Blurring the Between Magic and Philosophy: Legendary Wizards of the Ancient World
The word ‘wizard’ is derived from the Middle English word ‘wys’ (meaning wise) and the suffix ‘-ard’. Therefore, a wizard was basically a wise man, up until around the middle of the 16th century AD. Prior to this period, the distinction between magic and philosophy was blurred. It was only after the 1550s that the word ‘wizard’ gained its present meaning, i.e. one who has magical abilities. In this sense, the word ‘wizard’ may be used interchangeably with such words as ‘sorcerer’, ‘magician’, ‘warlock’, ‘sorceress’ (female) and ‘witch’ (female).
Wizards are common characters that can be found in many varieties of tales. Stories involving wizards come from different periods of time and from diverse parts of the world. Although a wizard may be distinguished by his magical powers, he is not exactly a one-dimensional ‘stock character’ that plays the same role in every tale he is featured in. In certain tales, for example, the wizard is the protagonist, in others the side-kick, and still in others, the anti-hero. In this article, several wizards will be looked at.
Ancient Egyptian Wizards
A set of tales regarding wizards can be found in an ancient Egyptian text known as the Westcar Papyrus . There are five known stories, though only the conclusion of the first one has survived. This text is thought to have been composed during the Middle Kingdom or Second Intermediate Period. The tales may be regarded as ‘stories within a story’, as the Westcar Papyrus is essentially a story of magical stories told at the court of Khufu.
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Westcar Papyrus on display in the Ägyptisches Museum, Berlin. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The stories in the Westcar Papyrus deal with a number of different topics. In one tale, for instance, an unnamed scribe uses magic to make a wax crocodile for the purpose of catching the man whom his wife was having an affair with. In another tale, the chief scribe of Sneferu uses magic to part the waters of a lake so that a girl could retrieve the green jewel she dropped into it.
Detail of a relief showing Sneferu wearing the white robe of the Sed-festival, from his funerary temple of Dahshur and now on display at the Egyptian Museum. (CC BY 2.0 )
A third tale tells of Dedi, who is said to live during the time of Khufu, and, amongst other things, had the power to magically re-attach the heads of decapitated animals to their bodies.
The ‘Merlin of Japan’
Another wizard who served in a royal court was a man by the name of Abe no Seimei, often dubbed as the ‘Merlin of Japan’. Seimei was a historical figure who lived between the 10th and 11th centuries AD, and served as an onmyoji (a practitioner of onmyodo, a mixture of natural science and occultism).
Amongst other things, Seimei conducted exorcisms, warded off evil spirits, and prophesized the future. Additionally, numerous legends sprang up after his death, thus making Seimei larger than life. For example, the legends say that Seimei was half-human, as his mother was a kitsune (a fox spirit). Additionally, he is reputed to have been able to command weak oni (a type of Japanese ogre) even as a child.
Abe no Seimei as drawn by Kikuchi Yōsai. ( Public Domain )
Not all wizards have a positive reputation like Seimei or the Egyptian ones in the Westcar Papyrus . This is especially so if the source of a wizard’s magical power is thought to have been derived from evil forces. One such example is a Christian saint by the name of Cyprian.
Saint Cyprian ( Public Domain )
According to the Golden Legend (a collection of hagiographies, i.e. the biography of a saint), St. Cyprian was originally a pagan wizard. In order to gain the love of a virgin called Justina (either for himself or a man named Acladius), he summoned demons to do his bidding. The demons, however, were not able to do anything to her when she made the sign of the cross. Realizing that the God of Christianity was greater than his demons, Cyprian decided to renounce his previous way of life, and converted to Christianity.
Saint Cyprian and the demon, 14th-century manuscript of the Golden Legend. ( Public Domain )