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One of the most shameful acts in the human history

“Each day the traders are kidnapping our people – children of this country, sons of our nobles and vassals, even people of our own family.This corruption and depravity are so widespread that our land is entirely depopulated. We need in this kingdom only priests and schoolteachers, and no merchandise, unless it is wine and flour for Mass. It is our wish that this Kingdom not be a place for the trade or transport of slaves.” – Written by the King of Congo, King Alfonso I.(1456-1543) to Joao III of Portugal. Continue Reading …

warriors sacrifice themselves for their colony

Among a certain number of social insects, the body is adapted to the functions of the individual. Ants or termites soldiers, for example, feature powerful jaw stuck on huge heads. This is not the case of bees which ensure yet many roles in their lives. An exception confirms the rule, with the first war ever described bee: Jadai bee. Continue reading 


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Article – An army of robots to replace our farmers?

Centuries of technological developments have led to high agricultural productivity. What will happen when it does begin to level off? A passionate American has developed robots , called Prospero, optimizing seeding in the agricultural parcels to delay this deadline. His model: the insects !

Prospero could help farmers increase the yield of their land through better seeding. Prospero's brain comprises a processor with 8 cores and 32 bits produced by Parallax. © David Dorhout

There are hundred thousands to work every day to produce fruits, vegetables and grains necessary for our health. To achieve this, farmers can rely on several centuries of evolution of their tools. Unfortunately, come a day when they reach peak performance. Yet the world’s population continue to grow and it will be necessary to feed them.

To help farmers, an American entomologist, David Dorhout, has developed autonomous robots capable of improving the performance of agricultural land (not the work of producers) by optimizing seeding techniques. The inventor was inspired by the social behavior of many insects to design the robot, named Prospero , working in groups. They communicate by infrared and move in groups to disperse the seeds.

Despite their close cooperation, the robots know how to take certain decisions individually. The soil is studied by each robot before the burial of a seed. Based on the results, automata choose to continue or not their operations. They also determine the number of seeds to plant per unit of area. The distance between seedlings can vary within a field.

The pheromones of ants, model robots Prospero

To avoid the same area to be planted several times, each robot marks the position of the seeds with a white dot. Other devices detect this information and then pass their way. Dorhout David was inspired by the chemical communication in ants to develop this process. When ants locate a point of interest, they release a pheromone , replaced by color in robots, used as a benchmark for others.

The author wanted the concept to produce a simple and as inexpensive as possible. The robots are equipped with GPS , which requires data flows fairly consistent. They work and are located only in communicating with each other.

Only the robots planters have been developed to date. They are, moreover, that prototypes which will surely continue to evolve in the years to come. David Dorhout now wishes to develop robots that can maintain and harvest the crops. The ultimate goal is to produce a autonomous device that can sow the seeds, maintain and harvest the fields of production.

Robots specializing in the fight against the pest organisms and invasive plants could also replace the use of chemicals and improve the quality of plant production.

The autonomy of machines is limited. The inventor could develop a robot nurse. It would be equipped with a generator hybrid allowing it to recharge the robot-farmers in action.

The advantages of these devices are numerous. The increased yields of a few percent per hectare would allow farmers to significantly increase their production.

Women in the era of Crusades

What comes to mind first when we think of the Crusades on? Armored knights who wear huge red cross on their breasts. We always just think of men, never think of women, although women also played an important role in the era of the Crusades. The Crusader wars, not only the role of women has changed, but also created new women ideal. There were women who, after their husbands took the cross and traveled to the Holy Land, mainly cared about the administration of estates. The women’s social role and reputation in the Middle Ages was far greater than was thought previously.

Anna Komnéné historiographer

The woman, who written the story of the Crusades

Anna Komnéné Byzantine princess (1083-1153) was the first woman who started to write stories. Philosophy had been dealt with women – Diotima, or Hüpatia Heloise – but the historiography was a man profession. Anna was her father’s the eldest and favorite child and she always strove to gain the imperial throne. In 1118 she has an unsuccessful conspiracy against her brother – II. Jóannész Komnénosz emperor -, who denounced the movement, and the  sent Anna to a monastery, where she had enough time to thinking about what happen in Byzantium and the world. The first crusade – in addition to family history – a very important feature in stories of Anna. The princess hated the Church of Rome. The princess hated the Church of Rome. Anna thought  the Latin  Knights bring threat to Byzantium, and therefore condemned the movement. Crusaders marching through the country, can cause damage. Anna could see it well:  in 1204  Venice under the pretext of the crusades struck blow the biggest to commercial rival, Constantinople.

The Christian queen, who harmed to the Crusaders

Queen Mélisende (1105-1160), daughter of King Baldwin II of Jerusalem, who co-reigned with his father. While for example the French monarchy was inconceivable that a woman or a sick king occupies to the throne , in Jerusalem this wasn’t problem. Mélisende was a very independent personality. In 1129 she got married with V. Fulques d’Anjou and they co-reigned with together, but the queen was issued on behalf of herself provisions. After her husband death Mélisende her  young son instead reigned, but when the son came of age in 1145, she didn’t renounce the throne.  III. Baldwin quietly tolerated it, but in 1152 asked his mother  a division of the kingdom. Mélisende agreed: she became the queen of areas of Judea and Samaria, while her son reigned over the northern part of the kingdom. However Baldwin soon be extending its influence throughout the country, and his mother closed the tower of David in Jerusalem. This woman domination caused internal strife which harmed to the Crusaders. The Muslims began to attack and they gained back large areas from the Christians. After Mélisende’s death, in the Crusader States no allowed that a woman inherit the throne for centuries.

Aquitaine Eleanor the first "Crusade tourist"

The first “Crusade tourist”

Aquitaine Eleonora was born in 1122. His father, IX. William was the first troubadour of the Middle Ages. The lord taught his daughter to arts that she became  well-educated, independent woman. In 1146 was proclaimed the Second Crusade. Eleonora decided to accompany her husband, VII. Louis.  Eleonora’s “crusader tourism” didn’t leave good memories behind. In 1189 when the Third Crusade started, the Pope’s edict banned that women join to  the army.  In the era of the Crusades was born a new woman ideal. The troubadour arts was in relationship with the christian movements. While the lords of castle away from home with their knights until  the poorer knights who could not travel to the Holy Land courted theirs wifes.  A “distant love” (amor de lonh) was a sense of unfulfilled love song which they felt towards these women. Then developed a “romantic love”, which is still held up. The “unattainable woman” and “unfulfilled love” was created by the myth of the troubadour. The other inspiration was a cultural connections with the Arab world. Next to the classical poetry and  court culture the Arabic poetry impressed  the troubadour arts too.

Written by Ilona Kaszanyi

Reference: Rubicon 2006/10 (Sághy M.: Nők a keresztes hadjáratban)

Kaziranga National Park

Kaziranga: India’s Kingdom of the large animals

Author: Abdullah Al Abbadi – Pictures: Steve Winter ( you can see the article by photo gallery )

An Indian rhino weighs as much as a SUV. Rhinoceros unicornis looks as if they wearing protective shields made of wrinkled leather on their backside. Bigger is only the African white rhino. And only the Sumatran rhinoceros and the Javan rhino are more risky. Once the rhinoceros were spreading from Pakistan to Myanmar. Today there is not even 2700 animals of this kind. Some 700 animals of this kind live in small protected areas in northern India and in neighboring Nepal. Virtually all the rest – the last count by about 2,000 animals – Resides in the 860 square kilometer of Kaziranga national park . It lies between  Brahmaputra River and the Karbi hills with sandy islands and floodplains. If you exclude the water surface, jostling on every square mile of the park, on average four of these primitive and rather excitable unicorns.

There were already a lot less. A hundred years ago there were in the northern Indian state of Assam is less than 200 rhinos. Agriculture had collected most of the river valleys in which they reside and prefer to live. Trophy hunters and poachers hunted the last survivors.
In 1908, the Kaziranga reserve has been established primarily to protect the rhinos. There were about a dozen left. Over the years, the sanctuary was enlarged and in 1974 received the status of a national park . In 1985 it was declared a World Heritage Site. A little more than ten years, the government doubled the reserve area (however, still there objections of former land owners). Today is the most important Kaziranga Rhino Sanctuary in Asia, a reservoir from which animals can also be made in other reserves – the key to the future of the rhinoceros.
The National Park is a tremendous success. Besides the rhinos live here, there are nearly 1300 Indian elephant, 1800 buffalo – the largest population in the world – at the 9000 pig deer, 800 Barasinghahirsche, dozens of horses and hundreds of wild boar.

Indian Tigers

Large-scale deforestation and poaching are the reasons that in the past 25 years, most Indian tigers were exterminated. But not in Kaziranga National Park. According to official estimates, there are 90-100 indian tigers. This is perhaps the largest population density of these big cats in the world.
How can this national park in so many large animals live on such a small area? The answer is the river. The Brahmaputra originates in Tibet. It flows about 1,100 miles east, then turns towards the west and flows 800 kilometers through India and Bangladesh. At the time of the summer monsoon season it floods the valley. When the water drained, they have the flood plain covered with nutrient-rich mud. Sedges and grasses grow luxuriantly, up to six meters high, a sea of ​​lush, high-energy food for herbivores. Such high-grass habitats, as experts call these flood areas are richer in large animals as the forest of the subtropics, but much less frequently. Of biodiversity and number of animals it can absorb the Kaziranga African savannah with the most famous national parks.

Other Species

On higher ground are airy trees, vines interconnected by thatched roofs. Rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta) parading along the braided stems of climbing plants. Parakeets and hornbills lights in the branches. Out of the Shadows invade the voices of hundreds of other bird species.

Abdullah Al Abbadi

Natural Reserve in Mauritania

Photo by Bamba

A house of environmental activists in Mauritania turned to a nature reserve full of wild turtles, and it is a direction of dozens of students, researchers and ordinary citizens who want to rest and or watch its contents of protected turtles, plants and fruit trees.

The environmental activist had to redesign his home which is located on the vast land in the south of the capital Nouakchott to respond to the needs of environmental activity, his house now is home for hundreds of wild turtles which are living in an entrances and shelters housing specially designed to receive those animals, and he feeds them from the branches of the fruit trees and other kind of meals that he provides them.

The Birth of the Idea and the unusual customs in Mauritania:

Owner of the project ” Bamba Samory Soueidatt ” said that the idea came to him 10 years ago. I was in recreation trip outside the city, I was surprised of a rural family who were cooking a turtle for the lunch meal and another turtle was waiting to be cooked, so I decided to buy it” says Bamba

The project began after that, Bamba decided to start mission of manhunt for the endangered turtles in the wild and remote countryside. Only few year later, he had collected dozens of turtles which he bought them or he picked them up from remote places of Mauritania.

According to Bamba in interview of Aljazeera net, his main motivation to run this project was his feeling of risks facing the turtles, which are now few in number and endangered because of several factors, most notably the drought that hitting Mauritania since decades, also large parts of the country, and the enthusiasm of broad categories of the population to eat turtles and prepare it as meals in a private offer for the guests, especially in remote and rural areas.

Among the unusual customs in Mauritania, is a large number of people with asthma or shortness of breath to look for a turtle to lock it up for an hour or two hours with the patient, believing that the turtles have extraordinary ability to absorb the disease and help people recover without having to search for a doctor or to pay for meditation fees.

See photo gallery

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Fruits and Trees
Not only turtles Bamba preserves in Adbakana – name of beautiful town in the middle of Mauritania which he gave it to his reserve – but he also decided to a couple of kind of trees and plants that most of them not available in whole Mauritania.

Today the reserve is full of many types of trees in including, for example olives, figs, almonds, orange and black berries, pomegranates, apples and sea Curusol and Melia, henna and Seixas and some palm trees.

One of students that was visiting the reserve during Al Jazeera net interview, called for support to this project which is lack much.

Abdullah Al Abbadi

Source: Al Jazeera.net  Dec 1, 2011

Why Hannibal chosen the elephants?

When Hannibal, before more than 2.200 years ago left Carhage with his army, he took with him 37 elephants to attack Rome from the rear. He had 50.000 soldiers and 8.000 horses too. The distance was 2.400 km long and took 5 months. It was the most brilliant campaign of the Second Pun War.

The elephants were used in warfare, especially in the attack. The elephants were slaughtered in the way between enemies. In addition, they were able to bring “smaller towers” on them back from where the soldiers could more easily shoot.  During the march was a great benefit too. An elephant can carry a load ten times more than a horse. But a vast amount of plant eat a day, more than 140 kg. Hannibal’s elephants were not large in stature. This is the reason was enough to feed less. He put captivity them North Africa, at the Atlas Mountains. This elephant-species went extinct. He had some Indian elephants, which are brought from Egypt.

The first serious obstruction was the Rhone river. They built promontory which protruded into the river 60 meters for the elephants. At the end of promotory they anchored huge raft and they covered them sand to delusion the elephants. First they drove the cow-elephants and the elephant-bulls followed them. When they arrived the top of Alps another problems came. In the snowy grazing grounds there wasn’t enough feed for the animals and they had to go across narrow paths next to deep abysses.

In Carthage the elephants were held in high esteem. They decorated one of side their coins with elephants and the other side with gods or important person like Hannibal.

They crossed the Alps during 15 days. Hannibal lost thousands of soldiers but all of elephants survived. He defeated Scipio’s roman army and he became the model of classic daring.

Written by Ilona Kaszanyi

Reference: Hogy is van ez? (1992 Budapest, p. 344-345)

Alchemy and Magic in Medieval Europe


by Amy Hackney Blackwell

Medieval Europeans believed in magic. They knew little of science and medicine, and in a complex and dangerous world magic seemed to be a reasonable explanation for natural phenomena. People were willing to do whatever they could to give themselves a sense of control over their lives. Doing so often meant wearing relics, taking herbs, and chanting incantations, at least. Some “magical” charms had real value; many herbs, for example, do have medicinal properties. Alchemists took basic village magical practice much further, studying the work of other scholars and performing experiments that blended science and magic.

Red coral, popularly used to ward off ailments and for other magical purposes; Britain, ca. 1500 (© Museum of London)

Medieval Europeans engaged in many types of magical practices. They used charms or rituals to protect their homes and themselves or to create other effects. Many people believed in the power of relics—the physical remains of holy people, such as saints—to have physical effects on the living. Pieces of what were said to be the True Cross (the cross upon which Jesus was crucified), the finger bones of saints, and fragments of the clothing of holy people were popular items for sale in medieval markets. Many people purchased and wore charms to protect them from harm; these charms could be items of jewelry or the bone fragments of saints. People continued to visit sites that had been sacred in pre Christian times; although these holy sites often took on Christian identities throughout much of the medieval era, for many people the separation of Christian and pre-Christian beliefs was only partial.

Villages frequently had residents who specialized in the use of herbal medicines and cures. These people were often women who worked as midwives and who were called on to treat various ailments. Although these “wise women” were respected for their healing abilities, they were sometimes held in suspicion for fear that their powers would allow them to do harm. During the late medieval period this suspicion often caused people to call these women witches. Because wise women were frequently widows living alone, they were vulnerable to this sort of persecution.

Wise women and village healers made ample use of herbs in both medicines and magic potions. Different herbs were said to have specific magical properties. Dill, for example, was thought to protect people from falling prey to witchcraft and from losing lawsuits. Some people hung sprigs of fennel over the doors of their houses to keep out witches. Garlic, it was believed, could keep away all manner of malevolent magical creatures, from vampires to snakes; it could also enhance courage and sexual performance. Some people took ginger in an effort to stave off old age. Henbane could cause hallucinations that people interpreted as visions from the spirit world; witches were said to use henbane to help them fly. Some people would put a new piece of horseradish in their purses every New Year’s Eve as a way to keep from running out of money during the year.

Love potions were extremely popular during the medieval period. Herbalists, alchemists, wise women, and ordinary folk made love potions from all manner of herbs: Lovage, marigold, mallow, mustard, mint, radish, sage, valerian, hops, ginger, cloves, and basil were just a few of the substances that people consumed in order to inflame others with lust or to enhance their own sexual performance. Basil, so it was said, had the additional virtue of being useful for magically breeding scorpions. .

The more scholarly form of medieval scientific and magical inquiry was alchemy. The word alchemy may have come from the Arabic term al-kimiya, meaning “the art of transformation,” which itself derives from the ancient Greek word khemeia, meaning “cast together,” which may be the etymological root of the word chemistry. Alchemists practiced their art throughout the ancient and medieval worlds. The most  proficient alchemists of the early medieval period practiced their art in the Middle East. Europeans discovered their works in the 1100s, when many Arabic texts and the works of the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 b.c.e.) were translated into Latin. European scholars became captivated with alchemical ideas, such as the concept that all substances could transform into a more pure and perfect state.

Medieval European alchemists pursued their goals using a combination of techniques, some of them not very different from modern scientific observation and others derived from mysticism, tradition, and magic. Alchemists sought several things. They are perhaps best known for their efforts to transform base metals (ordinary metals, such as iron) into gold. They also tried to brew a potion called a panacea, or a cure-all, that would restore youth, prolong life, and cure all diseases. Although these goals were impossible to achieve, medieval alchemists did accomplish a great deal of scientific inquiry that paved the way for the development of the modern fields of chemistry, physics, and metallurgy. Alchemical experiments resulted in the creation of dyes and pigments, the invention of different types of acid and other chemical compounds, insights into the properties of metals, and techniques for brewing various types of alcoholic beverages.

Alchemists were hampered in their pursuits by their lack of understanding of the properties of matter. They believed that all matter was made up of four elements: fire, water, air, and earth. This belief derived from the teachings of Aristotle. Alchemists theorized that each element was either hot or cold and wet or dry and that each metal had all of these properties. They reasoned that if they could rearrange these properties within a metal, they could transform it into a different kind of metal, ideally gold. Many alchemists believed that the transmutation of ordinary metals, such as lead, into gold could be facilitated by using a substance called the philosopher’s stone. No one knows exactly what the philosopher’s stone was, though it seems to have been imagined in powder form.

Alchemists tended to love secrecy and symbols. The foundations of their work were spiritual as well as physical, and much of their scholarship was based on mythology and mysticism. They also used astrology to explain physical phenomena. Consequently, the writings of alchemists were full of multiple meanings and cryptic suggestions, making them appear magical to the uneducated.

Many of the best-known scholars of medieval Europe were alchemists. Most of them were members of the clergy, mainly because the clergy were nearly the only people who knew how to read and who had access to books. The first scholars to venture into this field started with Arabic works on science and mathematics. Pope Sylvester II (ca. 945 1003) studied Arabic texts on science, mathematics, and astrology in Spain and introduced them into Europe. He was said to be a sorcerer. The English scholar Adelard of Bath traveled throughout the Arab world in the early 12th century and brought back with him several Arabic texts on astronomy and mathematics. By the late 12th century the works of Arabic scholars and Aristotle were more readily available to Europeans. Albertus Magnus (ca. 1200–80) supported the coexistence of science and religion. He was an excellent scientist for his time and wrote a great deal about botany, zoology, astronomy, and other topics, including music, particularly the wayin which music could purify the soul. His work on astrology gave him the reputation of being a magician.  The most important of the medieval alchemists was Roger Bacon (ca. 1220–92), also called Doctor Mirabilis, or “wonderful teacher.” He was an English Franciscan friar who worked as a professor at Oxford and the University of Paris. He performed numerous scientific experiments and formed many ideas that he describes in his book Opus majus (Greater Work, 1268). This book covers scientific and mystical topics, including the influence of the planets on human life, the visible spectrum of light, and the chemistry of gunpowder. Bacon’s work influenced all subsequent European alchemists. Alchemists of the 14th and 15th centuries were more like magicians than scientists. In their writings they generally assemble the work of earlier scholars rather than conducting and reporting on new experiments themselves. Their main interests were finding the philosopher’s stone and the elixir of youth. Many of them were persecuted as witches or sorcerers who were said to work against good Christian practices. Nicholas Flamel (ca. 1330–1417) spent his life searching for the philosopher’s stone and claimed to have discovered it through a copy of the Book of Abraham that he purchased in Spain. He said that he could indeed turn base metals into gold and also claimed that he and his wife had achieved immortality. The German alchemist Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486–1535) wrote a treatise called Libri tres de occulta philosophia (Three Books on Occult Philosophy, 1531), in which he describes the interaction of the natural world and the occult. Philippus Aureolus Paracelsus (1493– 1541) is credited with transforming medieval alchemy into a more modern science and rejecting the image of the alchemist as a magician.

Church officials began taking a narrow view of witches and sorcerers in the early 1300s. Around this time magic, alchemy, and witchcraft became associated with Christian heresy. Many were accused of consorting with demons. Both alchemists and so-called witches used secret symbols and incantations in their work, giving rise to the suspicion that they had entered into pacts with the devil. Pope John XXII (1249–1334) issued an edict in 1326 forbidding priests and monks to practice alchemy. During the 14th century several people were tried for witchcraft or sorcery in France and Italy. Witch trials began occurring in England in the early 15th century. European witches were not persecuted on a major scale until the end of the medieval period. The first large European witch hunt occurred in Switzerland in 1427. The German book Malleus maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, was published in Germany in 1486 and became the scholarly basis for subsequent prosecution of witches. The height of the witch craze actually occurred during the early modern period, between 1580 and 1660.


Alchemy and Magic in Medieval Asia

Alchemy and Magic in Medieval Americas

Alchemy and Magic in Medieval Africa

Alchemy in Asia and the Pacific

Asia and the Pacific

by Bradley A. Skeen
Most early societies have shamanic components within the scope of their religious practices. The shaman differs from the priest in claiming a personal relationship with the divine and in addressing his followers’ personal concerns, such as illness or purification from sin, rather than collective concerns, such as the community’s agricultural success, which may instead be mediated through priests. Practices that descend from shamanism are generally termed magic, while those as- sociated with priests are termed religion, although the sharp distinction between magic and religion is most commonly found in European and Middle Eastern cultures. Ancient shamanic practices remained prevalent in much of medieval eastern Asia, including in Siberia and among the Ainu people of northern Japan as well as in the cultures of Australia and the Pacific islands. By the Middle Ages, shamanic practices had long been institutionalized in the advanced civilizations of India and China. These practices took the form of various occult sciences considered part of philosophical learning, among them, alchemy, astrology, and medicine.

In India the traditional expert in the occult sciences was the yogi, or practitioner of yoga. Yoga is related to the English word yoke and refers to the joining together of the human and divine. The goal of the yogi was to become divine or godlike. This was to be accomplished by meditation, the conscious manipulation of autonomic bodily processes such as breathing, the use of plant and mineral drugs, the control of the body through asceticism (such as fasting, going without sleep, or refraining from sexual activity), and the practice of occult sciences such as alchemy. Through all of these practices the physical body would be transformed, such that the yogi would be able to perform miracles such as flying or becoming invisible and could prolong youth and life indefinitely. In the Middle Ages popular yoga traditions were transformed into proper philosophical schools (such as that of hatha yoga, which was formed between 1100 and 1400 and is still widely practiced today) and systematically recorded in a textual tradition, especially within the diverse school of practices usually referred to as tantra. Tantra is something like the English magic in the sense of being a collection of practices that are supposed to accomplish miracles and that may or may not be legitimate from the point of view of philosophy and religion.

The miracle of turning base metal into gold is found early in the Indian tradition; yogis may have achieved this “miracle” through the means of a simple sleight-of-hand trick on the order of modern stage magic in order to inspire followers. The Greek pseudoscience of alchemy was actually invented in Hellenistic Alexandria and was transmitted to India in the early Middle Ages. This practice had the aim of purifying other metals (especially mercury) into gold, not for the purpose of obtaining wealth in the form of gold but under the belief that the purifications performed on the metals by the alchemist also purified his body and soul. By the time the final transformation into gold was achieved, the alchemist would have also transformed his body into a perfect one that would remain eternally young and his mind into one that knew all the secrets of the universe. Later in the Middle Ages the penetration of Islamic culture into India (beginning with the Islamic conquest of part of modern Pakistan as early as 711) brought Islamic alchemy to India. Also, a version of Hellenistic astrology had been imported into India and flourished there essentially unchanged into the modern era.

In the 13th century a new school of medicine was developed in India, usually called iatrochemical medicine, since it used mineral rather than plant substances as drugs. (Iatrochemistry derives from the Greek iatros, or “physician,” and chemeia, or “alchemy.”) Alchemical in origin, the school revolved around empirical work performed in laboratories to create new compounds rather than around the mystical beliefs of alchemy. Texts of the school (by physicians such as Vrindra and Cakrapnai, of the turn of the 15th century) cite tantric yogis among its venerated predecessors. Modern versions of these texts do not claim to describe procedures that could result in eternal youth and immortality; they may instead be dedicated to the god who preserves human beings from sickness, old age, and death. Iatrochemical physicians may have been the first anywhere in the world to realize that various metals burn with distinctive colors when exposed to flame, a standard test in modern chemistry.

Daoism, which speaks of the Dao, meaning “the way” or “the path,” is a school of Chinese philosophy dealing with the creation and existence of the world. In China attempts to manipulate the world through magic have been part of Daoist practices. The purpose of such practices was to allow the sage to become a divine being. Purification would result not in the creation of a superior, immortal body but in the washing away of the body, leaving the sage a spirit no longer hampered by the limits of the physical. Alchemy developed independently in China, at about the same time as in the Greek world (in the third century b.c.e.), as the premier Daoist occult science. However, it was more limited in scope than Greco-Islamic alchemy, aiming at the single purpose of gaining immortality, that is, transforming a mortal into a divine being.

Alchemy gained prominence in medieval China owing to its earlier patronage by Qin Shi Huang (260–210 b.c.e.), the first emperor of a unified China. He wished to gain immortality and extend his personal rule indefinitely. One action in the effort to accomplish this was the dispatch of explorers in search of islands said in ancient myth to be inhabited by divine beings. Another action was the assembly of a committee of scholars whom the emperor commanded to produce an elixir of life that would make him immortal. The scholars decided that since gold is imperishable and since mercury is useful in refining gold, the emperor should consume large amounts of gold and mercury compounds (including the naturally occurring mineral cinnabar, or mercuric sulfide). This poisoned him, causing his mental impairment and premature death at age 50. Many later emperors held the same ambition and were likewise poisoned throughout the medieval period, into the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). Many of the alchemical theories produced during the time of the first emperor were collected and transmitted to the Middle Ages in the Nei pian (Inner Chapters), which was written in the early fourth century of the Common Era by the philosopher Ge Hong. Medieval alchemical texts interpreted the first emperor’s search for the land of the immortals as a symbolic expression of an inner journey of spiritual purification that the alchemist had to carry out together with purification of the body through such ascetic practices as long periods of fasting. Gold also was a metaphor for the purity found within the human spirit. Chinese tradition considered that all matter consisted of five elements—water, fire, wood, gold, and earth—and that these also constituted the human body, respectively corresponding to the kidneys, heart, liver, lungs, and stomach. Cinnabar was important in this system because its red coloration associated it with blood. If cinnabar is heated, pure mercury melts out of it, a transformation that was understood as expressing the possibility of physical rebirth through the alchemical manipulation of the body. Alchemists believed that ingesting cinnabar would reverse the effects of aging and purify the body until it was light enough to take flight. In this way, Chinese alchemy revolves around the manipulation of chi within the body. Chi, literally “steam,” is the vital breath that animates the body and is also the animating force of the whole cosmos. Purification consisted in properly balancing the chi. These same operative principles were the foundation for traditional Chinese medicine. In Zen alchemy, developed after 1100, physical experiments upon metals and the ingestion of metallic drugs were dispensed with entirely. The transformations described in older alchemical texts were interpreted as taking place only within the alchemist’s mind and spirit. The purification of intellectual gold could in this way be used to give birth to the elixir of life.

Limestone guanyin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion with 11 heads; China, Tang Dynasty, ca. 703 (Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, gift of Charles Lang Freer)

Astrology was a Greco-Arabic occult science imported into China in the Middle Ages. In its most spectacular application in China, the Buddhist monk Yi Xing (683–727) designed a water-powered armillary sphere, that is, a machine used to simulate the motions of the stars and planets. His design incorporated the invention of the escapement, a mechanical device that regulates the motion of a pendulum, allowing for precise clockwork movements. Similar mechanisms were not invented in Europe for another 500 years. This work was commissioned in 725 by the emperor Xuan Zong (685–762) to determine astrologically the best times for him to sleep with his wives and concubines so as to most likely produce male offspring.

Korea and Japan received overwhelming influence from Chinese culture. In certain instances ancient shamanic practices in these regions persisted unchanged, never having the chance to evolve in the face of already sophisticated Chinese religion and philosophy. Such practices were also preserved intentionally as a means of maintaining a separate national identity against Chinese influence. For instance, Shinto, the national religion of Japan, produced a new cult in 1279, the Izuna shugen (shamans of Mount Izuna). Followers of this cult sought to achieve magical effects by controlling fox spirits. The cult was widely patronized at the imperial court and by local feudal lords and was especially practiced by samurai, since the spirits in question were believed to bring luck in combat and to magically inspire skill in the martial arts. The peoples of Australia and the Pacific islands did not have extensive contact with outsiders until the era of European exploration, well after the Middle Ages. Their religions remained essentially shamanic: individuals mediated their  own contact with a spirit world seen in dreams and manifest throughout all of reality. Early European anthropologists tried to use concepts from these cultures to find universal definitions of religion and magic, but that effort has generally been discredited because they relied on Western science’s preconceptions. Many peoples in Polynesia, for instance, see the whole world as permeated by manna, a sort of divine energy that animates everything; to term this belief “magic” is a Western stereotyping of the native idea that does little or nothing to explain the concept within the context of the cultures where it existed.


Alchemy and Magic in Medieval Africa

Alchemy and Magic in Medieval Europe

Alchemy and Magic in Medieval Americas


Alchemy and Magic in Medieval Americas

The Americas 

by Arden Decker

Pipe with bluebird (Mexico, ca. 1100–ca. 1400); tobacco and other substances were smoked to induce hallucinognic states or illness as a way to gain supernatural empowerment. (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of the Art Museum Council in honor of the museum’s 25th anniversary, Photograph © 2006 Museum Associates/LACMA)

In general, the use of alchemy and magic throughout North, Central, and South America is tied to a variety of social functions, including healing, harming, divining, and religious or ritual use. Prior to the Spanish conquest practitioners of alchemy and magic (witches, sorcerers, healers, and shamans) were not viewed with the negative connotations that are sometimes associated with those who practiced magic in Europe. It is useful to keep in mind that in these various cultures the manipulation of plant properties and the use of magic did not belong to a realm that was separate from religion or society at large. In fact, they played an important role in the reinforcement and continuation of cultural identity and religious beliefs. Most medieval American cultures believed that the entire natural world was animate and the line between human and supernatural realms was not ridgedly defined. Because plants are highly perishable, there is little physical evidence of the use of alchemy, though some visual representations do exist. While much of what is known concerning the use of alchemy and magic is gathered from colonial era chroniclers and explorers, we also have learned much about these practices through the contemporary people who continue to utilize them to this day.

Role of magicians and witches

Although their names and specific roles varied and often overlapped, most practitioners of alchemy and magic were believed to possess supernatural powers and knowledge that enabled them to control or manipulate situations and the natural environment. Witches were believed to be able to alter the acts and welfare of others in both positive and negative ways. Witches could be elders, leaders, curers, or sometimes even an ordinary person. The Aztec (ca. 1300–1521 c.e.) of central Mexico believed that witches and shamans had the special ability to transform into an animal alter ego called the nagual (also spelled nahual). By calling upon the nagual, the practitioner was able to vicariously perform acts against others. In Maya cultures (ca. 1800 b.c.e.–1530 c.e.) shamans often were called upon to capture “lost” animal spirits or the alter ego of a person. Shamans were particularly important within most American cultures because they served as leaders and intermediaries of the human and spiritual realms. More specifically, shamans possessed the ability to pass through the various supernatural levels. Both men and women could become shamans, thereby suggesting that both sexes held religious and political power. The role of curers and healers was more specific. Some engaged in a general practice of healing sicknesses, while others were specialized in treating certain types of illnesses or conditions. Often they worked as ritual healers of ailments brought on by the gods, witches, or sorcerers. The tradition of using plants in magical and ritual ceremony is long, and it is believed that shamans in North America engaged in such practice as early as the Paleo-Indian Period (ca. 13,000–ca. 8000 b.c.e.); it is commonly held that these traditions were brought over by Paleolithic peoples from Asia. Plants were used as remedies for medical issues; as master herbalists, shamans, curers, and healers all engaged in such use. In more extreme cases, witches, curers, healers, and shamans entered into ecstatic trances in order to perform magic. Hallucinogenic plants that were believed to help the person or the soul travel into supernatural realms often aided this process. Natural elements, such as leaves, seeds, or barks, were commonly believed to be magic or sacred owing to their unique effects. Some plant elements were used alone, while others would be combined and mixed with additional ingredients to enhance specific effects. The sophisticated knowledge of plant properties among contemporary indigenous groups in North, Central, and South America indicates a longtime study of hallucinogenic and medicinal plants. It has been suggested that the use of magical plants often allows members of a society to find validation of their culture and history as they participate in rituals and ceremonies passed down for generations. It is necessary to mention that such plants were not used for recreation, as they were considered to be highly sacred and were employed only for ritual purposes.

In medieval Mesoamerica the use of psychotropic mushrooms was a longstanding part of magical or ritual practice. The Huichol Indians of north-central Mexico have continued such practices since pre-Columbian times, and it is believed that such mushrooms also were used by Classic and post- Classic Maya in shamanistic ritual. There is strong evidence to support the use of the peyote cactus in southwestern North America and western Mexico, including funerary art depicting the plant. The use of morning glory seeds called oloiuqui by the Aztec was also prevalent in Mesoamerica. The colonial- era historian Bernardino de Sahagún (1499–1590) wrote about the Aztec use of oloiuqui mixed with honey in ritual practices. The seeds of the Sophora secundiflora plant, known as red beans or mescal, have been found at archaeological sites dating before 1000 c.e. in both Mexico and Texas, and they have the longest record of use throughout Native American cultures. It is believed that these seeds were used for divination purposes. The use of members of the Datura family of plants also was widespread throughout the Americas. As a psychotropic plant, it was highly valued by the Inca (ca. 1450–1532 c.e.) for its intoxicating effects and was particularly important for sorcery and curing.

In both North and South America the magical properties of tobacco were often exploited. Tobacco would be ingested through chewing, licking, and smoking, or it could be absorbed through the skin. Tobacco and other plants, such as members of the pea family, were often smoked or made into snuffs, which would be inhaled, usually through the nostrils, to achieve the desired hallucinogenic effect. In South America the state of sickness brought on by ingesting large amounts of tobacco was believed to aid the practitioner in achieving supernatural empowerment. In its most potent state, tobacco use was thought to cause paranormal vision in the shaman. It also helped the shaman perform psychiatric healing and to embark on vision quests. Columbus and his men recorded the use of snuff among the Taino peoples inhabiting their first point of contact, the island named Hispaniola.


The San Pedro cactus has been used for more than 3,000 years by cultures living in South America, and it is still in use today. There is visual evidence that cultures understood the sacred nature of this plant as early as the Chavín culture (ca. 900–ca. 200 b.c.e.), which used the plant as a decorative motif in their art. This very thin, column-shaped cactus is used for healing and in witchcraft, suggesting that the plant possesses both healing and potentially destructive powers. One way that San Pedro cactus is still utilized today is in a cure that involves combining the plant with tobacco leaves, sugar candy, lime, cane alcohol, and perfume to create a mixture full of symbolic power. The concoction would be used as a curative drink to heal various illnesses.


Alchemy and Magic in Medieval Asia

Alchemy and Magic in Medieval Europe

Alchemy and Magic in Medieval Africa