A Response to Hatsis on “The Witches’ Ointment”, Part 2

Now that we’re done with Part 1, let’s return to Hatsis’ piece.

We’ve become immersed in a discussion of whether the account of Abraham of Worms about the “flying ointment” in Abramelin was written closer to the fifteenth or  seventeenth century.  In his book, Hatsis claims that this account would be earlier, as someone from a later era would be reluctant to write about such an experience when the witch trials were in full swing.  I pointed out that the rest of Abramelin does include procedures to call up Satan, Leviathan, and other demons, so “Abraham” wasn’t too picky.

In response, Hatsis maintains that I’m misrepresenting attitudes toward these demons.  After all, Abramelin refers to these as “spirits” of a helpful nature, who were there to help the magician to do the work of God.  If this is the case, why should he fear prosecution?

It might surprise my readers to learn that I’ve read a good number of these books of magic.  The sort of rhetorical strategies that appear in Abramelin – that the magician is doing the work of the Almighty, that the “demons” are actually spirits, that these operations occur with the approval and help of God, angels, prophets, and other celestial beings, and that this book is enlightened, unlike other less savory works – are the same as those that appear in many other grimoires.  They were meant to convince the reader that this particular book was true and could be used without concern for one’s soul.  There’s no doubt many readers did believe them.

Nonetheless, an intelligent and knowledgeable contemporary would have seen these as unorthodox and heretical arguments that certainly would never have passed muster under the scrutiny of the authorities.  If using such rhetoric would allow someone to walk out of court, history would be devoid of prosecutions of ritual magicians and the burning of their works.  John of Morigny had a book that he said contained nothing but prayers dedicated to God and dictated to him by the Virgin Mary, and that work was condemned repeatedly and finally burned in public.  I don’t think John adding a section that advocated calling up Satan because the Prince of Darkness was hard-working would have helped his case.

Hatsis asks, “Why would ‘authorities obsessed with demonic conspiracies’ care about practitioners of angelically spiritual magic?”  This could be for any number of reasons, the most prominent of which being doubt that the spirits contacted were as angelic as they claimed.  Even John Dee and Edward Kelley, who conducted the most elaborate procedures for angelic magic of which we have records, expressed doubts about the characters of the spirits with whom they were speaking from time to time.

Further, even if we accept that creatures were angels, conjuring them raises serious theological questions.  From a contemporary theological perspective, angels were created by God to serve him.  Thus, a magician who summoned such a being could be seen as usurping divine prerogatives.   I would encourage Mr. Hatsis to explore these issues further in the literature on magic from this era.  If desired, I could see what might  be available in my files.

We then move into a question of how derivative the story in Abramelin might be.  Even after reading Hatsis’ points on the topic, I still believe that the core tale – that of a person utilizing a magical ointment to travel , while an observer notes that the person simply falls unconscious in the same place – remains intact, and could have been inspired by other sources from a later period.  Then again, I think this is a matter of how “original” one interprets the piece, so I can see how he reads it in the manner that he does.

Hatsis then devotes a section to asking me the question, ” If Tostado and Abraham were not referring to plant-based psychoactive medical ointments, what is Harms’ evidence for synthetic psychoactive medical ointments existing in the 15th century?  If not plant-based, what were they made of?”  I will simply note that his book mentions ergot and toad poison as two possible psychoactive ingredients, neither of which are plants.

This is not a simple matter of rhetoric, however.  As best I recall from The Witches’ Ointment, we do not seem to have a witch trial account that mentions any member of the Solanaceae family as an ingredient in such an ointment.  We do have secondary accounts that it was included – della Porta’s Magia naturalis might be one such example – but I’m wondering as to whether it appears in a court document or other trial account.   The closest that I could find in Hatsis’ book is a reference in one account to toad poison as an ingredient.  Perhaps I’m missing something.

That last point could be read as a debunking, although it’s not intended as such.  It does, however, indicate that here, as with the Abramelin section, we have a need to return to the original sources and engage them in order to determine the worth of this information.  This is the sort of inquiry in which I would encourage Hatsis and others interested in these issues to engage.



Published in: on February 18, 2016 at 6:50 pm  Comments (5)  

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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hi Dan,

    First, let me say I’m a big fan of your work.

    Second, sorry for contacting you about this via the comments section, but I couldn’t find a better method to get in touch with you.

    Do you happen to know how to get in touch with Robert Harrall/Lovecraft Holdings? I’m trying to get permission to do a Lovecraft project and I’m having a hell of a time tracking down the appropriate contact information.

    Either way, thank you for your time – and for your fantastic contributions to the community.

  2. Probably not ergot, despite what some speculation has produced. Ergot is not hallucinogenic on its own, it requires significant chemical processing to make it not be a highly unpleasant poison.

  3. Recall Gustav Henningsens account of how Alonso de Salazar Frías, inquisitor of the Basque witch trials, tried out 22 alleged witch ointments, but to discover that they contained a variety of ingredients, none of them psychoactive.. The concept may have more to do with the magical salves of Apuleius Golden ass, or Martianus Capellas Marriage of Philology & Mercury, than anything recognizably medicinal.Of course, it has been a while since I read up on this: for all I know, these points have been refuted, or simply not valid for this discussion

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