Magical 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.”
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.
You 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.”
As 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”
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.
Famous around the Welsh borderlands (particularly Monmouthshire and Herefordshire), he’s a magic user of a very different kind to Faustus and Sylvester.
While their magic is capable of horrible wonders, Jack’s is more the magic of the stage magician.
In the play ‘John a Kent and John a Cumber’, by the playwright and spy Anthony Munday, Jack appears much more like a stage magician than a devilish sorcerer.
His arsenal of tricks includes disguising himself as a Jesuit friar, producing magical music and strange mist.
His main interest in the whole plot (which is a fairly typical play about couples wanting to marry for love instead of money) is to harmlessly agitate the lovers while amusing himself by battling rival magician John a Cumber (who seems to be almost identical to Jack, except from Scotland.)
Even in this play, however, he seems to have real power.
There have always been people who led the way in science and thinking: Issac Newton led the way by thinking up the theory of gravity that we still use (until someone discovers that it’s all just magnets buried by aliens.) Plato and Newton both put forward pretty accurate theories about the Earth’s core, and Aristachus of Samos put forward a fairly accurate picture of the Solar System about three hundred years before the Crucifixion.
On the other hand, the world has changed: in the modern day politicians still want to screw you, but they’re more likely to tell you they’re doing it because it’s necessary, because they’re keeping you safe, or because if they don’t communism will take over. They’re less likely to say, “The universe works this way and therefore I should be in charge because… umm… God.”
In the days where that was more common there was one type of person who always eventually fell under suspicion: people who asked questions. What kinds of people tend to ask questions? Philosophers, Magicians and Scientists. That might sound like three very different groups, but for most of human history they were one and the same. The problem is that when someone in charge stands to lose out from people knowing too much, the people who know too much fall under suspicion.
Prophesy has always been a big deal here in Britain. In the run up to the Great Fire of London (and, of course, afterwards) the world was full of portents: In August 1666 the Spanish Ambassador claimed that a ‘deformed monster’ had been born in London. “[It was] horrible in shape and colour. Part of him was fiery red and part of in yellow, on his chest was a human face. He had the legs of a bull, the feet of a man, the tail of a wolf, the breasts of a goat, the shoulders of camel, a long body, and in place of a head a kind of tumour with the ears of a horse.”
This wasn’t the only horrendous thing born of woman in troubled times: Meaux Abbey in Yorkshire said that a ‘human monster’ was born in Kingston-Upon-Thames, divided from the waist up with one half the upper body of a man and the other half the upper body of a woman (although this does sound rather more like a simple case of conjoined twins than anything in any way supernatural, especially since they became an accepted part of the community and lived until they were eighteen.) This unfortunate but mundane genetic abnormality/Satanic Hellbeast (probably the former) was seen as a portent of the Black Death.
An English poem form the time shows us the mood of the time:
“The rysing of the comuynes in Londe,
The pestilens and the eorthequake,
Teose threo things, I understand, betokenes the grete vengance and wrake,
That shulde falle for synnes sake,
As this clarkes canne de-clare,
Nou may we chese to leave or take,
For warnynge have we to ben ware.”
— A Warning to Beware, Anonymous, 1380.
Thomas Wimbledon preached at St. Paul’s Cross in 1388, saying that Armageddon would come in 1400, continuing a tradition stretching back to the earliest foundations of Christianity that the world was going to end really soon, and Christians would get the best end of it. Continue reading “Merlin: The Welsh Prophet”