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Ancient Greek Sorcerers
The earliest Greek sorcerers in the archaic period, appearing in the Pythagorean and Orphic traditions, were called shamans. Both Herodotos and Empedocles thinks that these shaman-types had existed since the early classical period, but we know that the tradition was much older.
The term “shaman” comes from the name of the Tungus medicine man of Northeast China who separates his soul from his body in trance-like ecstasy. His soul talks with the gods in their own language in order to bring the soul of the sick back from the land of the dead. In some cases, the soul of the shaman needs to overcome demons in battle to retrieve the soul of the sick.
Greek shamans manipulated their own souls in a similar way, separating body and soul and setting out on journeys of discovery that might involve temporary death, or bilocation (appearance in two distinct places at the same time).
They might retreat into subterranean chambers for extended periods of time that symbolized death and a voyage to the underworld from which they would return enlightened. They practiced various forms of divination, were said to be able to control the elements and dismiss pollution and pestilence. The main ﬁgures in this series of early Greek sorcerers and their ﬂoruits are:
Floruit (Time of Activity)
Aristeas of Proconessus
early 7th century B.C.
Hermotimus of Clazomenae
7th century B.C.
Epimenides of Cnossus
ca. 600 B.C.
Pythagoras of Samos
Abaris the Hyperborean
6th century B.C.
Zalmoxis of the Thracian Getae
6th century B.C.
Empedocles of Acragas
ca. 485–35 B.C.
Pythagoras of Samos
When Pythagoras was in Egypt he was introduced to Amasis. He learned the Egyptians' language and made friends with Chaldaeans and mages. He descended into crypts to learn the gods' secrets. In Crete he descended into the Idaean cave with Epimenides.
Upon returning to Samos and realizing it was ruled by the tyrant Polycrates, he went to Croton in Italy. He made laws for the Greeks that lived there by whom he was highly revered. He gathered almost 300 students, and they governed the state to the best of thir ability to create a true aristocracy (aristokrateia, meaning “rule by the best”).
In Italy, Pythagoras retreated into a little underground chamber and instructed his mother to take note of what happened and the time of events, and then send them down to him until he came back up again. When Pythagoras came up he was very thin as if from disease or hunger or cold.
At the assembly, he stated that he had returned from Hades (the Underworld), and reported the things that had supposedly gone down. The people were at awe of his bravery and wept. Thinking that Pythagoras was divine, they gave their wives to him to instruct them in various things. These wives then became known as the Pythagoricae.
In Etruria, as told by Aristotle, Pythagoras killed a deadly snake by biting it himself. At one time he was seen in Croton and in Metapontum on the same day and at the same hour. At another time, he was seated in a theatre, but as he stood up, he revealed by accident that his thigh was golden to those seated near him.
All of these events were reported by ancient Greek sources.
Excerpt from the Arimaspeia
A marvel exceeding great is this withal to my soul
Men dwell on the water afar from the land, where deep seas roll.
Wretches are they, for they reap but a harvest of travail and pain,
Their eyes on the stars ever dwell, while their hearts abide in the main.
Often, I ween, to the Gods are their hands upraised on high,
And with hearts in misery heavenward-lifted in prayer do they cry.
Aristeas of Proconessus
The poet Aristeas of Proconessus claimed that he was possessed by Apollo. He dropped dead when he went into a fuller’s in Proconessus. The fuller told his relatives of his sudden death, but a man from Cyzicus disputed it saying he had run across Aristeas on the way to Cyzicus and had talked with him.
In the meantime, Aristeas's relatives came to the fuller’s to perform the funeral, but they didn't Aristeas's find body anywhere. After 7 years, the poet reappeared in the city and wrote the poem known the Arimaspeia. As soon as he finished writing he disappeared again.
240 years after Aristeas’s second disappearance, he showed up again in Metapontum to urge the citizens to set up an altar for Apollo and to erect a statue commemorating the legend of Aristeas of Proconessus. The Metapontines sent a man to Delphi to ask the gods about this manifestation of Aristeas.
Upon hearing the story, the Pythia advised the messenger to tell the people to obey the bidding of Apollo saying that they would beneﬁt from it. As a result, there now stands a statue with the legend of Aristeas right beside the efﬁgy of Apollo.
Not All Sorcerers Are Created Equal
In the Hellenic world a variety of professionals such as sorcerers (goês), mages (magos), bacchants, beggar-priests of Cybele (agurtês), diviners (mantis), Orphic initiators, and charlatans were attributed unusual powers whereby they were supposedly able to manipulate souls and purify things, using spells and incantations. Most of these people were not Greek by origin but came from outside of Hellas, especially from the Orient.
Sorcerers were often punished and cast into prison by tyrants and political leaders who regarded them as deceitful charlatans without real power, motivated solely by profit, personal gain, and self-interest. When they died, their corpses were often thrown out of the city and left unburied.
Philip the beggar was an Orphic initiator (Orpheotelestês) who claimed that anyone initiated by him would bring their lives to a fortunate end. At some point, Leotychidas, the son of Ariston, asked him, “So why, fool, do you not die without delay, so that you may at once stop having to bewail your misfortune and penury?”
Evocators or Soul-drawers were gifted with the ability to call up the souls of the dead. Whenever they were asked to drive away ghosts, they would bring along a black sheep, grabbing it either by one horn or by its front feet, and parade it around on its other feet.
When it came to the place where the dead body was buried, the sheep would stop short and cast itself down. At this point the evocator would burn the sheep and then amongst mysterious incantations mark off and walk around the place listening to the ghosts' speech. Antoninus the Romans emperor participated in an evocation of his father Commodus's ghost.
Ventriloquists or Belly-prophets were shabby entertainers who threw their voice into a sinister dummy, that of a person whose stomach is inhabited by a demon or ghost that talks through his mouth.
All this knowledge about ancient Greek sorcerers and magicians comes to us as reported by philosophers, poets, and historians of the era such as Hermippus, Diogenes Laertius, Plato, Herodotos, and Aristotle, among others.