STORIES
OF MAGIC

From Byzantium
to Europe

My lecture (*) will have as its subject the matter of stories of magic in Byzantium, a matter which interests me greatly. My source material in this case will be the Life of St. Leo Catanis, which was the subject of my most recent book. I will, however, also concern myself with certain elements that can be found in this text and its "progenitors" and which also appear in later works of literature, cinema, music etc.

Moderation is the key element for every human activity in society, and is steadfastly connected with the societies of the greco-roman world. Therefore, in the christian world, any overcoming of this moderation was considered to be outside the norms of socially acceptable human behavior. Anyone who was seen to be surpassing the norm was branded as a follower of the Antichrist.

The example of Photios is particularly telling, due to a smear campaign started by a vehemently anti-Photian group of erudites and ecclesiastical officials. According to them, Photios achieved his knowledge of cosmic (non-ecclesiastical) matters by way of a jewish wizard who told him to deny Christ. Another story tells of an assassination attempt on a monk who had offered moral support to two bishops denounced by Photios. The demon sent to strangle him (unsuccessfully) claimed to have been sent by Photios.

Photios's extensive education was seen, within the context of moderation, as overstepping the bounds of reason, and was therefore the result of magic, or demonic intervention. This motif can be observed in subsequent works of
literature, music etc. The main focus of tonight's lecture will be a certain Heliodoros, who was interested not in art but political power and wealth. Utilizing the information provided in the Life of St. Leo Catanis, I will make a summary review of stories and episodes of magic from the early christian era to more recent times.

The Life of St. Leo Catanis was written, in my opinion between 838−843, in an attempt to covertly paint as a wizard and smear the reputation of the iconoclast patriarch Ioannis the 7th Grammaticos. The text is well-written and exceptionally detailed in its description of the wizard's activities and, while it belongs to the genre of hagiology, it also contains numerous elements of novels connected with magic. Leo's name is almost completely absent from the text. Leo (probably a fictional figure based loosely on a certain Leo, bishop of Catania around 600), a manager of ecclesiastical lands, was elected unanimously, after the death of the previous bishop, to the position. He ultimately prevails over Heliodoros in a trial by fire. From a historical point of view, this section of the text, while full of commonplace byzantine literary topoi, offers no historical information of value. Of much more interest is Heliodoros's section, which has its own set of literary motifs.

Heliodoros, born and raised christian in Catania, possessed an unsympathetic personality that made the population of the city to hate him. His arrogance led him to unsuccessfully pursue the position of eparch. In order to get revenge for his failures, he came into contact with a jewish wizard who facilitated a deal between Heliodoros and the Devil, who offered him a demon named Gaspar as a helper. What follows is Heliodoros's socially disrputive career as a wizard.

He first creates an illusory river, shaming a group of women in the process. He then uses illusory gold and silver for his transactions, destroying the city's economy. He is also a corrupting influence on the city's young women. For these reasons the city's populace demands of the eparch, Lucius, to take action. Having been stymied in his own efforts, he begs the emperors (either Constantine and Leo or Constantine and Justinian) for help. They send a certain Heraclides with his men to Catania with the order to bring Heliodoros back to Constantinople within 60 days.

Heliodoros, upon Heraclides's arrival, tempts him, telling him to "vacation" in Catania for the 60 days. Heraclides agrees, and on the 60th day, by way of magic, Heliodoros transports himself along with Heraclides and his men to the Imperial Palace in Constantinople, where the emperors immediately condemn him to death. More magic allows Heliodoros to escape this sentence and return to Catania, where he resumes his antics.

Heraclides is once again sent and the same motif is repeated. Upon their second arrival in Constantinople, Heraclides's wife Aithalia insults Heliodoros. The emperors condemn him to death by starvation but he causes starvation for the populace, which angrily demands his execution. Heliodoros wishes for Aithalia to be punished for her insult, and curses her himself. Yet more magic allows him to escape again and return to Catania.

Back in Catania, Heliodoros fixes the horse races by conjuring a white stallion for a young man named Chryses, who wins the races. The horse disappears afterwards. Ultimately Chryses, unable to give the horse to the eparch upon request, ends up in prison. Leo explains Heliodoros's involvement to the eparch who once again orders his arrest. Through bribery Heliodoros goes free again. In the end, Leo achieves victory over Heliodoros by burning him in a bonfire, while escaping unscathed himself.

These were the stories of magic, 14 in number, that are preserved in the Life of St. Leo Catanis. According to my experience from other texts, this is one of the richest sources of this type of material. Their nature in the text leads me to believe that the author most likely copied them from an older source, including them, however, within a wider context.

My interest is in the relation of these stories with earlier and later ones, but I will also attempt to offer some of my own interpretations. Heliodoros's interaction with the Antichrist is a typical "Deal with the Devil", a classic literary motif. What do all the events described in the story represent? There is a baptism ceremony that is completely reversed, in 5 ways: Place, time, the climb onto a column (the home of demons in byzantine literature), the denouncing of Christ, and the offering of a demon helper. Earlier renditions of this motif by Cyprianus, Proterius and Theofilos of Adana have been studied. This one is however much more detailed. I will not go into greater detail here. My focus now will be on a source that occurs from the nature of the contract with the Devil as an anti-Christian baptism.

If baptism serves as an introduction to christianity, then the contract with the Devil is an introduction to magic which is in itself a religion, albeit one completely opposed to christianity, in which the ultimate deity is the Antichrist. Christianity already had certain rudimentary categorizations and christian demonology was the result of changes in ancient greek ideas about demons and their admixture with jewish ideas about the Devil.

Within this context, "πάντες οι θεοί των εθνών δαιμόνια" are enemies of the true God and undermine the work of christianity. Anyone, therefore, who summons demons is an idolater − wizard whose only purpose is to harm humanity. Therefore Heliodoros's act, as a christian, is the antithesis of an act that would have been seen as positive by any idolater.

Such rituals are described in the well-known greek magical papyri, which date from the 2nd c. b.C. to the 5th c. a.D. In fact, one of the papyri describes almost exactly the ritual which Heliodoros went through to summon the Devil and obtain a familiar. Of particular importance, however, is the list of the demon's abilities. It is described as being almost all-powerful, with the ability to create from nothing, to kill, to transport, to aid in escape attempts from prisons, and to be able to shape-shift into various forms.

As is obvious, Heliodoros's many feats of magic can be seen in this list. Therefore I believe the greek magical papyri are a source for the
Life of St. Leo Catanis. A few examples of magic's evolution in western literature are, I believe, worthwhile to note here. The illusory river which causes the shaming of a group of young girls has been described by two commentators on the Grimm fairy tales as the first instance of this motif. It can also be found in the Canterbury Tales by Chaucer and in chapter 30 of Valentine et Orson. This prank is so attractive as an idea that rituals for it can be found even in 16th c. manuscripts.

The stories of commonplace materials being turned into precious metals certainly reminds us of alchemical practices, commonplace during the Renaissance. The author of the
Life of St. Leo Catanis is too brief here to allow further commentary.

Heliodoros's achievement of mass sexual mania in the whole female population of Catania seems to me a rather over-the-top event for byzantine literature, as only isolated incidents are commonly described. However, it did remind me of a humorous short story by Boris Vian that describes the aphrodisiac effects of a thick white fog on the inhabitants of a village. Empeirikos also is reminiscent of this atmosphere with his Megas Anatolikos, though I suspect his psychoanalytical theories play a rather large role.

Heliodoros's use of the element of water to arrive in Constantinople but also to aid in his unexplainable escape from his condemnation to death the first time are particularly bizarre and do not reflect european traditions but rather those of the russian steppe or the Eurasian regions. An example can be found in the Life of St. Stephan of Perm, in which the shamans of the hungaro-finnish tribes of northern Russia have command over the element of water.

The two episodes about Aithalia's curse and the second return to Constantinople with the painted ship appear in post-12th c. manuscripts with Virgil (as a wizard, not a writer) as their protagonist. The first episode of these manuscripts has Virgil falling in love with the daughter of the Roman emperor (most commonly Nero). She pretends to respond to his advances and thorough ridicule ensues for the protagonist. After being arrested, he is taken to the emperor, who asks him how he wishes to be killed. Virgil's response is death by blood loss in a bath. However, using his magical powers, he escapes from the bath and arrives in Neapolis. From there he curses the emperor's daughter with the same curse Heliodoros inflicted upon Aithalia.

The next variation is from Juan Ruiz of Castille (14th c), while the motif can also be observed in Giovani Sercambi (1348-1424) who describes Virgil escaping through a bowl of water to Neapolis. Bonamente Aliprandi (1417) has Virgil drawing a ship for himself and his cellmates which turns into a real one once they start rowing.

The
Life of St. Leo Catanis has been recognized as the earliest known source of the ship motif. Another similar episode fiom the same era can be found in the Liber Pontificalis of the Church of Ravenna.

Stories of magic are some of the most characteristic and widely used building blocks of literature. Their use in secular literature fulfills the reader's demands for the element of the supernatural and the unknown. Returning to Heliodoros, all the stories are readily observable in post-12th c. works of european literature. While a much larger selection of magical tales could have been passed down orally for centuries, the
Life of St. Leo Catanis has a succinct and limited selection, and I will explain why in closing:

A. Kazhdan and M.F. Auzepy have suggested that the stories of Heliodoros's magic are parodies of known hagiological topoi. I think there's something more: Heliodoros turned to magic after failing to be elected eparch of Catania. His magic also completely disrupted the economic, social and moral life of the city. His magical acts are the exact antithesis of the eparch's duties. In particular, the eparch's duty was also to be the judge for cases which disrupted the morals of the city, which Heliodoros did on four different occasions. The eparch was also responsible for the economy of the city, which Heliodoros disrupted by using illusory precious metals. These and all the other acts of Heliodoros's magic serve to portray him as not only a follower of the Antichrist but as a sort of anti-eparch.

Therefore, we must conclude that the "database" of subjects on magic must have been greater although, sadly, it was lost in the following centuries.




(*) The lecture was given at the Cotsen Hall amphitheater of The American School of Classical Studies at Athens on January 13, 2015.



Alexander Alexakis (D. Phil) is professor of Byzantine Literature at the University of Ioannina (Greece).
He studied Law at the University of Athens and Classics at the University of Crete. He completed his D.Phil thesis at the Department of Medieval Languages and Literature of the University of Oxford under the supervision of Prof. Cyril Mango and was proclaimed Doctor of Philosophy in March 1992.
From 1991 until 1994 he worked as a Research Associate for the Dumbarton Oaks Hagiography Database. In 1994 he was appointed Assistant Professor of Orthodox Christianity at the Department of Religion of Columbia University in New York (USA) and as an Associate Faculty member taught byzantine studies at the Department of Classics as well.
He left Columbia in 2000 to become an associate professor of Hellenic Language and Literature at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. Four years later he was appointed to the position of Associate Professor of Byzantine Literature which he holds to the day at the University of Ioannina.
In 1994 he was awarded the Giovanni Domenico Mansi Prize for the contribution of his work to the understanding of the history of Church Councils.
He is a member of the Senior Common Room of Brasenose College, Oxford and of the editorial board of a German and an American scholarly series.

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