Magic Circles, Their History and Anatomy

CircletriangleOne of the most iconic images of the ‘black magician’ is the ominous figure standing in a magic circle filled with intricate designs and mystical symbols. Magic circles have been a big part of my life recently, after being involved in a production based on the Elizabethan Occult, and watching NBC’s Constantine – so I thought I’d write a little about what they are and where they came form.

Christopher Marlowe, writer of demonological play Doctor Faustus, described the popular vision of the magical circle:

“Within this circle is Jehovah’s name
Forward and backward anagrammatized,
Th’abbreviated names of holy saints,
Figures of every adjunct to the heavens,
And characters of signs and evening stars,
By which the spirits are enforced to rise.
Then fear not, Faustus, be resolute
And try the utmost magic can perform.” (1.3.8-15) Continue reading “Magic Circles, Their History and Anatomy”

Things D&D Got Right: Magical Rings

One RingMagical Rings are one of my favourite things about D&D. The idea of having something that won’t ever wear out, but gives you superpowers, is one of the coolest things I could possibly imagine. My only regret was that my group only allowed you to have one ring on each hand. I would have been the Mr. T of magical jewellery.

Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, one of the greatest Neoplatonic thinkers of the 16th century (who also became a doctor, a feminist, a sceptic, and a lawyer who defended witches while humiliating witch-hunters) talked about rings:

“Rings impress their virtue upon us, inasmuch as they do affect the spirit of him that carries them with gladness or sadness, and render him courteous or terrible, bold or fearful, amiable or hateful; inasmuch as they do fortify us against sicknessm poisons, enemies, evil spirits, and all manner of hurtful things, or, at least will not suffer us to be kept under them.”

And for every wacky D&D power you can find in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, you can find works of magical artistry merging astrological theories with ‘Natural Magic’ and Christian mysticism.

Whether or not magic has ever really existed, people have been making magical rings for thousands of years. In what was Chaldea, a semitic nation nestled in the corner of the Babylonian Empire, archaeologists are still finding rings dedicated to the seven planetary spirits, corresponding with the planets of astrology.

Likewise, the ancient Hebrews made astrological talismans out of parchment and knotted chord, and seem to have worn them as rings – not to mention that runic rings have been found in pre-Christian Nordic burials. Continue reading “Things D&D Got Right: Magical Rings”

Codex Gigas: The Devil’s Bible

Codex-Gigas-Devil-enhancedYou might know if you’ve read my bio, but I work as a tour guide at the Globe Theatre. There are many reasons why I love the Globe, not least of which is that I get to make a living from history – but also because you never know who you’re talking to.

In this case I was at the entrance telling getting people onto tours, when I started having a chat with one of the security guards. We talked about his travels in Eastern Europe and South America, touching on Voodou, Santeria, Brujha and Macamba (none of which I pronounced correctly, despite having studied them). It was inevitable that we eventually got onto the topic of The Devil.

We talked a little about the medieval fear of The Devil when he said, “You’ve heard of the Codex Gigas? The Codex Gigas? No? Look it up later.”

Here’s what I learned… Continue reading “Codex Gigas: The Devil’s Bible”

Magico-Medical Talismans 2, A Deeper Analysis of the Middleham Jewel

Middleham Jewel 2As mentioned in a previous blog post, the Middleham Jewel contained the word ‘Ananizapta’, which was a charm against epilepsy, also known as ‘the falling sickness’ or ‘the sacred disease’ by various parties.

One manuscript where the charm is found suggests that the meaning of the word is “May the antidote of the Nazarene prevail over death by poison! May the Trinity sanctify food and drink! Amen”, while, according to Claude Lecouteux, another manuscript defines it as “May the bitterness of the Nazarene’s death remove us from the verdict of eternal damnation, by the power of the Father, for a harsher persecution,” which is based on the idea that the word is an acronym for Ancient Greek.

Whatever the true meaning of the word inscribed on the talisman, the rest of its construction can be traced back to the rules laid down in Middle Eastern books of ‘Natural Magic’ that made their way to Europe after the end of the Crusades. With these texts came ideas dating back to the Classical world that metals, stones and plants were infused by the power of various planets, which could give them powers to affect magical cures if they were properly calibrated. Continue reading “Magico-Medical Talismans 2, A Deeper Analysis of the Middleham Jewel”

Hamlet’s Father: Ghost or Demon?

Marcellus: What, has this thing appeared again tonight?

Bernado: I have seen nothing…

Marcellus: Horatio says ’tis but our fantasy,
And will not let belief take hold of him,
Touching this dreaded sight, twice seen of us… that if this apparition come,
He may approve our eyes and speak of it.

Horatio: But soft, behold, lo where it comes again!
I’ll cross it though it blast me. Stay, illusion.
If thou has any sound or use of voice,
Speak to me.
If there be any good thing to be done that may to thee do ease, and grace to me,
Speak to me.
If thou art privy to thy country’s fate, which happily foreknowing may avoid,
Oh speak.
If thou hast uphoarded in thy life,
Extorted treasure in the womb of the earth,
For which they say you spirits oft walk in death,
Speak of it…

Marcellus: Shall I strike at it with my partisan?

Horatio: Do it if it will not stand.

Marcellus: ‘Tis gone.
We do it wrong being so majestical
To offer it the show of violence,
For it is as the air invulnerable,
And our vail blows malicious mockery.

Bernado: It was about to speak when the cock crew.

Marcellus: It faded on the crowing of the cock.

Above is an abridged version of the scene from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet where three officers of the watch witness the ghost of Hamlet’s father haunting the castle of Elsinore.

When Hamlet himself, already identified as a bit of an odd bird, meets the ghost he says:

Hamlet: Angels and ministers of grace defend us!
Be thou a spirit of health, or goblin damned,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou com’st in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee. I’ll call thee Hamlet,
King, father, royal Dane…

Here, we see that the spirit seen in the castle of Elsinore has three possible identities: ghost, demon, or hallucination. Continue reading “Hamlet’s Father: Ghost or Demon?”

Medieval Folklore that D&D Got Right: Undead Knights and Dungeons Full of Treasure

skeleton_warrior_by_skullsdirectIf you follow this blog, you might have realised that I’m a bit of a geek: not just a folklore and mythology geek, but a geek in general. Knowing this, it probably won’t be a surprise that I spent much of my childhood playing Dungeons and Dragons. Even as an adult, I can still be found playing tabletop from time to time (but not D&D anymore, now I play 1930s-style pulp adventure games, where sexy occult historians get dragged into adventures with breathy femme fatales…)

Dungeons and Dragons was the creation of Gary Gygax, and was originally released as a supplement for a wargaming system called Chainmail. Over the years, and certainly by the time I was playing, a number of fantasy words were released with increasingly different world-building to anything you’d ever seen in real medieval history.

However, hidden at the core of D&D, buried, unspoken, in the rules and mechanics of the system (a system widely mocked for being pernickety and bureaucratic) are a set of tropes that represent a loving recreation of Medieval European folklore.

Just as the Ancient Egyptians worried about how the dead would support themselves in the afterlife, so did the Medieval Europeans. In the Early Middle Ages it was an important part of German Law that the dead were entitled to be buried with up to a third of their wealth so that they could support themselves in the life after death. Continue reading “Medieval Folklore that D&D Got Right: Undead Knights and Dungeons Full of Treasure”

Things that Made Our Ancestors Afraid of the Dark (Part One of an Occasional Series)

Photo by flickr.com/photos/timo_w2s/

As modern people we don’t always appreciate it, but the world has changed for us only very, very recently. There was a world not so long ago where milk was seasonal and streetlights didn’t exist.

In this milkless era two-thirds of Britain was covered in thick forest that swallowed up the light, meaning that on a cloudy or moonless night those forests would be filled with invisible ditches, riverbanks and pitfalls. The 17th Century diary of a Reverend Heywood in Yorkshire records of how a man walked out of his house only to vanish without trace. Another Yorkshireman, Arthur Jessop, lost his way and fell into a stone pit. In Aberdeenshire a fifteen year old girl died in 1739 because she lost her way on the path and fell down a freshly dug grave. One elderly Suffock farmer even boasted that he’d been going around at night without injuring himself, although he had once fallen off his horse and gone down a steep riverbank.

Even the cities were pretty bad: until the early 18th Century there was no obligation for the city authorities to provide any sort of artificial light, and paving was a ragtag mix of the cheapest stone that various householders could get their hands on (since the house owner was directly responsible for paving the section outside his house, and your average slumlord wasn’t going to fork out on much.) This meant rain, darkness and garbage created a slick coating of grease and faeces the put hundreds of soon-to-be-dead people into the river Thames over the years. Continue reading “Things that Made Our Ancestors Afraid of the Dark (Part One of an Occasional Series)”

Medico-Magical Talismans and the Middleham Jewel

MUK_middleham_304x400In 1985, a metal-detectorist found the Middleham Jewel, a possibly 15th century magico-medical talisman found in the verges of a bridal path near Middleham castle itself.

The artefact is just 6.4cm high, with a beautiful sapphire stone. It has a loop at the top for use as as pendant, with a compartment, possibly designed to contain some sort of healing relic. The rest of the Jewel’s design is linked with its purpose: an extract from the Latin mass, a scene from the crucifixion, and the word ‘Ananizapta’, a charm against epilepsy.

The idea of magical talismans for medicine was a mainstay of medieval medical thought. After the Crusades, a wave of culture came from the Middle East: works of philosophy and science previously lost had been perfectly preserved and developed upon in the Muslim East. The City of Toledo became a cultural melting pot, translating works of Hermetic Philosophy and Arab medicine into Latin, Hebrew and Spanish.

So, why does this mean a medieval lady would be trying to cure her epilepsy with a magical amulet? Continue reading “Medico-Magical Talismans and the Middleham Jewel”

The Tempestuous, Folly-Filled Reign of Edward II

King_Edward_II_of_EnglandNo one could accuse the reign of Edward II of being dull. Coming to the throne in 1307, one of his earliest actions was to declare the Knights Templar as heretics and sodomites ( and of possessing a talking brass head ).

He’d already been a fairly controversial Prince of Wales. His father, had ripped out a handful of Edward’s hair after the young prince had tried to persuade the Plantagenet king that Edward’s favourite, Piers Gaveston, should be created the Count of Ponthieu. Instead, Edward’s father (Edward I) banished the knight, enraged at “…the undue intimacy which the young Lord Edward had adopted towards him.”

Despite declaring the Knights Templar as sexual deviants, there has always been a suspicion that Edward II was a homosexual himself, perhaps explaining the addition of ‘Soddomy’ to what was otherwise a fairly standard set of misbehaviour accusations.

What can be said is that Edward had a politically and socially unhealthy fascination with Piers Gaveston. His first act upon becoming King was to recall Gaveston from banishment, and upon marrying Princess Isabella of France he immediately gave the most pleasing (and valuable) jewells to Gaveston as gifts.

In fact, one of the biggest indictments of Edward is that whether he was straight or gay, he was an idiot. After offending the twelve year old Princess of France (and her father, Philip IV) he engaged in openly mocking his most powerful barons, calling the Earl of Warwick the ‘Black Hound of Arden’ and ignoring affairs of state to shower gifts and clothes on Gaveston, who he’d created as the Earl of Cornwall (even at the time, their love was rumoured to be more than friendship, although I do think that if Edward had been a better governor, fewer of his subjects would have cared.)

After a series of humiliations that included Edward abandoning her at Tynemouth Abbey (or so wrote a Monk of St. Albans, John de Trokelow), Isabella began to turn against her neglectful husband.

She wasn’t alone: the reason that Edward had abandoned her in 1312 was because he was being chased by an army of dissatisfied Barons, who captured and executed Gaveston (this didn’t teach Edward, he just took a new favourite in Hugh Despencer).

By 1321, Isabella had joined forces with her lover, Roger Mortimer (whose direct descendant is the modern explorer Sir Ranulf Fiennes) to lead a rebellion against Edward and the hated Despensers, which resulted in his imprisoning at Berkeley Castle, where, on the 11th of Octorber he was quietly put to death.

The manner of his death is somewhat disputed: local lore in Berkeley is that he was killed with a red-hot poker shoved up his backside, and that the people of Berkeley could hear his screams for miles around, although contemporary chroniclers said that he died of either suffocation or strangulation.

 

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Saint or Witch? The Fine Line in the Supernatural Before the Enlightenment

Saint AugustineHow and Why?
What makes a witch? It’s been a long time since you’d find anyone who argued it was the talent for magical power. Of the factors that come together to make someone a witch, alleged magical power was only one of many.

Witch stories have a strange mirror in the very myths made up society and religion for much society until the advent of the Reformation.

Part of this was how history was written. Almost until the Enlightenment, history was seen as an expression of the art of rhetoric. Historical events mines for morally pleasing stories, which could be adapted without troubling the historian’s conscience.

Adding to that, pre-Reformation law in Britain (which continued unmodified during the witch trials in many other places) involved torture as a mainstay of the trial process. Judges could only find a defendant guilty if they were able to secure two witness statements that agreed perfectly, or if the defendant could be persuaded to confess. The regulations for assessing the two statements were surprisingly strict, leaving many Judges little option other than to secure a confession.

Circumstantial evidence was enough to secure the Judge’s suspicion, which was grounds for torture. Suspected witches would be coerced into spinning a narrative that their interrogators could take into court. Motivated by the pain of torture, and the knowledge that their torturers could only stop when they’d reached a mutually agreeable narrative, witches would draw on the stories of their everyday lives.

Finally, many accusers would fall back on the stories they’d been culturally primed with in order to understand what they believed to be terrifying magical attacks. Continue reading “Saint or Witch? The Fine Line in the Supernatural Before the Enlightenment”