A Response to Hatsis on “The Witch’s Ointment”, Part 1

In response to my last post on Thomas Hatsis’ The Witches’ Ointment, the author has published a polite rebuttal.  I’ll do my best to respond.  If you’ve been following so far, you can skip the next four paragraphs.

To recap:  We have a book of magic, The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abra-Melin as it is best known in English, which is claimed to date to the fifteenth century but which does not have written copies before the 17th.   This raises some questions as to whether Abraham was a real person, or if he wrote the book which bears his name.

“Abraham” discusses in the first section a story in which he and a young witch at Linz smear a substance on themselves, which makes them feel as if they are traveling great distances.  In his book, Hatsis cites this story as an example of the use of a “flying ointment” as part of folk magic.  Later on, he argues, authors and churchmen incorporated these substances into the “diabolical witchcraft” model, which included the ointment along with the pact with the devil, the sabbat, the casting of harmful magic, orgies, and all manner of other offenses with which suspected witches were often charged.

The trouble is that the oldest German text I can find – that of Hammer, found in a blurry scan here (see especially pages 29-32) – ends with the statement that the salve was given to the woman by the Devil.

This brings us three possibilities.  First, this could be a later interpolation on a fifteenth-century text.  Second, the text could be fifteenth-century and mention that the salve came from the Devil, which causes trouble for an argument that the salve was not connected with diabolical activity.  Third, the text could have a date after the fifteenth century, when the ointment’s link with diabolical witchcraft has been established, which makes it a more recent account that can’t necessarily be used as evidence of previous use.

We don’t have a good number of reports of these substances in the medieval literature, which means that Abramelin is a key piece of evidence for Hatsis’ chronology.  This is why establishing its date is so important.

Hatsis offers three arguments in rebuttal.  The first is that tales of the Devil were around for a long time, on which I think we both agree.

The second is that no pact is explicitly mentioned here, which separates it from other accounts in Abramelin.  Frankly, I don’t see how absence in this particular account is convincing, especially since the Devil actually gave the witch the substance in question.  The authority on such matters in the late Middle Ages was Thomas Aquinas, and he was pretty clear that you could be involved in a pact on the basis of much less than this (see his Reply to Objection 2 at this link).  We could have a number of editorial reasons why Abraham would not explicitly refer to a pact here, including its presence in a section with a large number of other accounts of those who had made such pacts.

The third is that the substance was not smeared on the person in the “diabolical witchcraft” model, but on an object the witch rode, so it likely dates to an earlier period.  Nonetheless, it would be possible for elements of an account from an earlier period – such as directly applying the formula. to have filtered into later times.  In fact, we’ve already discussed one piece of content in Abramelin- the formula’s diabolical origin – which does not appear in the other early accounts.  Assigning the account to either time period requires us to pass over an element therein that does not quite fit with the others from the same period.

I’ll write another segment on this shortly.

Published in: on February 9, 2016 at 10:07 pm  Leave a Comment  

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