Ioan P. Culianu: Eros, Magic, Politics and Murder Remembered

I was recently going through my books when I found a signed copy of “Eros, Magic, and The Murder of Professor Culianu” by Ted Anton that was given to me by a friend. For those unfamiliar, Ioan P. Culianu (or Couliano) was a professor of divinity at The University of Chicago. He also taught Romanian history. His most famous work was “Eros and Magic in The Renaissance” which was a study on how magic in the Renaissance was “a scientifically plausible attempt to manipulate individuals and groups based on a knowledge of motivations, particularly erotic motivations. In addition, the magician relied on a profound knowledge of the art of memory to manipulate the imagination of his subjects. In these respects, Culiano suggests, magic is the precursor of the modern psychological and sociological sciences, and the magician is the distant ancestor of the of the psychoanalyst and the advertising and publicity agent.”

Besides being a scholar of ancient magic and the occult (he worked frequently with Mircea Eliade and many other notable minds), he was an outspoken activist against the government of Romania. Born and raised there, Culianu later defected to Italy and eventually put down roots in Chicago. After Ceausescu was ousted, Culianu was forthright in insisting the new government staged a coup, and that the Romanian people were duped into believing they were headed toward democracy when in reality they were not. Of the previous government he said ”Why did we accept so much suffering without saying anything? Why did we permit ourselves to be robbed more than other people in the world…? This stain is more difficult to remove than that of original sin.” In a piece he wrote for an Italian news magazine called Panorama, he noted Romania’s history with dictators and aptly titled the article “The King is Dead. Watch Out for an Heir.” In this article he states that “all events that happen in our poor country are the repetition of some archetypes embedded in our religious history”, and that “Umberto Eco says that everything depends on what use one makes of symbols. The case of Romania shows that he is right. No sooner had the people forced the bloody dictator to leave the presidential palace than the government that was formed took the name National Salvation Front. They couldn’t have chosen a less fortunate label: the name calls to mind the fascist National Renascence Front, which was the sole party created by King Carol II in 1938 after he dissolved parliament and proclaimed himself dictator”.

On May 21, 1991, Professor Culianu was found dead in the men’s bathroom on the 3rd floor of the UIC’s divinity school. Detectives concluded that he died from one bullet shot to the back of the head at close range. None of his personal belongings were taken and no fingerprints or weapons were found. The police never found the killer, and assumed that because of the sketchy neighborhood the school was located in, that the murderer could have been a thug or a disgruntled student or acquaintance. Looking at the way it was done (with no money or belongings taken), where it was done (to kill someone in a bathroom in Romania is the ultimate “f*ck you!”), noting that his apartment was broken into and he was receiving threats before he was killed leave many believing that it was a professional political hit.

Professor Culianu is remembered as a magnetic individual who’s extensive knowledge of history, magic, religion, and the occult kept scholars, historians, witches, magicians, and those who read his work glued to his every word. Those who knew him personally or had heard him speak say that they sometimes felt as though they were “hypnotized” after being in a room with him. Author Jennifer Stevenson, who knew him briefly, had this to say:

“Well, you know, Culianu and I were not close.  I only knew him for about 3 weeks, spread out over about two years. My impression of him was of someone who would take infinite pains to charm you.  I always wondered what his agenda was, so I held back a little, but I did find him extraordinarily charming.  If he had lived, I might have entered a PhD program at the UoC just to work with him, although I need another degree like I need a hole in my head. (My husband says I have enough degrees to start my own thermometer.)

Later I came to the conclusion that he was one of those people pleasers who had made almost a religion out of charm; if you read “Eros & Magic in the Renaissance” (his book from University of Chicago Press) you understand what that meant to him and why.  His way of life, his friendships and personal habits, his areas of scholarship, all made up a single edifice, and magic was way down at the foundation–scholarly magic, practical magic, emotional magic, even sexual magic. The magicians whose work he studied were engaged in the colossal work of fusing all known sciences of their era and of all past eras into a unified field theory, a system that would make sense of everything and give man control of it all.

This is my opinion, who knew him a total of three weeks, and who have read his published work, including his fiction. An author friend of mine, told of my odd acquaintance with this man, said, “He sounds like a spy.” My grandfather, a supremely cynical newspaperman bred up in the yellow journalism world of the 1930s and later, would have said, “He believed his own bullshit.” Whatever your interpretation, persons who had only glancing acquaintance with him, as I did, were powerfully affected by his death. In my opinion he was a boulder in the stream of time.”

His knowledge of renaissance magic, Giordano Bruno and the art of memory have left an indelible print in the many volumes on the study of magic and the occult. And all those who currently study magic, symbols, media and memes are carrying on his legacy. It’s just too bad that there were no high tech means of investigating a crime scene back then. Maybe if there were, we would’ve found out “who’d done it”.

“Eros, Magic, and the Murder of Professor Culianu” by Ted Anton, Northwestern University Press, 1996.
“Eros and Magic in the Renaissance” by Ioan P. Couliano, The University of Chicago Press, 1987.
“Scholar’s Death Remains a Mystery” – The New York Times, January 17, 1993.

(Related: “Forces of Darkness” by John Crowley via Netcool. “The Astonishing Story of the Dead Professor” part 1 and part 2, via History’s Sideshow)


  1. Couliano’s book sounds *so* good. Thank you for hipping us to it!

  2. ah, I see ‘Eros and Magic’ is the source of a quote about Giordano Bruno I’ve been trying to track down.

    thx for th’ synchronicity!

  3. I wanted to thank you again for posting this. I was able to get a used copy of Culiano’s book. So far, it is very good!

  4. Thanks for the comments. Glad you enjoyed the article and the book!

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