“Scotland’s First Scientist”, “The Lost Genius”, “The Scottish Wizard”, “The White Wizard”, or “The Wizard of the North” are some of the terms used to describe Michael Scot. And although this Scottish sorcerer was referred to as the most “renowned and feared” sorcerer and alchemist of the 13th century as you will see, his psychomagic not only entertained Europe’s social elite, but over time it developed and became the modern disciplines of psychology and hypnosis.
Who Was Michael Scot?
Born in the year 1175 in Dumfries, Dumfries-shire, Scotland, he was the son of Michael Sir Lord Balwearie Scot and Margaret Balwearie. This wandering polyglot studied mathematics, philosophy, theology, and astrology at the cathedral schools of Durham and Oxford before visiting major centers of learning and royal courts across Europe. The BBC’s successful show, Shoebox Zoo , featured a wizard who created the “Book of Forbidden Knowledge,” a lexicon filled with dark magic and untold secrets. That was Scot!
Peter Mullan as the wizard Michael Scot. ( BBC)
Scot was so legendary that he was featured in Dante’s Divine Comedy in the fourth bolgia located in the Eighth Circle of Hell “reserved for sorcerers, astrologers, and false prophets who claimed they could see the future when they, in fact, could not.” The stories, legends and myths in the “people’s history” record Scot’s magical ‘abilities’ such as splitting hills and vitrifying witches, but little attention has been given to the “man” behind the magic. I have personally studied and practiced closeup magic and illusion for most of my adult life, and this article offers an insight into the arts of “magical thinking” and will share some of the eccentric processes magicians undergo to present apparently “effortless” effects.
The Man Behind the Wizard
Modern magicians such as David Blane and Chris Rock have developed magic brands which allude to them having one foot in ‘another world” or “dimension” and their performances are presented as acts of “hyper-spirituality.” Scot was the forefather of this form of magic – and at a time before scientific reasoning, he reveled in an endless line of “believers.” Having studied both Judicial astrology (the art of forecasting future events using calculations based on the planetary and stellar bodies and their relationship to the Earth) and theology, he walked the line between religion and science, a key determinative in becoming a “wizard”.
The Wizard card. ( OffbeatWorlds /CC BY NC ND 3.0 )
Scot was a futurist and had figured out at an early age that before he could perform illusions repeatedly, without being exposed as a fraud, he would first have to become a master magician in private. Behind closed doors he devoted almost three decades to learning the sciences of human nature, the inner-workings of the mind, and the mechanics of invisible universal forces such as magnetism and the laws of attraction and repulsion in both metallurgy and human interactions.
Leaving Oxford University, Scot toured Paris and Bologna and managed to find time to “establish” Naples University and Salerno medical school. In 1217, he resided in the Spanish town of Toledo, the university of which was celebrated for its cultivation of the occult sciences. In Paris, Scot was renowned for his prowess in solving complicated mathematical problems and became known as ‘Michael Mathematicus’ but sometime after arriving in Toledo he re-branded, and emerged as one of Europe’s leading alchemical sorcerers.
In Italy, Scot taught a very famous pupil: Leonardo Fibonacci, the author of Liber Abaci (Book of the Abacus – 1202), the first European book to use the symbol/number “0” to represent zero. The book, dedicated to Scot, included the famous number series 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55…. known as the Fibonacci Sequence, where each number is the sum of the two previous numbers, a formula found in the creation geometry of nature and imbued with powerful supernatural qualities.
The Fibonacci Sequence ( CC BY 3.0 ) and Spiral aloe. ( CC BY SA 2.0 ) Leonardo Fibonacci was one of Michael Scot’s students.
Having learned Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Arabic, Scot translated the works of Aristotle, Avicenna and Averroes from Arabic into Latin. He also translated Liber astronomiae (Book of Astronomy) by Alpetragius, the first work discussing the astronomical system of Aristotle. Scot’s translations are regarded as being greatly responsible for introducing this ancient Greek philosopher to the western world.
The Magical Scholars of Palermo
When Scott was about 50 years old, his translations had reached the highest levels of society and he was invited by Emperor Frederick II to attend his court at Palermo in the Kingdom of Sicily. 13th century Palermo was like Hogwarts, a buzzing hive of magicians, illusionists, spiritualists, and gurus from around the world who gathered there to learn, develop, and perform illusions which were presented as miracles, often for big fees. When Scot arrived at the Emperor’s Imperial court, chroniclers noted his unusual dress, as he was adorned not in Spanish fashion but the costume of an Arabian sage: flowing robes, a close-girt waist, and a pointed cap – a quintessential wizard.
‘An Arab Sage’ by Rudolf Ernst. ( Public Domain )
Scot had developed a reputation not just for translations, but also for astrology, alchemy, and medicine (he became a physician). He cured various ailments and won fame for his treatments and managed to cure some of the Emperor’s illnesses. Testing Scot, the Emperor famously asked him to “measure the distance between the top of a church tower and Heaven.” After Scot revealed the measurement, the Emperor ordered a few inches to be secretly removed from the top of the tower before asking Scot to take another measurement. Being a master of deceit, Scot must have deduced the Emperor’s trickery and commented after his second measurement “that either Heaven had drawn further away from the earth – or somehow the tower had grown smaller.”
Frederick was so impressed with Scot’s heavenly measuring skills that he bestowed upon him the office of Royal Astrologer and they forged a ‘very intimate” relationship – leading many scholars to believe they were lovers. The pope had excommunicated the Emperor twice and accused him of being the Anti-Christ, so the pair were subjected to Catholic black propaganda, which meant Scot was regarded as a “dark wizard in control of deeply heretical forces.” On the outside, Scot was outraged at such accusations, but in his private chambers he must have clicked his heels as a performing magician with invaluable marketing from the Vatican.
Emperor Frederick II. ( Public Domain )
Scot and the Emperor were accused of conducting “heretical experiments” including drowning people in wine caskets, but weighing them before and after death attempting to measure the soul escaping the body. However, Scot was a master at public relations and in the face of adversity, on the edge of being charged as a heretic and killed, he began practicing his own “new brand” of psycho-magic, presenting acts of divination and foresight of a deeply-spiritual nature. Essentially, he began presenting “illusions as miracles” and slowly persuading the public that his forces were only used in acts of charity.
The leaders of magical arts in Palermo were the Jewish Kabbalists and they were also the main performers of public miracles. Scot took these exhibitions to another level and was reported to have “a public reputation for performing miracles that would put any self-respecting wonder working Rabbi to shame”. He was also reported as adept at “inducing visions by a combination of manipulation of light and suggestion”. These early accounts of mesmerism and mind-control inform us that Scot was a founding father of the modern disciplines of psychology and hypnosis.
‘The Kabbalist’ by Ephraim Moshe Lilien. ( Public Domain ) The magical arts in Palermo were controlled by Jewish Kabbalists, until Scot turned up, that is!
Scot enjoyed his reputation as a semi-mythical, dark-mystic in communication with entities and spirits from “other worlds,” but less than a century later people began to smell a rat, evident in Dante’s famous work “That other there, his flanks extremely spare, was Michael Scot, a man who certainly knew how the game of magic fraud was played.”
This was a little unfair because although Scot studied astrology for many years, he was skeptical about its reliability, saying that there were “too many variables.” But he maintained his illusions were ‘real’ and to support his claims, before he resigned his position in Palermo, he predicted to the Emperor the time, place, and manner of his death; and the prophecy was “fulfilled exactly, in every particular detail,” according to some .
The Wizardry of Michael Scot
Rather than becoming a slave to any one belief system, Scot pioneered new esoteric systems such as physiognomy, sometimes referred to as anthroposcopy. The ancient discipline of assessing a person’s character and personality from their outer appearance alone, especially the face, first appears in the Siddhars from ancient India. The first indications of a developed physiognomic theory appear in 5h century BC Athens in the works of Zopyrus, who was “an expert in the art”. By the 4th century BC the philosopher Aristotle was apparently receptive to these ideas as well.
Faces demonstrating points of physiognomy, Lavater, 1806-1809. (Wellcome Images/ CC BY 4.0 )
Scot must have been introduced to ancient physiognomy while translating the works of Aristotle at Toledo university. He was so affected by these ideas that he later wrote books about body language, human gestures, and social dynamics. Today, the entire art of physiognomy meets the contemporary definition of a pseudoscience, and, like all esoteric subjects over time, its acceptance fluctuated because no clear evidence indicates that it works.
Successful magic requires magicians to appear relaxed and in control, but just beneath is a spider on a social web, in a state of “hyper-observation,” sensitive to even the slightest changes, not only in audiences’ viewing angles, but in both the individual and group state of mind. This fundamental data which helps a magician control the emotional flow of an audience during an effect can “only” be obtained from reading audiences’ body language and facial expressions – physiognomy.
I maintain that Scot may have not necessarily believed in all the ideas put forward by the ancient physiognomists, but as a practicing magician he knew that understanding that art would help him determine when people were “believing” in his magic, or maybe “concealing” surprise, or “telling” a lie, giving him a unique edge over other performers. I go so far as to suggest that considering it was just after translating Aristotle’s work on physiognomy that Scot emerged as a sorcerer, that art might have been “the” magical foundation stone upon which his legacy was built.
The Wizard (1896/1898) by Edward Burne-Jones. ( Public Domain )
Today, physiognomy and other observational procedures are boxed up in a skill set called “cold reading.” This art is applied in truly mind-bending “entertaining” formats by modern mentalists; but it is also deployed by disgusting television psychics who claim to communicate with deceased people while praying venerability and suffering. Scot did a bit of both. Nobody said he wasn’t a bad boy.
The Scottish Wizard heads home
In his 60’s, having spent almost a decade studying in Germany, Scot had achieved a semi-mythical status and began working his way back to Scotland.
While in England, he was ordained as a priest and Pope Honorius III wrote to Stephen Langton on January 16, 1223/4, urging him to confer on Scot an English benefice and nominated him for the role of archbishop of Cashel in Ireland. Scot declined this powerful ecclesiastical appointment claiming he could not speak Irish Gaelic, but in reality, his path required no medals or acknowledgement from churchmen, or any man.
Church of Cashel, Co. Galway, Ireland. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
Scot was a child of the “left-handed path” and in his later years he continued to generate esoteric texts featuring his experimental research in astrology, alchemy, and the occult. Among these were; Super auctorem spherae , De sole et luna which contained more alchemy than astronomy and adhered to classic alchemical symbolic rules by representing elements such as the sun and moon using gold and silver coloring. De chiromantia was his study of chiromancy (palm reading) and a trilogy of books on divination, collectively titled the Liber introductorius (“The Introductory Book”) was compiled at the request of Emperor Frederick. Scot wrote, “Every astrologer is worthy of praise and honour since by such a doctrine as astrology he probably knows many secrets of God, and things which few know.”
In Scotland, Scot was said to have locked the plague in a secret vault beneath Glenluce castle and to have turned a coven of witches to stone, which became the standing stone circle of Long Meg and Her Daughters. In Walter Scott’s The Lay of the Last Minstrel, he credits Scot with having conquered an indefatigable demon by challenging it to weave ropes from sea-salt after succeeding in splitting Eildon Hill into its three distinctive cones. He was also famed for having parties with friends where endless delicacies were served from the royal kitchens of France, Spain, and transported to Scotland by spiritual, invisible entities.
Apparently, Scot’s magic split Eildon Hill into three! ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
A popular legend in the late 13th century claimed Scot foresaw his own death by a stone falling on his head and he had even calculated the weight of the stone. To prevent this, he had a little steel skullcap made. However, as he knelt, bareheaded during Mass, a stone was dislodged by the “tugging of a bell-rope” and fell from the tower, “during the elevation of the Host,” landing on Scot’s head and fatally wounding him. Of course, one only hears about Scot’s successful predictions, the ones that came true – suggesting that he knew something about astrology that everyone else did not.
The precise date of Scot’s death remains uncertain, but most scholars agree that he died in 1232 in Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland. In Melrose Abbey a cross is dedicated to Michael Scot, but this is just one of several possible burial sites. Other folk stories tell that Scot “retired to and died at Glenluce Cistercian monastery” on the west coast of Scotland, and others tell that he ventured to Coltrame, in Cumberland. In 1629, a visitor to the parish church of Burgh under Bowness was shown a tomb, held in great reverence by the local population, which was supposed to be Scot’s.
Scot’s legendary ‘Book of Might’ was supposed to have been a book of dangerous necromantic spells, but any book with unidentifiable symbols might have been interpreted as magical, and it may have been something as simple as one of Scot’s works on geometry or trigonometry.
Person thumbing through a grimoire. (PlashingVole/ CC BY NC 2.0 )
Finally, it is worth mentioning that the earliest solid European records of a distilled alcoholic spirit come from the famous medical school at Salerno in southern Italy and from the University of Toledo in Spain around 1150 AD. Surviving copies of manuscripts attributed to Scot refer to “aqua ardens”, the earliest name for distilled alcohol, more than 250 years before it was first record in 1494. Having studied and taught in both institutions, Scot must have known the secrets of making alcohol, and if he did return to Scotland much of his magical appeal might have come from his being thought of as the spiritual grandfather of whiskey.
Top Image: A magician or wizard with a hidden face. Source: Public Domain
By Ashley Cowie