Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Magic, Monsters & Mythical Creatures: WIZARDS

We have talked of witches, dragons, Leviathan and the Basilisk, but this series would be incomplete if we did not delve into the mystery of…


In the beginning of the days when magic took the forefront of the human psyche, there were two types of common spell casters. There were priests, who gained their powers from their deity or gods, and there were sorcerers, who worked their magic without any divine assistance, using sheer talent alone. Wizards, who required neither divine assistance nor talent, but seemed to be born with their powers, came later on.

The origins of a wizard’s talents are not clear, but every culture has its own explanations which add to the ever growing legend. The most popular explanation is that the person in question has either a deity or a demon in their family bloodline. Some cultures think the talent comes from having draconic blood, while others believe that sorcerers are the descendants of great heroes who took their magic from other races, typically dwarfs, either by force or with trickery. There are even some cultures who believe that wizards are given their power as a sign of favor from one of the elemental lords.

The origins of wizardry itself are a bit more solid and can be traced back to ancient cities where the Gilded League now holds sway. It is there that the first wizards began to study the magical arts and learn to cast, rather than simply wield the power they had. Nobody is quite certain who the first wizard was or how he learned his craft, but some legends tells us he learned by sneaking into a god's workshop and spying on him as he practiced his powerful spells. The legend tells us the wizard sought to learn the secret to working magic the way the gods did without being dependent on a talent as the sorcerers were. Dwarfs and elves however, claim a different origin for their wizards. The dwarfs claim wizardry developed as a natural extension of their skills as craftsmen, while elves claim their wizards were taught by gods.

The first recorded wizards appeared thousands of years ago in prosperous cities. Theirs was an art involving conjuring and summonings that had been adapted from the rites of evil clerics. They called on demons, devils, and other hideous beings and then made dark pacts with them in their search for knowledge and power. Death and madness were the ultimate risks for wizards and all those who kept company with them. More often than not, the biggest danger that wizards faced came from their fellow wizards who were always seeking to further their craft. Defeating another wizard and stealing his knowledge was the easiest way to learn and far less dangerous than dealing with the foul creatures that bubbled up from the belly of Hell itself.

As a result, magic became a secretive profession with all knowledge jealously guarded and only taught to the rare apprentice. Though a few were rich men who paid exorbitant sums for a chance at great power, all too often such apprentices were only clever youths taught just enough to be of use in the lab who supplemented that education with whatever scraps of knowledge they could filch on their own. The latter were often never intended to be anything other than menial helpers and only managed to learn enough to become a wizard in their own right. Because of this, most wizards were only half trained and possessed incomplete knowledge with the predictable dangers associated with it.

Even with such terrible risks and such jealously guarded knowledge, wizardry spread. Every culture has people who will do anything for power and they sought out wizards for training. Thus, over the centuries and millennium, the wizard's art spread throughout the world.

Merlin is a legendary figure best known as the wizard featured in the legends of Arthur. The character first appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, written in 1136. The writer claims to have gleaned all his information from historical documents and scrolls that track the life of this mysterious and well known wizard. The stories of Merlin have survived decades of time and each new generation places its’ own unique spin on the ages old tale. The newest Arthurian tale with a Merlin twist is HBO’s original series, Camelot. In it we see a more conniving, plotting Merlin who is actually afraid to use his powers because he cannot control them. When he does use them, they suck the very life from his body.

Another wizard that is famous from the literary world is Gandalf. He first appeared in 1937 in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Gandalf was first introduced as Gandalf The Grey and reintroduced later as Gandalf The White when he was brought back from the abyss of death. Other Tolkien books featured this well-known wizard and followed the hobbit’s journey into the very fires of Mordor. The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King all carried Gandalf as a central character. The books were later adapted to film and directed by Peter Jackson in 2001. Receiving 13 Academy nominations, The Fellowship of the Ring took home four Academy Awards and is, to this day, the 19th highest grossing film of all time. The Two Towers and The Return of the King would also be adapted to film and become classics from our time and see their fair share of Academy nominations and wins. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is the highest grossing film trilogy of all time and brought in a whopping $2.91 billion dollars worldwide.

I would step on a few toes if I failed to mention some more famous wizards from our time… The wizards of The Harry Potter series. In the series written by J.K. Rowling, we meet Harry Potter, an ordinary boy with extraordinary powers. As the series progresses, we watch Harry hone his skills as a wizard. In the meantime, we are introduced to a whole cast of wizards including Professor Dumbledore and Professor Snape. Though the series is considered a young adult series, there are some extremely dark elements to the book and some of the wizards within its pages. As the series progresses, it becomes more and more harrowing as wizards began to kill other wizards in an attempt to be more powerful.

Through books and film we have discovered magic, monsters and mythical creatures. Though many of these things are fiction they still hold a very real place in our hearts and minds. They allow us to see possibilities we could not see before and they allow us to dream. We can dive into a fictional world filled with wizards, witches, dragons, Leviathan and the Basilisk and we can, for a short while, believe. Though these magical, mythical beings may not exist in our world, there is a wonderful place where we can go to find them all. It is a world filled with pages from great writers and the stories they have told, with films that we have fallen in love with, and full of dreams that can only exist in the most magical of places…

It is our imagination, and with it there are no boundaries and magic IS real.

CK Webb 

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Magic, Monsters and Mythical Creatures

The Basilisk and Leviathan

Sometimes magic, monsters and myth collide. The end result is something far more elusive and harrowing than we care to believe. Whether they are fiction or real, the Basilisk and Leviathan are creatures that will not be denied their rightful place in our worlds. Ever present not only in literature, but in film as well, they have woven themselves into the very fabric of some cultures and are truly the stuff that nightmares are made of. Though similar in some ways, their traits vary considerably and give each creature its own unique flair and its very own killing style.

In some European legends, a Basilisk is a legendary reptile reputed to be king of serpents due to the crown-shaped crest upon its head. Alleged to be hatched by a cockerel from the egg of a serpent or toad, the Basilisk is rumored to cause death to anyone who locks eyes with the beast. One of the earliest accounts of the Basilisk comes from Pliny the Elder's Natural History, written in 79 AD. In it, he describes a monstrous, cow-like creature of which "all who behold its eyes fall dead upon the spot”. It is also believed that the venom of the Basilisk is so destructive that the creature leaves behind a burnt and scorched earth as it slithers across the landscape.

Many writers have been seduced by this legendary monster and brought forth their own ideas and slight variations of the beast. Geoffrey Chaucer featured a ‘Basilicok’ in his famous Canterbury Tales. He made use of the legend which states that basilisks can be killed by hearing the crow of a rooster or gazing at itself through a mirror. Chaucer would incorporate one of these killing methods in the legend of the basilisk of Warsaw. This tale would see the Basilisk killed by a man carrying a set of mirrors.

More and more stories added to the enormity of the Basilisk’s reputation and gradually added to the Basilisk's killing powers as well. Some began to describe it as a large beast capable of breathing fire and killing with only the sound of its voice. Some writers would even claim that the Basilisk could kill by touch and could even kill by touching something that a poor soul was touching. So, a sword held in the hand of a great warrior would yield almost certain death the very moment the hero struck the killing blow into the creature. All of this death came from a beast that would become the guardian and traditional symbol of strength for the city of Basel in Switzerland.

Many other writers would toy with the idea of this mythical monster and introduce it to millions of readers in the process. William Shakespeare, Samuel Richardson, Alexander Pope, Voltaire and even Charles Dickens dipped their quills into the world of this mythical monster and referenced it and its killing power in their work. Of course, the most famous telling of a Basilisk tale today is most likely J.K. Rowlings’ Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets. In this novel, the Basilisk, an enormous, snake-like creature with monstrous fangs almost kills Harry with its deadly venom, but he is saved by the tears of a phoenix.

Artists would also put forth their renditions of the Basilisk. Leonardo da Vinci included a Basilisk in his Bestiary. He describes it as so utterly cruel that when it cannot kill animals or humans by its baleful gaze, it turns upon the earth and withers everything in its path.

Unlike the Basilisk, Leviathan is widely claimed as a sea creature. In demonology, Leviathan is hailed as one of the seven princes of Hell and known as its gatekeeper.

Mentioned several times throughout biblical text, Leviathan finds its history deeply rooted in the traditions of Near Eastern Mythology and dates back as far as the 3rd Century BC.

In the Canaanite myth, ‘Liviathan’ was considered an interpretation of the chaos that spilled forth at the beginning of the Universe’s creation. From this chaos, a seven headed, fire-breathing crocodile-like dragon was formed. He lurked in the depths of the sea and waited for an opportune moment so he could rise up and steal away unsuspecting victims. A great warrior named Anat fought Leviathan and bound him in chains, bringing order to the universe. Though the tale ended there, it is believed that Leviathan is not dead, but simply waiting for the day when he will again rise up from the depths and destroy us all.

Beliefs about Leviathan and its origins vary greatly from one culture and religious background to another. If you are a Christian, Leviathan is a bringer of death sent forth by Satin himself. On the other hand, according to Anton Szandor LaVey, the author of The Satanic Bible, Leviathan represents the element of Water. The element of Water in Satanism is associated with life and creation. In The Satanic Bible, Leviathan is known as one of the Four Crown Princes of Hell.

We see two different takes on a mythical monster that looks the same to both groups and yet, is so very different in its intentions.

Other variations of this monstrous creature would show up in great literary works and the name Leviathan would become synonymous with any large creature living in the ocean. One in particular would become an instant classic and introduce us to a new spin on the Leviathan tale.

In 1851 American author Herman Melville published his novel, Moby Dick. The story tells the adventures of a wandering sailor named Ishmael and his voyage with Captain Ahab. The captain has but one purpose, to seek out a specific whale: Moby Dick. The whale is described as a ferocious and elusive white sperm whale that, in a previous encounter, destroyed Ahab's boat and bit off his leg. Ahab becomes consumed with bitter anger and longs to seek his revenge by killing the beast.

Leviathan would also gather some film credits when in 1989 a movie of the same name was released. Often compared to Alien and The Thing, Leviathan’s storyline focused on underwater deep-sea miners. After finding some Soviet wreckage, the crew brings back deadly cargo to their base on the ocean floor with horrifying results. The crew must then fight to survive against a genetic mutation as they are hunted down and killed one by one by LEVIATHAN!

Though their similarities are unmistakable, the tales behind the Basilisk and Leviathan could not be farther apart. Whether you are a fan of the classic tales or have only recently been introduce through Harry Potter, chances are you will not soon forget these monstrous and mythical creatures. Steeped in magical folklore and transported through time by literature, paintings and film, the Basilisk and Leviathan will surely be with us for hundreds maybe even thousands of years. I cannot tell you whether these creatures exist or if they are merely a figment of a most active imagination. The question still remains: Are they magic, monsters or mythical creatures… only you can decide.
CK Webb for Suspense Magazine