We all know about magic items from fantasy novels, MMORPGs or Dungeons & Dragons. They have their source in classical mythology, but in history too.
Throughout history, there have been objects that were considered to hold magical power . Here’s a short list of a few of them, some very ancient, some pretty recent; some of them have been lost in the mists of time, others you can go look at today.
1. Egyptian Icosahedron
Long before people geeked out with d20s playing D&D, unusual dice were a feature of magical oracles. These were ways that, by using random details, humans could connect with something beyond them. The 20-sided die (or icosahedron) seemed to have special significance to the ancient western magical world. Several oracle dice have been found, dating from the 2nd Century BC until the 4th Century AD. They usually had either astrological symbols or Greek, Roman, or (in this picture) Demotic letters. The dice were probably used by magicians to determine the name of which deity the person asking for help should make an offering to, in order to solve their problems.
2. The Chinese Imperial Seal
The one true and original Imperial Seal of China is probably one of the most valuable lost artifacts on Earth. It was created from a magical piece of jade (which the Chinese considered a rock of great power). At first, it was carved into a magical talisman for one of the many warring Chinese kingdoms. When the First Emperor (Qin) conquered all of China, he had the talisman remade into a seal that represented not just his imperial authority, but also the “Mandate of Heaven” itself. To the Chinese, the Mandate represented the approval of Heaven itself. Whichever ruler possessed the Seal was literally the worldly Emperor chosen by the Heavenly Emperor. During dynastic conflicts and civil wars, just holding the Seal could give a warlord enormous popular support.
Then sometime around the end of the Tang dynasty (10th Century), the Seal disappeared. Later Emperors created new seals but those didn’t have the significance of the original. Even today, if it was ever found, it could potentially have the symbolic power to create huge problems for the modern Chinese government.
3. The Spear of Destiny
The Spear of Destiny, the Holy Lance that was said to have pierced the side of Christ. You’d bet this was some kind of legend lost in history, but you’d be wrong. Actually, it’s in Austria.
At least, an artifact claiming to be the tip of the Lance is there. It belonged to the Holy Roman Emperors since at least the 10th Century, and later to the Austrian Emperors. Other small pieces of the Lance were said to be found in Poland, Rome, and other places.
Besides being seen as a super-holy relic in Christendom, legend had it that whoever possessed the Spear would be invincible in battle. When Austria became part of the 3rd Reich in 1938, the Lance was taken by the Nazis and hidden, but near the end of the war General Patton found it. It was returned to the Hofburg Palace in Austria, where you can see it on display.
Durandal was one of three magic swords (the other two were Joyeuse and Courtaine) which belonged to King Charlemagne. All three became legendary for their power. Charlemagne kept Joyeuse, and gave the other two to his greatest knights; Durandal belonged to the famous Sir Roland.
Today, Joyeuse can be found in the Louvre museum. Courtaine has been used for the last 800 years for the coronation ceremony of the Kings and Queens of England. But Durandal? It ended up stuck in the side of a mountain in southern France.
The story goes that when Charlemagne was fighting against invading Muslim armies that had conquered Spain (and sought to conquer all of Europe), his forces were ambushed by in a mountain pass. While Charlemagne led his army to safety, Roland (and a small number of his men) held the Muslims off. With Durendal, Roland single-handedly held of a hundred-thousand-strong Muslim invasion force. And when he was dying from his wounds, as his last act he threw the sword as high as he could so it wouldn’t fall into the hands of the jihadis. It cut deep into the rock, too high and too embedded to be removed, and remained there ever since. There’s a monastery there now, where people can still go and see it.
5. John Dee’s Magic Mirror
John Dee was one of the greatest magicians (and intellectuals) of the 16th Century. You can read about his amazing accomplishments in one of my earlier articles. Dee’s most famous magical work, preserved in his diaries, was communicating with angelic spirits through a magic mirror. That mirror still exists; it’s displayed in the British Museum today. It was made from obsidian, and appears to have originally been an Aztec ritual mirror. So it was probably magical before Dee even got to it.
6. Aleister Crowley’s I Ching Sticks
Aleister Crowley, in turn, was the greatest magician of the 20th Century. And like Dee, I already did an article all about him. Among his many accomplishments, Crowley was the first white man known to have actually used the ancient Chinese system of divination known as the I Ching. He used it more than almost any form of magic, and its wisdom guided him toward many of the key moments in his life.
Crowley had devised his own special system for using the I Ching. It used six flat sticks, with markings on either side. After Crowley’s death, these sticks were eventually passed down to one of his students (Grady McMurtry). But then these sticks, maybe the most intimate ritual objects associated with Crowley, were lost by McMurtry in a night of partying on a San Francisco beach. No one knows what became of them.