From the Greeks let us turn to the Romans. The earliest examples to our purpose occur in the Aeneid. And, though Virgil is a poet, yet is he so correct a writer, that we may well take for granted, that he either records facts which had been handed down by tradition, or that, when he feigns, he feigns things strikingly in accord with the manners and belief of the age of which he speaks.
One of the first passages that occur, is of the ghost of the deceased Polydorus on the coast of Thrace. Polydorus, the son of Priam, was murdered by the king of that country, his host, for the sake of the treasures he had brought with him from Troy. He was struck through with darts made of the wood of the myrtle. The body was cast into a pit, and earth thrown upon it. The stems of myrtle grew and flourished. Aeneas, after the burning of Troy, first attempted a settlement in this place. Near the spot where he landed he found a hillock thickly set with myrtle. He attempted to gather some, thinking it might form a suitable screen to an altar which he had just raised. To his astonishment and horror he found the branches he had plucked, dropping with blood. He tried the experiment again and again. At length a voice from the mound was heard, exclaiming, “Spare me! I am Polydorus;” and warning him to fly the blood-stained and treacherous shore.
We have a more detailed tale of necromancy, when Dido, deserted by Aeneas, resolves on self-destruction. To delude her sister as to her secret purpose, she sends for a priestess from the gardens of the Hesperides, pretending that her object is by magical incantations again to relumine the passion of love in the breast of Aeneas. This priestess is endowed with the power, by potent verse to free the oppressed soul from care, and by similar means to agitate the bosom with passion which is free from its empire. She can arrest the headlong stream, and cause the stars to return back in their orbits. She can call up the ghosts of the dead. She is able to compel the solid earth to rock, and the trees of the forest to descend from their mountains. To give effect to the infernal spell, Dido commands that a funeral pyre shall be set up in the interior court of her palace, and that the arms of Aeneas, what remained of his attire, and the marriage bed in which Dido had received him, shall be heaped upon it. The pyre is hung round with garlands, and adorned with branches of cypress. The sword of Aeneas and his picture are added. Altars are placed round the pyre; and the priestess, with dishevelled hair, calls with terrific charms upon her three hundred Gods, upon Erebus, chaos, and the three-faced Hecate. She sprinkles around the waters of Avernus, and adds certain herbs that had been cropped by moonlight with a sickle of brass. She brings with her the excrescence which is found upon the forehead of a new-cast foal, of the size of a dried fig, and which unless first eaten by the mare, the mother never admits her young to the nourishment of her milk. After these preparations, Dido, with garments tucked up, and with one foot bare, approached the altars, breaking over them a consecrated cake, and embracing them successively in her arms. The pyre was then to be set on fire; and, as the different objects placed upon it were gradually consumed, the charm became complete, and the ends proposed to the ceremony were expected to follow. Dido assures her sister, that she well knew the unlawfulness of her proceeding, and protests that nothing but irresistible necessity should have compelled her to have recourse to these unhallowed arts. She finally stabs herself, and expires.
The early history of Rome is, as might be expected, interspersed with prodigies. Romulus himself, the founder, after a prosperous reign of many years, disappeared at last by a miracle. The king assembled his army to a general review, when suddenly, in the midst of the ceremony, a tempest arose, with vivid lightnings and tremendous crashes of thunder. Romulus became enveloped in a cloud, and, when, shortly after, a clear sky and serene heavens succeeded, the king was no more seen, and the throne upon which he had sat appeared vacant. The people were somewhat dissatisfied with the event, and appear to have suspected foul play. But the next day Julius Proculus, a senator of the highest character, shewed himself in the general assembly, and assured them, that, with the first dawn of the morning, Romulus had stood before him, and certified to him that the Gods had taken him up to their celestial abodes, authorising him withal to declare to his citizens, that their arms should be for ever successful against all their enemies. 105
105 Livius, Lib. I, c. 16.
Numa was the second king of Rome: and, the object of Romulus having been to render his people soldiers and invincible in war, Numa, an old man and a philosopher, made it his purpose to civilise them, and deeply to imbue them with sentiments of religion. He appears to have imagined the thing best calculated to accomplish this purpose, was to lead them by prodigies and the persuasion of an intercourse with the invisible world. A shield fell from heaven in his time, which he caused to be carefully kept and consecrated to the Gods; and he conceived no means so likely to be effectual to this end, as to make eleven other shields exactly like the one which had descended by miracle, so that, if an accident happened to any one, the Romans might believe that the one given to them by the divinity was still in their possession.106
Numa gave to his people civil statutes, and a code of observances in matters of religion; and these also were inforced with a divine sanction. Numa met the goddess Egeria from time to time in a cave; and by her was instructed in the institutions he should give to the Romans: and this barbarous people, awed by the venerable appearance of their king, by the sanctity of his manners, and still more by the divine favour which was so signally imparted to him, received his mandates with exemplary reverence, and ever after implicitly conformed themselves to all that he had suggested. 107
Tullus Hostilius, the third king of Rome, restored again the policy of Romulus. In his time, Alba, the parent state, was subdued and united to its more flourishing colony. In the mean time Tullus, who during the greater part of his reign had been distinguished by martial achievements, in the latter part became the victim of superstitions. A shower of stones fell from heaven, in the manner, as Livy tells us, of a hail-storm. A plague speedily succeeded to this prodigy. 108 Tullus, awed by these events, gave his whole attention to the rites of religion. Among other things he found in the sacred books of Numa an account of a certain ceremony, by which, if rightly performed, the appearance of a God, named Jupiter Elicius, would be conjured up. But Tullus, who had spent his best days in the ensanguined field, proved inadequate to this new undertaking. Some defects having occurred in his performance of the magical ceremony, not only no God appeared at his bidding, but, the anger of heaven being awakened, a thunderbolt fell on the palace, and the king, and the place of his abode were consumed together. 109
In the reign of Tarquinius Priscus, the fifth king of Rome, another famous prodigy is recorded. The king had resolved to increase the number of the Roman cavalry. Romulus had raised the first body with the customary ceremony of augury. Tarquinius proposed to proceed in the present case, omitting this ceremony. Accius Navius, the chief augur, protested against the innovation. Tarquin, in contempt of his interference, addressed Accius, saying, “Come, augur, consult your birds, and tell me, whether the thing I have now in my mind can be done, or cannot be done.” Accius proceeded according to the rules of his art, and told the king it could be done. “What I was thinking of,” replied Tarquinius, “was whether you could cut this whetstone in two with this razor.” Accius immediately took the one instrument and the other, and performed the prodigy in the face of the assembled people. 110
110 Livius, Lib. I, c. 36.
Servius Tullius, the sixth king of Rome, was the model of a disinterested and liberal politician, and gave to his subjects those institutions to which, more than to any other cause, they were indebted for their subsequent greatness. Tarquinius subjected nearly the whole people of Latium to his rule, capturing one town of this district after another. In Corniculum, one of these places, Servius Tullius, being in extreme youth, was made a prisoner of war, and subsequently dwelt as a slave in the king’s palace. One day as he lay asleep in the sight of many, his head was observed to be on fire. The bystanders, terrified at the spectacle, hastened to bring water that they might extinguish the flames. The queen forbade their assiduity, regarding the event as a token from the Gods. By and by the boy awoke of his own accord, and the flames at the same instant disappeared. The queen, impressed with the prodigy, became persuaded that the youth was reserved for high fortunes, and directed that he should be instructed accordingly in all liberal knowledge. In due time he was married to the daughter of Tarquinius, and was destined in all men’s minds to succeed in the throne, which took place in the sequel. 111
In the year of Rome two hundred and ninety one, forty-seven years after the expulsion of Tarquin, a dreadful plague broke out in the city, and carried off both the consuls, the augurs, and a vast multitude of the people. The following year was distinguished by numerous prodigies; fires were seen in the heavens, and the earth shook, spectres appeared, and supernatural voices were heard, an ox spoke, and a shower of raw flesh fell in the fields. Most of these prodigies were not preternatural; the speaking ox was probably received on the report of a single hearer; and the whole was invested with exaggerated terror by means of the desolation of the preceding year. 112
Prodigies are plentifully distributed through the earlier parts of the Roman history; but it is not our purpose to enter into a chronological detail on the subject. And in reality those already given, except in the instance of Tullus Hostilius, do not entirely fall within the scope of the present volume. The Roman poets, Virgil, Horace, Ovid and Lucan, give a fuller insight than the Latin prose-writers, into the conceptions of their countrymen upon the subject of incantations and magic.
The eighth eclogue of Virgil, entitled Pharmaceutria, is particularly to our purpose in this point. There is an Idyll of Theocritus under the same name; but it is of an obscurer character; and the enchantress is not, like that of Virgil, triumphant in the success of her arts.
The sorceress is introduced by Virgil, giving direction to her female attendant as to the due administration of her charms. Her object is to recal Daphnis, whom she styles her husband, to his former love for her. At the same time, she says, she will endeavour by magic to turn him away from his wholesome sense. She directs her attendant to burn vervain and frankincense; and she ascribes the highest efficacy to the solemn chant, which, she says, can call down the moon from its sphere, can make the cold-blooded snake burst in the field, and was the means by which Circe turned the companions of Ulysses into beasts. She orders his image to be thrice bound round with fillets of three colours, and then that it be paraded about a prepared altar, while in binding the knots the attendant shall still say, “Thus do I bind the fillets of Venus.” One image of clay and one of wax are placed before the same fire; and as the image of clay hardens, so does the heart of Daphnis harden towards his new mistress; and as the image of wax softens, so is the heart of Daphnis made tender towards the sorceress. She commands a consecrated cake to be broken over the image, and crackling laurels to be burned before it, that as Daphnis had tormented her by his infidelity, so he in his turn may be agitated with a returning constancy. She prays that as the wanton heifer pursues the steer through woods and glens, till at length, worn out with fatigue, she lies down on the oozy reeds by the banks of the stream, and the night-dew is unable to induce her to withdraw, so Daphnis may be led on after her for ever with inextinguishable love. She buries the relics of what had belonged to Daphnis beneath her threshold. She bruises poisonous herbs of resistless virtue which had been gathered in the kingdom of Pontus, herbs, which enabled him who gave them to turn himself into a hungry wolf prowling amidst the forests, to call up ghosts from the grave, and to translate the ripened harvest from the field where it grew to the lands of another. She orders her attendant to bring out to the face of heaven the ashes of these herbs, and [Errata: dele and] to cast them over her head into the running stream, and at the same time taking care not to look behind her. After all her efforts the sorceress begins to despair. She says, “Daphnis heeds not my incantations, heeds not the Gods.” She looks again; she perceives the ashes on the altar emit sparkles of fire; she hears her faithful house-dog bark before the door; she says, “Can these things be; or do lovers dream what they desire? It is not so! The real Daphnis comes; I hear his steps; he has left the deluding town; he hastens to my longing arms!”
In the works of Horace occurs a frightful and repulsive, but a curious detail of a scene of incantation. 113 Four sorceresses are represented as assembled, Canidia, the principal, to perform, the other three to assist in, the concoction of a charm, by means of which a certain youth, named Varus, for whom Canidia had conceived a passion, but who regards the hag with the utmost contempt, may be made obsequious to her desires. Canidia appears first, the locks of her dishevelled hair twined round with venomous and deadly serpents, ordering the wild fig-tree and the funereal cypress to be rooted up from the sepulchres on which they grew, and these, together with the egg of a toad smeared with blood, the plumage of the screech-owl, various herbs brought from Thessaly and Georgia, and bones torn from the jaws of a famished dog, to be burned in flames fed with perfumes from Colchis. Of the assistant witches, one traces with hurried steps the edifice, sprinkling it, as she goes, with drops from the Avernus, her hair on her head stiff and erect, like the quills of the sea-hedge-hog, or the bristles of a hunted boar; and another, who is believed by all the neighbourhood to have the faculty of conjuring the stars and the moon down from heaven, contributes her aid.
But, which is most horrible, the last of the assistant witches is seen, armed with a spade, and, with earnest and incessant labour, throwing up earth, that she may dig a trench, in which is to be plunged up to his chin a beardless youth, stripped of his purple robe, the emblem of his noble descent, and naked, that, from his marrow already dry and his liver (when at length his eye-balls, long fixed on the still renovated food which is withheld from his famished jaws, have no more the power to discern), may be concocted the love-potion, from which these hags promise themselves the most marvellous results.
Horace presents before us the helpless victim of their malice, already inclosed in the fatal trench, first viewing their orgies with affright, asking, by the Gods who rule the earth and all the race of mortals, what means the tumult around him? He then intreats Canidia, by her children if ever she had offspring, by the visible evidences of his high rank, and by the never-failing vengeance of Jupiter upon such misdeeds, to say why she casts on him glances, befitting the fury of a stepmother, or suited to a beast already made desperate by the wounds of the hunter.
At length, no longer exhausting himself in fruitless intreaties, the victim has recourse in his agonies to curses on his executioners. He says, his ghost shall haunt them for ever, for no vengeance can expiate such cruelty. He will tear their cheeks with his fangs, for that power is given to the shades below. He will sit, a night-mare, on their bosoms, driving away sleep from their eyes; while the enraged populace shall pursue them with stones, and the wolves shall gnaw and howl over their unburied members. The unhappy youth winds up all with the remark, that his parents who will survive him, shall themselves witness this requital of the sorceresses’ infernal deeds.
Canidia, unmoved by these menaces and execrations, complains of the slow progress of her charms. She gnaws her fingers with rage. She invokes the night and the moon, beneath whose rays these preparations are carried on, now, while the wild beasts lie asleep in the forests, and while the dogs alone bay the superanuated letcher, who relies singly on the rich scents with which he is perfumed for success, to speed her incantations, and signalise their power beneath the roof of him whose love she seeks. She impatiently demands why her drugs should be of less avail than those of Medea, with which she poisoned a garment, that, once put on, caused Creusa, daughter of the king of Corinth, to expire in intolerable torments? She discovers that Varus had hitherto baffled her power by means of some magical antidote; and she resolves to prepare a mightier charm, that nothing from earth or hell shall resist. “Sooner,” she says, “shall the sky be swallowed up in the sea, and the earth be stretched a covering over both, than thou, my enemy, shalt not be wrapped in the flames of love, as subtle and tenacious as those of burning pitch.”
It is not a little curious to remark the operation of the antagonist principles of superstition and scepticism among the Romans in this enlightened period, as it comes illustrated to us in the compositions of Horace on this subject. In the piece, the contents of which have just been given, things are painted in all the solemnity and terror which is characteristic of the darkest ages. But, a few pages further on, we find the poet in a mock Palinodia deprecating the vengeance of the sorceress, who, he says, has already sufficiently punished him by turning through her charms his flaxen hair to hoary white, and overwhelming him by day and night with ceaseless anxieties. He feels himself through her powerful magic tortured, like Hercules in the envenomed shirt of Nessus, or as if he were cast down into the flames of Aetna; nor does he hope that she will cease compounding a thousand deadly ingredients against him, till his very ashes shall have been scattered by the resistless winds. He offers therefore to expiate his offence at her pleasure either by a sacrifice of an hundred oxen, or by a lying ode, in which her chastity and spotless manners shall be applauded to the skies.
What Ovid gives is only a new version of the charms and philtres of Medea. 114
Lucan, in his Pharsalia, 115 takes occasion, immediately before the battle which was to decide the fate of the Roman world, to introduce Sextus, the younger son of Pompey, as impatient to enquire, even by the most sacrilegious means, into the important events which are immediately impending. He is encouraged in the attempt by the reflection, that the soil upon which they are now standing, Thessaly, had been notorious for ages as the noxious and unwholesome seat of sorcery and witchcraft. The poet therefore embraces this occasion to expatiate on the various modes in which this detested art was considered as displaying itself. And, however he may have been ambitious to seize this opportunity to display the wealth of his imagination, the whole does not fail to be curious, as an exhibition of the system of magical power so far as the matter in hand is concerned.
The soil of Thessaly, says the poet, is in the utmost degree fertile in poisonous herbs, and her rocks confess the power of the sepulchral song of the magician. There a vegetation springs up of virtue to compel the Gods; and Colchis itself imports from Thessaly treasures of this sort which she cannot boast as her own. The chaunt of the Thessalian witch penetrates the furthest seat of the Gods, and contains words so powerful, that not the care of the skies, or of the revolving spheres, can avail as an excuse to the deities to decline its force. Babylon and Memphis yield to the superior might; and the Gods of foreign climes fly to fulfil the dread behests of the magician.
Prompted by Thessalian song, love glides into the hardest hearts; and even the severity of age is taught to burn with youthful fires. The ingredients of the poisoned cup, nor the excrescence found on the forehead of the new-cast foal, can rival in efficacy the witching incantation. The soul is melted by its single force. The heart which not all the attractions of the genial bed could fire, nor the influence of the most beautiful form, the wheel of the sorceress shall force from its bent.
But the effects are perhaps still more marvellous that are produced on inanimate and unintellectual nature. The eternal succession of the world is suspended; day delays to rise on the earth; the skies no longer obey their ruler. Nature becomes still at the incantation: and Jove, accustomed to guide the machine, is astonished to find the poles disobedient to his impulse. Now the sorceress deluges the plains with rain, hides the face of heaven with murky clouds, and the thunders roll, unbidden by the thunderer. Anon she shakes her hair, and the darkness is dispersed, and the whole horizon is cleared. At one time the sea rages, urged by no storm; and at another is smooth as glass, in defiance of the tempestuous North. The breath of the enchanter carries along the bark in the teeth of the wind; the headlong torrent is suspended, and rivers run back to their source. The Nile overflows not in the summer; the crooked Meander shapes to itself a direct course; the sluggish Arar gives new swiftness to the rapid Rhone; and the mountains bow their heads to their foundations. Clouds shroud the peaks of the cloudless Olympus; and the Scythian snows dissolve, unurged by the sun. The sea, though impelled by the tempestuous constellations, is counteracted by witchcraft, and no longer beats along the shore. Earthquakes shake the solid globe; and the affrighted inhabitants behold both hemispheres at once. The animals most dreaded for their fury, and whose rage is mortal, become tame; the hungry tiger and the lordly lion fawn at the sorceress’s feet; the snake untwines all her folds amidst the snow; the viper, divided by wounds, unites again its severed parts; and the envenomed serpent pines and dies under the power of a breath more fatal than his own.
What, exclaims the poet, is the nature of the compulsion thus exercised on the Gods, this obedience to song and to potent herbs, this fear to disobey and scorn the enchanter? Do they yield from necessity, or is it a voluntary subjection? Is it the piety of these hags that obtains the reward, or by menaces do they secure their purpose? Are all the Gods subject to this control, or, is there one God upon whom it has power, who, himself compelled, compels the elements? The stars fall from heaven at their command. The silver moon yields to their execrations, and burns with a smouldering flame, even as when the earth comes between her and the sun, and by its shadow intercepts its rays; thus is the moon brought lower and more low, till she covers with her froth the herbs destined to receive her malignant influence.
But Erichtho, the witch of the poet, flouts all these arts, as too poor and timid for her purposes. She never allows a roof to cover her horrid head, or confesses the influence of the Houshold Gods. She inhabits the deserted tomb, and dwells in a grave from which the ghost of the dead has been previously expelled. She knows the Stygian abodes, and the counsels of the infernals. Her countenance is lean; and her complexion overspread with deadly paleness. Her hair is neglected and matted. But when clouds and tempests obscure the stars, then she comes forth, and defies the midnight lightning. Wherever she treads, the fruits of the earth become withered, and the wholesome air is poisoned with her breath. She offers no prayers, and pours forth no supplications; she has recourse to no divination. She delights to profane the sacred altar with a funereal flame, and pollutes the incense with a torch from the pyre. The Gods yield at once to her voice, nor dare to provoke her to a second mandate. She incloses the living man within the confines of the grave; she subjects to sudden death those who were destined to a protracted age; and she brings back to life the corses of the dead. She snatches the smoaking cinders, and the bones whitened with flame, from the midst of the pile, and wrests the torch from the hand of the mourning parent. She seizes the fragments of the burning shroud, and the embers yet moistened with blood. But, where the sad remains are already hearsed in marble, it is there that she most delights to exercise her sacrilegious power. She tears the limbs of the dead, and digs out their eyes. She gnaws their fingers. She separates with her teeth the rope on the gibbet, and tears away the murderer from the cross on which he hung suspended. She applies to her purposes the entrails withered with the wind, and the marrow that had been dried by the sun. She bears away the nails which had pierced the hands and feet of the criminal, the clotted blood which had distilled from his wounds, and the sinews that had held him suspended. She pounces upon the body of the dead in the battle-field, anticipating the vulture and the beast of prey; but she does not divide the limbs with a knife, nor tear them asunder with her hands: she watches the approach of the wolf, that she may wrench the morsels from his hungry jaws. Nor does the thought of murder deter her, if her rites require the living blood, first spurting from the lacerated throat. She drags forth the foetus from its pregnant mother, by a passage which violence has opened. Wherever there is occasion for a bolder and more remorseless ghost, with her own hand she dismisses him from life; man at every period of existence furnishes her with materials. She drags away the first down from the cheek of the stripling, and with her left hand cuts the favourite lock from the head of the young man. Often she watches with seemingly pious care the dying hours of a relative, and seizes the occasion to bite his lips, to compress his windpipe, and whisper in his expiring organ some message to the infernal shades.
Sextus, guided by the general fame of this woman, sought her in her haunts. He chose his time, in the depth of the night, when the sun is at its lowermost distance from the upper sky. He took his way through the desert fields. He took for companions the associates, the accustomed ministers of his crimes. Wandering among broken graves and crumbling sepulchres, they discovered her, sitting sublime on a ragged rock, where mount Haemus stretches its roots to the Pharsalic field. She was mumbling charms of the Magi and the magical Gods. For she feared that the war might yet be transferred to other than the Emathian fields. The sorceress was busy therefore enchanting the soil of Philippi, and scattering on its surface the juice of potent herbs, that it might be heaped with carcasses of the dead, and saturated with their blood, that Macedon, and not Italy, might receive the bodies of departed kings and the bones of the noble, and might be amply peopled with the shades of men. Her choicest labour was as to the earth where should be deposited the prostrate Pompey, or the limbs of the mighty Caesar.
Sextus approached, and bespoke her thus: “Oh, glory of Haemonia, that hast the power to divulge the fates of men, or canst turn aside fate itself from its prescribed course, I pray thee to exercise thy gift in disclosing events to come. Not the meanest of the Roman race am I, the offspring of an illustrious chieftain, lord of the world in the one case, or in the other the destined heir to my father’s calamity. I stand on a tremendous and giddy height: snatch me from this posture of doubt; let me not blindly rush on, and blindly fall; extort this secret from the Gods, or force the dead to confess what they know.”
To whom the Thessalian crone replied: “If you asked to change the fate of an individual, though it were to restore an old man, decrepid with age, to vigorous youth, I could comply; but to break the eternal chain of causes and consequences exceeds even our power. You seek however only a foreknowledge of events to come, and you shall be gratified. Meanwhile it were best, where slaughter has afforded so ample a field, to select the body of one newly deceased, and whose flexible organs shall be yet capable of speech, not with lineaments already hardened in the sun.”
Saying thus, Erichtho proceeded (having first with her art made the night itself more dark, and involved her head in a pitchy cloud), to explore the field, and examine one by one the bodies of the unburied dead. As she approached, the wolves fled before her, and the birds of prey, unwillingly sheathing their talons, abandoned their repast, while the Thessalian witch, searching into the vital parts of the frames before her, at length fixed on one whose lungs were uninjured, and whose organs of speech had sustained no wound. The fate of many hung in doubt, till she had made her selection. Had the revival of whole armies been her will, armies would have stood up obedient to her bidding. She passed a hook beneath the jaw of the selected one, and, fastening it to a cord, dragged him along over rocks and stones, till she reached a cave, overhung by a projecting ridge. A gloomy fissure in the ground was there, of a depth almost reaching to the Infernal Gods, where the yew-tree spread thick its horizontal branches, at all times excluding the light of the sun. Fearful and withering shade was there, and noisome slime cherished by the livelong night. The air was heavy and flagging as that of the Taenarian promontory; and hither the God of hell permits his ghosts to extend their wanderings. It is doubtful whether the sorceress called up the dead to attend her here, or herself descended to the abodes of Pluto. She put on a fearful and variegated robe; she covered her face with her dishevelled hair, and bound her brow with a wreath of vipers.
Meanwhile she observed Sextus afraid, with his eyes fixed on the ground, and his companions trembling; and thus she reproached them. “Lay aside,” she said, “your vainly-conceived terrors! You shall behold only a living and a human figure, whose accents you may listen to with perfect security. If this alarms you, what would you say, if you should have seen the Stygian lakes, and the shores burning with sulphur unconsumed, if the furies stood before you, and Cerberus with his mane of vipers, and the giants chained in eternal adamant? Yet all these you might have witnessed unharmed; for all these would quail at the terror of my brow.”
She spoke, and next plied the dead body with her arts. She supples his wounds, and infuses fresh blood into his veins: she frees his scars from the clotted gore, and penetrates them with froth from the moon. She mixes whatever nature has engendered in its most fearful caprices, foam from the jaws of a mad dog, the entrails of the lynx, the backbone of the hyena, and the marrow of a stag that had dieted on serpents, the sinews of the remora, and the eyes of a dragon, the eggs of the eagle, the flying serpent of Arabia, the viper that guards the pearl in the Red Sea, the slough of the hooded snake, and the ashes that remain when the phoenix has been consumed. To these she adds all venom that has a name, the foliage of herbs over which she has sung her charms, and on which she had voided her rheum as they grew.
At length she chaunts her incantation to the Stygian Gods, in a voice compounded of all discords, and altogether alien to human organs. It resembles at once the barking of a dog, and the howl of a wolf; it consists of the hooting of the screech-owl, the yelling of a ravenous wild beast, and the fearful hiss of a serpent. It borrows somewhat from the roar of tempestuous waves, the hollow rushing of the winds among the branches of the forest, and the tremendous crash of deafening thunder.
“Ye furies,” she cries, “and dreadful Styx, ye sufferings of the damned, and Chaos, for ever eager to destroy the fair harmony of worlds, and thou, Pluto, condemned to an eternity of ungrateful existence, Hell, and Elysium, of which no Thessalian witch shall partake, Proserpine, for ever cut off from thy health-giving mother, and horrid Hecate, Cerebrus [Errata: read Cerberus] curst with incessant hunger, ye Destinies, and Charon endlessly murmuring at the task I impose of bringing back the dead again to the land of the living, hear me! — if I call on you with a voice sufficiently impious and abominable, if I have never sung this chaunt, unsated with human gore, if I have frequently laid on your altars the fruit of the pregnant mother, bathing its contents with the reeking brain, if I have placed on a dish before you the head and entrails of an infant on the point to be born —
“I ask not of you a ghost, already a tenant of the Tartarean abodes, and long familiarised to the shades below, but one who has recently quitted the light of day, and who yet hovers over the mouth of hell: let him hear these incantations, and immediately after descend to his destined place! Let him articulate suitable omens to the son of his general, having so late been himself a soldier of the great Pompey! Do this, as you love the very sound and rumour of a civil war!”
Saying this, behold, the ghost of the dead man stood erect before her, trembling at the view of his own unanimated limbs, and loth to enter again the confines of his wonted prison. He shrinks to invest himself with the gored bosom, and the fibres from which death had separated him. Unhappy wretch, to whom death had not given the privilege to die! Erichtho, impatient at the unlooked for delay, lashes the unmoving corpse with one of her serpents. She calls anew on the powers of hell, and threatens to pronounce the dreadful name, which cannot be articulated without consequences never to be thought of, nor without the direst necessity to be ventured upon.
At length the congealed blood becomes liquid and warm; it oozes from the wounds, and creeps steadily along the veins and the members; the fibres are called into action beneath the gelid breast, and the nerves once more become instinct with life. Life and death are there at once. The arteries beat; the muscles are braced; the body raises itself, not by degrees, but at a single impulse, and stands erect. The eyelids unclose. The countenance is not that of a living subject, but of the dead. The paleness of the complexion, the rigidity of the lines, remain; and he looks about with an unmeaning stare, but utters no sound. He waits on the potent enchantress.
“Speak!” said she; “and ample shall be your reward. You shall not again be subject to the art of the magician. I will commit your members to such a sepulchre; I will burn your form with such wood, and will chaunt such a charm over your funeral pyre, that all incantations shall thereafter assail you in vain. Be it enough, that you have once been brought back to life! Tripods, and the voice of oracles deal in ambiguous responses; but the voice of the dead is perspicuous and certain to him who receives it with an unshrinking spirit. Spare not! Give names to things; give places a clear designation; speak with a full and articulate voice.”
Saying this, she added a further spell, qualified to give to him who was to answer, a distinct knowledge of that respecting which he was about to be consulted. He accordingly delivers the responses demanded of him; and, that done, earnestly requires of the witch to be dismissed. Herbs and magic rites are necessary, that the corpse may be again unanimated, and the spirit never more be liable to be recalled to the realms of day. The sorceress constructs the funeral pile; the dead man places himself thereon; Erichtho applies the torch; and the charm is for ever at an end.
Lucan in this passage is infinitely too precise, and exhausts his muse in a number of particulars, where he had better have been more succinct and select. He displays the prolific exuberance of a young poet, who had not yet taught himself the multiplied advantages of compression. He had not learned the principle, Relinquere quae desperat tractata nitescere posse. 116 But, as this is the fullest enumeration of the forms of witchcraft that occurs in the writers of antiquity, it seemed proper to give it to the reader entire.
The story of Sertorius and his hind, which occurred about thirty years before, may not be improperly introduced here. It is told by Plutarch in the spirit of a philosopher, and as a mere deception played by that general, to render the barbarous people of Spain more devoted to his service. But we must suppose that it had, at least for the time, the full effect of something preternatural. Sertorius was one of the most highly gifted and well balanced characters that is to be found in Roman story. He considered with the soundest discernment the nature of the persons among whom he was to act, and conducted himself accordingly. The story in Plutarch is this.
“So soone as Sertorius arriued from Africa, he straight leauied men of warre, and with them subdued the people of Spaine fronting upon his marches, of which the more part did willingly submit themselves, upon the bruit that ran of him to be mercifull and courteous, and a valiant man besides in present danger, Furthermore, he lacked no fine deuises and subtilties to win their goodwils: as among others, the policy, and deuise of the hind. There was a poore man of the countrey called Spanus, who meeting by chance one day with a hind in his way that had newly calved, flying from the hunters, he let the damme go, not being able to take her; and running after her calfe tooke it, which was a young hind, and of a strange haire, for she was all milk-white. It chanced so, that Sertorius was at that time in those parts. So, this poore man presented Sertorius with his young hind, which he gladly receiued, and which with time he made so tame, that she would come to him when he called her, and follow him where-euer he went, being nothing the wilder for the daily sight of such a number of armed souldiers together as they were, nor yet afraid of the noise and tumult of the campe. Insomuch as Sertorius by little and little made it a miracle, making the simple barbarous people beleeue that it was a gift that Diana had sent him, by the which she made him understand of many and sundrie things to come: knowing well inough of himselfe, that the barbarous people were men easily deceiued, and quickly caught by any subtill superstition, besides that by art also he brought them to beleeue it as a thing verie true. For when he had any secret intelligence giuen him, that the enemies would inuade some part of the countries and prouinces subject vnto him, or that they had taken any of his forts from him by any intelligence or sudden attempt, he straight told them that his hind spake to him as he slept, and had warned him both to arme his men, and put himselfe in strength. In like manner if he had heard any newes that one of his lieutenants had wonne a battell, or that he had any aduantage of his enemies, he would hide the messenger, and bring his hind abroad with a garland and coller of nosegayes: and then say, it was a token of some good newes comming towards him, perswading them withall to be of good cheare; and so did sacrifice to the Gods, to giue them thankes for the good tidings he should heare before it were long. Thus by putting this superstition into their heades, he made them the more tractable and obedient to his will, in so much as they thought they were not now gouerned any more by a stranger wiser than themselues, but were steadfastly perswaded that they were rather led by some certaine God.”—
“Now was Sertorius very heauie, that no man could tell him what was become of his white hind: for thereby all his subtilltie and finenesse to keepe the barbarous people in obedience was taken away, and then specially when they stood in need of most comfort. But by good hap, certaine of his souldiers that had lost themselves in the night, met with the hind in their way, and knowing her by her colour, tooke her and brought her backe againe. Sertorius hearing of her, promised them a good reward, so that they would tell no liuing creature that they brought her againe, and thereupon made her to be secretly kept. Then within a few dayes after, he came abroad among them, and with a pleasant countenance told the noble men and chiefe captaines of these barbarous people, how the Gods had reuealed it to him in his dreame, that he should shortly have a maruellous good thing happen to him: and with these words sate downe in his chaire to give audience. Whereupon they that kept the hind not farre from thence, did secretly let her go. The hind being loose, when she had spied Sertorius, ranne straight to his chaire with great joy, and put her head betwixt his legges, and layed her mouth in his right hand, as she before was wont to do. Sertorius also made very much of her, and of purpose appeared maruellous glad, shewing such tender affection to the hind, as it seemed the water stood in his eyes for joy. The barbarous people that stood there by and beheld the same, at the first were much amazed therewith, but afterwards when they had better bethought themselues, for ioy they clapped their hands together, and waited upon Sertorius to his lodging with great and ioyfull shouts, saying, and steadfastly beleeuing, that he he was a heavenly creature, and beloued of the Gods.” 117
117 Plutarch, North’s Translation.
We are now brought down to the era of the Christian religion; and there is repeated mention of sorcery in the books of the New Testament.
One of the most frequent miracles recorded of Jesus Christ is called the “casting out devils.” The Pharisees in the Evangelist, for the purpose of depreciating this evidence of his divine mission, are recorded to have said, “this fellow doth not cast out devils, but by Beelzebub, the prince of devils.” Jesus, among other remarks in refutation of this opprobrium, rejoins upon them, “If I by Beelzebub cast out devils, by whom do your children cast them out?” 118 Here then we have a plain insinuation of sorcery from the lips of Christ himself, at the same time that he appears to admit that his adversaries produced supernatural achievements similar to his own.
118 Matt. c. xii, v. 24, 27.
But the most remarkable passage in the New Testament on the subject of sorcery, is one which describes the proceedings of Simon Magus, as follows.
“Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria, and preached Christ unto them. But there was a certain man, called Simon, which before time in the same city used sorcery, and bewitched the people of Samaria, giving out that himself was some great one. To whom they all gave heed, from the least to the greatest, saying, This man is the great power of God. And to him they had regard, because that of long time he had bewitched them with sorceries. But, when they believed Philip, preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized both men and women. Then Simon himself believed also. And, when he was baptized, he continued with Philip, and wondered, beholding the miracles and signs which were done.
“Now, when the apostles which were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John. Who, when they were come down, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Ghost. For as yet he was fallen upon none of them: only they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then laid they their hands on them, and they received the Holy Ghost.
“And, when Simon saw that, through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, the Holy Ghost was given, he offered them money, saying, Give me also this power, that on whomsoever I lay hands he may receive the Holy Ghost. But Peter said unto him, Thy money perish with thee! because thou hast thought that the gift of God might be purchased with money. Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter: for thy heart is not right in the sight of God. Repent therefore of this thy wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thy heart may be forgiven thee: for I perceive that thou art in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity. Then answered Simon, and said, Pray ye to the Lord for me, that none of these things which ye have spoken come upon me.” 119
This passage of the New Testament leaves us in considerable uncertainty as to the nature of the sorceries, by which “of a long time Simon had bewitched the people of Samaria.” But the fathers of the church, Clemens Romanus and Anastasius Sinaita, have presented us with a detail of the wonders he actually performed. When and to whom he pleased he made himself invisible; he created a man out of air; he passed through rocks and mountains without encountering an obstacle; he threw himself from a precipice uninjured; he flew along in the air; he flung himself in the fire without being burned. Bolts and chains were impotent to detain him. He animated statues, so that they appeared to every beholder to be men and women; he made all the furniture of the house and the table to change places as required, without a visible mover; he metamorphosed his countenance and visage into that of another person; he could make himself into a sheep, or a goat, or a serpent; he walked through the streets attended with a multitude of strange figures, which he affirmed to be the souls of the departed; he made trees and branches of trees suddenly to spring up where he pleased; he set up and deposed kings at will; he caused a sickle to go into a field of corn, which unassisted would mow twice as fast as the most industrious reaper. 120
Thus endowed, it is difficult to imagine what he thought he would have gained by purchasing from the apostles their gift of working miracles. But Clemens Romanus informs us that he complained that, in his sorceries, he was obliged to employ tedious ceremonies and incantations; whereas the apostles appeared to effect their wonders without difficulty and effort, by barely speaking a word. 121
But Simon Magus is not the only magician spoken of in the New Testament. When the apostle Paul came to Paphos in the isle of Cyprus, he found the Roman governor divided in his preference between Paul and Elymas, the sorcerer, who before the governor withstood Paul to his face. Then Paul, prompted by his indignation, said, “Oh, full of all subtlety and mischief, child of the devil, enemy of all righteousness, wilt thou not cease to pervert the right ways of the Lord? And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon thee, and thou shalt be blind, not seeing the sun for a season.” What wonders Elymas effected to deceive the Roman governor we are not told: but “immediately there fell on him a mist and a darkness; and he went about, seeking some to lead him by the hand.” 122
In another instance we find certain vagabond Jews, exorcists, who pretended to cast out devils from the possessed. But they came to the apostle, and “confessed, and shewed their deeds. Many of them also which used curious arts, brought their books together, and burned them before all. And they counted the price of them, and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver.” 123
It is easy to see however on which side the victory lay. The apostles by their devotion and the integrity of their proceedings triumphed; while those whose only motive was selfishness, the applause of the vulgar, or the admiration of the superficial, gained the honours of a day, and were then swept away into the gulf of general oblivion.
The arts of the magician are said to have been called into action by Nero upon occasion of the assassination of his mother, Agrippina. He was visited with occasional fits of the deepest remorse in the recollection of his enormity. Notwithstanding all the ostentatious applauses and congratulations which he obtained from the senate, the army and the people, he complained that he was perpetually haunted with the ghost of his mother, and pursued by the furies with flaming torches and whips. He therefore caused himself to be attended by magicians, who employed their arts to conjure up the shade of Agrippina, and to endeavour to obtain her forgiveness for the crime perpetrated by her son. 124 We are not informed of the success of their evocations.
124 Suetonius, Lib. VI, cap. 14.
In the reign of Vespasian we meet with a remarkable record of supernatural power, though it does not strictly fall under the head of magic. It is related by both Tacitus and Suetonius. Vespasian having taken up his abode for some months at Alexandria, a blind man, of the common people, came to him, earnestly intreating the emperor to assist in curing his infirmity, alleging that he was prompted to apply by the admonition of the God Serapis, and importuning the prince to anoint his cheeks and the balls of his eyes with the royal spittle. Vespasian at first treated the supplication with disdain; but at length, moved by the fervour of the petitioner, inforced as it was by the flattery of his courtiers, the emperor began to think that every thing would give way to his prosperous fortune, and yielded to the poor man’s desire. With a confident carriage therefore, the multitude of those who stood by being full of expectation, he did as he was requested, and the desired success immediately followed. Another supplicant appeared at the same time, who had lost the use of his hands, and intreated Vespasian to touch the diseased members with his foot; and he also was cured.125
Hume has remarked that many circumstances contribute to give authenticity to this miracle, “if,” as he says, “any evidence could avail to establish so palpable a falsehood. The gravity, solidity, age and probity of so great an emperor, who, through the whole course of his life, conversed in a familiar manner with his friends and courtiers, and never affected any airs of divinity: the historian, a contemporary writer, noted for candour and veracity, and perhaps the greatest and most penetrating genius of all antiquity: and lastly, the persons from whose authority he related the miracle, who we may presume to have been of established character for judgment and honour; eye-witnesses of the fact, and confirming their testimony, as Tacitus goes on to say, after the Flavian family ceased to be in power, and could no longer give any reward as the price of a lie.” 126
Apollonius of Tyana in Asia Minor was born nearly at the same time as Jesus Christ, and acquired great reputation while he lived, and for a considerable time after. He was born of wealthy parents, and seems early to have betrayed a passion for philosophy. His father, perceiving this, placed him at fourteen years of age under Euthydemus, a rhetorician of Tarsus; but the youth speedily became dissatisfied with the indolence and luxury of the citizens, and removed himself to Aegas, a neighbouring town, where was a temple of Aesculapius, and where the God was supposed sometimes to appear in person. Here he became professedly a disciple of the sect of Pythagoras. He refrained from animal food, and subsisted entirely on fruits and herbs. He went barefoot, and wore no article of clothing made from the skins of animals. 127 He further imposed on himself a noviciate of five years silence. At the death of his father, he divided his patrimony equally with his brother; and, that brother having wasted his estate by prodigality, he again made an equal division with him of what remained. 128 He travelled to Babylon and Susa in pursuit of knowledge, and even among the Brachmans of India, and appears particularly to have addicted himself to the study of magic. 129 He was of a beautiful countenance and a commanding figure, and, by means of these things, combined with great knowledge, a composed and striking carriage, and much natural eloquence, appears to have won universal favour wherever he went. He is said to have professed the understanding of all languages without learning them, to read the thoughts of men, and to be able to interpret the language of animals. A power of working miracles attended him in all places. 130
On one occasion he announced to the people of Ephesus the approach of a terrible pestilence; but the citizens paid no attention to his prophecy. The calamity however having overtaken them, they sent to Apollonius who was then at Smyrna, to implore his assistance. He obeyed the summons. Having assembled the inhabitants, there was seen among them a poor, old and decrepid beggar, clothed in rags, hideous of visage, and with a peculiarly fearful and tremendous expression in his eyes. Apollonius called out to the Ephesians, “This is an enemy to the Gods; turn all your animosity against him, and stone him to death!” The old man in the most piteous tones besought their mercy. The citizens were shocked with the inhumanity of the prophet. Some however of the more thoughtless flung a few stones, without any determined purpose. The old man, who had stood hitherto crouching, and with his eyes half-closed, now erected his figure, and cast on the crowd glances, fearful, and indeed diabolical. The Ephesians understood at once that this was the genius of the plague. They showered upon him stones without mercy, so as not only to cover him, but to produce a considerable mound where he had stood. After a time Apollonius commanded them to take away the stones, that they might discover what sort of an enemy they had destroyed. Instead of a man they now saw an enormous black dog, of the size of a lion, and whose mouth and jaws were covered with a thick envenomed froth. 131
Another miracle was performed by Apollonius in favour of a young man, named Menippus of Corinth, five and twenty years of age, for whom the prophet entertained a singular favour. This man conceived himself to be beloved by a rich and beautiful woman, who made advances to him, and to whom he was on the point of being contracted in marriage. Apollonius warned his young friend against the match in an enigmatical way, telling him that he nursed a serpent in his bosom. This however did not deter Menippus. All things were prepared; and the wedding table was spread. Apollonius meanwhile came among them, and prevented the calamity. He told the young man that the dishes before him, the wine he was drinking, the vessels of gold and silver that appeared around him, and the very guests themselves were unreal and illusory; and to prove his words, he caused them immediately to vanish. The bride alone was refractory. She prayed the philosopher not to torment her, and not to compel her to confess what she was. He was however inexorable. She at length owned that she was an empuse (a sort of vampire), and that she had determined to cherish and pamper Menippus, that she might in the conclusion eat his flesh, and lap up his blood. 132
One of the miracles of Apollonius consisted in raising the dead. A young woman of beautiful person was laid out upon a bier, and was in the act of being conveyed to the tomb. She was followed by a multitude of friends, weeping and lamenting, and among others by a young man, to whom she had been on the point to be married. Apollonius met the procession, and commanded those who bore it, to set down the bier. He exhorted the proposed bridegroom to dry up his tears. He enquired the name of the deceased, and, saluting her accordingly, took hold of her hand, and murmured over her certain mystical words. At this act the maiden raised herself on her seat, and presently returned home, whole and sound, to the house of her father. 133
Towards the end of his life Apollonius was accused before Domitian of having conspired with Nerva to put an end to the reign of the tyrant. He appears to have proved that he was at another place, and therefore could not have engaged in the conspiracy that was charged upon him. Domitian publicly cleared him from the accusation, but at the same time required him not to withdraw from Rome, till the emperor had first had a private conference with him. To this requisition Apollonius replied in the most spirited terms. “I thank your majesty,” said he, “for the justice you have rendered me. But I cannot submit to what you require. How can I be secure from the false accusations of the unprincipled informers who infest your court? It is by their means that whole towns of your empire are unpeopled, that provinces are involved in mourning and tears, your armies are in mutiny, your senate full of suspicion and alarms, and the islands are crowded with exiles. It is not for myself that I speak, my soul is invulnerable to your enmity; and it is not given to you by the Gods to become master of my body.” And, having thus given utterance to the virtuous anguish of his spirit, he suddenly became invisible in the midst of a full assembly, and was immediately after seen at Puteoli in the neighbourhood of Mount Vesuvius. 134
Domitian pursued the prophet no further; and he passed shortly after to Greece, to Ionia, and finally to Ephesus. He every where delivered lectures as he went, and was attended with crowds of the most distinguished auditors, and with the utmost popularity. At length at Ephesus, when he was in the midst of an eloquent harangue, he suddenly became silent. He seemed as if he saw a spectacle which engrossed all his attention. His countenance expressed fervour and the most determined purpose. He exclaimed, “Strike the tyrant; strike him!” and immediately after, raising himself, and addressing the assembly, he said, “Domitian is no more; the world is delivered of its bitterest oppressor.”— The next post brought the news that the emperor was killed at Rome, exactly on the day and at the hour when Apollonius had thus made known the event at Ephesus. 135
Nerva succeeded Domitian, between whom and Apollonius there subsisted the sincerest friendship. The prophet however did not long survive this event. He was already nearly one hundred years old. But what is most extraordinary, no one could tell precisely when or where he died. No tomb bore the record of his memory; and his biographer inclines to the opinion that he was taken up into heaven. 136
Divine honours were paid to this philosopher, both during his life, and after his death. The inhabitants of Tyana built a temple to him, and his image was to be found in many other temples. 137 The emperor Adrian collected his letters, and treated them as an invaluable relic. Alexander Severus placed his statue in his oratory, together with those of Jesus Christ, Abraham and Orpheus, to whom he was accustomed daily to perform the ceremonies of religion. 138 Vopiscus, in his Life of Aurelian, 139 relates that this emperor had determined to rase the city of Tyana, but that Apollonius, whom he knew from his statues, appeared to him, and said, “Aurelian, if you would conquer, do not think of the destruction of my citizens: Aurelian, if you would reign, abstain from the blood of the innocent: Aurelian, if you would conquer, distinguish yourself by acts of clemency.” It was at the desire of Julia, the mother of Severus, that Philostratus composed the life of Apollonius, to which he is now principally indebted for his fame. 140
The publicity of Apollonius and his miracles has become considerably greater, from the circumstance of the early enemies of the Christian religion having instituted a comparison between the miracles of Christ and of this celebrated philosopher, for the obvious purpose of undermining one of the most considerable evidences of the truth of divine revelation. It was probably with an indirect view of this sort that Philostratus was incited by the empress Julia to compose his life of this philosopher; and Hierocles, a writer of the time of Dioclesian, appears to have penned an express treatise in the way of a parallel between the two, attempting to shew a decisive superiority in the miracles of Apollonius.
127 Philostratus, Vita Apollonii, Lib. I, cap. 5, 6.
128 Philostratus, Vita Apollonii, Lib. I, c. 10.
129 Ibid, c.13.
130 Ibid, c. 13, 14.
131 Philostratus, Lib. IV, c. 10.
132 Philostratus, Lib. IV, c. 25.
133 Philostratus, Lib. IV, c. 45.
134 Philostratus, Lib. VIII, c. 5.
135 Ibid, c. 26.
136 Philostratus, Lib. VIII, c. 29, 30.
137 Ibid, c. 29.
138 Lampridius, in Vita Alex. Severi, c. 29.
139 C. 24.
140 Philostratus, Lib. I, c. 3.
Apuleius of Madaura in Africa, who lived in the time of the Antonines, appears to have been more remarkable as an author, than for any thing that occurs in the history of his life. St. Augustine and Lactantius however have coupled him with Apollonius of Tyana, as one of those who for their pretended miracles were brought into competition with the author of the Christian religion. But this seems to have arisen from their misapprehension respecting his principal work, the Golden Ass, which is a romance detailing certain wonderful transformations, and which they appear to have thought was intended as an actual history of the life of the author.
The work however deserves to be cited in this place, as giving a curious representation of the ideas which were then prevalent on the subjects of magic and witchcraft. The author in the course of his narrative says: “When the day began to dawn, I chanced to awake, and became desirous to know and see some marvellous and strange things, remembering that I was now in the midst of Thessaly, where, by the common report of the world, sorceries and enchantments are most frequent. I viewed the situation of the place in which I was; nor was there any thing I saw, that I believed to be the same thing which it appeared. Insomuch that the very stones in the street I thought were men bewitched and turned into that figure, and the birds I heard chirping, the trees without the walls, and the running waters, were changed from human creatures into the appearances they wore. I persuaded myself that the statues and buildings could move, that the oxen and other brute beasts could speak and tell strange tidings, and that I should see and hear oracles from heaven, conveyed on the beams of the sun.”
At the same time with Apuleius lived Alexander the Paphlagonian, of whom so extraordinary an account is transmitted to us by Lucian. He was the native of an obscure town, called Abonotica, but was endowed with all that ingenuity and cunning which enables men most effectually to impose upon their fellow-creatures. He was tall of stature, of an impressive aspect, a fair complexion, eyes that sparkled with an awe-commanding fire as if informed by some divinity, and a voice to the last degree powerful and melodious. To these he added the graces of carriage and attire. Being born to none of the goods of fortune, he considered with himself how to turn these advantages to the greatest account; and the plan he fixed upon was that of instituting an oracle entirely under his own direction. He began at Chalcedon on the Thracian Bosphorus; but, continuing but a short time there, he used it principally as an opportunity for publishing that Aesculapius, with Apollo, his father, would in no long time fix his residence at Abonotica. This rumour reached the fellow-citizens of the prophet, who immediately began to lay the foundations of a temple for the reception of the God. In due time Alexander made his appearance; and he so well managed his scheme, that, by means of spies and emissaries whom he scattered in all directions, he not only collected applications to his prophetic skill from the different towns of Ionia, Cilicia and Galatia, but presently extended his fame to Italy and Rome. For twenty years scarcely any oracle of the known world could vie with that of Abonotica; and the emperor Aurelius himself is said to have relied for the success of a military expedition upon the predictions of Alexander the Paphlagonian.
Lucian gives, or pretends to give, an account of the manner in which Alexander gained so extraordinary a success. He says, that this young man in his preliminary travels, coming to Pella in Macedon, found that the environs of this city were distinguished from perhaps all other parts of the world, by a breed of serpents of extraordinary size and beauty. Our author adds that these serpents were so tame, that they inhabited the houses of the province, and slept in bed with the children. If you trod upon them, they did not turn again, or shew tokens of anger, and they sucked the breasts of the women to whom it might be of service to draw off their milk. Lucian says, it was probably one of these serpents, that was found in the bed of Olympias, and gave occasion to the tale that Alexander the Great was begotten by Jupiter under the form of a serpent. The prophet bought the largest and finest serpent he could find, and conveyed it secretly with him into Asia. When he came to Abonotica, he found the temple that was built surrounded with a moat; and he took an opportunity privately of sinking a goose-egg, which he had first emptied of its contents, inserting instead a young serpent just hatched, and closing it again with great care. He then told his fellow-citizens that the God was arrived, and hastening to the moat, scooped up the egg in an egg-cup in presence of the whole assembly. He next broke the shell, and shewed the young serpent that twisted about his fingers in presence of the admiring multitude. After this he suffered several days to elapse, and then, collecting crowds from every part of Paphlagonia, he exhibited himself, as he had previously announced he should do, with the fine serpent he had brought from Macedon twisted in coils about the prophet’s neck, and its head hid under his arm-pit, while a head artfully formed with linen, and bearing some resemblance to a human face, protruded itself, and passed for the head of the reptile. The spectators were beyond measure astonished to see a little embryo serpent, grown in a few days to so magnificent a size, and exhibiting the features of a human countenance.
Having thus far succeeded, Alexander did not stop here. He contrived a pipe which passed seemingly into the mouth of the animal, while the other end terminated in an adjoining room, where a man was placed unseen, and delivered the replies which appeared to come from the mouth of the serpent. This immediate communication with the God was reserved for a few favoured suitors, who bought at a high price the envied distinction.
The method with ordinary enquirers was for them to communicate their requests in writing, which they were enjoined to roll up and carefully seal; and these scrolls were returned to them in a few days, with the seals apparently unbroken, but with an answer written within, strikingly appropriate to the demand that was preferred. — It is further to be observed, that the mouth of the serpent was occasionally opened by means of a horsehair skilfully adjusted for the purpose, at the same time that by similar means the animal darted out its biforked tongue to the terror of the amazed bystanders.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50