Surprising mystery: Virgil, Klingsor and some very special witching powers

As most will know, Virgil (70-19 BCE) was a Roman poet reputed for his wonderful Bucolica, the enchanting Georgica and the Roman national epic, the Aeneid. While he is today only acknowledged as a singer of nature and heroes, in old times and especially in the Middle Ages he was above all considered a magician with a reputation for possessing a special knowledge of the mystical and the occult.

This is long-time forgotten and today basically frowned upon as silly. How come, you will wonder, that a poet comes into the reputation of being a Witcher.

But indeed, numerous historic legends about Virgil report how he controlled the elements, summoned spirits and performed feats of divination. Some of these stories sound like replicas of similar tales attributed to diverse saints and oriental heroes, others hint at traces of ancient Latin mythology.

To give an example, one of the most famous stories about Virgil’s supposed magical powers is the legend of the flycatcher. According to the tale, a group of builders were constructing a temple in Naples, but no matter how hard they worked, their progress was impeded by swarms of flies. Virgil supposedly came to the site and used his powers to create a magical bronze flycatcher that attracted all the flies away from the workers and the construction site.

Another legend involves a talking head. According to this, a man came to Virgil seeking his help to recover a lost treasure. Virgil agreed to help the man and instructed him to decapitate a corpse, which he then brought to Virgil’s laboratory. There, Virgil supposedly placed the head in a special container and performed a ritual that caused the head to come to life and reveal the location of the treasure. This head is still to be seen on a painting by Girolamo Mocetto from the school of Mantegna.

According to further stories, Virgil had the ability to control the elements. He supposedly calmed a storm by speaking to the wind and the waves, allowing a ship to safely reach its destination. Virgil is also said to have been able to create powerful illusions and supposedly fashioned a garden that appeared to be filled with fruit trees and flowers, even though it was just an empty courtyard. This story even made it to Richard Wagner’s Parsifal, when the magician Klingsor – according to Wolfram von Eschenbach Virgil’s grandson – brings the young knight to such an enchanted garden.

Today we ask us, how the poet ever came into this reputation.

The idea of setting up the image of a fly to drive away flies reminds us of a Babylonian story, for in Lenormand’s Chaldæan Magic we are told that demons are driven away by their own images, and Beelzebub, as chief of flies, was the first to be mentioned in this regard. Other legends remind us of stories about Buddha, King Salomon and various Christian saints.

While Virgil may as a Neopythagorean have been interested in the occult and esoteric, there is no evidence to suggest that he actually practiced any magic.

Yet, to begin following the trail of evidence, it shall be said that Virgil is not entirely innocent in creating the myth.

This is due to the fact that Virgil called himself a ‘vate’.

Vate’ is a word that was used in ancient Rome to refer to a poet with divine or prophetic inspiration and tasks. The word *wātis (Latin vatis, Greek ouateis) is of Gallic origin and refers to a diviner, a prophet or an oracle. The root *wātis also gave the Germanic Wotan (Odin in Scandinavian). In ancient Latin text the term is found in Strabo (IV, 4, 4), Pliny (Natural History XXX, 13), Lucan (Pharsalus I, 448), Ammianus Marcellinus (XV, 9) and, before him, Timagena.

From these sources it can be referred that poets/vates were seen in very ancient Rome as intermediaries between the gods and humans and were thought to possess special insights into nature and abilities that allowed them to communicate with the divine realm. Their poems served a purpose. They were used to enchant nature, help in agriculture and even horses were trained in using music. Yet, while already in Virgil’s times the term vate had come out of use, he referred to himself again as such.

And more: He became especially known for his descriptive and vivid portrayals of the natural world that seem to be enchantments. Virgil’s Georgica are a tribute to the beauty and complexity of nature, and contain detailed descriptions of agriculture, animal husbandry, and rural life in wonderful rhymes. These themes may appear to us today as a peculiar choice for a poet that became the national bard of the ancient empire. Yet, nature held a great significance for the ancient Romans.

In Roman times nature was often associated with magic and mystery. Romans believed that the natural world was imbued with spiritual and divine forces, and that it was the source of many of life’s mysteries and wonders.

One of the most important natural phenomena was the cycle of the seasons. Their changing was seen as a powerful symbol of the cycle of life and death and was celebrated in festivals and rituals. The Saturnalia and Lupercalia, for example, were both closely tied to the changing of the seasons and the rebirth of nature.

The Romans also believed in nature spirits, or “numina,” that were thought to inhabit the natural world. These spirits were associated with specific natural features such as trees, rivers, and mountains, and were believed to possess magical powers that could be harnessed through ritual and prayer.

For Roman ears Virgil thus sang in his poems on nature, the Bucolica and the Georgica, about the mysterious forces that were closely tied to their spiritual and religious beliefs.

It does thus not surprise that he soon gained a reputation as a prophetic figure and his poetry was seen as containing insights and predictions about the future. This status was enhanced by Virgil’s association with the legendary prophetess of the Sibyl.

In his most famous work, the Aeneid, he tells the story of the Trojan prince Aeneas and his journey to Italy, where he founds the city of Rome after descending into the Hades guided by the Cumean prophetess. In addition to the Aeneid, Virgil’s other works were also seen as containing prophetic elements. For example, his collection of pastoral poems, the Eclogues (or Bucolica), was believed to contain hidden references to the political and social climate of ancient Rome, and some readers saw in them even hints of future events, in particular the birth of Christ.

The “Sortes Virgilianae” (Virgilian Lots) thus already became a popular form of divination in 2nd century Rome, only 100 years after the death of Virgil. The practice involved using a copy of Virgil’s works to ask a question or seek guidance, and then opening the book at random and interpreting the passage that was revealed.

To perform the Sortes Virgilianae, an individual would first formulate a question or problem that they needed guidance on. They would then open a copy of Virgil’s works at random, and the passage that they landed on would be interpreted as a response to their question. The interpretation was often done with the help of traditional methods of divination, such as reading the passage in conjunction with other symbols or signs.

The Sortes Virgilianae were considered to be a form of divine revelation and were used by many Romans and most famously Roman Emperors as a way of seeking guidance and insight into their lives.

Augustus is thus said to have consulted the Sortes when deciding whether to spare the life of his friend and adviser, Marcus Agrippa. According to legend, Augustus opened Virgil’s works to a passage that praised the virtues of friendship, which he took as a sign to spare Agrippa’s life. Hadrian, Quintillus and others also reverted to the famed poet’s advice.

The practice was long in use and popular until the late Middle Ages. Still Charles I. of England is said to have been foretold his decapitation by Virgil. According to the legend, he consulted the Sortes Virgilianae and allegedly opened Virgil’s works to a passage that contained a line announcing impending doom. It is unsure, whether this was Dido’s prayer ‘Nor let him then enjoy supreme command, but fall, untimely, by some hostile hand’ or ‘Et sic in fatis’ – And thus it is in the fates. In any case, legend is sure that Virgil’s prophecy was, as always, right.

Yet, while Virgil might thus himself have seen and presented himself as somewhat more than as a poet and simple entertainer for fancy, there remains the question where the much more outrageous magic powers come from, that was later attributed to him by completely differently styles tales.

In medieval times Virgil was said to have in a flick of his wand have created aqueducts, cut tunnels through mountains or defended cities.

The enchanted garden in Wagner’s Parsifal was created by Klingsor, the said ‘grandson’ of Virgil.

The fault may lie with king Roger II, a Norman who was the King of Sicily from 1130 to 1154. Roger was a great admirer of Virgil and believed that the poet’s remains had the ability to protect the city of Naples, where the vate lay buried.

According to legend, Roger II, while besieging Naples, visited the tomb of Virgil and ordered his court scholars, which included many Englishmen from the closely linked English Norman court, to study Virgil’s works and try to uncover the secrets of his ‘magic’. Roger II’s trust in Virgil’s abilities was not uncommon in medieval times, when many people believed in the existence of supernatural powers and the capability of certain individuals to wield them. They may also have been strengthened by local Neapolitan lore. Moreover, it must be noted that Virgil was at that time considered the greatest of all poets, as Homer’s works were only translated into Latin in the 14th century.

Roger II’s admiration for Virgil thus helped to cement the poet’s reputation and may have inspired the English and German scholars at his court, especially Conrad von Querfurt, Gervase of Tilbury, Alexander Neckham and John of Salisbury.

Research suggests that this may have led somewhere among these to the attribution of the – probably freely invented – book of the Ars Notoria to Virgil. This medieval grimoire, or ‘book of magic’, was attributed to the poet, and is first proven to have existed around the times of Roger II.

According to legend, the famous oeuvre was written by Virgil as a means of obtaining knowledge and wisdom through the use of magical invocations of the death, i.e., necromancy.

The remaining little over 50 copies of the Ars Notoria show it to have been a complex and esoteric text that was intended to provide the reader with a means of attaining spiritual enlightenment and knowledge of the divine. It contains a series of invocations that are supposed to unlock the secrets of the universe and enable the user to communicate with demons, angels, the dead and other supernatural beings.

Despite its dubious authorship and the fantastical nature of its contents, the Ars Notoria was widely read and studied by medieval scholars and magicians, and it continued to be influential in later centuries, until inquisition condemned most of the copies in circulation to be burnt.

It is thus most likely that the attribution of the Ars Notoria to Virgil was a deliberate invention by its medieval authors to lend the text more credibility and authority.

However, it is also possible that the attribution to Virgil was based on a genuine belief that the poet had magical powers or was somehow in tune with supernatural forces. That there was a kind of belief in the connection of the book to someone ‘higher up’ in the mystic hierarchy show the variations of the legend.

Sometimes it is indeed claimed that the ars notoria was not written by Virgil but either by the biblical King Salomon or by the Centaur Chiron and that Virgil only got it from one or the other of them. According to these versions, Virgil’s head was in his tomb lying on the book and a certain Ludovicus, cousin of the famous Thomas Becket (who had indeed lived for years at the court of the Italian-Norman royal family), had taken it out to practice necromancy, while Virgil’s bones were brought to the Castel del Ovo in Naples and were never seen again.

Given the fact that there circulated from then on numerous legends about Virgil and his magic powers it is surprising that Dante does not reflect any of these in his Divine Comedy. In Dante’s work Virgil represents reason and shows his medieval follower through the inferno. Virgil described the nine circles of hell in the Aeneid and Dante thus acknowledges his source. Yet, he does so without mentioning any magic.

The reason for this absence may be that the lore of magic was actually created by the German and English nobles that had picked the idea up at the court of King Roger II and that took it home. It may then have taken some centuries for the tales to return back to Italian soil.

And from there it first spread, before dissipating. Today we do not remember any more of the magical mysteries of the vate.

All what remains is a contortion of the name of the poet. “Virgil” is more commonly used in modern English, while “Vergil” is a more archaic spelling. The actual name of the famous Roman poet was however Publius Vergilius Maro. The ‘I’ might have replaced the ‘E’, when the story of the magic powers came up, as Virgil carries an echo of the Latin word for ‘wand’, the virga.

“Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit” – “Perhaps someday it will be pleasing to remember even these things.”

Aeneid, Virgil

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