do your bidding has a long history in western art. It appears in the 2nd century AD in a comic fable by Lucian called the Philopseudes, which tells of the hapless friend of a priest of Isis, who overhears the priest saying a animating spell and decides to try it for himself. He animates a pestle, but can’t control it and the pestle goes on the rampage.

The story was picked up and adapted many centuries later by Goethe in his poem The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. And it eventually appeared in animation, appropriately enough, in Walt Disney’s Fantasia, where Mickey the sorcerer’s apprentice casts a spirit into some brooms, who then go beserk and fill a bath until it overflows. In Fantasia, the priest of Isis is called Yensid – Disney backwards. So Disney was directly linking the new art of animation to the ancient and magical tradition of the magus as animator.

The idea of the magus as animator played a deep role in Kabbalist legends as well, in the myth of the Golem, or artificial man. This legend was particularly attached to the famous chief rabbi of Prague, Judah Loew ben Bezalel. Prague was, at that time, probably the centre of Renaissance magic, thanks to the enthusiasm for the occult felt by the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolph II, who lived in Prague Castle, and devoted a whole wing of the castle to alchemical experiments.

We know that Rudolph II asked for a private meeting with the rabbi in 1592. It is not known what they discussed, though we do know that rabbi Loew was not a great advocate of magic. Nonetheless, this meeting of a rabbi with the most powerful man in Christendom, taking place as it did on the centenary of the Jews’ expulsion from Spain, was taken by the Jewish diaspora as a confirmation of the rabbi’s wondrous and magical powers.

One particularly popular legend surrounding the rabbi was that he had constructed a man out of clay, a Golem, and then animated it by writing one of the names of God, EMETH, or Truth, on its forehead. The Golem then worked as a domestic menial – we hear the story of how it was ordered to fill a bath and then went beserk and over-filled it.

But the Golem was also, according to some legends, used by the rabbi to protect the Jewish community from anti-Semitic persecution. This doesn’t quite fit with the fact that Jews had a relatively safe existence in Rudolph’s Prague, compared to other parts of Europe. However, Jews in other, less safe parts of the world, such as Poland, seemed to draw much comfort from these tales of the supernatural protection of the Golem.

It has been suggested that the tales of the Golem also helped to influence the modern creation of the superhero. There are some direct examples of the Golem’s influence on comics – the Golem was a superhero in Marvel Comics in the 1970s, a member of the Howling Commandoes, and enemy of the evil ‘Kabbala the Unclean’. Wonder Woman was also supposedly made out of clay by her mother, Hippolyta.

Others have argued the figure of the Golem has underlined the whole concept of the superhero, invented as it was by east European émigrés whose families had fled European anti-Semitism. Superheroes were also magical animated beings who would fight anti-Semitic persecution in legendary tales.

Thus in the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon, the hero is a young artist from Prague who escapes the Nazis in a coffin, accompanied by the remains of the Golem. He then moves to New York, becomes a comic book artist, and invents a superhero called the Escapist who battles the Nazis in the comics he writes. By the end of the book, the artist realizes how he is unconsciously drawing on Jewish folklore, and begins a graphic novel about the Golem.

Kabbalist magic had its dangers, however. In some versions of the Golem legend, the monster goes on the rampage, and even kills its creator. Kabbalist spells were also risky. If you uttered the Shemhamphorasch and weren’t sufficiently pure of heart, you could die instantly – this is the premise of the film Pi, by the director, comic book writer and Kabbala-enthusiast Darren Aronofsky. The film tells of a maths and computer genius who discovers the Shemhamphorasch, but almost kills himself in the process.

Kabbalah could connect you to angels, but it could also confront you with demons. If you got your spells wrong, you could become possessed or even devoured by a demon or fallen angel, such as Azazel, Ba’al, or the fearsome Lilith. We are reminded here of the superhero comic, ‘Dial H for Hero’, about a boy who discovers a mysterious dial with letters round the edge, rather like Abulafia’s Kabbalah device. If he spells out H-E-R-O, he is transformed into any one of a thousand superheroes. But if he spells out V-I-L-L-A-I-N, he is possessed by evil spirits.

The greatest risk for a Kabbalist was to be confronted by the King of the Jewish demons, Asmodeus. Alan Moore, the famous writer of comics and also a practicing Kabbalist magus, claims that Asmodeus once appeared to him in the form of a multidimensional red spider, though Moore describes him as witty and slightly smug rather than the embodiment of evil.

But this was the problem with magic in general – there was the risk that it would be seen by the ignorant as demonic and evil. Worse, there was the risk that it really was demonic and evil. After all, didn’t the Aesculapius openly and impiously talk of bringing down demons into statues, and thereby creating your own Gods?

This negative view of magic as demonology existed as far back as Simon Magus, who was supposed to have attained his superpowers by making a pact with devils.

And as the 16th Century progressed, more and more magi found themselves accused of Satanism and demonology. There was Cornelius Agrippa, for example, who was supposedly followed around by a black dog that was really the Devil in disguise. There was Paracelsus, the great alchemist, who was nick-named ‘the Devil’s doctor’, and was frequently kicked out of towns for practicing his dark arts. There was the great English magus, John Dee, who was accused by the Church of being a spy and a Satanist, and who narrowly avoided being sent to the Inquisition when he visited the Holy Roman Emperor in Prague.

There were the legends of the magus Faust, another resident of Prague, which were printed in 1587 and became very popular in the late years of the 16th Century. The tales told of a magus who, in his hunger for fame and knowledge, signed a contract with the Devil giving him supernatural powers for a few years, until his soul is dragged down to hell.

Even the magic-loving emperor himself, Rudolph II, was suspected by the Vatican of having made a deal with Old Nick. Cardinal Filippo Spinelli wrote to Pope Clement VIII in 1600: “It is generally agreed among Catholics in Prague that the Emperor has been bewitched and is in league with the Devil. I have been shown the chair in which His Majesty sits when holding conversations with the Prince of Darkness himself.”

The ugly fate of the hapless emperor seemed to spell out only too clearly the dangers of dabbling in the occult. First his son Don Guilio went mad, and was locked up for raping and mutilating a barber’s daughter. Then the emperor himself went crazy, hiding himself away for weeks in Prague Castle, running through the darkened corridors screaming that his back had changed place with his stomach. He was eventually forced off the imperial throne by his brother, Matthias, who claimed Rudolph spent so much time delving into magic, he was neglecting the affairs of the empire.

Even if you were sceptical that magi could really converse with, command or make deals with devils, it is still easy to see why the Vatican perceived them as a dangerous threat.

Firstly, magi were politically dangerous. They were sometimes spies with Protestant sympathies (as John Dee probably was) and were frequently Messianic revolutionaries as well. Thus Pico believed his Theses would help bring about a cosmic revolution, when all religions would be synthesized into one uber-religion and peace would reign among men.

John Dee believed a similar cosmic revolution was on the way, which would bring about the reconciliation of Catholic and Protestant Europe and a new era of amity and concord.

Giordano Bruno, an outspoken and ecstatic Italian magus who wandered around Europe spreading his Hermetic theories towards the end of the 16th century, believed a new age of love was dawning when the Egyptian mysteries would reign once more, and occult priests like himself would rule the world.

The magi might sound like fun-loving anarchist Gnostics, but there was a darker side to their political beliefs. Many of them saw in Hermeticism not just a way to reach God, but a way to rule the world as well. They were drawn to passages in the Corpus Hermeticum that spoke of a perfect city that Hermes Trismegistus had founded, called Adocentyn, which were watched over by statues, magically animated with the spirits of demons.

These magic statues would make sure that everyone in the city was virtuous. Indeed, they would have no choice but to be virtuous, because the magic would control all their actions, turning them into little marionettes. This Utopian dictatorship appealed greatly to magi like Bruno or Tommaso Campanella. In the idea of a elite of artist-intellectuals manipulating the dumb masses through art and propaganda, it would foreshadow perhaps the dictatorships of the 20th Century.

But, besides their politics, the magi’s religious beliefs were, of course, deeply heretical. The official Church doctrine was that man could not reach God except through Christ, and only in the afterlife. And yet the magi seemed to be claiming the ability to achieve divine perfection in this life, not through the grace of Christ, but through all sorts of other means – star-demons, planets, talismans, Chaldean oracles. Some imprudent magi even suggested that Jesus Himself was, basically, a magus.

This was the rash claim made by Giordano Bruno, who may be the prototype for Lord Asriel in Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights. Bruno, like Asriel, visited Oxford in 1582, and there engaged in furious debate with the Oxford scholastics (or ‘pedants’ as he insisted on calling them) about the possible existence of multiple worlds, just as Asriel would do.

This idea of multiple worlds, which one also finds in the Kabbalah, would have a deep impact on fantasy literature and on comics. It is a key feature of American superhero comics, with a famous DC comic being called Crisis on Multiple Earths.

It also plays a key role in Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, where Lord Asriel is imprisoned by the Church for heretically asserting the existence of multiple worlds. Eventually, Asriel manages to escape and kill God. Giordano Bruno’s fate was rather more grisly – he was arrested by the Inquisition, kept in prison for eight years, and then burnt at the stake in 1600. His crimes included claiming Jesus was a magus, and “claiming the existence of a plurality of worlds”.

When Bruno was burnt at the stake, it marked the nadir of the fortunes of the artist-magus in European society. It was downhill all the way from there. For 100 years or so, the magus had been an all-powerful, superhuman figure. He had enjoyed audiences with queens, Popes and emperors. He had combined the prophet, the courtier, the healer, chemist and artist, and all these disciplines had assumed a sacred character in his person.

Sadly, the cosmic revolution that many magi believed they were helping to bring about did not happen. The Age of Love failed to materialize. Instead, Europe tore itself apart in a century of bloody religious violence, in which magic itself would be a victim, with thousands of ‘witches’ being burnt at the stake during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. And out of that violence, as we shall see in the next chapter, was born the modern world, one ruled by rational theories of science, physics, economics and statecraft

Ironically, magi like Giordano Bruno may have helped bring about this new rational age, because their natural philosophy, as strange and occult as it may have been, was still experimental, and thus helped to bring down the Catholic Church’s purely speculative Scholasticism. Modern chemistry grew out of Renaissance alchemy, and modern astronomy grew out of Renaissance astrology. So perhaps, like Lord Asriel, the magi really did help to kill God, although this was far from their intention.

With the 17th century clampdown on magic and the coming of the age of rationalism, the idea of an animate universe that could be controlled by magi was gradually pushed to the margins of popular belief. But a few wild souls still cherished this idea, and many of them would end up working in comics.

Some of the most magic-inspired comic and fantasy writers, such as Alan Moore, John Crowley or Neil Gaiman, would often look back to the Renaissance magi for inspiration. Thus Gaiman’s graphic novel 1602 takes Marvel superheroes like the X-Men and Spiderman, and re-imagines them as figures in the court of Queen Elizabeth, with Doctor Strange becoming a John Dee-like magus to the Queen. And Moore has told me that he sees himself as a magus “in the European tradition of Agrippa, Paracelsus, and Giordano Bruno”.

And the magi’s history of clashes with the Catholic Inquisition would also cast a long shadow over superhero comics, in which superheroes like the X-Men would often face persecution by the authorities for their powers, or simply for being different. In 1602, for example, Charles Xavier of the X-Men, or Carlos Javier as he has become, fights to defend his mutants from the Inquisition; while Tomas de Torquemada, the chief inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition who expelled the Jews and Kabbalah from Spain, would appear as one of the most famous comic book villains, in the pages of 2000AD.

Everything Is Full Of Gods

The other day, I was watching Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy, and something struck me. Hellboy is based on a comic strip by Mike Mignola, about a demon from another dimension who is sucked into our world by a Nazi occult experiment gone wrong. Luckily for us, he’s a friendly demon, and he dedicates his life to protecting humanity from other demons, monsters and ghouls. He works at a secret agency attached to the FBI called the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, where he is helped by a psychic merman called Abe. All pretty normal superhero stuff.There’s a scene later in the film, where Hellboy and Abe are fighting two hell-hounds known as Sammael. Abe has to go into a water-filled sewer to fight one of the Sammael, and Hellboy gives him a reliquary to protect him from the monster. While underwater, unfortunately, the merman drops the reliquary and, unprotected by is divine influence, he is attacked by the hell-hound.

What struck me about the moment was how completely Catholic it was. The good Protestant would scoff at the idea that if you hang on to some object, you are protected from evil, while if you let it go, you are in mortal peril from demons. Your only protection from the Devil, in Protestant thinking, was your conscience and moral will, not any reliquaries, talismans, rosaries or other magical objects.Such beliefs are much more common in the Catholic Church (so it’s no surprise to discover both Guillermo Del Toro and Mike Mignola are Catholic), but really they are older than Catholicism. They are animist.

Animism is the belief that, in the words of the Greek philosopher Thales, ‘everything is full of gods’. The world is teeming with spirits – earth spirits, river spirits, mountain spirits, wood spirits, house spirits, sauna spirits, demons, satyrs, angels, demi-gods, gods and the souls of our ancestors.
Humans, in an animist world-view, are more or less at the mercy of such spirits. Our psyche is like a rickety old shed that can easily be invaded by outside forces. We can be cursed by them, attacked by them and even possessed by them. On the other hand, we can win their favour and support, connect through them to our environment, and gain superhuman powers through their intercession. If we know how to control such spirits, we could rise even to the level of gods.Animism is the bedrock of humanity’s religious belief. It is what we all believed until very recently, and is what around 40% of the world’s population still believe. In Africa, for example, the most common mental disorder (if that is not an imposition of Western psychological terms) is still spirit possession. Spirit mediums can still sometimes play a major role in African civil wars, rousing armies to follow them with their claim to a direct link to the spirit-world, which they claim grants them special powers such as knowledge of the future or immunity to bullets.
Many Japanese people still believe in Shinto, and worship the kami, or spirits, whether of specific places or of deceased ancestors. I remember staying with a Japanese family when I was a teenager, and when I left being invited to say goodbye to my friend’s grandfather. I wondered where they kept the old man hidden away, and then was taken to a small shrine, where I rang a bell to say goodbye to the grandfather’s spirit.

In eastern Siberia, shamans still exist and practice. Shamans supposedly have the power to travel at will into the spirit world, and protect their tribes from the onslaughts of evil spirits and black magicians, while helping them to keep in favour with good spirits and the souls of ancestors. The shaman, through the help of the spirit-world, gains superhuman powers, such as the ability to fly, to heal the sick, to control weather, to communicate with animals, and to transform themselves into animals and birds. Similar shamanic beliefs existed among Native Americans, and still exist in the figure of the brujo of Central and South America.

Even in Europe, particularly in rural areas, many people still believe in ghosts, ghouls and nature spirits, and in the possibility of humans being possessed by devils. In Russia, for example, rural animist beliefs managed to survive the Soviet Union, such as the belief that domestic accidents are caused by the domovoy, or spirit of the house, or that you should make an offering to the spirit of the banya before using the sauna. Indeed, my neighbour when I lived in Moscow, a ballet dancer from the Bolshoi Theatre, believed the arts in Russia had declined because the spirit of Lenin was angry at not receiving a proper burial.

Animist or magical beliefs were very common in Western Europe up until the Protestant Reformation. Every parish would have its witch or cunning man who could ward off curses, read the future, interpret ominous dreams, communicate with dead souls, and give you amulets, charms or potions to protect you from bad spirits and win the support of good spirits.

The medieval Catholic Church maintained an uneasy truce with such animist and magical beliefs, and to some extent helped assimilate them into the Church, for example with the cult of the saints, with different saints supposedly having different powers to protect individuals from bad luck and devilry. St Christopher, for example, is considered the patron saint of travellers, and when I went on my Gap Year, my Irish grandmother gave me an amulet with his image on it, to protect me on my travels.

Saints assumed many of the powers of shamans and cunning men: the ability to prophesy the future, heal the sick, control the weather, encourage the harvest, magically transport heavy objects, and even fly. There was a levitating monk called St Joseph who inspired particular devotion. Indeed, he recently became the hero of a comic book.

One of the saints’ principal roles was to battle demons. Just as superheroes have their respective adversaries (Batman versus the Joker, Spiderman versus the Green Goblin), so saints, in medieval books of demonology, would be classified side-by side with the respective demons who they were particularly adept at defending against. Thus if you were plagued by the demon Gressil, you would call on St Bernard to defend you, or St Francis for the demon Belial, or St Peter for the dreaded Leviathan, and so on. The miraculous adventures of the saints and their battles with demons would be circulated among the masses in pictoral form via boldly-drawn woodcuts during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. These were perhaps early antecedents of the superhero comic book.

Saints would also be associated with specific places, with hills, mountains or caves, just as spirits had been before them. In Spain, you still have not one Mother of God, but several hundred. In modern Seville, for example, there are at least ten Madonnas, each associated with statues in specific churches and neighbourhoods, each with their specific powers, miracles and prayer-granting abilities. In such ways, popular animist beliefs have endured and survived even within monotheistic religions.

Such beliefs are not just the superstitions of the credulous masses. They also informed Renaissance magic, which was championed by some of the greatest intellects of the era, such as Pico Della Mirandola, Marcilio Ficino, John Dee and Giordano Bruno. For about a hundred and fifty years, after the fifteenth century re-discovery of Platonic and neo-platonist texts and Jewish Kabbalah, many European scholars believed they could draw down the power of the planets and even of angels through amulets, talismans, symbols and spells.

The Renaissance magus could, with the power of Kabbalah and neoplatonist hermeticism, command devils and angels, make statues speak and move, travel to astral spheres, channel the energy of planets, marry earth to heaven, and become akin to a God. “Behold now, standing before you, the man who has pierced the air and penetrated the sky, wended his way among the stars and overpassed the margins of the world”. Thus the Italian magus Giordano Bruno modestly described himself.

The Decline of Magic

And then came the clampdown. It started with the Protestant Reformation, which attacked the Catholic Church by claiming it was little better than a peddler of magic and witchcraft. The holy individual didn’t need wonder-working amulets, charms or icons, argued the Protestants. He needed prayer, good works, self-help, and the divine favour of the one true God. The Protestant churches banned the priestly office of exorcism; smashed Catholic icons, wood-carvings and stained glass window depictions of the miracles of saints; and then set about hounding out local witches and cunning men from rural communities.

This, in turn, helped spark the Catholic Church’s own Counter-Reformation, and its own frenzies of witch trials and heretic burnings, including a few unfortunate scholarly magi caught in the cross-fire, such as the magus Giordano Bruno, burnt at the stake by the Roman Inquisition in 1600.

But what really dislodged animist beliefs from the mainstream of European opinion was not the Reformation or Counter-Reformation, but the scientific and mechanistic world-view that superseded it. As Protestants increasingly emphasized the distinction between religion and magic, the spirit world receded more and more from nature, from fields, forests, rivers and mountains. The medieval and Renaissance world teeming with angels and demons was replaced by a world ruled by cold scientific and mechanistic laws, with God reduced to a distant watch-maker. As Keith Thomas has written in his classic historical work, Religion and the Decline of Magic: “The triumph of [Newton’s] mechanical philosophy meant the end of animistic conception of the universe which had constituted the basic rationale for magical thinking.”

Witchcraft, astrology, demonic possession and other magical beliefs became, in the eighteenth century, not so much threats to Christian orthodoxy, as simply old wives’ tales that no educated person would assert in public. Witchcraft stopped being a crime in mid-Eighteenth century English law, because judges simply stopped believing it was really possible to make a pact with the Devil.

The modern world, with its orderly laws of physics and economics, banished demons, sprites and angels to the kindergarten, to fairy tales written for children. Incidents of demonic possession were increasingly explained not by magic or religion, but by the fledgling science of psychology, as delusions brought on by melancholy or hysteria. By the early twentieth century, Sigmund Freud would define demons as repressed aspects of the unconscious haunting us until we integrated them. The psychologist had replaced the shaman and cunning man as society’s intermediary with the realm of the demonic.

Animism in the Folk Consciousness

And yet, if we examine the universe of comics and manga, we see that animist beliefs still exert a powerful influence over us, they still resonate in the folk consciousness. If these beliefs have been banished from the mainstream by Protestantism, Newtonian physics and liberal economics, they have not been entirely rooted out. First they retreated to eighteenth century fairy tales, then to Romantic literature and Gothic fantasy, until they found a particularly fertile breeding ground on the margins of our newspapers and in the pages of pulp magazines.

One can trace the history of these ancient beliefs, and see how the idea of the superhuman individual who gains his or her powers through a magical connection to the spirit world has endured, mutated, and somehow survived even in our rationalist and secular world. It was always stories told in words and pictures that carried these old folk beliefs. It was, in fact, the Protestant Reformation, with its attack on the image, which tried to sever this marriage of word and image, with its assault on the iconography of popular Catholicism. In some ways, comics have always been a rebellion against this Protestant divorce of word from image.

But why do we still need these old animist and magical beliefs? Is it just the remains of popular ignorance lingering at the margins of our minds like out-of-date tins of food at the back of the larder? What exactly do these animist beliefs in superhuman individuals do for us?

Animist beliefs give us the sense that there is a spirit world lying just at the margins of the mundane world of ordinary reality. You might fall down a rabbit hole, or walk through a cupboard, and suddenly you are in the spirit world. They give us a sense of mystery, of forces beyond our comprehension and control, peopling our otherwise banal environment. This is a much more exciting idea to the popular mind than the thought that our world is governed by unchangeable mechanistic laws.

What the magical view of the world promises us is that we, ordinary dim-witted mortals that we are, might suddenly stumble into the spirit world, and through bravery or sheer luck we might gain a boon there, a gift or a helper, which would give us extraordinary superhuman powers, so that we could return to the mundane world of the village or town, and dazzle our peers, impress the village wenches, and smite down our enemies and rivals.

If you look at the adverts for magicians in Kenyan newspapers for example (there is generally a whole section devoted to such adverts), the main services they offer is the ability to find hidden treasure, to cast love spells, to bring harm on one’s enemies, and to avert their curses. Such myths appeal to the ordinary individual’s sense that the world is a mysterious and confusing place, and wouldn’t it be great to have some magical talisman or familiar one could turn to in a tight spot.

The Superhero as Protector of the City

Animist hero myths also have an important civic function. One of the main things such myths ‘do’ is give us the consoling idea that our city is being protected from demonic or alien invasion. Hero cults are quite often connected with nationalism, with the idea of the souls of deceased heroes protecting the city-state from invading armies. Just as the shaman protects the individual’s psychic integrity by expelling the parasite demons, so the hero protects the city’s sovereign integrity by expelling or repelling invading forces at the city’s borders, or parasitic enemies lurking unseen within its walls.

Thus one of the most powerful hero cults in ancient Greece was the Spartan cult of the 300 warriors who gave their lives at Thermopylae to defend Hellas from the invading Persian army. Their sacrifice was thought so heroic that their souls were worshipped with blood sacrifices. Supposedly the souls of dead heroes had the power to protect the city from beyond the grave.

Icons and statues of the saints were also thought to grant protective powers to cities in battle. The Russian army carried icons out to fight the invading army of Napoleon, and when the Soviet Union came to make a statue commemorating the victory of General Zhukov over Nazi forces, he was depicted crushing the dragon of Nazism, as St George (patron saint of Moscow) had killed the dragon before him.

The hero-worship of the souls of fallen soldiers extended into the twentieth century, and can be seen in Nazism’s elaborate torch-lit rituals honouring the souls of dead German soldiers, who had supposedly been betrayed by the corrupt liberalism of the Weimer Republic. As late as this year, you perhaps see remnants of this sort of cult in the very emotional reaction among Russians to the Estonian decision to remove a statue commemorating the fallen soldiers of the Red Army, as well as moving the graves of the soldiers themselves.

The role of ancient hero cults in protecting the city certainly survives in superhero comics, in which the job of the superhero is pre-eminently the protection of the city. The superhero may occasionally save the world, but he is usually protecting the inhabitants of a specific city: Batman protects Gotham City, Superman protects Metropolis, Judge Dredd protects Mega-City One, and so on. Never mind the rest of the world, their main loyalty is above all to their City. The satirical superhero cartoon The Tick sends up this idea in its first episode, where superheroes attend a competition to see which city they will be allocated to protect.

The idea of statues of heroes protecting the city is perhaps echoed in the iconic images one often sees in comics of the superhero standing on the roof of a skyscraper, overlooking and protecting the city like a statue or gargoyle.

A lot of the time, superheroes protect their towns or cities from demons from the spirit world or underworld. This was the role of the shaman and the saint, and it endures in comics. Thus Buffy the Vampire-Slayer, created by the former comics writer Joss Whedon, protects her high school from the demons that pour from the hell-mouth beneath it.

But an equally important role is to defend the city from foreigners, from alien invaders, just as Asterix defends his village and its women from the armies of the Roman Empire.

It’s no surprise that the Golden Age of comics, in terms of sales, was during World War II, when superheroes like Captain America would often battle Nazi or Japanese forces in the pages of DC and Marvel comics. Indeed, at one point the Statue of Liberty herself became a comic book superheroine, battling invaders with her flame-throwing torch of freedom.

Releasing The Savage

The danger of such myths is that they speak to a very tribal and primitive part of our psyches, and tend to heroize the exploits of our own soldiers while demonizing the opposing forces. The pre-eminent role of the hero and superhero, we remember, is to battle demons. So superhero myths when used in actual battles tend to de-humanize and demonize foreign armies. As Michael Chabon has said of the success of WWII-era superhero myths: “They fought the Japanese and demonized them, but this was what superheroes were made for.” (The Nazis also used comics, to dehumanize Jews in the eyes of German schoolchildren – a method that was sadly all too successful.)

Superhero myths survived WWII, and new villains had to be found. Thus, in the Sixties, superheroes spent a lot of time fighting Communist Russia and China, and a new breed of supervillain was created, like the Black Widow, the sexy Soviet spy. We saw the jingoism survive and thrive in the British war comics of the 60s, 70s and 80s, with their endless battles of heroic Brits against the evil Fritz, the sneaky Jap, and the cowardly Italian.

We still see this demonizing of threats to the Western World in modern comics, for example, in Frank Miller’s re-telling of the heroic exploits of the Spartan soldiers at Thermopylae, 300. Both the comic book and the film turn the invading Persian army from humans into either faceless drones, or deformed and debauched monsters.

You might think, ‘well, it’s just a comic book and not really related to modern politics’. But then you hear Frank Miller interviewed on American radio, discussing the War on Terror, and saying: “The entire western world is up against an existential foe… Nobody seems to be talking about who we’re up against, and the sixth-century barbarism that these people actually represent. These people saw people’s heads off. They enslave women, they genetically mutilate their daughters.” We might as well add that they eat babies.So there’s a danger, perhaps, that superhero narratives play to a simplistic and tribal aspect of our psyches, and this primitive aspect of our psyche can still feed into modern politics. The American foreign policy strategist George Kennan, for example, warned of a very dangerous trend in American foreign policy, which was the belief that “if we lose, all is lost and life will no longer be worth living; there will be nothing to be salvaged. But if we win, then everything will be possible; all our problems will be soluble; the one great source of evil, our enemy, will have been crushed; the forces of good will then sweep forward unimpeded”. This is a fairly good description of the world-view of most American superhero narratives.Superhero myths are also frequently celebrations of lawlessness, in that the superhero exists beyond the confines of ordinary human law. Superman may stand for justice, but the justice he metes out is extra-judicial. As Alan Moore has said, if superheroes really existed, they would be psychotic vigilantes, less like Superman, and more like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver.

The idea of the superman as an individual beyond law or conventional morality goes back to Plato. It is expressed in Plato’s Socratic dialogue, Gorgias by Callicles, who says: “the makers of laws are the majority who are weak…But if there were a man who had sufficient force, he would shake off and break through, and escape from all this.” This is just what Nietzsche imagines in Thus Spake Zarathustra, when he dreams of a superman strong enough to leave the inhibiting morality of the weak, strong enough to leave the legal confines of the state altogether, and forge his own morality, becoming a law unto himself.

The idea was picked up by Nazism, with its idea of the Nazis as an elite, a band of Teutonic knights, who existed beyond conventional morality, beyond decency, beyond pity, beyond international law. And perhaps this worship of power finds fertile soil in superhero comics as well. The psychologist Frederic Wertham, whose critique of comics, The Seduction of Innocents, helped lead to the Comics Code of the 1950s, said once in an interview: “Superman himself is the symbol of force, power and violence. It’s impossible to understand what happened in [Nazi] Germany, unless you understand that they were imbued with this Superman spirit. It is the abolition of law, even the laws of physics.”

Superhero myths could certainly be said to be frequently undemocratic. The superhero is necessary because the democratic state does not work, is not capable of protecting its citizens from external threats. Politicians are often seen as corrupt, weak, decadent. Superman says in the first Superman film, “I’m here to stand up for truth, justice and the American Way”, to which Lois Lane replies “You’ll be fighting every elected official in the country”.

The opposite of the superhero is the journalist, ironically considering superhero strips would sometimes be carried in newspapers. The birth of newspapers, the mail and other devices of information technology in the seventeenth century helped to push animist beliefs to the sidelines, says the historian Keith Thomas: “The general effect of these trends was to keep the provinces more closely in touch with the metropolis, to break down local isolation and to disseminate sophisticated opinion.” The arrival of mass journalism is like the arrival of electric lighting: it sheds light, dispels shadows and improves transparency.

But the superhero loves shadows, darkness, secrets. That’s why Superman has to wipe Lois Lane’s memory when she discovers his secret identity. While the journalist is the champion of the masses, superheroes often belong to elitist esoteric groups that work in secret behind the scenes, or they work for covert government agencies that corrupt democratic politicians want to monitor or close down, as do the heroes of Men in Black, or Hellboy. It’s not that far from superheroes being the equivalent of extra-judicial death squads. Indeed, in Alan Moore’s The Watchmen, one superhero, the Comedian, does dirty ops for the US government, such as assassinating Woodward and Bernstein, the journalists who uncovered Watergate.

While the journalist is the champion of the masses, of the little man, in superhero comics the masses are weak and helpless – that is why they need the intercession of magical forces to help them. As Mohinder says in Heroes: “Without the special ones [ie superheroes], the challenges of modern times – global warming, terrorism, shortage of resources – seem insupportable on our frail shoulders.” This sort of thinking can of course become the elitist belief that you can divide humanity into worthless sheep and a few strong individuals who guide the destiny of mankind. It’s this sort of thinking that led to the hero worship of leaders among uneducated masses in Nazi Germany, Maoist China, or Soviet Russia, where the masses adored that other ‘Man of Steel’, Stalin, even as he ordered them to their death.

You could go so far as to say that superhero myths are a rejection of modernity. Two of the earliest proto-superheroes to appear as strips in American newspapers were Tarzan and Buck Rogers, who both made their debut on the same day in 1929. What we see in both of them is a flight from the present: into a primitive past or a noble future, in both of which things are simpler, moral lines are more clearly drawn, and the opportunities for violence and acts of individual heroism are many.

Superheroes are a flight from the rationalism of the modern world, from what Max Weber called the ‘Iron Cage’ of rationalism in Protestantism and the Spirit of Capitalism. Part of that rationalism, as Weber noted, was the bureaucratization of modern life: the welfare state, the NHS, the web of government agencies and regulations through which the modern individual must try to find their way. The superhero was born in the 1930s, during the New Deal, which was the greatest increase in the size and power of state bureaucracy yet seen in politics.

Superhero myths express a longing for a simpler kind of politics, for an earlier age, when the people felt a strong emotional bond to a charismatic warrior or prophet.
Weber defined the charismatic leader as akin to a superhero, in that the charismatic is “endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These as such are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as divine in origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader.” We remember that charis means gift in Greek, so it’s not so far from the Greek or animist belief that superheroism is granted as a gift by the Gods or the spirit world.

In a century of mass movements, mass production, mass employment – a century of the masses in other words – superhero myths celebrated acts of individual heroism. They hark back to tribal times when an individual could make a difference to the future of the tribe, could ‘save the day’. The heart of superhero myths, like other heroic narratives, is the trial by individual combat, the wrestle, the boxing match, the fighter-pilot dog-fight, the Western duel.

As Weber noted, the modern bureaucratic state asserts a monopoly on violence, while we long to escape from this cage, to indulge our pre-civilized desire to beat up, torture and kill our enemies. Comics give us an outlet for this bloodlust. They release the wild man from the iron cage.

This explains perhaps the many wild man heroes of comic books, such as Tarzan, Jungle Jim, Sheena Queen of the Jungle, Conan the Barbarian, Wulf the Barbarian, Slaine, or manga’s Violence Jack. These figures exist before the creation of the modern state, and are unhindered by its ban on unauthorized violence. They are free to give way to berserker rages, like the ‘raging furies’ of Captain Hercules Hurricane in the British comic Valiant, or the terrifying battle-paroxysms of the warrior Slaine, in the British comic 2000AD, who warps into a beast during battle by tapping into the energies of the earth goddess Danu.

This is part of the attraction, no doubt, of the ultra-violent graphic novels of Frank Miller, such as Sin City, 300, and The Dark Knight Returns. Miller’s characters, and perhaps Miller himself, hark back to a simpler time when we could indulge the bloody joy of torture and murder (in the defence of innocent women, naturally). In the final words of his graphic novel, The Big Fat Kill, as the hero and heroine machine-gun down a crowd of bad-guys: “the Valkyrie at my side is shouting and laughing with the pure, hateful, bloodthirsty joy of the slaughter…and so am I.”

Or you have figures who have a civilized, every-day self, and then a secret uninhibited, wild self, like Clark Kent and Superman, like Bruce Banner and the Incredible Hulk. The original for this type of split self is, of course, Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and indeed Mr Hyde has had an enduring influence on comics – he was a super-villain in Marvel comics of the Sixties, and a member of Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

So superhero comics are imperialist, jingoistic, anti-democratic, anti-civilization and devoted to the worship of uninhibited violence and (in manga) frequently rape as well. They come from the same dark, tribal and irrationalist part of the psyche that led to fascism.

Facing the Darkness

But we can’t say that comics created this part of our psyche. Perhaps they help us become more aware of it. Indeed, the present generation of comic book writers is very much aware of the amoral and even fascist strains in superhero myths, and they consciously explore them. The costume and character of Judge Dredd, for example, was consciously modelled on Franco-era Spain, although this, and the fascist tendencies of Dredd himself, did not seem to put readers off. “The more fascistic we made him, the wilder the readers went”, notes Dredd’s creator, Alan Grant.

Jamie Delano, creator of Hellblazer, has said that comics “are shining a light on the beast which crouches in the corners of our minds, giving us a chance to both recognize it and oppose it”. This is true of the most conscious hero myths – they make us aware that the demon the hero is fighting is actually a manifestation of his own psyche, a reflection of himself. This point is made in Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver, in the famous scene where Robert De Niro stands in front of a mirror and says ‘you talkin’ to me?’, practicing playing the heroic vigilante to his own reflection. The point Scorcese or writer Paul Schrader seem to be making is that this particular violent ‘hero’ is fighting his own shadow, his own demons, projected onto external figures.

We see a similar exploration of the hero myth in Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy, which to my mind is the greatest hero myth we have in our culture. At the beginning of it, Oedipus the heroic slayer of the Sphinx and saviour of Thebes is trying to discover what evil lurks in the heart of Thebes. As the play carries on, Oedipus realizes that in fact he himself unconsciously committed the crimes he is investigating. He is the monster he is seeking, the shadow he is pursuing. When he discovers this awful and humbling truth, the chorus says:

“Some demon of the night,
Some destructive impulse in man, prowling
Silently around you, waiting its chance,
Has sprung with inhuman strength, howling
At your throat.”

And yet Oedipus’ true heroism is that he doesn’t project these demons onto others, and then blame them for his mistakes and suffering. He takes responsibility for them. He says: “I’m the one / Who must bear the guilt and the punishment / And the shame. And I must bear it alone.”

While the rest of us run from our demons or project them onto others who strike us as strange, alien or threatening, Oedipus has the moral courage and self-awareness to confront his demons, to endure their wrath, to endure the loss of everything he has. And yet this submission, this annihilation of his ego, leads to a transformation.

By the second play in the trilogy, Oedipus at Colonus, the demonic spirits that tormented him are placated, and become his helpers, granting him magical powers. He becomes a shaman-hero, in touch with the chthonic spirits, able to see the future and to read the signs of nature, and his body has magical powers to protect the city where he is buried. So the hero goes from being a demon-slayer to the integrator of the daemonic.

Why do we need such heroes? Civilization, as Freud told us, forces us to repress or hide the primitive aspects of our self – the violent, the sexually uninhibited, the wild.As we hide or repress these parts of us, they become demonic and hostile to our conscious selves. They attack our realities, trying to gain expression and release. Our selves become divided and at war, like Jekyll and Hyde.

At a simple level, comics, like dreams, provide an outlet for that which is forbidden by civilization. Manga, in Japanese, means “irresponsible pictures”. Comics take us to the forbidden underworld – that’s why so many superheroes live in caves, like the Batcave, and why comic book stores like Forbidden Planet in London are so often underground themselves.

The underworld is home to demons and monsters. But, if Jung is to be believed, it is also the source of our divinity, and home to powers and forces that we have forgotten, and to spirits that guide us on our journey. Joseph Campbell wrote: “the human kingdom, beneath the floor of the comparatively neat little dwelling we call our consciousness, goes down into unsuspected Aladdin caves…There not only jewels but also dangerous jinn abide: the inconvenient or resisted psychological powers that we have not thought or dared to integrate into our lives.”

Campbell suggests, rightly, that the highest hero myths provide us with a map for this journey. They “carry keys that open the whole realm of the desired and feared adventure of the discovery of the self”. And a crucial part of that discovery is the confrontation with our daemonic self, the parts of us we have hidden or left behind in the progress of civilization.

We must confront the Unconscious, recognize it, take responsibility for it and integrate it, if we are to continue on our journey to enlightenment. Campbell writes: “The hero…discovers and assimilates his opposite (his own unsuspected self) either by swallowing it or by being swallowed. One by one the resistances are broken. He must put aside his pride, virtue, beauty, and life, and bow or submit to the absolutely intolerable. Then he finds that he and his opposite are not of differing species, but one flesh.”

Very few modern superhero myths have the awareness to speak of this confrontation with the daemonic, and its re-integration. But some do. We think of the Star Wars trilogy, where Luke is training with Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, and is told by Yoda to descend into a cave to confront his own dark side. There, he meets a dream image of Darth Vader, slays him, and then sees his own face beneath Vader’s mask.

This experience gives him the strength and wisdom not to fight Vader when he confronts him in Return of the Jedi. He has recognized that Vader is connected to him, is an integral part of him, to be integrated and transformed rather than slain. So he has the moral power to refuse to fight Vader, to refuse to give in to anger, and this submission transforms Vader into a magic helper – Vader kills the emperor and the Death Star is destroyed.

A similar mythical pattern takes place in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, which to my mind is the best drama there’s been on TV. Like many of Lynch’s dramas, Twin Peaks is an animist journey into the demonic realms that lurk below our kitsch civilization. FBI agent Dale Cooper is, in some respects, a superhero, in that he manages to win the supernatural help of magical spirits – the giant and the dwarf – in order to fight Bob, the evil wood-spirit that possesses various citizens of Twin Peaks. Eventually, he journeys into the Black Lodge, a mythical place within the woods, to try and save his girlfriend. There he confronts his daemonic self. We are told only those with a pure heart will survive this confrontation – only those willing to endure the annihilation of their ego. Unfortunately Dale seems to lose this challenge, and he has become possessed by the evil spirit Bob as the series end.

The greatest animation films to imagine a confrontation with and re-integration of the daemonic are Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, and his earlier film Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. These films are, to my mind, the greatest animation movies we have, together with other works of his like Spirited Away and Porco Rosso.

In Nausicaa, human civilization has managed to turn the planet into a wasteland. Most of the land is dominated by a toxic forest, guarded by slug-like earth spirits. The humans battle over what is left of the farmable land, and try to destroy the spirits and the toxic forest. The more they fight the spirits, the angrier and more destructive the spirits become. Nausicaa, however, realizes that the toxic forest is actually healing the earth, purifying it of pollution. She understands that the spirits, the protectors of the forest, are an important part of the eco-system, and that human existence depends on them.

At the end of the film, as the humans are trying to kill the spirits and the spirits are threatening the humans’ city with destruction, Nausicaa flies out to confront the spirits, and gives her life to calm them and placate them. Her sacrifice transforms their wrath. They are mollified by her sacrifice, and magically regenerate her. She becomes the saviour of the city – the intermediary with the spirit world.

Likewise, in Princess Mononoke, the world of humans has become out of balance with nature. The spirits of nature, no longer heeded or respected by humans, have become demonic, and try to attack and destroy human civilization. The nature spirits are led by a magical warrior-princess called Mononoke. The only person who doesn’t try to fight the spirits is Ashitaka, a warrior who has been wounded by a demonic boar. He sees that the nature spirits are just trying to restore the natural balance, and that they are necessary for the flourishing of life on the planet. He risks his life trying to intercede in the battle between civilization and the spirit world, and though the humans’ city is destroyed, a new and better civilization is born, one which will perhaps be more in harmony with the planet.

The superhero, in these films, is like the Romantic poet or the tragic hero. They are the heroic intermediaries between civilization and the spirit world of nature that humans have left behind. They are seized, possessed, by spirits, who drag them down to the underworld. The hero manages to overcome this challenge, this death of the ego, and to make peace with the spirits.

He or she then returns to civilization, as the ‘master of both worlds’, helping us to accept the daemonic parts of us that we feared, helping to re-connect us to the spirit world, bringing the conscious world into balance with the unconscious, and thus protecting the conscious world (or the City) from destruction at the hand of demonic or unconscious forces. And this re-connection to the spirit world is also a re-connection to the world of nature. As Coleridge put it, the poet (or hero) helps overcome “the enmity of nature” – that feeling that our civilized selves are fake, inauthentic, out of touch and even at war with our deeper nature.

This old belief in the possibility of an animist relationship with the spirits of nature has been rejected from the mainstream of Western liberal, rationalist and capitalist society. And yet we find it, like a diamond in a junk shop, in the cheaply-printed pages of superhero comics, through which is expressed the longing, as Michael Chabon puts it, “truly to escape, if only for one instant; to poke one’s head through the borders of this world, with its harsh physics, into the mysterious spirit world that lay beyond”.

So superhero comics can turn up a lot of nasty parts of the psyche – nationalism, tribalism, sexual violence, moral simplification, the demonization of enemies. They speak to a primitive part of the psyche, which often feels itself at threat from invisible forces that it does not understand and before which it feels helpless. At their most basic level, they can appeal simply to the longing for violence and domination which civilization forces us to repress.

But higher forms of the medium can do more than this. They can help us to recognize, accept and transform the darker parts of our psyche. They can make us feel re-connected to our selves and to nature. Our divinity, Jung suggested, lies waiting for us in the dark underground of our souls, if we have the courage to descend there.

The artist, in this model of art, is the real superhero. He or she has the courage to descend to the depths, like Orpheus descending to the underworld, in order to re-connect us to the spirit world, and thus to our divinity.

This belief in the artist as superhuman medium between the mundane and the spirit world goes back to the earliest human art, to the idea that the shaman drawing a picture of a buffalo on the side of a cave would somehow win the favour of nature spirits for the tribe’s next hunting expedition. Shamans, as we’ll see, are artists as much as they were priests or doctors. They go into trances, become hosts to spirits, and then sing, dance, declaim verse and paint pictures.

The idea of artist-as-shaman appears in Western culture via Plato’s definition of the poet as a person possessed by divine forces, unconsciously sending a message from the Gods. The Renaissance loved this idea, and used it to develop the idea of the artist or poet as magus, able to control spirits, as Shakespeare’s Prospero could control the air spirit Ariel. Marcilio Ficino, meanwhile, helped develop the idea of the Orphic poet, who could interpet the secret signs and correspondences of nature and control the influence of the planets with his music and verse.

When the Protestant Reformation and the ensuing scientific revolution pushed animist and magical beliefs to the sidelines, this belief in the magical power of art was also marginalized. The polite eighteenth century poet Alexander Pope might describe the spirit world in his poem, The Rape of the Lock, but his description is reduced to little more than an amusing literary device.

The Romantics, however, passionately resurrected this idea of the artist as spirit-vessel in their rebellion against the rational and mechanistic world-view of their era. The poet, in the works of Coleridge or Wordsworth, was a man possessed, seized by the spirits of nature and made to act as their conduit, their lightening conductor, in order to communicate their message to mankind. Or the artist was a sorcerer who created Golem-type animated figures, like Dr Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s Gothic fantasy.

The last gasp of this exalted view of the artist in European culture was probably in the 1920s, with modernist artists like Kandinsky or Duchamp, both of whom were influenced by alchemical or shamanic ideas, and with modernist writers like TS Eliot or Antonin Artaud. But the anti-democratic and often pro-fascist stance of some of the key figures in modernism helped to further discredit the view of the artist as some sort of exalted emissary from the spirit world.

As our idea of art has become less and less exalted over the last century, so our conception of the poet or writer has calmed down, until the writer is now, in the modern mind, simply a peevish and vain man trying, like the rest of us, to get paid and get laid.

But at the margins of culture, below the radar of mainstream literary culture, the comic book artist rebels against this mundane and commercial view of art, and reclaims the exalted conception of the artist as shaman. Thus Alan Moore, one of the most famous writers in comics today, said in a recent interview: “I think that artists have been sold down the river… I think that over the last couple of centuries, Art has been seen increasingly as merely entertainment, having no purpose other than to kill a couple of hours in the endless dreary continuum of our lives. And that’s not what Art’s about, as far as I’m concerned. Art is something which has got a much more vital function.”

Moore takes the view that European art, up until the last two centuries, was profoundly influenced by magic, and even in the last hundred years some of the best art was connected with occult beliefs. The artist communicates with the spirit world, and connects mundane society to that world. Comics, he suggests, are resurrecting this old tradition.

He is himself a practicing sorcerer, seeing himself as in the tradition of scholarly magi like John Dee and Girolamo Cardano. Like those figures, he believes he has been visited by spirits from other dimensions, including by a snake god called Glycon that he connects to the Greek snake-god Aesculapius. In this, again, he is connecting to an old tradition in European culture – Sophocles also believed he was visited by the god Aesculapius in the form of a snake.

Other comic artists are also practicing magi – Alejandro Jodorowsky, for example, who wrote the cult comic series The Incal, is also a practicing tarot magician and healer. And the idea of the artist as shaman or spirit-conjuror is very much alive within comic narratives. The father of the modern comic is considered to be the German artist Rudolph Topfer, whose works including a graphic re-telling of the myth of Dr Faustus, who sells his soul to the Devil in return for superhuman powers.

Another of Goethe’s stories of spirit conjuring, a poem called the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, was a main influence on Disney’s Fantasia, where the sorcerer Yensid (Disney backwards) has extraordinary powers to channel spirits into household objects and make them dance at his command. If you think about it, what is Disney’s Magic Kingdom if not an animist paradise – talking candles, smiling flowers, giant mice, dancing teacups…It is our animist past, recreated and repackaged as a theme park.

We see the neo-Platonic idea of the artist as a being possessed by spirits in the first ever issue of Spiderman, in which we see the writer Stan Lee sitting at his desk in the middle of the night, unable to sleep, with superheroes leaping around his head and resting on his shoulders like spirit familiars. The comics writer Neil Gaiman has also repeatedly explored the idea of the artist as someone who channels or makes pacts with spirits from other dimensions, in his comic series The Sandman. And the tradition has its most recent addition in the figure of the artist Isaac Mendez, who goes into a trance and paints the future in NBC’s Heroes.

So there’s a strange situation where comics, supposedly the irresponsible child of the ‘serious’ arts, is actually arguing for a more dignified and exalted conception of the arts than exists in the cultural mainstream. The comic artist, at least in their own conception, has a crucial role to play in our society, in connecting us to the spirit world that we left behind some two and a half centuries ago after the Protestant Reformation. We may not literally or consciously believe in these animist beliefs anymore. But the success of comics and superhero myths in the last 70 years shows that, whatever we say publicly, these myths still resonate powerfully in the folk imagination.