20.1.08

Power of the Literary Elite

It is perhaps indisputable to say that even from the earliest Hellenistic cultures, the educated and literary elite have held and protected the power granted to them through the knowledge of the written word. Guarding that power from the general public so as to more effectively control and exploit its general lack of understanding thus sustains the elite's own hierarchical advantage within society. In a time when the laws of nature were not fully realized; when people worshipped the sun as a god, knowing full well that their own lives were subordinate to the changing world that encompassed them, it is not surprising to see a large portion of the population put their faith and trust in those self-described magicians who declared they could commune, and indeed control the gods (and the laws of nature) by subjecting them to their own will through the mastery of language. The benefits of acquiring privileged knowledge must have been enormous in such a time: those who professed that they were humanity's ambassadors to the gods essentially had complete control over the fate of the world and subsequently, its inhabitants as well. What is indeed equally, if not more extraordinary to recognize, are the measures taken to prevent such Magic (or knowledge) from falling into the "wrong hands" -- those persons that could potentially manipulate the described power for their own purposes, namely to usurp the power and authority carried by the elite aforementioned. 

In 12th century BCE Egypt, magic was amoral, not considered to be good or bad. However, when King Ramses III was "attacked" by the magical rite of a disaffected priest who acquired the incantation from the royal archives, the very first trial of "sorcery" came into being. (Reader 53) The legality of the use of magic (or ancient literature) in and of itself was not what was on trial, but rather its use to undermine the King's power and authority-- as the trial concerning sorcery masked the underlying trial that concerned treason. 


In a time when just knowing how to read and write became a skill not often attained by most, we can see just how the power elite held onto that power. While most people were preoccupied with farming, fishing, and generally sustaining their lives, those persons in privileged positions were much more likely to have the free time to pursue "education" in order to fill the roles of those able to control the gods, in order to "preserve civilization." For instance, Prince Khamwas, son of King Ramses II was able to spend his time studying ancient monuments and books, looking for new books of magic while robbing graves to do so. (Betz xlii) Because he was freed from toiling and manual labor thanks in part to his privileged position, he could spend his time acquiring the knowledge and skills needed to justify and preserve his power.


Just as the egyptians had their own elite, so did the Greeks, Jews, and Manichaiens. However, the path to becoming a magician was so long and arduous that no one born in an unprivileged position could hope to learn the trade. For instance, the PGM IV 2359-72 Business spell (Betz 81) said that orange beeswax and the juice of the aeria plant and ground ivy were needed for the incantation to work. An elaborate set of steps were needed to ensure the spell to work and an offering of a cock topped it off. The obscure ingredients, specific steps, and skills concerning literacy to write down and read long and complicated words made sure that this knowledge could only be retained by those who had the time and knowledge to acquire it in the first place, leading to a cycle of privilege- the powerful would keep their power. Because no one had the skills to read or write, nor did they have the time to search for the ingredients, nor did they have access to any of these books because priests and magicians would often times bury their books with them when they died, the public had to rely on magicians to help them with their problems. To try to attain this knowledge on an individual level would be much too time consuming to seem reasonable.  


Thus, magicians from all different sects travelled around the country in order to better demonstrate the power of their tribe. These persons essentially became the very first "intelligentsia" of the times. However, as different groups came into contact with one other, their knowledge conflicted and the in group/out group mentality set the battlegrounds for political disputes over whose magic was stronger (and who was more powerful). As time progressed and those in magical positions of power were contested, much of the magic deemed "evil" was suppressed and destroyed. The homogenization of magic was thought to promote a more uniform and efficient social system, but instead proved to be more of a hindrance than a help. More and more sects demanded that they be allowed to practice their own idea of magic, and a rift between acceptable "religion" of the in-group and the unacceptable "magic" of the out-group established itself. In Acts 19:19, the apostle Paul declares Christianity to be the one true religion and many of the historical magical texts are burned and destroyed to ensure and promote a uniform belief. This kind of book burning should remind us of  the ceremonial book burnings the Nazis underwent in 1933 in which those texts that did not correspond with Nazi ideology were destroyed. As cultural dissidents were purged from mainstream thought, we can see the resulting environment that promoted religious persecution until the puritan immigration to America in the pursuit of religious freedom. 


The idea that education is the key for social mobility is very real even today. Education stratifies the general population into a hierarchy that is often times difficult to break out of. Higher credentials are given to those students who have more time and money to pursue higher education, reinforcing circles of prosperity and circles of poverty: the rich and powerful are afforded the means to acquire the education necessary to hold valuable and desirable jobs, while the poor, though given the slight chance for a full scholarship at times, are often times more likely to drop out to take on vocational jobs that are not given such prestige. Since there are only a small number of powerful jobs, education provides access for only a small number of students. It is in recognizing these similarities between the cultural and educational elite of today and those of the Hellenistic periods that we can see they have preserved their power and authority for over two thousand years. 

No comments: