LEGENDARY LOCATIONS: The Dark Academy

Profanation de l'hostie lors d'une messe noire

The idea of a fantastical school where people are taught magic is an old cliché in fantasy literature, and with good reason. A writer could hardly ask for a better setting. You can humorously juxtapose the mundanity of schoolwork with the wonders of magic, or write a parable about the responsibilities of power, or just tell a rollicking adventure story as people learn (or fail) to tame the supernatural. These days the most famous example is the Harry Potter series, but the concept goes back a long way—a very long way, in fact.

The earliest example I know of is from medieval Spain, in the city of Salamanca. The city is home to one of the oldest universities in Europe, founded in 1134. According to legend, though, there was another school nearby, of a considerably different nature, that certain students sought out. This school was inside of the Church of Saint Cyprian, or rather in a cave beneath the church. This cave, the Cueva de Salamanca, was a school of dark sorcery, taught by a mysterious headmaster who would answer any question imaginable regarding witchcraft, necromancy, summoning demons, or any other black arts. Only seven students could attend his dark academy at a time, for a period of seven years. At the end of this period all the students could leave save one; his soul was a sacrifice to the headmaster, who was truly Satan.

A lot of this probably just stemmed from the existence of the university nearby. Unfortunately, in the Middle Ages learning and knowledge was often feared or misunderstood. A case in point would be a spinoff of the Cueva de Salamanca legend, regarding Enrique de Villena. Enrique was the Marquis of Villena from the late 1300s to the mid 1400s. Legend has it that he was one of the devil’s students at the Cueva de Salamanca. At the end of the seven years he was the one left to be claimed by Satan, but by using magical trickery he escaped: instead of his soul the devil’s claws only caught his shadow. Henceforth, Enrique had to stay in the shadows or only come out at dark, lest people see he lacked a shadow of his own and was therefore damned. At least, so the legend goes. The real Enrique was a famous scholar and intellectual. He was rumored to be a necromancer, but there’s no evidence to suggest anything of the kind. He was just an educated, intellectual man, who liked writing about Troubadour poetry and translating the classics into Spanish. Thankfully the rumors  never did any lasting harm to him, unlike so many other scholars across Europe who were killed because of such accusations.

In reality, the cave was likely just a crypt or vestry for the church. The legend first appears in the 1400s, most notably in the Recueil des Histoires de Troyes, an anonymously written book from 1464 that attributed the founding of the dark academy to Hercules, of all people. The story spread to the New World, where in Spanish-held countries the term “Salamancas” came to refer to caves or other dark places with a bad reputation. At any rate, in the 1500s Queen Isabella ordered the Cueva de Salamanca entrance to be bricked up, and in 1580 the church was demolished. The cave was unearthed in more recent times, and you can now visit it as a tourist site.

Interestingly enough, there is near-identical legend of a school for the black arts on the far side of Europe, in Romania.  Here the school was called the Scholomance, located high in the mountains near the modern town of Sibiu. In this case ten scholars were allowed into the school to train for nine years, and the one who stays in the clutches of the devil doesn’t get dragged to hell, but instead becomes the devil’s right-hand man. He is taken to an unfathomably deep lake high in the mountains. The lake is the devil’s cauldron, and home to a many-headed dragon who in fair weather sleeps beneath the cold waters. The hapless sorcerer must brew destructive thunderstorms above the lake, while riding the dragon, before sending the foul weather out of the mountains to ravage the villages below.

It’s anyone’s guess how these legends are related. The Scholomance was first recorded in a study of Transylvanian folklore from 1885, so it’s considerably later than the Cueva de Salamanca. Perhaps the legend somehow spread from Spain to Romania, or perhaps both legends stem from an older, unknown source. We’ll probably never know for sure.

Regardless of origin, these legends are a boon to storytellers. They offer a variety of rich options. You could write a historical drama about a scholar accused of consorting with the devil in Salamanca, hounded by the Inquisition. Stories of characters training at the dark academy, searching for it, or who barely escaped the headmaster’s grasp write themselves. The devil’s right hand man, riding a dragon in a vortex of thunderstorms, would make for a terrific villain. Or maybe you’d like to mix things up. Like any legendary location, you could transport the story to a new location, be it somewhere else on Earth or perhaps in a world of your own creation. You could make the academy a misunderstood place, that isn’t as evil as people think. You could make the sinister headmaster someone other than the devil, perhaps some undying sorcerer, or a ghost, or a man from the future whose “magic” is really incredibly advanced science. It’s just a legend, and you can do what you like with it.

Though if you ever do decide to visit the Cueva de Salamanca, maybe make sure you’re not the last person out the door.

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