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If I Knew Magical Spells

Updated: May 6

From our upcoming book, number 3 in Aleksander's Antiquities: the delightfully quirky A Meeting in Oea, or, Concerning Plato:

(Apuleius, the author of The Golden Ass, speaks:)

Pudentilla, of course, did not know everything. I didn’t have a skeleton figurine, that was true. Not did I know any really effective spells, either. However, I collected, wherever and whenever I could, formulas and prayers containing a multitude of strange words from different languages: from Egyptian and Greek, from Hebrew and Persian. I studied ancient books, I inquired among friends, and I even made contacts with certain secret brotherhoods.

But I only did it for the love of knowledge, without any thought of personal gain. And I most certainly wouldn’t hurt anyone. Yes, I would gladly have summoned ghosts but only to find out from them what life was really like on the other side, in the world of the dead: whether they lived in the underworld, or among us in the air, or in a distant land beyond the Ocean, where the sun sets, or among the mountains and plains of the moon. (Because there is no consensus on this matter either among philosophers or the common men).

I would also gladly, if I knew the right spells, transform myself—of course, only briefly—into another being. For example, into a big fish to see the depths of the sea with my own eyes.

What an extraordinary world must lie hidden under the undulating surface of the blue expanse! Even the most daring divers do not go deeper than a few dozen feet, and this only near shore. Even the biggest fishing nets do not go much deeper. And yet there, at the very bottom, may exist great cultures, huge cities, powerful states—exist and flourish—created by beings whose shapes and customs are simply unimaginable. They could be some kind of monster fish, crabs or starfish, mussels or snails. After all, the sea throws up all sorts of creatures ashore and they have fascinated me since my childhood. I collected them, walking along the shore, and also bought a few interesting specimens, paying a few coppers to the fishermen and the boys who brought them to me. But all of these specimens, however astonishingly multicolored and variously shaped, say little about the life of the true depths. For these creatures are to the life of the depths like the birds of the sky are to the life on earth: a creature dwelling on one of the celestial spheres can perhaps seize accidentally and eagle or a flacon, blown upwards by a storm or a hurricane, but it cannot see what is below, because clouds, mists, dust and fumes, obscure its vision. And how little such creatures know of the richness of forms of our own existence!

And speaking of birds: I would like to transform into a bird. I would glide freely into the clouds and then sail above the clouds. I would fly to the most distant lands, over mountains and seas, over deserts and forests. I would meet peoples about whom only rumors circulate among us. I would admire the wonders of nature. I would be free, I would conquer space! I think I’m not the only one who secretly harbors such dreams and I admit that they are not very worthy of a philosopher. But I also believe that humanity will never give them up, as long as birds fly swiftly above us and we remain down here, chained to the ground.

I met a man here, in Oea, who swore that he had the recipe for turning into a bird and that he could demonstrate it to me if I paid the expenses of the procedure. His name was Quintian. He lived in the house of a certain Crassus—that same Crassus about whom Rufinus had once said that he spent several months of each year in Alexandria and was there even now. One evening we locked ourselves in this house. When night fell, Quintian, by the light of a torch, made sacrifices of various kinds of birds to a secret divinity. (Of course, he had bought them with my money). And now, as the master of ceremonies, he recited a spell over a cauldron in which he brewed a foul-smelling liquid: bird’s blood mixed with strange ingredients. (I had put some denarii towards those ingredients, too). Of course, I wasn’t deluding myself. I foresaw that the ointment he thus fashioned would only redden the skin, and Quintian would never grow feathers. He was undoubtedly the most ordinary of fraudsters. He had found out about my interests from somewhere and wanted to extract some money from me. I gladly went along, because it was great fun.

Now, Quintian played the role of the magician with skill and panache, and I looked very serious, though I could hardly keep myself from laughing. I was reminded of a funny Greek story about a certain young man who wanted to become a bird, but due to an accidental mistaking of ointments, took the form of a donkey.

Quintian’s spell remained uncompleted. We were supposed to repeat the ceremony the following day by moonlight: only then would the ointment gain efficacy and Quintian would fly. But, luckily for him, on the morning after that first night, Crassus returned unexpectedly to Oea. Entering his h0use, he found blackened walls and fluttering bird feathers. He swore that the apartment had been ruined. From the slave in charge he learned that I had been there, too. So he began to spread the word throughout the city that I performed witchcraft in his house. I quickly dropped the matter.

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