Magic and Occult in Greece
Greece: That magic in its widest sense was native to the imagination and genius of the Greeks is apparent in their theogony and mythology, essentially magical in conception and meaning, in their literature, sculpture and history. The natural features of the country appealed powerfully to the quality of their imagination. Mountains and valleys, mysterious caves and fissures, vapours and springs of volcanic origin; groves,—these according to their character, were dedicated to the gods. Parnassus was the abode of the sun-god, Apollo ; the lovely vale of Aphaca that of Adonis; the oak-groves of Dodona favoured of Zeus, the gloomy caves with their roar of subterranean waters the Oracle of Trophonius. Innumerable instances of magical wonder-working are found in the stories of their deities and heroes. The power of transformation is shown in a multitude of cases, amongst them those of Bacchus who, by waving a spear, could change the oars of a ship into serpents, the masts into heavy-clustered vines, tigers, lynxes and panthers to appear amidst the waves, and the terrified sailors leaping overboard to take the shape of dolphins; in those wrought by Circe who by her magic wand and enchanted philtre turned her lovers into swine. The serpent-staff of Hermes gave, by its touch, life or death, sleep or waking; Medusa's head turned its beholders into stone ; Hermes gave Perseus wings that he might fly and Pluto a helmet which conferred invisibility. Prometheus moulds a man of clay and to give it life steals celestial fire from heaven ; Odysseus to peer into the future descends to Hades in search of Tiresias the Soothsayer; Achilles is made invulnerable by the waters of the Styx.
Dedicated by immemorial belief, there were places where the visible spirits of the dead might be evoked, Heraclea, Acheron, piaces where men in curiosity, in longing or remorse strove to call back for a fleeting moment those who had passed beyond mortal ken. In the month of March, when the spring blossoms broke through the earth and snowed the trees with white, the Festival of the Flowers was held at Athens, also the Commemoration of the Dead, when their spirits were thought to rise from their graves and wander about the familiar streets, striving to enter the dwellings of man and temples of the gods but shut out therefrom by the magic of branches of whitethorn, or by knotted ropes and pitch.
Oracles: Of great antiquity and eminently of Greek character and meaning were the Oracles. For centuries they ministered to that longing deeply implanted in human nature the longing to know the future, and to invoke divine foresight and aid in the direction of human affairs, from those of a private citizen to the multitudinous needs of a great state. Divination and prophecy were therefore the great features of the oracles. This was inspired by various means, by intoxicating fumes natural or artificial, by the drinking of mineral springs, by signs and tokens, by dreams. The most famous Oracles were those at Delphi, Dodona, Epi-daurus, and that of Trophonius, but others of renown were scattered over the country. Perhaps one of the earliest was that of Aesculapius son of Apollo, and called the Healer, the Dream-sender because his healing was given through the medium of dreams that came upon the applicant while sleeping in the temple-courts, the famous temple-sleep. This temple, situated at Epidaurus, was surrounded by sacred groves and whole companies of sick persons lingered there in search of lost health and enlightment through divine dreams. Famous beyond all was that of Apollo, the Delphian oracle on the Southern Slopes of Parnassus where kings and princes, heroes and slaves of all countries journeyed to ask the questions as to the future and what it might hold for them. The temple was built above a volcanic chasm, amid a wildness of nature which suggested the presence of the unseen powers. Here the priestess, the Pythia, so named after the serpent Pytho whom Apollo slew, was seated on a tripod placed above the gaseous vapours rising 'from the chasm. Intoxicated to a state of frenzy, her mouth foaming, wild torrents of words fell from her lips, and these were shaped into coherence and meaning by the attendant priests and given to the waiting questioner standing before the altar crowned with laurel, the symbol of sleep and dreams and sacred to Apollo. Priests and priestesses were also crowned with these leaves, and they were burned as incense; before the Pythias chamber hung a falling screen of laurel branches while at the festival of the Septerion every ninth year a bower of laurel was erected in the forecourt of the temple. One writer has left strange details such as the rule that the sacred fire within the temple must only be fed with fir-wood ; and, though a woman was chosen as the medium of the prophetic utterance yet no woman might question the oracle. The Oracle of the Pelasgic Zeus at Dodona, the oldest of all, answered by signs rather than inspired speech, the rustling of the leaves in the sacred groves, by means of lots and the falling of water, by the wind-moved clanging of brazen-bowls, two hollow columns standing side by side. The three priestesses, Peliades, meaning doves, were given titles signifying the Diviner of the future ; the friend of man, Virtue: the virgin-ruler of man, Chastity. For two thousand years this oracle existed, from the time when it was consulted by those heroes of the ancient myths, struggling in the toils of Fate. Hercules, Achilles, Ulysses and Aeneas, down to the latest vestiges of Greek nationality. The Oracle of Trophonius was also of great renown. Here there were numerous caverns filled with misty vapours and troubled by the noise of hidden waters far beneath. In this mysterious gloom the supplicants slept sometimes for nights and days, coming forth in a somnambulic state from which they were aroused and questioned by the attendant priests. Frightful visions were generally re-'counted, accompanied by a terrible melancholy, so that it passed into a proverb regarding a sorrowful man '• He has been in the cave of Trophonius." Thus it may be seen that magic in the sense of secret revelations, miraculous cures and prophetic gifts, of abnormal powers, had always existed for the Greeks, the oracles were a purely natural human way of communing with their gods upon earth. But magic in the lower sense of sorcery was unknown till Asiatic and Egyptian influences were introduced. The' native conception of Fate as inexorable and inescapable for gods, kings and slaves alike was inimical to the spontaneous growth of a form of magic which had for its primary aim a certain command of the destinities of man. Good and evil and the perpetual strife between these two principles, the belief in demonology, these were foreign to the Greek mind, they were imported. It is said that to the Pythagorean school may be traced the first mention of good and evil demons and not till after the Persian War was there a word in the Greek language for magic. As these foreign beliefs were thus gradually introduced and assimilated they were ascribed to the native deities, gradually becoming incorporated with the ancient histories and rites.
After the invasion by the Persians, Thessaly, where their stay was of lengthy duration, became famous for its sorceresses and their practices which embraced a wide than-maturgical field, from calling down the moon to brewing magical herbs for love or death, so much so that Apuleius in his romance, The Golden Ass, says, that when in Thessaly he was in the place " where, by common report of the world, sorcery and enchantments were most frequent. I viewed the situation of the place in which I was, nor was there anything I saw that I believed to be the same thing which it appeared to be. Insomuch that the very stones in the street I thought were men bewitched and turned into that figure, and the birds I heard chirping, the trees without the walls, and the running waters, were changed from human creatures into the appearances they were. I persuaded myself that the statues and buildings could move ; that the oxen and other brute beasts could speak and tell strange tidings ; that I should hear and see oracles from heaven conveyed in the beams of the Sun."
Sorceresses.—Homer tells the tale of Circe the enchantress, with her magic philtres and magic songs but makes no mention of Medea, the arch-sorceress of later times. Round her name the later beliefs clustered, to her were attributed
all the evil arts, she became the witch par excellence, her infamy increasing from age to age. The same may be said of Hecate, the moon-goddess, at first sharer with Zeus of the heavenly powers, but later become an ominous shape of gloom, ruler and lover of the night and darkness, of the world of phantoms and ghouls. Like the Furies she wielded the whip and cord; she was followed by hell hounds, by writhing serpents, by lamiae, strygae and empusae, figures of terror and loathing. She presided over the dark mysteries of birth and death; she was worshipped at night in the flare of torches. She was the three-headed Hecate of the cross-roads where little round cakes or a lizard mask set about with candles were offered to her in propitiation, that none of the phantom mob might cross the threshold of man. Love-magic and dealh-magic, the usual forms of sorcery became common in Greece as elsewhere. Love philtres and charms were eagerly sought, the most innocent being bitten apples and enchanted garlands. Means of protection against the evil eye became a necessity for tales of bewitchment were spread abroad, and of misfortune and death being brought upon the innocent and unwary by means of a waxen figure moulded in their image and tortured by the sorceress. In tombs and secret places leaden tablets were buried inscribed with the names of foes and victims, pierced through with a nail in order to bring disaster and death upon them. At this time it became law that none who practised sorcery might participate in the Eleusinian Mysteries, and at Athens, a Samian Sorceress, Theoris, was cast to the flames.
Orphic Magic—The introduction of Egyptian influences were due generally to the agency of Orpheus and Pythagoras, who, while in Egypt, had been initiated into the mysteries. The story of Orpheus shows him as pre-eminently the wonder-worker, but one of beneficence and beauty. To men of his time everything was enchantment and prodigy. By the irresistible power of his music he constrained the rocks, trees and animals to follow him, at his behest storms arose or abated. He was the necromancer, who by his golden music overcame the powers of darkness, and descending to the world of shades, found his beloved Eurydice, and but for the fatal and disobedient look into her face ere they gained the upper air would have brought her back to the living world. Jealous women tore him limb from limb, and his head floating down the waters of the Hebrus was cast on the rocky shores of Lesbos where, still retaining the power of speech, it uttered oracles, the guidance of which people from all parts sought, even those of Babylon. He was said to have instructed the Greeks in medicine and magic, and for long afterwards remedies, magical formulae, incantations and charms were engraved upon Orphean tablets and the power of healing was ascribed to the Orphean Hymns. Pythagoras, Philosopher and geometrician, to the populace a magician, indefatigable in the pursuit of knowledge, wielded an immense influence on the thought of his time. After his return from Egypt he founded a school where to those who had previously undergone severe and drastic discipline he communicated his wide and varied knowledge. He was also credited with miraculous powers such as being visible at the same hour in places far apart as Italy and Sicily; of taming a bear by whispering in its ear; of calling an eagle from its flight to alight on his wrist.
Mysteries —Among the greatest features of religious life were the mysteries held at periodic intervals in connection with the different deities, such as the Sautothracian, the Bacchic and most famous of all, the Eleusinian. Their origin is to be traced mostly to a pre-historic nature-worship and vegetation-magic. All these mysteries had three trials or baptisms by water, fire and air, and three specially sacred emblems, the phallus, egg and serpent, generative emblems sacred in all secret rites. The Saraothracian centred round four mysterious deities, Axieros the mother, her children Axiocersos, male, Axiocersa, female, from whom sprang Casindos the originator of the universe. The festival probably symbolized the creation of the world, also the harvest and its growth. Connected with this was the worship of Cybele, goddess of the earth, of the cities and fields. Her priests, the Corybantes, dwelt in a cave where they held their ceremonies, including a wild and orgiastic weapoa-dance, accompanied by the incessant shaking of heads and clanging of swords upon shields. The cult of Bacchus was said by some to have been carried into Greece from Egypt by Melampus. He is the god of the vine and vegetation, and his mysteries typified the growth of the vine and the vintage; the winter sleep of all plant life and its renewal in spring. Women were his chief attendants, the Bacchantes,who, clashing cymbals and uttering wild cries in invocation of their god, became possessed by ungovernable fury and homicidal mania. Greatest of all in their relation to Hellenic life were the Eleusinian, Mysteries. These ware the paramount interest and function of the state religion exerting the widest, strongest influence on people of all classes. The rites were secret and theirdetails are practically unknown, but they undoubtedly symbolised the myth of Demeter, corn-goddess, and were held in spring and September. Prior to initiation a long period of purification and preparation was enforced, during which the higher meaning of the myth was inculcated, the original meaning having become exalted by the genius of the Greeks into an intimate allegory of the soul of man, its birth, life and death, its descent into Hades and subsequent release therefrom. After this there came the central point of the mysteries, the viewing of certain holy and secret symbols ; next, a crowning with garlands, signifying the happiness which arises from friendship with the divine. The festival also embodied a scenic representation of the Story of Demeter; the rape of Persephone, the sorrow of the mother, her complaints before Zeus, the final reconciliation. Women played a great part in this, the reason being that as they themselves " produce," so by sympathetic magic their influence was conveyed to the corn, as when crying aloud for rain they looked upward to the skies, then down to the earth with cries ofli Conceive! " These priestesses were crowned with poppies and corn, symbolical attributes of the deity they implored. (See article Mysteries.)
Divination —Besides the priests and priestesses attached to the different temples there was an order of men called interpreters whose business it was to read futurity by various means such as the flight of birds and entrails of victims. These men often accompanied the armies in order to predict the success or failure of operations during warfare and thus avert the possibility of mistakes in the campaign: they fomented or repressed revolutions in state and government by their predictions. The most celebrated interpreters were those of Elis, where in two or three families this peculiar gift or knowledge was handed down from father to son for generations. But there were others who were authorised by the state—men who traded on the credulity of the rich and poor, women of the lowest dregs of humanity, who professed to read the future in natural and unnatural phenomena, in eclipses, in thunder, in dreams, in unexpected sight of certain animals, in convulsive movement of eyelids, tingling of the ears, in sneezing, in a few words casually dropped by a passer-by. In the literature and philosophies of Greece magic in all its forms is found as theme for imagination, discussion and belief. In the hands of the tragic poets, sorceresses such as Circe and Medea become figures of terror and death, embodiments of evil. Pythagoras left no writings but on bis theories were founded those of Empedocles and Plato.
In the verses of Empedocles he teaches the theory of re-incarnation, he himself remembering previous existences wherein he was a boy, a girl, a plant, fish and bird. He also claimed to teach the secrets of miraculous medicine, of the re-animation of old age, of bringing rain, storm, or sunshine, of recalling the dead. Aristides the Greek orator gives exhaustive accounts, of the many dreams he experienced during sleep in the temples and the cures prescribed therein. Socrates tells of his attendant spirit or genius who warned him, and others through his agency, of impending danger, also foretelling futurity.
Xenophon, treating of divination by dreams, maintains that in sleep the human soul reveals her divine nature, and being freed from trammels of the body gazes into futurity. Plato, while inveighing against sorcery, took the popular superstitions relating to magic, demons and spirits and by his genius purified and raised them, using them as a basis for a spiritual and magical theory of things, unsurpassed for .intellectual beauty. On his teaching was founded the school of Nep-Platonists who were among the most fervid defenders of magic. Aristotle states that prediction is a purely natural quality of the imagination, while Plutarch in his writings, wherein much may be found on magic and dreams^ gives an exhaustive account or the somnambulic states of the oracular priestess, Pythia, attributing them to possession by the divinity.
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