We have already defined pyrotechny as the art of fire. But, while this is the literal meaning of the word, its application is too broad to satisfy our further needs in a consideration of the subject.
Pyrotechny has been commonly defined as the art of producing pleasing scenic effects by means of fire. This inter-pretation of the word is wholly unsatisfactory, since it fails to include a large and important portion of pyrotechnic activities. For example, there was no intention of producing merely a pleasing scenic effect in those contrivances which were named "murdering marrons." On the contrary, they were designed specifically to work injury against an enemy, and the worse the havoc wrought, the better their object was achieved. On the other hand, the definition is equally inapplicable to devices of a pyrotechnic sort intended for life-saving purposes at sea. It is necessary, then, to formulate a definition of pyrotechny that shall be sufficient to cover all varieties used in the past, as well as those familiar to us in the present, and also that undoubtedly large number of new and valuable inventions to be produced in the future.
The simplest possible definition that seems complete may be given thus:
Pyrotechny is the art of aerial fire.
This definition limits the art to products visible in the air; but is broad enough to include a very wide range of activities. It is thus differentiated from the concerns of such fires as we employ ordinarily in the home and factory, and elsewhere, for purposes of comfort and industrial accomplishment.
Moreover, we find a particular justification for the new definition in the matter of those origins of the art having a religious character. And the definition is, likewise, peculiarly applicable in the next stage of our consideration, which has to do with those developments of the art of fire due to the growth of magic.
Many varieties of substances possess a lively tendency, under suitable conditions, to combine with oxygen, and to do this with such violence as to yield products that are both hot and luminous to an intense degree. This is the manner in which fire generally comes into being. In the matter of ordinary burning, the dependence for a sufficient supply of oxygen is on the air. But there exist certain solid substances containing oxygen in combination with other elements, from which substances the oxygen may be released so readily, and to such an extent, as to result in combustion of extraordinary energy. Ages ago, the priests discovered some among the number of such substances, and in these discoveries pyro-techny had its beginning. But the work of the priesthood in this direction was taken up and carried much further by innumerable magicians, who began to flourish almost at the dawn of history, and have continued with varying fortunes even till to-day.
In the very earliest times of which there exists any historical record, religion and magic became well-nigh inextricably mingled. - This was the case in ancient Babylonia, Chaldea, and Egypt. The priests commonly practiced the various arts of sorcery and necromancy, and served in addition as soothsayers. Later on, the magicians formed a class by themselves, apart from religious ministrations. But, both before and after this separation, they were actively concerned with fire, in its various aspects, as playing an important part in their ceremonial observances. Just as fire was of value to the priest, so, too, it was of value to the enchanter. It presently became, indeed, of much more importance to the wizard than ever it had been to the priest. When the magician desired to summon to his aid an elemental spirit, or sought to call forth from the shades some ghostly visitant, his first preparation for the spell was the drawing of a circle, or other geometrical figure, within which to stand while uttering his incantations. And it was necessary that this circle, or pentagram, or other figure, should be outlined in fire by lights burning at measured distances along the circumference, or in the angles. The fires might be either brilliantly illuminating, or merely glowing, and giving forth clouds of smoke. Such fumes were of particular potency when the magician desired to secure an effect on other persons present with him. For this purpose, the materials employed were often of a sort to make the smoke narcotic in its effect. It was frequently, also, of great service in illusions of the eye.
Magic, as historically known, comprises five divisions. These are the black, which is evil in its designs and in the instruments by which it is effected; the white, which is beneficent in its scope and in its agencies; the natural, which employs physical means of a kind not commonly known; the celestial, which seeks to attain its ends through planetary control; the goetic, which gains any desired power by compact with the devil - a variety of magic once much esteemed by the unscrupulous, and still not by any means abandoned.
It is principally with natural magic that the history of pyrotechny has to do. The magician strove to gain a mastery over fire, and so gradually came into possession of a knowledge far beyond that held by the generality of folk. This result was inevitable from the prominence of fire in the innumerable operations of magic. The fact of such secret learning is amply attested by many records. The literature of magic is large, and elaborate in its details. It is not fitting in this place to make any extensive survey of such literature. It is sufficient to refer, for example, to the writings of Benve-nuto Cellini, who, in his descriptions of necromancy, lays special stress on the burning of fires and on the smoke clouds given out from the flames. Indeed, the methods of sorcery have changed but little with the passing of the centuries. We have in our own country to-day the cult of Voodoo, that barbaric faith imported with slavery from Africa, and here developed into something even worse than its own evil source. Some years ago, a Voodoo assembly in New Orleans was raided by the police. The record shows that about 100 women were present in the hall, dancing, unclad, with frantic violence, while the high priestess (Mama-loi) droned her incantations. Because Voodoo is a form of serpent worship, the hall contained a number of snakes, which lay coiled on silver platters, swinging their heads to the rythm of the music. And, too, there was, as always in such scenes, the fire. On the hearths in each corner of the room glowing coals sent upward great columns of a perfumed smoke that served to stimulate to wildest extravagance the antics of the devotees. * * * Thus, in our own land and time, the magical fires are still burning, even as they have been burning constantly throughout the ages.