Magic Among the Greeks and Romans

By Augustine Calmet.

The Greeks have always boasted that they received the art of magic from the Persians, or the Bactrians. They affirm that Zoroaster communicated it to them; but when we wish to know the exact time at which Zoroaster lived, and when he taught them these pernicious secrets, they wander widely from the truth, and even from probability; some placing Zoroaster 600 years before the expedition of Xerxes into Greece, which happened in the year of the world 3523, and before Jesus Christ 477; others 500 years before the Trojan war; others 5000 years before that famous war; others 6000 years before that great event. Some believe that Zoroaster is the same as Ham, the son of Noah. Lastly, others maintain that there were several Zoroasters. What appears indubitably true is, that the worship of a plurality of gods, as also magic, superstition, and oracles, came from the Egyptians and Chaldeans, or Persians, to the Greeks, and from the Greeks to the Latins.

From the time of Homer, magic was quite common among the Greeks. That poet speaks of the cure of wounds, and of blood staunched by the secrets of magic, and by enchantment. St. Paul, when at Ephesus, caused to be burned there books of magic and curious secrets, the value of which amounted to the sum of 50,000 pieces of silver. We have before said a few words concerning Simon the magician, and the magician Elymas, known in the Acts of the Apostles. Pindar says that the centaur Chiron cured several enchantments. When they say that Orpheus rescued from hell his wife Eurydice, who had died from the bite of a serpent, they simply mean that he cured her by the power of charms. The poets have employed magic verses to make themselves beloved, and they have taught them to others for the same purpose; they may be seen in Theocritus, Catullus, and Virgil. Theophrastus affirms that there are magical verses which cure sciatica. Cato mentions (or repeats) some against luxations. Varro admits that there are some powerful against the gout.

The sacred books testify that enchanters have the secret of putting serpents to sleep, and of charming them, so that they can never either bite again or cause any more harm. The crocodile, that terrible animal, fears even the smell and voice of the Tentyriens. Job, speaking of the leviathan, which we believe to be the crocodile, says, "Shall the enchanter destroy it?" And in Ecclesiastics, "Who will pity the enchanter that has been bitten by the serpent?"

Everybody knows what is related of the Marsi, people of Italy, and of the Psyllæ, who possessed the secret of charming serpents. One would say, says St. Augustine, that these animals understand the languages of the Marsi, so obedient are they to their orders; we see them come out of their caverns as soon as the Marsian has spoken. All this can only be done, says the same father, by the power of the malignant spirit, whom God permits to exercise this empire over venomous reptiles, above all, the serpent, as if to punish him for what he did to the first woman. In fact, it may be remarked that no animal is more exposed to charms, and the effects of magic art, than the serpent.

The laws of the Twelve Tables forbid the charming of a neighbor's crops, qui fruges excantâsset. Valerius Flaccus quotes authors who affirm that when the Romans were about to besiege a town, they employed their priests to evoke the divinity who presided over it, promising him a temple in Rome, either like the one dedicated to him in the besieged place, or on a rather larger scale, and that the proper worship should be paid to him. Pliny says that the memory of these evocations is preserved among the priests.

If that which we have just related, and what we read in ancient and modern writers, is at all real, and produces the effects attributed to it, it cannot be doubted that there is something supernatural in it, and that the devil has a great share in the matter.

The Abbot Trithemius speaks of a sorceress who, by means of certain beverages, changed a young Burgundian into a beast.

Everybody knows the fable of Circé, who changed the soldiers or companions of Ulysses into swine. We know also the fable of the Golden Ass, by Apuleius, which contains the account of a man metamorphosed into an ass. I bring forward these things merely as what they are, that is to say, simply poetic fictions.

But it is very credible that these fictions are not destitute of some foundation, like many other fables, which contain not only a hidden and moral sense, but which have also some relation to an event really historical: for instance, what is said of the Golden Fleece carried away by Jason; of the Wooden Horse, made use of to surprise the city of Troy; the Twelve Labors of Hercules; the metamorphoses related by Ovid. All fabulous as those things appear in the poets, they have, nevertheless, their historical truth. And thus the pagan poets and historians have travestied and disguised the stories of the Old Testament, and have attributed to Bacchus, Jupiter, Saturn, Apollo, and Hercules, what is related of Noah, Moses, Aaron, Samson, and Jonah, &c.

Origen, writing against Celsus, supposes the reality of magic, and says that the Magi who came to adore Jesus Christ at Bethlehem, wishing to perform their accustomed operations, not being able to succeed, a superior power preventing the effect and imposing silence on the demon, they sought out the cause, and beheld at the same time a divine sign in the heavens, whence they concluded that it was the Being spoken of by Balaam, and that the new King whose birth he had predicted, was born in Judea, and immediately they resolved to go and seek him. Origen believes that magicians, according to the rules of their art, often foretell the future, and that their predictions are followed by the event, unless the power of God, or that of the angels, prevents the effect of their conjurations, and puts them to silence.


This is taken from Phantom World, originally published in 1850.





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