Fire in the sky: a piece of ancient sorcery explained in Hippolytus

The article by Dodds on theurgy and Neoplatonism mentions[1]

Compare … Hippolytus’ receipe for simulating a fiery apparition of Hecate by natural if somewhat dangerous means (Ref. Haer. 4, 36).

The magician casts his spell, and … suddenly a flame is seen ascending in the sky nearby!

The Refutation of Heresies IV, chapters 35-6 is online in English here:

And that a fiery Hecate seems to career through air, he contrives in the mode following.

Concealing a certain accomplice in a place which he wishes, (and) taking aside his dupes, he persuades them (to believe himself), alleging that he will exhibit a flaming demon riding through the air. Now he exhorts them immediately to keep their eyes fixed until they see the flame in the air, and that (then), veiling themselves, they should fall on their face until he himself should call them; and after having given them these instructions, he, on a moonless night, in verses speaks thus:-

“Infernal, and earthy, and supernal Bombo, come!
Saint of streets, and brilliant one, that strays by night;
Foe of radiance, but friend and mate of gloom;
In howl of dogs rejoicing, and in crimson gore,
Wading ‘mid corpses through tombs of lifeless dust,
Panting for blood; with fear convulsing men.
Gorgo, and Mormo, and Luna, and of many shapes,
Come, propitious, to our sacrificial rites!”

And while speaking these words, fire is seen borne through the air; but the (spectators) being horrified at the strange apparition, (and) covering their eyes, fling themselves speechless to earth.

But the success of the artifice is enhanced by the following contrivance.

The accomplice whom I have spoken of as being concealed [underneath a cauldron], when he hears the incantation ceasing, holding a kite or hawk enveloped with tow, sets fire to it and releases it. The bird, however, frightened by the flame, is borne aloft, and makes a (proportionably) quicker flight, which these deluded persons beholding, conceal themselves, as if they had seen something divine.

The winged creature, however, being whirled round by the fire, is borne whithersoever chance may have it, and burns now the houses, and now the courtyards.

Such is the divination of the sorcerers.

I wonder from where Hippolytus obtained these details?  In particular the verse chanted?


  1. [1]E. R. Dodds, “Theurgy and its relationship to Neoplatonism”, Journal of Roman Studies 37 (1947), 55-69; p.68.  On JSTOR.

4 thoughts on “Fire in the sky: a piece of ancient sorcery explained in Hippolytus

  1. Thank you, this is a fascinating example of ancient magic tricks. Here are some more. Rufinus (HE 2.23) says that an iron image of Sol in the Serapeium at Alexandria regularly performed a false miracle by levitating, an effect achieved (he thinks) using magnets. The same temple had doors that seemed to open of their own accord, presumably using the hydraulic mechanism described by Hero of Alexandria. On a humbler scale, Pliny reports that Anaxilaus, whom Augustus exiled from Rome, wrote down the instructions for several party tricks using lighting effects. Dosing the lamp with cuttle-ink supposedly made the guests look like Ethiopians (HN 19.20); dosing it with hippomanes made them see horses’ heads (28.180); and carrying lit sulphur around the room made them look deathly pale (32.141). Then of course there is the snake-puppet of Alexander of Abonuteichos. Has anyone collected and discussed ancient magic tricks, or are they too difficult to distinguish from ‘sincere’ magic rituals and cult practices?

  2. Thank you very much for these examples, and still more for referencing them properly!

    I think it’s a very good question. I’m afraid I don’t know. The study of ancient magic is probably ignoring such things, which it probably considers fall within the study of ancient technology. There’s a thesis there somewhere!

  3. I’m still trying to figure out how Hippolytus knew all the detailed teachings of Simon the sorcerer, yet virtually nothing about the other apostles and what Paul did after acts survived.
    (I know there’s all those very late pseudo-traditions of the apostles martyrdoms which seem to be completely unknown to Eusebius, and the Pseudo-Acts of Paul — since they are pseudo, they don’t count.)

  4. But this book is about heretics. His sources we can only infer, but probably are from experience. We can infer nothing, of course, from what he does not mention.

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