From the countries best known in what is usually styled ancient history, in other words from Greece and Rome, and the regions into which the spirit of conquest led the people of Rome and Greece, it is time we should turn to the East, and those remoter divisions of the world, which to them were comparatively unknown.
With what has been called the religion of the Magi, of Egypt, Persia and Chaldea, they were indeed superficially acquainted; but for a more familiar and accurate knowledge of the East we are chiefly indebted to certain events of modern history; to the conquests of the Saracens, when they possessed themselves of the North of Africa, made themselves masters of Spain, and threatened in their victorious career to subject France to their standard; to the crusades; to the spirit of nautical discovery which broke out in the close of the fifteenth century; and more recently to the extensive conquests and mighty augmentation of territory which have been realised by the English East India Company.
The religion of Persia was that of Zoroaster and the Magi. When Ardshir, or Artaxerxes, the founder of the race of the Sassanides, restored the throne of Persia in the year of Christ 226, he called together an assembly of the Magi from all parts of his dominions, and they are said to have met to the number of eighty thousand. 143 These priests, from a remote antiquity, had to a great degree preserved their popularity, and had remarkably adhered to their ancient institutions.
They seem at all times to have laid claim to the power of suspending the course of nature, and producing miraculous phenomena. But in so numerous a body there must have been some whose pretensions were of a more moderate nature, and others who displayed a loftier aspiration. The more ambitious we find designated in their native language by the name of Jogees, 144 of the same signification as the Latin juncti.
Their notions of the Supreme Being are said to have been of the highest and abstrusest character, as comprehending every possible perfection of power, wisdom and goodness, as purely spiritual in his essence, and incapable of the smallest variation and change, the same yesterday, today, and for ever. Such as they apprehended him to be, such the most perfect of their priests aspired to make themselves. They were to put off all human weakness and frailty; and, in proportion as they assimilated, or rather became one with the Deity, they supposed themselves to partake of his attributes, to become infinitely wise and powerful and good. Hence their claim to suspend the course of nature, and to produce miraculous phenomena. For this purpose it was necessary that they should abstract themselves from every thing mortal, have no human passions or partialities, and divest themselves as much as possible of all the wants and demands of our material frame. Zoroaster appears indeed to have preferred morality to devotion, to have condemned celibacy and fasting, and to have pronounced, that “he who sows the ground with diligence and care, acquires a greater stock of religious merit than he who should repeat ten thousand prayers.” But his followers at least did not abide by this decision. They found it more practicable to secure to themselves an elevated reputation by severe observances, rigid self-denial, and the practice of the most inconceivable mortifications. This excited wonder and reverence and a sort of worship from the bystander, which industry and benevolence do not so assuredly secure. They therefore in frequent instances lacerated their flesh, and submitted to incredible hardships. They scourged themselves without mercy, wounded their bodies with lancets and nails, 145 and condemned themselves to remain for days and years unmoved in the most painful attitudes. It was no unprecedented thing for them to take their station upon the top of a high pillar; and some are said to have continued in this position, without ever coming down from it, for thirty years. The more they trampled under foot the universal instincts of our nature, and shewed themselves superior to its infirmities, the nearer they approached to the divine essence, and to the becoming one with the Omnipresent. They were of consequence the more sinless and perfect; their will became the will of the Deity, and they were in a sense invested with, and became the mediums of the acts of, his power. The result of all this is, that they who exercised the art of magic in its genuine and unadulterated form, at all times applied it to purposes of goodness and benevolence, and that their interference was uniformly the signal of some unequivocal benefit, either to mankind in general, or to those individuals of mankind who were best entitled to their aid. It was theirs to succour virtue in distress, and to interpose the divine assistance in cases that most loudly and unquestionably called for it.
Such, we are told, was the character of the pure and primitive magic, as it was handed down from the founder of their religion. It was called into action by the Jogees, men who, by an extraordinary merit of whatever sort, had in a certain sense rendered themselves one with the Deity. But the exercise of magical power was too tempting an endowment, not in some cases to be liable to abuse. Even as we read of the angels in heaven, that not all of them stood, and persevered in their original sinlessness and integrity, so of the Jogees some, partaking of the divine power, were also under the direction of a will celestial and divine, while others, having derived, we must suppose, a mighty and miraculous power from the gift of God, afterwards abused it by applying it to capricious, or, as it should seem, to malignant purposes. This appears to have been every where essential to the history of magic. If those who were supposed to possess it in its widest extent and most astonishing degree, had uniformly employed it only in behalf of justice and virtue, they would indeed have been regarded as benefactors, and been entitled to the reverence and love of mankind. But the human mind is always prone to delight in the terrible. No sooner did men entertain the idea of what was supernatural and uncontrolable, than they began to fear it and to deprecate its hostility. They apprehended they knew not what, of the dead returning to life, of invisible beings armed with the power and intention of executing mischief, and of human creatures endowed with the prerogative of bringing down pestilence and slaughter, of dispensing wealth and poverty, prosperity and calamity at their pleasure, of causing health and life to waste away by insensible, but sure degrees, of producing lingering torments, and death in its most fearful form. Accordingly it appears that, as there were certain magicians who were as Gods dispensing benefits to those who best deserved it, so there were others, whose only principle of action was caprice, and against whose malice no innocence and no degree of virtue would prove a defence. As the former sort of magicians were styled Jogees, and were held to be the deputies and instruments of infinite goodness, so the other sort were named Ku–Jogees, that is, persons who possessing the same species of ascendancy over the powers of nature, employed it only in deeds of malice and wickedness.
In the mean time these magicians appear to have produced the wonderful effects which drew to them the reverence of the vulgar, very frequently by the intervention of certain beings of a nature superior to the human, who should seem, though ordinarily invisible, to have had the faculty of rendering themselves visible when they thought proper, and assuming what shape they pleased. These are principally known by the names of Peris, Dives, 146 and Gins, or Genii. Richardson, in the preface to his Persian Dictionary, from which our account will principally be taken, refers us to what he calls a romance, but from which he, appears to derive the outline of his Persian mythology. In this romance Kahraman, a mortal, is introduced in conversation with Simurgh, a creature partaking of the nature of a bird and a griffon, who reveals to him the secrets of the past history of the earth. She tells him that she has lived to see the world seven times peopled with inhabitants of so many different natures, and seven times depopulated, the former inhabitants having been so often removed, and giving place to their successors. The beings who occupied the earth previously to man, were distinguished into the Peris and the Dives; and, when they no longer possessed the earth in chief, they were, as it should seem, still permitted, in an airy and unsubstantial form, and for the most part invisibly, to interfere in the affairs of the human race. These beings ruled the earth during seventy-two generations. The last monarch, named Jan bin Jan, conducted himself so ill, that God sent the angel Haris to chastise him. Haris however became intoxicated with power, and employed his prerogative in the most reprehensible manner. God therefore at length created Adam, the first of men, crowning him with glory and honour, and giving him dominion over all other earthly beings. He commanded the angels to obey him; but Haris refused, and the Dives followed his example. The rebels were for the most part sent to hell for their contumacy; but a part of the Dives, whose disobedience had been less flagrant, were reserved, and allowed for a certain term to walk the earth, and by their temptations to put the virtue and constancy of man to trial. Henceforth the human race was secretly surrounded by invisible beings of two species, the Peris, who were friendly to man, and the Dives, who exercised their ingenuity in involving them in error and guilt. The Peris were beautiful and benevolent, but imperfect and offending beings; they are supposed to have borne a considerable resemblance to the Fairies of the western world. The Dives were hideous in form, and of a malignant disposition. The Peris subsist wholly on perfumes, which the Dives, being of a grosser nature, hold in abhorrence. This mythology is said to have been unknown in Arabia till long after Mahomet: the only invisible beings we read of in their early traditions are the Gins, which term, though now used for the most part as synonimous with Dives, originally signified nothing more than certain infernal fiends of stupendous power, whose agency was hostile to man.
There was perpetual war between the Peris and the Dives, whose proper habitation was Kaf, or Caucasus, a line of mountains which was supposed to reach round the globe. In these wars the Peris generally came off with the worst; and in that case they are represented in the traditional tales of the East, as applying to some gallant and heroic mortal to reinforce their exertions. The warriors who figure in these narratives appear all to have been ancient Persian kings. Tahmuras, one of the most celebrated of them, is spoken of as mounting upon Simurgh, surrounded with talismans and enchanted armour, and furnished with a sword the dint of which nothing could resist. He proceeds to Kaf, or Ginnistan, and defeats Arzshank, the chief of the Dives, but is defeated in turn by a more formidable competitor. The war appears to be carried on for successive ages with alternate advantage and disadvantage, till after the lapse of centuries Rustan kills Arzshank, and finally reduces the Dives to a subject and tributary condition. In all this there is a great resemblance to the fables of Scandinavia; and the Northern and the Eastern world seem emulously to have contributed their quota of chivalry and romance, of heroic achievements and miraculous events, of monsters and dragons, of amulets and enchantment, and all those incidents which most rouse the imagination, and are calculated to instil into generous and enterprising youth a courage the most undaunted and invincible.
Asia has been more notorious than perhaps any other division of the globe for the vast multiplicity and variety of its narratives of sorcery and magic. I have however been much disappointed in the thing I looked for in the first place, and that is, in the individual adventures of such persons as might be supposed to have gained a high degree of credit and reputation for their skill in exploits of magic. Where the professors are many (and they have been perhaps no where so numerous as those of magic in the East), it is unavoidable but that some should have been more dextrous than others, more eminently gifted by nature, more enthusiastic and persevering in the prosecution of their purpose, and more fortunate in awakening popularity and admiration among their contemporaries. In the instances of Apollonius Tyanaeus and others among the ancients, and of Cornelius Agrippa, Roger Bacon and Faust among the moderns, we are acquainted with many biographical particulars of their lives, and can trace with some degree of accuracy, their peculiarities of disposition, and observe how they were led gradually from one study and one mode of action to another. But the magicians of the East, so to speak, are mere abstractions, not characterised by any of those habits which distinguish one individual of the human race from another, and having those marking traits and petty lineaments which make the person, as it were, start up into life while he passes before our eyes. They are merely reported to us as men prone to the producing great signs and wonders, and nothing more.
Two of the most remarkable exceptions that I have found to this rule, occur in the examples of Rocail, and of Hakem, otherwise called Mocanna.
The first of these however is scarcely to be called an exception, as lying beyond the limits of all credible history, Rocail is said to have been the younger brother of Seth, the son of Adam. A Dive, or giant of mount Caucasus, being hard pressed by his enemies, sought as usual among the sons of men for aid that might extricate him out of his difficulties. He at length made an alliance with Rocail, by whose assistance he arrived at the tranquillity he desired, and who in consequence became his grand vizier, or prime minister. He governed the dominions of his principal for many years with great honour and success; but, ultimately perceiving the approaches of old age and death, he conceived a desire to leave behind him a monument worthy of his achievements in policy and war. He according erected, we are not told by what means, a magnificent palace, and a sepulchre equally worthy of admiration. But what was most entitled to notice, he peopled this palace with statues of so extraordinary a quality, that they moved and performed all the functions and offices of living men, so that every one who beheld them would have believed that they were actually informed with souls, whereas in reality all they did was by the power of magic, in consequence of which, though they were in fact no more than inanimate matter, they were enabled to obey the behests, and perform the will, of the persons by whom they were visited. 147
147 D’Herbelot, Bibliothèque Orientale.
Hakem was a leader in one of the different divisions of the followers of Mahomet. To inspire the greater awe into the minds of his supporters, he pretended that he was the Most High God, the creator of heaven and earth, under one of the different forms by which he has in successive ages become incarnate, and made himself manifest to his creatures. He distinguished himself by the peculiarity of always wearing a thick and impervious veil, by which, according to his followers, he covered the dazzling splendour of his countenance, which was so great that no mortal could behold it and live, but that, according to his enemies, only served to conceal the hideousness of his features, too monstrously deformed to be contemplated without horror. One of his miracles, which seems the most to have been insisted on, was that he nightly, for a considerable space of time, caused an orb, something like the moon, to rise from a sacred well, which gave a light scarcely less splendid than the day, that diffused its beams for many miles around. His followers were enthusiastically devoted to his service, and he supported his authority unquestioned for a number of years. At length a more formidable opponent appeared, and after several battles he became obliged to shut himself up in a strong fortress. Here however he was so straitly besieged as to be driven to the last despair, and, having administered poison to his whole garrison, he prepared a bath of the most powerful ingredients, which, when he threw himself into it, dissolved his frame, even to the very bones, so that nothing remained of him but a lock of his hair. He acted thus, with the hope that it would be believed that he was miraculously taken up into heaven; nor did this fail to be the effect on the great body of his adherents. 148
148 D’Herbelot, Bibliothèque Orientale.
The most copious record of stories of Asiatic enchantment that we possess, is contained in the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments; to which we may add the Persian Tales, and a few other repositories of Oriental adventures. It is true that these are delivered to us in a garb of fiction; but they are known to present so exact a picture of Eastern manners and customs, and so just a delineation of the follies, the weaknesses and credulity of the races of men that figure in them, that, in the absence of materials of a strictly historical sort of which we have to complain, they may not inadequately supply the place, and may furnish us with a pretty full representation of the ideas of sorcery and magic which for centuries were entertained in this part of the world. They have indeed one obvious defect, which it is proper the reader should keep constantly in mind. The mythology and groundwork of the whole is Persian: but the narrator is for the most part a Mahometan. Of consequence the ancient Fire-worshippers, though they contribute the entire materials, and are therefore solely entitled to our gratitude and deference for the abundant supply they have furnished to our curiosity, are uniformly treated in these books with disdain and contumely as unworthy of toleration, while the comparative upstart race of the believers in the Koran are held out to us as the only enlightened and upright among the sons of men.
Many of the matters most currently related among these supernatural phenomena, are tales of transformation. A lady has two sisters of the most profligate and unprincipled character. They have originally the same share of the paternal inheritance as herself. But they waste it in profusion and folly, while she improves her portion by good judgment and frugality. Driven to the extremity of distress, they humble themselves, and apply to her for assistance. She generously imparts to them the same amount of wealth that they originally possessed, and they are once more reduced to poverty. This happens again and again. At length, finding them incapable of discretion, she prevails on them to come and live with her. By wearisome and ceaseless importunity they induce her to embark in a mercantile enterprise. Here she meets with a prince, who had the misfortune to be born in a region of fire-worshippers, but was providentially educated by a Mahometan nurse. Hence, when his countrymen were by divine vengeance all turned into stones, he alone was saved alive. The lady finds him in this situation, endowed with sense and motion amidst a petrified city, and they immediately fall in love with each other. She brings him away from this melancholy scene, and together they go on board the vessel which had been freighted by herself and her sisters. But the sisters become envious of her good fortune, and conspire, while she and the prince are asleep, to throw them overboard. The prince is drowned; but the lady with great difficulty escapes. She finds herself in a desert island, not far from the place where she had originally embarked on her adventure; and, having slept off the fatigues she had encountered, beholds on her awaking a black woman with an agreeable countenance, a fairy, who leads in her hand two black bitches coupled together with a cord. These black bitches are the lady’s sisters, thus metamorphosed, as a punishment for their ingratitude and cruelty. The fairy conveys her through the air to her own house in Bagdad, which she finds well stored with all sorts of commodities, and delivers to her the two animals, with an injunction that she is to whip them every day at a certain hour as a further retribution for their crimes. This was accordingly punctually performed; and, at the end of each day’s penance, the lady, having before paid no regard to the animals’ gestures and pitiable cries, wept over them, took them in her arms, kissed them, and carefully wiped the moisture from their eyes. Having persevered for a length of time in this discipline, the offenders are finally, by a counter-incantation, restored to their original forms, being by the severities they had suffered entirely cured of the vices which had occasioned their calamitous condition.
Another story is of a calender, a sort of Mahometan monk, with one eye, who had originally been a prince. He had contracted a taste for navigation and naval discoveries; and, in one of his voyages, having been driven by stress of weather into unknown seas, he suddenly finds himself attracted towards a vast mountain of loadstone, which first, by virtue of the iron and nails in the ship, draws the vessel towards itself, and then, by its own intrinsic force, extracts the nails, so that the ship tumbles to pieces, and every one on board is drowned. The mountain, on the side towards the sea, is all covered with nails, which had been drawn from vessels that previously suffered the same calamity; and these nails at once preserve and augment the fatal power of the mountain. The prince only escapes; and he finds himself in a desolate island, with a dome of brass, supported by brazen pillars, and on the top of it a horse of brass, and a rider of the same metal. This rider the prince is fated to throw down, by means of an enchanted arrow, and thus to dissolve the charm which had been fatal to thousands. From the desolate island he embarked on board a boat, with a single rower, a man of metal, and would have been safely conveyed to his native country, had he not inadvertently pronounced the name of God, that he had been warned not to do, and which injunction he had observed many days. On this the boat immediately sunk; but the prince was preserved, who comes into a desolate island, where he finds but one inhabitant, a youth of fifteen. This youth is hid in a cavern, it having been predicted of him that he should be killed after fifty days, by the man that threw down the horse of brass and his rider. A great friendship is struck up between the unsuspecting youth and the prince, who nevertheless fulfils the prediction, having by a pure accident killed the youth on the fiftieth day. He next arrives at a province of the main land, where he visits a castle, inhabited by ten very agreeable young men, each blind of the right eye. He dwells with them for a month, and finds, after a day of pleasant entertainment, that each evening they do penance in squalidness and ashes. His curiosity is greatly excited to obtain an explanation of what he saw, but this they refuse, telling him at the same time, that he may, if he pleases, pass through the same adventure as they have done, and, if he does, wishing it may be attended with a more favourable issue. He determines to make the experiment; and by their direction, after certain preparations, is flown away with through the air by a roc, a stupendous bird, that is capable in the same manner of carrying off an elephant. By this means he is brought to a castle of the most extraordinary magnificence, inhabited by forty ladies of exquisite beauty. With these ladies he lives for eleven months in a perpetual succession of delights. But in the twelfth month they tell him, that they are obliged to leave him till the commencement of the new year. In the mean time they give him for his amusement the keys of one hundred apartments, all but one of which he is permitted to open. He is delighted with the wonders of these apartments till the last day. On that day he opens the forbidden room, where the rarity that most strikes him is a black horse of admirable shape and appearance, with a saddle and bridle of gold. He leads this horse into the open air, and is tempted to mount him. The horse first stands still; but at length, being touched with a switch, spreads a pair of wings which the prince had not before perceived, and mounts to an amazing height in the air. The horse finally descends on the terrace of a castle, where he throws his rider, and leaves him, having first dashed out his right eye with a sudden swing of his tail. The prince goes down into the castle, and to his surprise finds himself in company with the ten young men, blind of one eye, who had passed through the same adventure as he had done, and all been betrayed by means of the same infirmity.
These two stories are from the Arabian Nights: the two following are from the Persian Tales. — Fadlallah, king of Mousel, contracted an intimacy with a young dervise, a species of Turkish friar, who makes a vow of perpetual poverty. The dervise, to ingratiate himself the more with the prince, informed him of a secret he possessed, by means of a certain incantation, of projecting his soul into the body of any dead animal he thought proper.
To convince the king that this power was no empty boast, he offered to quit his own body, and animate that of a doe, which Fadlallah had just killed in hunting. He accordingly executed what he proposed, took possession of the body of the doe, displayed the most surprising agility, approached the king, fawning on him with every expression of endearment, and then, after various bounds, deserting the limbs of the animal, and repossessing his own frame, which during the experiment had lain breathless on the ground. Fadlallah became earnest to possess the secret of the dervise; and, after some demurs, it was communicated to him. The king took possession of the body of the doe; but his treacherous confident no sooner saw the limbs of Fadlallah stretched senseless on the ground, than he conveyed his own spirit into them, and, bending his bow, sought to destroy the life of his defenceless victim. The king by his agility escaped; and the dervise, resorting to the palace, took possession of the throne, and of the bed of the queen, Zemroude, with whom Fadlallah was desperately enamoured. The first precaution of the usurper was to issue a decree that all the deer within his dominions should be killed, hoping by this means to destroy the rightful sovereign. But the king, aware of his danger, had deserted the body of the doe, and entered that of a dead nightingale that lay in his path. In this disguise he hastened to the palace, and placed himself in a wide-spreading tree, which grew immediately before the apartment of Zemroude. Here he poured out his complaints and the grief that penetrated his soul in such melodious notes, as did not fail to attract the attention of the queen. She sent out her bird-catchers to make captive the little warbler; and Fadlallah, who desired no better, easily suffered himself to be made their prisoner. In this new position he demonstrated by every gesture of fondness his partiality to the queen; but if any of her women approached him, he pecked at them in anger, and, when the impostor made his appearance, could not contain the vehemence of his rage. It happened one night that the queen’s lap-dog died; and the thought struck Fadlallah that he would animate the corpse of this animal. The next morning Zemroude found her favourite bird dead in his cage, and immediately became inconsolable. Never, she said, was so amiable a bird; he distinguished her from all others; he seemed even to entertain a passion for her; and she felt as if she could not survive his loss. The dervise in vain tried every expedient to console her. At length he said, that, if she pleased, he would cause her nightingale to revive every morning, and entertain her with his tunes as long as she thought proper. The dervise accordingly laid himself on a sopha, and by means of certain cabalistic words, transported his soul into the body of the nightingale, and began to sing. Fadlallah watched his time; he lay in a corner of the room unobserved; but no sooner had the dervise deserted his body, than the king proceeded to take possession of it. The first thing he did was to hasten to the cage, to open the door with uncontrolable impatience, and, seizing the bird, to twist off its head. Zemroude, amazed, asked him what he meant by so inhuman an action. Fadlallah in reply related to her all the circumstances that had befallen him; and the queen became so struck with agony and remorse that she had suffered her person, however innocently, to be polluted by so vile an impostor, that she could not get over the recollection, but pined away and died from a sense of the degradation she had endured.
But a much more perplexing and astounding instance of transformation occurs in the history of the Young King of Thibet and the Princess of the Naimans. The sorcerers in this case are represented as, without any intermediate circumstance to facilitate their witchcraft, having the ability to assume the form of any one they please, and in consequence to take the shape of one actually present, producing a duplication the most confounding that can be imagined. — Mocbel, the son of an artificer of Damascus, but whose father had bequeathed him considerable wealth, contrived to waste his patrimony and his youth together in profligate living with Dilnouaze, a woman of dissolute manners. Finding themselves at once poor and despised, they had recourse to the sage Bedra, the most accomplished magician of the desert, and found means to obtain her favour. In consequence she presented them with two rings, which had the power of enabling them to assume the likeness of any man or woman they please. Thus equipped, Mocbel heard of the death of Mouaffack, prince of the Naimans, who was supposed to have been slain in a battle, and whose body had never been found. The niece of Mouaffack now filled the throne; and under these circumstances Mocbel conceived the design of personating the absent Mouaffack, exciting a rebellion among his countrymen, and taking possession of the throne. In this project he succeeded; and the princess driven into exile, took refuge in the capital of Thibet. Here the king saw her, fell in love with her, and espoused her. Being made acquainted with her history, he resolved to re-conquer her dominions, and sent a defiance to the usurper. Mocbel, terrified at the thought of so formidable an invader, first pretended to die, and then, with Dilnouaze, who during his brief reign had under the form of a beautiful woman personated his queen, proceeded in his original form to the capital of Thibet. Here his purpose was to interrupt the happiness of those who had disturbed him in his deceitful career. Accordingly one night, when the queen, previously to proceeding to her repose, had shut herself up in her closet to read certain passages of the Alcoran, Dilnouaze, assuming her form with the minutest exactness, hastened to place herself in the royal bed by the side of the king. After a time, the queen shut her book, and went along the gallery to the king’s bedchamber, Mocbel watched his time, and placed himself, under the form of a frightful apparition, directly in the queen’s path. She started at the sight, and uttered a piercing shriek. The king recognised her voice, and hastened to see what had happened to her. She explained; but the king spoke of something much more extraordinary, and asked her how it could possibly happen that she should be in the gallery, at the same moment that he had left her, undressed and in bed. They proceeded to the chamber to unravel the mystery. Here a contention occurred between the real and the seeming queen, each charging the other with imposture. The king turned from one to the other, and was unable to decide between their pretensions. The courtiers and the ladies of the bedchamber were called, and all were perplexed with uncertainty and doubt. At length they determine in favour of the false queen, It was then proposed that the other should be burned for a sorceress. The king however forbade this. He was not yet altogether decided; and could not resolve to consign his true queen, as it might possibly be, to a cruel death. He was therefore content to strip her of her royal robes, to clothe her in rags, and thrust her ignominiously from his palace.
Treachery however was not destined to be ultimately triumphant. The king one day rode out a hunting; and Mocbel, that he might the better deceive the guards of the palace, seizing the opportunity, assumed his figure, and went to bed to Dilnouaze. The king meanwhile recollected something of importance, that he had forgotten before he went out to hunt, and returning upon his steps, proceeded to the royal chamber. Here to his utter confusion he found a man in bed with his queen, and that man to his greater astonishment the exact counterpart of himself. Furious at the sight, he immediately drew his scymetar. The man contrived to escape down the backstairs. The woman however remained in bed; and, stretching out her hands to intreat for mercy, the king struck off the hand which had the ring on it, and she immediately appeared, as she really was, a frightful hag. She begged for life; and, that she might mollify his rage, explained the mystery, told him that it was by means of a ring that she effected the delusion, and that by a similar enchantment her paramour had assumed the likeness of the king. The king meanwhile was inexorable, and struck off her head. He next turned in pursuit of the adulterer. Mocbel however had had time to mount on horseback. But the king mounted also; and, being the better horseman, in a short time overtook his foe. The impostor did not dare to cope with him, but asked his life; and the king, considering him as the least offender of the two, pardoned him upon condition of his surrendering the ring, in consequence of which he passed the remainder of his life in poverty and decrepitude.
A story in the Arabian Nights, which merits notice for its singularity, and as exhibiting a particular example of the credulity of the people of the East, is that of a man who married a sorceress, without being in any way conscious of her character in that respect. She was sufficiently agreeable in her person, and he found for the most part no reason to be dissatisfied with her. But he became uneasy at the strangeness of her behaviour, whenever they sat together at meals. The husband provided a sufficient variety of dishes, and was anxious that his wife should eat and be refreshed. But she took scarcely any nourishment. He set before her a plate of rice. From this plate she took somewhat, grain by grain; but she would taste of no other dish. The husband remonstrated with her upon her way of eating, but to no purpose; she still went on the same. He knew it was impossible for any one to subsist upon so little as she ate; and his curiosity was roused. One night, as he lay quietly awake, he perceived his wife rise very softly, and put on her clothes. He watched, but made as if he saw nothing. Presently she opened the door, and went out. He followed her unperceived, by moonlight, and tracked her into a place of graves. Here to his astonishment he saw her joined by a Goule, a sort of wandering demon, which is known to infest ruinous buildings, and from time to time suddenly rushes out, seizes children and other defenceless people, strangles, and devours them. Occasionally, for want of other food, this detested race will resort to churchyards, and, digging up the bodies of the newly-buried, gorge their appetites upon the flesh of these. The husband followed his wife and her supernatural companion, and watched their proceedings. He saw them digging in a new-made grave. They extracted the body of the deceased; and, the Goule cutting it up joint by joint, they feasted voraciously, and, having satisfied their appetites, cast the remainder into the grave again, and covered it up as before. The husband now withdrew unobserved to his bed, and the wife followed presently after. He however conceived a horrible loathing of such a wife; and she discovers that he is acquainted with her dreadful secret. They can no longer live together; and a metamorphosis followed. She turned him into a dog, which by ill usage she drove from her door; and he, aided by a benevolent sorceress, first recovers his natural shape, and then, having changed her into a mare, by perpetual hard usage and ill treatment vents his detestation of the character he had discovered in her.
A compilation of more vigorous imagination and more exhaustless variety than the Arabian Nights, perhaps never existed. Almost every thing that can be conceived of marvellous and terrific is there to be found. When we should apprehend the author or authors to have come to an end of the rich vein in which they expatiate, still new wonders are presented to us in endless succession. Their power of comic exhibition is not less extraordinary than their power of surprising and terrifying. The splendour of their painting is endless; and the mind of the reader is roused and refreshed by shapes and colours for ever new.
It is characteristic of this work to exhibit a faithful and particular picture of Eastern manners, customs, and modes of thinking and acting. And yet, now and then, it is curious to observe the coincidence of Oriental imagination with that of antiquity and of the North of Europe, so that it is difficult to conceive the one not to be copied from the other. Perhaps it was so; and perhaps not. Man is every where man, possessed of the same faculties, stimulated by the same passions, deriving pain and pleasure from the same sources, with similar hopes and fears, aspirations and alarms.
In the Third Voyage of Sinbad he arrives at an island were he finds one man, a negro, as tall as a palm-tree, and with a single eye in the middle of his forehead. He takes up the crew, one by one, and selects the fattest as first to be devoured. This is done a second time. At length nine of the boldest seize on a spit, while he lay on his back asleep, and, having heated it red-hot, thrust it into his eye. — This is precisely the story of Ulysses and the Cyclops.
The story of the Little Hunchback, who is choaked with a fish-bone, and, after having brought successive individuals into trouble on the suspicion of murdering him, is restored to life again, is nearly the best known of the Arabian Tales. The merry jest of Dan Hew, Monk of Leicester, who “once was hanged, and four times slain,” bears a very striking resemblance to this. 149
A similar resemblance is to be found, only changing the sex of the aggressor, between the well known tale of Patient Grizzel, and that of Cheheristany in the Persian Tales. This lady was a queen of the Gins, who fell in love with the emperor of China, and agrees to marry him upon condition that she shall do what she pleases, and he shall never doubt that what she does is right. She bears him a son, beautiful as the day, and throws him into the fire. She bears him a daughter, and gives her to a white bitch, who runs away with her, and disappears. The emperor goes to war with the Moguls; and the queen utterly destroys the provisions of his army. But the fire was a salamander, and the bitch a fairy, who rear the children in the most admirable manner; and the provisions of the army were poisoned by a traitor, and are in a miraculous manner replaced by such as were wholesome and of the most invigorating qualities.
149 It is in Selden’s Collection of Ballads in the Bodleian Library. See Letters from the Bodleian, Vol. I, p. 120 to 126.
Meanwhile, though the stories above related are extracted from books purely and properly of fiction, they exhibit so just a delineation of Eastern manners and habits of mind, that, in the defect of materials strictly historical, they may to a certain degree supply the place. The principal feature they set before us is credulity and a love of the marvellous. This is ever found characteristic of certain ages of the world; but in Asia it prevails in uninterrupted continuity. Wherever learning and the exercise of the intellectual faculties first shew themselves, there mystery and a knowledge not to be communicated but to the select few must be expected to appear. Wisdom in its natural and genuine form seeks to diffuse itself; but in the East on the contrary it is only valued in proportion to its rarity. Those who devoted themselves to intellectual improvement, looked for it rather in solitary abstraction, than in free communication with the minds of others; and, when they condescended to the use of the organ of speech, they spoke in enigmas and ambiguities, and in phrases better adapted to produce wonder and perplexity, than to enlighten and instruct. When the more consummate instructed the novice, it was by slow degrees only, and through the medium of a long probation. In consequence of this state of things the privileged few conceived of their own attainments with an over-weening pride, and were puffed up with a sense of superiority; while the mass of their fellow-creatures looked to them with astonishment; and, agreeably to the Oriental creed of two independent and contending principles of good and of evil, regarded these select and supernaturally endowed beings anon as a source of the most enviable blessings, and anon as objects of unmingled apprehension and terror, before whom their understandings became prostrate, and every thing that was most appalling and dreadful was most easily believed. In this state superstition unavoidably grew infectious; and the more the seniors inculcated and believed, the more the imagination of the juniors became a pliant and unresisting slave.
The Mantra, or charm, consisting of a few unintelligible words repeated again and again, always accompanied, or rather preceded, the supposed miraculous phenomenon that was imposed on the ignorant. Water was flung over, or in the face of, the thing or person upon whom the miraculous effect was to be produced. Incense was burned; and such chemical substances were set on fire, the dazzling appearance of which might confound the senses of the spectators. The whole consisted in the art of the juggler. The first business was to act on the passions, to excite awe and fear and curiosity in the parties; and next by a sort of slight of hand, and by changes too rapid to be followed by an unpractised eye, to produce phenomena, wholly unanticipated, and that could not be accounted for. Superstition was further an essential ingredient; and this is never perfect, but where the superior and more active party regards himself as something more than human, and the party acted upon beholds in the other an object of religious reverence, or tingles with apprehension of he knows not what of fearful and calamitous. The state of the party acted on, and indeed of either, is never complete, till the senses are confounded, what is imagined is so powerful as in a manner to exclude what is real, in a word, till, as the poet expresses it, “function is smothered in surmise, and nothing is, but what is not.”
It is in such a state of the faculties that it is entirely natural and simple, that one should mistake a mere dumb animal for one’s relative or near connection in disguise. And, the delusion having once begun, the deluded individual gives to every gesture and motion of limb and eye an explanation that forwards the deception. It is in the same way that in ignorant ages the notion of changeling has been produced. The weak and fascinated mother sees every feature with a turn of expression unknown before, all the habits of the child appear different and strange, till the parent herself denies her offspring, and sees in the object so lately cherished and doated on, a monster uncouth and horrible of aspect.
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