Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


It is not in the smallest degree probable that all those abominable absurdities are owing, as Pluche would have us believe, to the foliage with which the heads of Isis and Osiris were formerly crowned. What connection can this foliage have with the art of charming serpents, with that of resuscitating the dead, killing men by mere words, inspiring persons with love, or changing men into beasts?

Enchantment (incantatio) comes, say some, from a Chaldee word, which the Greeks translate “productive song.” Incantatio comes from the Chaldee. Truly, the Bocharts are great travellers and proceed from Italy to Mesopotamia in a twinkling! The great and learned Hebrew nation is rapidly explored, and all sorts of books, and all sorts of usages, are the fruits of the journey; the Bocharts are certainly not charlatans.

Is not a large portion of the absurd superstitions which have prevailed to be ascribed to very natural causes? There are scarcely any animals that may not be accustomed to approach at the sound of a bagpipe, or a single horn, to take their food. Orpheus, or some one of his predecessors, played the bagpipe better than other shepherds, or employed singing. All the domestic animals flocked together at the sound of his voice. It was soon supposed that bears and tigers were among the number collected; this first step accomplished, there was no difficulty in believing that Orpheus made stones and trees dance.

If rocks and pine-trees can be thus made to dance a ballet, it will cost little more to build cities by harmony, and the stones will easily arrange themselves at Amphion’s song. A violin only will be wanted to build a city, and a ram’s horn to destroy it.

The charming of serpents may be attributed to a still more plausible cause. The serpent is neither a voracious nor a ferocious animal. Every reptile is timid. The first thing a reptile does, at least in Europe, on seeing a man, is to hide itself in a hole, like a rabbit or a lizard. The instinct of a man is to pursue everything that flies from him, and to fly from all that pursue him, except when he is armed, when he feels his strength, and, above all, when he is in the presence of many observers.

The serpent, far from being greedy of blood and flesh, feeds only upon herbs, and passes a considerable time without eating at all; if he swallows a few insects, as lizards and chameleons do, he does us a service.

All travellers relate that there are some very large and long ones; although we know of none such in Europe. No man or child was ever attacked there by a large serpent or a small one. Animals attack only what they want to eat; and dogs never bite passengers but in defence of their masters. What could a serpent do with a little infant? What pleasure could it derive from biting it? It could not swallow even the fingers. Serpents do certainly bite, and squirrels also, but only when they are injured, or are fearful of being so.

I am not unwilling to believe that there have been monsters among serpents as well as among men. I will admit that the army of Regulus was put under arms in Africa against a dragon; and that there has since been a Norman there who fought against the waterspout. But it will be granted, on the other hand, that such cases are exceedingly rare.

The two serpents that came from Tenedos for the express purpose of devouring Laocoon, and two great lads twenty years of age, in the presence of the whole Trojan army, form a very fine prodigy, and one worthy of being transmitted to posterity by hexameter verses, and by statues which represent Laocoon like a giant, and his stout boys as pygmies.

I conceive this event to have happened in those times when a prodigious wooden horse took cities which had been built by the gods, when rivers flowed backward to their fountains, when waters were changed to blood, and both sun and moon stood still on the slightest possible occasion.

Everything that has been related about serpents was considered probable in countries in which Apollo came down from heaven to slay the serpent Python.

Serpents were also supposed to be exceedingly sensible animals. Their sense consists in not running so fast as we do, and in suffering themselves to be cut in pieces.

The bite of serpents, and particularly of vipers, is not dangerous, except when irritation has produced the fermentation of a small reservoir of very acid humor which they have under their gums. With this exception, a serpent is no more dangerous than an eel.

Many ladies have tamed and fed serpents, placed them on their toilets, and wreathed them about their arms. The negroes of Guinea worship a serpent which never injures any one.

There are many species of those reptiles, and some are more dangerous than others in hot countries; but in general, serpents are timid and mild animals; it is not uncommon to see them sucking the udder of a cow.

Those who first saw men more daring than themselves domesticate and feed serpents, inducing them to come to them by a hissing sound in a similar way to that by which we induce the approach of bees, considered them as possessing the power of enchantment. The Psilli and Marsæ, who familiarly handled and fondled serpents, had a similar reputation. The apothecaries of Poitou, who take up vipers by the tail, might also, if they chose, be respected as magicians of the first order.

The charming of serpents was considered as a thing regular and constant. The Sacred Scripture itself, which always enters into our weaknesses, deigned to conform itself to this vulgar idea.

“The deaf adder, which shuts its ears that it may not hear the voice of the charmer.”

“I will send among you serpents which will resist enchantments.”

“The slanderer is like the serpent, which yields not to the enchanter.”

The enchantment was sometimes so powerful as to make serpents burst asunder. The natural philosophy of antiquity made this animal immortal. If any rustic found a dead serpent in his road, some enchanter must inevitably have deprived it of its right to immortality:

Frigidus in pratis cantando rumpitur anguis.

— Virg. Eclogue viii. 71.

Verse breaks the ground, and penetrates the brake,

And in the winding cavern splits the snake.

— Dryden.

Enchantment of the Dead, or Evocation.

To enchant a dead person, to resuscitate him, or barely to evoke his shade to speak to him, was the most simple thing in the world. It is very common to see the dead in dreams, in which they are spoken to and return answers. If any one has seen them during sleep, why may he not see them when he is awake? It is only necessary to have a spirit like the pythoness; and, to bring this spirit of pythonism into successful operation it is only necessary that one party should be a knave and the other a fool; and no one can deny that such rencontres very frequently occur.

The evocation of the dead was one of the sublimest mysteries of magic. Sometimes there was made to pass before the eyes of the inquiring devotee a large, black figure, moved by secret springs in dimness and obscurity. Sometimes the performers, whether sorcerers or witches, limited themselves to declaring that they saw the shade which was desired to be evoked, and their word was sufficient; this was called necromancy. The famous witch of Endor has always been a subject of great dispute among the fathers of the Church. The sage Theodoret, in his sixty-second question on the Book of Kings, asserts that it is universally the practice for the dead to appear with the head downwards, and that what terrified the witch was Samuel’s being upon his legs.

St. Augustine, when interrogated by Simplicion, replies, in the second book of his “Questions,” that there is nothing more extraordinary in a witch’s invoking a shade than in the devil’s transporting Jesus Christ through the air to the pinnacle of the temple on the top of a mountain.

Some learned men, observing that there were oracular spirits among the Jews, have ventured to conclude that the Jews began to write only at a late period, and that they built almost everything upon Greek fable; but this opinion cannot be maintained.

Of Other Sorceries.

When a man is sufficiently expert to evoke the dead by words, he may yet more easily destroy the living, or at least threaten them with doing so, as the physician, malgré lui, told Lucas that he would give him a fever. At all events, it was not in the slightest degree doubtful that sorcerers had the power of killing beasts; and, to insure the stock of cattle, it was necessary to oppose sorcery to sorcery. But the ancients can with little propriety be laughed at by us, who are ourselves scarcely even yet extricated from the same barbarism. A hundred years have not yet expired since sorcerers were burned all over Europe; and even as recently as 1750, a sorceress, or witch, was burned at Würzburg. It is unquestionable that certain words and ceremonies will effectually destroy a flock of sheep, if administered with a sufficient portion of arsenic.

The “Critical History of Superstitious Ceremonies,” by Lebrun of the Oratory, is a singular work. His object is to oppose the ridiculous doctrine of witchcraft, and yet he is himself so ridiculous as to believe in its reality. He pretends that Mary Bucaille, the witch, while in prison at Valognes, appeared at some leagues distance, according to the evidence given on oath to the judge of Valognes. He relates the famous prosecution of the shepherds of Brie, condemned in 1691, by the Parliament of Paris, to be hanged and burned. These shepherds had been fools enough to think themselves sorcerers, and villains enough to mix real poisons with their imaginary sorceries.

Father Lebrun solemnly asserts that there was much of what was “supernatural” in what they did, and that they were hanged in consequence. The sentence of the parliament is in direct opposition to this author’s statement. “The court declares the accused duly attainted and convicted of superstitions, impieties, sacrileges, profanations, and poisonings.”

The sentence does not state that the death of the cattle was caused by profanations, but by poison. A man may commit sacrilege without as well as with poison, without being a sorcerer.

Other judges, I acknowledge, sentenced the priest Ganfredi to be burned, in the firm belief that, by the influence of the devil, he had an illicit commerce with all his female penitents. Ganfredi himself imagined that he was under that influence; but that was in 1611, a period when the majority of our provincial population was very little raised above the Caribs and negroes. Some of this description have existed even in our own times; as, for example, the Jesuit Girard, the ex-Jesuit Nonnotte, the Jesuit Duplessis, and the ex-Jesuit Malagrida; but this race of imbeciles is daily hastening to extinction.

With respect to lycanthropy, that is, the transformation of men into wolves by the power of enchantment, we may observe that a young shepherd’s having killed a wolf, and clothed himself with its skin, was enough to excite the terror of all the old women of the district, and to spread throughout the province, and thence through other provinces, the notion of a man’s having been changed into a wolf. Some Virgil will soon be found to say:

His ego sæpe lupum fieri, et se condere silvis

Moerim sæpe animas imis exire sepulchris.

Smeared with these powerful juices on the plain.

He howls a wolf among the hungry train,

And oft the mighty necromancer boasts

With these to call from tombs the stalking ghosts.

— Dryden.

To see a man-wolf must certainly be a great curiosity; but to see human souls must be more curious still; and did not the monks of Monte Cassino see the soul of the holy Benedict, or Bennet? Did not the monks of Tours see St. Martin’s? and the monks of St. Denis that of Charles Martel?

Enchantments to Kindle Love.

These were for the young. They were vended by the Jews at Rome and Alexandria, and are at the present day sold in Asia. You will find some of these secrets in the “Petit Albert”; and will become further initiated by reading the pleading composed by Apuleius on his being accused by a Christian, whose daughter he had married, of having bewitched her by philtres. Emilian, his father-in-law, alleged that he had made use of certain fishes, since, Venus having been born of the sea, fishes must necessarily have prodigious influence in exciting women to love.

What was generally made use of consisted of vervain, tenia, and hippomanes; or a small portion of the secundine of a mare that had just foaled, together with a little bird called wagtail; in Latin motacilla.

But Apuleius was chiefly accused of having employed shell-fish, lobster patties, she-hedgehogs, spiced oysters, and cuttle-fish, which was celebrated for its productiveness.

Apuleius clearly explains the real philtre, or charm, which had excited Pudentilla’s affection for him. He undoubtedly admits, in his defence, that his wife had called him a magician. “But what,” says he, “if she had called me a consul, would that have made me one?”

The plant satyrion was considered both among the Greeks and Romans as the most powerful of philtres. It was called planto aphrodisia, the plant of Venus. That called by the Latins eruca is now often added to the former. — Et venerem revocans eruca morantem.

A little essence of amber is frequently used. Mandragora has gone out of fashion. Some exhausted debauchees have employed cantharides, which strongly affect the susceptible parts of the frame, and often produce severe and painful consequences.

Youth and health are the only genuine philtres. Chocolate was for a long time in great celebrity with our debilitated petits-maîtres. But a man may take twenty cups of chocolate without inspiring any attachment to his person. —“ . . . . ut amoris amabilis esto.” (Ovid, A. A. ii., 107.)—“Wouldst thou be loved, be amiable.”

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