ODD TRUTHS: DOCTOR TORRALVA, THE ARCH-MAGICIAN OF CASTILE

 “Remember the true story of the licentiate Torralva, whom the devils carried through the air, riding on a cane…”

 -from The life and exploits of the ingenious gentleman Don Quixote de la Mancha, vol. II, by Miguel de Cervantes, translated by Charles Jarvis (1749).

According to tradition, the first person on the Iberian Peninsula to make a name for himself in the dark arts was none other than Hercules, the barrel-chested son of Jupiter. Apparently medieval fabulists thought that the demigod was unsatisfied with one-upping Atlas and erecting pillars at Gibraltar—not to mention ridding the earth of monsters. They therefore added an extra “oomph” to his curriculum vitae and he became a first-rate professor of magic. In retrospect, the move was probably an attempt to reimagine the hero as an intellectual or scholarly icon. Indeed, Hercules is described in one Renaissance epic as “the wisest Clerk in the world”.

View of Toledo. Image via Internet Archive.

The academy of Hercules, which was said to be run out of a cave or grotto near Salamanca or Toledo, also functioned as a magical laboratory. There, amid an array of miraculous class supplies, such as gilded automata, Hercules delivered lectures on the occult sciences:

Excerpt from the English translation of Raoul Lefèvre ‘s renaissance epic, The Destruction of Troy (1708).

  In the Renaissance, this cavern of wizardry (sometimes described as a “fatal palace”) developed its own folklore and became, in essence, the sum of all fantasies about magical education. Its arcana were hermetically sealed off to bar the uninitiated from entering. Few could penetrate its recesses. Those who ventured too far into its depths either lost an empire (such as the Visigothic monarch Roderick who ceded the kingdom of Hispania to the Umayyad Caliphate) or fell victim to mysterious diseases, like the company of Cardinal Juan Siliceo. 

Illustration of Toledo. Image via Internet Archive.

Legend has it that this unfortunate party of adventurers descended into a vault in Toledo in 1546 and discovered bronze statues and an altar. The explorers cautiously delved deeper into the cave but eventually turned around and fled in fear. Pedro Salazar, the recorder of the tale notes that immediately following the expedition, many of the men became ill and died. Whether these effects were the result of devious elementals or natural causes like hypothermia or dehydration is a question perhaps best left to the imagination. Regardless, “Cave of Hercules” legends like this, many of which originated in the early Middle Ages, fuelled Spain’s magical reputation. Spanish magic schools gradually became elite institutions who counted alleged magicians like Michael Scot, Pope Sylvester II, and Virgil among their most revered alumni.

Excerpt from the English translation of Eusèbe Salverte’s The Occult Sciences (1846).

Yet, in the sixteenth century, a new adept appeared in Castile—a curious doctor who kept a familiar spirit. As opposed to Hercules and the other mythical or semi-mythical magi of Spanish extraction, this man’s existence is attested by court documents. He was Eugenio Torralva (or Torralba) and he was destined to become one of Castile’s most memorable personages.

A View of Cuenca. Image via Internet Archive. 

Doctor Torralva was a physician and licentiate from Cuenca. Juan Antonio Llorente, in his History of the Inquisition of Spain, says that Torralva initially served as a page to the bishop of Volterra, Francesco Soderini. In Rome, Torralva struck up a friendship with a Jewish converso and amateur philosopher named Alfonso. Under Alfonso’s tutelage, Torralva became a Pyrrhonist or a sceptic. Everything changed after Torralva received a fateful proposition from his friend Pietro, a Dominican friar. Pietro offered to transfer his familiar spirit Zequiel to Torralva gratis. Torralva accepted—and did not regret it.

Doctor Torralva communicating with spirits. Image via Internet Archive.

Zequiel (who, interestingly enough, bore the same name as the prophet in the Bible best known for his surrealistic visions) was quite literally a “free spirit”. He heeded no contracts, loved only friendship, hated charging money for miracles, and praised the Christian religion. He also regularly appeared as a dashing gentleman and wore a red suit and black overcoat. Although he forbade Torralva from earning money through magic, the daemon was not in the least against helping his human friend advance his career. He had two ways of doing this: political forecasting and social broadcasting.

Excerpt from the English translation of Juan Antonio Llorente’s History of the Inquisition of Spain (1826).

A natural intelligencer, Zequiel acquired information about far-off political events and encouraged Torralva to relate the information to the right people. He also assisted Torralva in his dealings with ghosts and haunted houses. Torralva and Zequiel made sure to spread the news of their capabilities and, over time, their strategy dramatically increased Torralva’s reputation and gained him patronage from friends in high places, such as the Infanta Eleanora of Portugal, the Admiral of Castile, and various members of the episcopate. Despite his controversial powers, Torralva did not come onto the radar of inquisitors until 1528. Like other adepts, Torralva was also said to have the power of transvection, or supernatural flight, and it was this ability and the diplomatic consequences associated with it that probably led to his downfall.

Illustration of the Colosseum in Rome. Image via Internet Archive.

Llorente records that in 1525, Torralva foresaw the Sack of Rome during a nocturnal time-travel flight (Torralva witnessed the sack in 1525 even though the historical event occurred in 1527). He accomplished the transcontinental flight to Rome with the aid of a “knotted stick” or “cane” given to him by Zequiel. This was probably the nail in the coffin for the self-made prophet, and Torralva soon found himself in the hands of befuddled inquisitors. Considering the horrid treatment of witches elsewhere in Europe at the time, Torralva’s four-year imprisonment was comparatively mild. In the end, prosecutors failed to prove that Zequiel was a corrupting influence. Torralva’s captors effectively let him go with just a slap on the wrist in 1531.

Was this a win for the reputation of magic in Spain? Not exactly. Torralva was most likely shielded from severe punishment by his powerful friends, some of whom were Castilian policymakers. Still, this illustrious heir to the tradition of Herculean magic in Spain should not be forgotten. His creative partnership with a benevolent and liberal-minded spirit was, in its own way, a restructuring of the typical sorcerer-familiar spirit dichotomy. Like Hercules the pagan god who gained renown as a magic teacher in Western Christendom, Zequiel (who fundamentally resembles a Socratic daemon) was implanted seamlessly into a predominately Christian culture. As Spain was then the centre of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish learning, this marrying of ideas could not have happened at a better place.

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