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The Bathhouse at Midnight: An Historical Survey of Magic and Divination in Russia – W. F. Ryan

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Categories: folk, grimoire, witchcraft, Tags:

The Bathhouse at Midnight cover Yet another entry in Pennsylvania State University Press’s expansive Magic in History series, the peculiarly-titled The Bathhouse at Midnight is a rather weighty and encyclopaedic tome, running to over 500 pages, albeit with a significant slice of this page count being inflated by the large selection of endnotes with which each chapter concludes. William Francis Ryan explains in an introduction that the work builds upon material that they began collecting for their 1969 doctoral dissertation on Old Russian astrological and astronomical terminology, as well as a series of articles on the history of science and magic text in Russia. Suffice to say, it seems that Ryan collected quite a bit of material during this career-spanning hunt, now distilled into fifteen chapters covering off almost every field of magic conceivable.

These chapters broadly divide Russian magic and divination into various subcategories, beginning with popular magic, and followed by considerations of different wizards and witches, systems of divinations, omens, predictions from dreams and physiological phenomena, spells, talismans, materia magica, bibliomancy, numerology, geomancy, alchemy, and astrology. Ryan concludes with a chapter on the relationship between magic and the church, the law and the state, and includes a roster of witchcraft cases that the Synodal court dealt with in the eighteenth century.

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Ryan begins this trip to the bathhouse at midnight with an historical outline, a large part of which is effectively a literature review, albeit not of comparable scholarly dissertations, but of the source texts upon which much of Russian occultism was based. Ryan shows how a considerable body of material imported into Russia was influential on later occultism, with streams coming from an older Byzantine textual tradition, a corpus of translation from Hebrew that were originally made in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, as well as more obvious Western influences. In so doing, the Russian tradition is situated within a broad occult context, wherein the confluence of similarities between indigenous and exotic practices and influence makes it hard to determine what exactly constitutes something that may have originated in native practice.

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The next two chapters focus on practices and the practitioners of magic respectively, beginning with a comprehensive discussion of various types of popular magic, categorised into sections on the evil eye, malefic magic, entities such as ancient gods and evil spirits, prophylactic magic, festivals and other propitious times or dates, magical places and directions, and finally religious parody and inversions. This amounts to a covering off of all the usual areas that one might find in a contemporary practical magical text, but in this instances, there’s a lot more detail and provenance, with Ryan meticulously referencing all his sources. With the following chapter’s focus on the practitioners of this magic, Ryan provides a catalogue of these various types, dedicating usually at least two pages to discuss the Volkhv, the Koldun, the Ved’ma, the Znakhar’, and the Vorozhei. These are only the main designations, and Ryan follows with an additional section exhaustively documenting all the words used for both types of magic and their practitioners. As elsewhere, this is no perfunctory list, and Ryan lists sources, derivation and context.

This is a formula that Ryan uses throughout, everything is so detailed and draws from a wide range of sources, all tied together with an expert voice and clear familiarity with his subject. Evidence of this is the consideration of materia magica, in which Ryan provides a lengthy and useful roster of plants, both real and fantastic, used for magic rites and in Russian folk medicine, where herbs dominated. There are nine pages here, with 49 plants described with varying levels of details, some with botanical names identified, and others with merely the places they are mentioned and their purpose.

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With his background as a president of the Folklore Society and an emeritus professor and honorary fellow at the Warburg Institute and the University of London, Ryan is well equipped to not only deal with the subject of this volume but to authoritatively draw comparisons with Western magic, as well as its classical roots. This makes for a comprehensive work, one that is thorough in its specificity but is aware of a broader context within the occult milieu. Because of Ryan’s readable manner, The Bathhouse at Midnight can be read sequentially from cover to cover, but is also clearly organised in such a way that allows for simply dipping in as a reference.

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The Bathhouse at Midnight is formatted in the academic style one would expect of a publisher like Penn State Press with a small but readable typeface throughout and an even smaller point size for the references and index, suggesting that with less frugal formatting it could have been a work significantly longer that its 504 pages. At first glance there is one exception to the quality of the layout with a distractingly small safety area on the top margins on each page, meaning that the page title and page numbering in the header sit a mere 3mm from the edge of the page. The digital preview version on Amazon features a more comfortable margin and a closer inspection shows that printing is provided by print-on-demand service Lightning Source, whose lackadaisical quality control has resulted in a tiny top and a big bottom. Therefore it is worth bearing in mind that this book may be printed on demand and so the results may vary, for the fault, dear Brutus, is not in the layout but in the printing.

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Conjuring Spirits: Texts and Traditions of Medieval Ritual Magic – Edited by Claire Fanger

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Categories: esotericism, goetia, grimoire, magick, middle ages, Tags:

Conjuring Spirits coverPart of the expansive Magic in History series from Pennsylvania State University Press, Conjuring Spirits is an academic work that calls to mind Scarlet Imprint’s more experientially-orientated compendiums Howlings and Diabolical, in that it brings together essays on various magical texts and manuscripts, albeit from an entirely scholarly perspective. The contributions in Conjuring Spirits are divided into two sections, Context, Genres, Images and Angelic Knowledge, with the latter focussing on just two texts, the Sworn Book of Honorius, and John the Monk’s Book of Visions. Presenting both general surveys and more specific analyses are Michael Camille on two examples of the Ars Notoria, Robert Mathiesen on the Sworn Book of Honorius (also discussed alongside the Liber Visionum by Richard Kieckhefer in a separate entry), John B. Friedman on the Secretum Philosophorum, Elizabeth Wade on Lullian divination, while Nicholas Watson and editor Claire Fanger each separately discuss John the Monk’s Book of Visions of the Blessed and Undefiled Virgin Mary, Mother of God. Finally, this book also includes Juris Lidaka’s edition of the Osbern Bokenham-attributed Liber de Angelis, and an overview by Frank Klaassen of late medieval English ritual manuscripts.

It is Klaassen’s survey of late medieval English manuscripts with which the proceedings open, being an appropriately broad grounding in the genre, even if not all of the works discussed in this book come under that category. Lidaka’s translation of Liber de Angelis follows, being introduced with a brief essay in which he gives a history of this manuscript, establishing early on that the attribution to the Augustinian friar and poet Osbern Bokenham is incorrect, and that the Bokenhan to whom authorship is credited may actually have been one William Bokenham. Liber de Angelis is not a single liber and instead consists of extracts from at least three texts, as evidenced by the demarcation into sections on making rings for each of the planets (ordered from Sun to Saturn), followed by Liber de ymaginibus planetarum, in which instructions are given for creating images of the planets but with the spheres in a different order to the rings, and ending with Secreta  astronomie de sigillis planetarum & eorum figuris in which the planets are ordered differently once again in a guide to creating planetary magic square. Given some of the errors in the original text of Liber de Angelis, such as the numbers in some of the magic squares not calculating correctly and the names of planetary angels differing from other sources, Lidaka argues that the texts were transcribed by an enthusiastic amateur, someone with a general interest in magic though less concerned with slavishly getting everything right.

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John B. Friedman’s consideration of the Secretum Philosophorum is a rather dry and technical history of the text, feeling a little out of place given its focus not on ritual magic but on tricks and experiments demonstrating various aspects of the seven liberal arts. Friedman does argue that the text is an example of ‘safe magic,’ using the appearance of sorcery, with its diagrams and occasional acknowledgement of hermetic authority, to give a theoretical matrix to technology and convey ideas of power and learning. Elizabeth Wade also makes a diversion away from grimoires to discuss a fifteenth century German divination device found in a large paper codex catalogued as Cod. Guelf. 75. 10 Aug. 2°. Said fragmentary device is not necessarily the entire focus here and Wade uses it as a starting point for a broader primer on Lullian and pseudo-Lullian forms of mechanical divination, as well as their medieval analogues.

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Robert Mathiesen’s essay on the Sworn Book of Honorius focuses not on its use as a Solomonic grimoire for ceremonial magic, and instead on one of only two magical operations to survive in its six known, and presumably partial, manuscripts. While the second (and according to Mathiesen, less interesting), of the operations is for the summoning to appearance of an angel, spirit or demon, the first is a byzantine ritual for attaining the beatific vision, effectively creating a shortcut to the eschatological goal of Christianity. Mathiesen begins with a preamble giving the history of the sworn book, and then a summary of the rite itself, which still runs to several pages despite not being presented in its entirety. There’s little analysis of individual components of the rite and Mathiesen concludes with a discussion on the efficacy of such complicated ritual formulae (he seems pretty assured that it would get some kind of result), and thereby suggests that the rite’s potential to undercut the religious foundation of the medieval world would account for William of Auvergne’s description of the Sworn Book of Honorius as the very worst book of magic in circulation.

Two essays from Nicholas Watson and editor Claire Fanger are unique in that a hitherto unknown manuscript version of their subject, John the Monk’s Liber Visionum, had, at the time of writing in 1998, been recently discovered at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada; while several other full and partial manuscripts have since been found in various European archives. It is worth mentioning that Flanger has subsequently shown that, as per John the Monk himself, the work should be more accurately called Liber florum celestis doctrine, with only its first, autobiographical section being called the Liber visionum, but for the sake of consistency and the convention established by this volume, we’ll keep the archaic naming in this review. With the McMaster version of the Liber visionum being uncovered by Watson and then translated and thoroughly documented by Fanger, there’s a personal feel to the considerations here. Watson discusses the relationship between the McMaster manuscript and another one discovered in Munich, as well as contextualising the work in terms of the broader devotional and mystical tradition upon which it draws. Watson is exhaustive in his analysis, resulting in the longest entry in Conjuring Spirits, running to 52 pages, aided and abetted by extensive endnotes and several appendices: structural analyses of the McMaster and Munich manuscript, as well as individual summaries of both versions. After that, Fanger shows that there’s still more to be said about John the Monk’s text with her own essay in which she considers its relations to the Ars Notoria on which it is modelled. For her own appendix, Fanger provides a synopsis of a prologue from a version of the Liber visionum from the University of Graz library.

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John the Monk makes another appearance in Michael Camille’s consideration of examples of ars notoria imagery from various manuscripts, which opens with a vituperative quote from the Grandes Chroniques de France in which the monk of Morigny is pilloried for his wish, through his curiosity and pride, to renew the heretical and sorcerous notary art under another name. John the Monk’s own Marian 0figures are not the focus here, though, and Camille considers the notae from the thirteenth century Turin manuscript (MS E. V.13) and the fourteenth century Paris BN lat. 9336. The images are recipients of detailed discussion, with Camille bringing to them an art historian’s focus by tracing provenance and making comparisons with other examples of medieval pictorial and diagrammatic content. Photographic examples of the notae, as well as their analogues, are included, many at full size, though the quality of reproduction is not the greatest, with a blurry murk and a lack of contrast.

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Conjuring Spirits concludes with Richard Kieckhefer’s The Devil’s Contemplatives, in which he considers the two titles already exhaustively discussed within this volume: the Liber Iuratus Honorii (aka the Sworn Book of Honorius) and once again, John the Monk’s Liber Visionum. Kieckhefer’s point of difference, though, is analysing how both texts are evidence of the Christian appropriation of various elements from Jewish occultism. He emphasises the way in which both the Liber Iuratus and the Liber Visionum focus less on the typical goetic summoning of demons and rather on a form of devotional mysticism; an approach, he argues, that has little precedent in Western occultism and is instead drawn from Kabbalah, particularly the vision-rich Merkabah tradition. The previously-discussed ritual for attaining the beatific vision from the Liber Iuratus is an obvious example of this, as is John the Monks devotional reverence towards the Virgin Mary. While the attitude of these Western and Kabbalistic systems is circumstantially similar, Kieckhefer has no smoking gun, with the closest being a version of the Liber Iuratus that includes the Shem HaMephorash, Kabbalah’s secret name of God, in the design of a seal used for acquiring a dream vision.

Despite this book’s title, there’s relatively little that concerns itself with the conjuring of spirits here, with far greater focus on the devotional and reflective elements seen in works such as the Sworn Book of Honorius and Liber Visionum, and even in considerations of the mental self-improvement and memory aides showcased in the Ars Nortoria and the Secretum Philosophorum. With John the Monk looming over many of the contributions here, Conjuring Spirits is a valuable resource on the Liber Visionum, being the largest consideration of the text at the time of publication; though now rivalled by Fanger’s 2015 book, Rewriting Magic: An Exegesis of the Visionary Autobiography of a Fourteenth-Century French Monk, also published by Pennsylvania State University Press.

Conjuring Spirits, like other titles in the Magic in History series, appears to be available in two editions. One of them features the classic, sombre and refined Penn State Press Magic in History cover template, whilst the other, reviewed here, has a cover design that is slightly more in keeping with an Inner Traditions or Weiser mass market title, all green gradient, low opacity goetic sigil and large drop-shadowed type. In at least this copy, apparently printed-on-demand by Ingram, there is a printing error, where the cover has skewed a couple of degrees off base, meaning that the spine print is noticeably misaligned, with a crooked sliver of the cover’s green gradient creeping into the spine, and a corresponding slice of black spine sneaking round onto the back matter. This same on-demand printing may account for the poor quality reproduction of images.

Published by the Pennsylvania State University Press

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Origins of the Witches’ Sabbath – Michael D. Bailey

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Categories: witchcraft, Tags:

Origins of the Witches' Sabbath coverThe second entry in the Sourcebook series from Pennsylvania State University Press’s wider Magic in History collection, Origins of the Witches’ Sabbath brings together translations of the five earliest accounts of the witches’ sabbath, as well as the records of two witch trials from the same period. The works compiled here are Hans Fründ’s Report on Witchcraft in Valais, Claude Tholosan’s So That the Errors of Magicians and Witches Might Be Made Evident to Ignorant People, Johannes Nider’s Anthill, and two anonymous pieces, the Errors of the Gazarii and The Vauderie of Lyon. The trial records, meanwhile, are those of Jubertus of Bavaria (who was tried by Tholosan) and Aymonet Maugetaz of Epesses (whose evidence may have informed some of the unique content of the Basel version of the Errors of the Gazarii).

Michael D. Bailey is Professor of History at Iowa State University and the founding editor of the journal Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft. In his introduction, he describes these documents, all written during the 1430s and in locations clustered around the western Alps, as the evidence of a remarkable conceptual transformation. Prior to this burst of sabbatic creativity, while witches could be perceived as workers of maleficia, and thereby a danger to society, they were largely imagined as individuals, working in isolation. These five fifteenth century works changed that, creating the idea of a network of witches, a vast diabolical occult conspiracy that gathered together, engaged in infanticide and cannibalism, cast spells and brewed potions, and most strikingly, foreswore their Christian faith and fornicated at the behest of a very real demonic master. In so doing, the witch became a greater threat, effectively being a member of a shadowy, unruly, alternative society that ran alongside the conventional twin of the ordered Christian world. In this way, the actual spells and rituals of witches were of less concern to the authors of these texts, and instead it was the very act of removing oneself from society and joining an inverted counterpart that proved more unnerving, especially with the concern that the appeal of such an idea could spread like a contagion. In Report on Witchcraft in Valais, for example, Fründ says that the witches’ numbers were so great that they optimistically thought that in a year they would be able to raise up their own king and appoint their own courts. At the same time, allegations of witchcraft by the state also provided an opportunity and justification for their own political and judicial expansion, with the secular judge Peter of Bern seeking to extend his city’s judicial reach into the Alpine hinterland, or Tholosan working on behalf of the French crown in the independent Dauphiné.

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With the exception of Nider’s relatively well duplicated Anthill, the texts here survive in just a few copies, or are, so far, entirely unique. The true value of Origins of the Witches’ Sabbath is that despite their centrality in the forging of the image of the diabolical sabbath, these five texts have not previously received complete translations into English, appearing only in scattered form and often as brief excerpts. Bailey acknowledges a debt to Martine Ostorero, Agostino Paravicini Bagliani, Kathrin Utz Tremp, and Catherine Chène’s L’imaginaire du sabbat, which brought these five texts together in a modern French translation in 1999. It is from their work that he bases the bulk of his translation, though he does diverge from their template, replacing an excerpt from the fourth book of Martin le Franc’s poem Le Champion des Dames with The Vauderie of Lyon, and choosing to include only some of Tholosan’s So That the Errors of Magicians and Witches Might Be Made Evident to Ignorant People, limiting the translation to the first section and avoiding the “long slog” of dense legalese that is the rest.

Bailey does an admirable job of noting the similarities and differences across these five accounts in an introductory chapter that considers how each one deals with, elaborates or minimises various elements of the Sabbath narrative: demonic assemblies, night flights and revels, entering the Devil’s service, cannibalism and infanticide, as well as a dual discussion of sex and gender. He then builds upon this introduction with individual prefaces before each text, giving further background about their provenance, biographies of their author, when known, and other information of interest.

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On the whole there are remarkable through lines that permeate these texts, speaking to concerns that were obviously at the forefront of people’s mind at the time. The most striking of these is a profoundly corporeal focus, with the writers turning time and again to bodies (particularly those of children) and their destruction. The theme of infanticide and its attendant cannibalism is found in all of the accounts, proving more popular than ideas of night flights to the sabbat or even pacts with the devil, and it is rendered in a purple prurience that recalls the fantasies of 80s era Satanic Panic and more contemporary gibberish about diabolical paedophile pizza parlours. Nider reported that thirteen babies had been devoured by presumably very hungry witches in a relatively short time, while Errors of the Gazarii stated that all new witches had to pledge to the devil to kill as many children as they could and bring their corpses to the Sabbath to be roasted or boiled. Fründ repeated similar claims but added an extra element worthy of modern urban legend and moral panics, describing how witches would smear poisonous material on their hands and secretly touch children, causing them to wither away. Perhaps the most visceral account of corporeal anatomisation comes from Errors of the Gazarii but for once doesn’t involve children, and instead tells how witches would find a redheaded person, strip him naked and bind him to a bench to be bitten all over by venomous animals. Like a scene from a death metal album, once dead, the unfortunate redhead was hung from his feet so that impurities and poisons flowed from his mouth and other orifices and could be collected in a bowl to be turned into a deadly unguent. Fun times.

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Other than this exercise in body horror, perhaps the most intriguing element found in these accounts is the varying description of the devil. For Fründ, the devil appeared as various black animals such as a bear or a ram, but also in a terrible evil form, which Tholosan appears to echo when describing how the devil appears as a man but partially translucent. This numinous, almost wondrous and Luciferian incarnation of the devil had a body like glass that would not block the sun and would cast no shadow, suggesting a being whose ephemerality is the one thing that diverges from the fleshly, corporeal concerns of these sabbat accounts. It is The Vauderie of Lyon that takes the monstrosity of the devil to an excessive degree, describing a figure whose chimeric syncretism piles one horror upon the other, making him sound more like a sabbatic Gruffalo instead of a classic horned god. While Julia Donaldson’s creation may have “terrible tusks, and terrible claws, and terrible teeth in his terrible jaws… knobbly knees, and turned-out toes and a poisonous wart at the end of his nose. His eyes are orange, his tongue is black, he has purple prickles all over his back,” the devil of Lyon is a horned black figure covered with hair and bristles, with bulging and rolling eyes that emit flames, ears that are likewise fiery, a large crooked nose, a gaping mouth, an elongated neck, a chest and belly that are “inconceivably deformed,” hands and feet that end in terrible claws, and hooks and long spikes running up and down his hands and arms. It’s not clear if, like the Gruffalo, this devilish creature’s favourite food was owl ice cream or scrambled snake, though the author of The Vauderie of Lyon does not seem to recommend the dining options at his demonic table, with slimy meat and a black and heavy bread, all washed down with “a certain black, tasteless and horrible beverage.”

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The two witch trials records that conclude this volume act as germane examples of how the evidence presented could be incorporated into the published sabbatic narratives; or how the latter could have influenced the content of the former. They are by no means as detailed as the published texts, but familiar elements appear here and there, with suggestions of infanticide, miraculous transportation to the sabbat, and both ritualised and everyday repudiations of the cross and Christ.

Origins of the Witches’ Sabbath would be an invaluable resource if it simply brought together its English translations of these important texts, but Bailey’s editorial voice adds so much more, combining erudition and familiarity of the subject matter with a clear love of the field and even the occasional spark of humour. Recommended on both accounts.

Published by the Pennsylvania State University Press