Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Astrologer's Den

So, in furtherance of pursuit of images of stuffed crocodiles, I ran across this wonderful plate by William Hogarth, illustrating a scene from the Second Canto of Hudibras, a long mock heroic narrative poem satirizing ignorant zealotry, published in the seventeenth century by Samuel Butler. It shows the bombastic Sir Hudibras and his squire Ralpho visiting (and administering a beating to) the astrologer Sidrophel and his servant Whacum. The poem, and the illustrations Hogarth provided almost fifty years after its publication, were very popular for a long time, inspiring many imitations. It came to me that this picture might very well have influenced the depictions of sorcerors in the years that followed, so perfectly does it epitomize the popular image and paraphernalia of the practicing magician.

Besides the stuffed crocodile, there are also Shakespeare's "ill-shap'd fishes" (including what looks like a swordfish) and tortoise, snake, bat, toad, a couple of lizards, and what looks like a huge beetle. As well as books and astrological charts there are both celestial and terrestrial globes, astronomical tools like a telescope, quadrant, and Jacob's staff, and a dark lantern to write down observations at night. On the more alchemical or mystical side there is what appears to be a homunculus in a jar, an AGLA knife (bearing the kabbalistic acronym for Atah Gibor Le-olam Adonai, 'You, O Lord, are mighty forever'), and a skeleton in the closet, with an owl on its shoulder! The whole scene is completed by the astrologer's fur-trimmed robes and round spectacles, and his cat in the corner.

Whether this print was a major influence on magical imagery or not, it is obviously a link in a long line of such illustration, and the general trappings would need little change to fit in perfectly with many a modern tale of wizardry.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

"The Strongest School"

"The old and correct story of Jack the Giant-Killer is simply the whole story of man: if it were understood we should not need Bibles or histories. But the modern world in particular does not seem to understand it at all. The modern world...is on the side of the giants; the safest place, and therefore the meanest and most prosaic. The modern world, when it praises its little Caesars, talks of being strong and brave: but it does not seem to see the eternal paradox involved in the conjunction of these ideas. The strong cannot be brave. Only the weak can be brave; and yet again, in practice, only those who can be brave can be trusted, in time of doubt, to be strong. The only way in which a giant could really keep himself in training against the inevitable Jack would be by continually fighting other giants ten times as big as himself. That is by ceasing to be a giant and becoming a Jack. Thus that sympathy with the small or defeated as such, with which we Liberals and Nationalists have been often reproached, is not a useless sentimentalism at all...It is the first law of practical courage. To be in the weakest camp is to be in the strongest school. Nor can I imagine anything that would do humanity more good than the advent of a race of Supermen, for them to fight like dragons. If the Superman is better than we, of course we need not fight him; but in that case, why not call him the Saint? But if he is merely stronger (whether physically, mentally, or morally stronger, I do not care a farthing), then he ought to have to reckon with us at least for all the strength we have. If we are weaker than he, that is no reason why we should be weaker than ourselves. If we are not tall enough to reach the giant's knees, that is no reason why we should become shorter by falling on our own. But that is at bottom the meaning of all modern hero-worship and celebration of the Strong Man, the Caesar, the Superman. That he should be something more than man, we must be something less."

--G. K. Chesterton, Heretics, 1905.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Owlery

As anyone that knows me knows, I have a thing for owls. And pumpkins. And pince-nez glasses. Also moons, oak trees, kettles, top hats, umbrellas, Gladstone bags, hour glasses, pocket watches, waistcoats, toads, candles, crickets, mushrooms, ravens, harps, books, skulls, walking sticks, scarecrows, etc., etc., and so forth. Owls wise and foolish, deadly and friendly, pepper the literature I love. Their binocular vision, silent flight, and nocturnal habits imbue them with a sort of numinous shadow, and their questioning cry haunts the gathering evening shade. Who goes there? Who's next? Who are you? Why does the owl howl?

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Fantastic Plastic (and Rubber)

Cereal premiums, toothpaste premiums, detergent premiums, erasers, and just plain premium toys. These were the colorful, portable bagatelles that brightened my childhood.

Thursday, August 2, 2012


"He had named him [August] for that month when the year stands still and blue day follows blue day, when for a while he stopped looking at the sky." --from Little, Big, by John Crowley.

August 1ST (or Lammas Day, one of the regular quarter-days in Scotland, and a half-quarter day in England, was the day of offering the first-fruits of the harvest in Anglo-Saxon times; the term comes from Old English hlafmaesse, the loaf-mass) is already past, and much of the traditional lore for August concerns reaping and gathering:

August brings the sheaves of corn,
Then the harvest home is borne.

Dry August and warm
Doth harvest no harm.

None in August should over land,
In December none over the sea.

Whoever wed in August be,
Many a change is sure to see.

The boughs do shake and the bells do ring,
So merrily comes our harvest in,
Our harvest in, our harvest in,
So Merrily comes our harvest in.
We've ploughed, we've sowed,
We've reaped, we've mowed,
We've got our harvest in.