I recently finished reading Georges Dumezil’s Plight of the Sorcerer. I was peripherally familiar with Dumezil’s work when I ordered this volume, having read half of his landmark Archaic Roman Religion. While even half of a Dumezil analysis was enough to convince me of his value, both to the historian and the magician, I was mostly attracted to Plight of the Sorcerer by its title. Naturally, as something of a would-be sorcerer, I was interested in what insights or warnings I could gain from the text. It certainly sounded ominous. “Plight” is not a word that fills one with confidence.
A preliminary Google search revealed nothing about the nature of the book beyond the Amazon review. Precious little Dumezil has been translated into English, and most of it is out of print. If anything, this made the volume appear mysterious and alluring. Even though I couldn’t find any samples or reviews, I wanted a copy. Alas, I could find no copies for less than ninety dollars. With a shelf full of unread books, I couldn’t justify that. Luckily, the Abebooks spirits smiled upon me, and one turned up for less than 40 bucks. I pounced on it. When it arrived, the slightly worn black dust-cover wrapped in clear plastic reminded me of library books from my youth. A lithe little volume, I wondered what secrets it held as I dove into the first chapter.
The book is essentially a long essay comparing two mythical figures, or if you prefer, one mythical figure in two forms: the Indian Kavi Kayva Usanus, and his Iranian counterpart Kavi Kay Us. The Kavi is an archetypal magician figure: rebellious, headstrong, slightly sinister, but also wise, honorable in his own way, filthy rich and powerful. The Kavi is engaged in a rebellion against the Gods. As the chief Brahman of the army of demons, he is their religious minister, strategist and secret leader. The Indian myth, where Dumezil focuses most of his attention, is an older and purer source than the Iranian, which has been significantly colored by monotheism. There isn’t much stigma attached to the Kavi’s alliance in India. The demons and gods are simply viewed as opposite teams. Dumezil takes pains to point out that, according to some myths, the demons may have a legitimate grievance against the divine order. He also clearly explains that Kavi Usanus is held in high regard in the celestial courts. He is considered a full member of the Brahman caste. In the Iranian myth, he is seen as more of a hybrid magician-warlord, and there is an ethical stigma placed on his actions, yet he remains a respected and influential figure. What these two myths have in common is that of the magician as man qua man, or perhaps super-man qua super-man. He is an individual challenging the status quo. Change is by definition a disruption, and a sorcerer is nothing if not a source of change. It makes a great deal of sense that, in traditional societies, this magician would be seen as a wielder of demonic forces. When the society is marked with an intrinsic metaphysical value and character, any serious challenge for control must take on a metaphysical character itself. What isn’t so clear is the reason for the Kavi’s metaphysical rebellion. Clearly he wants power, but the particular details surrounding this are passed over in favor of telling the story of the power-grab itself, and its repercussions.
In the Indian tale, his troubles are primarily social in nature. He has a daughter whom he loves very much. She is well aware of her father’s special powers and is something of a spoiled princess. To further complicate matters, one of the young god-brahmans petitions Kavi Usanus to take him on as student. His real goal is to steal away the secret of raising the dead, which the Kavi possesses, and bring it over to the gods. The gods, apparently, are vulnerable to violent death. The Kavi and his allies know what this young demi-god wishes, but, as a Brahman, the Kavi honors his request and accepts him as his student. The demons are naturally less understanding, and contrive to have the younger Brahman murdered. Of course the Kavi’s daughter falls in love with the beautiful god and… well… you get the idea. In the end, the Kavi’s alliance with the demons is pulled into jeopardy and the whole enterprise falls apart. Thus we have the first of the sorcerer’s “plights”: other people. The sorcerer, despite his great power and wisdom, is still a man. He has social connections and obligations, and these obligations he executes with no less attention than he gives to his other pursuits. As a result, he is never able to fully extricate himself from the machinations of the gods and destiny. He could, perhaps, retreat into isolation, but part of what makes him a sorcerer, and not a simple monk, is that he demands spiritual power on his own terms, which includes the right to exercise his sexual and social drives.
In the Iranian saga, the Kavi’s particular nemesis lies in another field. There are some strong connections between the Iranian Kavi and the more familiar biblical sorcerer Solomon. Most striking is the large palace that the Kavi constructs by harnessing his demonic allies and “yoking” them to his will. However, while Solomon is seen as an agent of God, Kay Us is seen as nothing but an agent of his own desire. In fact, his unwillingness to curb his appetite causes no end of friction with his lieutenants and followers. He is willing to discard any norms that don’t suit his fancy. He breaks alliances and even, on one occasion, kills the children of his most loyal ally. In a final act of hubris, he straps four great eagles to a magical platform and assaults the heavens. His goal is to join the sun, moon and stars and become truly divine: an immortal god. Of course, the eagles tire and return to earth, bringing the Kavi with them. Finally, he realizes that there are some barriers he can not overcome, and repents. While the redemption aspect of the myth is probably a later Zoroastrian addition, this story does adequately illustrate the second major “plight” of the sorcerer, his own mortality. While the great magician may comfort himself with wealth, knowledge, political clout, women, followers, holy visions or any number of other things, the slow decay of his body is inevitable. In some myths he takes on an immortal nature after death but, while alive, the Kavi clearly prefers to retain his bodily existence, an understandable, if impossible, sentiment.
This brings us, finally, to the legacy of the sorcerer. Interestingly, the two myths are in complete agreement here. In both cases, the Kavi is recounted as the founder of kingdoms and dynasties. Not only is his *ahem* “blood” used to justify royal status, his instruments or weapons are viewed as talismans not unlike Excalibur, conferring the divine right to rule on those who posses them. It is hard to say if this legacy is an example of the success of the Kavi, or his failure. Have the gods co-opted his power and tamed him, or has he broken their monopoly on reality and become immortal? Personally, I vote for the latter, but I’m probably biased. Either way, there is some ambiguity about the fate of the magician. Like the good philologists we are, let’s return to the title of this book, The Plight of the Sorcerer for more information. We modern Americans, with our middle class sensibilities, tend to see “plight” as an intrinsically negative term. But, according to Webster’s, the word comes from the Old English “pliht”, which simply means “danger”, or “to expose one to danger”. It has close connections to “peril”, but is not necessarily negative, in a final sense. This is a fairly apt description of the sorcerer. By stepping outside of the stream of humanity, he exposes himself to risk. Unlike the warrior, he is not called to do this by the social order. It is not a discharge of duty. He chooses to place himself in danger, ambiguity and risk. This is not an unwelcome side effect, but an integral component of his nature. Plight is a perfectly accurate description of the sorcerer’s life and legacy. He wouldn’t have it any other way.
[Originally posted June 17th, 2008]