Monday, October 30, 2017

The Many Different Categories of Divination, Witchcraft or Magic

The idea of magic, or at least the belief that the future can be predicted through ritualistic, magical or religious means, has seemingly been in the minds of humans since the dawn of recorded history. When hunting witches was a craze in European society, two Papal Inquisitors named Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger described the abilities of the strongest witches in Part II, Question 1, Chapter 2 of their witch-hunter’s manual, The Malleus Maleficarum, which was published around 1487 CE. They wrote that the most talented witches had the ability to control weather. These top-tier supernatural magicians could supposedly summon strong storms of wind, lightning and hail, which they could aim directly at their enemies. They could also curse or hex both man and beast in various ways (such as infertility or death), and they also were said to have psychological powers that could instill madness in victims. They could also allegedly influence the speech of others, specifically by magically forcing any of their captured accomplices to keep silent when tortured by inquisitors.

Offensive magic and witchcraft, which seems to be the type of magic that authors and filmmakers like to portray most of all in their works, drew an unfair lot when compared to the carefully-crafted complex and grandiose names used to label the other categories of supernatural abilities—especially the field of divination, or the prediction of the future using supernatural or pseudoscientific means. Although the magical field of prediction gets a lot less coverage in the books and theater box-offices of the modern world, these prophetic practices were deemed very serious and important in the ancient, medieval and early colonial world. The great Roman orator and statesman, Cicero, wrote one of the most extensive ancient books on the subject, On Divination (De Divinatione). Furthermore, as a consequence of the human addiction to labeling and categorizing absolutely every little thing known to mankind, there is no shortage of overly-specific names for virtually each and every form of these supernatural crafts. Many of these fields fall under the broad category of sortilege, or predicting the future using tools of chance, such as cards. Yet, the broader terms for divination were broken down even further, spawning a whole host of new words, many of which end in “mancy.” For example, divination through the use of cards is called cartomancy. Most of these types of divination are discussed in Part I, Question 17 of The Malleus Maleficarum. Here are just a few of the endless subdivisions of divination that were popular in cultures based out of Europe or the Middle East:

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Love Killed The Norse God, Frey

The Pride of the Vanir
The most famous deities from the Vanir clan of the Norse gods were the children of Njord—Frey and Freyja. Both siblings were fertility gods, although they manifested their powers in different ways. Frey had influence over the heat of the sun and the refreshment of the rain—making him especially important to farmers who needed help with their harvests. Freyja exercised her influence more within the realm of love, and could, if she was so inclined, provide her followers with prosperity in their households. Although the Vanir were a one-time rival of the main clan of Norse divinities, known as the Æsir (Odin, Thor etc…), the two sides eventually made peace and became so close that the name “Æsir” became a label that could be used to describe all of the gods that kept their homes in Asgard, including Frey and Freyja.

Frey and Freyja were described as being among the most beautiful of the Norse gods. Yet, with their beauty also came brawn. Freyja, despite being a goddess of household fertility and happiness, also had a ferocious side. Whenever she decided to join a battle, she was said to claim half of the resulting dead to join her inside her hall at Folkvangar, the Warriors’ Fields. The rest of the worthy souls that she left behind would go to Odin’s host of warriors in Valhalla. Freyja was also a goddess of unique style—she was said to have ridden in a chariot pulled by two large cats.

("Freya" (1901) by Johannes Gehrts. The goddess Freya rests her hand upon a shield, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

Frey, too, was more than he seemed. Despite being a fertility god that could control the weather, Frey also had a selection of supernatural items that made him a more than formidable divinity. Whereas his sister had a chariot pulled by cats, Frey had his own chariot that was hauled by a golden boar. This gilded creature was a gift from two dwarves named Eitri and Brokk. It was said that the boar’s bristles emitted a light bright enough to overcome any darkness. Also in Frey’s possession was the greatest ship available in the Norse mythological world—Skidbladnir. This ship, also crafted by dwarves, was large enough to house all of the gods and their weaponry, yet also had the miraculous ability to be folded up when not in use, so as to be stored in a pouch or a pocket. Furthermore, the ship always had a favorable wind, which would blow in the direction of wherever the captain wanted to sail. Even with all of these incredible items, Frey’s most precious possession was his trusty sword. This supernatural weapon was basically Frey’s bodyguard. The sword could expertly dispatch multiple threats without Fray having to use up any of his own energy. Simply put, as long as he had his sword, Frey was virtually invincible.

  (Image of Frey from around 1900, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

A Sacrifice For Love—As told by Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241)
On a fateful day, Frey ascended to the top of Hlidskjalf, a watchtower near the center of Asgard. From his vantage point on the tower, the god of sun and rain looked to the north and saw an enormous, beautiful home that belonged to a family of mountain giants. The residence was magnificent, even by the standards set in Asgard. Either inside the house or absent from the property were the giants Gymir and Aurboda, yet their daughter, Gerd, was presently in front of the home, about to approach the door.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

John Skylitzes’ Scandalous Libel Against The 9th-Century Patriarch Of Constantinople, John VII “The Grammarian”

Those who win victory can, and sometimes do, distort the memory of the factions that they triumphed over. This reality can be found in the Synopsis of Byzantine History by John Skylitzes, a historian who thrived during the reign of Emperor Alexios Komnenos (r. 1081-1118). In his synopsis of the history covering the reigns of emperors throughout the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries, Skylitzes gave little-to-no sympathy to the proponents of Iconoclasm—a Christian movement that condemned the use of ‘icons,’ such as images and sculptures, claiming that the veneration of these items constituted idolatry. Empress Irene almost eradicated the movement in 787, but Iconoclasm recovered and was only defeated decades later, on the instigation of Empress Theodora in 843. John Skylitzes, despite writing centuries after the fall of Iconoclasm, apparently still held a grudge against the last Iconoclast Patriarch (religious leader) of Constantinople—John VII “the Grammarian.” In his history, Skylitzes accused John the Grammarian of almost every horror imaginable.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

King Cleomenes I of Sparta—His Eventful Reign And His Odd Demise

The co-kings of Sparta, Cleomenes I (of the Agiad royal house) and Demaratus (of the Eurypontid royal house), ruled in the opening years of the Greco-Persian Wars. Although Cleomenes and Demaratus were both kings of Sparta, they did not see eye to eye on how to lead their great city in the very tense time of Greek history in which they lived. While Cleomenes would usually get his way, Demaratus was able to thwart his co-monarch’s ambitions in several circumstances.

Cleomenes (r. 520-490 BCE) worked ruthlessly during his reign to make Sparta the most dominant and influential power in the Peloponnesus and to strengthen the Peloponnesian League against its rivals. While he did this, he kept his eye on events elsewhere in Greece, and often participated in the conflicts and powershifts occurring in other Greek cities and leagues.