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The Superstitions of Witchcraft

The following is from The Superstitions of Witchcraft by Howard Williams:

Part III--Modern Faith

Chapter IV

Astrology in Antiquity--Modern Astrology and Alchymy--Torralvo--Adventures of Dr. Dee and Edward Kelly--Prospero and Comus, Types respectively of the Theurgic and Goetic Arts--Magicians on the Stage in the Sixteenth Century--Occult Science in Southern Europe--Causes of the inevitable Mistakes of the pre-Scientific Ages

The nobler arts of magic, astrology, alchymy, necromancy, &c., were equally in vogue in this age with that of the infernal art proper. But they were more respected. Professors of those arts were habitually sought for with great eagerness by the highest personages, and often munificently rewarded. In antiquity astrology had been peculiarly Oriental in its origin and practice. The Egyptians, and especially the Chaldæans, introduced the foreign art to the West among the Greeks and Italians; the Arabs revived it in Western Europe in the Middle Age. Under the early Roman Empire the Chaldaic art exercised and enjoyed considerable influence and reputation, if it was often subject to sudden persecutions. Augustus was assisted to the throne, and Severus selected his wife, by its means. After it had once firmly established itself in the West,1 the Oriental astrology was soon developed and reduced to a more regular system; and in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Dee and Lilly enjoyed a greater reputation than even Figulus or Thrasyllus had obtained in the first century. Queen Elizabeth and Catherine di Medici (two of the astutest persons of their age) patronised them. Dr. Dee in England, and Nostradamus in France, were of this class. Dr. Caius, third founder of a college still bearing his name in the university of Cambridge, Kelly, Ashmole, and Lilly, are well-known names in the astrological history of this period. Torralvo, whose fame as an aerial voyager is immortalised by Cervantes in 'Don Quixote,' was as great a magician in Spain and Italy as Dee in England, although not so familiar to English readers as their countryman, the protégé of Elizabeth. Neither was his magical faculty so well rewarded. Dr. Torralvo, a physician, had studied medicine and philosophy with extraordinary success, and was high in the confidence of many of the eminent personages of Spain and Italy, for whom he fortunately predicted future success. A confirmed infidel or freethinker, he was denounced to the Inquisition by the treachery of an associate as denying or disputing the immortality of the soul, as well as the divinity of Christ. This was in 1529. Torralvo, put to the torture, admitted that his informing spirit, Zequiel, was a demon by whose assistance he performed his aerial journeys and all his extraordinary feats, both of prophecy and of actual power. Some part of the severity of the tortures was remitted by the demon's opportune reply to the curiosity of the presiding inquisitors, that Luther and the Reformers were bad and cunning men. Torralvo seems to have avoided the extreme penalty of fire by recanting his heresies, submitting to the superior judgment of his gaolers, and still more by the interest of his powerful employers; and he was liberated not long afterwards.

The life of Dr. Dee, an eminent Cambridge mathematician, and of his associate Edward Kelly, forms a curious biography. Dee was born in 1527. He studied at the English and foreign universities with great success and applause; and while the Princess Elizabeth was quite young he acquired her friendship, maintained by frequent correspondence, and on her succession to the throne the queen showed her good will in a conspicuous manner. John Dee left to posterity a diary in which he has inserted a regular account of his conjurations, prophetic intimations, and magical resources. Notwithstanding his mathematical acumen, he was the dupe of his cunning subordinate--more of a knave, probably, than his master. In 1583 a Polish prince, Albert Laski, visiting the English court, frequented the society of the renowned astrologer, by whom he was initiated in the secrets of the art; and predicted to be the future means of an important revolution in Europe. The astrologers wandered over all Germany, at one time favourably received by the credulity, at another time ignominiously ejected by the indignant disappointment, of a patron.2 Dee returned to England in 1589, and was finally appointed to the wardenship of the college at Manchester. In James's reign he was well received at Court, his reputation as a magician increasing; and in 1604 he is found presenting a petition to the king, imploring his good offices in dispelling the injurious imputation of being 'a conjuror, or caller, or invocator of devils.' Lilly, the most celebrated magician of the seventeenth century in England, was in the highest repute during the civil wars: his prophetic services were sought with equal anxiety by royalists and patriots, by king and parliament.3 Sometimes the professor of the occult science may have been his own dupe: oftener he imposed and speculated upon the credulity of others.

Prospero is the type of the Theurgic, as Comus is of the Goetic, magician. His spiritual minister belongs to the order of good, or at least middle spirits--

'Too black for heav'n, and yet too white for hell.'4

Prospero, by an irresistible magic, subdued to his service the reluctant Caliban, a monster 'got by the devil himself upon his wicked dam:' but that semi-demon is degraded into a mere beast of burden, brutal and savage, with little of the spiritual essence of his male parent. Comus, as represented in that most beautiful drama by the genius of Milton, is of the classic rather than Christian sort: he is the true son of Circe, using his mother's method of enchantment, transforming his unwary victims into the various forms or faces of the bestial herd. Like the island magician without his magical garment, the wicked enchanter without his wand loses his sorceric power; and--

'Without his rod reversed,
And backward mutters of dissevering power,'

it is not possible to disenchant his spell-bound prisoners.

In the sixteenth century many wonderful stories obtained of the tremendous feats of the magic art. Those that related the lives of Bacon, and of Faust (of German origin), were best known in England; and, in the dramatic form, were represented on the stage. The comedy of 'Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay,' and the tragedy of 'The Life and Death of Dr. Faustus,' are perhaps the most esteemed of the dramatic writings of the age which preceded the appearance of Shakspeare. In the latter Faustus makes a compact with the devil, by which a familiar spirit and a preternatural art are granted him for twenty-four years. At the end of this period his soul is to be the reward of the demons.5 From the 'Faustus' of Christopher Marlow, Goethe has derived the name and idea of the most celebrated tragedy of our day.

Magic and necromantic prowess was equally recognised in Southern Europe. The Italian poets employed such imposing paraphernalia in the construction of an epic; and Cervantes has ridiculed the prevailing belief of his countrymen.6

Alchymy, the science of the transformation of baser metals into gold, a pursuit which engaged the anxious thought and wasted the health, time, and fortunes of numbers of fanatical empirics, was one of the most prized of the abstruse occult arts. Monarchs, princes, the great of all countries, eagerly vied among themselves in encouraging with promises and sometimes with more substantial incentives the zeal of their illusive search; and Henry IV of France could see no reason why, if the bread and wine were transubstantiated so miraculously, a metal could not be transformed as well.7

Among the eminent names of self-styled or reputed masters of the nobler or white magic, some, like the celebrated Paracelsus, were men of extraordinary attainments and largely acquainted with the secrets of natural science. A necessarily imperfect knowledge, a natural desire to impose upon the ignorant wonder of the vulgar, and the vanity of a learning which was ambitious of exhibiting, in the most imposing if less intelligible way, their superior knowledge, were probably the mixed causes which led such distinguished scholars as Paracelsus, Cornelius Agrippa, Cardan, and Campanella to oppress themselves and their readers with a mass of unintelligible rubbish and cabalistic mysticism.8 Slow and gradual as are the successive advances in the knowledge and improvement of mankind, it would not be reasonable to be surprised that preceding generations could not at once attain to the knowledge of a maturer age; and the teachers of mankind groped their dark and uncertain way in ages destitute of the illumination of modern times.'9

1 The diffusion and progress of astrology in the last two centuries before the Empire, in Greece and Italy, was favoured chiefly by the four following causes: its resemblance to the meteorological astrology of the Greeks; the belief in the conversion of the souls of men into stars; the cessation of the oracles; the belief in a tutelary genius.--Sir G. C. Lewis's Historical Survey of the Astronomy of the Ancients, chap. v

2 While traversing Bohemia, on a particular occasion, it was revealed to be God's pleasure that the two friends should have a community of wives; a little episode noted in Dee's journal. 'On Sunday, May 3, 1587, I, John Dee, Edward Kelly, and our two wives, covenanted with God, and subscribed the same for indissoluble unities, charity, and friendship keeping between us four, and all things between us to be common, as God by sundry means willed us to do.' A sort of inspiration of frequent occurrence in religious revelations, from the times of the Arabian to those of the American prophet.

3 William Lilly wrote a History of his own life and times. His adroitness in accommodating his prophecies to the alternating chances of the war does him considerable credit as a prophet.

4 Released by his new lord from the sorceric spell of that 'damn'd witch Sycorax,' he comes gratefully, if somewhat weariedly, to answer his 'blest pleasure; be't to fly, to swim, to dive into the fire, to ride on the curl'd clouds,' &c.

5 Conscious of his approaching fate, the trembling magician replies to the anxious inquiries of his surrounding pupils--'"For the vain pleasure of four-and-twenty years hath Faustus lost eternal joy and felicity. I writ them a bill with my own blood; the date is expired; this is the time, and he will fetch me." First Scholar--"Why did not Faustus tell us of this before, that divines might have prayed for thee?" Faust--"Oft have I thought to have done so; but the devil threatened to tear me in pieces if I named God; to fetch me body and soul if I once gave ear to divinity. And now it is too late."' As the fearful moment fast approaches, Dr. Faustus, orthodox on the subject of the duration of future punishment, exclaims in agony--

'Oh! if my soul must suffer for my sin,
Impose some end to my incessant pain.
Let Faustus live in hell a thousand years--
A hundred thousand, and at the last be saved:
No end is limited to damned souls.
Why wert thou not a creature wanting soul?
Oh, why is this immortal that thou hast?' &c.

Mephistopheles, it need hardly be added, was on this occasion true to his reputation for punctuality. Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay is remarked for being one of the last dramatic pieces in which the devil appears on the stage in his proper person--1591. It is also noticeable that he is the only Scripture character in the new form of the play retained from the miracles which delighted the spectators in the fifteenth century, who were at once edified and gratified by the corporal chastisement inflicted upon his vicarious back.

6 Benvenuto Cellini, the Florentine engraver, in his amusing Autobiography, astonishes his readers with some necromantic wonders of which he was an eyewitness. Cellini had become acquainted and enamoured with a beautiful Sicilian, from whom he was suddenly separated. He tells with his accustomed candour and confidence, 'I was then indulging myself in pleasures of all sorts, and engaged in another amour to cancel the memory of my Sicilian mistress. It happened, through a variety of odd accidents, that I made acquaintance with a Sicilian priest, who was a man of genius, and well versed in the Latin and Greek authors. Happening one day to have some conversation with him upon the art of necromancy, I, who had a great desire to know something of the matter, told him I had all my life felt a curiosity to be acquainted with the mysteries of this art. The priest made answer that the man must be of a resolute and steady temper who enters upon that study.' And so it should seem from the event. One night, Cellini, with a companion familiar with the Black Art, attended the priest to the Colosseum, where the latter, 'according to the custom of necromancy, began to draw marks upon the ground, with the most impressive ceremonies imaginable; he likewise brought thither asafœtida, several precious perfumes and fire, with some compositions which diffused noisome odours.' Although several legions of devils obeyed the summons of the conjurations or compositions, the sorceric rites were not attended with complete success. But on a succeeding night, 'the necromancer having begun to make his tremendous invocations, called by their names a multitude of demons who were the leaders of the several legions, and invoked them by the virtue and power of the eternal uncreated God, who lives for ever, insomuch that the amphitheatre was almost in an instant filled with demons a hundred times more numerous than at the former conjuration ... I, by the direction of the necromancer, again desired to be in the company of my Angelica. The former thereupon turning to me said, "Know that they have declared that in the space of a month you shall be in her company." He then requested me to stand resolutely by him, because the legion were now above a thousand more in number than he had designed; and besides, these were the most dangerous, so that after they had answered my question it behoved him to be civil to them and dismiss them quietly.' The infernal legions were more easily evoked than dismissed. He proceeds--'Though I was as much terrified as any of them, I did my utmost to conceal the terror I felt; so that I greatly contributed to inspire the rest with resolution. But the truth is,' ingenuously confesses the amorous artist, 'I gave myself over for a dead man, seeing the horrid fright the necromancer was in.'--Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, chap. xiii, Roscoe's transl.--The information was verified, and Benvenuto enjoyed the society of his mistress at the time foretold.

7 The class of horoscopists (the old Chaldaic genethliacs), or those who predicted the fortunes of individuals by an examination of the planet which presided at the natal hour, was as much in vogue as that of any other of the masters of the occult arts; and La Fontaine, towards the end of the seventeenth century, apostrophises the class:

'Charlatans, faiseurs d'horoscope!
Quittez les cours des princes de l'Europe;
Emmenez avec vous les souffleurs tout d'un temps;
Vous ne méritez pas plus de foi.'....

Fables, ii 13

But it is only necessary to recollect the name of Cagliostro (Balsamo) and others who in the eighteenth century could successfully speculate upon the credulity of people of rank and education, to moderate our wonder at the success of earlier empirics.


'Cardan believed great states depend
Upon the tip o' th'
Bear's tail's end,'

correctly enough expresses both the persuasion of the public and that of many of the soi-disant philosophers of the intimate dependence of the fates of both states and individuals of this globe upon other globes in the universe.

9 It was not so much a want of sufficient observation of known facts, as the want of a true method and of verification, which rendered the investigations of the earlier philosophers so vague and uncertain. And the same causes which necessarily prevented Aristotle, the greatest intellect perhaps that has ever illuminated the world, from attaining to the greater perfection of the modern philosophy, are applicable, in a greater degree, to the case of the mediæval and later discoverers. The causes of the failure of the pre-scientific world are well stated by a living writer. 'Men cannot, or at least they will not, await the tardy results of discovery; they will not sit down in avowed ignorance. Imagination supplies the deficiencies of observation. A theoretic arch is thrown across the chasm, because men are unwilling to wait till a solid bridge be constructed.... The early thinkers, by reason of the very splendour of their capacities, were not less incompetent to follow the slow processes of scientific investigation, than a tribe of martial savages to adopt the strategy and discipline of modern armies. No accumulated laws, no well-tried methods existed for their aid. The elementary laws in each department were mostly undetected.' The guide of knowledge is verification. 'The complexity of phenomena is that of a labyrinth, the paths of which cross and recross each other; one wrong turn causes the wanderer infinite perplexity. Verification is the Ariadne-thread by which the real issues may be found. Unhappily, the process of verification is slow, tedious, often difficult and deceptive; and we are by nature lazy and impatient, hating labour, eager to obtain. Hence credulity. We accept facts without scrutiny, inductions without proof; and we yield to our disposition to believe that the order of phenomena must correspond with our conceptions.' A profound truth is contained in the assertion of Comte (Cours de Philosophie Positive) that 'men have still more need of method than of doctrine, of education than of instruction.'--Aristotle, by G. H. Lewes.

Part III--Modern Faith--Chapter V

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