Episode 160: Sleight of HandLore
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- 21 Dec 2020
One of the oldest beliefs in human history is also the root of countless stories in our collective folklore. But to understand the power of those tales, we need to understand the people who brought them to life.
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It was an odd place to find an innkeeper. He had been brought from Bristol to the Tower of London in the spring of 15 61 and soon found himself living in the Salt Tower, one of the many towers on the site. His was the one at the southeast corner where the Tower Bridge meets the River Thames. He wasn't a guest of a king, though not in the usual sense, at least, no. Hugh Draper had been arrested and during his weeks imprisoned inside those cold stone walls, he noticed the graffiti left behind by past inmates carved into the rock with whatever crude implements they could find.
So Hugh Draper began to add his own to the collection. He carved two pieces of artwork, actually, both of which still survive, the first is an astrological chart, a thick ring with 12 smaller circles forming points along its path and a spider's web of criss crossing lines that connected each one of those to the others.
And around it is what looks like a stone spreadsheet filled with numbers and symbols. And the second carving was of an astrological globe. They are odd carvings for a number of reasons, not least of which because they were highly incriminating. You see, Hugh Draper had been arrested for sorcery, and although he denied the charges early on, it's clear from his carvings that he knew much more than he was letting on. In fact, it's hard to imagine how they could have helped his case.
In the worlds of literature and pop culture, magicians have typically been the hero from Merlin to Gandalf and everyone in between, so many of our stories have leaned on the powers of the almighty sorcerer. But that hasn't always been the case. In fact, for a very long time, those magicians were feared and hated. Not because they were seen as charlatans, although that was sometimes true and not because they were viewed as practitioners of some new and dangerous cult since magicians had been around for thousands of years.
No, they were feared for a much more simple reason. Because just about everyone was convinced that their powers were real. I'm Aaron Manque, and this is Laura. Where does magic come from for some of us, it's not a question we've ever really step back and asked for others, mostly fantasy authors. It's the question at the heart of the entire adventure. But in the general historical sense, the question, where does magic come from as a surprising answer.
The first magicians that we know of at least came from the world of Zoroastrianism. That's the name of one of the most ancient and continuously practiced religions in the world, originating from the area now known as Iran, while the religion itself dates back to at least 2000 BCE. It's named after the 6th century BC prophet Zoroaster. But even if none of that sounds familiar to you, you would immediately recognize the word for their priests. Imagi Zoroastrianism involves a lot of familiar elements judgement's after death, a heaven and hell and the concept of free will.
And right at the center of it all is the balance between good and evil, represented by two powerful figures Ahura Mazda on the light side and the Desert Demon, Ahriman on the dark side. And this duality helped reinforce later ideas like the Christian devil, sometimes known as Mephistopheles. And those imagi spread their teachings in the Greek world, they were known as mages, and I think it's pretty clear how those words have been passed down to us today as the word magic.
But it was really in the medieval world that magicians truly flourished. Now, it's important to keep in mind that for centuries, magic was everywhere, midwives and monks, priests and physicians, scholars and scientists. Any of these people could be and often were viewed as practitioners of magic for a very long time. Many medicinal practices involve natural magic, where herbal remedies were applied alongside incantations from sacred texts. And at the core of a lot of this was that idea of good and evil.
Some of the magic was tolerated and even appreciated because of its helpful nature, while other branches of it were shunned or even outlawed. People acknowledge the ancient power of these magicians possessed, but they were also anxious about the dangers it might invite. In medieval Europe, there were officially seven types of magic that could be practiced and their names mostly make sense to this day. Geomancer, Hydro, Mansi, adamanCy and Pyromancer were concerned with Earth, Water, Wind and Fire Pyromancer and Scapular Mansi were fortunetelling methods that focused on the lines of the palm of the hand or the shape of a person's shoulder, bones, respectively.
But if you're counting, that's only six. The final one, it seems, was the most feared of the bunch black magic. This was often bundled under the umbrella of necromancy and usually involved communication with the dead and summoning spirits. It was dark magic because it involved an area of life that most people avoided death, but also because it brushed up against the one thing that medieval Europeans feared above all else, the devil. And hovering outside this list of seven realms of magic was the equally ancient practice of alchemy, with some of its oldest roots found in China before spreading westward to places like Egypt, Greece and Rome.
Alchemy was a world that was so mysterious and so secretive that it was often assumed to be equal parts, magical and evil. And look, I know that's a lot of information to have thrown at you, a lot of words and cultures and things you won't remember in a few minutes, and that's OK.
But I'm telling you all of this for a larger reason. And here it is. One of the oldest beliefs in the world is the idea that some people can wield supernatural powers to help or harm their communities. And at the same time, one of the oldest occupations in the world, aside from hunting and farming, was that of the magician. But by the time the Renaissance began, right around the end of the 14th century, more and more of that magical world was becoming forbidden after all.
That's why Hugh Draper, our innkeeper from Bristol, found himself a prisoner in the Salt Tower in London. More and more magic was becoming evil and society was punishing those who broke the rules. But that didn't stop people from doing it anyway. In fact, the pages of history are filled with stories of brave individuals who broke the mold and left their mark on the world through the forbidden practice of the magical arts and their power. It seems. Was frightening.
Everyone has heard of Merlin, whether it's the traditional Arthurian legends or modern spins on it through television, film and the printed page. He's one of the cornerstones of the entire concept of magicians, but he's also a work of fiction, which doesn't help us out that much, does it? But the Merlin of Japan was a very real person. That's what historians call Abe Nozomi, a man who lived and worked in the latter half of the 10th century.
He was what the Japanese called an underdog, a wizard who served a number of Japan's emperors during his lifetime. And his powers were legendary.
It said that Abe Naseema inherited his gifts from his mother, who was skilled at fortunetelling and divination. Now, maybe it was because of his lofty position in the government, or perhaps it was just the superstitious nature of the people around him. But it was believed that his mother was actually a type of spirit known as a kitsune. But what is clear is that he earned a massive amount of sway over the emperor.
Legend says that albinism was killed by a powerful rival who stole his magical texts. Later, after he was resurrected, he hunted down the rival that had killed them and took back his book for himself. And yes, stories of resurrecting wizards might smack a bit too much a fantasy. But his legacy was so powerful that within a century of his death, the Abe clan was in charge of the government's official wizard department beyond Miano. Across Europe, there were a number of magicians that I've mentioned here in the past, people like Paracelsus, the Swiss astrologer, botanist and physician who dabbled in alchemy, Paracelsus actually created an entire language known as the Alphabets of the Magi, which he used to summon healing spirits.
Whether or not it worked, his talents for curing sick patients was known all over Europe. In England, there was Jondi adviser to Queen Elizabeth, the first lady was obsessed with learning the secrets of the universe from angels in his dreams and his apprentice and eventual rival, Edward Kelly, built his own reputation as a powerful sorcerer, even being knighted by the Holy Roman emperor Rudolph, the second for his achievements in alchemy. But another of the lesser known historical wizards was Rabbi Hiim Samuel Yakob Falck, who worked in London in the middle of the seventeen hundreds famous for being a powerful practitioner of the Jewish mysticism known as Kabbalah, Quaqua was said to be able to go long periods of time without food or water and could use the names of God and the Angels to perform amazing feats of magic.
Just like Jondi, Falck was obsessed with his own dreams and he kept a journal of all the arcane knowledge that he learned from them, countless legends surround his life, although it's difficult to separate out the truth from the fiction. Plus, there's a good amount of anti-Semitism in them which casts them all in a suspicious light. Still, he made a powerful impact on the Jewish community in London. And then there was Alfonz Louis Constance, a French magician who became famous for his theories of what he called transcendental magic, working under the name LFR Levi.
His ideas focused on our place in the universe and helping people to navigate it. And if you've ever used modern tarot cards, you have him to thank for making the modern design as popular as it is today.
Now, it would be easy to think of historical sorcerers as individuals who lived hundreds of years ago and in general, yes, that's correct. But one of the most infamous students of magic passed away as recently as 1947. Aleister Crowley, much like John D. and Edward Kelly, was born in England. And while some of his interests seemed very modern today, like his obsession with sex, magic and secret societies, he never lost sight of his magical roots.
It said that he regularly communicated with spirits from Egypt and claimed that it was the Egyptian God, Horus, who gifted him with the title of Prophet. In fact, scholars today view Crowley's approach to magic as something more akin to a religion which sort of brings the journey full circle, echoing back to the Magi, those magician priests of ancient Zoroastrianism. All of the people I've mentioned were influential. All of them were surrounded by legends of great power, and all of them are remembered by historians as famous wizards in their own right.
But at the end of the day, there are few who can hold a candle to one individual, partly because of his reputation and the deeds that were attributed to him and partly because of his impact on our views of what a sorcerer actually is. He was part trickster, part scholar and one hundred percent dangerous. And if even half the stories that are told about him are true, he might also be something bigger. One of the most powerful sorcerers in history.
Like most famous wizards, we don't know a lot about his early years, Johann Georg would later claim that he was born when the Sun and Jupiter were conjunct in the sign of Taurus, which admittedly isn't very helpful to most of us. But looking at the years he was active and the astronomical data, he was most likely born in 14, 78, where? Well, that's another mystery, something his hometown was a German village outside Heidelberg called Held.
Most, though, are convinced that it's a town 75 miles to the south called Lincoln. And there's a museum there today in his honor. All we can say for sure is that Johann was born in Germany in the late 15th century, and that's about it. In 15 06, he pops up on the historical record where he's recorded performing magical feats and telling fortunes for those who request him. And then just a year later, he is mentioned in a letter by a prominent religious leader, Abbot Yohannes Dorothea's.
His words aren't kind, but they give us a solid glimpse into the man Johann Georg had become at just 28 years old, Johann had already made waves. That man about whom you wrote to me, the cranky abbot wrote, who dares to call himself the Prince of necromancers, is a wandering vagrant, a dribbler and a cheat who deserves to be punished with a whip that he may not lightly dare to publicly profess that which is abominable against the Holy Church.
Clearly, the old Abbott wasn't interested in pulling punches, but the word to focus on in his critical review of the man was necromancy. It seems that after working his way through Germany, performing small magic tricks and divination for a growing fan base, Johann Georg had acquired a darker reputation. The unhappy Abbott to Themeless goes on to lay out his crimes in perfect detail.
Johann Georg, Fount of Necromancy Astrologer Second Major's Kyra Manser. Agreements are pyromancer second in the arts of water. It reads like some sort of fantasy version of a LinkedIn profile. Honestly, all it lacks is a photo of usit or the blue holding a birch staff and a sword. But even though Triphammer Erythema seems to have hated the man, Johann managed to keep traveling and growing in power. Some of his early reputation was scholarly throughout the 15 thirty's professors and physicians praised Johann Georg for his skill in the realms of astrology and medicine.
But he was also becoming known for some less mundane accomplishments. For example, it said that the man had traveled to Venice and attempted to fly from one of the tall church towers there. He didn't float off into the sky, but he also didn't die when he collided with the ground below. And that made him a hero to many. To his critics, though, it hinted at a darker power. But I'll get to that in a moment. Another of my favorite stories about him finds Yohann in prison somewhere in Europe, like many early 16th century jails, he had been denied just about everything other than stale bread and dirty water.
But a conversation with the visiting chaplain offered him a tempting opportunity because the chaplain carried wine with him in case he needed to offer inmates the Eucharist. Yohann spoke up and made a deal with the chaplain, give me the wine and I'll teach you how to shave your face without using a blade. Curious. The chaplain agreed, handing over the wine in exchange for a small bottle containing a magic salve. After applying it to his face, though, the chaplain screamed in horror and then fell to the ground and writhed in pain as the salve aid away at his flesh.
One more example, mostly because I just can't get enough of this guy. It said that he once stood before a crowd of people at a party and dazzled them with his magic. In the midst of the show, he conjured up actual grapevines loaded with heavy bunches of ripe fruit. And clearly each of the guests wanted to cut them off and start and join them. Just before the people started cutting the grapes free of the vines, Johan waved his hand and the magical fruit disappeared in a puff of smoke.
Confused, the party goers looked at their own hands. What they had been holding hadn't really been the grapes at all, but their own noses. And they had been moments away from slicing them off. Naturally, his reputation as a trickster who used magic to harm others only reinforced the stories about him, a lot of them centered on that term. The old Abbott had used to describe him. Johann Georg, they claimed, was a necromancer. And the thing about that word at the time was that it came with a very specific connotation.
You see, theologians of Johann's day didn't actually believe that a necromancer could raise the dead, that was a power only God could wield. Instead, they believe that when those bodies stood back up and walked, they were being worn like costumes by demons, put all the pieces together. And a necromancer was nothing more than someone who worked in partnership with the devil. In fact, the rumors went deeper, it seems that sometime around 15, 14, Johan Georg had grown bored with his lot in life and so he decided to summon the devil in order to ask for greater powers.
Armed with a wand and a spell book, Johann retreated into the woods of Wittenberg and located a crossroad, a traditional location for interactions with the devil. There he drew a magic circle and began his dark ceremony. It said that the air around him filled with a powerful storm, strong winds under and flashes of lightning filled the night sky. Then in an instant, everything went quiet, only to be replaced by the sound of Music, as if a symphony were playing off in the distance.
And that's when the devil appeared. Johan referred to him as Mephistopheles, a common name for the devil in Germany at the time, and then they began to bargain. Johann wanted power unlike any other wizard of the age. He also won in Mephistopheles to be at his side day and nights caring for his every need. And amazingly, the devil agreed to those terms. But in exchange, Johan had to give up something incredibly valuable, his soul, actually, the devil requested both his soul and his body, insisting that they become his property at the moment of Johan's death.
And despite the eternal implications, the man agreed. So all of those stories of his amazing powers and evil trickery, well, they start to make a lot more sense in the light of this dark deal, don't they? Johan Georg died sometime around 15, 40. It said that he had holed himself up in a hotel in Germany where he was working on an alchemy project. It was something he had done for decades, and he was far from a novice at it.
But that day, something went wrong. An explosion shook the hotel when the rubble was cleared away, they found the man's room utterly destroyed and scattered amongst the broken furniture and crumbled walls were small, bloody pieces of the controversial figure who was believed by many to be the most powerful sorcerer in the world. People whispered, Of course, it's what they're good at, the devil, they said it finally come to collect what he was owed. Johan's body.
Was no longer his. It's honestly difficult to imagine folklore without magic, whether we're talking about people with mysterious powers that protect their community or other worldly forces that fill people with dread, magic is one of the main tent poles of the world, the folklore. Obviously, magic is there to fill in the blanks to explain how mysterious things were able to happen or to help shed light on the evil deeds of dangerous individuals, magic ties, so many of our beloved stories, together with shimmering thread that adds beauty and wonder.
So naturally, there are tales about people who use magic for their own gain. And the truth is, you don't have to believe in magic to see its value, its entertains us, delights us and forces us to dream of a world where things that aren't possible suddenly are. And that's the sort of inspiration that drives humans to learn and grow and invent new things. Fiction can be a seed that grows into something real. A quick glance at the sci fi of the 1960s should be proof enough of that.
Johan Georg would be talked about for a very long time after his death, thanks to the attraction of all that magic, new books were attributed to him posthumously and others wrote volumes about him. There were rumors about his corpse, legends about his exploits, and, most importantly, constant retellings of his deal with the devil. But it would take over three centuries for German writer Johann Wolfgang Van Gotha to write the definitive story about him. It was a fictional play scripted in two parts and is widely considered to be the most famous work in all of German literature.
And while the names and locations were changed when he wrote It's the main character, use the last name of the man he was based on, Johann Georg Foust. But Foust wasn't the only magician in history to leave us wondering where the line between fact and fiction really sits, in fact. Another example is one we discussed at the beginning of our journey, the Bristol innkeeper who was thrown into a London prison, Hugh Draper. Draper, if you recall, had been arrested for sorcery and that sort of thing doesn't happen without evidence, he was asked about his magical books, but Draper told the authorities that he had gotten rid of them long before he was, after all, just an innkeeper.
But they didn't buy it and tossed him into a cell in the salt tower to wait for whatever punishment was deemed appropriate. But that punishment never came. There's no record of his verdict or punishment and not even a passing reference to his execution, huge paper seems to have stepped into the Tower of London and then vanished entirely. Now, sure, we could probably just blame poor record keeping, maybe he was hauled out and hanged from the traders gate or perhaps he was quietly executed in a less public location.
The Crown could do whatever it wanted, after all. But not writing it down feels very odd, doesn't it? Or maybe Hugh Draper found a different way out. What if all his carvings and symbols were part of his plan to escape drawing, so to speak, on all that arcane knowledge that he had locked away in his head? He was a sorcerer in the era of witch hunts, and his future certainly didn't look bright. How he escaped his prison in the Tower of London, we will never know for sure, but I desperately want to believe it had something to do with the very thing most of humanity has been obsessed with since the dawn of civilization.
Magic. I think it's clear that people like Johan Georg Foust were cut from a different cloth mixing chemicals in their study night after night, performing illusions for nobles and pain audiences, telling fortunes with the help of a astrological charts. They were the rock stars of their day, loved by the public, sneered at by respectable scholars and always surrounded by controversy. But they also pushed science forward. Stick around after this brief sponsor break and I'll tell you about one more bizarre, yet brilliant sorcerer that should never be forgotten.
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See Casper Dotcom terms for details. He called himself a doctor, but that wasn't actually true. He'd never received a degree from a university in any subject matter at all, and it wasn't even an honorary doctorate. It was just a title that he gave himself to garner respect from those around him. Still, Dr Brand wasn't such a slouch. After working as a merchant, he transitioned to being a pharmacist, a job that required a sharp mind and a good memory.
He might not have had a degree to point to on the wall, but he was certainly gifted and ambitious. And after getting married, he was suddenly wealthy to. His new bride had brought a substantial dowry with her into their marriage and seen his chance, he quit his day job to chase after his ultimate goal to create The Philosopher's Stone. Now, most of us have heard plenty about it, so I won't go into detail, but suffice to say a magical substance that could transform common elements into gold while also bestowing the gift of immortality.
Well, it was hard to say no. The rest of Brandes life was one long chain of chemical experiments. He wasn't the only person looking for the fabled substance, but each new player brought their own unique spin on the search. And Brand was an observer. He noticed how many of the other alchemists were obsessed with water and the human body and decided to combine them into one big solution. The answer to the secret of the Philosopher's Stone, he believed was hidden right inside each of us.
So he started collecting urine. Now, before you laugh, think about what it is. It flows and behaves just like water, which is its main component, and it usually looks golden. And gold, of course, is what they were all after. So Brand started gathering all the urine he could get his hands on. There's no definitive proof of where he got it, but we do know he needed a lot of it. Some say he approached the German army with his unusual request, while others believe he hit up taverns all over the city.
Since beer drinkers produce the most golden urine he could find, there are even rumors that he simply asked his wife and her friends to pitch in. Honestly, though, it was probably a mix of all of them. He experimented with urine for a very long time, but eventually discovered something and then refined his method. It was a step by step chemical process that worked something like this. First place all the urine out in the sun for several weeks, because the sun in alchemy is strongly associated with gold.
Second boil that year and down until it reduces to a thick syrup after that's a red oil will form on the surface of the liquid and that needs to be siphoned off and save for later. Next, let the substance cooled down, at which point it separates into two layers a thick, black, porous parts and a salty lower parts. And yes, in order for them to know that it was salty, they probably had to taste it, which.
Yeah, I know. Thankfully, that was the part that they tossed aside. Step five, that black, spongy material was then mixed with the red oil that had been saved earlier and then put back on the heat until it started smoking, which honestly must have smelled horrible. But after a refined version of the oil is again siphoned off, something magical was left. And that's what Brand had collected into a glass jar, an odd white waxy paste.
Why? Because it glowed when exposed to the air, it instantly caught on fire and burned bright and fast, but inside the jar it stayed intact and gave off a steady, never ending pale green light. What he had discovered wasn't the philosopher's stone, but it was still significant. It was the element known today as phosphorus. Now, brand new that he had found something magical, but he honestly didn't know what to do with it. He ended up just using a glass vial filled with the substance as a book, light reading and studying by its soft glow.
But as time went on, his funds dried up, reduced to nothing but a mixture of frustration and failure. And desperate times call for desperate measures. Hennig brand, the self-proclaimed doctor and failed pursuer of The Philosopher's Stone, was forced to sell his discovery to some of his more scholarly acquaintances. At first, he simply sold the phosphorous itself, hoping that by keeping the recipe for it a secret, he might still turn his metaphorical lead into real spendable gold.
But soon, even, that wasn't enough. In the end, he sold the instructions and set his pale light free. Hennig brand died in obscurity, broke and broken, and while he is still known today as the first to discover phosphorus, it was the educated degree holding scholars who get much of the credit for refining and exploring its uses. But his story is a perfect example of why we should never be too quick to judge the power of historical sorcery.
It may or may not be real, but the discoveries it has led to have quite possibly changed the world. And that, my friends. Is magical. This episode of law was written and produced by me, Aaron Manque, with research by Ali Steed and music by Chad Lawson, law is much more than just a podcast. There's a book series available in bookstores and online and two seasons of the television show on Amazon Prime video. Check them both out if you want more law in your life.
I also make an executive produce a whole bunch of other podcasts, including Aaron Makes Cabinets of Curiosities and Strange Arrival's, all of which I think you'd enjoy. My production company, Greyman Mild, specializes in shows that sit at the intersection of the dark and historical. You can learn more about all of those shows and everything else going on over in one central place, grim and mild dotcom. And you can also follow the show on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, just search for our podcast, all one word and then click that follow button.
And when you do say hi, I like it when people say hi. And as always. Thanks for listening.