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Magical Superstitions

PERE LE BRUN, a religious rather than a philosophical writer, in his “Superstitions ancient and modern,” has given an ample detail of the various kinds of magic. To me it appears, that his belief in what he calls diabolical magic was great, at the same time, that he perceived the impositions of the artful and the follies of the credulous.

He divides magic into three parts; natural, artificial, and diabolical.—Natural magic, produces extraordinary and wonderful effects by the simple power of nature; as when Tobias was healed of his blindness, by using the gall of that fish which rushed from the Tiber to devour him.—Artificial magic likewise produces uncommon and wonderful effects, accomplished by the labours of human industry; as the glass sphere of Archimedes; the flying dove of Architas; the golden bird of the emperor Leon, which was said to sing; the speaking head of Albert the Great; the serpents of brass of Boethius which hissed; the invulnerable knight of Burgrarius; the tripods of Vulcan; the vegetable tree of chemists; that iron fly which was presented to Charles the Vth by John of Montroyal, and which having flown round him, alighted on his arm; automatons, and other similar ingenious operations.—Diabolical magic, he informs us, is performed by the aid of demons, with whom sorcerers enter into a social compact. Of this magic I shall not notice the several instances he gives, notwithstanding that they are sanctioned by the testimonies of some of the ancient fathers and saints!

Natural and artificial magic are of themselves innocent. But they may become accidentally pernicious, when they are employed for some artful design, and for a bad purpose. It is then they lead men into vile superstitions; otherwise they are certainly not to be considered as such.

Diabolic or black magic is ever superstitious; because it always supposes a pact with demons. Here the author establishes the existence of this magic by a variety of examples drawn from the holy writings, those of the fathers, and even of historians. It is impossible to deny that such narratives are frequently given; but of the degree of credit which is due to them, it remains for the judgment of the discerning to fix.

Le Brun proceeds in giving a list of those remarkable men who have been accused of magic. Both the Jews and Pagans treated Jesus Christ as a magician; and other celebrated characters shared in the same fate, such as Zoroaster, Pythagoras, Mahomet, Agrippa, Faustus, Luther, &c. nothing indeed is more dangerous than to excel in study, in an age of profound ignorance.

He then shews, that magic or witchcraft, is expressly condemned by all laws both divine and human; this he does by numerous quotations from the holy writings, from those of the fathers, and various councils; and also notices that the code of Justinian affords several civil regulations against sorcerers.

He afterwards transcribes from Bodin, the fifteen crimes of which the latter informs us all sorcerers are guilty. Of most of these charges it is to be acknowledged that any man may be accused, who is no conjuror; such as, their occasioning a famine; the death of cattle; their amours with Satan; hymeneal unions with him in fens and marshes! It is probably true indeed that the following enormous crimes were committed by those wretched men who deluded themselves into a belief that by such actions they might become the favourites of the Power to whom they devoted themselves. These sorcerers have been well known, (even by their own confession) to have sacrificed to the devil their infants, before they were baptised, holding them in the air, and thrusting a large pin into their heads, which occasioned their deaths. Springer informs us, that he burnt one who had thus destroyed forty-one children. Another crime is not less dreadful; these Sorcerers, not satisfied with sacrificing to the devil their own children, and burning them by way of sacrifice, also consecrated them to Satan, even while they were yet in the bowels of their mother, as did the Baron of Raiz who sacrificed his child in this unborn state. All this appears from his own confession. Again, they committed incest, because it was reported currently amongst them, that the greatest magicians are produced from an union with a father and his daughter, a mother and her son. Other crimes, not less detestable, are laid to their charge; which are not improbable.—But I have said enough to give an idea of the unhappy effects which sorcery really produced, when it prevailed in the ages of ignorance.

To render this article more compleat, it would not be improper to give a sketch of the various superstitions Sorcery gave rise to; but the instances are so numerous, and the divisions are so nice, that it is impossible to compress them in any tolerable compass. I shall notice the most curious.

Sometimes these superstitions are classed under the title of PHYLACTERIES, or preservatives. Le Brun divides them into two kinds; the one employed without words, and the other with words.

In the first class are to be placed the Talismans, which are certain figures invented by the Arabians, engraved on certain stones or metals. To make these Talismans perfect, according to the minute description of an adept, and which is inserted in this work; so many wonderful things are required, that any one, in the least in his senses, must despair of accomplishing his purpose. Yet the same adept enumerates a variety of instances of their miraculous powers. He informs us of their potency as remedies, and prescribes them as excellent for the head-ach, the sore-throat, rheumatisms, &c. and, what is very essential, they will assist us in becoming agreeable to the ladies, in acquiring riches and honours, in being successful in commerce or gaming; to be men of genius, &c.—The reader’s curiosity is probably awakened; I have transcribed one of his recipes, on a subject in which most aspire to be successful.


ENGRAVE the figure of VENUS, which is a lady holding in her hands apples and flowers, in the first scale of Libra, or of Pisces, or of Taurus.” This is no difficult operation; but the reader must first obtain the perfect Talisman, on which it is to be engraved.

Of the effects of these Talismans there are numerous instances recorded by old writers; but I shall not venture to transcribe them.

One I am induced to notice. It was said that the cells of the Chartreux were never troubled with bugs; though they had been discovered in the cells of their domestics. Several religionists cherished an opinion that this was owing to a particular exemption with which God favoured the order! These are the literal expressions of father Jaques du Breul;—“God would not allow them to be afflicted and distressed by those stinking animals called bugs; and, to shew his peculiar favour, he has not exempted the cells of their servants from these creatures.”—This was a subject of serious controversy amongst the scholars of those days; and some attributed the exemption to the use of Talismans. Cardan, more philosophically, to their not eating meat; Scaliger rallies him on this, but gives no reason for it; at length Vossius, in his work on Idolatry, mentions this fact as very uncertain, while he at the same time brings the best proof of it, which simply proceeded from the act of cleaning their cells daily!

Another of the same kind of phylacteries were the Gamahez, that is natural figures found in stones, marble, metals, &c. things by no means uncommon; perhaps every virtuoso has one in his cabinet. Vide MISCELLANEA, art. Natural productions resembling artificial compositions.

The same spirit of superstition has formed another kind of magic; which consists in certain words and expressions, sometimes accompanied by certain actions. Such as, when men were exposed to storms, lightning, &c. they drew a circle on the earth with a knife, capable of containing those they desired to protect. Then they made a cross, and wrote Verbo Caro factum est.—Characters more diabolical are framed, by which Le Brun informs us they pretend to corrupt the morals of the fair. Then he gives a prolix account of certain enchanted medals. But I am weary of collecting these superstitious follies; enough has been exhibited to remind the reader to what a deplorable degree the human mind can sink, when it labours under a load of superstitious imaginations.

In another chapter he displays the various superstitions of men who think they shall be fortunate at play, if they wear a piece of the cord of a hanged man; a trefoil that has four leaves; and the heart of a swallow. Le Brun informs us that none of these can have the effect proposed, unless they are influenced by his sable highness, and that of course such practices must be vile magic. Again, he notices that skin which covers the heads, of some when they are born, generally named a child’s caul, which, even in the present day, we see advertised, and for which, not many years back, exorbitant prices have been given. An old adage observes of a fortunate man, that he was born with a caul. It is a superstition of an ancient date; for Le Brun observes, that in Rome, some of the advocates bought, at very high prices, these cauls, persuaded they would bestow on them all the eloquence of Cicero. Some persons, he says, keep throughout the year all the eggs laid on Good Friday; he proceeds with a hundred similar practices; all which the honest father informs us can have no power unless the devil is invoked for an assistant.

The arguments with which they combated these magical superstitions are more worthy of our reflection; we shall be surprised at the acuteness displayed on subjects which in the present age do not even admit of discussion.

Of several of these animadversions, I shall notice what Du Laurent, physician to Henry the third of France, observes on the virtue of magical words, of which he denies the existence in medicine. That words have no virtue of themselves, he proves by several subtil reasons, of which these are some.

Words are mere quantities; now quantity has no virtue to act.

Words are written or pronounced. Those which are written are dead and unanimated; those which are pronounced only touch the air. Now, sound has no more power to affect the feeling, than colour has to affect the hearing; so that, as the feeling must be changed in the cure of wounds, words cannot possibly effect this change.

If words had any virtue, they would derive it from their form or matter. From their form they can have none, because that is artificial, and dependent on the institutions of men, and consequently it is only known by those, who have established it. Their matter is but a vapour, a breath, mere air, which is not always of the same nature, but which changes according to the various constitutions of the heart, lungs, and the other necessary organs of speech.

You will say (he makes this objection to himself) that words have a wonderful effect on the minds of men; that they have power to change their passions. The tongue, says the apostle James, is but a small part of the body, yet what great things does it not effect? Is not a little fire sufficient to kindle a great quantity of wood? Are not ships turned on all sides by a small rudder?—To all this I answer, that words indeed excite the passions of the soul, and can totally change the intentions of the mind, not however by themselves, but by the things which they signify; by the weight of maxims or observations they contain. But it generally happens, that the words uttered by charmers, are only barbarous and ridiculous ones, which have no signification, order, or cadence. So that they can neither affect the mind or body.

Editor’s Notes

This article, and the nine pieces that follow, are drawn from the Historical Anecdotes section of the second edition (1793) of the second volume of the Curiosities.