May 9, 2011

The Key of Hell: an Eighteenth-Century Sorcery Manual [Updated]

Astrological talisman from an 1801 grimoire.
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."

Cyprien et le démon, French, 14th century.
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!


Anonymous said...

The first bit of the Greek is kinda hard to make sense of: the first character seems to be the ligature for the substantive ending -os. It may be here the article, though I've never seen the ligature used that way. Then omega, terminal sigma (?), upsilon (?), pi, epsilon, rho (perhaps hos huper 'as above'?). The next word is pretty clear, it's a transliteration of the Latin word pentaculum, pentacle.

Can't say why, but the parallel illustrations of the kings of the four corners are really evocative. Great find.

Benjamin Breen said...

A good friend of mine who has studied Greek has this to say:

"This is a weird mixed script. The first sorta-greek word is fake latin (it's 'super'): the capital sigma is not greek script and the 'v/u' looks more like a latin 'v/u' than an upsilon. The second word is 'penta-' something. It sorta looks like 'pentakglgm' or perhaps 'pentakgagm'? Not sure if those letters that look like '8's are supposed to be gammas or not."

So that solves it! "Super Pentaculum": above or greater than the pentacle. Many thanks.

Now, would anyone skilled in Latin like to take a stab at fixing my translations?

Benjamin Breen said...

Also, what to make of the Latin that comes right after the two greek words?
"App[e]ndas, ex filo noto componas [greek letter]m"

I translate the whole thing as something like:

"Above the pentacle you weigh from a thread the composed mark/token/character [noto]."

Anonymous said...

That makes a lot more sense.

The cross inscribed in a circle is the symbol for earth. With m following it I'd wager it's meant to substitute directly for terra, yielding '?? super pentaculum appendas, ex filo noto componas [terra]m.' "You hang it above the pentacle, you bring together the earth from a known thread." Lewis and Short suggest some pregnant readings for filum: the Fates' thread of life, parts, form, quality, style. Still pretty opaque to me. Maybe it'll always be so for us non-diabolicals.

As for the other Latin passages, the one on the last page is a bit rough, and might be better rendered with something like: "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..."

Benjamin Breen said...

Fantastic! Thank you for this. I'm going to update the post with your translations, if that's ok.

Anonymous said...

there is nothing "Kabbalistic Hebrew" about the text, simply michael,rafael,gavriel,ooriel in a bizarre spelling
the curious feature is the name of the black lizard: agla

Peter Langdon said...

Fascinating. I always thought the arcane, impenetrable symbols and spells of grimoires were an invention of fantasy writers, so it's interesting to see them here. I'd also never have guessed a work like this would be published in the late 18th century.
The Wellcome Images archive is terrific too, thanks for the link.

Anonymous said...

Hi there I am wondering if I supply a couple of symbols that I think are based in Enochian and Masonic ciphers can you translate them?

Benjamin Breen said...

Hi Anonymous,

Well, I certainly can't promise anything, but I'd absolutely love to take a look! What are their provenance? Send an image file to please.

Ben Breen

Benjamin Breen said...

Sorry but none of what you wrote there makes the slightest bit of sense, Optimystic. Where are you getting this stuff from? Jesuits discovered steel and the Far East...? (no). Honorius of Thebes is a distorted scrap of Hellenistic lore that was largely invented in the Middle Ages. Faust wasn't even a real historical figure, more likely a fictionalized conglomerate of several people. And I doubt you've actually read the 16th and 17th century texts upon which the watered down mysticism you're wading around in is based. Not trying to be a jerk here, but I have a low tolerance for Crowley-inspired "magick" 20th century occultism stuff. Mainly because it detracts from actual research into the history of magic.

Anonymous said...

You are aware the cipher is transitus fluvii? The passing of the river.

ArtPulseDynamics said...

I can't read much Latin but the pictures say everything I need to know - so excuse me if I offemd any Christian sensibilities; we're going straight into the 'dark' arts of yogic mysticism and tantric principles very clearly explained there.

The black snake (yin, ida, feminine side) will unify with the white snake (yang, pingala, masculine side). The black snake, being the ego, will be defeated by the white snake which is the symbol of power. From there, the little snake on the cross will be able to pass the boundary and into the higher realms of union.

Hence the triangle of Man Christ and God. They all exist at once in that realm. Man becomes Christ and becomes able to see God, within himself or specifically, in the Third eye as a brilliant bright light transcendentally undescribable, that exists beyond any and all thought processes that occur in the brain. This is what Christ meant in revelations - no sickness, no suffering and no disease. The Sun reigns over the kingdom of heaven eternal. And the angels sing hallelujah the glory of God is high. (not literally but you get the idea) Same allusions found in yogic texts as the city of Vaikuntha. This is what they means by union. Surrender to the power within to gain union with God.

Carmen Burana said...

I have no idea if this is helpful, but the second-to-last image is a scene from Revelation (John). Here are some relevant passages (courtesy of

Saying, I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last: and, What thou seest, write in a book, and send it unto the seven churches which are in Asia; unto Ephesus, and unto Smyrna, and unto Pergamos, and unto Thyatira, and unto Sardis, and unto Philadelphia, and unto Laodicea.

And I turned to see the voice that spake with me. And being turned, I saw seven golden candlesticks;

And in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like unto the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle.

His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire;

And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters.

And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp twoedged sword: and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength.