"Virgil the Magician: The Endnotes" Transcript

By Mark Sundaram

Welcome to the Endnotes, where I put all the fun facts I can’t fit into the main videos! Today, some extra bits of information from my video about Magic — and if you haven’t seen that yet, click on the card.

In that video I discussed the medieval tradition of thinking of the Roman poet Virgil of as a magician. Among the various medieval tales about Virgil is the story “Virgil in his basket”, in which Virgil, in love with a beautiful woman, arranges for a tryst with her that night, whereby he is to climb into a basket lowered from her window and be hauled up, only she plays a trick on him and he is only pulled up halfway, leaving him trapped and the subject of ridicule the next morning. Virgil used his magic to get his revenge by transferring all the fire of Rome to his erstwhile love-interest’s, ahem, nether regions, wherefrom all the lanterns in the city had to be lit. This story is part of a larger trope of wise or powerful men being tricked by wily women, showing the dangers of female attractiveness and cunning. A similar story is the medieval tale of the Greek philosopher Aristotle telling his pupil, the young Alexander the Great, about the dangers of alluring women, and to avoid the king’s seductive mistress Phyllis. However, Aristotle himself was nonetheless bewitched by her, and she manipulated him into allowing her to play the role of dominatrix and to ride on his back like a horse. Alexander, having been told this was going to happen by Phyllis, witnessed this and thus learned the lesson! I’m not sure whose pedagogical technique was better! And this trope can be found not only in stories but in paintings as well, as demonstrated by the many depictions of the Old Testament story of Judith saving her people by seducing her way into the tent of the Assyrian general Holofernes and then beheading him. This trope, called the Power of Women topos, doesn’t always involve women using their sexuality to gain power, but more generally depicts the inversion of traditional patriarchal power. Another example, that brings us back to the Achaemenid Empire of the Magi, the original magicians as it were, is the story of Cyrus the Great’s death whose army was defeated by the army of the Massagetae, whose queen Tomyris took revenge for the death of her son by having Cyrus’s corpse beheaded and then crucified, with the head stuffed into a wineskin filled with human blood, saying, according to Herodotus, “I warned you that I would quench your thirst for blood, and so I shall!” Pretty kick-ass!

As always, you can hear even more etymology and history, as well as interviews with a wide range of fascinating people, on the Endless Knot Podcast, available on all the major podcast platforms as well as our other YouTube channel. Thanks for watching!