“Science is always discovering odd scraps of magical wisdom and making a tremendous fuss about its cleverness” – Aleister Crowley
Should you find yourself dabbling in the Dark Arts, it’s important to cultivate an air of mystery. Many confrontations can be avoided when an antagonistic party is uncertain about your ability to turn them into a toad, sorcerously level their castle, or rain hellfire and damnation upon their heads. Never underestimate the effect of a credible deterrent, for as actor Sterling Hayden said, “Deterrence is the art of producing, in the mind of the enemy, the fear to attack”. Sadly, the same obfuscation and misdirection as to your relative intimacy with the diabolical forces of the universe that can sometimes spare you from the angry mob, hangman’s noose, or inquisitorial barbecue tend to lead to an isolated and lonely life. Certainly, your occult ministrations can accrue to you wealth and worldly power, but we are social creatures at heart and crave the approbation of our peers, swooning fans, and a general recognition that we are capable of world domination, but for being a comparatively congenial conjurer. This is of course, why the average wizard tilts towards the theatrical. If you raise a demon and fail to preface his emergence with “Ta-da!” given the short attention span of the unwashed masses, someone might miss the miraculous moment. Conversely, if you are too open about the protocols employed, folks start to take this sort of thaumaturgy for granted. And nothing annoys a committed warlock more than being asked to perform parlor tricks for your amusement. Therefore, the wizard who wishes to achieve historical immortality, to chuckle from the grave when succeeding generations whisper at tales of his or her exploits with fear and reverence, and ensure that one’s scribbled marginalia go for a premium price at auction, must delicately balance an enigmatic yet lively back story with occasional outrageous displays of magical savoir faire. Few have accomplished this feat as effectively as the turn of the 13th Century dread Scottish “Wizard of the North” Michael Scot.
Although tales are still told to this day of the fantastic and fearsome feats of Michael Scot (who also went by the Latin moniker of Michaelus Scotus), we actually know remarkably little of his personal biography, and those few tantalizing details that have been unearthed serve only to contribute to his mythical majesty. Michael Scot was born in 1175 in Scotland, but precisely where nobody is quite sure, although Balwearie in Fife has been suggested. Odds are he was from a relatively well-to-do family, as he was able to partake of the finest medieval education available in philosophy, theology, mathematics, alchemy, and astrology (studying in Durham, Oxford, Paris, and Toledo), travelling Europe as a wandering scholar. Regarded as a learned clergyman, fluent in Latin, Greek, Arabic and Hebrew, Pope Honorious III nominated Michael Scot in 1223 for the position of Archbishop of Cashel in Ireland. Scot turned it down. In 1227, Pope Gregory IX offered him the prestigious role as Archbishop of Canterbury. He turned him down, too. Temporal prestige seemed to be beneath Michael Scot. That Scot was a figure of some prominence among the academic set is undoubted, as we have manuscripts authored by him, including the occult handbooks Super auctorem spherae (astrology/astronomy), De sole et luna (alchemy), De chiromantia (might be about palm-reading), and De physiognomia et de hominis procreation (medical physiology). Scot was enticed to join the court of Fredrick II in Sicily (probably the most powerful Holy Roman Emperor ever) and one of the most prominent patrons of the arts and sciences in the 13th Century, where he endeavored to provide new translations of Aristotle, including commentaries by Arabic scholars. Mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci was a friend of Scot’s, and dedicated his revolutionary Liber Abaci (introducing Europe to the Arabic Numeral System) to Michael Scot in 1227. And there the trail ends. Pretty much everything else we know about Michael Scot is a mix of odd scraps of folklore, vague references, and strange encounters. Its abundantly clear that folks respected, but feared him, with the words “dreaded sorcerer” often prefixed to his name in later references, and yet he seems to have managed to glide through the upper stratum of Medieval society impressing potential patrons (and then often rejecting their offers of patronage), meanwhile leaving little information for future scholars to pin down his pedigree. No doubt many otherwise interesting characters have traipsed through history in anonymity, since before they invented Office Depot, you had to accomplish fairly significant feats or sink into staggering depravity to merit a monk wasting the ink and paper on your family tree. But here’s the genius of Scot – an awful lot was written about his stupendous sorcery, yet little has ever been revealed about his biography, except the high degree of assurance among all commentators that he had mad magical mojo. How did Michael Scot achieve this? Through the deceptively simple strategy of (1) revealing almost nothing about himself personally, and (2) being a wickedly awesome party guest.
Hands down, if you wanted a stupendous evening of extraordinary entertainment, you wanted to attend a dinner party thrown by Michael Scot, or even if you heard that he was going to show up at someone else’s fancy affair, it behooved you to make sure you were in attendance. Scot was known for magically conjuring up the finest feasts, delivered warm and delectable from the royal kitchens across Europe with no preparation. He just waved his wand, and soon partygoers were dining on the same succulents as the King of France. No matter the season, Scot’s table was sorcerously stocked with the freshest foodstuffs known to man.
The hint thus given was speedily acted upon. For to it, no doubt, we owe the numerous tales regarding Michael Scot of which Benvenuto da Imola and the anonymous Florentine speak. Landino gives a specimen, as follows. During the philosopher’s residence in Bologna he used to invite his friends to dinner, but without making any preparation for their entertainment. When the hour struck, and the guests were seated at table, they found it nevertheless covered with the choicest viands. Their host would then explain that one dish came from the royal kitchen at Paris, another from that of the English king, and so on with the rest. Jacopo della Lana repeats the same story, but with certain variations. According to this commentator, Michael Scot always kept the best company, living in all respects as a gentleman and cavalier. In his tricks of the table he did not spare even his own master, but, while choosing his boiled meat from Paris, and his roasts from London, would always procure his entrees from the King of Sicily’s provision. The anonymous Florentine adds another tale to the same purpose, saying that his guests once asked Scot to show them a new marvel. The month was January, yet, in spite of the season, he caused vines with fresh shoots and ripe clusters of grapes to appear on the table. The company were bidden each of them to choose a bunch, but their host warned them not to put forth their hands till he should give the sign. At the word ‘ cut,’ lo, the grapes disappeared, and the guests found themselves each with a knife in one hand, and in the other his neighbour’s sleeve. Francesco da Buti adds the significant note, ‘all this was nothing but a cheat; for they only seemed to feast, and either did not really do so, or else took the dishes for something quite other than they really were.’ This is enough to show that the sense we have given to Dante’s words is one which found favour in early times (Brown, 1897, p210-211).
Not only evincing a talent for procuring unrivaled repasts, Scot was also known to enchant partygoers with weather control, time travel, and in the best case scenario, send them on life-changing adventures, only to deliver them back to the party as if no time had passed.
Another story of a more or less similar character is told of a feast given by the Emperor to celebrate his coronation at Rome, which took place on November 22, 1220. The pages were still on foot with ewers and basins of perfumed water and embroidered towels, when suddenly Michael Scot appeared with a companion, both of them dressed in Eastern robes, and offered to show the guests a marvel. The weather was oppressively warm, so Frederick asked him to procure them a shower of rain which might bring coolness. This the magician did accordingly, raising a great storm, which as suddenly vanished again at their pleasure. Being required by the Emperor to name his reward, Scot asked leave to choose one of the company to be the champion of himself and his friend against certain enemies of theirs. This being freely granted, their choice fell on Ulfo, a German baron. As it seemed to Ulfo, they set off at once on their expedition, leaving the coasts of Sicily in two great galleys, and with a mighty following of armed men. They sailed through the Gulf of Lyons, and passed by the Pillars of Hercules, into the unknown and western sea. Here they found smiling coasts, received a welcome from the strange people, and joined themselves to the army of the place; Ulfo taking the supreme command. Two pitched battles and a successful siege formed the incidents of the campaign. Ulfo killed the hostile king, married his lovely daughter, and reigned in his stead; Michael and his companion having left to seek other adventures. Of this marriage sons and daughters were begotten, and twenty years passed like a dream ere the magicians returned, and invited their champion to revisit the Sicilian court. Ulfo went back with them, but what was his amazement, on entering the palace of Palermo, to find everything just as it had been at the moment of their departure so long before; even the pages were still holding rounds with water for the hands of the Emperor’s guests. This prodigy performed, Michael and the other withdrew and were seen no more; but Ulfo, it is said, remained ever inconsolable for the lost land of loveliness, and the joys of wedded life he had left behind forever, in a dream not to be repeated (Shirley, 1920, p69-70).
So miraculous were the stunning achievements of Scot, that no less than Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375), would borrow details of his exploits for The Decamaron, noting that even the wizardly disciples of Scot were in demand 100 years after his death, as they were able to enliven any party by teleporting the queens and noble ladies of distant European royal courts to local fêtes.
The physician declared that he would never repeat what he should tell him, and Bruno said, ‘You must know, then, honey doctor mine, that not long since there was in this city a great master in necromancy, who was called Michael Scott, for that he was of Scotland, and who received the greatest hospitality from many gentlemen, of whom few are nowadays alive; wherefore, being minded to depart hence, he left them, at their instant prayers, two of his ablest disciples, whom he enjoined still to hold themselves in readiness to satisfy every wish of the gentlemen who had so worshipfully entertained him. These two, then, freely served the aforesaid gentlemen in certain amours of theirs and other small matters, and afterward, the city and the usages of the folk pleasing them, they determined to abide there always. Accordingly, they contracted great and strait friendship with certain of the townfolk, regarding not who they were, whether gentle or simple, rich or poor, but solely if they were men comfortable to their own usances; and to pleasure these who were thus become their friends, they founded a company of maybe five-and-twenty men, who should foregather twice at the least in the month in some place appointed of them, where being assembled, each should tell them his desire, which they would forthright accomplish unto him for that night. Buffalmacco and I, having an especial friendship and intimacy with these two, were put of them on the roll of the aforesaid company and are still thereof. And I may tell you that, what time it chanceth that we assemble together, it is a marvellous thing to see the hangings about the saloon where we eat and the tables spread on royal wise and the multitude of noble and goodly servants, as well female as male, at the pleasure of each one who is of the company, and the basons and ewers and flagons and goblets and the vessels of gold and silver, wherein we eat and drink, more by token of the many and various viands that are set before us, each in its season, according to that which each one desireth. I could never avail to set out to you what and how many are the sweet sounds of innumerable instruments and the songs full of melody that are heard there; nor might I tell you how much wax is burned at these suppers nor what and how many are the confections that are consumed there nor how costly are the wines that are drunken. But I would not have you believe, good saltless pumpkinhead mine, that we abide there in this habit and with these clothes that you see us wear every day; nay, there is none of us of so little account but would seem to you an emperor, so richly are we adorned with vestments of price and fine things. But, over all the other pleasures that be there is that of fair ladies, who, so one but will it, are incontinent brought thither from the four quarters of the world. There might you see the Sovereign Lady of the Rascal-Roughs, the Queen of the Basques, the wife of the Soldan, the Empress of the Usbeg Tartars, the Driggledraggletail of Norroway, the Moll-a-green of Flapdoodleland and the Madkate of Woolgathergreen. But why need I enumer409ate them to you? There be all the queens in the world, even, I may say, to the Sirreverence of Prester John, who hath his horns amiddleward his arse; see you now? There, after we have drunken and eaten confections and walked a dance or two, each lady betaketh herself to her bedchamber with him at whose instance she hath been brought thither. And you must know that these bedchambers are a very paradise to behold, so goodly they are; ay, and they are no less odoriferous than are the spice-boxes of your shop, whenas you let bray cummin-seed, and therein are beds that would seem to you goodlier than that of the Doge of Venice, and in these they betake themselves to rest. Marry, what a working of the treadles, what a hauling-to of the battens to make the cloth close, these weaveresses keep up, I will e’en leave you to imagine; but of those who fare best, to my seeming, are Buffalmacco and myself, for that he most times letteth come thither the Queen of France for himself, whilst I send for her of England, the which are two of the fairest ladies in the world, and we have known so to do that they have none other eye in their head than us (The Decamaron, Book 8, Ch. 9)
Scottish poet Sir Walter Scott’s (1771-1832) Lay of the Last Minstrel credits Michael Scot with fighting fearsome demons on the Scottish borderlands, but Medieval Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), presumably because didn’t get invited to many parties, unceremoniously consigned poor Michael Scot to the Eighth Circle of Hell that is reserved for sorcerers and astrologers in his Divine Comedy, commenting, “The next, who is so slender in the flanks, was Michael Scott, who of a verity of magical illusions knew the game” (The Divine Comedy, XX:115-117). Sounds like sour grapes. Michael Scot is said to have died in 1290 A.D., hit by a stone falling from a church (which he predicted), although we should be suspicious, and consider the possibility that he concocted an elaborate ruse to hide his all too plausible immortality. Either that or a deal with the devil went south, so to speak. It befits the man that he be as mysterious in death as he was in life. Establishing oneself as a sorcerer for time immemorial requires artistry, a balance between outrageous visibility and mysterious invisibility, and the true talents combine both so that fact and fiction merge into indiscernibility. After all, as philosopher Francis Bacon said, “The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery”.
Brown, J. Wood. An Enquiry Into the Life And Legend of Michael Scot. Edinburgh: D. Douglas, 1897.
Boccaccio, Giovanni. The Decamaron (tr. Payne, John). Walter J. Black Inc: New York, NY, 1886.
Shirley, Ralph, 1865-1946. Occultists & Mystics of All Ages. London: W. Rider & son, limited, 1920.
Dante Alighieri, 1265-1321. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. New York: The Davoe press, 1909.