Naturally, I have Google Alerts set up for “Isis.” Today, I got an interesting link…for a holiday play called “Star of Wonder.” It’s set in Victorian times and is about a young stage magician who wants to learn the secrets of a great female stage magician, Isis, the Star of Egypt. I wish I could find a copy of the script because I’d like to know whether Isis is a good guy or a bad guy. Apparently there’s some kind of Faustian bargain that the young magician strikes with Isis…
But did you know that there’s another story about Isis and a wayward would-be magician? This one is told by the second-century CE Greek writer Lucian.
Lucian tells the tale of a man named Eucrates who traveled to Egypt to study there with the priests and scribes of the temples. During his travels by boat, he met one of the learned magicians of Memphis. The mage told Eucrates that he had spent 23 years in the underground sanctuaries of Memphis and that Isis Herself had taught him his magic. During the trip, the magician-priest had occasion to display some of his prodigious powers—riding crocodiles and commanding the river with ease. Eucrates was fascinated and wanted to know more, so when the trip ended in Memphis and the magician invited Eucrates to stay with him, Eucrates accepted happily.
The magician told Eucrates to dismiss the servants he had with him since they would not be needed at the magician’s home. And this was quite true, for any time a chore needed doing, the magician would clothe a pole or broom, speak a word of power over it, and it would come to life and perform the work.
Eucrates wanted to learn this marvelous word so that he too could create servants so easily. He spied on the magician, overheard the three-syllable word, and tried the magic. Clothing a pole, he spoke the word. Instantly, the pole sprang to life and Eucrates told it to fetch water. This it did—and continued to do so until every container in the house was overflowing—for Eucrates had neglected to learn the word to halt the magical servant. In desperation, Eucrates tried to stop the pole by breaking it in two, but then both halves simply got up and continued bringing water. When at last Eucrates felt all was lost, the magician returned home, angrily spoke the appropriate words, and restored order.
You guessed it…this is the origin of the story of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” told with so much glee in Walt Disney’s Fantasia.
I, too, have been the Sorceress’ apprentice for lo these many years. And Her lessons have been much more interesting, and valuable, than creating magical water fetchers. How about you?