Solomon the Sorcerer
The literate Greco-Roman would have been familiar with the legend of the wizard-king Pharaoh Nectanebus. A combination of Merlin and Uther Pendragon, the legend ran that Nectanebus used his skills to seduce Olympia, the wife of Phillip of Macedonian and so, secretly, Nectanebus fathered the quasi-enchanted Alexander the Great.
Royal wizardry of a somewhat less lecherous focus was also ascribed to Solomon, the son of David, by the peoples of the Mediterranean basin. As was a common motif for other kings of the Ancient Near East, the Hebrew Scriptures styles Solomon as a patron of all forms of wisdom (I Kings 5:11). The post-Biblical work The Wisdom of Solomon elaborates on this theme:
May God grant that I [Solomon] speak with judgment and have thought worthy of what I have received, for he is the guide even of wisdom and the corrector of the wise….For it is he who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists, to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements; the beginning and end and middle of times, the alternations of the solstices and the changes of the seasons, the cycles of the year and the constellations of the stars, the natures of animals and the tempers of wild beasts, the powers of daemons and the reasonings of men, the varieties of plants and the virtues of roots; learned both what is secret and what is manifest…(7:15-21)
By default, 'knowledge of what exists' would have included the science of magic, a standard branch of learning in the ancient world. Later writers would particularly pick out the themes of Solomon's mastery of zoology and demonology (See: Jewish Demonology: Demon Origins). In Jewish sources, Solomon could talk with and command animals (Midrash Tanhuma B, Mavo; Ruth Rabbah 1:17; Eccl. Rabbah 2:25). In both Jewish and Gentile writings, Solomon could bend djinns to his will (Talmud, Gittin 68a-b; Antiquities 8:45; Testament of Solomon). He also manufactured magical devices. His ring was the key to his authority over beasts and spirits (See: Jewish Magical Rings of Power).
These traditions were bequethed to the medieval world. Thus in Nachmanide's introduction to his commentary on the Torah he notes:
[Solomon] was better versed in divination and enchanting then they [the fabled "children of the East," I Kings 5:10]..and Solomon [also] was better versed in sorcery, which is the wisdom of Egypt."
In time, Solomon's standing as the scholarly magician par excellence came to eclipse the similar tradition regarding Moses (see my prior blog entry). There arose a proliferation of magical and alchemical texts presented as being in the Solomonic magical tradition: The Key of Solomon, The Letter of Rehoboam, and Sefer ha-Razim, in addition to the aforementioned Testament of Solomon; a veritable library of esoteric powers credited to the Israelite king.
Zal G'mor: To learn more, consult the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism - http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050