On the Shelf: The Picatrix, Volume 2

As announced previously, the new edition of the Picatrix is out from Ouroboros Press, and I’ve received my copy and giving it a thorough reading.

This work is undoubtedly a milestone – one of the most renowned books of magic in Western civilization finally translated into English.  Nonetheless, I have to say that I have some qualms about the book.   I’m reluctant to speak out on this, largely because I don’t want to hold anyone accountable for ambiguities or uncertainties in the Arabic text, as I don’t know that language.  Still, I have some reason for concern.

One is the frequent mistakes in the book.  I know first-hand how nasty typos are to eradicate, and I’m willing to grant substantial leeway for small presses in that regard.  Still, we have a number of non-spellcheck errors that occur throughout the manuscript.  Among the more notable are  “kneed” appearing for “knead”, “rap” appearing for “wrap”, and “veins” often being spelled “vanes.”  One of the curious ingredients of a few recipes is “black anesthetic seeds.:”  These are the more notable examples, and the sort that would be easily picked up with a reading of the manuscript.

I will also add that a number of the passages are impossible to decipher.  Of course, texts of these period require some effort to understand, especially when of a theoretical nature, but I found myself baffled on many occasions by passages like this:

This kind get to envy a lot for every good thing they see, that is why we should bless every thing and be proud to do that as that comes from the first position commancing in astronomy and it could be inherited from mood commencement.


That does not stop some males from having mental reactions like females and some females have mental reactions like males and that is how we differentiate between males and females.

Contextually, it is often possible to figure out the approximate meaning of a passage via context, but one has to wonder just how accurate that understanding really is.

This is a shame, because there’s a great deal in this book with regard to talismans, spirit summoning, and other topics that could be of use to scholars and practitioners alike.  Still, concerns about accuracy come foremost for me, and I’m not sure that’s what readers are getting.

Published in: on November 14, 2008 at 2:54 pm  Comments (16)  

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  1. I’ve only read a couple of chapters of this so far, but I’m sad to say my heart sank within the first two pages when introduced by a nigh-on impenetrable paragraph introducing the third book. “Oh no, it’s Savedow’s Sepher Raziel all over again!” I cried.

    I too am quite wary about the accuracy of the translation. I picked a random section in 3.9 to compare with the Ritter & Plessner German edition and was scratching my head within a few seconds: “Approach it when the Sun is on the top of Cancer.” The ‘top’? That could be the start, middle or end of the sign! Ritter & Plessner illuminated me – the start or cusp seems to be is what is intended here.

    It’s good to have an English text, but it’s tremendously arduous reading since on has to interpret every other sentence – a plain English rewrite with a copy of the German to hand might have helped matters. Not to say Plessner & Ritter is perfect – we’ve had 70 years of further work by people like Pingree, Hartner etc. to supplement it, but it’s a start.

    This is quite an unfortunate situation to be in. I recently got Warnock & Greer’s translation of the Latin Picatrix books I & II and was extremely impressed with the material. The directions for astrological directions are unambiguous (for the most part) and it reads very well. Unfortunately the Latin Picatrix is terribly abbreviated some chapters seem to be twice the length in the Arabic version. So it’s good to have a translation of the full work, even if it is terribly vague… caveat lector!

    I hope this doesn’t seem too heavy-handed: it’s just my initial reaction to a text which I’ve yet to read in its entirety but will persevere with over the next couple of weeks.

  2. LOL Phil! As I read through a little of the book today I literally said out loud “did Steve Savedow translate this?” It seems as though Ouroboros just threw a literal translation together to sell to collectors. I think it’d be easier (and probably funner) for someone to learn German and read the Ritter version than plough through this. 😉

  3. So this explains why tomes take 8 months and cost 3d4 Sanity to read in Call of Cthulhu… it all makes sense!

  4. Sad news, these.

    If you want to check any confusing quote, Daniel, I can cross-check them with the Spanish translation from the Arab. I don’t really like it -the translator treated it as a literary curiosity and tried to make it somewhat pintoresque in tone, but he does show appropriate concern for faithfulness in the introductory notes- but it’s fairly readable and might prove useful. I’m curious, where is this “anesthetic seed” mentioned? I’d like to see just what it’s called in the Spanish text. I once asled for opinions on this version at rhe Egroup where Greer hangs out but had no response, I guess it held little interest being in this language.

    (BTW – thanks for your reply to my old comment; I tried to answer back at the moment but my PC stalled twice killing my replies and I gave up)

  5. Luis,

    That’s quite generous of you. These are lines from the first two sleeping talismans in Book 3 Chapter 11:

    “A sleeping talisman, the way this talisman is made is by taking an equal amount of half dirham of opium, a strip of mandrake and black anesthetic seeds, one sixth dirham of pleasant-smelling nuts, small wood branches and pure sandalwood. Grind and kneed [sic] with green coriander juice…”

    “Another sleeping talisman with that has a more powerful effect; the way this is done is by taking two small amount of each of hard bent nuts, red anesthetic seeds, mandrake or its bark (?), black poppy seeds, three small amounts of saffron and one small amount of basswood…”

    What edition are you using, anyway?

  6. This is just as I predicted and I didn’t need a horoscope or geomantic Mothers.. :-/ This isn’t complete but it might help:


    Redesign is here and even less complete for the moment:


    If you read Spanish you can download a complete translation from the home page.

  7. Well now I’m a little curious about what the Spanish version says. I looked these up in the (Ritter) German version and the word in question here is “Bendsch.” Appears on a lot of pages concerning Cannabis so I’ll go with that.

    The second recipe is really strange. “Hard bent nuts” wtf? The german has Datura here, and Basswood? The german has Auripigment which is an old term for orpiment or arsenic trisulfide. A natural occuring ore that’s been used for several thousands of years as a yellow pigment (as well as by Alchemists looking to make gold!)

    My German is pretty crappy, but the German version is still easier to read! 🙂 Almost appears that there’s been an intentional attempt to downplay the narcotics and poisons here?

  8. Spanish is:

    Filtro narcótico. Se coge opio, líber de mandrágora, semilla de beleño negro a partes iguales y de cada cual medio dirhem; nuez moscada, confección y áloe en bruto, seis dirhemes de cada; se muele bien y después se amasa con agua de cilantro verde. Después haces que se enmohezca para que se unifique y se amalgame y se unifiquen sus espíritus según el hecho buscado. Después se saca y se da a comer medio danic de ello que sume en profundo sueño.

    Otro filtro con igual efecto pero más potente. Se coge datura de estramonio, semilla de beleño rojo, semilla o corteza de mandrágora y semilla de adormidera negra, dos meticales de cada; tres meticales de azafrán y un metical de arsénico. Se junta todo ello y se deja tres días en el enmohecedor. Luego se saca y se administra una dosis de danic.

  9. In Googling around both beleño negro and adormidera negra seem to be the same plant, Hyoscyamus niger, ie. common Henbane. So Red and Black Henbane seem to be our mystery “anaesthetic seed” herbs.

  10. Makes sense that an anesthetic seed would be henbane, but they are not black but grayish brown. I thought immediately of Datura stramonium, but I don’t think they have a tradition of being used as an anesthetic. Not sure. Btw, Mr. Rock, I have often referred to your translation of parts of this work and much appreciate it.

    I have to say I was rather miffed at receiving my copy of this translation and seeing how bad it is. I had intended to get the French edition but saw this and got it instead. What a mistake. Reading it brought me back to struggling over translations in undergraduate Russian classes. Parts read like they were just stuck into Babelfish. I ordered the French version last week.

  11. Hello again. I think this is more accurate. I was looking around for “Bendsch” on google and the like and came across something stating that Bendsch is an old Arabic drug containing Scopolamine. This is the active ingredient in the Henbane, Nightshade families as well as in mandrake, and is used as an anesthetic.

  12. oh damn, looks like I’ve homework overdue.

    I did not forget about this; the last week has been a very intensive proofreading period for the insanely accelerated publication of my new book, which ois supposed to be ready for the local International Book Fair next weekend. Which also caused me to lag behind at my job, so I’m illustrating overdue Bible episodes even as I type this.

    Damn. Give me a few more days and then I’ll go over the words and languages with care. I’ll check that online translation too, wonder if it’s the same I have.

    Mine by the way is “Picatrix: El Fin del Sabio y el Mejor de los Dos Medios para Avanzar”, by Abdul-Casim Maslama Ben Ahmad; translared, edited and annotated by Marcelino Villegas. Editora Nacional, Madrid, Spain, 1982, in the Collection “Biblioteca de Visionarios Heterodoxos y Marginados”.

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