Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Philopseudes by Lucian of Samosata

After such a story as this-coming as it did from Arignotus, who was
generally looked up to as a man of inspired wisdom--my incredulous
attitude towards the supernatural was loudly condemned on all
hands. However, I was not frightened by his long hair, nor by his
reputation. 'Dear, dear!' I exclaimed, 'so Arignotus, the sole
mainstay of Truth, is as bad as the rest of them, as full of windy
imaginings! Our treasure proves to be but ashes.' 'Now look here,
Tychiades,' said Arignotus, 'you will not believe me, nor
Dinomachus, nor Cleodemus here, nor yet Eucrates: we shall be glad
to know who is your great authority on the other side, who is to
outweigh us all?' 'No less a person,' I replied, 'than the sage of
Abdera, the wondrous Democritus himself. _His_ disbelief in
apparitions is sufficiently clear. When he had shut himself up in
that tomb outside the city gates, there to spend his days and
nights in literary labours, certain young fellows, who had a mind
to play their pranks on the philosopher and give him a fright, got
themselves up in black palls and skull-masks, formed a ring round
him, and treated him to a brisk dance. Was Democritus alarmed at
the ghosts? Not he: "Come, enough of that nonsense," was all he had
to say to them; and that without so much as looking up, or taking
pen from paper. Evidently _he_ had quite made up his mind
about disembodied spirits.' 'Which simply proves,' retorted
Eucrates, 'that Democritus was no wiser than yourself. Now I am
going to tell you of another thing that happened to me personally;
I did not get the story second-hand. Even you, Tychiades, will
scarcely hold out against so convincing a narrative.

'When I was a young man, I passed some time in Egypt, my father
having sent me to that country for my education. I took it into my
head to sail up the Nile to Coptus, and thence pay a visit to the
statue of Memnon, and hear the curious sound that proceeds from it
at sunrise. In this respect, I was more fortunate than most people,
who hear nothing but an indistinct voice: Memnon actually opened
his lips, and delivered me an oracle in seven hexameters; it is
foreign to my present purpose, or I would quote you the very lines.
Well now, one of my fellow passengers on the way up was a scribe of
Memphis, an extraordinarily able man, versed in all the lore of the
Egyptians. He was said to have passed twenty-three years of his
life underground in the tombs, studying occult sciences under the
instruction of Isis herself.' 'You must mean the divine Pancrates,
my teacher,' exclaimed Arignotus; 'tall, clean-shaven, snub-nosed,
protruding lips, rather thin in the legs; dresses entirely in
linen, has a thoughtful expression, and speaks Greek with a slight
accent?' 'Yes, it was Pancrates himself. I knew nothing about him
at first, but whenever we anchored I used to see him doing the most
marvellous things,--for instance, he would actually ride on the
crocodiles' backs, and swim about among the brutes, and they would
fawn upon him and wag their tails; and then I realized that he was
no common man. I made some advances, and by imperceptible degrees
came to be on quite a friendly footing with him, and was admitted
to a share in his mysterious arts. The end of it was, that he
prevailed on me to leave all my servants behind at Memphis, and
accompany him alone; assuring me that we should not want for
attendance. This plan we accordingly followed from that time
onwards. Whenever we came to an inn, he used to take up the bar of
the door, or a broom, or perhaps a pestle, dress it up in clothes,
and utter a certain incantation; whereupon the thing would begin to
walk about, so that every one took it for a man. It would go off
and draw water, buy and cook provisions, and make itself generally
useful. When we had no further occasion for its services, there was
another incantation, after which the broom was a broom once more,
or the pestle a pestle. I could never get him to teach me this
incantation, though it was not for want of trying; open as he was
about everything else, he guarded this one secret jealously. At
last one day I hid in a dark corner, and overheard the magic
syllables; they were three in number. The Egyptian gave the pestle
its instructions, and then went off to the market. Well, next day
he was again busy in the market: so I took the pestle, dressed it,
pronounced the three syllables exactly as he had done, and ordered
it to become a water-carrier. It brought me the pitcher full; and
then I said: _Stop: be water-carrier no longer, but pestle as
heretofore._ But the thing would take no notice of me: it went
on drawing water the whole time, until at last the house was full
of it. This was awkward: if Pancrates came back, he would be angry,
I thought (and so indeed it turned out). I took an axe, and cut the
pestle in two. The result was that both halves took pitchers and
fetched water; I had two water-carriers instead of one. This was
still going on, when Pancrates appeared. He saw how things stood,
and turned the water-carriers back into wood; and then he withdrew
himself from me, and went away, whither I knew not.'

'And you can actually make a man out of a pestle to this day?'
asked Dinomachus. 'Yes, I can do _that,_ but that is only
half the process: I cannot turn it back again into its original
form; if once it became a water-carrier, its activity would swamp
the house.'

'Oh, stop!' I cried: 'if the thought that you are old men is not
enough to deter you from talking this trash, at least remember who
is present: if you do not want to fill these boys' heads with
ghosts and hobgoblins, postpone your grotesque horrors for a more
suitable occasion. Have some mercy on the lads: do not accustom
them to listen to a tangle of superstitious stuff that will cling
to them for the rest of their lives, and make them start at their
own shadows.'

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