If you’ve never read a Tim Powers book, go do yourself a favor and check out The Anubis Gates, which ranks in my top 3 favorite works of fiction. One of the underlying themes in the book is the idea that over time, magic has become more and more difficult to perform, and that the spread of Christianity is somehow responsible for this.
Now, this is neither here nor there, because Anubis Gates is very much a work of fiction. The primary theme, after all, is time travel, and his other books have revolved around voodoo, Kabbalah, and in one case, magical beer. The curious thing is that if you read very old books, you will often find exactly the same idea expressed: magic was real, but Christ has stopped it.
I noticed it particularly in Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. There, he is addressing non-Christians, and uses the death of magic as a proof of Christianity:
When have oracles ceased and become void of meaning, among the Greeks and everywhere, except since the Savior has revealed Himself on earth? … When did the practice and theory of magic begin to be spurned under foot, if not at the manifestation of the Divine Word to men?
Again, in former times every place was full of the fraud of the oracles, and the utterances of those at Delphi and Dordona and in Boeotia and Lycia and Libya and Egypt and those of the Kabiri and the Pythoness were considered marvelous by the minds of men. But now, since Christ has been proclaimed everywhere, their madness too has ceased, and there is no one left among them to give oracles at all. Then, too, demons used to deceive men’s minds by taking up their abode in springs or rivers or trees or stones and imposing upon simple people by their frauds. But now, since the Divine appearing of the Word, all this fantasy has ceased, for by the sign of the cross, if a man will but use it, he drives out their deceits.
And what is one to say about the magic that they think so marvelous? Before the sojourn of the Word, it was strong and active among Egyptians and Chaldeans and Indians and filled all who saw it with terror and astonishment. But by the coming of the Truth and the manifestation of the Word it too has been confuted and entirely destroyed.
What is noteworthy here is not so much the argument as the axioms. Athanasius takes it as a given both that magic exists, and that it is fading, and he assumes that his critics will think the same. This was apparently something that would be so obvious to anybody living in this time period (ca. 320AD) that it can simply be taken as an axiom. What his readers may doubt is that Christ is the cause of this, and in this case Athanasius actually invites them to try it out for themselves:
Anyone, too, may put what we have said to the proof of experience in another way. In the very presence of the fraud of demons and the imposture of the oracles and the wonders of magic, let him use the sign of the cross which they all mock at, and but speak the Name of Christ, and he shall see how through Him demons are routed, oracles cease, and all magic and witchcraft is confounded.
In a book filled with Platonic-style proofs, this is the only part where he actually gives the reader an experiment that they can try themselves. That is how confident Athanasius is in this argument. It is hard to imagine that he would have felt this way if he had not personally witnessed the experiment carried out on numerous occasions.
Athanasius is not alone. The great pagan historian Plutarch, born not long after Jesus died, also noticed a great weakening of magic, to the point that he dedicated one of his dialogues to explaining it. It is here that we first hear of the death of Pan:
Suddenly from the island of Paxi was heard the voice of someone loudly calling Thamus, so that all were amazed. Twice he was called and made no reply, but the third time he answered; and the caller, raising his voice, said, ‘When you come opposite to Palodes, announce that Great Pan is dead.’ On hearing this, all, said Epitherses, were astounded and reasoned among themselves whether it were better to carry out the order or to refuse to meddle and let the matter go. So, when he came opposite Palodes, and there was neither wind nor wave, Thamus from the stern, looking toward the land, said the words as he had heard them: ‘Great Pan is dead.’ Even before he had finished there was a great cry of lamentation, not of one person, but of many, mingled with exclamations of amazement. As many persons were on the vessel, the story was soon spread abroad in Rome, and Thamus was sent for by Tiberius Caesar.
Tiberius reigned from 14-37AD; it is not hard to see why this tale later became beloved by Christian apologists, including the historian Eusebius.
All of this implies an intriguing possibility: what if magic really was real, but is simply no longer effective? Sadly, I can think of no way to test this, so it will have to remain nothing more than an intriguing possibility.