Al-Andalus: Kingdom of Magic

Al-Andalus: Kingdom of Magic

The first Darwinian biologists -eager heads brimming with notions of natural selection- observed a startling amount of same-sex pairings in the wild. A lot more than they were expecting.

Mother Nature, it appeared, was the first fag hag.

For instance, giraffes are very gay. (But you can tell just by looking at them. They mince.)

These observations were furtively documented as ‘adolescent sex play’ because the biologists’ findings didn’t match up with either their societal prudishness or their new pet theory of natural selection. How could same sex attraction be selected for?

Not only was it immoral, but it surely couldn’t exist in a natural world where only the fittest would survive. Where was the advantage to it and if such an advantage existed, how could it be passed on?

So they ignored it.

It’s only been in the last fifty or so years when data from observations spanning multiple generations have put the ‘adolescent sex play’ theory to rest. Because those cheeky gay giraffes didn’t grow out of it.

One of the current theories account for this is that same sex attraction provides societal stability for animals that have a dominant male with exclusive access to a large number of females -such as you would find among primates. Too many under-sexed males is never good for stability. There is a survival advantage in having some of the males go gay for each other.

Of course, it’s only an advantage on a group level but that is one of evolution’s many, many grey areas… Grey areas that Darwin himself freely admitted were there.

How does this relate to western magical history?

Because magic is like the gay giraffe. Whenever it has shown up -and it shows up everywhere- historians have brushed it aside. “That’s not a magic book. It’s an astronomy book.” And in the ninth century the difference was what, exactly? (By the way, pause to enjoy the mental image of a historian literally brushing aside a giraffe wearing lipstick and eyeliner.)

Whenever you see an historian referring to an ancient text as medical, mathematical or scientific you need to train your nose to smell out the conjure. Because, chances are, it’s right there under the surface.

Comme ça:

The Kingdom of Al-Andalus

Al-Andalus is the name given to the Spanish territory conquered by the Moors. And when I say conquered, recent evidence suggests that in most places they were welcomed with open arms. It turns out that the previous invaders -Germanic tribes- weren’t doing a particularly good job of running the place. So when these hyper-educated, innovative and organized riders appear claiming to be part of a vast empire stretching all the way to China… Well, who would you side with? (If they can fish the dead donkey out of the well they can have the town. That’s always been my standing policy.)

The name Al-Andalus is where we get Andalucia from. And yet no one can agree why it was called this in the first place. One idea is that it was “land of the Vandals” in reference to the Germanic Goths who were there at the time. Another is that it is Arabic for “Atlantis” (and indeed Spain would have been a continent in the/facing the Atlantic).

Speaking of being brushed aside, the Spanish orthodox view continues to be that the Islamic Moors who ruled most of their country for seven hundred years have nothing in common with how they live today and have contributed nothing to the development of Spanish culture.

This is despite the fact they introduced (and reintroduced) to Europe:

  • Modern ideas of agricultural rent that freed the workforce from indentured labour.
  • Cheques and credit.
  • Troubadour poetry.
  • Courtly love.
  • A vastly improved numeric system.
  • Night time maritime navigation (via the Ancient Greek astrolabe) that drastically reduced the cost and increased the speed of international trade.
  • … And paper.

It’s the last one that interests us most today.

You see, 711AD was another ‘perfect storm’ moment like 146 BC. In less than a hundred years, an empire had emerged that:

  • Spoke a single language.
  • Stretched from India and China all the way to the Atlantic. (Asia, Africa, Europe. Three continents.)
  • Included the city of Alexandria -and the remnants of its Great Library.
  • Followed a strict injunction from their God to seek and share knowledge.
  • Had the technology (paper) to follow that injunction.

So they were interested in knowledge, they had the God-given desire to share it over vast distances, they had a single language so it could be understood when it got there, they had an affordable means of copying learning (paper making which they got from China) and they had access to primary material from Alexandria… Not to mention India and the Far East.

The Islamic Empire was the internet of the first millenium.

If you want to know what this idea soup looked like then look no further than the Picatrix. We only pick up its tale as it is translated from Arabic into Spanish but it is basically a passport for the Islamic Empire -showing stamps of all the places it has touched.


The sheer volume of written work that poured into Europe -particularly Al-Andalus’s capital of Córdoba- was like nothing before seen. Itself, it was a gleaming city of stone and fountains with mechanical lions and a population of 100 000 at a time when London was nothing more than a pile of stinking wooden shacks beside a muddy river. (Some of them are brick these days.)

Just one of Córdoba’s seventy libraries had more than half a million books. At the same time, the Royal Library of France had 900.

The lights were about to be turned back on in Europe.

A magic diaspora

Much like the Moors arrival into Spain, it would appear there departure is a tale that has grown in the telling. For The Reconquista was little more that petty Christian kings gradually extorting and invading their way back down to the Med. (It turns out the famous El Cid was basically a gun for hire.)

Between the 11th and 13th centuries, Muslim rulers would be forced to pay “protection money” to the Christian invaders. This started a process of moving a lot of their treasures deeper into the continent. Of course, all the magical stuff -the good stuff- was still in Arabic.

Which is where Toledo comes in.

In 1085 scholars, kabbalists and philosophers descended on this town from all across Europe at the invitation of the city’s rulers. Jews, Christians and Muslims sat down together at tables in cafes and libraries to translate and read “the Doctrine of the Arabs” -basically the collected philosophical, scientific and magical works of the western world.

These weren’t just texts that had been lost for centuries, they also included the Arabic commentaries that the works had picked up along the way. This is extremely important. Islam had a mandate to seek, test and grow knowledge that was completely absent from Europe and had been for at least six hundred years. They learned but they also learned how to learn.

And what do you get when you combine ancient wisdom with fact checking with an open mind and the first glimmers of what would go on to become the scientific method?


One particular scholar in Toledo at this time was an Englishman called Daniel of Morley. He was over to translate and make copies of the Ancient Greek books of science, philosophy and wisdom. His journey was paid for by his patron, the Bishop of Norwich -also known as John of Oxford.

The cornerstone texts for the library of what would become the template for every university in the world were translated from Arabic in cafes of Toledo. By wizards.

It all gets a bit Discworld, doesn’t it?


When I was shooting a documentary on Nan Madol, I remember interviewing the country’s chief archaeologist and he had a theory as to why this bizarre stone city was built where it was on the island. (It’s a sunken city.)

It is where the tidal range was highest. It is the part of the sea that is most land, the part of the land that is most sea. It is neither thing. It is between things. Look at the magical locations we have so far examined, Ekbatana, late Republic Rome, Al-Andalus. They are layered places, ‘between’ places.

You find the greatest concentration of biodiversity in mangrove swamps. The fringes, the places that overlap, the places that are more than one place always, always give birth to new things.

So it is with Al-Andalus. West met East met West again in the sunny cafe courtyards of Southern Spain almost a thousand years ago.

It was here that western magic (re)enters the west, but it’s also here that we start to see emerging the prototype for both the scientist and the magician. For it wasn’t just the texts that Europe took from the Moors that made us modern magicians, it was also their approach to knowledge.

Let’s let our man from Oxford, David of Morley have the last word on the matter:

“From the Arabs I have learnt one thing; to lead by reason. I will detract nothing from God but very carefully listen to the limits of human knowledge… (O)nly where this utterly breaks down shall we refer things to God.”


Add yours
  1. 2

    For the win. (Following content is an embarrassment of girly-gushing fan letter — just FYI for the easily nauseated.)

    Oh geez. You are my favorite blogger right now and I just want to make a couple of points:

    1. I would pay really good money to read your connected history of the development of magic through time in hardback… perhaps put out through a university press and chock full of tasty references and ancient maps. Get on that, would you please?

    2. Black swans, shoaling, project management for magic — it’s like you create content just for me and my interests.

    3. “magic is like the gay giraffe” I want that on a coffee mug. I want that on a bumper sticker. Dude, I want that on a tattoo!

  2. 3

    One of my favorite movie quotes from all time is “you have sold me queer giraffes”. Now it will be forever associated with magic in my mind.
    Thank you, Gordon. :-D

  3. 4
    ConjureMan Ali

    Love this post. As a person who is very familiar with Islamic magic it is refereshing to see people re-examining Arabian and Islamic contribution to Western magick–and there are HUGE contributions.

    The historian in me needs to point out one thing. The Islamic empire wasn’t a monolithic entity, but rather there were different Caliphates who ruled in the different regions. For example the Umayyad and the Abassid.

    That said, well written and very interesting.
    ConjureMan Ali´s last blog post ..Raisin the Dead!

  4. 5

    I adore this post.I’ve always had a thing for Byzantine and Islamic spiritual practice, especially durring the high points of those cultures. It’s sad that so much is still untranslated, and there is still so little interest in the subject. Gordon, as usual your post made me smile.
    Jow´s last blog post ..Inside Magic- Outside Magic- and the Spirits

  5. 7
    The Accidental Illuminati

    […] always. The part on my beloved Occitania would be perfect if it mentioned or even speculated that Al-Andalus may have been one of the sources of Gnostic or Platonic thought seeing as the kingdoms were next to […]

  6. 8

    Islamic Moors also introduced chess to Europe around that time. Not quite as catchy a gay giraffe, but chess has been described as a mental virus that jumps from brain to brain (not always with benign consequences for the host). There’s more than a handful of obsessed chess players out there.

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