Ambitious Nature of Man (2/2)

The Desire to Command and Control Future Events
Next to the consideration of those measures by which men have sought to dive into the secrets of future time, the question presents itself of those more daring undertakings, the object of which has been by some supernatural power to control the future, and place it in subjection to the will of the unlicensed adventurer. Men have always, especially in ages of ignorance, and when they most felt their individual weakness, figured to themselves an invisible strength greater than their own; and, in proportion to their impatience, and the fervour of their desires, have sought to enter into a league with those beings whose mightier force might supply that in which their weakness failed.

Commerce with the Invisible World
It is an essential feature of different ages and countries to vary exceedingly in the good or ill construction, the fame or dishonour, which shall attend upon the same conduct or mode of behaviour. In Egypt and throughout the East, especially in the early periods of history, the supposed commerce with invisible powers was openly professed, which, under other circumstances, and during the reign of different prejudices, was afterwards carefully concealed, and barbarously hunted out of the pale of allowed and authorised practice. The Magi of old, who claimed a power of producing miraculous appearances, and boasted a familiar intercourse with the world of spirits, were regarded by their countrymen with peculiar reverence, and considered as the first and chiefest men in the state. For this mitigated view of such dark and mysterious proceedings the ancients were in a great degree indebted to their polytheism. The Romans are computed to have acknowledged thirty thousand divinities, to all of whom was rendered a legitimate homage; and other countries in a similar proportion.

Sorcery and Enchantment
In Asia, however, the Gods were divided into two parties, under Oromasdes, the principle of good, and Arimanius, the principle of evil. These powers were in perpetual contention with each other, sometimes the one, and sometimes the other gaining the superiority. Arimanius and his legions were therefore scarcely considered as entitled to the homage of mankind. Those who were actuated by benevolence, and who desired to draw down blessings upon their fellow-creatures, addressed themselves to the principle of good; while such unhappy beings, with whom spite and ill-will had the predominance, may be supposed often to have invoked in preference the principle of evil. Hence seems to have originated the idea of sorcery, or an appeal by incantations and wicked arts to the demons who delighted in mischief.

These beings rejoiced in the opportunity of inflicting calamity and misery on mankind. But by what we read of them we might be induced to suppose that they were in some way restrained from gratifying their malignant intentions, and waited in eager hope, till some mortal reprobate should call out their dormant activity, and demand their aid.

Various enchantments were therefore employed by those unhappy mortals whose special desire was to bring down calamity and plagues upon the individuals or tribes of men against whom their animosity was directed. Unlawful and detested words and mysteries were called into action to conjure up demons who should yield their powerful and tremendous assistance. Songs of a wild and maniacal character were chaunted. Noisome scents and the burning of all unhallowed and odious things were resorted to. In later times books and formulas of a terrific character were commonly employed, upon the reading or recital of which the prodigies resorted to began to display themselves. The heavens were darkened; the thunder rolled; and fierce and blinding lightnings flashed from one corner of the heavens to the other. The earth quaked and rocked from side to side. All monstrous and deformed things shewed themselves, “Gorgons, and Hydras, and Chimeras dire,” enough to cause the stoutest heart to quail. Lastly, devils, whose name was legion, and to whose forms and distorted and menacing countenances superstition had annexed the most frightful ideas, crowded in countless multitudes upon the spectator, whose breath was flame, whose dances were full of terror, and whose strength infinitely exceeded every thing human. Such were the appalling conceptions which ages of bigotry and ignorance annexed to the notion of sorcery, and with these they scared the unhappy beings over whom this notion had usurped an ascendancy into lunacy, and prepared them for the perpetrating flagitious and unheard-of deeds.

The result of these horrible incantations was not less tremendous, than the preparations might have led us to expect. The demons possessed all the powers of the air, and produced tempests and shipwrecks at their pleasure. “Castles toppled on their warder’s heads, and palaces and pyramids sloped their summits to their foundations;” forests and mountains were torn from their roots, and cast into the sea. They inflamed the passions of men, and caused them to commit the most unheard-of excesses. They laid their ban on those who enjoyed the most prosperous health, condemned them to peak and pine, wasted them into a melancholy atrophy, and finally consigned them to a premature grave. They breathed a new and unblest life into beings in whom existence had long been extinct, and by their hateful and resistless power caused the sepulchres to give up their dead.

Next to sorcery we may recollect the case of witchcraft, which occurs oftener, particularly in modern times, than any other alleged mode of changing by supernatural means the future course of events. The sorcerer, as we shall see hereafter, was frequently a man of learning and intellectual abilities, sometimes of comparative opulence and respectable situation in society. But the witch or wizard was almost uniformly old, decrepid, and nearly or altogether in a state of penury. The functions however of the witch and the sorcerer were in a great degree the same. The earliest account of a witch, attended with any degree of detail, is that of the witch of Endor in the Bible, who among other things, professed the power of calling up the dead upon occasion from the peace of the sepulchre. Witches also claimed the faculty of raising storms, and in various ways disturbing the course of nature. They appear in most cases to have been brought into action by the impulse of private malice. They occasioned mortality of greater or less extent in man and beast. They blighted the opening prospect of a plentiful harvest. They covered the heavens with clouds, and sent abroad withering and malignant blasts. They undermined the health of those who were so unfortunate as to incur their animosity, and caused them to waste away gradually with incurable disease. They were notorious two or three centuries ago for the power of the “evil eye.” The vulgar, both great and small, dreaded their displeasure, and sought, by small gifts, and fair speeches, but insincere, and the offspring of terror only, to avert the pernicious consequences of their malice. They were famed for fabricating small images of wax, to represent the object of their persecution; and, as these by gradual and often studiously protracted degrees wasted before the fire, so the unfortunate butts of their resentment perished with a lingering, but inevitable death.

Compacts with the Devil
The power of these witches, as we find in their earliest records, originated in their intercourse with “familiar spirits,” invisible beings who must be supposed to be enlisted in the armies of the prince of darkness. We do not read in these ancient memorials of any league of mutual benefit entered into between the merely human party, and his or her supernatural assistant. But modern times have amply supplied this defect. The witch or sorcerer could not secure the assistance of the demon but by a sure and faithful compact, by which the human party obtained the industrious and vigilant service of his familiar for a certain term of years, only on condition that, when the term was expired, the demon of undoubted right was to obtain possession of the indentured party, and to convey him irremissibly and for ever to the regions of the damned. The contract was drawn out in authentic form, signed by the sorcerer, and attested with his blood, and was then carried away by the demon, to be produced again at the appointed time.

These familiar spirits often assumed the form of animals, and a black dog or cat was considered as a figure in which the attendant devil was secretly hidden. These subordinate devils were called Imps. Impure and carnal ideas were mingled with these theories. The witches were said to have preternatural teats from which their familiars sucked their blood. The devil also engaged in sexual intercourse with the witch or wizard, being denominated incubus, if his favourite were a woman, and succubus, if a man. In short, every frightful and loathsome idea was carefully heaped up together, to render the unfortunate beings to whom the crime of witchcraft was imputed the horror and execration of their species.

Talismans and Amulets
As according to the doctrine of witchcraft, there were certain compounds, and matters prepared by rules of art, that proved baleful and deadly to the persons against whom their activity was directed, so there were also preservatives, talismans, amulets and charms, for the most part to be worn about the person, which rendered him superior to injury, not only from the operations of witchcraft, but in some cases from the sword or any other mortal weapon. As the poet says, he that had this,

Might trace huge forests and unhallowed heaths,—
Yea there, where very desolation dwells,
By grots and caverns shagged with horrid shades,

nay, in the midst of every tremendous assailant, “might pass on with unblenched majesty,” uninjured and invulnerable.

Last of all we may speak of necromancy, which has something in it that so strongly takes hold of the imagination, that, though it is one only of the various modes which have been enumerated for the exorcise of magical power, we have selected it to give a title to the present volume.

There is something sacred to common apprehension in the repose of the dead. They seem placed beyond our power to disturb. “There is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom in the grave.”

After life’s fitful fever they sleep well:
Nor steel, nor poison,
Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing,
Can touch them further.

Their remains moulder in the earth. Neither form nor feature is long continued to them. We shrink from their touch, and their sight. To violate the sepulchre therefore for the purpose of unholy spells and operations, as we read of in the annals of witchcraft, cannot fail to be exceedingly shocking. To call up the spirits of the departed, after they have fulfilled the task of life, and are consigned to their final sleep, is sacrilegious. Well may they exclaim, like the ghost of Samuel in the sacred story, “Why hast thou disquieted me?”

There is a further circumstance in the case, which causes us additionally to revolt from the very idea of necromancy, strictly so called. Man is a mortal, or an immortal being. His frame either wholly “returns to the earth as it was, or his spirit,” the thinking principle within him, “to God who gave it.” The latter is the prevailing sentiment of mankind in modern times. Man is placed upon earth in a state of probation, to be dealt with hereafter according to the deeds done in the flesh. “Some shall go away into everlasting punishment; and others into life eternal.” In this case there is something blasphemous in the idea of intermedding with the state of the dead. We must leave them in the hands of God. Even on the idea of an interval, the “sleep of the soul” from death to the general resurrection, which is the creed of no contemptible sect of Christians, it is surely a terrific notion that we should disturb the pause, which upon that hypothesis, the laws of nature have assigned to the departed soul, and come to awake, or to “torment him before the time.”

To make our catalogue of supernatural doings, and the lawless imaginations of man, the more complete, it may be further necessary to refer to the craft, so eagerly cultivated in successive ages of the world of converting the inferior metals into gold, to which was usually joined the elixir vitae, or universal medicine, having the quality of renewing the youth of man, and causing him to live for ever. The first authentic record on this subject is an edict of Dioclesian about three hundred years after Christ, ordering a diligent search to be made in Egypt for all the ancient books which treated of the art of making gold and silver, that they might without distinction be consigned to the flames. This edict however necessarily presumes a certain antiquity to the pursuit; and fabulous history has recorded Solomon, Pythagoras and Hermes among its distinguished votaries. From this period the study seems to have slept, till it was revived among the Arabians after a lapse of five or six hundred years.

It is well known however how eagerly it was cultivated in various countries of the world for many centuries after it was divulged by Geber. Men of the most wonderful talents devoted their lives to the investigation; and in multiplied instances the discovery was said to have been completed. Vast sums of money were consumed in the fruitless endeavour; and in a later period it seems to have furnished an excellent handle to vain and specious projectors, to extort money from those more amply provided with the goods of fortune than themselves.

The art no doubt is in itself sufficiently mystical, having been pursued by multitudes, who seemed to themselves ever on the eve of consummation, but as constantly baffled when to their own apprehension most on the verge of success. The discovery indeed appears upon the face of it to be of the most delicate nature, as the benefit must wholly depend upon its being reserved to one or a very few, the object being unbounded wealth, which is nothing unless confined. If the power of creating gold is diffused, wealth by such diffusion becomes poverty, and every thing after a short time would but return to what it had been. Add to which, that the nature of discovery has ordinarily been, that, when once the clue has been found, it reveals itself to several about the same period of time.

The art, as we have said, is in its own nature sufficiently mystical, depending on nice combinations and proportions of ingredients, and upon the addition of each ingredient being made exactly in the critical moment, and in the precise degree of heat, indicated by the colour of the vapour arising from the crucible or retort. This was watched by the operator with inexhaustible patience; and it was often found or supposed, that the minutest error in this respect caused the most promising appearances to fail of the expected success. This circumstance no doubt occasionally gave an opportunity to an artful impostor to account for his miscarriage, and thus to prevail upon his credulous dupe to enable him to begin his tedious experiment again.

But, beside this, it appears that those whose object was the transmutation of metals, very frequently joined to this pursuit the study of astrology, and even the practice of sorcery. So much delicacy and nicety were supposed to be required in the process for the transmutation of metals, that it could not hope to succeed but under a favourable conjunction of the planets; and the most flourishing pretenders to the art boasted that they had also a familiar intercourse with certain spirits of supernatural power, which assisted them in their undertakings, and enabled them to penetrate into things undiscoverable to mere human sagacity, and to predict future events.

Another mode in which the wild and erratic imagination of our ancestors manifested itself, was in the creation of a world of visionary beings of a less terrific character, but which did not fail to annoy their thoughts, and perplex their determinations, known by the name of Fairies.

There are few things more worthy of contemplation, and that at the same time tend to place the dispositions of our ancestors in a more amiable point of view, than the creation of this airy and fantastic race. They were so diminutive as almost to elude the organs of human sight. They were at large, even though confined to the smallest dimensions. They “could be bounded in a nutshell, and count themselves kings of infinite space.”

Their midnight revels, by a forest-side
Or fountain, the belated peasant saw,
Or dreamed he saw, while overhead the moon
Sat arbitress, and nearer to the earth
Wheeled her pale course—they, on their mirth and dance
Intent, with jocund music charmed his ear;
At once with joy and fear his heart rebounds.

Small circles marked the grass in solitary places, the trace of their little feet, which, though narrow, were ample enough to afford every accommodation to their pastime.

The fairy tribes appear to have been every where distinguished for their patronage of truth, simplicity and industry, and their abhorrence of sensuality and prevarication. They left little rewards in secret, as tokens of their approbation of the virtues they loved, and by their supernatural power afforded a supplement to pure and excellent intentions, when the corporeal powers of the virtuous sank under the pressure of human infirmity. Where they conceived displeasure, the punishments they inflicted were for the most part such as served moderately to vex and harass the offending party, rather than to inflict upon him permanent and irremediable evils.

Their airy tongues would syllable men’s names
On sands, and shores, and desert wildernesses.

They were supposed to guide the wandering lights, that in the obscurity of the night beguiled the weary traveller “through bog, through bush, through brake, through briar.” But their power of evil only extended, or was only employed, to vex those who by a certain obliquity of conduct gave occasion for their reproofs. They besides pinched and otherwise tormented the objects of their displeasure; and, though the mischiefs they executed were not of the most vital kind, yet, coming from a supernatural enemy, and being inflicted by invisible hands, they could not fail greatly to disturb and disorder those who suffered from them.

There is at first sight a great inconsistency in the representations of these imaginary people. For the most part they are described to us as of a stature and appearance, almost too slight to be marked by our grosser human organs. At other times however, and especially in the extremely popular tales digested by M. Perrault, they shew themselves in indiscriminate assemblies, brought together for some solemn festivity or otherwise, and join the human frequenters of the scene, without occasioning enquiry or surprise. They are particularly concerned in the business of summarily and without appeal bestowing miraculous gifts, sometimes as a mark of special friendship and favour, and sometimes with a malicious and hostile intention.—But we are to consider that spirits

Can every form assume; so soft
And uncompounded is their essence pure;
Not tied or manacled with joint or limb,
Like cumbrous flesh; but, in what shape they choose,
Dilated or condensed, bright or obscure,
Can execute their airy purposes,
And works of love or enmity fulfil.

And then again, as their bounties were shadowy, so were they specially apt to disappear in a moment, the most splendid palaces and magnificent exhibitions vanishing away, and leaving their disconcerted dupe with his robes converted into the poorest rags, and, instead of glittering state, finding himself suddenly in the midst of desolation, and removed no man knew whither.

One of the mischiefs that were most frequently imputed to them, was the changing the beautiful child of some doating parents, for a babe marked with ugliness and deformity. But this idea seems fraught with inconsistency. The natural stature of the fairy is of the smallest dimensions; and, though they could occasionally dilate their figure so as to imitate humanity, yet it is to be presumed that this was only for a special purpose, and, that purpose obtained, that they shrank again habitually into their characteristic littleness. The change therefore can only be supposed to have been of one human child for another.

Nothing very distinct has been ascertained respecting a sect, calling itself Rosicrucians. It is said to have originated in the East from one of the crusaders in the fourteenth century; but it attracted at least no public notice till the beginning of the seventeenth century. Its adherents appear to have imbibed their notions from the Arabians, and claimed the possession of the philosopher’s stone, the art of transmuting metals, and the elixir vitae.

Sylphs and Gnomes, Salamanders and Undines
But that for which they principally excited public attention, was their creed respecting certain elementary beings, which to grosser eyes are invisible, but were familiarly known to the initiated. To be admitted to their acquaintance it was previously necessary that the organs of human sight should be purged by the universal medicine, and that certain glass globes should be chemically prepared with one or other of the four elements, and for one month exposed to the beams of the sun. These preliminary steps being taken, the initiated immediately had a sight of innumerable beings of a luminous substance, but of thin and evanescent structure, that people the elements on all sides of us. Those who inhabited the air were called Sylphs; and those who dwelt in the earth bore the name of Gnomes; such as peopled the fire were Salamanders; and those who made their home in the waters were Undines. Each class appears to have had an extensive power in the elements to which they belonged. They could raise tempests in the air, and storms at sea, shake the earth, and alarm the inhabitants of the globe with the sight of devouring flames. These appear however to have been more formidable in appearance than in reality. And the whole race was subordinate to man, and particularly subject to the initiated. The gnomes, inhabitants of the earth and the mines, liberally supplied to the human beings with whom they conversed, the hidden treasures over which they presided. The four classes were some of them male, and some female; but the female sex seems to have preponderated in all.

These elementary beings, we are told, were by their constitution more long-lived than man, but with this essential disadvantage, that at death they wholly ceased to exist. In the mean time they were inspired with an earnest desire for immortality; and there was one way left for them, by which this desire might be gratified. If they were so happy as to awaken in any of the initiated a passion the end of which was marriage, then the sylph who became the bride of a virtuous man, followed his nature, and became immortal; while on the other hand, if she united herself to an immoral being and a profligate, the husband followed the law of the wife, and was rendered entirely mortal. The initiated however were required, as a condition to their being admitted into the secrets of the order, to engage themselves in a vow of perpetual chastity as to women. And they were abundantly rewarded by the probability of being united to a sylph, a gnome, a salamander, or an undine, any one of whom was inexpressibly more enchanting than the most beautiful woman, in addition to which her charms were in a manner perpetual, while a wife of our own nature is in a short time destined to wrinkles, and all the other disadvantages of old age. The initiated of course enjoyed a beatitude infinitely greater than that which falls to the lot of ordinary mortals, being conscious of a perpetual commerce with these wonderful beings from whose society the vulgar are debarred, and having such associates unintermittedly anxious to perform their behests, and anticipate their desires.

We should have taken but an imperfect survey of the lawless extravagancies of human imagination, if we had not included a survey of this sect. There is something particularly soothing to the fancy of an erratic mind, in the conception of being conversant with a race of beings the very existence of which is unperceived by ordinary mortals, and thus entering into an infinitely numerous and variegated society, even when we are apparently swallowed up in entire solitude.

The Rosicrucians are further entitled to our special notice, as their tenets have had the good fortune to furnish Pope with the beautiful machinery with which he has adorned the Rape of the Lock. There is also, of much later date, a wild and poetical fiction for which we are indebted to the same source, called Undine, from the pen of Lamotte Fouquet.


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