The Spirit Birto and Tales of the Horrible

I promised you an additional discovery regarding the spirit Birto, so here it is.

But first, librarians pick up reputations for being picky, but there’s often a good reason for this attitude.  A key example here is Tales of the Horrible, or The Book of Spirits, written by “The Astrologer of the Nineteenth Century.”   The latter was the title of an 1825 work written by Robert Cross Smith, better known as Raphael.  Some cataloguer years ago, unfortunately, decided that “Astrologer” should be “Astronomer,” thereby obscuring the book’s potential author.  Smith died in 1832, five years before the book was published, which raises the question of whether this was his work published posthumously, or one or another of the legitimate and illegitimate Raphaels who took up the pen in his wake.

I’d love to say that Tales of the Horrible was an undiscovered gem in the realm of the weird, but it is rather unimaginative and twee. We have accounts of Byron in heaven, a Muslim princess who uses black magic against a Christian knight, a horoscope of Carl von Weber, and other such items.  Having read as much of it as I can stomach, it has become apparent that the “horrible” should refer to the writing itself.  Nonetheless, one piece – “The Necromancers, and their Prediction” – deserves closer examination.

The action is set at Cooke’s Folly of Clifton, near Bristol.  This tower was supposedly the work of a local gentleman who wished to know the fate of his newborn son.   Visiting a local necromancer, he peered into a book and found “The Invocation of the Spirit Birto”:

Proceed, in the darkness of night, in the wane of the moon, and on the eve of All-hallows to consecrate thy commencement.  Let thy materials be made when Saturn ascends in the twelfth house, the mansion of sorrow…

The man eventually convinces the wizard to summon Birto.  After grotesque invocations and a plague of zombies, Birto appears as a knight with black armor, bearing a scroll to proclaim the doom of the young man.

Overall, this seems to have been a local legend spruced up with some trappings of ceremonial magic.  Curiously, the invocation of Birto as shown in the book seems to be almost entirely different from that in the magical literature.  When we reflect that the original Raphael owned the Folger manuscript himself, we are left to wonder if this might not be an attempt at misdirection on the part of the author.  It’s likely we  will never know.

Published in: on June 24, 2011 at 2:46 pm  Leave a Comment  

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