Sunday, 5 December 2010

Night's Black Agents by Daniel Ogden

Witches and magicians have been with us since the beginning of literature. In this book, Daniel Ogden identifies the first western depiction of a witch as Circe, a kind of a siren who tempts Odysseus's men to her island and then transforms them into pigs. Pigs had only use in the ancient world, food, and so its pretty clear what she's got in mind. On top of this, though, she Hermes warns Odysseus to not to embrace her, or he'll be enslaved by her forever.

Despite all this, she seems a less threatening figure than our present idea of a witch. In fact, after Odysseus gives her a good talking to, she becomes rather accommodating, telling him how to find the entrance to the underworld so he can chat with Tiresias and provides other aid before saying goodbye.

This ambiguous moral place seems to typify the ancient attitude to witches and the supernatural. Medea is a similarly ambiguous figure, sometimes helpful and sometimes baleful. She's the daughter of Aeetes, the king of Colchis, where Jason travels to find the Golden Fleece. Her big trick is rejuvenating people by chopping them up and cooking them in her cauldron. She falls in love with him, and resolves to help him gain the fleece against the wishes of her father, and she eventually flees with him back to Greece (in the course of this, she murders her brother to slow her father down, as he has to stop and pick up the pieces of the body).

When they get back to Jason's home Iolcus, she helps Jason take revenge on king Pelias, who sent him on the quest for the Golden Fleece and also usurped the throne that's rightfully his by tricking the king into submitting to be chopped up, but then not rejuvenating him. That's helpful for Jason, but it's a pretty nasty way of despatching your enemy if you're a good guy, and whatever the merits or otherwise of doing away with the usurper, the pair are pursued out of Iolcus and settle in Corinth.

Medea demonstrates her cut-em-up-and-cook-em rejuvenation technique
to Jason's father Aeson.
Many years later, Jason throws her over for a young princess and Medea is exiled from Corinth by Creon. In revenge, she sends the bride a poisoned robe for the wedding day. When the princess puts it on it bursts into flame, burning her to death; in another version, she attends herself in disguise and ignotes the robe with a magical root). She the kills the children she had with Jason and flees the city. This is the the subject of Euripdes' tragedy, where Medea's plight is given a sympathetic reading; in fairness Jason does behave like a bit of an arse here.

(There are other versions of the story where the children are killed by Creon, or the vengeful citizens of Corinth, but the Euripides version is the one that endures; it's interesting how changes to myths or folklore stories get cemented by "definitive" tellings - who could imagine the Snow White story these days without the heroine being woken by the Prince's kiss or without Sneezy, Happy and Dopey etc? They have become vital parts of that old fooklore story, despite being an invention of the Disney animators.)

She has a further career after that, however. Later she's up to child murdering again, when she nearly poisons Theseus when he comes to meet his father, king Aegus (who had abandoned him in one of the character building moves that only make sense in fairy tales and myths). From there she fled Athens in a magical cloud, finally ending up back in Colchis. She marries again and her child Medus is the founder of the Median or Persian race.

The Greeks can't seem to make up their minds about these eerie figures. Their powers they wield are frightening and macabre, but they frequently use them to help the heroes. Circe is sometimes referred to as a goddess and there does seem to be an uncanny quality to these women, as if they don't quite fit in the society of either gods or men. They seem to embody a lot of fears about women – they are seductive, with erotic powers verging on mind control; they have some kind of power over the living and the dead; Circe is heavily implied to have a cannibalistic appetite, which is echoed in Medea's cooking pot rejuvenations. Temptress, devourer, inhabitant of the borderland between living and dead, they still are broadly helpful and beneficial figures.

The Romans seem to prefer the more traditionally evil witch, perhaps driven by their apparent love of the Gothic and grotesque. Ogden relates a story from a poem by Horace, one of a cycle of six he wrote concerning the witch Canidia. The story is told by a Priapus in a public park, a big wooden phallus set up to protect it from demons or other ill spirits. However, the park has been built over a paupers grave yard, and just below the surface, restless spirits await the call!
Priapus on the look out.

One evening when conducting his usual guard duty, her spies the witch Canidia enter the grave yard with her assistant, an old witch called Sagana, or Grey Haired. While Priapus watches, the witches dig a  hole in the ground and and then pour blood into it from a flask they've bought with them. They then dance and chant around the park, calling to Hecate and the Fury of Trisiphone, and dogs and snakes appear and howl and writhe around them. They turn the Moon red and draw it down, and the ghosts finally appear!

Before they can act out whatever rites they have in mind, though, Priapus decides he's seen enough. He flexes his form in such a way that he produces a loud cracking fart from his wooden buttocks, terrifying the witches and make them flee.

Ogden also relates some interesting stories about wizards, inevitably characterised as either Persians or Egyptians. Lucian's Menippus (in the satire of t he same name) turns to a Chaldean mage and disciple of Zoroaster magnificently named Mithrobarzanes to take him to the underwold. The wizard is described in familiar terms as having long white hair, a white beard and a robe covered in astrological and magical symbols. Ogden notes that Mithrobarzanes is presented by Lucian as a kind of “stage Persian” from a greek perspective.

Another brilliant wizard is the hero of The Romance of Alexander is a third century prose narrative that suggests that rather than a conqueror of Egypt, Alexander was the rightful monarch returned. The agent of this is one Nectanebo, Egyptian Pharaoh and mage of such great power that he doesn't even have an army, he just relies on his own mystical puissance to snuff out his enemies with a gesture of his hand. He learns from a prophecy that, despite his power, Egypt will inevitably by conquered by the Macedonians. He disguises himself as a priest and resolves to tour this strange barbaric country and find out about his nation's eventual enemies.

In Macedon, Nectanebo plies his trade telling fortunes and soon word of his astonishing accuracy reaches the palace. He called before the queen Olympias, wife of Philip of Macedon, to  draw up her horoscope. Nectanebo takes one look at her and falls immediately in love; he resolves there and then to make love with her at his earliest opportunity.

To this end, he tells the queen that she is destined to bear a child by the ram-horned god Ammon. He uses his magical arts to send her a dream of the god coming to her, and soon Olympias hints to Nectanebo that she would like to sleep with the god in person. Nectanebo tells her that the god will come first in the form of a snake, and when the snake comes she must extinguish the lights and tell the slaves to leave. Then the god will arrive!
Ammon and Alexander depicted on a coin.

Nectanebo arranges for a tame snake to be introduced into the queen's room, and once the lights are dimmed and the servants gone, he enters dressed in a sheepskin and ram horns and does his duty by the queen. Philip is away campaigning, and so Olympias's visits from the god carry on for sometime, and eventually Olympias falls pregnant.

Wary of the rage of the warrior-king Philip, Nactanebo sends him a dream (via a sea hawk) that confirms that the child is the progeny of Ammon. When Philip returns to Macedon, Nectanebo convinces him of the child's origin by disguising himself as a giant snake and kissing Olympias, before transforming himself into an eagle and flying away.

When the child is born, Nectanebo attends the birth, ensuring the child is born at the most propitious time. This, of course, is Alexander the Great and now of course, the future of Egypt is assured. Rather than a conqueror, the Macedon will in fact be the son of the Pharaoh himself. Nectanebo hangs around the court and watches his son grow until he is twelve years old, at which time Alexander kills Nectanebo because he hates astrologers.

This random end for Nectanebo is almost droll (of course, I'm likely missing some context as I paraphrase Ogden's summary of the tale). The whole story has an element of farce about it; it sounds a little like the kind of ruse that Cugel or Fafhrd and Gray Mouser might cook up, or perhaps more like the sort of story Clark Ashton Smith would write: the prophecy, the illicit sexuality, the droll, anti-climactic ending.

Another story that made me think of more modern horror stories is one Ogden highlights from Apuelius's  Golden Ass. It tells the story of Lucius of Patras who is keen to learn about magic and hears numerous tales and has adventures of his own, most famously transforming into an ass. Along the way he has various adventures and meets characters on the road who tell him their own tales.

Title page for The Golden Ass
One such is Aristomenes, an inn supplies wholesaler, who Lucius meets travelling on the road. Aristomenes tells him about a sales trip (to buy a cheap lot of cheese, in fact) took him to the town of Hypata in Thessaly, notorious land of the witches. When he arrived, he was startled to meet an old friend, one Socrates, living on the streets, destitute and half-mad and begging for his living. He convinced his friend to accompany him for a meal, despite Socrates pitiful cries to be left alone, and then took him to the baths to clean up. The meal and wash seemed to improve the shattered Socrates's demeanour somewhat, and he finally told his tale.

Socrates told him how, several years ago, he was returning home after doing some business in Macedonia, when he was set upon by by bandits and robbed of all his money. A local inn keeper took pity on him, an elderly woman called Meroe. At first, he was grateful for her ministrations, but he quickly found himself under an enchantment, for Meroe is a notorious local witch. Socrates tells Aristomenes the sorts of things she's capable of:

  • She can make men fall in love with her, even men who are many miles away.
  • She turned a scornful lover into a beaver so that he would gnaw off his own genitals (as beavers are allegedly wont to do).
  • She turned a rival inn keeper into a toad so that he now welcomes his guest sitting on a lily pad in a bowl of wine.
  • She caused the womb of one of her lover's wives to seal up when she fell pregnant and the child is still inside her at the age of ten.
  • When the people of Hypata rose up against her, she caused the ghosts of the dead to rise up from their graves and haunt the people, and only agreed to put them down again when the people swore to leave her alone.

Having told his tale, Socrates broke down and urged his friend to leave him to his fate – he is bewitched and will remain Meroes's erotic slave for ever. Aristomenes insisted otherwise: tonight they would rest and then leave in the morning, to return Socrates to his family and leave Meroe far behind. Accordingly, they returned to Aristomenes lodgings and barricaded themselves inside. Nervously, the two men settled in to sleep, wondering if the witch would move against them.

The question was satisfied sometime after midnight as the the doors of their room were blown open, scattering the furniture and tipping the men out of bed. Two women entered the room, Meroe and her friend (lover? daughter?) Panthia had arrived to exact revenge on their rebellious slave. Aristomenes cowered in the corner from the terrifying crones as they mocked Socates, who lay unconscious in a magical sleep. He watched horrified as Panthia pulled out a knife and cut Socrates's throat, then forced her hand into the wound, reaching down this throat and finally pulling out his heart. She stuffed a sponge into the wound and spoke a charm over it, “Sponge, sponge, born of the see, pass not over a river for me”.

The witches then turned their attention to the cowering Aristomenes. He sat paralysed with fear as they mocked and abused him, finally crouching over him and pissing over him. The witches finally backed out, cackling, and with a wave of their gnarled hands, they brought put the room back as it was and shut the doors behind them.

Panic struck at the murder of his friend, Aristomenes tried to run, but he was prevented from doing so by an obstructive inn keeper, probably wanting his money. Aristomenes resolved to hang himself, rather than face his dead friend, but when he tried this the rope broke and he fell from the rafters of the room onto the corpse of Socrates.

To his astonishment, however, Socrates woke up, yawned and scratched his head: what's going on, he asked, I'm trying to sleep. Aristomenes can see no sign of any wound, or any struggle at all, and  suddenly he wonders if he dreamed the whole thing. He hugged his friend with relief and Socrates,  baffled, pushed him away: good god, he said, you smell like the jakes!

Now convinced that their lives are in danger, Aristomenes paid off the inn keeper and the pair fled Hypata. They rode all day without stopping, then, at around sundown, they arrived at the river that marked the edge of town, the end of Meroe's sphere of control. They dismounted, relieved that their escape has been successful, and then the men lean over the river to wash their faces and take a drink. Aristomenes heard his friend suddenlly choke. He looked across, and Socrates was holding his hand to his throat, and blood poured between his fingers into the river. Floating in front of his friend, and away down the river, was the blood-soaked sponge.

After this Arstomenes was never able to return home. He lives on the road now, trading from place to place, unable to settle. Everywhere he fears the eyes of Meroe might find him and exact their terrible revenge.

This story has the kind of threatening, gynophobic edge I commonly associate with witches: a fear of older women with rapacious sexual appetites, the mockery and humiliation of men, a violent curse that comes into place at a later time. Hypata seems a town cursed to be run by this tyrannic and horrifying figure.

There's a whole ton of these types of stories in this book, plus lots of interesting stuff on genuine contemporary folkloric supernatural beliefs, old ghosts stories and recipes and formulas from ancient grimoires and texts from curse tablets and so on. I can't comment on the more theoretical elements of the book, but Ogden puts together a pretty interesting narrative of ancient belief in the supernatural.

This is one of a number of books I've ordered over the years from the PostScripts catalogue. It's a clearance house for remaindered books of a better sort – academic titles (this is one) art books are unusual gifty type titles. I've gotten a range of really good occulty/New Age type books from them, covering various aspects of the development of supernatural belief and occult ideas over the years, including Occult London which I reviewed here a few weeks back, and a some real crackers, like Strange Creations by Diane Kossy (author of the brilliant Kooks) covering alternative ideas to evolution, Lure of the Sinister by Gareth Medway, tracing the history of Satanism, and (in a slightly different vain) A Pirate of Exquisite Mind by Diana and Michael Preston, detailing the life of the 17th century adventurer William Dampier, plus many many others.

We get a print catalogue through the mail every few months, but they've got an online catalogue here, which is well worth a look (although I find the print catalogue more interesting to browse through).

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