Posts Tagged 'Greco-Roman'

Yo, Melanthios, I ain’t sure this dead-eyed witch sellin’ phallus curses is on the level

Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

The quote above is from the three witches, the Weird Sisters, in MacBeth. It reflects a genuine belief in folklore and tradition that magic sometimes required the use of obscene, gruesome ingredients. We have accounts of this from second hand sources, and also from sources written or even used by magic practitioners. However, there’s one particular page of papyrus written in Greek, dating from the 4th century AD that sort of pulls the pants down on this whole notion.

In a column on the left it lists assorted strange or gruesome spell components supposedly used in witchcraft and magic. In a column on the right it lists what each one actually represents. You see, according to the anonymous authors, their local magicians were filthy liars.

It was theatrics. If you made things seem more weird and gruesome and mystical, more people were likely to think you were legit. Given that many magicians in the ancient world were in it to make a buck, bullshitting of this nature was a valuable talent. It also meant your rivals weren’t sure what sort of stuff you were using, and if you did use weird and exotic ingredients, it meant you had some more mundane stuff to fall back on when supplies were low.

Here’s the twin lists, translated from Greek* (the headers are mine): Continue reading ‘Yo, Melanthios, I ain’t sure this dead-eyed witch sellin’ phallus curses is on the level’

MAGIC, PART XLII: The Priest and the Magician

Calming a Storm - Wiliam Hole

If I were to tell you, devoid of any other context, about a man who could command demons, cast curses that caused living things to wither and die, or control the weather, then you might be reasonably forgiven for thinking I was talking about a wizard. Of course, these are all actually miracles of Jesus. The line between magic and divine power is a concept you see a lot in fiction—the powers of the gods and the powers of a human sorcerer do not spring from the same source. This distinction has not always been present in human beliefs, and is in many ways somewhat rare.

Continue reading ‘MAGIC, PART XLII: The Priest and the Magician’

DRAGON MAGIC: Gold, Curses, and Really Bad Breath

497px-Page_facing_174_illustration_in_More_English_Fairy_Tales

What makes a magical creature magical? This question has often bugged me in my own writing. Take the griffin, for example. On the one hand, it’s a blatantly impossible creature, part lion and part eagle. At the same time, in most stories, the griffin is just a beast. It’s a strange beast, and it’s very fierce, but it is still a brute creature of flesh and blood, to be avoided or killed. Familiarity breeds contempt, and when a magical creature is reduced to a beast, it becomes much less interesting.

This brings me to dragons. I haven’t talked much about dragons on this blog so far, and that’s been on purpose. There’s so much literature out there about them already that I feel I should avoid the topic unless I have a relatively novel aspect to bring to the table. Today I think I do. You see, dragons often have the same problem as the griffin. It’s all too common to see them reduced to a big dinosaur with halitosis. They’re so popular, so frequently seen and written about, that it’s hard to find new things to do with them. If that issue is one that has plagued you in your creative attempts, this article is for you.

Continue reading ‘DRAGON MAGIC: Gold, Curses, and Really Bad Breath’

OGRES, PART II: THE ORCO, SHAPESHIFTERS AND BEASTMEN

Beauty and the Beast (Warwick Goble)

PART I: THE ROMANS ARE THIEVING BASTARDS

Ogres (in the “big, ugly, man-shaped monster” sense) exist in cultures around the world, but most of the modern clichés we’re familiar with come from fairy tales. Last week I talked briefly about the writer Giambattista Basile and the Italian monster called the orco, because it illustrates an older, alternative take on the ogre that a writer can make good use of. Let’s dig into that.

Continue reading ‘OGRES, PART II: THE ORCO, SHAPESHIFTERS AND BEASTMEN’

OGRES, PART I: THE ROMANS ARE THIEVING BASTARDS

Ogre, Le Petit Poucet (Gustave Doré)

Let’s face it, the fantasy genre is often pretty stale, and the common ogre is a perfect example. How many times have you seen nigh-identical versions in different books/movies/games/what-have-yous? The same hulking brutes that show up to serve as a big, tough foe for our heroes, to be dispensed with before bigger threats come into the picture. In most modern fantasy ogres are pretty boring creatures, really.

But why shouldn’t they be? They’re very simple monsters, when you get down to it. Almost every culture has them: deformed human shapes, bigger than a man, smaller than a proper giant. They’re often stupid, gluttonous and cannibalistic, with a fondness for the flesh of children. Yet there is no reason they must remain so. There are a lot of traditions to draw upon when it comes to ogres; pick a culture and you’ll probably find a new one. But since ogres in most fantasy are derived from the European tradition, we’ll go with that, because there is great potential for variety even in this one, seemingly simplistic manifestation.

Continue reading ‘OGRES, PART I: THE ROMANS ARE THIEVING BASTARDS’