Magical Humbugs

Magic, sorcery, witchcraft, enchantment, necromancy, conjuring,

incantation, soothsaying, divining, the black art, are all one and the

same humbug. They show how prone men are to believe in some

supernatural power, in some beings wiser and stronger than

themselves, but at the same time how they stop short, and find

satisfaction in some debasing humbug, instead of looking above and

beyond it all to God, the only being t
at it is really worth while for

man to look up to or beseech.

Magic and witchcraft are believed in by the vast majority of mankind,

and by immense numbers even in Christian countries. They have always

been believed in, so far as I know. In following up the thread of

history, we always find conjuring or witch work of some kind, just as

long as the narrative has space enough to include it. Already, in the

early dawn of time, the business was a recognized and long established

one. And its history is as unbroken from that day down to this, as the

history of the race.

In the narrow space at my command at present, I shall only gather as

many of the more interesting stories about these humbugs, as I can make

room for. Reasoning about the subject, or full details of it, are at

present out of the question. A whole library of books exists about it.

It is a curious fact that throughout the middle ages, the Roman poet

Virgil was commonly believed to have been a great magician. Traditions

were recorded by monastic chroniclers about him, that he made a brass

fly and mounted it over one of the gates of Naples, having instilled

into this metallic insect such potent magical qualities that as long as

it kept guard over the gate, no musquitos, or flies, or cockroach, or

other troublesome insects could exist in the city. What would have

become of the celebrated Bug Powder man in those days? The story is

told about Virgil as well as about Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon, and

other magicians, that he made a brazen head which could prophesy. He

also made some statues of the gods of the various nations subject to

Rome, so enchanted that if one of those nations was preparing to rebel,

the statue of its god rung a bell and pointed a finger toward the

nation. The same set of stories tells how poor Virgil came to an

untimely end in consequence of trying to live forever. He had become an

old man, it appears, and wishing to be young again, he used some

appropriate incantations, and prepared a secret cavern. In this he

caused a confidential disciple to cut him up like a hog and pack him

away in a barrel of pickle, out of which he was to emerge in his new

magic youth after a certain time. But by that special bad luck which

seems to attend such cases, some malapropos traveller somehow made his

way into the cavern, where he found the magic pork-barrel standing

silently all alone in the middle of the place, and an ever-burning lamp

illuminating the room, and slowly distilling a magic oil upon the salted

sorcerer who was cooking below. The traveller rudely jarred the barrel,

the light went out, as the torches flared upon it; and suddenly there

appeared to the eyes of the astounded man, close at one side of the

barrel, a little naked child, which ran thrice around the barrel,

uttering deep curses upon him who had thus destroyed the charm, and

vanished. The frightened traveller made off as fast as he could, and

poor old Virgil, for what I know, is in pickle yet.

Cornelius Agrippa was one of the most celebrated magicians of the

middle ages. He lived from the year 1486 (six years before the discovery

of America) until 1534, and was a native of Cologne, Agrippa is said to

have had a magic glass in which he showed to his customers such dead or

absent persons as they might wish to see. Thus he would call up the

beautiful Helen of Troy, or Cicero in the midst of an oration; or to a

pining lover, the figure of his absent lady, as she was employed at the

moment--a dangerous exhibition! For who knows, whether the consolation

sought by the fair one, will always be such as her lover will approve?

Agrippa, they say, had an attendant devil in the form of a huge black

dog, whom on his death-bed the magician dismissed with curses. The dog

ran away, plunged into the river Saone and was seen no more. We are of

course to suppose that his Satanic Majesty got possession of the

conjuror's soul however, as per agreement. There is a story about

Agrippa, which shows conclusively how "a little learning" may be "a

dangerous thing." When Agrippa was absent on a short journey, his

student in magic slipped into the study and began to read spells out of

a great book. After a little there was a knock at the door, but the

young man paid no attention to it. In another moment there was another

louder one, which startled him, but still he read on. In a moment the

door opened, and in came a fine large devil who angrily asked, "What do

you call me for?" The frightened youth answered very much like those

naughty boys who say "I didn't do nothing!" But it will not do to fool

with devils. The angry demon caught him by the throat and strangled him.

Shortly, when Agrippa returned, lo and behold, a strong squad of evil

spirits were kicking up their heels and playing tag all over the house,

and crowding his study particularly full. Like a schoolmaster among

mischievous boys, the great enchanter sent all the little fellows home,

catechised the big one, and finding the situation unpleasant, made him

reanimate the corpse of the student and walk it about town all the

afternoon. The malignant demon however, was free at sunset, and let the

corpse drop dead in the middle of the market place. The people

recognized it, found the claw-marks and traces of strangling, suspected

the fact, and Agrippa had to abscond very suddenly.

Another student of Agrippa's came very near an equally bad end. The

magician was in the habit of enchanting a broomstick into a servant to

do his housework, and when it was done, turning it back to a broomstick

again and putting it behind the door. This young student had overheard

the charm which made the servant, and one day in his master's absence,

wanting a pail of water he said over the incantation and told the

servant "Bring some water." The evil spirit promptly obeyed; flew to the

river, brought a pailful and emptied it, instantly brought a second,

instantly a third; and the student, startled, cried out, "that's

enough!" But this was not the "return charm," and the ill tempered

demon, rejoicing in doing mischief within the letter of his obligation,

now flew backward and forward like lightning, so that he even began to

flood the room about the rash student's feet. Desperate, he seized an

axe and hewed this diabolical serving-man in two. Two serving-men

jumped up, with two water-pails, grinning in devilish glee, and both

went to work harder than ever. The poor student gave himself up for

lost, when luckily the master came home, dismissed the over-officious

water carrier with a word, and saved the student's life.

How thoroughly false all these absurd fictions are, and yet how

ingeniously based on some fact, appears by the case of Agrippa's black

dog. Wierus, a writer of good authority, and a personal friend of

Agrippa's, reports that he knew very well all about the dog; that it was

not a superhuman dog at all, but (if the term be admissible) a mere

human dog--an animal which he, Wierus, had often led about by a string,

and only a domestic pet of Agrippa.

Another eminent magician of those days was Doctor Faustus, about whom

Goethe wrote "Faust," Bailey wrote "Festus," and whose story, mingled of

human love and of the devilish tricks of Mephistopheles, is known so

very widely. The truth about Faust seems to be, that he was simply a

successful juggler of the sixteenth century. Yet the wonderful stories

about him were very implicitly and extensively believed. It was the time

of the Protestant Reformation, and even Melanchthon and Luther seem to

have entirely believed that Faustus could make the forms of the dead

appear, could carry people invisibly through the air, and play all the

legendary tricks of the enchanters. So strong a hold does humbug often

obtain even upon the noblest and clearest and wisest minds!

Faustus, according to the traditions, had a pretty keen eye for a joke.

He once sold a splendid horse to a horse-jockey at a fair. The fellow

shortly rode his fine horse to water. When he got into the water, lo and

behold, the horse vanished, and the humbugged jockey found himself

sitting up to his neck in the river on a straw saddle. There is

something quite satisfactory in the idea of playing such a trick on one

of that sharp generation, and Faust felt so comfortable over it that he

entered his hotel and went quietly to sleep--or pretended to. Shortly in

came the angry jockey; he shouted and bawled, but could not awaken the

doctor, and in his anger he seized his foot and gave it a good pull.

Foot and leg came off in his hand. Faustus screamed out as if in

horrible agony, and the terrified jockey ran away as fast as he could,

and never troubled his very loose-jointed customer for the money.

A magician named Ziito, resident at the court of Wenceslaus of Bohemia

(A. D. 1368 to 1419,) appears to great advantage in the annals of these

humbugs. He was a homely, crooked creature, with an immense mouth. He

had a collision once in public on a question of skill with a brother

conjuror, and becoming a little excited, opened his big mouth and

swallowed the other magician, all to his shoes, which as he observed

were dirty. Then he stepped into a closet, got his rival out of him

somehow, and calmly led him back to the company. A story is told about

Ziito and some hogs, just like that about Faust and the horse.

In all these stories about magicians, their power is derived from the

devil. It was long believed that the ancient university of Salamanca in

Spain, founded A. D. 1240, was the chief school of magic, and had

regular professors and classes in it. The devil was supposed to be the

special patron of this department, and he had a curious fee for his

trouble, which he collected every commencement day. The last exercise of

the graduating class on that day was, to run across a certain cavern

under the University. The devil was always on hand at this time, and had

the privilege of grabbing at the last man of the crowd. If he caught

him, as he commonly did, the soul of the unhappy student became the

property of his captor. Hence arose the phrase "Devil take the

hindmost." Sometime it happened that some very brisk fellow was left

last by some accident. If he were brisk enough to dodge the devil's

grab, that personage only caught his shadow. In this case it was well

understood that this particular enchanter never had any shadow

afterwards, and he always became very eminent in his art.