Before Harry Potter brought the wizarding world to the attention of us muggles, there were quite a few wizards, and witches, bending the world to their will. Here are six of the most famous and important wizards and sorcerers from history and legend.
Made famous as the inventor of the Philosopher’s Stone in the Harry Potter books, Nicolas Flamel was a real person from the 17th century. An alchemist and a sorcerer, he is said to have created the Philosopher’s Stone, which has the ability to turn anything into gold, and the Elixir of Life, which can offer immortality. Flamel worked in a bookstore, and one day a man came in and sold Flamel a mysterious book, which he had dreamt about the night before. Written in an unknown tongue, with the help of his wife, Flamel deciphered the book and discovered its magical secrets. After receiving the book Flamel became wealthy very quickly…
Morgan Le Fay
Half-sister to King Arthur, in the Arthurian sagas Morgan does not wish to see Arthur on the throne and uses magic to try and thwart his work. She was a powerful enchantress, and her name implies that she is related to some kind of fairy creature. She apprenticed herself to Merlin and used the knowledge she gained from him against him. She is not always portrayed as wicked, but as struggling for what she thought was right, from her perspective.
Grigori Rasputin was a famous holy man in the final days of Tsarist Russia in the last 19th and early 20th centuries. Born in Siberia, he was extremely charismatic and claimed to possess healing powers. He used his powers (of healing or of persuasion) to improve the health of the only son of Tsar Nicholas II, which earned him immense power in Russia. Rasputin’s character has been assassinated by history, probably largely to discredit the overthrown tsarist government that he supported.
Abe no Seimei
Sometimes called the Japanese Merlin, Seimei served as court wizard to six different emperors. He conducted rituals of divination as well as spells to protect the Japanese emperors from evil spirits and illness. He was said to have second sight, which helped him identify demons, which he fought in magical combat.
Scot was one of the most influential European intellectuals of the 13th century who had a deep interest in the occult. A native of Scotland, he studied in Toledo, a Spanish city that was occupied by the Moors, learning their magical secrets and translating many of their texts into Latin. He eventually started working as the personal astrologer of the Holy Roman Emperor and tutor to the Pope. Many magical feats were ascribed to him, including changing the course of the river Tweed and cleaving the Eildon Hills of Scotland into three. Dante chose to feature Scot in his Inferno, where he is punished eternally in the level of hell reserved for wizards. He was buried at Melrose Abbey.
John Domingo was a Voodoo wizard from Charleston, South Carolina. He claimed to be a necromancer that could raise the dead and use them to enforce his own brand of law. Sailors would buy wind from him in order to ensure a safe journey. Citizens of the city sought him out to solve their legal problems rather than going to the authorities. He died while apprehending two robbers. Dragging them into the street and comparing himself to Jesus, an invisible hand drew him up off the ground and choked the life out of him. When he was thrown the floor, his body aged rapidly and quickly withered into nothing. His ghost is still thought to hold power in the streets of Charleston.
Another Voodoo sorceress, Marie Laveau was a Creole living in New Orleans in the 19th century. She started a beauty parlour for wealthy families, but it was also where others could seek out her Voodoo services. She mixed Roman Catholic Saints with African spirits in her rituals and was famous for her divinatory skills. Many claimed that her divinations were enabled by her extensive network of informants. In particular, she would learn secrets from her rich patrons in order to place fear in the hearts of their servants. Her grave in Saint Louis Cemetery No. 1 is still considered a place of potent magic, and many visit in order to make a wish.
Dee was an English mathematician, astronomer and occultist in the 16th century. Viewed from a modern perspective, his interests would seem to straddle both science and magic, but the distinction was more fluid in Dee’s time. Dee served as court astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I and devoted much of his life to trying to communicate with spirits, often using mediums. At one point in his life he was accused of murdering children using sorcery and being a companion of hellhounds and a conjurer of damned souls.
Labelled the wickedest man in the world in the first half of the 20th century, Crowley was a devoted occultist and practitioner of ceremonial magic. He was a member of the famous occult group, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and later established his own occult group and religion, Thelema, based on visions he said were entrusted to him during his travels to Egypt. He gained notoriety as many of his rituals involved sex and drugs, nevertheless he remains extremely influential in modern occult circles.
The legendary sorcerer from the Arthurian legends, his portrayal varies greatly from story to story. The writer Geoffrey of Monmouth is credited with creating Merlin in the early 12th century, where he was described as both the son of the devil and a servant of God. Monmouth created the figure by combining the stories of the North Brythonic prophet and madman Myrddin Wyllt, and the Romano-British war leader Ambrosius Aurelianus. It is in Monmouth’s account where the story of Vortigern consulting Merlin about constructing his tower is told, and Merlin claims that the tower cannot be built because of two fighting dragons. Monmouth also tells the original story of Merlin helping Uther Pendragon sneak into Tintagel to father Arthur with Igraine, the wife of his enemy. Many years later Robert de Boron gave Merlin shapeshifting powers and linked him to the quest for the Holy Grail. Only later was he given a role as Arthur’s tutor and advisor.