“This place is called the Accursed Place. Here Tityos offered his vitals to be torn, lying stretched over nine broad acres. Thy lips can catch no water, Tantalus, and the tree that overhangs ever eludes thee. Thou Sisyphus, dost either push or chase the rock that must always be rolling down the hill again. There whirls Ixion on his wheel, both following himself and fleeing, and the Belides, for daring to visit destruction on their cousin-husbands with unremitting toil seek again and again the waters, only to lose them.”
Before the gates of Hell in METAMORPHOSES Book IV by Ovid, c. 7 AD.
When I was very young and did not fully understand the separation of dreams from waking life, I had a vision that has ever since had the clearest recollection of an experienced and lived memory for me. Indeed some dreams are and must be of that nature, for the soul often goes on its travels during our sleep and the continuums through which it passes are ones in which events, seemingly fantastical and capricious, follow their own logic and causality. And sometimes we meet and discourse and interact for good or ill with other like travellers; somehow vaguely recognize them later in the waking world even if their aspect is not the same.
About four or five at the time I had a vision of a woman bathing in a fast-running stream, nude and more beautiful than any human creature I had ever seen. Crystalline water rushed quickly over her supine form and her skin was so fine it glowed with health and a vitality that was something more. Rivulets of silver flowed over her reclining body, superb and even as a child I felt an innocent desire I could not name. I could not see her face.
It was afternoon and I had fallen asleep after our midday meal and I woke, hardly knowing where I was and rushed to the slaves’ quarters to demand where the fine lady was? We had a visitor in our stream outside and she wanted to meet me! I was causing quite an unwonted stir until my mother came and brought me outside to the fast-flowing stream running through the extensive orchards my family owned in Gitta, and of course it was not even the same place.
Immediately I realised I had had some kind of important supernatural visitation, for it was extraordinarily intense and vivid and it filled me with an inspired articulacy as I clamoured to my bemused mother about the beauty and power and divine perfection of this mysterious lady in the stream.
My mother was very religious and unusually superstitious even for a royal Hebrew from being surrounded by Rabbis and admonitions and apocalyptic legendry all her life, but something I said must have really piqued her curiosity for the next day she took me to a sage and astrologer of her long acquaintance whom to my young eyes seemed a thousand years old.
Here for the first time I saw books and instrumentations of an elder knowledge and wisdom than our priests at work in the world. The astrologer was of all things a Celt, some renegade driven out of his native Hyperborean land and making his way through the barbarian hinterlands of Gaul and Germania, incidentally discovering the Roman Empire along the way, until he finally fetched up in hot dusty priest and madman-infested Samaria. He had avoided slavery and worse by convincingly plying a trade in mystical prognostication and learnt the apothecary’s art well enough to supply more or less reliable philtres of love, enervation, aphrodisiacs, simple medicines and poisons.
Muttering and fussing over me, the overanimated fossil came to a startling conclusion: I had affinity and command of demons and the Great Goddess of Many Names who had appeared to me bathing in the ever-running stream of Akashi which are the waters of all human experience and dream and aspiration and magnificent potential offered me by her materialization before my mind’s eye the choice between service to Her Truth and the lies of powerful devils.
Just how powerful are these devils you speak of, I naturally asked the silver-haired human skeleton, but he would only glower at me and say no more. My mother took me thoughtfully away and later tried to get me apprenticed to the Temple at Jerusalem, but my father would not hear of it.
Later he was sorry for this and when offered the indentured appointment with Strabo in Alexandria he arranged for me to be taught at the great university and Library in whose inner sanctums I now stand before grand and accomplished and world-famous Publius Ovidius Naso, who regards me with frank intensity.
We have just finished a long talk on the nature of the Underworld and the metaphorical undercity of the dead called Dis, of the Furies and the true nature and meaning of the Looms of Fate symbolism. I think I have surprised him with my depth of learning and even quoted from a few dialogues between impious sorcerers and conjured captive djinn I came across in a scroll attributed to the burnt royal library of Persepolis and carried here by the first Ptolemy himself.
That was not a restricted or forbidden one, it is required reading when studying the religions of antiquity. Still, I wonder if I may have gone too far as Ovid rummages absently across Didymus’ own worktable as though he had forgotten something important and finally takes up a carefully bound and lock-clasped volume of leprous-grey battered and dry-eaten parchments.
“Do you recognize this, young Simon Antonius?”
For a long moment I cannot speak. I am stunned to an unaccustomed thrill of exhilaration like nothing I have experienced before, not even with tender and experienced Master Satureus.
“I think that is the Comedia Diabolus Fabula, my lord.”
The forbidden book of all forbidden books. I was not even sure a copy of it existed here, not Satureus or any of the other tutors really knew. For it is proscribed by long decree and unsanctioned knowledge of it savagely punishable. Philo would offer his tight much-visited little ass a thousand times just to touch this relic.
“Quite correct. Even you knowing of its title is indicative. Not the book’s true name of course, that is long faded into the doubtful provenance of the distant past. In fact no one knows its actual origins and there are at least ten alternative books and versions of variable authenticity, so doubtless several authors or groups of authors contributed to it over the centuries. It has I believe much of what your secret studies seek to illume.”
“A young neophyte with the improbable appellation ‘Numang’ is the ambitious apprentice of a very powerful master magician, and steals his benefactor’s spells and equipment to transport himself to the skies. There he is first the slave then the confidant and ally of a long list of celestial beings and exiled deities who wish to use him to promote their cause in the world of men. Finally the gods and spirits of the Earth notice, he angers them and falls to his destruction in the underworld. That’s what I heard, anyway.”
Ovid barks his laughter at my effrontery and practically throws the bound parchments at me. I am elated and astonished. For this truly is a forbidden thing, Ovid defies the edict of Augustus himself by showing it to me and this is a dangerous kind of trust that cannot be betrayed except to the ruin of both parties. I know Didymus would never permit my seeing this.
“Yes, read it. You’re a determined, intelligent and manipulative boy who would eventually have found a way to gain access to it. This way you will not destroy yourself in the process through discovery or inference or speaking later too freely of what you should not know. I love my colleague Chalcenterus but he is too quick to deny knowledge to his charges, and that increases the danger of its misuse. I will trust you, my young scholar, to understand the grave nature of what you will learn here today and so use that knowledge with its due responsibility and care.”
I am already lost in the primally vivid tales that are reputed to take place in lands and times as remote from Abraham and Chaldea and megalithic Babylon as those days are from now, even more so. Mysteries and myths of prehistory come alive for me in the archaic poetical and polynym-strewn metaphysical parables and I find myself repeatedly breathless, in my excitement actually forgetting to respire.
Ovid watches me as I descend into a total absorption with the often difficult, contradictory and deliberately obscurantist stories which have such a transcendental empyrean background against which their events take place, nearly eclipsing the arrogant comically incompetent character and his fickle, alarmingly unreliable and treacherous weird allies.
Beyond the bumptious, frequently hilarious adventures of Numang and the fabulous exoticism of his heavenly and unheavenly companions there are very deep encoded initiatory guidances and instructions for body and mind and spirit to prepare for exposure to the supernatural. Protection against demoniac presences and other powerful entities by complex incantation and magical discipline are described in near-flippant brevity, profound states of meditational trance and phases of altered consciousness illuminated for seeing the unseen, means of demanding service and fealty and information and protection from invisible beings, dangerous secrets useful for looking on into the Land of the Dead and to the bottom of the Abyss itself.
Now I know well why this book is so resolutely guarded and proscribed. Other researches and discoveries by me over the years, despite my youth, make me well able to understand many of the evasions and clever literary juxtapositions further obscured by multiple multilingual retranslation over millenniums. Seemingly cryptic and mired in free-wandering waves of exposition, the whole has a searing concision and unity of purpose. Real potential power and influence lie in these deceptively primitive verses and baldly ambiguous fables for one who knows how to read them.
Great Ovid, you truly are a fool to have let the likes of me see this devil’s own bible freely.
“Our time has reached its natural finish, boy. I hope you appreciate the burden I have entrusted you with.”
“Sire, there are not the words of gratitude in any language to describe the honour. I see now what you meant by responsibility and I will undertake this.”
Ovid looks hard and long and searchingly at me after indicating I approach him closely, and holds my head in both hands. I have long since learnt to make my feral eyes clear and innocent and after a protracted glare he finally lets me go, grunting with what I hope is satisfaction.
“I never condescend about knowledge, Simon Antonius. You are young but you have the intellect to know and make a moral choice over these matters. Believe me when I say I have seen the terrible consequences of great power abused and I hope you will not deserve to suffer them.”
As I go, struggling not to exult and gloat at my amazing good fortune, Ovid seems like a quiet watchful idol or statue inhabited by a too-knowing spirit and his final, inhumanly drilling glance frightens me. But soon I am away and in the secluded Garden of Athena far off the main paths of the colonnade I give full vent to my triumph with an intensified scream of unadulterated black joy that probably shocks more than a few passing stragglers and slaves on their rounds. I make certain I am unseen.
Rejoining the crowds of boys as classes finish for the day and all repair to the dining hall for the evening’s blessings and usual execrable hash and sawdusty wine, I look for but cannot see Satureus. I quickly try his part of the tutor’s refectory but the slaves say he is not there and I cannot linger. I come into the hall and the dedications to Serapis, Isis and the Muse of the Day (Urania, they are quoting one of Ovid’s own astronomical dialogues for her) are already underway and I have to take my seat on a more than usually crowded bench unobtrusively.
My imagination still travels with Numang and his own overcrowded universe of phantasmagoric friends and foes. As soon as I can I must get to my cell and carefully write down all I can remember, most of all those daemonaic summons formulas and withering curse-incantations for which I had prepared my receptive memory in advance to imprint with utter concentration and without error.
Didymus leads the blessings and announces Ovid will leave next week for Rhodes, Athens and Corinth – he’s doing the full tour of the great universities before returning to Rome and the fond patronage of the emperor. The sooner he is out of sight the better for me. Grateful as I am, having once perused the forbidden I cannot rest until have seen much, much more of Bronze Guts’ extensive secret collection.
The Comedia Diabolus Fabula is the greatest but by no means the only book of secret wisdom and routes to spiritual and temporal power. Knowledge of the one may in itself prove the key to finding the means to access the others by patient machination. With wise and watchful Ovid safely gone I can begin my cautious campaign to seize the rest.
So engrossed in my plotting am I that it barely registers when breathless little Philo plumps himself begging down beside me, reeking of a manly scent I know so well. Suddenly cold and desolate I see Satureus furtively enter the hall opposite as if on cue.
I look from one to the other, again and again and again and again and again and again and again. The shadows close in around me, seem to detach themselves from the walls and move in sympathy with my thoughts and I remember an old prophecy. The desiccated old Celt was right all those years ago.
I truly do have an affinity and command of demons.