Review – Thabit ibn Qurra On Talismans

Astrological image magic has been largely forgotten in the occult community, but for much of the Middle Ages in Europe, it was a key element of magical practice. An image or item of wax, metal, or other substances could be made at a particular astrological time to bring heavenly influences into a situation. According to the Speculum astronomiae and other religious works, this was fine, so long as it didn’t involve questionable prayers to the planets or spirits. Or burning incense. Or mysterious characters. Or incomprehensible words. And maybe images themselves might suggest idolatry…

Few magical works could navigate this gauntlet, but the survivors are some of the most common magical manuscripts to reach us from the medieval era. One such work was the De Imaginibus, or On Talismans, attributed to the ninth-century Harranian philosopher Thābit ibn Qurra. No Arabic manuscripts are known to survive, but it appears often in Latin manuscripts. As with many other medieval works, On Talismans has been mostly forgotten, with only a small press paperback translation (English only) appearing from Christopher Warnock (review here). Now SISMEL has released Thabit ibn Qurra «On Talismans» and Ps.-Ptolemy «On Images 1-9».Together with the «Liber prestigiorum Thebidis» of Adelard of Bath, a scholarly edition edited by Gideon Bohak and Charles Burnett.

One of Bohak’s many discoveries from the Cairo Genizah was a Judeo-Arabic text of De Imaginibus. This is the first text the book provides, with copious footnotes as to readings, going so far as to show photographs of difficult-to-read letters. (I wish this was affordable for some of my projects.) Based upon that text, an Arabic text has been reconstructed, with passages appearing online the two main versions of the Latin text and an English translation indicating from where each segment derives. This is excellent, although I would have liked to see each Arabic-Latin-English block placed on a separate page for ease of comprehension.

We also have editions of two other texts here. The first is a work by Pseudo-Ptolemy that often follows ibn Qurra’s text, describing its own set of magical talismans. The text is similar to the presentation of De Imaginibus. The second, the Liber prestigiorum Thebedis, is a text derived from the original that adds prayers to the planets and other forbidden processes. Given that this is only known from the Latin, this is provided with Latin and English texts on facing pages.

The amount of surrounding documentation is amazing. There’s an introduction to the text and its history, a thorough guide to its appearances in manuscripts, an appendix with parallels between De Imaginibus and the Picatrix, a set of glossaries, a bibliography, and multiple indices.

Is this a book worth pursuing? The only disappointment for potential readers may be how relatively short the magical text itself. Those interested in the history of medieval magic, and those with interests in traditional astrology and astrological magic, will find it worthwhile, if expensive. Those more interested in the spirit summoning grimoires may want to seek out other works.

Published in: on November 6, 2021 at 3:26 pm  Comments (2)  

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  1. After listening to the SHWEP and several In Our Time episodes (a BBC Radio 4 programme) about Arabic culture, the Translation Movement and the Caliphates, I got interested in Islamic occultism and read a few papers by Matthew Melvin-Koushki. Very interesting. He’s got an article in the new Hellebore about how Dee might have gone down at the Ottoman court.

  2. […] article by Charles Burnett on variant texts of On Talismans (the SISMEL edition of which I reviewed here) and Julien Véronèse on the Key of Solomon. Those two chapters may be the only ones of magical […]


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