I found these amazing illustrations on Wellcome Images, a useful online database devoted to images related to the history of medicine from ancient times to the present. It is a small part of the larger Wellcome Trust archives. According to the image captions supplied by the Wellcome, all of the images below come from an eighteenth century German magical text known as the Clavis Inferni sive magia alba et nigra approbata Metatrona — which translates as “The Key of Hell with white and black magic proven [or approved] by Metatron.”
According to its catalogue entry, this mysterious manuscript was purchased from Sotheby’s on March 29, 1912. Although the title-page inscription seems to date it to 1717, the catalogue notes that “the script seems to be of the late 18th century.” As for the text’s origins, the Wellcome’s caption writes that it
is also known as the Black Book, and is the textbook of the Black School at Wittenburg, the book from which a witch or sorcerer gets his spells. The Black School at Wittenburg was purportedly a place in Germany where one went to learn the black arts.
I was somewhat dubious of this Harry Potter-esque claim so I researched the title a bit more and found that the attributed author, one Cyprianus, probably refers to St. Cyprian of Antioch (d. 304 CE): a very common apocryphal attribution for medieval magical texts, since Cyprian was reputed to have been a powerful magician and demon-summoner before converting to Christianity (see also the Iberian grimoire The Great Book of Saint Cyprian).
|The martyrdom of Cyprian and Justina, medieval
Portuguese, oil on panel.
I also found that this very manuscript has actually been published by something called the Avalonia Press, which appears to be one of several such boutique presses devoted to occultism and attempts to revive ‘black magic’ as a religion or way of life. (I find that these folks usually do more harm than good by spreading poorly-researched information which hinders actual historical research into the history of magic and alchemy, but I am glad that they put texts like this into print).
An interesting-seeming book by a professor of Norwegian literature named Kathleen Stokker (Remedies and Rituals: Folk Medicine in Norway and the New Land) offers a different take on the reputed identity of Cyprianus (pp. 100-101). Stokker writes:
The identity of the mysterious figure Cyprianus varied wildly. People in Holstein, Denmark, imagined Cyprianus to be a fellow Dane so evil during his lifetime that when he died the devil threw him out of Hell. This act so enraged Cyprianus that he dedicated himself to writing the nine Books of Black Arts that underlie all subsequent Scandinavian black books.
Next comes a surprising twist:
In stark contrast, the Cyprianus of Oldtidens Sortebog [a Norwegian grimoire] is a ravishingly beautiful, irrestistibly seductive, prodigiously knowledgeable, pious Mexican nun. The nun’s gory story, dated 1351, details her mistreatment by a debauched cleric whose advances she steadfastly refused.
It goes unexplained how a Mexican nun could have even existed in 1351! Perhaps the identity of Cyprianus, and of the Wellcome manuscript attributed to him, will never be known with much certainty owing to the profusion of misinformation that seems to surround all things related to black magic. The images, however, are incredibly evocative and mysterious, and tell a fascinating story in themselves.
The work’s title page. Note the date, provided in curly Roman numerals toward the bottom of the page, and the cipher script above it. “Metratona” refers to the angel mentioned as God’s courier and scribe in the Talmud and Judaic lore. [Update 5/11] Also note the two lines at the bottom made up of Greek, Latin and a few symbols. The anonymous poster in the Comments section below has kindly translated these lines to something like “You hang it above the pentacle, you bring together the earth from a known thread.” With ‘thread’ (filo) having connotations of the thread measured out by the Fates. Still fairly opaque.
Cyprianus, Clavis Inferni sive magia alba et nigra approbata Metratona. German, 18th century, ink and watercolor. The script is a cipher. According to the Wellcome’s caption, this image depicts “Maymon – a black bird – as King of the South; and Egyn – a black bear-like animal with a short tail – as King of the North.”
Cyprianus, Clavis Inferni sive magia alba et nigra approbata Metratona. German, 18th century, ink and watercolor. “Uricus – a red-crowned and winged serpent – as King of the East” and “Paymon – a black cat-like animal with horns, long whiskers and tail – as King of the West.”
Cyprianus, Clavis Inferni sive magia alba et nigra approbata Metratona. German, 18th century, ink and watercolor. A crowned dragon consumes a lizard, arching over a snake-wrapped cross with skull and cross-bones. The sword and branch probably refer to the common iconography of God’s twinned powers to create destruction or peace. The Latin text reads Qui facis mirabilia magna solus finis coronat opus. I translate this to something like “You who act alone with great miracles [or miraculous things], the end shall crown the work.” But my Latin is quite rusty.
Cyprianus, Clavis Inferni sive magia alba et nigra approbata Metratona. German, 18th century, ink and watercolor. The archangel Metatron with allegorical objects. I have no idea what to make of this one. The text is in Kabbalistic Hebrew and cipher, with Greek alpha and omega symbols.
The final page. Note the symbol, which looks strangely like the emblem of the Society of Jesus to me. [Update 5/11] The same Anonymous in the comments section has also contributed a rough translation of this passage: “I truly, from the law of that Majesty, do receive and take the treasure requested by you in the sent proclamation. Go away now most calmly to your place, without murmor [assuming rumore instead of umore] and commotion, and without harm to us and to the circle of other men. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, AMEN.” Sounds like a spell or prayer to return a summoned being to its place of origin, perhaps.
These magical texts can make you feel a bit crazy if you spend too much time researching them (I was recently told as a bit of historian gossip that a prominent early researcher of John Dee went mad from precisely this cause, and I wasn’t surprised). So I’ll stop there.
As a side note, I’m hosting this month’s early modern Carnivalesque (a round-up of recent blog posts on early modern history) so please send submissions to email@example.com!