If you have watched any of the three installments in the series Magi you may or may not have noticed how the whole thing is a mishmash of religious and literary references. The manga adopts the flavor of a Babylonian creation story where a will-less Chaos is tamed by, instead of Marduk, the Biblical King Solomon who harnesses a Buddhic/Kharmic-like power of the cosmos and fate called the Rukh to save humanity and construct a new world. Three of the series’ central characters — Alibaba, Aladdin, and Sinbad — are co-opted from the frame-stories of Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights. There are enough story connections to make your head spin if you try making too much sense of them. I mean, look at all these hyperlinks! But the one literary text that is perhaps most relevant to Magi is The Lesser Key of Solomon, an actual, real-life grimoire and occultic text which (in the spirit of stories referencing other stories) hijacks certain biblical elements for its own.
The Lesser Key is an alleged record of Solomon, the world’s wisest and most knowledgeable king, and his accomplishments in the study and mastery of demonology (Spoiler Alert: it is no such thing). Magi plays as fast and loose with the The Lesser Key of Solomon as it does with all of the other narratives it adopts in service of its own story, but that’s still enough interaction to raise some eyebrows, especially among us Christian fans. What Gospel benefit can we hope to gain from a series that seems like one big gumbo of pagan beliefs and pages from a demonic spell-book? Answering that question will require us to dig into the mechanics of the story to see how it all ticks.
Magi’s story picks up at a time when massive and foreboding towers have sprouted up mysteriously in established countries. Magi are those persons appointed in each age by the spirit of King Solomon to lead candidates for a country’s kingship to its designated tower for testing. The djinn who controls the tower tests and tries the entrants in various ways to identify who is worthy of their allegiance and their demonic power. Djinns attach themselves to a vessel on the successful candidate’s person, and the power they provide their masters is directly proportional to the level of magoi within that master. Magoi is this Buddhic energy tied to a person’s life force; therefore, “Supplying magoi is the same as reducing your own life” (Adventures of Sinbad 1.11 “A New Visitor”). And when the vessel user wants to access a djinn’s power to full effect, they perform a “Djinn Equip” by calling upon their djinn to “dwell in [their] body” and become one with them (Magi: the Kingdom of Magic 1.2 “Departure”).
To make its ties to The Lesser Key even more obvious, Magi uses the text’s names for the various djinns (demons), some of which will assuredly sound familiar to those of you who read the Bible: Amon, Baal, Belial, and Astaroth (nominally associated with the pagan Asherah and Ishtar). The Lesser Key takes the Biblical person of Solomon and makes of him a mythical hero, a master and subjugator of demons. But, the opposite is true. The Bible tells us that Solomon was taken in by the idols and gods of his many wives and that the repercussions of his idolatries lasted 215 years until the time of King Hezekiah and the reforms of King Josiah 380 years later. Furthermore, the Bible makes clear that Solomon’s success as a king rested solely upon God’s providence and mercy toward Solomon’s sin, not upon some “power of Hell” or any “scheme of man,” as the hymn says. As Christians, we need to be honest about what’s going on in Magi: the series uses an occultic book of witchcraft as a playbook, attributes to Solomon a positive alliance with demons, and paints those demons as a legitimate source of power upon which a person can call through demon possession to harness that power for good.
Now, this is not the point where I want you to feel bad if you liked Magi. I liked Magi and still don’t think its a terrible show for all of the things I’ve said about it. The benefit of Magi is not in its positivizing of an occultic text or demons and human possession by them, but in how the series can’t help but play by the conventional Biblical standard despite those very pagan-like qualities. Yes it paints demons and their possession in a positive light, but it also can’t help but paint them in the way that the Bible paints them, as leeches. Demons in Magi make promises of power but require your life as currency; the inverse of saving grace which gives life and life abundant through the laying down of its own (John 10:7-18). Demons seem to have authority of their own, but they actually have only so much as is given to them, and certainly not supreme authority because they all recognize the authority of the Magi Aladdin (Matt. 8:28-34 ; Acts 19:11-17 ). But there is another biblical understanding of demons which the series seems to have stumbled into as well.
In Daniel Strange’s book, Their Rock Is Not Like Our Rock: A Theology of Religions, he summarizes his thesis this way:
From the presupposition of an epistemologically authoritative biblical revelation, non-Christian religions are sovereignly directed, variegated and dynamic, collective human idolatrous responses to divine revelation, behind which stand deceiving demonic forces. Being antithetically against yet parasitically dependent upon the truth of the Christian worldview, non-Christian religions are ‘subversively fulfilled’ in the gospel of Jesus Christ. (98)
Translated out of academic theolog-ese and into a more common parlance, Strange is saying that, because the Bible is true, we can know that (1.) pagan religions are lies; (2.) diverting worship away from the God who deserves our praise and toward a lie is the same sin committed by and peddled to our desires by demons; (3.) God is still in control and any truth found within pagan religions finds its fulfillment not in the lie of that false faith but in the person of Christ Jesus.
Strange then points to the event at Babel as the origin point of these various pagan religions. Babel was an attempt to do the logically impossible and erase the divide between created humanity and its Creator (just like the original sin in Eden). Strange makes the case with Herman Bavinck that the various cultures and their religions which were born out of the event at Babel are a continuation of rebellious humanity’s attempt at blurring the Creator/creature distinction by creating ethnic-specific worship of animals, inanimate objects, and even abstract states of being in lieu of no longer being able to unite together as one people under a common language (133). He then zooms in on the Mesopotamian ziggurat culture following the Babel incident as an example of guilt suppression within pagan culture, claiming that the tradition of tower building is an attempt to reframe the Tower of Babel as a divine creation event instead of a landmark of human depravity (134).
These two sections from Strange’s book describe exactly what is going on with The Lesser Key of Solomon and with the narrative of Magi by proxy. Both decontextualize parts of the Bible and then cut and paste them in with false religions and pagan practices. Magi takes things like demons, demonic possession, and even Babel references of its own (i.e. the concept of tower capturing) and then proceeds to twist them to look like good things, similar to the Mesopotamian twisting of Babel into a celebratory event. AND YET, with all of this being said, I think Magi still manages to tell a good and engaging story that tackles some surprisingly complex themes for a fantasy shounen. How does Magi succeed in doing this? One thing you can bank on, when Magi wants to pull at your heartstrings by appealing to something objectively true and good and beautiful, it can’t help but align itself with orthodox Judeo-Christianity. This is what Daniel Strange means when he says that false religions and stories which paint bad things as good things, like Magi, are “antithetically against yet parasitically dependent upon the truth of the Christian worldview” (98).
I will give more specific examples of how Magi manages to tell a story that testifies to the truth of the Christian worldview when I revisit this series in a second post. But I needed to say at the outset that just because Magi suffers from this inverted understanding of demons and where true power comes from doesn’t mean it can’t tell a good story in spite of those things. I would argue that the series’ pastiche of religions actually cripples itself with narrative contradictions by pulling the various faiths out of their familiar contexts and then mashing them together with other exclusive faiths. But there are also some truly good parts of the show and, as Daniel Strange points out, any truth, goodness, or beauty that can be found in the series are instances of subversive goodness in imitation of Christ.
If you want to watch Magi in all of its installments, it’ll prove a bit inconvenient. At the moment, Crunchyroll and Hulu both stream Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic and Magi: The Kingdom of Magic, but Magi: Adventures of Sinbad is a Netflix exclusive and only accessible through their services. Netflix used to carry the other two installments as well, but they recently let their license to stream expire as they are wont to do. Those of you familiar with Netflix are already experienced in such heartbreak, I’m sure.
– BtT Management