Lives of the Necromancers, by William Godwin

Revolution Produced in the History of Necromancy and Witchcraft upon the Establishment of Christianity.

It is necessary here to take notice of the great revolution that took place under Constantine, nearly three hundred years after the death of Christ, when Christianity became the established religion of the Roman empire. This was a period which produced a new era in the history of necromancy and witchcraft. Under the reign of polytheism, devotion was wholly unrestrained in every direction it might chance to assume. Gods known and unknown, the spirits of departed heroes, the Gods of heaven and hell, abstractions of virtue or vice, might unblamed be made the objects of religious worship. Witchcraft therefore, and the invocation of the spirits of the dead, might be practised with toleration; or at all events were not regarded otherwise than as venial deviations from the religion of the state.

It is true, there must always have been a horror of secret arts, especially of such as were of a maleficent nature. At all times men dreaded the mysterious power of spells and incantations, of potent herbs and nameless rites, which were able to control the eternal order of the planets, and the voluntary operations of mind, which could extinguish or recal life, inflame the passions of the soul, blast the works of creation, and extort from invisible beings and the dead the secrets of futurity. But under the creed of the unity of the divine nature the case was exceedingly different. Idolatry, and the worship of other Gods than one, were held to be crimes worthy of the utmost abhorrence and the severest punishment. There was no medium between the worship of heaven and hell. All adoration was to be directed to God the Creator through the mediation of his only begotten Son; or, if prayers were addressed to inferior beings, and the glorified spirits of his saints, at least they terminated in the Most High, were a deprecation of his wrath, a soliciting his favour, and a homage to his omnipotence. On the other hand sorcery and witchcraft were sins of the blackest dye. In opposition to the one only God, the creator of heaven and earth, was the “prince of darkness,” the “prince of the power of the air,” who contended perpetually against the Almighty, and sought to seduce his creatures and his subjects from their due allegiance. Sorcerers and witches were supposed to do homage and sell themselves to the devil, than which it was not in the mind of man to conceive a greater enormity, or a crime more worthy to cause its perpetrators to be exterminated from the face of the earth. The thought of it was of power to cause the flesh of man to creep and tingle with horror: and such as were prone to indulge their imaginations to the utmost extent of the terrible, found a perverse delight in conceiving this depravity, and were but too much disposed to fasten it upon their fellow-creatures.

Magical Consultations Respecting the Life of the Emperor.

It was not within the range of possibility, that such a change should take place in the established religion of the empire as that from Paganism to Christianity, without convulsions and vehement struggle. The prejudices of mankind on a subject so nearly concerned with their dearest interests and affections must inevitably be powerful and obstinate; and the lucre of the priesthood, together with the strong hold they must necessarily have had on the weakness and superstition of their flocks, would tend to give force and perpetuity to the contention. Julian, a man of great ability and unquestionable patriotism, succeeded to the empire only twenty-four years after the death of Constantine; and he employed the most vigorous measures for the restoration of the ancient religion. But the reign of Julian was scarcely more than eighteen months in duration: and that of Jovian, his successor, who again unfurled the standard of Christianity, lasted hardly more than half a year. The state of things bore a striking similarity to that of England at the time of the Protestant Reformation, where the opposite faiths of Edward the Sixth and his sister Mary, and the shortness of their reigns, gave preternatural keenness to the feelings of the parties, and instigated them to hang with the most restless anticipation upon the chances of the demise of the sovereign, and the consequences, favourable or unfavourable, that might arise from a new accession.

The joint reign of Valentinian and Valens, Christian emperors, had now lasted several years, when information was conveyed to these princes, and particularly to the latter, who had the rule of Asia, that numerous private consultations were held, as to the duration of their authority, and the person of the individual who should come after them. The succession of the Roman empire was elective; and consequently there was almost an unlimited scope for conjecture in this question. Among the various modes of enquiry that were employed we are told, that the twenty-four letters of the alphabet were artificially disposed in a circle, and that a magic ring, being suspended over the centre, was conceived to point to the initial letters of the name of him who should be the future emperor. Theodorus, a man of most eminent qualifications, and high popularity, was put to death by the jealousy of Valens, on the vague evidence that this kind of trial had indicated the early letters of his name. 141 It may easily be imagined, that, where so restless and secret an investigation was employed as to the successor that fate might provide, conspiracy would not always be absent. Charges of this sort were perpetually multiplied; informers were eager to obtain favour or rewards by the disclosures they pretended to communicate; and the Christians, who swayed the sceptre of the state, did not fail to aggravate the guilt of those who had recourse to these means for satisfying their curiosity, by alleging that demons were called up from hell to aid in the magic solution. The historians of these times no doubt greatly exaggerate the terror and the danger, when they say, that the persons apprehended on such charges in the great cities outnumbered the peaceable citizens who were left unsuspected, and that the military who had charge of the prisoners, complained that they were wholly without the power to restrain the flight of the captives, or to control the multitude of partisans who insisted on their immediate release. 142 The punishments were barbarous and indiscriminate; to be accused was almost the same thing as to be convicted; and those were obliged to hold themselves fortunate, who escaped with a fine that in a manner swallowed up their estates.

141 Zosimus, Lib, IV, cap. 13. Gibbon observes, that the name of Theodosius, who actually succeeded, begins with the same letters which were indicated in this magic trial.

142 Zosimus, Lib. IV, cap. 14.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55