Mongol War Magic

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    Hans Hellinger

    Mongol Shaman's conducting a ritual

    Hello! It’s “Magic Monday”. Today we your good friends at Codex Martialis are going to briefly discuss the intersection of Magic with another ‘M Word’ – Mongol.

    The Mongols were like many people in the pre-industrial world, fairly superstitious. They had their own ideas of magic and the supernatural, which blended over into the more practical fields of warfare and politics. One example was gunpowder or rather it’s precursor, ‘black powder’. Originally discovered in China during 8th Century Alchemical experiments with potassium nitrate to increase longevity, the ‘flying powder’ or ‘burning powder’ was quickly recognized for its many potential uses in China, and soon became a feature of siege warfare.


    A demon (upper right corner) uses a gunpowder weapon called a 'fire lance' in a 10th Century Buddhist mural in China

    A demon uses a ‘fire lance’ in a 10th Century Chinese painting in the cave temples of Dunhuang.


    When the Mongols invaded China in the 13th Century, they encountered black powder weapons during sieges, including the fire-lance and various types of bombs and pyrotechnics.


    Video of living history experiments with reconstructed fire lances


    When the Mongols first invaded Poland and Hungary in 1241, they appear to have brought gunpowder weapons with them. For the Europeans at the time, this was an unknown technology which was definitely in the realm of magic. Some kind of gunpowder weapon seems to have proved decisive during the Battle of Mohi in 1241, during a key moment in the battle when Hungarian knights had driven the Mongols from a bridge, but suddenly retreated as explosions began detonating in their midst. Historians have speculated that these may have been bombs or fireworks thrown by some kind of torsion weapon.


    The Mongols also brought gunpowder weapons with them into the Middle East during their conquest of what are now Syria, Iraq and Egypt during roughly the same period, and their arch-rivals the Mamluks seem to have rather quickly adopted the new technology. This was in turn used by Moors in Spain and in this description from one of the first documented experiences of actual firearms by Europeans was recorded in 1262, when King Alfonso X of Castile was besieging the Moorish stronghold of Niebla in what is now Spain. The Moors used the new “boom stick” weapon effectively, to the dismay of the besieging Europeans:


    “..The Arabs threw many (iron) balls launched with thunder, the Christians were very afraid of, as any member of the body hit was severed as if with a knife; and the wounded man died afterwards, because no surgery could heal him, in part because the balls were hot as fire, and a part of that, because the powders used were of such nature that any ulcer done meant the death of the injured man…

    .. and he was hit with a ball of the thunder in the arm, and was cut off, and died next day: and the same happened to all of those injured by the thunder. And even now the story is being told amongst the host…”


    This was 5 years before the English Franciscan friar Roger Bacon published his formula for gunpowder in his Opus Majus of 1267. Bacon was corresponding with Jewish scholars in Andalusia at this time, and may have gotten the formula from them – his ratio of charcoal, sulfur and ‘salt of St. Peter’ was basically identical to that used in this time by the Mamluks.

    But gunpowder was only one type of magic used by the Mongols. Many references to some times of what seem to be chemical or biological warfare are found in the chronicles. Some are vague and confusing, such as the tales of the Mongol use of what made have been a biological weapon at the Battle of Liegnica, (or it could have been a sound-maker, or just the imagination of the frightened Polish and German soldiers)

    “Among the Tatar standards is a huge one with a giant X painted on it. It is topped with an ugly black head with a chin covered with hair. As the Tatars withdraw some hundred paces, the bearer of this standard begins violently shaking the great head, from which there suddenly bursts a cloud with a foul smell that envelopes the Poles and makes them all but faint, so that they are incapable of fighting. We know that in their war the Tatars have always used the arts of divination and witchraft, and this is what they are doing now. Seeing that he all but victorious Poles are daunted by the cloud and its foul smell, the Tatars raise a great shout and return to the fray, scattering the Polish ranks that hitherto have held firm, and a huge slaughter ensues.”

    Jan Dlugosz, Annales, entry for 1241 (book written circa 1480)

    Later, after the third and final Mongol invasion of Poland, during which they suffered several major setbacks (notably at Krakow and Sandomierz) the Mongols appear to have possibly taken revenge with another “Black Magic” attack which was likely a chemical or biological agent of some kind.

    “The Tartars, having distributed the loot they took from Poland and sold their Polish captives to various peoples, decide to leave Ruthenia and to destroy the Ruthenians before they go; unable to do this overtly, they poison the rivers and waters by placing in all still and running water stakes on which are spitted hearts taken from the bodies of Poles, killed for ritual purposes of divination, saturated with a very strong poison, against which no medicine is of any use, so that all who drink the water die. It is not until the poison has claimed a large number of victims that the Ruthenians stop drinking the water.”

    -Jan Dlugosz, Annales of Poland, entry for 1288 AD


    This dude will kill you and everybody in your city

    But perhaps the most interesting examples of Mongol war-magic occurred during internecine conflicts. One good example is the Battle of Tashkent, aka ‘The Battle of the Mire’ in 1365. This involved the Mongol-Turkish Timurid forces, led by Timur Gurkānī, known in the West as Tamerlane, the mighty Turco-Mongol warlord known for stampeding enemy soldiers and civilians into giant, squirming piles, building huge towers of skulls, and having killed even more people than Ghengis Khan (he is estimated to have killed roughly 17 million people, or roughly 5% of the world’s population in his time). Timur was up against the Mughal dynasty of India, who was also a branch of the original Mongol Horde. Timur was the sort of warlord of whom victories were the rule, and defeats so rare as to stand out.

    The Battle of the Mire was one of these rare defeats. According to the sources, this was a huge battle between involving possible 200,000 warriors or more. The reason for the ‘mire’ was a sudden, heavy and persistent rainstorm, which the chronicles claim was raised by a Mughal sorcerer using special magic stones that could control weather.  According to Persian and Mughal chronicles, the rain stopped as soon as a Timurid cavalry force managed to cut their way to the Cliffside where the sorcerer was beating his drum, and behead him.

    A Mongol history written by the general Mizra Haider Dughlat in roughly 1541, derides the use of the magic stones but poetically describes their terrifying effects Source:

    “In this order they attacked the enemy, but in pursuance with the words:

    “It is an evil day for you when you boast of your own strength or numbers,” they were not spared from an unexpected punishment, for the army of Jatah, which, in spite of its superiority in numbers had been defeated at Kaba Matan, now that they found their opponents exceeded them in numbers, had recourse to magic and sought aid from the Jadah stone, which possessed supernatural properties.

    [Verses:]              The army of Jatah had not strength for the fight

                                    So they sought help from the magic stone

                                    With the stone of Jadah, who was a magician,

                                    They filled the world with wind and rain

                                    The clouds roared with thunder and the winds howled.

                                    A thunderbolt fell on the earth.

    Although the sun was in Orion, a host of dark clouds suddenly filled the sky. The thunder resounded and the lightning flashed. The elements rushed out from the ambush of destiny into the open plain of ether, and the thunderclaps re-echoed round the azure vault of heaven. The arrows of lightning were shot out, in all directions, from the bow of the thunderclouds, and the rain shot down its whistling darts.”


    Without a time-machine, it is impossible to say what actually happened on that day, or any of the others in question. But we do know that many early technologies were only partly understood, but were heavily in use before anyone could really explain the physics, biology or chemistry that made them work. Magnetism was believed to be a form of geomancy in the 13th Century, but the magnetic compass was already in wide and rapidly spreading use.

    Clear signs of superstition are also apparent in historic records. Major battles have turned on visions of saints in the sky and angelic trumpets blowing and so on. We may have yet to figure out some of the principles of mass psychology that make humans see things that (probably) aren’t there, but we use these methods all the same billions of times a day in marketing and various forms of popular entertainment.

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