Lives of the Necromancers, by William Godwin

Examples of Necromancy and Witchcraft from the Bible.

The oldest and most authentic record from which we can derive our ideas on the subject of necromancy and witchcraft, unquestionably is the Bible. The Egyptians and Chaldeans were early distinguished for their supposed proficiency in magic, in the production of supernatural phenomena, and in penetrating into the secrets of future time. The first appearance of men thus extraordinarily gifted, or advancing pretensions of this sort, recorded in Scripture, is on occasion of Pharoah’s dream of the seven years of plenty, and seven years of famine. At that period the king “sent and called for all the magicians of Egypt and all the wise men; but they could not interpret the dream,” 5 which Joseph afterwards expounded.

Their second appearance was upon a most memorable occasion, when Moses and Aaron, armed with miraculous powers, came to a subsequent king of Egypt, to demand from him that their countrymen might be permitted to depart to another tract of the world. They produced a miracle as the evidence of their divine mission: and the king, who was also named Pharoah, “called before him the wise men and the sorcerers of Egypt, who with their enchantments did in like manner” as Moses had done; till, after some experiments in which they were apparently successful, they at length were compelled to allow themselves overcome, and fairly to confess to their master, “This is the finger of God!” 6

The spirit of the Jewish history loudly affirms, that the Creator of heaven and earth had adopted this nation for his chosen people, and therefore demanded their exclusive homage, and that they should acknowledge no other God. It is on this principle that it is made one of his early commands to them, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” 7 And elsewhere the meaning of this prohibition is more fully explained: “There shall not be found among you any one that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch, or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer: 8 these shall surely be put to death; they shall stone them with stones.” 9

The character of an enchanter is elsewhere more fully illustrated in the case of Balaam, the soothsayer, who was sent for by Balak, the king of Moab, that he might “curse the people of Israel. The messengers of the king came to Balaam with the rewards of divination in their hand;” 10 but the soothsayer was restrained from his purpose by the God of the Jews, and, where he came to curse, was compelled to bless. He therefore “did not go, as at other times, to seek for enchantments,” 11 but took up his discourse, and began, saying, “Surely there is no enchantment against Jacob, neither is there any divination against Israel!” 12

Another example of necromantic power or pretension is to be found in the story of Saul and the witch of Endor. Saul, the first king of the Jews, being rejected by God, and obtaining “no answer to his enquiries, either by dreams, or by prophets, said to his servants, seek me a woman that has a familiar spirit. And his servants, said, Lo, there is a woman that has a familiar spirit at Endor.” Saul accordingly had recourse to her. But, previously to this time, in conformity to the law of God, he “had cut off those that had familiar spirits, and the wizards out of the land;” and the woman therefore was terrified at his present application. Saul re-assured her; and in consequence the woman consented to call up the person he should name. Saul demanded of her to bring up the ghost of Samuel. The ghost, whether by her enchantments or through divine interposition we are not told, appeared, and prophesied to Saul, that he and his son should fall in battle on the succeeding day, 13 which accordingly came to pass.

Manasseh, a subsequent king in Jerusalem, “observed times, and used enchantments, and dealt with familiar spirits and wizards, and so provoked God to anger.” 14

It appears plainly from the same authority, that there were good spirits and evil spirits, “The Lord said, Who shall persuade Ahab, that he may go up, and fall before Ramoth Gilead? And there came a spirit, and stood before the Lord, and said, I will persuade him: I will go forth, and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets. And the Lord said, Thou shall persuade him.” 15

In like manner, we are told, “Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number the people; and God was displeased with the thing, and smote Israel, so that there fell of the people seventy thousand men.” 16

Satan also, in the Book of Job, presented himself before the Lord among the Sons of God, and asked and obtained leave to try the faithfulness of Job by “putting forth his hand,” and despoiling the patriarch of “all that he had.”

Taking these things into consideration, there can be no reasonable doubt, though the devil and Satan are not mentioned in the story, that the serpent who in so crafty a way beguiled Eve, was in reality no other than the malevolent enemy of mankind under that disguise.

We are in the same manner informed of the oracles of the false Gods; and an example occurs of a king of Samaria, who fell sick, and who “sent messengers, and said to them, Go, and enquire of Baalzebub, the God of Ekron, whether I shall recover of this disease.” At which proceeding the God of the Jews was displeased, and sent Elijah to the messengers to say, “Is it because there is not a God in Israel, that you go to enquire of Baalzebub, the God of Ekron? Because the king has done this, he shall not recover; he shall surely die.” 17

The appearance of the Wise Men of the East again occurs in considerable detail in the Prophecy of Daniel, though they are only brought forward there, as discoverers of hidden things, and interpreters of dreams. Twice, on occasion of dreams that troubled him, Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, “commanded to be called to him the magicians, and the astrologers, and the sorcerers, and the Chaldeans” of his kingdom, and each time with similar success. They confessed their incapacity; and Daniel, the prophet of the Jews, expounded to the king that in which they had failed. Nebuchadnezzar in consequence promoted Daniel to be master of the magicians. A similar scene occurred in the court of Belshazzar, the son of Nebuchadnezzar, in the case of the hand-writing on the wall.

It is probable that the Jews considered the Gods of the nations around them as so many of the fallen angels, or spirits of hell, since, among other arguments, the coincidence of the name of Beelzebub, the prince of devils, 18 with Baalzebub, the God of Ekron, could scarcely have fallen out by chance.

It seemed necessary to enter into these particulars, as they occur in the oldest and most authentic records from which we can derive our ideas on the subject of necromancy, witchcraft, and the claims that were set up in ancient times to the exercise of magcial power. Among these examples there is only one, that of the contention for superiority between Moses and the Wise Men of Egypt in which we are presented with their pretensions to a visible exhibition of supernatural effects.

5 Genesis xli, 8, 25, &c.

6 Exodus, vii. 11; viii. 19.

7 Ibid, xxii. 18.

8 Deuteronomy, xviii. 10,11.

9 Leviticus, xx. 27.

10 Numbers, xxii. 5,6,7.

11 Numbers, xxiv, 1.

12 Ibid, xxiii. 23.

13 1 Sam. xxviii. 6, et seq.

14 2 Kings, xxi. 6.

15 1 Kings, xxii. 20, et seqq.

16 1 Chron. xxi. 1,7,14.

17 2 Kings, i. 2,3,4.

18 Matthew, xii. 24.

The Magi, or Wise Men of the East.

The Magi, or Wise Men of the East, extended their ramifications over Egypt, Babylonia, Persia, India, and probably, though with a different name, over China, and indeed the whole known world. Their profession was of a mysterious nature. They laid claim to a familiar intercourse with the Gods. They placed themselves as mediators between heaven and earth, assumed the prerogative of revealing the will of beings of a nature superior to man, and pretended to show wonders and prodigies that surpassed any power which was merely human.

To understand this, we must bear in mind the state of knowledge in ancient times, where for the most part the cultivation of the mind, and an acquaintance with either science or art, were confined to a very small part of the population. In each of the nations we have mentioned, there was a particular caste or tribe of men, who, by the prerogative of their birth, were entitled to the advantages of science and a superior education, while the rest of their countrymen were destined to subsist by manual labour. This of necessity gave birth in the privileged few to an overweening sense of their own importance. They scarcely regarded the rest of their countrymen as beings of the same species with themselves; and, finding a strong line of distinction cutting them off from the herd, they had recourse to every practicable method for making that distinction still stronger. Wonder is one of the most obvious means of generating deference; and, by keeping to themselves the grounds and process of their skill, and presenting the results only, they were sure to excite the admiration and reverence of their contemporaries. This mode of proceeding further produced a re-action upon themselves. That which supplied and promised to supply to them so large a harvest of honour and fame, unavoidably became precious in their eyes. They pursued their discoveries with avidity, because few had access to their opportunities in that respect, and because, the profounder were their researches, the more sure they were of being looked up to by the public as having that in them which was sacred and inviolable. They spent their days and nights in these investigations. They shrank from no privation and labour. At the same time that in these labours they had at all times an eye to their darling object, an ascendancy over the minds of their countrymen at large, and the extorting from them a blind and implicit deference to their oracular decrees. They however loved their pursuits for the pursuits themselves. They felt their abstraction and their unlimited nature, and on that account contemplated them with admiration. They valued them (for such is the indestructible character of the human mind) for the pains they had bestowed on them. The sweat of their brow grew into a part as it were of the intrinsic merit of the articles; and that which had with so much pains been attained by them, they could not but regard as of inestimable worth.

Egypt.

The Egyptians took the lead in early antiquity, with respect to civilisation and the stupendous productions of human labour and art, of all other known nations of the world. The pyramids stand by themselves as a monument of the industry of mankind. Thebes, with her hundred gates, at each of which we are told she could send out at once two hundred chariots and ten thousand warriors completely accoutred, was one of the noblest cities on record. The whole country of Lower Egypt was intersected with canals giving a beneficent direction to the periodical inundations of the Nile; and the artificial lake Moeris was dug of a vast extent, that it might draw off the occasional excesses of the overflowings of the river. The Egyptians had an extraordinary custom of preserving their dead, so that the country was peopled almost as numerously with mummies prepared by extreme assiduity and skill, as with the living.

And, in proportion to their edifices and labours of this durable sort, was their unwearied application to all the learning that was then known. Geometry is said to have owed its existence to the necessity under which they were placed of every man recognising his own property in land, as soon as the overflowings of the Nile had ceased. They were not less assiduous in their application to astronomy. The hieroglyphics of Egypt are of universal notoriety. Their mythology was of the most complicated nature. Their Gods were infinitely varied in their kind; and the modes of their worship not less endlessly diversified. All these particulars still contributed to the abstraction of their studies, and the loftiness of their pretensions to knowledge. They perpetually conversed with the invisible world, and laid claim to the faculty of revealing things hidden, of foretelling future events, and displaying wonders that exceeded human power to produce.

A striking illustration of the state of Egypt in that respect in early times, occurs incidentally in the history of Joseph in the Bible. Jacob had twelve sons, among whom his partiality for Joseph was so notorious, that his brethren out of envy sold him as a slave to the wandering Midianites. Thus it was his fortune to be placed in Egypt, where in the process of events he became the second man in the country, and chief minister of the king. A severe famine having visited these climates, Jacob sent his sons into Egypt to buy corn, where only it was to be found. As soon as Joseph saw them, he knew them, though they knew not him in his exalted situation; and he set himself to devise expedients to settle them permanently in the country in which he ruled. Among the rest he caused a precious cup from his stores to be privily conveyed into the corn-sack of Benjamin, his only brother by the same mother. The brothers were no sooner departed, than Joseph sent in pursuit of them; and the messengers accosted them with the words, “Is not this the cup in which my lord drinketh, and whereby also he divineth? Ye have done evil in taking it away.” 19 They brought the strangers again into the presence of Joseph, who addressed them with severity, saying, “What is this deed that ye have done? Wot ye not that such a man as I could certainly divine?” 20

From this story it plainly appears, that the art of divination was extensively exercised in Egypt, that the practice was held in honour, and that such was the state of the country, that it was to be presumed as a thing of course, that a man of the high rank and distinction of Joseph should professedly be an adept in it.

In the great contention for supernatural power between Moses and the magicians of Egypt, it is plain that they came forward with confidence, and did not shrink from the debate. Moses’s rod was turned into a serpent; so were their rods: Moses changed the waters of Egypt into blood; and the magicians did the like with their enchantments: Moses caused frogs to come up, and cover the land of Egypt; and the magicians also brought frogs upon the country. Without its being in any way necessary to enquire how they effected these wonders, it is evident from the whole train of the narrative, that they must have been much in the practice of astonishing their countrymen with their feats in such a kind, and, whether it were delusion, or to whatever else we may attribute their success, that they were universally looked up to for the extraordinariness of their performances.

While we are on this subject of illustrations from the Bible, it may be worth while to revert more particularly to the story of Balaam. Balak the king of Moab, sent for Balaam that he might come and curse the invaders of his country; and in the sequel we are told, when the prophet changed his curses into a blessing, that he did not “go forth, as at other times, to seek for enchantments.” It is plain therefore that Balak did not rely singly upon the eloquence and fervour of Balaam to pour out vituperations upon the people of Israel, but that it was expected that the prophet should use incantations and certain mystical rites, upon which the efficacy of his foretelling disaster to the enemy principally depended.

19 Genesis, xliv. 5.

20 Genesis, xliv. 15.

Statue of Memnon.

The Magi of Egypt looked round in every quarter for phenomena that might produce astonishment among their countrymen, and induce them to believe that they dwelt in a land which overflowed with the testimonies and presence of a divine power. Among others the statue of Memnon, erected over his tomb near Thebes, is recorded by many authors. Memnon is said to have been the son of Aurora, the Goddess of the morning; and his statue is related to have had the peculiar faculty of uttering a melodious sound every morning when touched by the first beams of day, as if to salute his mother; and every night at sunset to have imparted another sound, low and mournful, as lamenting the departure of the day. This prodigy is spoken of by Tacitus, Strabo, Juvenal and Philostratus. The statue uttered these sounds, while perfect; and, when it was mutilated by human violence, or by a convulsion of nature, it still retained the property with which it had been originally endowed. Modern travellers, for the same phenomenon has still been observed, have asserted that it does not owe its existence to any prodigy, but to a property of the granite, of which the statue or its pedestal is formed, which, being hollow, is found in various parts of the world to exhibit this quality. It has therefore been suggested, that the priests, having ascertained its peculiarity, expressly formed the statue of that material, for the purpose of impressing on it a supernatural character, and thus being enabled to extend their influence with a credulous people. 21

21 Brewster on Natural Magic, Letter IX.

Temple of Jupiter Ammon: its Oracles.

Another of what may be considered as the wonders of Egypt, is the temple of Jupiter Ammon in the midst of the Great Desert. This temple was situated at a distance of no less than twelve days’ journey from Memphis, the capital of the Lower Egypt. The principal part of this space consisted of one immense tract of moving sand, so hot as to be intolerable to the sole of the foot, while the air was pregnant with fire, so that it was almost impossible to breathe in it. Not a drop of water, not a tree, not a blade of grass, was to be found through this vast surface. It was here that Cambyses, engaged in an impious expedition to demolish the temple, is said to have lost an army of fifty thousand men, buried in the sands. When you arrived however, you were presented with a wood of great circumference, the foliage of which was so thick that the beams of the sun could not pierce it. The atmosphere of the place was of a delicious temperature; the scene was every where interspersed with fountains; and all the fruits of the earth were found in the highest perfection. In the midst was the temple and oracle of the God, who was worshipped in the likeness of a ram. The Egyptian priests chose this site as furnishing a test of the zeal of their votaries; the journey being like the pilgrimage to Jerusalem or Mecca, if not from so great a distance, yet attended in many respects with perils more formidable. It was not safe to attempt the passage but with moderate numbers, and those expressly equipped for expedition.

Bacchus is said to have visited this spot in his great expedition to the East, when Jupiter appeared to him in the form of a ram, having struck his foot upon the soil, and for the first time occasioned that supply of water, with which the place was ever after plentifully supplied. Alexander the Great in a subsequent age undertook the same journey with his army, that he might cause himself to be acknowledged for the son of the God, under which character he was in all due form recognised. The priests no doubt had heard of the successful battles of the Granicus and of Issus, of the capture of Tyre after a seven months’ siege, and of the march of the great conqueror in Egypt, where he carried every thing before him.

Here we are presented with a striking specimen of the mode and spirit in which the oracles of old were accustomed to be conducted. It may be said that the priests were corrupted by the rich presents which Alexander bestowed on them with a liberal hand. But this was not the prime impulse in the business. They were astonished at the daring with which Alexander with a comparative handful of men set out from Greece, having meditated the overthrow of the great Persian empire. They were astonished with his perpetual success, and his victorious progress from the Hellespont to mount Taurus, from mount Taurus to Pelusium, and from Pelusium quite across the ancient kingdom of Egypt to the Palus Mareotis. Accustomed to the practice of adulation, and to the belief that mortal power and true intellectual greatness were the same, they with a genuine enthusiastic fervour regarded Alexander as the son of their God, and acknowledged him as such. — Nothing can be more memorable than the way in which belief and unbelief hold a divided empire over the human mind, our passions hurrying us into belief, at the same time that our intervals of sobriety suggest to us that it is all pure imposition.

Chaldea and Babylon.

The history of the Babylonish monarchy not having been handed down to us, except incidentally as it is touched upon by the historians of other countries, we know little of those anecdotes respecting it which are best calculated to illustrate the habits and manners of a people. We know that they in probability preceded all other nations in the accuracy of their observations on the phenomena of the heavenly bodies. We know that the Magi were highly respected among them as an order in the state; and that, when questions occurred exciting great alarm in the rulers, “the magicians, the astrologers, the sorcerers, and the Chaldeans,” were called together, to see whether by their arts they could throw light upon questions so mysterious and perplexing, and we find sufficient reason, both from analogy, and from the very circumstance that sorcerers are specifically named among the classes of which their Wise Men consisted, to believe that the Babylonian Magi advanced no dubious pretensions to the exercise of magical power.

Zoroaster.

Among the Chaldeans the most famous name is that of Zoroaster, who is held to have been the author of their religion, their civil policy, their sciences, and their magic. He taught the doctrine of two great principles, the one the author of good, the other of evil. He prohibited the use of images in the ceremonies of religion, and pronounced that nothing deserved homage but fire, and the sun, the centre and the source of fire, and these perhaps to be venerated not for themselves, but as emblematical of the principle of all good things. He taught astronomy and astrology. We may with sufficient probability infer his doctrines from those of the Magi, who were his followers. He practised enchantments, by means of which he would send a panic among the forces that were brought to make war against him, rendering the conflict by force of arms unnecessary. He prescribed the use of certain herbs as all-powerful for the production of supernatural effects. He pretended to the faculty of working miracles, and of superseding and altering the ordinary course of nature. — There was, beside the Chaldean Zoroaster, a Persian known by the same name, who is said to have been a contemporary of Darius Hystaspes.

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