the ancient wizards pried, or affected to pry, into the very “incunabula vitæ.” Could we recover a few of those books which the sorcerers at Corinth burned and brought the price of them to St. Paul,[Pg 93] we should probably find in their pages, among some curious physical or medical secrets, nearly all the elements of a cruel and obscene superstition.
Rome, we know, was both early and deeply infected with the orgiastic worship of the East, and especially with the impure ceremonies of the priests of Isis. It was of no avail to level to the ground the Isiac chapels, and to banish their ministers. In an age of unbelief there was a passion for the mysteries of darkness; and although Christianity gradually superseded Paganism in form, the spirit of the latter long survived in the multitude, and especially among the ignorant rural population. James Grimm, in his erudite work upon the ‘Antiquities of the German Race,’ traces with great acuteness the connection between the superstitions of the Dark Ages and the magical formularies of Heathenism. The spells of witches, the abracadabra of quacks, and the loathsome furniture of Sidrophel’s laboratory are genuine descendants of the impostures and abominations which were practised for ages both in the Roman and Parthian empires.
In Lucian and Apuleius indeed we are presented with a singular and terrible aspect of social existence. The most ordinary acts and functions of life were believed to be affected by the invisible powers, and those powers were supposed to be willing to do service to all who were malignant enough to seek their aid, and fearless enough to[Pg 94] serve the apprenticeship which was demanded of them. It is easy to decry the weakness and detect the absurdity of such a creed. Yet it was believed: it excited terror: it nurtured revenge: it wrought withering and wasting effects upon the feeble and the credulous: it cast a dark shade over life: it was potent over the sinews of the strong and over the bloom of the beautiful: it exercised “upon the inmost mind” all “its fierce accidents,” and preyed upon the purest spirits,
“As on entrails, joints and limbs, With answerable pains, but more intense.”It is idle to regard such a belief as a mere superficial or individual superstition. It pervaded all ranks of society, from the philosopher who disputed about a first cause, and the magistrate who viewed religion in the light of a useful system of police, to the shepherd who watched Orion and the Pleiades, and the miner who rarely beheld either sun or star. It was an erroneous, but it was an earnest, belief which drove men to consult with diviners, and to question the elements for signs and wonders.
Availing ourselves of Sir George Head’s excellent translation, we extract from the ‘Golden Ass’ of Apuleius a story which, to our conceptions, is unsurpassed for its horror by any of the dreariest legends of Pagan or Medieval sorcery.
“My master, the baker, was a well-behaved, tolerably good man, but his wife, of all the women[Pg 95] in the world, was the most wicked creature in existence, and continually rendered his home such a painful scene of tribulation to him, that, by Hercules, many is the time and oft that I have silently deplored his fate. The heart of that most detestable woman was like a common cess-pool, where all the evil dispositions of our nature were collected together. She was cruel, treacherous, malevolent, obstinate, penurious, yet profuse in expenses of dissipation, faithless to her husband, a cheat and a drunkard. One day I heard it said that the baker had procured a bill of divorce against his execrable helpmate, and this intelligence turned out in due time to be true. She, exasperated by the proceedings instituted against her, communicated with a certain woman who had the reputation of being a witch, and whose spells and incantations were of power unlimited. Having conciliated this woman by gifts and urgent supplications, she besought of her one of two things—either to soften the heart of her husband, so that he might be reconciled to her; or if unable to do that, to send a ghost or some evil spirit to put him to a violent death. In the first endeavour the sorceress totally failed, whereupon she set about contriving the death of my unfortunate master. To effect her purpose, she raised from the grave the shade of a woman who had been murdered. So one day, about noon, there entered the bakehouse a bare-footed woman half-clad, wearing a mourning mantle thrown across[Pg 96] her shoulders, her pale sallow features marked by a lowering expression of guilt, her grisly dishevelled hair sprinkled with ashes, and her front locks streaming over her face. Unexpectedly approaching the baker, and taking him gently by the hand, she drew him aside, and led him into an adjoining chamber, as if she had private intelligence to communicate. After the baker had departed, and a considerable period had elapsed without his returning, the servants went to his chamber-door and knocked very loudly, and, after continued silence, called several times, and thumped still harder than before. They then perceived that the door was carefully locked and bolted; upon which, at once concluding that some serious catastrophe had happened, they pushed against it with their utmost strength, and by a violent effort, either breaking the hinge or driving it out of its socket, they effected an entrance by force. The moment they were within the chamber, they saw the baker hanging quite dead from one of the beams of the ceiling, but the woman who had accompanied him had disappeared, and was nowhere to be seen.”
This evoking of the dead to destroy the living, this warring of a corpse with a living sold, and then the sudden dismissal, when its foul and fatal errand had been accomplished, of the ghost to its grave, presents to the mind a climax of terrors, for which we do not know where, in history or in fiction, to find a counterpart.
[Pg 97]The Lex Majestatis, or law of High Treason, was one of the most effectual and terrible weapons which the imperial constitution of Rome placed in the hands of its military despots. Against one offence this double-handled and sure-smiting engine was frequently levelled, viz. against the crime or the charge of inquiring into the probable duration of the Emperor’s life. This was done in various ways,—by fire applied to waxen images, by consulting the stars, by casting nativities, by employing prophets, by casual omens, but especially by certain permutations and combinations of numbers, “numeros Babylonios,” or the letters of the alphabet. The following extract from Ammianus Marcellinus affords an example of this treasonable sacrilege, the practice or suspicion of which, on so many occasions, led to the expulsion of the “mathematicians” from Italy. The Romans indeed, profoundly ignorant of science, or contemning it as the art of Greek adventurers or Egyptian priests, neither of whom were in good odour with the government at any period, gave to the current impostors of those days an appellation which Cambridge wranglers now account equal to a patent of nobility.
The following story seems to have been substantially a deposition taken before the magistrates of Constantinople, and extracted from the witnesses or defendants by torture. The principal deponent is said to have been brought “ad summas[Pg 98] angustias”—to the last gasp almost, before he would confess.
“This unlucky table,” he said, “which is now produced in court, we made up of laurel boughs, after the fashion of that which stands before the curtain at Delphi. Terrible were the auspices, awful the charms, long and painful the dances, which preceded and accompanied its construction and consecration. And as often as we consulted this disc or table, the following was our mode of procedure. It was set in the midst of a chamber which had previously been well purified by the smoke of Arabian gums and incense. On the table was placed a round dish, welded of divers metals. On the rim of the dish were engraven the twenty-four letters of the alphabet, separated from one another by equal and exactly measured spaces. Beside the table stood a certain man clad in linen, and having linen buskins or boots on his feet, with a handkerchief bound around his head. He waved in one hand a branch of vervain, that propitious herb; he recited a set formulary of verses, such as are wont to be sung before the Averruncal gods, He that stood by the table was no ordinary magician. With his other he held and shook a ring which was attached to curtains, spun from the finest Carpathian thread, and which had often before been used for such mystic incantations. The ring thus shaken dropped ever and anon between the interspaces of the letters, and[Pg 99] formed by striking the letters together certain words, which the sorcerer combined into number and measure, much after the manner of the priests who manage the oracles of the Pythian and Branchidian Apollo. Then, when we inquired who perchance would succeed to the reigning Emperor, the bright and smooth ring, leaping among the letters, struck together T, H, E, O, and afterwards a final S, so that one of the bystanders at once exclaimed that THEO[DORU]S was the emperor designated by the Fates. We asked no more questions: seeing that Theodorus was the person whom we had sought for.”
The lingering belief in the old religion, and in the magical and thaumaturgical practices which had, like ivy around an oak, gradually accrued to it, was productive in the decline of Paganism of many poetical forms of superstition. It is curious and instructive to remark the increasing earnestness with which the decaying creed of Heathendom sought to array itself against the encroachments of Christianity. The light persiflage with which the philosophy of the Augustan age treated the state-religion nearly disappears. The indifference of the magistrate gives place to an intolerant and indignant tone of reclamation. The Pagan Cæsars attack the new religion as a formidable antagonist; the Christian emperors, in their turn, assail directly or ferret out perseveringly the superstitions which lingered among the rural towns and districts. The[Pg 100] ancient gods are no longer regarded by either their worshipers or their opponents as simply deified heroes or men, but as powerful and mysterious beings, informed with demoniac energies and capable of conferring temporal good or evil,—beauty, power, and wealth, on the one hand; deformity, ignominy, and disease, on the other,—upon those who honoured or abjured them. Such conceptions of blessing or of bale were embodied in strange narratives of weeping or jubilant processions of majestic forms when the moon was hid in her vacant interlunar cave, of demons assuming the shape of fair enchantresses who beguiled men to their undoing, of palaces reared in a night and dislimning in the day, of banquets, like that visionary banquet in the wilderness, which Milton has adorned with all the graces of imagination in his ‘Paradise Lost.’
We can afford room for only two of the narratives of demoniac influence in which the later Pagans expressed their belief in the influence of the early gods.
1. The superstition of the Lamia. One result of the consolidation of Western Asia with Europe, under the Roman Empire, was to spread widely over the latter continent the germs of the serpent-worship of the East. The subtlest beast of the field, retaining in full vigour his powers of assuming tempting forms and uttering beguiling words, was wont, it seems, to disport himself among[Pg 101] the sons and daughters of men under the shape in which he deceived our general mother, the over-curious Eve. Especially did he delight to entrap some hopeful youth who was studying philosophy in the schools of Athens or Berytus, or some neophyte in the Christian Church. A fair young gentleman at Corinth had been abroad on a pleasure excursion, and might perchance be returning home a little the worse for wine. However this may have been, at the gates of Corinth he encountered a damsel richly attired, “beautiful exceedingly,” but with hair dishevelled, and drowned in tears. He began by inquiring the cause of her distress. Faithless servants had carried off her litter and left her lone. He offered her consolation, which she accepted, and his arm also, which she did not decline. She led him to a lordly palace in a bye street of the city, where he had never yet been. At its marble portico waited a crowd of slaves with torches awaiting their absent mistress, and the pair, now become fond, were ushered into a sumptuous banqueting hall, where a board was spread covered with all the delicacies of the season, and garnished with effulgent plate. In this palace of delight the young man abode many days, taking no account of time. But at length, cloyed with sweets, he proposed inviting a party of his college friends, much to the dismay of his fair hostess, who, with many tears and embraces, besought him to forego his wish. In an evil hour however he[Pg 102] persevered, and his rooms were filled with gownsmen, marvelling much, not without envy, at the good fortune that had befallen their chum, Lucius, no one knew how or why. But among the undergraduates came a grave and grey college tutor, deeply read in conjurors’ books, who could detect by his skill the devil under any shape. Pale and silent the old man sat at the festive board, and was ill-bred enough to stare the lady not only out of countenance, but out of her beauty also. She grew pale, livid, an indiscriminate form: she melted away; the palace melted also; the plate, the viands, and the wines vanished also; and in place of columns and ceiled roofs was a void square in Corinth, and in place of the damsel was a loathsome serpent, writhing in the agonies of dissolution. The white-bearded fellow had scanned and scotched and slain the snake—the Lamia—but he destroyed his patient also, for Lucius became a maniac; had the charm lasted awhile longer, his soul would have become the fiend’s property.
2. A young man had sorely offended the great goddess Venus, or, as she was called in his native city, the Syrian Byblus, Astarte. To redeem himself from the curse upon his board and bed,—for he had recently married a fair wife,—he applied to a wise astrologer. The sage heard his case, and advised him, as his only remedy, to go on a certain night, at its very noon, to a spot just without the gates, called the Pagan’s Tomb,—to station himself[Pg 103] on the roof of it, and to recite, at a prescribed moment, a certain formulary, with which his counsel, learned in magical law, furnished him. On the Pagan’s Tomb accordingly the young man placed himself at the noon of night, and awaited his deliverance. And presently, towards the confines of morning, was heard a sound of sad and solemn music, and of much wailing, and of the measured tread of a long procession. And there drew nigh a mournful company of persons, who might have seemed men and women, but for their extraordinary stature, and their surpassing majesty and beauty: and the young man remembered the words of the magician, and knew that before him was the goodly company of the gods whom his forefathers in past generations had worshiped. One only of that august and weeping band was borne in a chariot—the god Saturn—perhaps by reason of his great age; and to Saturn he addressed his prayer, which was of such potency that Saturn straightway commanded Astarte to release the petitioner from the curse she had laid upon him.
We have been able merely to indicate how wide a field lies beyond the proper domain of medieval witchcraft. It would be curious to trace the similarity of the Heathen and Christian superstitions, or rather the derivation of one from the other. But we must reserve this subject to some other[Pg 104] occasion, and conclude with repeating the wish with which we commenced, that some competent hand would undertake to trace through all its ramifications the obscure yet recompensing subject of Magic and Witchcraft.
JOHN EDWARD TAYLOR, PRINTER,
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