I’m working on my talk for the Esoteric Book Conference in September. It will be on Isis as Goddess of Magic and especially on how She interacts with Her sacred magicians.
One of the magician stories I’ll tell has been one of my absolute favorites ever since I learned Isis was part of the story and I’d like to share it here with you today.
In the first century CE, there was a Syrian writer, who wrote in Greek, named Lucian. He wrote satirical novels, tales, and essays. One of his books is called Philosudes (“Lover of Lies”). It’s about a group of friends gathered at the house of an ill friend, Eukrates. To entertain him, they tell fantastic stories about haunted houses, encounters with Deities, magic, and more, which Eukrates, being a lover of lies, enjoys very much.
The tale that involves Isis is told by Eukrates himself and he swears it’s all true:
He says that in his youth, his father had sent him to Egypt to complete his education. He sailed up to Koptos with the intention of going to the statue of Memnon for an oracle. On the way there, he met a man from Memphis who was one of the temple scribes and very learned. How did Pankrates—for that was the scribe’s name—come by his knowledge? He had spent 23 years living “underground” in Egyptian sanctuaries learning his magic from Isis Herself. Ha!
Pankrates was apparently quite a famous teacher and another of Eukrates’ friends had been a student of his as well. The magician-scribe was supposed to be able to do wonders such as riding on crocodiles and playing with dangerous beasts without harm. (Taming crocodiles is a common Egyptian magical wonder.)
Meanwhile, back to Eukrates. Apparently he and the magician hit it off and Pankrates invited the young man to visit his home and began teaching him. However, Eukrates was to leave all his servants in Memphis for they would not be needed in the magician’s home.
Which turned out to be true.
Whenever a household task needed doing, Pankrates would take up a stick of wood, a broom, the door bar, or a pestle, clothe it, speak some words of magic, and the broom would come to life and take care of whatever task the magician wanted. When the task was done, Pankrates would speak more magic words and the magical servant would return to its original form.
Pankrates taught Eukrates many things, but he wouldn’t teach this. Naturally, that was exactly what Eukrates wanted to learn, so he spied on the magician and overheard the words that brought the servant to life. The next day, when the magician went out, Eukrates tried out what he had learned. He took a broom, dressed it, and spoke the words.
Instantly, the servant came to life and Eukrates ordered it to fetch water. Which it did. And kept on doing until there was water, water, everywhere. Eukrates ordered it to stop, but it wouldn’t for he hadn’t learned quite as much as he’d thought. So Eukrates tried force, breaking the broom in two…and now two servants brought water until the house was practically floating. Finally Pankrates returned home and restored order. Then he left, and Eukrates never saw him again.
Does this tale ring a bell? Perhaps you are imagining Eukrates with mouse ears?
Yep. This is the story that inspired Walt Disney’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice in the movies Fantasia and Fantasia 2000. Disney, of course, missed the important fact (to me, anyway) that the magician was trained by the Great Goddess of Magic Herself as well as the Egyptian setting.
That’s because the story came to Disney by way of the German writer Johann Wolfgang Geothe (1749-1832), author of Faust and Der Zauberlehrling (“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”). Goethe did indeed get his tale from Lucian, but he left out the Egyptian connection. His poem became famous throughout Europe and inspired French composer Paul Dukas (1865-1935) to create his scherzo, L’apprenti sorcie, which Disney used for the soundtrack.
I would SO love to see someone do this story in its original Egyptian context—complete with the backstory of Pankrates’ training with Isis!