Lives of the Necromancers, Part III: Necromancy, Alchemy, and Hallucinogenic Cults
“There is something particularly soothing to the fancy of an erratic mind…of being conversant with a race of beings…which is unperceived by ordinary mortals.”
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
In our third number on William Godwin’s Lives of the Necromancers, we finally broach the titular subject: contact with the dead and attempts throughout the Near East to manipulate the natural world. The necromancer’s dark disturbance of the deceased violated the broadly accepted laws of ethics and religious sentiment. Only those individuals motivated by the most wicked and horrifying lusts would resort to such unnatural means of acquiring power. No less batty–though decidedly more benign–were the alchemists, Rosicrucians, Magi, and a variety of other Egyptian and Middle Eastern priesthoods. The alchemist promised both unending wealth and immortality, and in search of these grandiose dreams the Rosicrucians appear to have indulged in hallucinogenic communications with elemental creatures. Godwin writes that the priests would attempt to purge “the organs of human sight” with a “universal medicine, and that certain glass globes should be chemically prepared with one or other of the four elements.” Upon completion of the ritual, “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.” As leading initiates claimed the ability to control these fearsome beings, they commanded the full loyalty of their subordinate priests. From further east and of far more ancient origins, the Magi reportedly engaged in similarly cultish communications with the gods to enforce the priestly hierarchy. Godwin explains this phenomenon by noting that before the dawn of modernity, scientific knowledge was reserved exclusively for the elite few and a very small number of specialists. In this atmosphere of monopolized knowledge about science and technology, the cunning clerisy sharply separated and insulated themselves from the vast herd of common laborers and even those of middling status within the ruling class itself. The divisions between the ruling and exploitative few and the ruled, exploited many were so stark that conquerors like Alexander lived on after death, venerated as a god incarnate.
By William Godwin. London: Frederick J. Mason, 1834.
Lives of the Necromancers: Or an Account of the Most Eminent Persons in Successive Ages, Who Have Claimed for Themselves, or to Whom Has Been Imputed by Others, the Exercise of Magical Power (Excerpts)
Ambitious Nature of Man
…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…”
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…
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…
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…
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…
Examples of Necromancy and Witchcraft from the Bible
The Magi, or Wise Men of the East.
The Magi, or Wise Men of the East, extended their ramifications over Egypt, Babylonia, Persia, India, and probably, though with a different name, over China, and indeed the whole known world. Their profession was of a mysterious nature. They laid claim to a familiar intercourse with the Gods. They placed themselves as mediators between heaven and earth, assumed the prerogative of revealing the will of beings of a nature superior to man, and pretended to show wonders and prodigies that surpassed any power which was merely human.
To understand this, we must bear in mind the state of knowledge in ancient times, where for the most part the cultivation of the mind, and an acquaintance with either science or art, were confined to a very small part of the population. In each of the nations we have mentioned, there was a particular caste or tribe of men, who, by the prerogative of their birth, were entitled to the advantages of science and a superior education, while the rest of their countrymen were destined to subsist by manual labour. This of necessity gave birth in the privileged few to an overweening sense of their own importance. They scarcely regarded the rest of their countrymen as beings of the same species with themselves; and, finding a strong line of distinction cutting them off from the herd, they had recourse to every practicable method for making that distinction still stronger. Wonder is one of the most obvious means of generating deference; and, by keeping to themselves the grounds and process of their skill, and presenting the results only, they were sure to excite the admiration and reverence of their contemporaries. This mode of proceeding further produced a reaction upon themselves. That which supplied and promised to supply to them so large a harvest of honour and fame, unavoidably became precious in their eyes. They pursued their discoveries with avidity, because few had access to their opportunities in that respect, and because, the profounder were their researches, the more sure they were of being looked up to by the public as having that in them which was sacred and inviolable. They spent their days and nights in these investigations. They shrank from no privation and labour. At the same time that in these labours they had at all times an eye to their darling object, an ascendancy over the minds of their countrymen at large, and the extorting from them a blind and implicit deference to their oracular decrees. They however loved their pursuits for the pursuits themselves. They felt their abstraction and their unlimited nature, and on that account contemplated them with admiration. They valued them (for such is the indestructible character of the human mind) for the pains they had bestowed on them. The sweat of their brow grew into a part as it were of the intrinsic merit of the articles; and that which had with so much pains been attained by them, they could not but regard as of inestimable worth…
Temple of Jupider Ammon: Its Oracles.
…This temple was situated at a distance of no less than twelve days’ journey from Memphis, the capital of the Lower Egypt. The principal part of this space consisted of one immense tract of moving sand, so hot as to be intolerable to the sole of the foot, while the air was pregnant with fire, so that it was almost impossible to breathe in it. Not a drop of water, not a tree, not a blade of grass, was to be found through this vast surface. It was here that Cambyses, engaged in an impious expedition to demolish the temple, is said to have lost an army of fifty thousand men, buried in the sands. When you arrived however, you were presented with a wood of great circumference, the foliage of which was so thick that the beams of the sun could not pierce it. The atmosphere of the place was of a delicious temperature; the scene was every where interspersed with fountains; and all the fruits of the earth were found in the highest perfection. In the midst was the temple and oracle of the God, who was worshipped in the likeness of a ram. The Egyptian priests chose this site as furnishing a test of the zeal of their votaries; the journey being like the pilgrimage to Jerusalem or Mecca, if not from so great a distance, yet attended in many respects with perils more formidable. It was not safe to attempt the passage but with moderate numbers, and those expressly equipped for expedition.
Bacchus is said to have visited this spot in his great expedition to the East, when Jupiter appeared to him in the form of a ram, having struck his foot upon the soil, and for the first time occasioned that supply of water, with which the place was ever after plentifully supplied. Alexander the Great in a subsequent age undertook the same journey with his army, that he might cause himself to be acknowledged for the son of the God, under which character he was in all due form recognised. The priests no doubt had heard of the successful battles of the Granicus and of Issus, of the capture of Tyre after a seven months’ siege, and of the march of the great conqueror in Egypt, where he carried every thing before him.
Here we are presented with a striking specimen of the mode and spirit in which the oracles of old were accustomed to be conducted. It may be said that the priests were corrupted by the rich presents which Alexander bestowed on them with a liberal hand. But this was not the prime impulse in the business. They were astonished at the daring with which Alexander with a comparative handful of men set out from Greece, having meditated the overthrow of the great Persian empire. They were astonished with his perpetual success, and his victorious progress from the Hellespont to mount Taurus, from mount Taurus to Pelusium, and from Pelusium quite across the ancient kingdom of Egypt to the Palus Mareotis. Accustomed to the practice of adulation, and to the belief that mortal power and true intellectual greatness were the same, they with a genuine enthusiastic fervour regarded Alexander as the son of their God, and acknowledged him as such.—Nothing can be more memorable than the way in which belief and unbelief hold a divided empire over the human mind, our passions hurrying us into belief, at the same time that our intervals of sobriety suggest to us that it is all pure imposition…