Long out of print, this classic survey of magic and the occult clearly explains centuries of mystical rituals and practices—part of the new Tarcher Supernatural Library.
This guide distills generations of magical practice, witchcraft, and other occult interests across cultures and centuries into a single, enchanting volume.
Written for laymen and practitioners alike, The Romance of Sorcery simply and readably outlines the history of magic—from ancient Egypt to John Dee to Madame Blavatsky—showing how both Wiccan practice and witches in popular culture came to be.
The first three titles released in Tarcher's Supernatural Library are Ghost Hunter (by Hans Holzer), Romance of Sorcery (by Sax Rohmer) and Isis in America (by Henry Steel Olcott).
About the Author
Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward (1883-1959), who wrote under the name Sax Rohmer, was the British mystery, horror, and action novelist behind the Fu-Manchu series of books.
Read an Excerpt
Although would-be explorers of the occult continent may be numbered only by the employment of seven figures, it is notable as a curious fact that the world’s master Magi have been neglected by popular biographers. Lives of all the great sorcerers there are, certainly, from Zarathustra to Éliphas Lévi, but without exception, so far as I am aware, these are designed for the use of the student: they are not for every man.
Fictionists have dipped into the magical pages, but lightly and warily. If we except some of the novels of Lord Lytton (who was an initiate, deeply versed) and the stories of Mr. Algernon Blackwood, to whom we are indebted for an account of a “Witches’ Sabbath” little short of clairvoyant, I believe there is no piece of purely imaginative writing which can be regarded as the work of an Adept, or even of a serious student.
In the following pages, then, I have endeavoured to bring out the red blood of the subject, and have treated the various episodes with which I have had to deal in the same manner that I should treat the episodes of an ordinary romance. Whilst those curious to learn more of the arts of sorcery have not been neglected, above all I have placed, and have aimed at satisfying, the reader who opens this book in quest of entertainment.
The section “Sorcery and Sorcerers” will be found to contain some passages from Francis Barrett and from Dr. Wynn Westcott’s valuable translation of one of Lévi’s most extraordinary works. Neither of these authors will be familiar to the general reader, and I have borrowed freely in both directions. Their writings are illuminative, and should be considered, if only in brief, by any one who hopes to comprehend the aims of the sorcerers, as set forth in The Romance of Sorcery.
It may be asked of me why certain characters have been included here and others omitted. I can only say that I have sought for variety. To my decision to include a life of Nostradamus I was guided, in some degree, by the existence of a very general misapprehension regarding this great and wonderful man; also by the fact that hitherto no complete life has appeared in the English language. Madame H. P. Blavatsky I have introduced, after much consideration, because certain phenomena associated with her activities come legitimately within the scope and limit of sorcery. I have dealt with these phenomena, but have not attempted, in so limited a space, even to outline her whole career.1
At the time that I was engaged upon the section “Apollonius of Tyana,” an admirable edition of Philostratus’s work, translated by Mr. F. C. Conybeare, M.A., was added to the Loeb Classical Library. This lightened my labours, for the only other English version is that of E. Berwick, published in 1809. The freshness and freedom of Mr. Conybeare’s rendering make quite delightful reading, compared with the severely staid manner of the former writer.
I have to acknowledge the generous assistance offered to me by M. Homolle of the Bibliothèque Nationale, and the untiring labours of M. Lejay Jean, of the same institution. Not only has M. Lejay aided me in my quest of material, but he has completed those inquiries regarding Cagliostro’s house in the Rue Saint Claude and other matters which lack of time forced me to abandon.
A portion of the chapter “The Elementals” (“Sorcery and Sorcerers”) is included by courtesy of the Globe, and at this place I must also acknowledge indebtedness to my friend Dr. R. Watson Councell for the freedom of his library. Of inestimable assistance, too, has been the exact knowledge of old French, and of old French history, which Mr. Fred W. Winter has placed at my disposal. The sections “Nostradamus” and “Sorcery and the Law,” in particular, owe much to his scholarly attainments.
Finally, the adept guidance of Mr. Arthur N. Milne has been as that of a pharos in a night-storm, lacking which I could scarce have hoped to make safe harbourage.
Sorcery and Sorcerers
I. THE VEIL
There was a Door to which I found no Key;
There was the Veil through which I might not see:
Some little talk awhile of ME and THEE
There was—and then no more of THEE and ME.
To-day is notable for a curious change in Western thought, or, properly, in a phase of Western thought, more appreciable by churchmen, theosophists, and other students of the Unseen than by the laymen. I refer to a growing discontent with, and a falling away from, revealed religion. It is an age of groping; and whereas one who stumbles onward in the mist nearly always strays from the broad highway into the bypaths that lead to the meres, some may strike a fair and narrow road and emerge upon the mountain top.
Of guides to these divers fairways there are many, some of honesty unimpeachable if poor pilots, others masters of their craft but slaves to greed. Apollonius of Tyana was one of the former; Cagliostro, possibly, belonged to the latter class. No man who has proclaimed himself potent to raise the Veil has ever lacked disciples; no man tendering such a claim ever shall, certainly not in this miracle-hungry century.
“What seek ye?” demands the Adept.
Comes a chorus from poor purblind humanity:
“To bridge the gulf!”
But over this gulf floats a mist, beyond the mist hangs a Veil. Has any man, braving the mist, ever thrown a bridge, however frail, across to the shadow bank? Honest weighing of the evidence would certainly make it appear that so much has been accomplished. With what result? With the result that the intrepid explorer has obtained a closer view of the Veil.
Now, all exploration of this kind unavoidably leads us into the realms of magic. These are extensive, certainly, and offer prospects more startlingly dissimilar, as we look to right or left, than any tract in nature, not excepting the famous Yellowstone Park. And modern occultism has not made more easy the way; it has accomplished little beyond the coining of a number of new terms. Sorcery, I think, covers them all. Father Henry Day, S.J., speaking at Manchester, advanced a similar opinion, but classed all magic as Black, when he said:
“The Church condemns the new form of modern spiritism as she condemned the old superstitions. They are identical with devil worship, with black magic, with the necromancy of the past. Whatever may be said of the pretensions of the spiritism of the day, the Church regards it as the continuation of Satan’s revolt against God.”
His words are characteristic of the unchanging attitude of the Church of Rome towards magical practices; and, in so far as they warn would-be dabblers to refrain from sorcery, they are of value. The dangers of magic are not chimerical, but very real.
Magical arts in the modern mind are curiously associated with the East—and particularly with Egypt. An inspection of the advertisements of the large body of professional seers will enable you to bear me out in this. Every nation has its superstitions; but, excepting the African medicine-man, and his counterpart among almost every primitive people, for the practising sorcerer proper we must go East. The palmists and crystal-gazers of Europe and America are no more than imitations of the Oriental original.
Whilst the word Sorcery has always seemed to me to be singularly elastic, it suggests to my mind an impression identical with that conveyed by Magic, with which I take it, in general, to be synonymous. Therefore, by sorcery I understand, and intend to convey, all those doctrines concerning the nature and power of angels and spirits; the methods of evoking shades of departed persons; the conjuration of elementary spirits and of demons; the production of any kind of supernormal phenomena; the making of talismans, potions, wands, etc.; divination and crystallomancy; and Cabalistic and ceremonial rites.
It may, perhaps, be said that no people has cultivated sorcery more assiduously than did the Chaldeans. The elaborate formulæ relating to demonology and possession which have been deciphered from the cuneiform, testify to the flourishing state of wizardry in Chaldea. But the elaborate and in many cases beautiful magic rituals formulated by the Egyptians for some reason possess a greater fascination for the modern student. Their system, indubitably, was more complete than any before or since.
Within the limits of this work it would be impossible even cursorily to scan the subject of sorcery in all its developments and in the guises lent to it by various nations. Therefore, I shall confine myself as closely as possible to those phases which we should bear in mind when we stand upon Calypso’s island with Apollonius of Tyana and witness his translation from Rome; when we disturb the ghostly studies of Nostradamus, seated upon his prophetic tripod; when we intrude upon Count Cagliostro’s Lodge of Isis, and, perceiving the beautiful Countess and thirty-six neophytes in puris naturalibus, retire in modest confusion.
I propose, now, to compare certain passages in The Tales of the Magicians (from Flinders Petrie’s Egyptian Tales) with others in The Thousand and One Nights, in order to show that the traditions to this day regnant in the East have a genealogy which more often than not first started from the soil of Egypt.
In “Anpu and Bata” (Egyptian Tales) Bata is represented as placing his heart on the topmost flower of an acacia tree. By his heart is meant his hati—that is, more properly, his soul. This he did so that he could not be killed unless the tree were cut down. When the latter calamity occurred, the hati was found in a seed, which, being placed in a cup of water, expanded, and, his body reviving, he drank the water. He then changed into a sacred bull, which was sacrificed; but two drops of its blood fell upon the ground, and these contained the hati or soul of Bata. They grew into two trees, which were cut down, but the hati passed into a shaving from one of them.
I shall invite you, next, to watch with me an encounter between rival sorcerers (actually, a sorceress and an ’efreet) from The Thousand and One Nights, noting the curious analogies between the forms, animal and vegetable, into which the hati, or soul, retreats during the conflict. The episode will be found in “The Story of the Second Royal Mendicant.”
The daughter of a certain King, who was acquainted with the secret arts, challenged “the ’Efreet Jarjarees, a descendant of Iblees,” to mortal encounter, and, “taking a knife upon which were engraved some Hebrew names, marked with it a circle in the midst of the palace. Within this she wrote several names and talismans, and then she pronounced invocations, and uttered unintelligible words; and soon the palace around us” (I quote the Royal Mendicant) “became immersed in gloom to such a degree that we thought the whole world was overspread; and lo, the ’Efreet appeared before us in a most hideous shape, with hands like winnowing-forks, and legs like masts, and eyes like burning torches; so that we were terrified at him. The King’s daughter exclaimed: ‘No welcome to thee!’—at which the ’Efreet, assuming the form of a lion . . . rushed upon the lady; but she instantly plucked a hair from her head and muttered with her lips, whereupon the hair became converted into a piercing sword, with which she struck the lion and he was cleft in twain by the blow; but his head became changed into a scorpion. The lady immediately transformed herself into an enormous serpent, and crept after the execrable wretch in the shape of a scorpion, and a sharp contest ensued between them, after which the scorpion became an eagle, and the serpent, changing to a vulture, pursued the eagle for a length of time. The latter then transformed himself into a black cat, and the King’s daughter became a wolf, and they fought together long and fiercely, till the cat, seeing himself overcome, changed himself into a large, red pomegranate, which fell into a pool; but, the wolf pursuing it, it ascended into the air, and then fell upon the pavement of the palace, and broke in pieces, its grains becoming scattered, each apart from the others, and all spread about the whole space of ground enclosed by the palace. The wolf, upon this, transformed itself into a cock, in order to pick up the grains, and not leave one of them; but, according to the decree of fate, one grain remained hidden by the side of the pool of the fountain. The cock began to cry, and flapped its wings, and made a sign to us with its beak; but we understood not what it would say. It then uttered at us such a cry that we thought the whole palace had fallen down upon us; and it ran about the whole of the ground, until it saw the grain that had lain hid by the side of the pool, when it pounced upon it to pick it up; but it fell into the midst of the water, and became transformed into a fish, and sank into the water; upon which the cock became a fish of a larger size and plunged in after the other. . . .”
II. THE BIRTH OF SORCERY
A Hair perhaps divides the False and True;
Yes; and a single Alif were the clue—
Could you but find it—to the Treasure-house,
And peradventure to THE MASTER, too—
The persistent tradition that the secret lore of the Egyptian priests was written in certain “books” finds some slight confirmation in “Ahura’s Tale,” from the second series of Egyptian Tales; for therein the Book of Thoth is thus described:
“He wrote it with his own hands and it will bring (raise) a man to the gods. To read two pages enables you to enchant the heaven, the earth, the abyss, the mountains and the sea; you shall know what the birds of the sky and the crawling things are saying. . . . And when the second page is read, if you are in the world of ghosts, you will grow again in the shape you were on earth. . . .”
The Brahmins, visited by Apollonius of Tyana, would seem to have possessed such a book, and the great sage himself claimed powers almost identical with those conferred by the Book of Thoth. But, concerning the latter, we read:
“This book is in the middle of the river at Koptos, in an iron box; in the iron box is a bronze box; in the bronze box is a sycamore box; in the sycamore box is an ivory and ebony box; in the ivory and ebony box is a silver box; in the silver box is a golden box, and in that is the book. It is twisted all round with snakes and scorpions and all the other crawling things . . . and there is a deathless snake by the box.”
The Harris Papyrus has references to similar magical books (nor must we overlook The Book of Dzyan, which Madame Blavatsky claimed to possess), but none of these ancient manuscripts affords us much help in tracing the origin of sorcery. That the Egyptian priesthood conserved the art through many generations, that we are indebted to them for their preservation of the traditions, is almost indisputable. But whence was their knowledge derived? Research along ordinary lines has failed to enlighten us upon this point.
I shall venture, then, to cite here the views of a very advanced theosophical writer, but shall ask to be excused from any comment upon them:
We have to measure time by hundreds of thousands of years, he avers, if we endeavour to look back in imagination to the halcyon period of Egyptian civilization, and, by the use of figures on that scale, we are enabled to form an approximately correct conception of the origin of that wonderful structure, the Great Pyramid of Ghizeh, usually ascribed to a Pharaoh of the fourth dynasty, Cheops, or Khufu. Whilst he considers that many of the pyramids which decorate the banks of the Nile were really what Egyptologists suppose them to be—the tombs of kings—he believes that their form was adopted in imitation of that already exemplified by the early monument, dating back, even for the Egyptians of ten thousand years ago, to time immemorial.
The Great Pyramid, in this writer’s opinion, is probably by far the oldest structure on earth. Its main purpose was to serve as a temple of initiation for those who were admitted to fellowship with the Atlantean Adepts, established in Egypt more than a hundred thousand years ago! Its shape was designed to render it invulnerable to the geographical revolutions which were impending, and, in his own words, he “is given to understand” that since its erection it has actually been submerged beneath a northern inflow of the sea; a consequence of an actual depression of the land now constituting Lower Egypt. But later undulations of the earth’s crust in that region brought it to the surface again, uninjured and available in later times for the purposes to which it was originally assigned.
Great as the importance attaching to (really) Ancient Egypt undoubtedly may be, he continues, we must not imagine that the centre of occultism established there was by any means the only region from which the Adepts directed their watchfulness over mankind. When we talk about the catastrophes that shattered, and to a large extent destroyed, the ancient Atlantean continent, we are apt to forget that a good deal of existing land in the western hemisphere has survived those mighty changes.
A great deal of Mexico and Peru has transmitted to our own time architectural remains that he contends to be distinctly bequests of Atlantean civilization: and there is a region in Central America which, from the maturity of that civilization till now, has been and still is a centre from which Adept influence radiates over the world.1
III. THE HOME OF THE GINN
Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard great argument
About it and about; but evermore
Came out by the same door wherein I went.
I have said that sorcery has come to us as a legacy from Ancient Egypt, and one of the most persistent traditions, instances of which appear from time to time in the press, has a foundation in the beautiful ritual known as The Book of the Dead. I refer to the uncanny properties ascribed to certain relics from the Nile land.
In the second series of Flinders Petrie’s Egyptian Tales is a translation of a papyrus in the Ghizeh Museum, wherein we read:
“Now in the tomb was Na-Nefer-Ka-Ptah and with him was the Ka of his wife Ahura, for though she was buried at Koptos, her Ka dwelt at Memphis with her husband whom she loved.”
The Ka is the Ego, and according to the Ancient Egyptian belief it could, at the death of the body, enter into any image or magical implement prepared for its reception. In the case cited above it dwelt in a statue, and the compiler of Volume VIII of the Collectanea Hermetica says:
“It seems exceedingly probable that as the mummy was the material basis for the Sahu (Astral form) and Khaibt (radiation), so the mummy-case with its painted presentment of the living person was the material basis for the preservation of the Ka of a low-grade initiate or the Khu (the magical powers) of a fully-equipped Adept.”
Baron Textor de Ravisi says that “before the entire resurrection of the body the justified Ka could, if it chose, reanimate the body of the dead.” This is almost identical with vampirism, where the corpse is found fresh in the tomb. The same authority has defined manifestations which are visible but intangible, whereof the head is distinctly visible but the limbs vaporous, to be composed of the Ego and the Soul. Those manifestations which resemble the bodily form of the deceased, but are intangible, are composed of the Ego and the Astral body; they are usually terrifying. Manifestations of the Will and the Instinct, re-united in the Spiritual body, are only visible to the spiritual sense; whilst manifestations procured through a medium are due to the radiations of the Astral body only, and possess none of the Ego, or individuality, of the deceased.
Certainly, the Egyptians had a more closely defined and altogether more comprehensible system than any since evolved; in fact, it is indubitable that many later systems are based upon it, being no more than worthless elaborations of the original.
Egypt was the wonderland of the ancient world, but any deeper consideration of Ancient Egyptian magical lore unavoidably would lead us into a maze of technicalities wholly uninteresting to anyone but the student; my present purpose will be better served if I pass on to a consideration of the sorcerer’s more modern activity, for, by the all but unanimous testimony of the country’s present inhabitants, the Nile land is still the theatre of singular supernatural happenings.
“In common with other countries of Islam,” says Dr. Klunzinger (and this the Koran tells us), “Egypt is inhabited by a vast number of ginn. Like men they are born, mature, age, and die. They are male and female, black or white, some high of station, some lowly; some are free and some slaves; Moslem and Christian.” In short, they are parallel with mankind, from whom they are distinguished by their lack of flesh and blood, and by reason of their attaining to a great age—namely, three hundred years, or more.
Each child has a companion ginn, born in the same hour. This “familiar,” or Karina, is female in the case of a male child, and male in the case of a female. A child who dies in infancy is said to have been killed by the Karina; and even in the official registers of deaths, until comparatively recently, the Karina was frequently entered as a recognized ailment.
Usually the ginn are said to be invisible; but they can assume all kinds of intangible and vapoury forms, with the resemblances of men, animals, and monsters. When a proper view is obtained of them they may at once be distinguished by their perpendicular eye.
The art of calling up these dread beings, in order to exorcise them, or to make them do one’s bidding by invoking them by name, is cultivated throughout the Moslem world by great numbers of men, and by some women. By the instrumentality of the ginn, the “servants of the secret,” or by the knowledge of one of the “secret names of God,” those acquainted with occult lore can perform miracles. That the greater number of these Moslem sorcerers are poor men—often mendicants—may, therefore, appear remarkable; but it is claimed that self-denial is essential in a compact with a ginn. Some sorcerers of Moslem Egypt are said to be formally married to a ginnee, or female ginn, and to perform their wonders by means of their supernatural spouse.
A mysterious Moslem gentleman suspected of being wedded to a ginnee appeared in Egypt in the early part of the nineteenth century, styling himself Säid Abd-el-Rahmán el Adàros, and claiming to have come from India. He sailed up the Nile with a vessel and extensive retinue, and proclaimed that he designed to travel in the Sudan. Eye-witnesses swore to having seen him take pieces of money from beneath his carpet whenever he so willed, and that he could with a breath change silver coins into gold ones. Suffice it that the mysterious gentleman was denounced to the Government as a sorcerer and escorted from the country!
An old Moslem authority says: “Let a Christian beware of calling up a Moslem ginn. The ginn will avenge himself for this affront and immediately put his summoner to death.”
In the modern magic books of the East we read how to gain the affections of another; to awake at will; to unfasten chains; to recapture an escaped slave; to keep a wife from faithlessness; to cause the belly of a thief to swell up; to make a man or an ox pursue him; to discover buried treasure; to call up ginn; to find pieces of gold under one’s pillow. I will instance a charm for calling up ginn: the naïveté of the concluding sentence is quaint.
Fast for seven days, and let body and clothes be clean. Read first the chapter of the Koran, “The Angel,” to the word hazîr, fourteen times after the sunset prayer; then pray with four genuflections, uttering the fatha seven times at each, and when on the seventh night you have read that chapter fourteen times, ask of God whatsoever you wish. The ginn, who are the servants of this chapter, will now appear “and will give you information respecting the treasure and how you may obtain possession of it.”
A certain individual, who asserted that he had undergone such a course of self-mortification and spirit-seeking, informed the author of Upper Egypt that he had seen all kinds of horrible forms in his magic circle, but that he saw them also when his eyes were shut. At last, becoming quite terrified, he fled from the place.
The following is said to be a love-charm:
“On a Wednesday after the Vesper prayer, and when your shadow measures twenty paces, write the following formula (châtim) with rose-water and sesame water on paper or parchment. Roll this up and throw it on the ground. Then write the formula on the palm of the left hand and fumigate with mastic, benzoin, and coriander. Say over the chapters Amran and Ichlâs while your hand is held above the smoke, and then pick up the talisman from the ground. Touch your body with it, and that of the person on whom you have designs. Hang it to . . . your right side, and you will see something wonderful. God’s protection is with thee. But use the talisman only for what is lawful!”
The formula consists of certain words written so as to form a hollow square, with words also written across the corners. Enclosed within the square on each side are the words Bil hák ansilnah u bil hák nésil, that is, “In right (not unallowed) we have made him (the spirit) descend, and in right he descendeth.” The words Gabraîl, Mikaîl, Israfîl, Israîl, the names of the four archangels, are written so as to form the sides of the square; across the corners are Abu békr, Omr, Otman, Ali, the four chief companions of the Prophet. Outside the square on each side is Biduh, the name of a ginn.
The magic mirror enjoys great popularity. A boy (not more than twelve years of age), a virgin, or a black female slave is directed to look into a cup filled with water or into a pool of ink; the skryer is furthermore fumigated with incense, whilst certain sentences are murmured by the magician. After a time, when the boy (for a boy is usually employed) is asked what he sees, he reports that he sees persons moving in the mirror. The magician orders the boy to lay certain commands on the spirit. The commands are obeyed at once. The magician asks the spectators to name any person whom they would wish to appear in the mirror, no matter whether the person be living or dead. The boy commands the spirit to bring the individual desired. In a few seconds he is present, and the boy proceeds to describe him.
“Which description, however, according to our own observation,” says one writer, “is always quite wide of the mark.” But E. W. Lane’s experiments in this art (called darb-el-mendel) with the Sheikh Abd-El-Kadir El-Maghrabee, as recounted in The Modern Egyptians, may be consulted as a check to this opinion.
An account of a curious case of magic in Cairo, during the last century, may be given here, to show how great a degree of faith the Egyptians in general place in the arts of enchantment.
Moustafa Ed-Digwee, chief secretary in the Cadi’s Court, in Cairo, was dismissed from his office, and succeeded by another person of the name of Moustafa, who had been a money-changer. The former sent a petition to the Pasha, begging to be reinstated; but before he received an answer he was attacked by a severe illness, which he believed to be the effect of enchantment: he persuaded himself that Moustafa the money-changer had employed a magician to write a spell which should cause him to die; and therefore sent a second time to the Pasha charging the new secretary with this crime.
The accused was brought before the Pasha, and confessed that he had had resort to malign arts, naming the magician whom he had employed. The latter was arrested, and, being unable to deny the charge brought against him, was thrown into prison, where he was sentenced to remain until it should be seen whether or not Ed-Digwee would die.
He was confined in a small cell, at the door of which two soldiers were placed in turn to watch over the prisoner. Lane, in dealing with this incident, says:
“Now for the marvellous part of the story.
“At night, after one of the guards had fallen asleep, the other heard a strange, murmuring noise, and, looking through a crack of the door of the cell, saw the magician sitting in the middle of the floor, muttering some words which he (the guard) could not understand. Presently the candle which was before him became extinguished; and, at the same instant, four other candles appeared, one in each corner of the cell.
“The magician then rose, and, standing on one side of the cell, knocked his head three times against the wall; and each time that he did so, the wall opened and a man appeared to come forth from it. After the magician had conversed for some minutes with the three personages whom he had thus produced, they disappeared; as did, also, the four candles; and the candle that was in the midst of the cell became lighted again, as at first: the magician then resumed his position on the floor, and all was quiet. Thus the spell that was to have killed Ed-Digwee was dissolved.
“Early next morning, the invalid felt himself so much better that he called for a basin and ewer, performed the ablution, and said his prayers; and from that time he rapidly recovered. He was restored to his former office; and the magician was banished from Egypt.”
The same author tells us also that not long after this incident another enchanter was expelled from the country, for writing a charm which caused a Moslem girl to be affected with an irresistible love for a Copt Christian.
IV. THE SIBYLS
The Revelations of Devout and Learn’d
Who rose before us, and as Prophets burn’d,
Are all but Stories, which, awoke from sleep,
They told their comrades, and to sleep return’d.
We shall see, presently, that not only Apollonius of Tyana but also Dee, Nostradamus, and Cagliostro were notable, chiefly, as prophets. If divination be but elementary magic, it is more highly esteemed by the layman than by the student, and the Sibylline lights flare dimly through the darkness of to-day, as flared such smoky torches in the blacker gloom of Babylon, Memphis, Delphi, Rome.
In an examination of such a subject, the mind of the inquirer too readily may be prejudiced by the fact that the science or art of divination has been cast into disrepute by the impostors who practise it at the present day: yet, apart from its modern revival, it is worthy of consideration alike by historian and archæologist, if only because so many able men of bygone centuries have placed the greatest faith in the oracular responses.
Therefore, whoever would seek for pearls in the ocean of obscurity which overtides the history of oracular manifestation must arm against the influences of modern environment and modern thought; must recede from this age of sceptics, through the middle ages of fanatic Christianity, pass by the birth of the New Creed, by the death of the gods, and take pause before the Capitol of Rome at what time Cæsar makes his last visit to the Senate House.
It must be remembered that Rome, during the centuries of her ascendancy, gave to the world some of the keenest intellects, some of the most highly-trained observers whose laurelled images adorn man’s gallery of genius. If we discredit the opinions of such as these because of the pagan credulity of the age they ornamented, we err; for were they not more advantageously circumstanced to weigh in the balance the omen of the soothsayer, whose eyes attested to the justice of his warning; to accept or reject the pronouncements of the Sibyls, who themselves had converse with these mystic sisters; who, as Æneas at Cumæ, heard the words spoken by Herophile from the cavern; who, some among them, lived to see the Oracle fulfilled?
Since in the wheel of the centuries Rome is the hub, and, in any retrospective criticism, scarce may we see beyond its shadow, our inquiry concerning the ancient Oracles fairly may be said to centre upon the seven hills. The Sibyls claim priority, of course; and therefore at this point a brief survey of the Sibylline traditions prevalent in Ancient Rome may not be out of place.
According to Marcus Varro, if we are to credit Lactantius, the Sibyls were ten in number. “. . . First there was the Persian of whom Nicanor made mention, who wrote the history of Alexander of Macedon; and the second was the Libyan, whom Euripides mentions in the prologue of the Lamis; the third was the Delphian, of whom Chrysippus speaks in that book which he wrote on divination; the fourth was the Cimmerian in Italy, whom Nævius in his books of the Punic War and Piso in his annals name.”
Proceeding, we learn that the fifth was the Erythræan, whom Apollodorus, of Erythræa, affirmed to have been his own countrywoman, and that she prophesied to the Greeks who were moving against Ilium, both that Troy would meet with destruction and that Homer would write falsehoods; that the sixth was the Samian, of whom Eratosthenes wrote that he had found records in the ancient annals of the Samians. The seventh was the far-famed Cumæan, variously named Herophile, Deiphobe, Demophile, Phenomine, Demo, and Amalthea. She it was who brought the celebrated “nine books” to King Tarquinius Priscus.
The eighth Sibyl was the Hellespontine, born in the Trojan country, in the village of Marpessus, near Gergitha. Heraclides of Pontus wrote that she lived in the time of Solon and Cyrus. The ninth was the Phrygian, who prophesied at Ancyra. And the tenth was the Tiburtine, named Albunea, who was worshipped at Tibur as a goddess, hard by the banks of the river Anio, in which stream her image was said to have been found, holding a book in hand. Her oracular responses the Senate transferred to the Capitol. To Lactantius we also are indebted for this item of information: “Of all these Sibyls, the songs are both made public and held in use except those of the Cumæan, whose books are kept secret by the Romans; neither do they hold it lawful for them to be inspected by any but the fifteen men.” These fifteen men were, of course, the Quindecemviri, or college of priests, to whom the care of the Sibylline books was entrusted at Rome.
From the fact of the concealment of the Cumæan Oracles it has been contended, contrary from the opinion of Pliny, who says that the Sibylline books were destroyed by fire in the year 83 B.C., that none were lost in the burning of the Capitol but the Cumæan, since none but the Cumæan were concealed there. But, in addition to these, there were kept in the Capitol some Oracles prescribed by the Pythia at Delphi; so that some doubt must always prevail respecting the fate of the Delphic as well as of the Cumæan Oracles.
In short, even at the time when the Oracles were most highly venerated, at the time when the Cumæan Sibylline books might be consulted only by a decree of the Senate, the history of their authorship was veiled in much mystery.
On more than one occasion the probity of the Quindecemviri openly was questioned by the populace; it being charged against them that they misused their privilege, pandering to the Senate and delivering to the people reports regarding the Sibylline pronouncements, falsified, and wholly fictitious.
As to the time when the several Sibyls lived, again we find contrary opinions, conflicting evidences, and irreconcilable accounts. If Osopæus be worthy of credence, then, according to him, the Sibyl at Delphi was a Phrygian, “more ancient than Orpheus.” One Sibyl lived in the time of the Jewish Judges; the Cumæan, in the time of Amasias; the Samian, in the time of Josiah. There was a Sibyl in Samos in the time of Darian Astyages, and the Sibylla Cumana prophesied in the Fiftieth Olympiad, or the Fifty-fourth. “The Delphica is the oldest Sibyl,” we read, “and lived before the Trojan War. Homer borrowed many of her verses.” But against this we have the opinion of Gallæus, who thought that the Sibyls plagiarized Homer!
Out from this mass of perplexing evidence who would proceed to a just and impartial judgment of the Oracles which played so important a part in the history of Greece and, consequently, in that of Rome (for all that was notable of Greece was absorbed into the life of Rome; and, let it not be forgotten, the lotos with the henbane), must brush aside the irrelevant, the prejudiced, the morbid and emotional, and leave upon his table the one essential fragment—the fragment that remains, concrete and convincing, when the dust of disputatious criticism has gone the way of all dust. The one substantial datum which may be established is this: the Sibyls, whether justly or as a result of a species of auto-hypnosis, believed themselves to be inspired and were believed to be inspired by generations of Greek and Roman philosophers and thinkers. So much for their pretensions.
As to their later acceptance by contemporary authorities, a moment’s consideration of the facts available—and these are multitudinous—will reveal how they were accepted without question until that same state of affairs became regnant in Rome which rules among ourselves to-day.
The false Oracles of the temple of Isis, unveiled, intact in all their trickery, by the spade of the excavator at Pompeii, afford but one instance among many. The Romans saw impostors practising false oracular mummery about them; and as to-day none but the superstitious are disposed to hearken to the Sibyls of Bond Street, so, in that distant yesterday, it came about that none but the gullible and the morbid remained susceptible to the pseudo-wisdom of such false prophets as those of Pompeii. The true was mutilated by the false until the true was lost. Once lost it was all but forgotten, and at last its very existence was denied. It is thus that many arts and sciences, possibly worthy of a better fate, have been attacked, have been shattered, by the charlatan or the impostor, who has seen in them a means of defrauding his fellow-men, and who has not scrupled to exercise his ingenuity at the expense of the afflicted. With gross injustice, or in ignorance, Lytton classed Apollonius of Tyana among these.
The wonders attributed to the Sibyl who lived in the cave at Cumæ are an instance of how the possibly true may be so overlaid by the false and apocryphal that, to one looking back in quest of verity, the true has become but dimly perceptible, if perceptible at all.
Of this Cumæan Sibyl it was related that Apollo had become enamoured of her, and had offered to grant her whatever she might ask of him. She asked that she should be permitted to live for as many years as she held grains of sand in her hand. The god at once granted her request, but then she refused to reciprocate his love. Therefore he pronounced that her long life should be to her a curse rather than a blessing, for that she should be without freshness and beauty. She was reputed to be seven hundred years old when Æneas came to Italy, but doomed to live nearly as many more ere the number of her years would equal the sands she had held; and her ultimate destiny was to wither away and become only a voice.
It is upon stepping into such a quagmire of the preposterous as this that we stumble and all but lose sight of the faint light which must guide us to the solid shore beyond. For one wonders, whilst wading through this morass of pagan fable, if light and darkness, seemingly substantial and palpably impalpable alike, are not the mere creations of such a one as Virgil, at best; the monstrous figments of some pagan impostor’s mendacious mind, at worst.
However, the Delphic Oracle is preserved to us in Herodotus (vi. 86). Glaucus, son of Epicydes, is said to have received from the Milesians a large sum of money, and to have given a pledge to restore it when properly demanded. When, however, the demand was made, Glaucus professed to be ignorant of any such obligation. Whilst the matter was pending, he went to Delphi and consulted the Pythian Oracle, receiving the following response:
Glaucus of Epicydes, greater gain
Immediate is it by oath to overcome,
And take the money as by force; swear then.
Since death awaits the man that keeps his oath.
But Orcus has a nameless son, nor hands
Nor feet are his, but swift he moves along,
Till, having seized a whole race, he destroys,
And all the house. But the race of man
Who keeps his oath is better afterward.
In common with the great majority of such Oracles, this response is characterized by a predominant element of uncertainty and enigmatical obscurity, leavened with a pinch of sound advice.
Not even the new thought that exercised a revolutionary intellectual influence in the dawn of Christianity could quench the light of the Oracles. Few among the early Christian writers would seem to have doubted the authenticity of the Sibyls; and no further reference is necessary here to the power which these mystic books exercised over the whole of pagan Greece and Rome.
V. ORIENTAL ORACLES
Why, all the Saints and Sages who discuss’d
Of the Two Worlds so wisely—they are thrust
Like foolish Prophets forth; their Words to Scorn
Are scattered, and their Mouths are stopt with Dust.
Although, in Roman times, the Egyptian Oracles became so debased, it should not be forgotten that during the height of Egypt’s grandeur the policy of the kingdom was largely, if not wholly, dictated by the pronouncements of the mouthpiece of the gods, or first prophet. Egyptian history contains the names of numberless such prophets. The prophets were the high priests, and though the Pharaoh ruled Egypt the high priest ruled Pharaoh. Whether or not the prophecies of the priests of Amen were inspired, they, sans doute, were dictated by a shrewd regard for the welfare of the community and informed with a forceful statesmanship that must command the student’s admiration.
In the reign of Shepses-Ka-f, we read of one Ptah-Shepses, who was the “prophet of the god Sekar” and (from which his influence may be adjudged) “chief of the priesthood of Memphis.” The Sphinx, too, was regarded as prophetic, and an inscription upon it tells us that “. . . a great enchantment rests upon this place from the beginning of time, as far as the districts of the lords of Babylon, the sacred road of the gods to the western horizon of On-Heliopolis, because the form of the Sphinx is a likeness of Sheper-ra, the very great god who abides at this place, the greatest of all spirits, the most venerable being who rests upon it.”
Tehuti-mes IV ascribed his elevation to the throne to the active protection and aid of the oracular Horem-Khu; and the inscription upon the memorial stone before the breast of the Sphinx tells us how, “when hunting lions in the valley of the gazelles,” he rested in the shadow of this potent one’s image. “It seemed to him as though this great god spoke to him with his own mouth.”
Here, it is difficult to decide whether the Sphinx should be regarded as oracular, whether the true Oracle was Tehuti-mes, or whether the alleged communication of the god was no more than a cloak to hide the prince’s intrigue to secure the throne. Be this as it may, he caused it to be proclaimed that the god had said to him, “. . . Thou shalt wear the white crown and the red crown. . . . The world shall be thine in its length and in its breadth . . . the sand of the district in which I have my existence has covered me up. Promise me that thou wilt do what I wish. . . .” When Tehuti-mes IV came to the throne, certainly he kept the promise which he had made, thought he had made, or averred that he had made, to the oracular deity; he cleared away the accumulated sand and freed from its confinement the gigantic body of the Sphinx.
Excerpted from "The Romance of Sorcery"
Copyright © 2014 Sax Rohmer.
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