Pliny the Elder

Natural History

Book XXX:

Previously in my work I have often shown the lies of the Magi for what they are, whenever the argument or occasion demanded, and I shall continue to expose their untruths even now. It is hardly surprising that the influence of magic has been very great since, alone of the arts, it embraces three others that exert the greatest power over man's minds, and these it has made subject to itself.

No one will doubt that the origin of magic lay in medicine, and that it crept in surreptitiously under the pretense of furthering health, as if it were a loftier and holier form of the healing art. In this way it acquired the enticing and welcome promises of religion which even now remains very much a closed book to the human race; and which this success it also took control of astrology, because there is no one who is not eager to learn this destiny or who does not believe that the most accurate method of so doing is to observe the sky. So magic, with its triple bond on men's emotions, has reached such a peak that even today it has power over a great part of the world sand in the East commands kings of kings.

Undoubtedly magic began in Persia with Zoroaster, as authorities are agreed. But there is insufficient agreement about whether he was the only man by that name, or whether there was another and later Zoroaster. Eudoxus, who wished magic to be recognized as the most noble useful of the schools of philosophy, asserts that this Zoroaster lived 6,000 years before the death of Plato, and Aristotle confirms this.

Hermippus, who wrote most painstakingly about the whole art of magic and interpreted two million verses written by Zoroaster, also added lists of contents to his books and handed down the name of Agonaces as the teacher who had instructed him, placing him 5,000 year before the Trojan War. What is particularly surprising is that the tradition and craft should have endured for so long; no original writings survive, nor are they preserved by any well-known or continuous line of subsequent authorities.

For few people know anything by reputation of those who survive only in name and lack any memorials, as for example, Apusorus and Zaratas of Media, Marmarus and Arabantiphocus of Babylon, or Tarmeondas of Assyria. The most surprising thing, however, is that there is absolutely no reference to magic in the Iliad, although so much of the Odyssey is taken up with magic that it forms a major theme — unless people put another interpretation on the story of Proteus, the songs of the Sirens, Circe and the summoning of the dead from Hades. Nor has anyone in later times said how magic came to Telmessus, a city in which superstition is rife, or when it was taken up by the old women of Thessaly who for a log time were a byword with us, although magic was unfamiliar to the Thessalians of the time of the Trojan War, who were content with Chiron's medicine and with Mars as the only thunderer.

I am indeed surprised that this reputation stuck with Achilles people for so long that Menander, who was endowed with an unrivaled sensitivity and taste for literature, name d a comedy Thessala, which has as its theme the tricks of women for drawing down the moon. I would have said that Orpheus was the first to import magic to his native land from abroad and that superstition evolved from medicine, if the whole of Thrace had not been free of magic.

The first person, at any rate, as far as I can ascertain, to write a book on magic — a book that still survives — was Oshanes, who accompanied Xerxes on his expedition to Greece and nurtured the seeds, as it were, of this monstrous art, spreading the disease to all corners of the world on his way. However, some very thorough researchers place another Zoroaster, who came from Proconnesus, somewhat before Osthanes' time. On thing is certain, Osthanes was chiefly responsible for stirring up among the Greeks not merely an appetite but a mad obsession for this art. I observe that from times past the highest literary fame and distinction have almost invariably been sought through magic.

Pythagoras, Empedocles, Democritus and Plato went overseas to learn magic, going — to put it more accurately — into exile rather than a journey. On their return they taught this art and considered it among their special secrets. Democritus popularized Apollobex the Copt and Dardanus the Phoenician, entering the latter's tomb to seek out his works and basing his own on their doctrines. It is a marvel without equal in life that these works were accepted by anyone and transmitted by memory, for they are so lacking in credibility and propriety that those who admire Democritus' other writings deny his authorship in this case. To no purpose, however, for there is general agreement that is was Democritus in particular who beguiled men's minds with the charm of magic. Another remarkable consideration is that both arts, medicine and magic, flourished side by side. For Hippocrates expounded the principles of medicine at the same period as Democritus explained magic, that is, about the time of the Peloponnesian War in Greece, which began in AUC 300 [454 BC].

There is another type of magic derived from Moses, Iannes, Lotapes and the Jews, but dating from many thousands of years after Zoroaster: Cypriote magic is much more recent. At the time of Alexander the Great another Osthanes made a not inconsiderable addition to the influence of the profession. He was famous because he accompanied Alexander and must have traveled all over the world.

The Twelve Tables still retain traces of magic among Italian tribes. It was only in AUC 657 [97 BC] that the Senate passed a decree forbidding human sacrifice.

Magic continued to be practiced in the two Gallic provinces within living memory. The principate of Tiberius saw the removal of the Druids and of the whole pack of soothsayers and doctors. But these remarks are of little interest when one considers that magic has crossed the ocean and reached Nature's empty wastes. Today even Britain, in awe, practices magic with such impressive rites that one might think that she had given the Persians the art of magic. So much agreement is there worldwide on the subject of magic, although nations are otherwise at loggerheads or are ignorant of one another's existence. And incalculable debt is owned to the Romans who destroyed these monstrous practices, in which human sacrifice was considered an act pleasing to the gods and eating the victim was thought to be beneficial to one's health.

As Osthanes stated, there are many kinds of magic: for divination he uses water, spheres, air, stars, lamps, basins, axes and many other means; moreover, he communicates with ghosts and those in the lower world. In our generation the Emperor Nero exposed all the practices as fraudulent.

The Magi

The Magi have certain subterfuges: for example, the gods neither obey nor appear to those with freckles. Was this perhaps why they stood in Nero's way? Tiridates the Magus had come to Nero bringing captives for the emperor's Armenian triumph over himself and, to this end, put a heavy burden on the provinces.

He refused to travel by sea, for the Magi consider it sinful to spit into the sea or defile its nature by any other human function. He brought the Magi with him and initiated Nero into their magic banquets. Yet although Tiridates had given Nero a kingdom, he was unable to teach him the art of magic. This should be sufficient proof that magic is execrable, achieves nothing and is pointless.

One might well ask what lies the magi of old perpetuated. In my youth, I met Apion the grammarian, who informed me that the herb cynocephalia, known in Egypt as osiritis, was a source of divination and a protection against all black magic, but that if anyone completely uprooted it, he would immediately die. He added that he had summoned ghosts to inquire from Homer his native land and the name of his parents, but did not dare to reveal the answers he had allegedly been given.