On the Religion of Magi

This may be a form of extended naval gazing, but questions like these often come to me while I'm out on my morning runs:

What religion are Magi?

Obviously, this is a question with no single answer. In theory a maga could be just about any religion, and citations are made in the books of several.
Criamon have their own weird magic religion, of course.

Historically, Hermeticism as a religion is a curious religion/philosophy developed in Western Europe. It would take an entire essay just to discuss it, but I'll just quote from (and link to) Wikipedia:
"The tradition claims descent from a prisca theologia, a doctrine that affirms the existence of a single, true theology that is present in all religions and that was given by God to man in antiquity."
It's always been chiefly intertwined with magic, from its conception to its renaissance (literally, in 1460 in the Renaissance).

The curious part about the Hermetic tradition in Ars Magica is how devoid it is of this divine heritage. Indeed, the Order seems largely to be about stripping religious iconography. Mention is made of Hermes (Order of Hermes, after all) but little attention is given to this fact. I recall reading in the old Provencal tribunal book that there was one Covenant which was essentially a literal cult for Hermes - something which irritated non-pagan magi to no end. Mention is also made in the Divine book of how magi incorporate pagan traditions and how certain Holy Mages strip that from it.

There also comes a problem. The Problem of Three (or more) religions.
If the Pope, the Caliph, and the Exilarch enter a bar together, they will size each other up with their 25 magic resistance (+ dominion + relics yada yada) and argue this and that about Jesus and prophecy and end times and such, but it would be impossible to deny what they have always denied, which is that each tradition canonically is an equal conduit to God.

But what is a maga, observing in and with an eye to the deeper nature of the world, to think of such a meeting? From an outsider's perspective, if each of three contradicting traditions have equally valid claims to power, then they must all three must be wrong about major aspects of their core beliefs. And then don't even get me started on Zoroastrians or that one tribe on the Hesperides.
So, while magi can be Christians, Jews, Muslims, or whatever, but when they look out into the world, study it, and find these perfectly valid alternatives - is that not a faith-shattering event? How can one reconcile being an exclusive Christian and believing in the Trinity and the full and co-equal divinity of Jesus Christ when an Imam claiming Jesus was merely a prophet and some fellow named Mahomat or whatever has a far better claim to divine truth?
Further complicating this is the Empyreal problem - where we have divine auras totally stripped of human religious symbolism. Angels are involved with these religions but themselves adhere to none.
Magi can also travel to different realms where they see that not all fits in cleanly with the Bible et all.

This brings me back around to historical Hermeticism, and what I think is the likeliest answer to my question:
Most Hermetic magi are Hermetic.

They believe that there is one creator from which the universe erupted, and that universe emanates in different stages down from that divine source. The deities of magic are themselves emanations of this divine creator, not pagan lies, and Hell is the abode of negation or concealment from divine purpose.

In this view, magic is not only an acceptable pursuit, like a tradesman, but it is a fully valid act of unification with divine purpose. Not only that, but most magi probably believe that learning to embrace magic is indeed a vital aspect of their religion.

Mages require no priests and no doctrine because they are themselves the priestly class. Grogs may also subscribe to these ideas and look to magi for guidance.
Outsiders regard them as heretics, if they find out, and so much of the religion is shrouded in symbolism and secrecy.

Since variety of the spice of life, I propose a couple factions within this weird mystery religion:

Generally believe in the main principles of the unified religion. Hermes Trismegristus is a central figure. Heavily scholarly, these magi believe that the purest form of magic is the purest form of divinity, and so are very much into plumbing the secrets of the universe for truth.
They believe that earthly religions are not exactly wrong, but not right.
Neoplatonics do not reject the pagan gods. Instead, they see them as necessary aspects of the world, and are themselves paths to divine knowledge.
Some Neoplatonics may go so far as to say that the pagan gods are all literally different faces of god, or perhaps emanated Aeons who have a deeper nature.

Hermetic Theurgy from Mystery Cults is probably an excellent resource for these people.

A much darker form of this belief system, not only do they think that all earthly religions are partly wrong, they think that they are in fact corrupted. They point to the scandals of priests, imams, and caliphs, the terrible way peasants are treated, the way the Dominion aura seems to crush dissent and subsume people into a very obedient form and say that this cannot possibly be the correct way to go about it.
Gnostics believe that the god of the churches, mosques, and synagogues is in fact the Demiurge, a lesser (or even evil) divine entity responsible for creating the material world. His agents are in fact demons and the Dominion aura is just obfuscation. The true Divine auras are Empyreal, which emanate from the true good god and his agents who resides beyond the material plane.
Some gnostics may even go so far as to say that people who don't embrace magic are doing it wrong, that if you blindly accept the teachings of the church you will simply be reincarnated back into the mundane prison. Only through magic can one unlock the divine spark within - the Gift, doubtless - and ascend.

Critics of the gnostics point out inconsistencies - for instance, that Empyrean and Dominion do not seem to conflict. Priests gain the same benefits, angels aren't in conflict, so on and so forth.

Origenists (courtesy of Ramidel)
These are already canonical to the Order of Hermes, and aside from the astrological beliefs, they hold to the doctrine of the Perfectibility of Man and of Universal Reconciliation. No soul is ever eternally damned; instead they reincarnate until they achieve Heaven; in this, Origen's beliefs are semi-Gnostic, but do not admit to the idea of an evil Demiurge. They would be much more likely to hold to the idea that Christianity is "right," but with influence from Hermeticism they might branch out into a new religion entirely.

Already extensively covered in their own Mystery Cult. The ideas here can add a little flavor, though.

A non-hermetic faction. They refuse to swear oaths to Hermes. Their position on religious unity is unclear.

Also non-hermetic, where they exist. Most if not all are still solidly pagan.

It may be that magi who follow Hermeticism are able to strip the Dominion penalty in some fashion, similar to how Learned Magicians do it. Aside from that, this is mostly flavor.

Now, I know that it's stated explicitly several times that Criamon and the like are wrong. The Rival Magic book even sought to reassure me that Ragnarok could never happen. Honestly, I think these are boring and deplete from their interest - I'd rather find out in play what's right and what's wrong, and have that be relevant to my particular Saga.

Curious to hear thoughts, especially from scholars of Hermeticism, and how I might better integrate authentic traditions.

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I personally don't personally like your assertion that "most" Hermetic magi would study the Divine and look at the differences. You assert that the Order as a whole would care, which flies directly in the face of canon. Bonisagus' magic is "hermetic" in the sense that it's self-contained, and Hermes Trismegistus was used partly because of his links to the Cult of Mercury, and partly because he's a symbol of self-containment and sealed treasure chests. Following that thought, Hermetic magi usually study the Magic Realm far more intently than the Divine Realm, because that's the Realm that empowers them and the one they're interested in. And most sagas generally aren't about high levels of Divine or Infernal activity, so religion matters a lot less.

That said, it is an interesting philosophy for those who would care, and I'll give you a fourth group that would be interested:

These are already canonical to the Order of Hermes, and aside from the astrological beliefs, they hold to the doctrine of the Perfectibility of Man and of Universal Reconciliation. No soul is ever eternally damned; instead they reincarnate until they achieve Heaven; in this, Origen's beliefs are semi-Gnostic, but do not admit to the idea of an evil Demiurge. They would be much more likely to hold to the idea that Christianity is "right," but with influence from Hermeticism they might branch out into a new religion entirely.

Also, your suggestion for stripping the Dominion penalty is worth exploring for Neoplatonists. This can already be done through praying for the intercession of a saint, but that isn't a mechanic I'd want to call on reliably; I would instead argue that Neoplatonists would try to integrate Hermetic symbology into Holy Magic. (Faerie Magic would also be of interest to them, and depending on the individual Neoplatonist's view on the Infernal, Chthonic Magic as well...which could lead to the interesting situation of a Neoplatonist Mystery Cult that ends with magic aspected to all four Realms, albeit with Holy Magic's restrictions against sin restricting some of the applicability of Chthonic Magic.)

Another subject that would likely be of interest to Hermeticists in general is the definition of sin, since sin is measurable in Mythic Europe and causes problems for holy characters, but what counts as a sin is in fact different between the Divine religions. For an easy example, using alcohol is only a sin for Muslims. For a harder one, is dealing with demons or using infernal powers sinful? Canonically yes, but Solomon was known to have bound demons by God's will. Is it sinful under the prisca theologia or just under the prevailing views of the Church? Is there such a thing as a true sin, or does sin only exist under a particular system of revelation? (Well, any religion that doesn't have sin is Infernal in character...)

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I suspect that the magi, should they decide to study the issue in depth, would come to the conclusion the ancient pagan philosophers did:
all perspectives of the Divine are flawed. All Gods are an imperfect reflection of the Divine. Claims to be an exclusive conduit to the divine, or even a superior conduit to the divine are more about secular marketing of your religion than any valid claim of superiority.

Minor point. Islamic Jesus is more than "just another prophet". He is also Messaiah (redeamer), just not the "Son of God" or a divinity in and of himself. He is also the only prophet that still lives. Not ressurrected, but has never died. And it seems to me that Mary is more venerated by Moslems than by Protestant Christians.
I know of this historical Hermeticism you speak of. It is intriguing and worked well for a related game about wizards back in the 90's. But it never really fit for Ars Magica. Ars is anachonistic though.
Provencal still has a (mostly) pagan covenant in ArM5. Aedes Mercurri (aka Doisettep) is strongly affiliated with the Cult of Mercury on many levels.

Magi are scholars and scholars tend to care about quite a lot of things, even things that lie outside their immediate and narrow area of expertise. I have trouble imagining any intelligent person who isn't intimately interested in the deeper nature of reality - not that intelligence is a prerequisite for being a Magus, but it sure does help.
I'm curious to know where in canon it asserts that they wouldn't care - I will fairly state that I may have missed it.

All my recollections of in-universe musings about the Magic realm suggest that many magi believe it emanates from the Divine. That bespeaks interest.

Where also does it state that Hermetic here is meant in the sense of sealed off? That usage itself derives from magical practice, after all - and it wasn't in use until the 17th century.

All extremely interesting and pertinent questions, I like your lines of thought in that last paragraph especially.
A special Mystery Cult that has a version of each integration, meant specifically to sanitize and sanctify each Realm, would be interesting. Canonically there is no good way to deal with the Infernal, but historically this was a major preoccupation with medieval magicians. Just look at Learned Magicians again (which is one of my favorite hedge traditions, if it weren't obvious.)
May bear some exploration into Solomonic magic. I haven't read as extensively into that as I'd like.

Yeah, that's the thrust of my post :smiley:

Yeah, but I didn't want to get too into that. The Jews would also have something to say about it. My point was more to say that there's no way a rational person can look at this argument and conclude that one side has it all.

Which is that? I'm genuinely curious.


Randomly, would this mean that religious leaders within the order receive Divine Resistance? They probably don't even notice thanks to their Parmas.

I don't think this happens. Not because of religiosity vs magic, but because of the Code of Hermes vs being in a politically major mundane position.

Well, Jewish leaders (in the time period) have little to no political authority. There's also cult leadership positions in the order itself.

Frankly it's mostly irrelevant, given that this is a magi-focused religion, but good to think on.

The Church would surely see it as a threat to authority (I mean, they would anyway. Look what happened to the Cathars.)

I know plenty of people who are highly intelligent and also not especially philosophical or nerdy. Usually that means they have an interest in another direction.

I'm drawing on my own interpretation of canonical sources. In general, it is known that Hermetic magi look down on non-Hermetic sources of power, including holy powers. My leap from that is that, generally, Hermetic magi make the study of Hermetic magic their life's work, and the majority wouldn't delve into deep analysis of the Divine Realm (in part, of course, because they don't have very good tools for such research).

Furthermore, the Order is secular in character. I emphasize "the Order as a whole" in my statement; individual magi have interests that are all over the place, but not all are going to be particularly interested in the Divine. This is particularly true as the Order has grown more conservative and more focused on Hermetic magic, and more hostile to foreign magic (look at how Durenmar treats hedge magic and hedge magicians - and note that Holy Magi are considered hedge wizards because they can't use magic to sin).

I'll note that magi are very interested indeed in the Magic Realm. That doesn't imply an interest in the Divine for its own sake, it implies an interest in something that affects their powers (e.g. the Limit of the Divine).

Actually, I appear to have drawn that from a discussion on this forum: https://forum.atlas-games.com/t/why-is-hermetic-magic-not-well-hermetic/9750/7

The point made is, however, correct. Hermetic magic is drawn from the self and the Gift, not from external powers (that's Theurgy). It's also an expressly secular art (HoH:TL 39).

Again, I'm not saying that individual magi are not interested in the Divine (as you noted, magi are intelligent and inquisitive people and are curious about lots of different things), but that the Order as a whole is not concerned with it. Also (ArM5 188) some magi scorn the Divine simply because it's a huge pain in the tail.

Monistic mysticism (TC 23) has some stuff on integrating the Realm Lores, though it's Warping-focused rather than Mystery-focused. As for the Infernal, look into Chthonic Magic (RoP:I 123); while the effects are somewhat ridiculous, the tamer part of the Virtue makes a lot of sense for a Holy Magus who does a lot of demon-fighting.

I strongly discourage to mix the RPG rules construct of the realms with real medieval philosophy. To be usable in an RPG, the ArM5 realms are necessarily simplistic. Making medieval religious thought 'real' in ArM requires applying the realms appropriately, not finicking around with their rules.

For natural philosophy and metaphysics, A&A assumes the medieval Aristotelian philosophy of the later 13th century to be true. This makes everybody - and in particular older magi - wrong in 1220. But some advanced scholars will be on promising tracks soon, and PC magi can contribute to and benefit of their achievements during standard campaign time.

Neoplatonism (see for a quick overview en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neoplatonism) already in the 4th century is not a distinct religion. Instead, both Pagans and Christians use it as structural underpinning of their theologies. it is an important foundation of the thought on Christian religion since the early Church Fathers, and throughout all the Middle Ages until full-fledged scholasticism in the later 13th century. You can find historical neoplatonist scholars of the late 9th century in Sub Rosa #16: Johannes Scotus Eriugena on p. 39, and Thabit ibn Qurra on p. 63 and passim.

It is quite logical to have some magi follow neoplatonism as well, and share in the debates of their time, how to apply it to Christendom (and even Islam). Given that all the Pythagorean heritage in the middle ages is conveyed through neoplatonism, The Mystic Fraternity of Samos (TMRE p.126ff) is really a neoplatonic brotherhood with a specific focus.


I'd say this couldn't be more wrong, but I'm not actually sure what you're trying to say. I should think that authentic philosophy has a very legitimate place in RPGs, so I must strongly disagree with you on that point, for I am pretty sure it is the point you are trying to make. Why on earth not? If your players are fully capable of handling it, by all means throw them some red meat.

The rest of your stuff is pretty good, though. I will definitely look into those guys.

About Hermeticism it is best to read first en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hermetica .

We talk here about esoteric texts conveyed to Mythic Europe either in neoplatonist context, or by the Order of Hermes proper. These might be found in older covenant libraries, or in the studies of philosophically minded magi, e. g. Brethren of Samos.
It is far-fetched to assume a religion based on them in Mythic Europe. But as they played a role in the resuscitation of neoplatonism during the Renaissance, they might lead magi to neoplatonism in Mythic Europe as well.


Not to get into the "but magic is more plausible?" bit, that's an argument that goes nowhere fast - however, we are proposing an alternative world in which a society called the "Order of Hermes" is a real thing, incorporating mystical traditions which, too, were only broadly brought back in the fifteenth century. Indeed a great deal of Ars Magica is either projected from the fall of the Roman empire or projected back from the Renaissance.

It seems equally plausible, if not more so, that with magic and evidence of its efficacy that Hermetic religion would not have died out, either.

We must otherwise ask ourselves what exactly the "hermetic" part of "hermetic magic" actually means, and I doubt it's exactly "sealed off."

Keep in mind also the timeline - Bonisagus was working on his theories at the tail end of the era where, in the real world, hermetic thought slowly choked to death. It becomes increasingly plausible that the name is no accident.

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Let's see.

I agree.

My point being, that one does not write encompassing RPG rules to conform with pretty complex specific late-antique philosophy. Is that what you disagree with?


Depends on the level of authenticity desired, but I think we can both agree that a certain level of abstraction is required, yes. My primary concern is when an abstraction deprives a subject of an essential quality.

Yeah, we definitely don't want to do any depriving of essential qualities. That would break the laws of magic.

... Okay, I'll let myself out.

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When ArM was invented, 'Hermes' might indeed have been chosen because it resounded of 'Hermeticism', and of 'Hermes Trismegistus'. But even if Hermetic Magic was based in part on the hermetica, it never was a religion, nor did it read these texts as religious revelations to follow.

Have a look at The Oracles of Didyma in TtA p.70ff: there you find ArM5 magi continuing a historical pagan cult. But the published Order of Hermes of ArM itself is not built upon a religion: that would be yours to change fyc.

In Mythic Europe Bonisagus developed his theories in the early 8th century, spending formative years in Egypt, Ephesus and Rome, where he might have been exposed to very late instances of Hermeticism. But in the game he was out for magic, not for religion - and the big discovery forming his own approach to magic was a secret cache of the Cult of Mercury's rituals in a well on the Aventine hill (HoH:TL p.5).

And the people he brought together with the help of Trianoma were that heterogeneous (from Birna to Jerbiton, from Merinita to Tytalus), that any idea of a common religion would have smothered the project of the Order of Hermes, before the first Oath of Hermes was taken.


I was going to make that joke, but decided it was too corny! :smiley:

While we're talking about ahistorical dichotomies, let's talk about magic and religion.

The idea that the two are separate and distinct is an exceedingly recent idea, born largely out of a post-secular context. Magic has always been the means by which people mediated with the unseen spiritual forces, and that much hasn't changed in Ars Magica. I think we are making a dire anachronistic mistake when we start conflating modern conceptions of magic in a medieval context.

The nearest thing to truly apersonal, nonspiritual forces is Natural Magic (termed Experimental Philosophy in Art & Academe). While viewed as arising out of a natural order created by divine forces, we might truly deem them as largely scientific. Even the Folk Witches are meant as survivors of pre-Christian practice.

All signs in Hermetic magic point to it having a fundamental basis in religious thought and language - Ilike every other magic tradition in history.
I hearken back to the comments on Holy Magic, a virtue which exists to move Hermetic casting away from pagan ideology to wholly Judeo-Christian thought. Such a concern would not be terribly necessary if it were indeed some pure scientific practice (unless one wants to argue that natural magic is in some way ungodly, which is contra-indicated by Art & Academe.)

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ArM's Hermetic magic, Order of Hermes and Houses of Hermes are 20th century fantasy concepts, from ArM2 on parachuted into a medieval setting. I believed - apparently by mistake - that this was utterly obvious.


That strikes me as a mite cherry-picked, since from Day 1 the game has been about understanding the universe within a medieval context.

You don't get much more vital to a medieval context than understanding the confluence of magic and religious conception. There were very few atheists in this time.