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Lives of the Necromancers, Part VI: Magic and Mysticism in the “East” from Zoroaster to the Arabian Nights

“Man is every where man, possessed of the same faculties, stimulated by the same passions…with similar hopes and fears, aspirations and alarms.”

Editor’s Note

For our next portion from Lives of the Necromancers, Godwin shifts our gaze eastward to the magical traditions of the Near East and Persia.  Eastern priests and magicians were little different from the westerners—they practiced transfiguration to mystify audiences with visual fantasies; they built intricate fooling machines to convince marks of their supernatural authority; they produced convenient sorcerous excuses for distasteful personal behavior.  Regardless of one’s culture, necromancy, alchemy, sorcery, and magical showmanship of all kinds provided clever and remorseless individuals a host of socio-political and economic advantages.

Having temporarily dispensed with the Christianized West, Godwin takes us through the somewhat hidden history of the famous Zoroastrian Magi. The Magi claimed the power to influence natural phenomenon and produce miracles. Godwin notes that easterners, whether Magi yogis or independent practitioners, were especially skilled at their craft. Rocail seems to have invented a mechanical automaton disguised as a magically living statue. Hakem acquired fame and infamy through the use of luminescence—probably chemical—supposedly serving to hide his ugliness as well as dazzle and bewilder commoners into a state of deference. Godwin’s “Story of a Goule” seems to suggest that a husband took advantage of occultist beliefs to dispose of a troublesome wife.

Each of these stories and the many more which have existed throughout the history of eastern civilizations are most noteworthy to Godwin, however, for their consistency with western myths. Our author concludes by speculating that mystical beliefs serve very particular and powerful functions for human beings. The particular details of how individuals across cultures utilize mysticism vary, but within the sociological functions of the beliefs lay timeless truths about both the necromancers and their societies.

Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

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)

By William Godwin.  London: Frederick J. Mason, 1834.

Revolution Produced in the History of Necromancy and Witchcraft upon the Establishment of Christianity.

It is necessary here to take notice of the great revolution that took place under Constantine, nearly three hundred years after the death of Christ, when Christianity became the established religion of the Roman empire. This was a period which produced a new era in the history of necromancy and witchcraft. Under the reign of polytheism, devotion was wholly unrestrained in every direction it might chance to assume. Gods known and unknown, the spirits of departed heroes, the Gods of heaven and hell, abstractions of virtue or vice, might unblamed be made the objects of religious worship. Witchcraft therefore, and the invocation of the spirits of the dead, might be practised with toleration; or at all events were not regarded otherwise than as venial deviations from the religion of the state.

It is true, there must always have been a horror of secret arts, especially of such as were of a maleficent nature. At all times men dreaded the mysterious power of spells and incantations, of potent herbs and nameless rites, which were able to control the eternal order of the planets, and the voluntary operations of mind, which could extinguish or recal life, inflame the passions of the soul, blast the works of creation, and extort from invisible beings and the dead the secrets of futurity. But under the creed of the unity of the divine nature the case was exceedingly different. Idolatry, and the worship of other Gods than one, were held to be crimes worthy of the utmost abhorrence and the severest punishment. There was no medium between the worship of heaven and hell. All adoration was to be directed to God the Creator through the mediation of his only begotten Son; or, if prayers were addressed to inferior beings, and the glorified spirits of his saints, at least they terminated in the Most High, were a deprecation of his wrath, a soliciting his favour, and a homage to his omnipotence. On the other hand sorcery and witchcraft were sins of the blackest dye. In opposition to the one only God, the creator of heaven and earth, was the “prince of darkness,” the “prince of the power of the air,” who contended perpetually against the Almighty, and sought to seduce his creatures and his subjects from their due allegiance. Sorcerers and witches were supposed to do homage and sell themselves to the devil, than which it was not in the mind of man to conceive a greater enormity, or a crime more worthy to cause its perpetrators to be exterminated from the face of the earth. The thought of it was of power to cause the flesh of man to creep and tingle with horror: and such as were prone to indulge their imaginations to the utmost extent of the terrible, found a perverse delight in conceiving this depravity, and were but too much disposed to fasten it upon their fellow-creatures…

History of Necromancy in the East.

From the countries best known in what is usually styled ancient history, in other words from Greece and Rome, and the regions into which the spirit of conquest led the people of Rome and Greece, it is time we should turn to the East, and those remoter divisions of the world, which to them were comparatively unknown.

With what has been called the religion of the Magi, of Egypt, Persia and Chaldea, they were indeed superficially acquainted; but for a more familiar and accurate knowledge of the East we are chiefly indebted to certain events of modern history; to the conquests of the Saracens, when they possessed themselves of the North of Africa, made themselves masters of Spain, and threatened in their victorious career to subject France to their standard; to the crusades; to the spirit of nautical discovery which broke out in the close of the fifteenth century; and more recently to the extensive conquests and mighty augmentation of territory which have been realised by the English East India Company.

The religion of Persia was that of Zoroaster and the Magi. When Ardshir, or Artaxerxes, the founder of the race of the Sassanides, restored the throne of Persia in the year of Christ 226, he called together an assembly of the Magi from all parts of his dominions, and they are said to have met to the number of eighty thousand.  These priests, from a remote antiquity, had to a great degree preserved their popularity, and had remarkably adhered to their ancient institutions.

They seem at all times to have laid claim to the power of suspending the course of nature, and producing miraculous phenomena. But in so numerous a body there must have been some whose pretensions were of a more moderate nature, and others who displayed a loftier aspiration. The more ambitious we find designated in their native language by the name of Jogees…

General Silence of the East Respecting Individual Necromancers.

Asia has been more notorious than perhaps any other division of the globe for the vast multiplicity and variety of its narratives of sorcery and magic. I have however been much disappointed in the thing I looked for in the first place, and that is, in the individual adventures of such persons as might be supposed to have gained a high degree of credit and reputation for their skill in exploits of magic. Where the professors are many (and they have been perhaps no where so numerous as those of magic in the East), it is unavoidable but that some should have been more dextrous than others, more eminently gifted by nature, more enthusiastic and persevering in the prosecution of their purpose, and more fortunate in awakening popularity and admiration among their contemporaries. In the instances of Apollonius Tyanaeus and others among the ancients, and of Cornelius Agrippa, Roger Bacon and Faust among the moderns, we are acquainted with many biographical particulars of their lives, and can trace with some degree of accuracy, their peculiarities of disposition, and observe how they were led gradually from one study and one mode of action to another. But the magicians of the East, so to speak, are mere abstractions, not characterised by any of those habits which distinguish one individual of the human race from another, and having those marking traits and petty lineaments which make the person, as it were, start up into life while he passes before our eyes. They are merely reported to us as men prone to the producing great signs and wonders, and nothing more.

Two of the most remarkable exceptions that I have found to this rule, occur in the examples of Rocail, and of Hakem, otherwise called Mocanna.


The first of these however is scarcely to be called an exception, as lying beyond the limits of all credible history, Rocail is said to have been the younger brother of Seth, the son of Adam. A Dive, or giant of mount Caucasus, being hard pressed by his enemies, sought as usual among the sons of men for aid that might extricate him out of his difficulties. He at length made an alliance with Rocail, by whose assistance he arrived at the tranquillity he desired, and who in consequence became his grand vizier, or prime minister. He governed the dominions of his principal for many years with great honour and success; but, ultimately perceiving the approaches of old age and death, he conceived a desire to leave behind him a monument worthy of his achievements in policy and war. He according erected, we are not told by what means, a magnificent palace, and a sepulchre equally worthy of admiration. But what was most entitled to notice, he peopled this palace with statues of so extraordinary a quality, that they moved and performed all the functions and offices of living men, so that every one who beheld them would have believed that they were actually informed with souls, whereas in reality all they did was by the power of magic, in consequence of which, though they were in fact no more than inanimate matter, they were enabled to obey the behests, and perform the will, of the persons by whom they were visited.

Hakem, Otherwise Mocanna.

Hakem was a leader in one of the different divisions of the followers of Mahomet. To inspire the greater awe into the minds of his supporters, he pretended that he was the Most High God, the creator of heaven and earth, under one of the different forms by which he has in successive ages become incarnate, and made himself manifest to his creatures. He distinguished himself by the peculiarity of always wearing a thick and impervious veil, by which, according to his followers, he covered the dazzling splendour of his countenance, which was so great that no mortal could behold it and live, but that, according to his enemies, only served to conceal the hideousness of his features, too monstrously deformed to be contemplated without horror. One of his miracles, which seems the most to have been insisted on, was that he nightly, for a considerable space of time, caused an orb, something like the moon, to rise from a sacred well, which gave a light scarcely less splendid than the day, that diffused its beams for many miles around. His followers were enthusiastically devoted to his service, and he supported his authority unquestioned for a number of years. At length a more formidable opponent appeared, and after several battles he became obliged to shut himself up in a strong fortress. Here however he was so straitly besieged as to be driven to the last despair, and, having administered poison to his whole garrison, he prepared a bath of the most powerful ingredients, which, when he threw himself into it, dissolved his frame, even to the very bones, so that nothing remained of him but a lock of his hair. He acted thus, with the hope that it would be believed that he was miraculously taken up into heaven; nor did this fail to be the effect on the great body of his adherents…

Story of a Goule.

A story in the Arabian Nights, which merits notice for its singularity, and as exhibiting a particular example of the credulity of the people of the East, is that of a man who married a sorceress, without being in any way conscious of her character in that respect. She was sufficiently agreeable in her person, and he found for the most part no reason to be dissatisfied with her. But he became uneasy at the strangeness of her behaviour, whenever they sat together at meals. The husband provided a sufficient variety of dishes, and was anxious that his wife should eat and be refreshed. But she took scarcely any nourishment. He set before her a plate of rice. From this plate she took somewhat, grain by grain; but she would taste of no other dish. The husband remonstrated with her upon her way of eating, but to no purpose; she still went on the same. He knew it was impossible for any one to subsist upon so little as she ate; and his curiosity was roused. One night, as he lay quietly awake, he perceived his wife rise very softly, and put on her clothes. He watched, but made as if he saw nothing. Presently she opened the door, and went out. He followed her unperceived, by moonlight, and tracked her into a place of graves. Here to his astonishment he saw her joined by a Goule, a sort of wandering demon, which is known to infest ruinous buildings, and from time to time suddenly rushes out, seizes children and other defenceless people, strangles, and devours them. Occasionally, for want of other food, this detested race will resort to churchyards, and, digging up the bodies of the newly-buried, gorge their appetites upon the flesh of these. The husband followed his wife and her supernatural companion, and watched their proceedings. He saw them digging in a new-made grave. They extracted the body of the deceased; and, the Goule cutting it up joint by joint, they feasted voraciously, and, having satisfied their appetites, cast the remainder into the grave again, and covered it up as before. The husband now withdrew unobserved to his bed, and the wife followed presently after. He however conceived a horrible loathing of such a wife; and she discovers that he is acquainted with her dreadful secret. They can no longer live together; and a metamorphosis followed. She turned him into a dog, which by ill usage she drove from her door; and he, aided by a benevolent sorceress, first recovers his natural shape, and then, having changed her into a mare, by perpetual hard usage and ill treatment vents his detestation of the character he had discovered in her.

Arabian Nights.

A compilation of more vigorous imagination and more exhaustless variety than the Arabian Nights, perhaps never existed. Almost every thing that can be conceived of marvellous and terrific is there to be found. When we should apprehend the author or authors to have come to an end of the rich vein in which they expatiate, still new wonders are presented to us in endless succession. Their power of comic exhibition is not less extraordinary than their power of surprising and terrifying. The splendour of their painting is endless; and the mind of the reader is roused and refreshed by shapes and colours for ever new.

Resemblance of the Tales of the East and of Europe.

It is characteristic of this work to exhibit a faithful and particular picture of Eastern manners, customs, and modes of thinking and acting. And yet, now and then, it is curious to observe the coincidence of Oriental imagination with that of antiquity and of the North of Europe, so that it is difficult to conceive the one not to be copied from the other. Perhaps it was so; and perhaps not. Man is every where man, possessed of the same faculties, stimulated by the same passions, deriving pain and pleasure from the same sources, with similar hopes and fears, aspirations and alarms.

In the Third Voyage of Sinbad he arrives at an island were he finds one man, a negro, as tall as a palm-tree, and with a single eye in the middle of his forehead. He takes up the crew, one by one, and selects the fattest as first to be devoured. This is done a second time. At length nine of the boldest seize on a spit, while he lay on his back asleep, and, having heated it red-hot, thrust it into his eye.—This is precisely the story of Ulysses and the Cyclops.

The story of the Little Hunchback, who is choaked with a fish-bone, and, after having brought successive individuals into trouble on the suspicion of murdering him, is restored to life again, is nearly the best known of the Arabian Tales. The merry jest of Dan Hew, Monk of Leicester, who “once was hanged, and four times slain,” bears a very striking resemblance to this.

A similar resemblance is to be found, only changing the sex of the aggressor, between the well known tale of Patient Grizzel, and that of Cheheristany in the Persian Tales. This lady was a queen of the Gins, who fell in love with the emperor of China, and agrees to marry him upon condition that she shall do what she pleases, and he shall never doubt that what she does is right. She bears him a son, beautiful as the day, and throws him into the fire. She bears him a daughter, and gives her to a white bitch, who runs away with her, and disappears. The emperor goes to war with the Moguls; and the queen utterly destroys the provisions of his army. But the fire was a salamander, and the bitch a fairy, who rear the children in the most admirable manner; and the provisions of the army were poisoned by a traitor, and are in a miraculous manner replaced by such as were wholesome and of the most invigorating qualities.

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