On Hatsis’ The Witches’ Ointment and Abramelin

I just finished reading Thomas Hatsis’ new work, The Witches’ Ointment, which is the first book-length treatise on the legend and practice (such as it is) of the “flying ointment” said to be made out of a variety of dangerous or questionable substances.

I consider the book to have aspects that are beyond my capacity to judge, including pharmaceutical and historical, so I’ll pass over them here.  I do want to address one aspect of the book on which I’ve written previously.

One of the authorities Hatsis is particularly intent on taking seriously is Abraham of Worms, the purported author of the Book of Abramelin the Mage.  In his first book, Abraham speaks of meeting a young woman near Lintz (likely Linz, in Austria) who shared with him an ointment that caused him to believe that he went on a magical flying journey.  Upon putting her to the test, however, he later dismissed the experience as a delusion.  I’ve talked about it before, and you can read Mathers’ version of the tale here.

Now, our earliest manuscript of Abramelin dates to 1608.  This raises some questions as to whether it was written close to that date, or closer to the date of 1458 given in the manuscript.  I think Georg Dehn opts for the work being written by an actual historical figure at the time.  I forebear judgment for the time being, given that it would be easy to simply take a legendary figure and write a book that is supposedly his work.   I don’t insist that it dates to 1608, but I don’t have enough evidence to bring its authorship back further.  After all, historical accuracy was not necessary a primary (or even a tertiary) concern of people writing magical books.

Hatsis’ trouble is that he is dead set on Abraham of Worms being a figure who definitely did write the Book of Abramelin, and thus had the experience in Linz that is mentioned therein.  He tells us that “[b]ecause the account is so damaging to the skeptic’s argument it has been either dismissed or ignored or explained as a later forgery.”

It’s not clear where these skeptical rebuttals regarding Abramelin and witch’s ointment have appeared, but we’ll pass over that for now.  Hatsis pushes his argument further:

…it would have been dangerous – nay, downright foolish – if, at the height of the witch trials (the time that modern skeptics say the story originated), Abraham, a Jewish mystic, would essentially admit to engaging in witchcraft.  So it makes more sense historically to date Abraham’s account to the time when such practices weren’t considered diabolical witchcraft at all…

According to Hatsis, Abraham’s account pertains to an earlier time, before the 1420s, in which the use of such substances was seen as perhaps improper, but not in and of itself demonic.

The problem here is context.

If you read to the end of the passage to which I link above in Mathers’ edition, you’ll know that the sorceress admits at the end that she got the ointment from the Devil.  What makes this difficult is that Dehn’s translation – which is generally more accurate – states that it is the “Greek art,” described in the story after that of the witch of Linz, that is a demonic mixture.  The version of Peter Hammer’s German work that I have available suggests that this pertains to the witch’s story.

I believe that, before Abramelin can be used as a source here, this particular reading of the original manuscripts needs to be teased out.   If this is part of the story, Abramelin is not only discussing a flying ointment, but also endorsing a view that it has a diabolic origin – which means that Hatsis’ argument that it was written before that view collapses.

Speaking of diabolical involvement,  what else might you avoid putting in a document if you wanted to avoid getting in trouble with authorities obsessed with demonic conspiracies?  How about a procedure for summoning Lucifer, Leviathan, Satan, and Belial, and all their subsidiaries, such as the one Abraham provides?   It’s safe to say that whomever wrote Abramelin did not consider being hauled in front of the magistrate to be a major concern.

A more plausible narrative emerges if we consider Abramelin to have been written much closer to 1608.  By that time, a number of supposed eyewitness accounts had circulated of people under the effects of the ointment, on which our author could have drawn.  Also, by this time the practice would have been considered wholly demonic, which fits with the narrative of that section.

This is not the only problematic aspect of Abramelin’s use, On the following page, Hatsis states that by the 1420s “the ointments contained plant-based psychoactive medical drugs as noted by Alonso Tostado and Abraham of Worms.”

As it turns out, however, Abraham mentions the ointment, but not anything regarding its contents.  As a bonus, Alonso Tostado also fails to mention any such ingredients, instead simply speaking of a mixture that made a woman believe that she was joining a company for food and sex, which made her insensible to pain while in effect.

One could make the hypothesis that the most likely content of such ointments was indeed plant-based psychoactive medical drugs, but neither passage says this.  This could be a simple misunderstanding, as Hatsis’ accounts of both authors earlier in the book does not say this, but I think an unwary reader could be led astray by this passage.

In short, although this book was quite informative, I feel that the link to Abramelin is presented more conclusively than it should be without a closer examination of the evidence.  In addition, a person who reads it to find out about Abramelin and its links to psychotropic substances may wish to consult that book more closely.


Published in: on January 4, 2016 at 9:28 pm  Comments (3)  

Review: Hutton’s Blood and Mistletoe

I’ve just had the pleasure of finishing Blood and Mistletoe:  The History of the Druids in Britain by Ronald Hutton.  It’s been out for quite a while, but I was asked to give some thoughts on the book.  This could be difficult, as I’ve read this book over the course of about half a year, but I’ll give it a shot.

51MtquLPwLL._SX346_BO1,204,203,200_First, I should say that I consider Ronald Hutton to be a gift to readers everywhere.  He has taken so many topics that have been considered fringe or questionable and shown that they can be discussed in their historical and cultural contexts, while finding a stance from which even the most unusual characters can be regarded with respect.  This is not to say that I agree with everything he has written, but most of it is worth reading.  Blood and Mistletoe certainly is – if you’re looking for a particular sort of information.

If what you’re looking for is information about the historical Druids, I would recommend this book – especially the first fifty pages.  Hutton performs a comprehensive roundup of the many different sources that we can access on the Druids:  Greek and Roman authors, archaeological sources, and Irish and Welsh sources written well after the fact.   All of these possess various levels of reliability and bias, none of which are conclusive sources.  What makes them even more problematic is the wide variation of information within them.  We are thus left with a collection of dubious information, much of which contradicts the other sections.

The bulk of the book is devoted to the use of the Druids in the intellectual life of Britain, as poets, antiquarians, politicians, novelists, and others over the centuries appropriate them to serve in various purposes.  They have been used to call up nationalistic sentiments – at various periods, in Scotland, England, and Wales – to critique paganism and Christian sects, and to create idyllic or horrific portraits of the past, depending upon what sources you want to dip into.  Even if you want to know about the historic Druids, this book covers such topics as why we think Druids wear white robes, or how ovates and bards entered the picture of our understanding of these individuals, or the differing ideas of the relation of Druids to Stonehenge.

Hutton also covers the reappearance of Druidic orders, which at first appeared as voluntary associations rather than pagan faiths.  Of particular note are the Ancient Order of Druids, the first of these,and the Universal Bond, the Druid order that conducted rituals at Stonehenge for many years.  If Hutton’s emphasis is any indication – and I can’t say it is – the reconstruction of Druidic ritual, as undertaken by groups such as Ár nDraíocht Féin, has had little role in the British scene, with much of the doctrine of these groups taken from many other religions, chiefly Christianity.  Those who want to know more about “Druids and Neopaganism” (yes, we can quibble about those terms, but even those who might will understand what I’m aiming for) should try for other sources.

Blood and Mistletoe does take a certain amount of interest and commitment from someone who wants to read the whole piece, as some of the exploration of various Druidic motifs in literature and art may only be of interest to specialists.  Still, the book is an indispensable reference for anyone interested in the Druids.  I’d suggest checking out Ronald Hutton’s other books as well, if you’re looking for a Christmas/solstice gift for someone with esoteric interests.


Published in: on December 5, 2015 at 1:21 pm  Comments (1)  

Forthcoming – Peterson’s Sworn Book of Honorius

I don’t have much time to post, but this is important:

As the title testifies, students were sworn to secrecy before being given access to this magic text, and only a few manuscripts survive. Nevertheless, it is considered one of the most influential magic texts. Bits of its teachings are alluded to in other texts, like the use of the magic whistle for summoning spirits. Another key element of its ritual, the elaborate “Seal of God,” has been found in texts and amulets throughout Europe.

Interest in the Sworn Book of Honorius has grown in recent years, being discussed at length in several recent books, yet no modern translations have been attempted. A critical edition of the Latin text by Gösta Hedegård (2002), has already become somewhat dated by new research.

Purporting to preserve the magic of Solomon in the face of intense persecution by religious authorities, this text includes one of the oldest, most detailed, and complete magic rituals. It is aggressively pro-magic, countering that the persecution and anti-magic hysteria were themselves inspired by demons seeking to suppress the divine art.

It’s an immensely influential book of ritual magic, with links to Dee and much of the later grimoire tradition.  Out in May.

Published in: on December 2, 2015 at 6:21 pm  Comments (2)  

Spirits in the Library – Lilith

queen of the nightFor the next contestant in our series, let’s look at Lilith.

Lilith first comes to our attention in Sumerian times, where she appears as a hostile spirit known as “Lilu.”  Biblical texts are often ambiguous about her, but the oral tradition of Judaism establishes her as the first wife of Adam and develops her character as a night-spirit who kills infants due to her own lack of children.  Lilith shows up rarely in grimoire, but she has since been largely rehabilitated in contemporary literature.

(Note: I’ve included a picture here of the “Queen of the Night” stela at the British Library, even though there’s little scholarly support today for the figure depicted being Lilith herself.)

Bane – A two-part entry, dividing a two page entry for “Lilith” from a short one of “Lilith the Lesser.”  It deals with the Mesopotamian and Judaic lore in some length, as well as an impressive list of alternative names for her.  Bibliography includes a number of good sources on the topic.

Belanger – Oh, this is nice.  A column and a half on Sumerian and Babylonian mythology, a little less on the Jewish folklore than I’d expected, and a bonus mention of the Munich Handbook.

de Plancy – Now, this is weird.  Just a short paragraph, covering her mythology as an attacker of infants, and her presence in Wierus and other works.  There’s a great deal more that could have been said here, even given that some of the Mesopotamian material was not available to them.

Gettings – Rather surprising here, this entry includes not only the material and other sources, but also “Gnostic and Rosicrucian medieval traditions,” which sounds a bit dubious, as well as fictional appearances.  It also has a depiction of Lilith as a demon from a Hebrew amulet.

Guiley – This is quite the good entry – over two whole columns, dealing with various religious and magical sources.  She could have probably pushed back to Sumerian mythology a little harder, and one set of statements about Lilith appearing in other belief systems – including Mexican and Native American – is highly suspect.

Lurker – A brief paragraph covering her appearances in the Old Testament, the Talmud, and Babylonian belief.

Mack – A four-page section, which deals with a broad range of folklore from Pagan, Jewish, and Christian sources, including a strange tale about Solomon using a mirror to unmask her.

That should do it.  Next time, my summary and recommendations.


Published in: on September 2, 2015 at 9:22 pm  Comments (1)  

Coming On-Line Radio Appearance

Lots of writing going on, just not here.

I’ll be appearing from 3-5 AM EDT (have fun, West Coast people!) this Saturday morning on Richard C. Hoagland’s “The Other Side of Midnight” program, on the Dark Matter Digital Network.  I could talk about Lovecraft, or grimoires, or something else entirely.  I don’t know if there’ll be call ins, but it should be fun.

Published in: on August 31, 2015 at 4:56 pm  Comments (2)  
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Spirits in the Library – Mephistopheles

For our fourth installment in our series (for the first three, see here), we’ll be looking at Mephistopheles.

Mephistopheles FaustMephistopheles is an unusual demon, insofar as his first appearance was in works of fiction based upon the life of the magician Georgius Sabellicus Faustus.  When grimoires began to be attributed to Faust, Mephistopheles followed along as one of the spirits with which magicians could make conduct and work.   At the same time, he’s accumulated an impressive list of appearances in the various incarnations of the Faust legend across many types of media.

Most of the books we discussed had entries on Mephistopheles, with the only exception being Mack.

Bane – Notes the fictional origins of the prince of demons, as well as his later inclusion into grimoires.  Oddly enough, then claims that certain aspects turn up in “medieval literature” (which would have predated its appearance).  A nice bibliography, as it mentions Butler’s Ritual Magic.

Belanger – This draws upon both the fictional and grimoire traditions, and is likely the most lucid of the entries.  It would have been nice to see it branch out into the figure’s uses in more than simply the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses, however.

Davidson – A nice paragraph, listing both fictional and grimoire appearances, though not quite systematically.

de Plancy – Nothing more than a brief and purple description of the horrible effects he has on humans, followed with a reference to the Faust entry.

Gettings – One paragraph referring entirely to the fictional sources, with no mention of the grimoires.

Guiley – This entry covers both Mephistopheles in Faust and in the grimoires, moving back and forth between the two for reasons I have yet to determine.  Nonetheless, it does touch on both the fiction and the magic.

Lurker – A short paragraph, with a misleading statement that it was “the name of the devil in the literature of necromancy and magic in the late Middle Ages.”

On this one, I felt Bane did the best, followed by Belanger and Guiley.

Who’ll be next?  We’ll find out in a week!


Published in: on July 21, 2015 at 4:23 pm  Comments (4)  

Spirits in the Library – Pazuzu

For the third part of our series (see parts 1 and 2) examining various works covering demonic entities, I’ll be looking at Pazuzu.

Louvre PazuzuA creation of the first millennium BC Assyrians, Pazuzu is the spirit of plague, cold, and evil winds.  He was generally shunned, but could also be called upon to scare off the female demon Lamashtu from small children.  (The tablet from the left, from the Louvre, shows Pazuzu overlooking Lamashtu in what is likely a protective manner.)  Recognition of Pazuzu seems to have died out in the Christian era – at least until The Exorcist made his curious locust-winged, scorpion-tailed, beaked, clawed appearance a cultural icon.

Part of my choice of Pazuzu was prompted by his position outside of traditional monotheism, save for his appearances in media.  So, what’s the verdict?

We do have some omissions.  de Plancy leaves him out, which is not surprising given how recently knowledge of Pazuzu came to us.  Gettings omits him as well.  Neither Belanger nor Davidson includes them in their works, although the introductions indicate that he doesn’t fall under the criteria set by either author.

Bane – A brief description of the demon, with notes as to his appearance and the rivalry with Lamashtu.  Some sources listed, none from Mesopotamian mythology.

Guiley – Information on his appearance, his rivalry with Lamashtu, and his role in The Exorcist.  Uses Black and Green’s Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia as a source.  Excellent.

Lurker – A very short section that covers the basics of the spirit’s appearance and portfolio, but no mention of Lamashtu.  Short and factually accurate.

Mack – Three pages on Pazuzu initially make this look good, but upon reading much of this is just filler text about other spirits.

This particular choice did fulfill the purpose I set out, which was to flush out the philosophies behind the books.  Mack was particularly disappointing, I have to say.  Other books I didn’t expect did an excellent job with him, while others left him on the wayside, disappointingly.

Who will be our next candidate?  We’ll find out soon…

Published in: on July 10, 2015 at 8:48 am  Comments (2)  

A New Book of Oberon Discovery

I’ve got a few different posts I’d like to put up, but I’m at a conference and I think people are ordering takeout.  So, allow me to present a new discovery by my friend Clay.

From Flave Végèce René, Du fait de guerre, 1536:

vegece1 vegece2

From Folger MS. V.b.26:

orobas Annabath

I’ll be looking into this more later, but I wanted to make sure credit was received where it was due.

Published in: on June 3, 2015 at 8:20 pm  Leave a Comment  
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I Have a Problem

So, with the new year, it’s time to admit I have a problem.

I might be addicted to Cornish folklore.

Part of my mother’s side of the family comes from Cornwall, and I’ve made two trips there over the years tooling about West Penwith and seeing the sights.  Over the past month, though, I’ve been compelled to look into it further, starting with the standard works on the area’s folklore and moving on to more obscure journal articles and local publications.

At this point, I’ve got a growing library of small-press publications, and a map with over four hundred separate locations with detailed notes on the legends connected with each.  So I have to figure out what to do with it.

The idea is not to publish scholarly articles, or even Mythos fiction or gaming material.  I do feel myself in need of a creative outlet, alongside the factual publications on magic.  Most likely it would fall into the present market for folk horror (see the original Wicker Man for the most obvious model, but I’d add such movies as Kill List, Wake Wood, and Curse of the Blair Witch, as well as some of the psychogeographic work of Phil Legard and others).  I’m not quite sure as to the format or the venues yet, but I’ll see if I can’t figure out something to do with it.

I suppose the other option is that I’ll get tired of it and never mention it again.  We’ll see.  Suggestions are welcome.

Published in: on January 1, 2015 at 8:29 pm  Comments (4)  
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2014 in Review

This year has been somewhat quiet on the blog front, but that doesn’t mean I’ve been idle, by any means.  James, Joe, and I have been wrapping up our notes on the proofs of The Book of Oberon.  It can be a slog at times, but then I think about how our readers will react when they see the immense work for themselves, and it makes it worth it.

Ben Fernee is hard at work on his latest release, so I’ve been making a few minor tweaks to my articles on witch bottles and wax images that should accompany the Bellhouse book.  I have to say, in a marketplace that has so many derivative books churned out, it’s great to be working on material that’s ground-breaking and has a good potential to stand the test of time.

I tooled around for a while seeking my next big project, and I think I’ve found one.  One aspect (and one of many, I should add) is digging back into the Mesopotamian corpus and dealing with aspects of its beliefs and ritual practices not touched upon much in my previous works.  That’s a long-term project, however, so I might not discuss it here for a while.

I’ve got a couple of publications to announce.  First, my chapter on the Book of Dzyan maybe read in the new anthology The Starry Wisdom Library, along with pieces by Ramsey Campbell, F. Paul Wilson, Don Webb, Wilum Pugmire, Donald Tyson, and many, many others.  Second, the third issue of the Arkham Gazette has been successfully Kickstarted, which will bring my brief folkloric article on Goody Fowler into print.

If anyone was anticipating meeting me at NecronomiCon this coming year, another obligation has taken precedence.  Nonetheless, I hope everyone has a great time, and I hope to see all of you at future conventions.

That’s all for now.  Yiggie and I (or rather, I) wish all of you happy holidays and a great new year!

Published in: on December 30, 2014 at 7:29 pm  Comments (1)  

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