XXXVI

Magical humbugs⁠—​Virgil⁠—​A pickled sorcerer⁠—​Cornelius Agrippa⁠—​His students and his black dog⁠—​Doctor Faustus⁠—​Humbugging horse-jockeys⁠—​Ziito and his large swallow⁠—​Salamanca⁠—​Devil take the hindmost.

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 that 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 mosquitoes, 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 deathbed 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 (AD 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 AD 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.