Among the acts advertised for a show in the Isle of Wight in 1849 by the “Unparalleled Necromancer Rhia Rhama Rhoos” were the Pudding Wonder and the Pyramid Wonder. The latter, it was noted, had been bought for five thousand guineas from “a Chinese Mandarin, who died of grief immediately after parting with the secret.” The performer and author of the ad copy was Charles Dickens.
It is said that a visitor once came to the home of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Niels Bohr and, having noticed a horseshoe hung above the entrance, asked incredulously if the professor believed horseshoes brought good luck. “No,” Bohr replied, “but I am told that they bring luck even to those who do not believe in them.”
In 1936, as part of the Federal Theater Project, Orson Welles at the age of twenty staged a version of Macbeth with an all-black cast, substituting voodoo for witchcraft and changing the setting from Scotland to Haiti. Reflecting on his interest in film in an interview in 1958, Welles said, “I liked cinema before I began to do it. Now I can’t stop myself from hearing the clappers at the beginning of each shot; the magic is destroyed.”
In his third-century Interpretation of Dreams, Artemidorus lauded the soothsaying accuracy of Aristander, to whom Alexander the Great, while besieging the city of Tyre, Tyros in Greek, reported that he had dreamed of a satyr dancing on his shield. Aristander said that “satyr,” satyros in Greek, could be broken into “sa” and “Tyros,” meaning “Tyros is yours,” and encouraged Alexander to redouble his attacks. The Macedonian did, and he took the city.
“I don’t believe in miracles, because it’s been a long time since we’ve had any,” Joseph Heller said in an interview in 1988. Some sixteen hundred years earlier, St. Augustine had written, “Men say, ‘Why do not the miracles, which you talk about as having been worked, take place now?’ I might indeed reply that they were necessary before the world believed for the very purpose of making it believe.”
In 1936 Sotheby’s auctioned many of Isaac Newton’s nonscientific papers, containing much writing about his alchemical interests. A large batch was bought by John Maynard Keynes, who wrote in a lecture published posthumously as “Newton, the Man,” that the physicist and mathematician “was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians.”
Charles Mackenzie, a fur trader in Missouri in 1805, noted that the local American Indians with whom he traded held a low opinion of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s party when it came through. “The Indians admired the air gun, as it could discharge forty shots out of one load,” Mackenzie reflected, “but they dreaded the magic of the owners. ‘Had I these white warriors in the upper plains,’ said the Gros Ventres chief, ‘my young men on horseback would soon do for them as they would do for so many wolves, for,’ continued he, ‘there are only two sensible men among them, the worker of iron and the mender of guns.’” The “sensible men” in question included neither Lewis nor Clark.
The second of the 282 laws in the Code of Hammurabi, dating from the eighteenth century BC, states, “If a man charge a man with sorcery, and cannot prove it, he who is charged with sorcery shall go to the river; into the river he shall throw himself, and if the river overcome him, his accuser shall take to himself his house. If the river show that man to be innocent, and he come forth unharmed, he who charged him with sorcery shall be put to death.”
Some four hundred years after the death of Lucretius, St. Jerome wrote the only existing biography of the philosopher, in two sentences, suggesting that Lucretius “was rendered insane by a love potion” and killed himself. In 1868 Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote in “Lucretius” that the philosopher’s wife “dreaming some rival, sought and found a witch/Who brewed the philter which had power, they said,/To lead an errant passion home again./And this, at times, she mingled with his drink,/And this destroyed him.”
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