Every age has had its sorcerers, shamans, sages and seers; the power of the magic that they can wield has held generations of readers and listeners in its thrall since the earliest days. Wizards are figures of fascination and fear, for it is they who know the true power of the fabulous realms that lie beyond our mundane reality. For aeons these figures have permeated our myths and legends: Merlin, Gandalf, Prospero, Circe, Morgan Le Fay, Dumbledore and others too numerous to name. Every culture recognises the power of sorcery and has it enshrined in its stories. Magicians, wise men and witches recur constantly in Western lore, art and literature and the lore of the Far East and Africa contains them as well, as does that of many native peoples in North and South America and Australasia. Throughout prehistory, on into recorded thought, scratched onto rocks or carved in temples, images of magic and those who work it abound, even if sorcerers in these cases are sometimes termed priests instead. The same thing occurs throughout literature, from the Iliad and Le Morte d’Arthur to Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter novels. These days, magic is enjoying something of a revival, both in the form of ‘New Age’ ideas (many of which are in fact ancient) and in fantasy literature, where tales of magical intrigue enthrall us once again.
Within Western culture, magic and the figure of the sorcerer have had a very long and venerable history. The spiritual seers and shamans of Celtic myth were endowed with extraordinary gifts of prophecy, wisdom and healing. They enjoyed a profound rapport with natural and supernatural forces, and acted as intermediaries between the realms of the living and the dead, between the visible world of men and the invisible otherworld, a realm of wondrous spirits. Most famous of all was Arthur’s wise counsellor, Merlin; but other inspired druids – Amairgen, Taliesin and Cathbad – feature in Celtic myths as prophetic bards and counsellors to clan chiefs and kings. Some lived as hermits in the wilderness, while remaining powerful in Celtic society. Although on the whole helpful to mortals, some magic workers (usually women it has to be said) used their supernatural gifts to bewitch and manipulate mortals for their own ends, such as Morgan Le Fay, Nimue and Calatin.
Witan, an Old English word meaning ‘wise man’ or councillor’ was a term given to those who advised the ancient Anglo-Saxon Kings of Britain. Priests, nobles and members of the king’s household attended the witenagemot, as the assembly of the witan was called. Although witan were councillors rather than wizards as such, they were held in similar awe and reverence by the early Britons. In the Classical world the people often consulted oracles of every kind for personal and political purposes. The most famous was the Delphic Oracle where Apollo, the seer-god, spoke through a priestess, while Cassandra, fairest daughter of Priam and Hecuba, was a tragic seer who was doomed to be ignored when she accurately predicted the fall of Troy. The Norse god Odin was a sorcerer who developed his skills over a lifetime of search and sacrifice, much like a mortal shaman. After hanging himself on the World Tree, he learnt the secrets of the dead and restored himself to life. In Outer Mongolia, Yakut shamans claim descent from a primordial sage who rebelled against the supreme god and was condemned to eternal fire. His body, which was composed of reptiles, was consumed, but a single frog escaped the flames and gave rise to a line of demons from whom Yakut shamans are still drawn.
Around the world virtually every culture and people has had some sort of sorcerer or wise man figure in its society – the Vikings had practitioners of Spaecraft, the Romany Gypsies had those who practised Drabarne, in Spain and Mesoamerica there were Bruja (witches) and Curandera (faith healers), in Italy the tradition of Strega witchcraft was widespread until the Renaissance, in Russia wizards were called Koldun and witches Vorozheia, in ancient Egypt magic was called Kemetism and in Arabia its practitioners were called Zahireen, in Africa there were shamans called Inyanga who travelled to the New World and laid the foundations of Voudoun, which was practised by the Bokor witch doctors. These and a thousand other magical traditions have existed in every nation on Earth, but what is particularly interesting is that virtually every wizard or witch that has appeared in fantasy literature has had its roots in one of these real world traditions. To take one example, Gandalf in Lord of the Rings is almost the definitive fantasy wizard but he can be seen as directly influenced by Merlin and the other figures from Celtic mythology referred to above, with which Tolkien was very familiar. Numerous other examples exist and I hope that the fantasy writers of today who include sorcerers, shamans, sages and seers in their stories continue be inspired by history, legend and mythology. It all serves to make their fantasy seem that much more authentic, which can’t be a bad thing.