✶ Ars Phytonica - A Necromantic Divination Rite
Ars Phytonica - A Necromantic Divination Rite
Dispersed and rare are the actual accounts of mantic skulls in Western Magic. While the modern practitioner can watch Youtube documentaries on tantric sects whose practice centres on the adoration of the human skull, Western accounts of ritual magic including such vessels of wisdom and spirit power are much harder to come by. Few stories illustrate this better than the legends of the ominous Baphomet-head of the Knights templar or the 'talking head' of Albertus Magnus. Because that is all that we are left with today: legends. Rediscovering authentic accounts of Western magic that leverage the human skull as a divinatory tool, is a study still waiting to be undertaken by historians and practitioners in close-partnership.
In light of this, the 18th century manuscript called 'Ars Phytonica', contained in the Grimoire collection of the University of Leipzig represents a treasure of its own kind: Brief in words and unapologetically practical in nature, this short German text - presumingly, just like the other manuscripts of the collection, a transcription of a much older original - is a pearl waiting to be resurfaced and polished by the hands of historians and diviners alike.
As part of the Holy Daimon project we present not only a full German transcription, but the first English translation of this text of ritual power. Of the material published in this project it certainly represents the most chthonic or 'left-handed' manuscript. Yet, even more so does this justify its importance, standing next to genre-texts of 'white magic' such as the Genio-Sophia or Pelagius Eremita 'Two Books Of knowledge and Name of One's Good Angel'. For the practice of 'daimonic theurgy' was a most diverse occult art, and deserves to be rediscovered as such.
II. Dichotomy of Divinatory Tools
'In the sea copper cauldrons are set. Their lids are of lead. And evil he put therein, the evil demon (tarpin) he put, bloodshed he put, hapanzi he put, sorrow he put, tears he put, grief he put, fog he put, cursing he put, disease he put.' (Hittite incantation, Hoffner, p.65)
In our analysis of this short chthonic grimoire we should begin with a relative straight forward observation: The forms of divination found in the heretic canon of Western magic are myriad. No single overview exists and most attempts of a structured overview end in artificial boundaries and lines drawn rather out of pity for perplexed researchers, than in assistance of the work of the practitioner. However, it is possible to identify a straight forward dichotomy in the actual tools leveraged in mantic oracles: We can differentiate between tools that allow for an interpretation of the divinatory message, and tools that are ritually turned into vessels of the actual spirit(s) performing the divinatory act.
The former category spans from rune stones to carved bones, all the way to modern tarot cards. The latter category includes the ancient 'living statues' of the Greek, Salomonic spirit vessels as well as the mantic skulls leveraged in the Ars Phytonica. While spirit agency is essential to any act of animistic divination, it is only the latter category that requires direct inter-species communication between human diviner and divining spirit. I.e. it's a different skill to learn to read geomantic oracles, compared to developing the skills of seeing the spirit bound into a mantic skull in vision, in one's dreams or hearing its voice in one's own head. The former category requires an ardent student, the latter an adept.
With this simple differentiation we have narrowed down our possible historic reference points significantly. We can brush aside all divinatory tools that functioned as ciphered language and thus required an act of interpretation or symbolic reading to be turned into a divinatory message. Instead, we are focussed on finding historic records of actual spirit vessels that were leverage to host spirits which would directly interact with the diviner. More narrowly even, we are looking for cases only when such vessels took the form of human skulls.
III. MS Parisinus Gr. 2419
As rare as mantic skull rituals are in Western Magic, we do know of a very specific antetype to the Ars Phytonica. This can be found in a manuscript known as MS Parisinus Gr. 2419. Consisting of 342 folios and originally written around 1462, the relevant instruction reads even more compressed than in our Ars. The ritual can be found on folio 140v/141 and is quoted here in full:
Procedure for consecrating a skull, by Hēliodōros
Take an old human skull, wash it in pure water for three nights, wrap it in a clean piece of cloth, go to a meeting of three roads, and write these names on its forehead: Mpouak, Sariak, Loutzēpher. Then, take a rib from a hanged man, make a hoop with it, place the skin of a black cat inside the hoop, put the skull over the skin and recite these words.
'I conjure you names that are written on the skull's forehead, show me and tell me the truth regarding whatever question I may ask.'
Then, leave the skull and go in peace. And when the roosters start crowing, come back and take it. You must keep it secret from everybody. When you want to ask it, fast for three days; do not taste even bread and water. Ask it during night, and it will answer anything you want.' (Marathakis, p.204)
As we will explore in detail in the following analysis, the skull ritual of Parisinus Gr. 2419 contains explicit parallels to the Ars Phytonica: both texts instruct the practitioner to wash the skull in pure water for three nights as well as to undergo a period of lent of the same duration before any inquiry to the mantic skull can be made. Both text also require the ritual to be performed outside, in a remote, open place. And most essentially, both manuscripts leverage three daemonic names written on either the skull's forehead or on a ritual headband as their main outer act of conjuration.
However, where the Greek manuscript absorbs much of the ritual details, our text in the German vernacular offers much more specific allusions as well as practical advise. Despite the differences in some of their content, on the following pages we will come to see clearly that both texts form part of an underground tradition of necromantic practice in the West. While the anonymous German transcript of the Ars Phytonicadates to the early 18th century, it is even likely that both texts originally emerged from the same historic background of central Europe's circles of learned magic during Late Medieval times.
Historic Context of Western Mantic Skulls
I. The Jewish Teraphim
'The name teraphim is then, I suggest, a cultic term brought into Syria and Palestine by migrant cultic personnel formerly resident in Anatolia. It was adopted by the south Canaanites at the end of the Amarna Age (thirteenth century BC) and preserved for us only to date in the pages of the Old Testament as a designation for a type of idea of mantic device.' (Hoffner, p.68)
Much etymological speculation has happened over the roots of the Hebrew TRPYM. Is it a derivate of the Greek verb 'to heal', does it stem from the the hebrew toreph (obscenity) or does it represent a deliberate deformation of PTRYM (interpreters), in order to offer protection from the dangerous magical implement referred to (Hoffner, p.61 / Labuschagne, p.117).
Each interpretation sheds a different light on the actual ritual objects identified by this obscure Hebrew term. Unfortunately, however, the original Biblical sources reveal so little of the teraphim and their ritual use, that even the analysis of the textual records and their context cannot dispel the ambiguity that comes with the territory:
'Analysis of the fifteen texts in which tērāpīm occurs shows that it refers to a concrete object. The tērāpīm can be "made" (cśh, Judg 17:5) and "removed" (bcr, piel; 2 Kgs 23:24). In what is no doubt the best known passage on the teraphim (Gen 31:19,30-35) Rachel is reported to have "stolen" (gnb, Gen 31:19) her father's teraphim. From Gen 31:34 one gains the impression that the objects were relatively small (their length will not have exceeded 30-35 cm), since they could be hidden in a saddlebag.' (Toorn, p.205)
'(...) whatever their form may have been - masks, or images of the figurine type, or perhaps a combination of these - what is certain on the strength of the etymology of the word, is that they were mantic devices designed to be consulted on the interpretation of dreams.' (Labuschagne, p.116)
While still ambiguous, the oldest sources of the term teraphim confirm its use as a spirit-vessel which ritually applied was able to 'speak' (Toorn, p.213) and allowed for private as well as public acts of divination. The term gains significantly in sharpness, however, if we fast-forward from Biblical to Medieval times. Here Rabbinic sources hold a firmer view on what the term denoted:
'Rabbinic and medieval Jewish sources describe the Teraphim of Genesis 31,19 as pickled red men who were capable of foretelling the future. (...) Originally, it was claimed that these [the teraphim] were magical implements, which pagans obtained by severing the head of a firstborn male person, preserving it with salt and balsam, and placing it on a golden tray on which a magical formula was inscribed.' (Nissan, p.134)
Accelerating further through time, we find a similar reference in Solomon Mandelkern's 1896 Hebrew and Chaldean concordance, relating the Latin term terafim to domestic or ancestral deities (penates) leveraging human remains (Nissan, pp.134).
As we can see, whether in mummified or skeletonised form, we have come across sources that indeed know of a Western divinatory tradition which centred on a speaking human skull and which was directly connected to the obscure, Biblical term of the teraphim. Of course the sources are using their account of the teraphim as a horrifying example of the atrocities committed by religious heretics and opponents, and therefore have to be considered with great care. However, what is relevant for our current study, is the historic continuity with which the term seems to have been used at least since Medieval times, as well as how specifically it referred to the shamanic spirit-vessel and the related magical practice we find explained most overtly in the Ars Phytonica.
A further source could be regarded as a potential bridge between the historic accounts of the teraphim and our practical grimoire on its construction and awakening. We discover it in the form of a Jewish folktale from the time of the great Maharal, the Bohemian Rabbi Jehuda Löw of Prague (1512-1609). It was literarised in Czech by Eduard Petiska in 1971 as well as in Hebrew by Ben Yechezkel in 1976/77 and is today known as the story of 'The Adventures of Jakob' (Die Abenteuer des Jakob, in: Petiska, p.25-32).
While a full translation of the folktale would be too much of an excursion for our current study, we want to at least quote Ephraim Nissan's abbreviated summary from his excellent 2008 article 'Ghastly representations of the denominational Other in folklore, I Manetho's red-haired men, Laban's pickled red men, and the tale from the Maharal cycle about the divinatory skull of the abducting magicians', p.135/136.
II. The Skull of the Prodigy Child
A great merchant in Prague who is a learned Jew, has a child prodigy who is a pupil of Maharal. A marriage is soon arranged for the boy. By deception, the boy is taken away from his family, and led into a tower, where, as he longs for books so he could study, he is closed by his captors inside a room full of books. Then a skull (or a mummified talking head: Ben Yechezkel is ambiguous concerning which is what) talks up and warns the child.
The talking head commiserates with the captured boy, explains the situation and proposes a plan for escape. He, too, had been a Jewish child prodigy. The captors are from a Gentile sect that every eighty years (once the powers of the previous talking head are depleted) capture such a child, kill him, and by magical means (placing a magical formula under his tongue) cause his head to become a talking tool which they worship (the talking head refers to the candles lit in his honour inside the room), and which they can interrogate, and then the head is forced to give them accurate answers.
To avoid such a fate, the living child must flee from the window, and moreover, the talking head must leave with him, lest it be questioned by the captors, upon which it would be forced to advise them about how to capture the boy again. As to the features of the victims (...) they are child prodigies, and they each are a firstborn, the son of a firstborn, whereas the sacrifice (apparently consisting of decapitation) takes place when the boy's age is thirteen years and one day.
The talking head instruct the boy to flee from the window on the night of his thirteenth birthday: he is to hold the magical head, that would enable him to fly away. The talking head has the boy take an oath, that he would give the severed head a proper Jewish burial, and would recite the kaddish prayer for the deceased afterwards.
Meanwhile as the child is missing and no news can be had by his parents, also his teacher the famous Maharal, becomes concerned; he prayed, and is supernaturally informed about the danger in which the boy has found himself. Maharal prays, and on the eve of the boy's escape Maharal proclaims a public fast in Prague. Psalms are read, the shofar (the ram horn) is blown, and finally the boy arrives flying through a window in the synagogue.
The child relates that before his flight, he had a dream, in which his grandfather instructed him to hold his belt, so he could fly away with him. Then, once he awoke, he actually flew out of the window in the tower by holding the talking skull - that by now can no longer talk, but as it contained the magical device which would have enabled the magicians to reiterate the process with some other victim, Maharal removes the device (a formula inscribed on paper or parchment) from inside the skull and tears it into pieces, there is a happy end to the story, to the extent that a story which ends in a funeral (for the boy murdered eighty years before) could be said to have a happy ending. At any rate, it ends in relief.'
What is remarkable about this text, even in its abridged form, is that it gives us several clues about the kind of magic that had been worked in it.
First of all, the sect that held the prodigy captive is described as gentiles. Now, this could be read in a literal sense, i.e. that they were not Jewish; alternatively it could be read as a way of socially distancing oneself from a Jewish sect that held on to such heretic practices. We also learn that the tepharim in the tower is able to approach and speak to the young boy on its own initiative. This reminds us of the very common practice to leverage young boys as mediums in magical rites aimed at divinatory purposes. Furthermore, the tepharim seems to remember its previous life as a young boy. Clearly this could be part of the fictional part of the folk-tale in order to give the tepharim a motive for showing empathy with the boy. Alternatively, it could be understood though as an indicator that the magic worked on this skull did not enliven the skull as a vessel for foreign demonic entities to take dwelling in it. Instead in a clear act of necromancy the soul of the young boy had been bound into the skull during his ritual killing. The text additionally specifies that the act of binding leveraged burning candles which supposedly had been ritually placed and lid around the skull. Finally, in the last section of Nissan's summary we learn about the magic the tepharim itself was able to effect: its instruction on how to escape in night-flight from the tower was given to the young boy in a dream. More specifically, the spirit of the tepharimassumed the dream persona of an ancestor of the boy, his grandfather, in order to relate its message.
Conclusions: From this short overview on the obscure Old Testametn term teraphim we have learned several things. Firstly, the general translation as 'household gods' is only in so far helpful as indeed the teraphim seem related to a wide-spread pagan ritual practice that involved spirits for divinatory purposes. It remains open into what kind of vessel these spirits were traditionally bound into - whether it was a statue, a mask or a mummified or skeletonised skull - with variations in ritual practice being highly likely. From later Medieval traditions, we find more specific evidence that the term had been connected specifically to necromantic magical rituals which involved the binding of possibly ancestral spirits into a human skull. We thus discovered some evidence for an Ancient Jewish memory culture that recalled - and possibly also transmitted the required technical detail for - the creation of necromantic 'talking heads'.
III. The Skull Rituals of PGM IV. 1928-2144
As we have seen, the most ancient textual evidence of the teraphim dates back to the first five books of the Old Testament. These are believed to have taken their final form in the Persian period (538–332 BC). From these early days of Western Magic we have to fast forward several centuries to encounter more specific technical evidence of the magical use of mantic skulls.
Note: As precise dates are not something that comes easily with these old textual sources, it should be pointed out that the historic distance between our previous source (Old Testament) and our following could be anything between 700 and 900 years: PGM IV. is an elaborate magical handbook copied and used in upper Egypt in the late fourth century CE (Iles Johnston, p.278).
The Greek Magical Papyri (PGM) are a never-ending wellspring of specific technicalities and detailed instructions of magical rituals. Their kindness in giving also remains true for our current subject of inquiry: the use of mantic skulls. Specifically in the the four rituals contained in PGM 1928 to 2144 we find most overt evidence of such practice dating somewhere between the 2nd and 5th century AD.
These rites instruct the practitioner to write specific spells or draw divine figures on various substances - the hide of an ass, ivy leaves, a leaf of flax or a strip of papyrus - which are then used in turn as ritual tools on a mantic skull. In each case the daimon of a dead man is conjured into the skull - or possibly into an entire corpse - for various magical purposes such as divinatory interrogation (anakrisis), magical assistance, or to induce or ward off certain types of dreams or diseases. All rituals turn the chthonic daimon into the paredros (divine assistant) of the magician and by use of the magical spell or figure bind them into the skull.
The most poetic of the rituals is PGM 1928-2005. Here two different hymns - one to be sung at dawn and one at dusk - are leveraged to inquire the travelling god Helios on its way through the chthonic underworld at night to send back the daimon of the dead person whose skull the magician had acquired.
'Hear, blessed one, I call you who rule heav’n
And earth and Chaos and Hades, where dwell /
Daimons of men who once gazed on the light.
And even now I beg you, blessed one,
Unfailing one, the master of the world,
If you go to the depths of earth and reach
The regions of the dead, this daimon send
To move at midnight hours perforce at your
Commands, / from whose tent I hold this. And let
Him tell to me (NN) whatever my mind designs,
And let him tell me fully and with truth.
Let him be gentle, gracious, let him think
No thoughts opposed to me. And may you not
Be angry at my sacred chants. / But guard
That my whole body come to light intact;
Let him (NN) reveal to me the what and whence.
Whereby he now can render me his service
And at what time he serves as my assistant, /
For you yourself gave these for men to learn, lord.'
(PGM, IV. 1963-1980)
For all its poetry the four spells contained in PGM IV. 1928-2144 also teach us how powerful this kind of magic was deemed to be even in ancient times. For the ritual in PGM IV. 2125-2139 explicitly is described as a restraining spell to bind 'skulls that are not satisfactory' (PGM IV. 2128). This means that the daimones of the dead, once conjured and bound into a skull, easily took on a life of their own: they uttered oracles unasked for or generally did 'anything whatever of this sort'(PGM IV.2129). Rather than dismantling them and sending the spirits of the dead back into the underworld, it seemed more safe to magically seal them off and bury them. This task itself, however, was no small feat: It required to seal the mouth of the skull with dirt from a grave - or even better from the doors of a temple of Osiris. Once this was done, a leg-fetter had to be found and without heating it again, had to be hammered into a flat iron ring, large enough to embrace and bind the entire skull. On this ring then the magician had to engrave the following:
'Taking iron from a leg fetter, work it cold and make a ring on which have a headless lion engraved. Let him have, instead of his head, a crown of Isis, and let him trample with his feet / a skeleton (the right foot should trample the skull of the skeleton). In the middle of these should be an owl-eyed cat with its paw on a gorgon's head; in a circle around [all of them?], these names: IADŌR INBA NICHAIOPLĒX BRITH.' (PGM IV. 2131-2139)
Whether it was an inscribed ivy wreath to enliven or an engraved iron headband to seal a mantic skull, as we will see, in the PGM IV. material from the late fourth century BC we encounter skull-rituals that form direct precursors to our Ars Phytonica. Additionally, we gain further evidence for the view that it was mainly an undercurrent of early Jewish magic that acted as transmitter of this particular ritual practice. As Susan Iles Johnston concludes in her study on mantic skulls, it were the early Jewish tribes that allowed these necromantic rituals to travel from their earliest recorded location in ancient Mesopotamia into Egypt and other parts of the Eastern Mediterranean (Iles Johnston, p.278). Such transmission certainly would have not remained pure or even orthodox in any sense of these words, but rather presented a syncretic tradition, centred on a Jewish transmission, but enriched and infused with aspects and ingredients of other cultures and times throughout its journey of more than two and a half millennia of magical practice in the West.
One such enrichment we encounter in the various mythological stories told about the head of Orpheus.
IV. The Singing Head of Orpheus
Flowing water plays an important role in the preparatory stage of the Ars Phytonica. Specifically, it is a remote river which the practitioner is meant to find in order to perform the initial phase of the ritual.
‘Once this is prepared, take the head of a long dead, which is free of all flesh and filth, retreat from all dwelling places where one would hear the dogs bark or roosters crow, and go with it to a flowing water. However, this must not be on the first day of your lent. Firstly, wash your entire body, and once you have even washed all your clothes, dress yourself again, and wash the head [of the dead] and its neck inwardly and outwardly in flowing water, and wrap it in a fresh cloth and conceal it in the house in a secret place, so that it might not be seen by anyone. This [procedure] you must perform three days in a row, while being all the while washed and clean yourself.’
In addition to be read as a classical purification rite, the practice of undertaking full-body washings - including one’s own clothes as well as the mantic skull - shows clear aspects of a baptism rite. Preceding the actual conjuration by several days, we experience a most physical communion of the practitioner’s body and the skull in which the daimonic spirits will be hosted. Just like the skull is cleansed from any remnants of its previous owner, so the practitioner is cleansed of all attachment to the human world. Skull and magician are united in the act of being cleansed by the cold waters of the river and leaving their previous lives behind. Such reading of the initial washings is further validated by the actual baptism of the cleansed skull which happens on the fourth day, this time not leveraging fresh water from the river, but ritual wine. In the main conjuration this act is even referred to as 'the holy baptism of this head' (Ars Phytonica, p.4).
Now whether it was a conscious allusion by the author of this grimoire has to be doubted, however, the washing of a ‘singing head’ in a remote river also conjures forth a much older mythical echo. To hear it more clearly, we have to travel backwards in time for roughly two millennia. In the first century AC both Ovid (43-17) as well as Virgil (70-19) offer poetic accounts of Orpheus' death by the maenads.
Following the death of his wife Euridyce at the time of their wedding, Orpheus had descended into the underworld. Through the power of his magical chant he successfully overcame the hostile chthonic forces of Hades and yet in the end failed to bring his wife back to life. Grieve-struck Orpheus returned to the world of the living and yet retreated from all of them: touched by the goêtic forces of the underworld, withdrawn into remote wilderness, we witness his transformation from a magical bard into a goêtic shaman. His songs are no longer meant for human ears, but to conjure the spirits of animals, plants and minerals. Finally, Orpheus is found in his hermit's retreat by the wild female maenads, who are angered over his ascetic lifestyle and the fact that 'the bard of Thrace allured the trees, the savage animals, and even the insensate rocks (...) [but] has scorned our love!' (Ovid, Met.XI,1) In a wild fury they descend upon the peaceful shaman, overturn the power of his magical song and harp through a ruse, and tear his body into pieces.
'His torn limbs were scattered in strange places. Hebrus then received his head and harp—and, wonderful! While his loved harp was floating down the stream, it mourned for him beyond my power to tell. His tongue though lifeless, uttered a mournful sound and mournfully the river's banks replied: onward borne by the river to the sea they left their native stream and reached the shore of Lesbos at Methymna. Instantly, a furious serpent rose to attack the head of Orpheus, cast up on that foreign sand—the hair still wet with spray. Phoebus at last appeared and saved the head from that attack: before the serpent could inflict a sting, he drove it off, and hardened its wide jaws to rigid stone.' (Ovid, Met.XI,44)
The above quote by Ovid marks the moment when a well known mythical story of ancient time was clothed in its canonical form. It is of little surprise, therefore, that we come across many alternative retellings of what happened to the head of Orpheus after the bard's cruel killing. While we find significant variations in detail - e.g. some mention his harp traveling along, others don't; some know of the attack by the serpent, other have a fisherman find his head in a net - the foundational narrative remains intact: Orpheus' head is thrown into the Thracian river of Hebrus (a 480km long river running solely on the Balkans, today called Maritsa, and opening into the Aegean sea); yet instead of losing its life-force it takes on a life of its own and continues to sing its magical songs. It washes all the way down the river, into the Mediterranean and out into the open sea. Finally, it is stranded on the shores of the island of Lesbos, where it is found by either a man or a mythical being who recognises the powerful skull as a living oracle and establishes a ritual shrine for it, most likely located in a cave (Graf, Orpheus: A poet among men, pp.80).
An easily overlooked, yet crucial aspect of this core narrative of Orpheus' death, is the fact that the story of his 'singing head' continues in separation from the narrative of Orpheus' actual human spirit who descends into the underworld and this time successfully reunites with is wife Euridyce (Ovid, Met.XI,44-61). This means that in the story of Orpheus' severed, singing head we encounter a mantic skulls in its original, possibly earliest poetic form: The skull washing down the river Hebrus, which is later on turned into the centre of a chthonic oracle, is not understood to host the actual necromantic spirit of Orpheus himself. Rather it turns into a living magical implement, a divinatory oracle object in its own right - adorned and empowered with the magical forces which resided in the magical bard once it formed an integral part of him.
Returning to our analysis of the 'Ars Phytonica' we have to stress again that it is most unlikely our author had pondered over Orpheus' death right before taking to the ink to put down his necromantic ritual on paper. Nevertheless, when examining the ritual practice which leads up to the nightly conjuration, we can find strong parallels to this ancient magical myth. In the end, consciously or unconsciously, the practitioner of the 'Ars Phytonica' assumes the mythical role of the divine sun god Phoebus who pulls out Orpheus' mantic skull from the waters of the Mediterranean. Furthermore, we also clearly now see the parallel between this Greek myth and the invocation of Helios in the PGM: Just like the latter sources turn to Helios on his nightly descend to raise the spirit of the dead from the underworld, so the Greek myth of Orpheus sees the sun god Phoebus come to perform the ritual act of pulling the mantic skull from the (underworld) waters they travelled in.
As we can see now, it seems to be an act of magic in itself how how truly magical texts preserve their integrity over millennial of time. While evolution and change continuously reshape their outer appearance, their inner patterns, the beings they are build around and which they activate in ritual contact remain untouched, sleeping unharmed and out of reach for the cursory reader.
Finally, we shall not miss to mention that in Flavius Philostratus' book four of The Life of Apollonius of Tyana we come across an episode that strongly reminds us of the rite described in PGM IV. 2125-2139, where the magicians is taught how to seal a mantic skull under an iron headband. Here it is the god Apollo who is told to have visited the oracle erected around the singing head of Orpheus at Lesbos. Disgruntled that people were no longer flocking to the oracle temples dedicated to Apollo himself, but that they still visited the Thracian oracle head at Lesbos, the god stood tall in front of the severed head and shouted at it: 'Cease to meddle with my affairs, for I have already put up with enough on account of your singing!' (Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana, Book IV, 14)
Indeed the powers of the teraphim or mantic skulls seemed sufficient to even anger the gods. And once enlivened - whether through the magical harp of Orpheus, or through the hands of Helios helping the chthonic spirits to ascend from the underworld - their divinatory voices seemed truly hard to silence again.
Analysis of the Ars Phytonica
I. The title 'Ars Phytonica'
As the grimoire explains in its first line, it deals with the art or work of Phyton. However, this term does not recur at any later point in the next. We can refuse two possible interpretations of the obscure title: The obvious Greek root word ('phyton' = plant) does not shed any brighter light on the text, as the treatise is certainly not of herbal or alchemical nature. Similarly, as we will see, we can also dismiss the idea that the title was chosen as a deliberate ruse, to conceal the actual necromantic matters discussed in it.
A more concrete lead is given in John de la Hay's (1593-1661) polyglot edition of the Bible from 1660 (Biblia maxima: versionum ex linguis orientalibus pluribus sacris ms). Specifically, we find it in The Book of Numbers - the fourth of the five books of the Torah - in the section where Balak son of Zippor, king of Moab, tries to convince Balaam to curse the people of Israel. Yet upon divine intervention the latter chooses to bless them instead (Numbers 22-25). The 17th century polyglot Bible provides overview of five different text versions, all translated into Latin. On page 212 of its third volume we find the reference it provides for Numbers 23:23:
The term 'ars phytonica' is given in the Arabic text version of Num 23:23. It is not explained in detail in the concordance which follows every paragraph. We find the term included in and yet differentiated from similar terms such as: auguries, divinations, omen, positive signs (auspicium) or incantations.The lack of further interpretation of the term tells us that the author of the 17th century text expected it to be familiar to his readers.
A more elucidated explanation can be found in another polyglott Bible which predates de la Hay's by more than a hundred years. Arnaldus Guillelmus de Brocario in 1514 published the 6th volume of his Biblia Polyglotta in which he provides detailed references to Biblical terms in their original Hebrew form. Structured like a Hebrew dictionary, on the fourth page of the actual text we come across our term again.
What we now see, is that the Latin term 'ars phytonica' or in its more plain form 'phyton (-es, -icus)' is used in specific context to translate the Hebrew word 'obh' (sing.) or 'obath' (pl.). This Hebrew word in turn is used in seventeen Biblical passages; in its literal form it is an ancient expression for a bottle or a wineskin dangling from a tentpole, yet in its contextualised reading it is often translated as 'familiar spirits' or more broadly as necromantic diviners.
Modern academics suggested two ways how the Hebrew word for an ancient bottle became synonymous with people who dealt with familiar spirits: Either they refer to the similarity of sounds between wine poured from a wineskin and necromancers murmuring their incantations. Alternatively, they raised the idea that the possessed mind and body of the sorcerer would resemble a 'bottle' during the necromantic rite, offering dwelling for their familiar spirit. A much more practical and thus likely origin of the connection, however, can be found in the ancient technique of confining spirits into sealed bottles.
OBH, (1) a bottle, so called from carrying water (...) (2) a soothsayer who evokes the names of the dead by the power of incantations and magical songs in order to give answers as to future or doubtful things (Gesenius, 1857, p.XVIII)
As we can now see, some Late Medieval scribes used the Latin term 'phyton' not to refer to its Greek translation as 'a stem of a plant', but to translate a Hebrew word referring to magicians who practiced divination through spirits. Such surprising use of the Latin word 'phyton' can be explained in quite prosaic ways, since the word that actually would have been the correct translation for the Hebrew word 'obh' reads very similar: It would have been python.
According to Greek mythology Python was the name of the giant serpent that slept at the centre of the earth. She was later killed by Apollon when he laid claim to her shrine at Delphi from where one was believed to be able to enter the centre of the earth. Subsequently the oracle at Delphi was renamed 'pythô' (Πυθων, derived from πύθειν (púthein) 'to rot') according to the foul gases that emerged from the cavernous opening into the underworld, which was believed to stem from the rotting corpse of the slain serpent. From the 8th century BC onwards the high priestess of the Delphian oracle accordingly was called Pythia and was consulted as the most important of the Greek oracles at least until the 4th century.
This historic reference explains why Late Medieval scribes would have translated the Hebrew word 'OBH', referencing the goêtic magicians of the Ancient Middle East, with the Latinised term pythones. When the Latin Bible text was translated into the European vernacular languages, this allowed for a further degradation and pythones was broadly translated as 'familiar spirit' or people who practiced divination by conjuring these.
And now we come full circle to our seemingly obscure title 'ars phytonica': increasingly from the 16th century onwards the words phyton and python were used interchangeably. In fact by the 17th century we see sources who simply consider phyton an alternative spelling of python - both of them, however, consistently referring to goêtic magicians working with familiar spirits for divination (ref. Jente, 1921, p.292).
'Pythonicus, male Phytonicus (...), one possessed with a devillish spirit of prophesying' (Gouldman, 1678, p.PUR-PYT-QUA)
'Phyton (Python, Pythius, Pythia) is the name of the giant snake killed by Apollon which was also called phytius; phytea is the name of the celebratory games established in memory of the great deed' (Edmond, 1902, p.67; transl. Frater Acher)
We can therefore translate the title 'Ars Phytonica' either broadly as 'The Art of the Necromancer' or more specifically as 'The Art of Confining Familiar Spirits'. Our late Medieval ancestors would have known either way, it was a most precise title for the nature of our short grimoire.
II. The Ram-Knife
After the initial guidance to hold a three-day lent on water only prior to the operation, we are introduced to the only major ritual implement used in Ars Phytonica, other than the mantic skull itself. As our text is split into two versions of the ritual, it is important to compare the different instructions for the preparation of the knife.
'Firstly have a knife made on the morning of a [S], of pure steel, and the shell [i.e. handle] of the horn of a ram. Once the knife is completed, engrave the names of the three Patriarchs on it: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.' (Ars Phytonica, p.2)
'And [you will also need] a good cup, and a knife with a black shell [i.e. handle] made of a ram's horn on which is written: 'O Gaseon, namil, Lucifer, Astaroth, Inanialchi'.'
Both instructions remind us of the long tradition of ritual knifes or daggers in Western Magic. The mention of a ritual knife with a specifically black handle can be traced back to the 11th century at least. Ioannis Marathakis in his 'Hygromanteia' gives a wonderful example of this tradition as it was still alive in the Greek Messara region around 1904:
'If somebody wants to learn how to play well the Cretan Lyra, he goes at midnight to a deserted crossroad. HE traces a circle on the ground with a black handle knife, enters the circle, sits down and plays. Moments later, fairies come from every direction and surround him. They do not have good intentions; they want to smite him. But they cannot enter the circle, since it is traced with the black handled knife, so they try to seduce him and draw him out.' (Marathakis, p.85)
We will now examine both versions of a black handled knife given in the Ars Phytonica and see what we can learn about the history of thought embedded in the manuscript.
Version 1: The Knife of the Patriarchs
The first version provides four criteria to the creation of the knife: (1) it should be made early on a Friday, (2) it's blade should be made of pure steel, (3) the handle should be made of the horn of a ram (no indication to its color) and (4) once the practitioners receives the knife, they should engrave the names of the three patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob on it.
The language in the original German version helps us understand that it is perfectly fine for this knife to be made on behalf of the practitioner and the text does not expect it to be self-made. Furthermore, there is no mentioning - as known from other grimoires of the Solomonic tradition - that the blade would have to be old, used in battle or have drawn blood before. Finally, the text is ambiguous as to whether the names of the patriarchs should be engraved on the horn handle or into the blade of the knife.
To understand the actual origin of this particular ritual implement, we have to go back straight to the times of the Old Testament, and thus luckily get to skip over centuries of traditional interpretations and its many forms and variations. (Note: If one prefers to still indulge more into the latter we recommend Frater Ashen Chassan's detailed article here.)
In Genesis 22 God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac on the mountain of Moriah. Willingly Abraham complies, takes his son to the designated place high up in the mountain range, puts him on a pile of dry wood to burn his sacrificial offering after the killing and pulls out the knife. In the very moment before the slaughter an angel appears to Abraham, and thanks him for his obedience: 'Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me' (Genesis 22:12). Instead of sacrificing his own son, God sends a ram, which Abraham discovers caught in thicket by his horns, and the patriarch kills and burns the sacrificial animal instead of his own blood.
It is in this much discussed section of Genesis, that we discover the origin of the ram-knife specified in the Ars Phytonica and many other Western grimoires. As we can see from the text, the knife turns into the ultimate evidence of one's fear of God. Not only does it hold the power over life and death, the story of the patriarchs Abraham and Isaac turns it into a mythical symbol of will power and self-conquest.
The handle made from the horn of a ram and the engraving of the names of the patriarchs upon the knife, therefore, function to replicate the narrative force and myth captured in this most essential ritual implement. The black knife not only is a symbol of the practitioners power to rule over life and death - both in the realm of humans and spirits - it is a ritual weapon which signifies the power they hold over their own fears, attachments, and desires through the sheer fire of their will.
Upon closer examination of the Hebrew text of Genesis 22:12 we discover another layer of meaning; one which found elaborate interpretation already as early as in the rabbinic literature of the Midrash. The particular word used for knife in this context is 'ma'akeleth' (mem-aleph-kaf-lamed-tav). It is quite an unusual word and only appears four times in the Old Testament:
'(...) twice in Gen 22, where it is the knife Abraham intends to use for the sacrifice of Isaac, once in Judg 19:29, to designate the knife used by the Levite to cleave his head concubine; and once in Prov 30:14, to describe the teeth of a generation of men who devour the needy and the poor, who bring a curse upon its fathers and no blessings to its mothers.' (Stahlberg, p.102)
The particular use of the word in the Old Testament gives it a decidedly violent connotation. This is further emphasised by the fact that the word 'ma'akeleth' is derived from the verb 'to eat' ('akal). Rabbis in their later interpretations of Gen 22 granted the ram-knife a much more active role: Rather than Abraham killing his son entirely by his own decision, the knife was said to 'have opened its jaw, ready to consume the flesh of the boy's throat' (Chilton, p.92). Thus the knife took on a life of its own and was armed with a hungry and most violent character. Already in Rabbinic interpretations of Gen 22 we therefore encounter the ram-knife as a most dangerous and magically enlivened blade.
Finally, the engraving of the three names of the Patriarchs, rather than Abraham and Isaac alone, reminds us of another aspect of the black-handled knife. The Jewish tradition explained the connotation of the Hebrew words ma'akeleth and 'akal not only in the sense of the dangerous, hungry knife. However, they also saw it as a clue to the ongoing sustenance of the Jewish people throughout the ages through God's intervention.
'(...) the Rabbis said: 'All eating (AKILOTH) which Israel enjoys in this world, they enjoy only in the merit of the MA'AKELETH (knife).'' (Gen.Rab 56:3. Midrash Rabbah: Genesis, quoted after Stahlberg, p.102)
The essential idea was, that Abraham's act of divine obedience and his preparedness to raise the ram-knife against his own son, not only resulted in an act of divine mercy towards Abraham but against all future generations of the Jewish people. All descendants of Abraham will continue to be sustained because of the patriarchs willingness to raise the 'ma'akeleth'. Thus we are asked to not only engrave the names of Abraham and his son Isaac onto the ram-knife, but also the name of Jacob, the later son of Isaac. In light of this, the dangerous ram-knife reveals its essential dual meaning: while being a magically enlivened steel blade, hungry to 'eat the flesh of the throat', it also is a tool of sustenance and nourishment. Behind its steely threat of coercion and restraint, lies the promise of a pact of divine protection and provision.
It is a remote echo of this dual meaning that we come across in our short grimoire when instructed to have the knife created of pure steel on a Friday morning. On the one hand, iron, as the main element of the alloy which is steel, was believed to hold strong apotropaic powers since time immemorial.
'In classical antiquity iron offered protection to adults and children alike from sorcery: one used it to draw circles around oneself or asked a dagger to be carried around oneself. (...) Also the Talmud turns against the emoritic [i.e. pagan] custom to bind iron to the feet of the bed of a woman in childbed. In Medieval times it was custom amongst the German Jews to for the groom to put a piece of steel in their pocket before advancing to the altar, in order not to be bewitched. (...) The Koran speaks of iron in a magical sense: 'And we sent down the iron which holds strong powers and use for the humans.' In Palestine iron breaks every magic, prevents the effect of the evil eye and of the 'evil soul' and instills fear amongst the spirits.' (Seligmann, p.163-165)
On the other hand, however, we are instructed to have the knife created on a Friday morning, the classical day of the week associated with the planet Venus. Here the 'Ars Phytonica' clearly breaks the usual one-dimensional association of the magical dagger with Mars or Saturn. Instead it introduces a balancing counterweight to the 'hungry blade' and reminds us of the nourishing, sustaining aspects of the magical tool we are about to give life to.
If we are prepared to slow down sufficiently enough, to truly follow the leads of this short magical treatise, we discover a beautiful balance in it - as well as well preserved echoes of classical ideas from Antiquity. Well, at least that is true for the first version of the ritual contained on its pages.
Version 2: The Knife of the Underworld
The second version given in the Ars Phytonica speaks a quite different language. Here we are instructed to engrave the following five words on the ram-knife: 'O Gaseon, namil, Lucifer, Astaroth, Inanialchi'.
Suddenly the names of the Patriarchs have turned into ancient infernal spirits. The subtle clues of ensuring the knife is made from pure steel yet on a Friday morning are lost in this version. Furthermore, while the handle of the knife needs to be made of the horn of a ram in both versions, it is only the latter which instructs to ensure it receives a 'black handle'. The second version of the rite is not only half the length in words of its predecessor (roughly 400 vs. 800 words), but more importantly also lacks most of its inner coherence and detail.
As every reader can conclude for themselves, the second version of the rite given in the Ars Phytonica - under the misleading title 'Explanation' - represents a strongly abbreviated and degraded form of the ritual. Evidence of such degradation certainly is not found in the replacing of the patriarchs' names with infernal spirits. Instead it is rather interesting to find a more 'orthodox' as well as a clearly 'infernal' version of the same rite bound into one volume. However, the degradation becomes obvious in the many contradictions contained in the shorter version: The names written on the skull contain a classical divine name such as 'El' next to the three princes of the underworld 'Lucifer, Beelzebub, Astaroth'. And while we are asked to hold a dagger consecrated to Lucifer, we are conjuring spirits by the power of the 'Virgin Mary' - as well as by the power of 'Sunday and Moon'.
Due to the obvious level of unsoundness of the second version of the rite, we will concentrate our analysis of the Ars Phytonica on the first and longer version mainly.
III. The Four Daimones of the Ars Phytonica
Now that we have prepared the knife, undergone three consecutive days of purification and baptised the skull with wine (see chapter: The Singing Head of Orpheus), we are approaching the peak of the ritual. The following ritual actions are to be undertaken after sunset in a remote place in open nature.
'Hereafter find a place in the countryside, and place the head down, and upon it place the aforementioned hat or head-band, called nifala, and speak: I have sent the spirit into you! And write these four names on it [the headband]: Cortornifer, Forfornifer, Angerion, Cornigerion.' (Ars Phytonica, p.2/3)
A few obvious things should be stated about this passage: the inscription of the headband is no longer part of a preparatory phase of the main ritual, but an essential component of the latter. Neither the cloth from which the headband should be crafted, nor the ingredients of the ink to be used on it are specified in any detail. The sending of the spirit into the skull happens by uttering a single, factual line - unlike the classical conjuration to be spoken later on - as well as by the act of writing the four names Cortornifer, Forfornifer, Angerion and Cornigerion on the headband while it is already placed upon the mantic skull. Finally, we are presented with a discrepancy in so far that the practitioner speaks of the spirit in the singular, yet then continues to inscribe four distinct names on the ritual headband.
Even by taking a closer look at the following sections of the ritual this discrepancy cannot be resolved fully. Here we hear the practitioner actively conjuring the four spirits of the nifala, Cortornifer, Forfornifer, Angerion and Cornigerion, addressing them personally and asking them to "appear quickly" as well as to "answer to my question quickly and truthfully and fulfil my desire perfectly." And yet, after the conjuration is spoken several times the practitioner is instructed not to expect to see four different spirits appear in front of them; instead the grimoire enigmatically states that only then "the head will come in itself" and can be questioned and will answer directly.
Thus we do not know if indeed the goês interacts with four distinct spirits, who in this ritual come together as one in order to enliven the mantic skull; or whether these four spirits rather act as mediatory agents who actually bring back the deceased soul of the skull itself, which in return is questioned and provides divinatory answers. Nothing indicates the latter scenario in the grimoire directly. Rather it seems more likely that we are faced with a typo on page 3 and it should indeed read: 'I have sent the spirits into you.'
While the specific role of the four daimones of the nifala remains ambiguous, there is no doubt about how essential their agency is for the ritual to take effect. As the four names read rather cryptic and certainly are not regular guests amongst the more well known of our Late Medieval grimoires, we shall undertake a short etymological analysis of each one of them. Given the nature of our subject such analysis is always problematic. After all we are dealing with an art that was performed in complete secrecy, and manuscripts often were copied in either haste or by hands that were not able to decipher references to or letters of classical languages such as Greek or Hebrew. Linguistic distortion therefore is a common feature amongst the Western grimoires, often leading to transformation of once very specific spirit names into the so-called unintelligible barbaric names.
Neither of these four daemonic names could be identified in the common Medieval spirit catalogues (e.g. Stratton-Kent, Pandemonium, Hadean Press 2016). From their word structure and onomatopoeic tone they loosely resemble the spirit names given in the Book Abramelin (Das Buch der wahren Praktik in der uralten Göttlichen Magie, approx. 1608). Here in the Second Book (it is the Third Book according to the editions of Scheible, Kefer and Jung), in Chapter 19 the author provides 416 spirit names, who despite being organised according to the rulership of the chthonic chiefs, are 'not evil or unkind spirits, but elegant and skilful beings, diligent and quick in many kinds of things.' (Ins, p.161) While none of the 416 names directly match the four daimones of the Ars Phytonica, we see several names of similar structure, such as Camarion or Abagiron. However, even here the particular ending -nifer, with the obvious exception of 'Lucifer' himself - from Latin, lux (light) and ferre (carrying) - remains absent. It is again the ending -nifer which also prevents us from establishing a link between the second of the four daimones, Forfornier and the Goetic spirit, Furfur.
Given the absence of direct links to existing spirit catalogues as well as the insights from the actual etymological analysis of the four names, we come to the preliminary conclusion that Cortornifer, Forfornifer, Angerion and Cornigerion might indeed be more indications of function rather than traditional personal spirit names. Read in this way, the actual names themselves provide evident insights into the actual nature of these spirits: All four of them are related to the dark, chthonic depth of the underworld and their names are marked by particular insignia: the carriers of the heart and trident, the fear inducer (or snake carrier) as well as the horned one. Clear mythological parallels to such names can be found in many cultures, such as the Greek, Roman and Egyptian to name but a few. And yet the author of the Ars Phytonica chose notto use any of the more orthodox daimonic names of Western Magic, but to instead relate to these spirits in a seemingly more personal, intimate way, by calling them out according to the function or skill connected to them.
As these daimones are meant to enliven the mantic skull, no particular shape or form is mentioned in which they are conjured to appear. The goal of the Ars Phytonica after all is not conjuration to visible appearance, but leveraging these daimonic spirit forces to impregnate the cleansed and baptised skull with new life - life directly drawn from the depths of the underworld.
In the practical application to the skull all four of these names are to be written on the headband, right before the nightly conjuration out in the open nature. This headband reminds us of the binding spell we encountered in PGM IV. 2125-2139. Both rituals leverage an enclosure of the mantic skull by either a virgin cloth or an iron ring. The former to enliven it, to latter to restrain it. The author of the Ars Phytonica specifically calls out the explicit name of this headband as 'nifala'. Despite our own research as well as consultation of several experts, no satisfying etymological analysis or historic reference for this term could be established. The only known term of similar spelling is a term of Hebrew grammar, 'niphal', which indicates one of the seven verb stems and denotes the incomplete passive or the reflexive voice. A connection to our current source seems most unlikely, however.
Still, the Ars Phytonica does offer one more lead into the nature of its four goêtic daimones. This can be found by taking a closer look at the main conjuration - and under whose rulership these daimones are invoked.
IV. The Black Prince of the Main Conjuration
In the main conjuration, the four daimones Cortornifer, Forfornifer, Angerion and Cornigerion are conjured under a most dualistic aegis: Within the same sentence they are not only called upon in the name of 'the living and true God' but also in the name of 'their great prince'. As we see from an analysis of the full conjuration, in this most unusual text invocations of celestial or theurgic authority stand side by side with a call for chthonic or goêtic empowerment.
In its most general interpretation we understand the enigmatic 'black prince' to be a well established synonym for the Devil.
'BLACK PRINCE - a name designating the Devil' (Wade, p.64)
In the specific context of a conjuration, however, the title 'prince' indicates the demon Beelzebub. Not only do we find the particular reference in the apocryphal 4th century Gospel of Nicodemus where the demon is addressed as the 'prince of perdition and chief of destruction, Beelzebub, the scorn of the angels and spitting of the righteous'; but we have an even more obvious orthodox source: The author of the Ars Phytonica leverages a classical New Testament reference to Luke 11:15 or Matthew 12:22-28 where Jesus is using the power of Beelzebub to exorcise a demon from a man who had muted the latter. Let's take a brief look at both section in Luke and Matthew comparatively:
'Jesus was driving out a demon that was mute. When the demon left, the man who had been mute spoke, and the crowd was amazed. But some of them said, “By Beelzebul, the prince of demons, he is driving out demons.” Others tested him by asking for a sign from heaven. Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them: “Any kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and a house divided against itself will fall. If Satan is divided against himself, how can his kingdom stand? I say this because you claim that I drive out demons by Beelzebul. Now if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your followers drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. But if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you."' (Luke 11:14-20)
'Then a demon-oppressed man who was blind and mute was brought to him, and he healed him, so that the man spoke and saw. And all the people were amazed, and said, “Can this be the Son of David?” But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.' (Matt 12:22-28)
Both sections portray Jesus' original efforts not to abandon magical practices at all, for we seem him actively engaging in an act of exorcism. Yet instead his goal was to drastically reform magic, to abandon the ancient ways and to solely operate under the aegis of the highest divinity alone. Thus both sections give us an elaborate example of debate over what is deemed magical orthodoxy, or simply put the right form of practice. Jesus argues that exorcising demons through the 'finger' or 'spirit of God' is the only efficient and sustainable way of operating magic. In contrast to this, exorcising demons through the forces of a hierarchically higher ranking demon such as Beelzebub only results in temporary relief, as the demons would be able to return in stronger numbers shortly thereafter already (Matt 12:43-45). 'Beelzebub, the prince of demons' is therefore leveraged to illustrate an act of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, as only the latter holds the divine power to perform acts of magic which truly lead to salvation.
In light of this, we realise the extraordinary level of opportunism displayed in the main conjuration of the Ars Phytonica. Rather than choosing one tradition of magic over the other, both are leveraged in combination: Clearly aware of the ancient powers attributed to the 'black prince', we see the latter side by side with an appeal to classical Hebrew divine names such as Elohim, IHVH, Adonay, Shaddai. Even the Messias himself is included, only separated by two lines from the conjuration of 'the head of a black prince'.
(Note: For readers less familiar with the matter it should be pointed out that we know of many examples where Hebrew divine names (i.e. celestial spirits) are ritually used to conjure chthonic daimones such as Beelzebub (e.g. Marathakis, pp.170). What seems rather unique about the approach of the Ars Phytonica is that both celestial and chthonic potentates are asked for their concerted help to conjure the four chthonic spirits of the nifala.)
As we have seen, while bold in the decision to combine celestial and chthonic beings in a single conjuration, the author of the Ars Phytonica nevertheless follows a long lineage of magicians in calling upon Beelzebub's help to conjure and bring forth other demons. The most prominent role model would be Solomon himself. In the oldest known Christian demonology, the Testament of Solomon, whose earliest version most likely dates back to the 4th century (Busch, p.20), we witness Solomon calling upon Beelzebub as the 'ruler of the demons' who provides him general empowerment to then conjure all the other demons. In light of this tradition, we now understand why the Ars Phytonica specifically calls upon the 'black prince' to enliven the mantic skull by means of the powers of his four subordinate spirits.
'Then I asked him and spoke: 'Tell me who you are!'; the demon said: 'I am Beelzebub, the leader of the demons. Ceaselessly I will make all of them visible, each one according to their mode of action.' I instructed him to always stay close to me and to convey me an overview over the demons. He then vowed to summon all impure spirits in bound form in front of me.' (Critical edition by Peter Busch, 2006, p.103, transl. Frater Acher)
During a later chapter Solomon forces Beelzebub to give away more about his own nature. Here, only upon coercion by the Jewish king, Beelzebub admits that it is the angel 'Emmanuel, of whom I am scared and tremble' (Busch, p.131). After everything we have learned, unsurprisingly this is the same Emanuel the main conjuration of the Ars Phytonicacalls upon right before turning to the help of the black prince himself.
'Emmanuel - masc. personal name, from Greek form of Hebrew 'Immanu'el, literally "God is with us", from 'immanu "with us", from 'im "with" + first person plural pronominal suffix, + El "God."' (etymonline.com)
As we now see, Beelzebub's role is both unique and paradox. He is the one demon who does not reveal his own shape to Solomon (and doesn't even recognise his authority initially, but has to yield to the power of his ring eventually), yet enables the king to see all other demons in bound and visible shapes in the chapters to follow. While absent in older Jewish sources (Reitzenstein, p.75), from the reference in the New Testament and the more specific explanation in the 4th century Testament of Solomon, the superior function of Beelzebub as a demonic ruler and prince became deeply engrained in the tradition of Western Magic. A wonderful 15th century example for his ambiguous yet clearly dominant position can be found in the above quoted MS Parisinus Gr. 2419, derived from a version of the 'Hygromanteia Salomonis' (Pfeiffer, p.107 / Marathakis, p.204-219). Here we find a famous sequence of Planetary Prayers (Planetengebete). Prefixed to the actual prayer, each planet is indicated to have several angels as well as opposing or balancing demons assigned to them - with one exception. The most exalted planet, Saturn only has one force each assigned to it, the angel Ktētoēl and the demon Beelzebub (Marathakis, p.214). Just like the angel Ktētoēl can be read as the highest ranking deputy of divinity itself (Reitzenstein, pp.76), so also Beelzebub is confirmed in his chief position as demon of Saturn and thus the black prince of all demons.
While the 4th century Testament does not know of distinguished hierarchical ranks between the various daimones it presents, these were increasingly differentiated in Medieval times, mainly through Arabic influences. Jake Stratton-Kent's Pandemonium (Hadean Press, 2016) provides an expert-level overview on the various ranks and orders the chthonic daimones were divided into over time - modelled both after the original concept of Neoplatonistic celestial hierarchies as well as the familiar ranks of potentates of Medieval society.
In this later rendering Beelzebub assumes rulership over the cardinal direction of the South as well as the Asian continent; yet we still encounter him as the only 'Prince' amongst the four chthonic chiefs.
As a finale note, it should be called out that assigning ranks such as King, Early, Court or Prince to chthonic daimones is not where Medieval parallels of human society and qualities with the spirit world seemed to stop. According to Arabic djinn lore in particular the daimones where not only physically restricted by time and space similar to humans (even though on a much extended horizon), but more importantly they also were considered to be mortals.
Modern 'Grimoire purists' thus might be especially disappointed to learn about the information we take from a 13th century chronic by the Syrian bishop Gregory Bar Hebraeus (1226 – 1286): In the year 455 of the Hegira, i.e. 1063 CE, under threat of severe punishment all women of Baghdad, Mosul and Armenia were ordered to perform mourning rites for three full days - as no other than the black prince himself, Beelzebub had passed away. The surprising news of the death of Beelzebub is further supported by the account of the Arab historian Ibn el-Athir (1160-1233) who reports that during the year 1064 CE 'a mysterious threat spread from Armenia to Khuzestan that every city failing to mourn for the death of the king of the djin would be wiped out entirely' (Baudissin, p.119).
It seems in the end nothing withstands the tides of time. Not even the patron the Ars Phytonica, the prince of the chthonic realms.
I. Re-establishing a spirit-centred practice
Despite its condensed nature, explaining the 'Art of the Necromancer' on just a few pages, we discovered the Ars Phytonica to hold an astonishing level of inner coherence as well as uniqueness in its ritual approach. The textual relationship to the even shorter ritual described in MS Parisinus Gr. 2419 could not be fully resolved: As the Ars Phytonica most likely presents a German transcript of an older Greek or Latin original, the two manuscripts could have been just as well contemporaries as historic models for each other. What is obvious after our examination of both texts, however, is that we found increasing evidence of a Medieval European tradition that actively practiced necromantic skull magic.
Such rediscovery is important at least on two levels: Firstly, by resurfacing and deconstructing rituals such as contained in the Ars Phytonica we render them accessible again to modern practitioners - thus allowing for an ongoing practical engagement and work with the even slightly more necromantic tools and ceremonies of our Western past. Secondly, we provide evidence for a continued spirit-centred practice of magic in the West even during Early Modern times. In the era that lead up to the still unbroken 21st century obsession with a mechanical worldview, the Ars Phytonica allows us to highlight and re-engage with traces of a renegade underground current: Rather than turning the act of divination into a performance of mechanical cryptography or academic decipherment, it put the living dialogue with actual (chthonic) spirits first and center. As established during the first chapter, in these rituals the mantic skull is not rendered into an alphabet which the adepts attempts to decipher, but it remains intact as a 'gestalt' of its own. Instead of solely focussing on readingas the pivotal skill of the magician, the Ars Phytonica reminds us of the importance of actively listening. It's rituals such as these that offer Western Magic the chance to escape the danger 21st century science fully succumbed to: of perceiving man's relationship with the world around him as a continuous monologue. Instead as magicians we hear the world talking back at us and thus hold the key to engaging in a divine dialogue - whether that is with necromantic skulls, chthonic spirits of the underworld or their celestial counterparts.
The Ars Phytonica thus radically dismisses the Late Medieval idea of mystically 'reading in the book of nature'. Rather it holds the key to reanimate the 'cup of life' as presented in a cleansed and baptised human skull - and to actively engage in inter-species dialogue face to face.
II. Combining chthonic and celestial conjurations
Even though immediately dismissed in the alternate version of the ritual given at the end of the short grimoire, the first version further breaks traditional magical patterns, by actively calling upon the help of both celestial and chthonic hierarchies in a single conjuration. As we found, Beelzebub is called into the same choir of empowerment as his governing angel Emanuel, and the black prince stands side by side with both the Messias and 'the eternally living and true God'. Such deeply pragmatic approach - transcending the traditional polarity between theurgy and goêteia - highlights the essentially shamanic nature of this ritual: unrestrained by the flawed social morality of its (and still our) time, the practitioner of the Ars Phytonica establishes a juncture between heaven and earth, between chthonic and celestial realms, in the adorned mantic skull.
Such striking boldness and independence of spirit was just as rare during Late Medieval times as unfortunately it remains today. Evidence of the Ars Phytonica's nature as a stark outlier from common practices and perceptions even of its own time can be found in Johann Hartlieb's famous compendium 'The Book of Forbidden Arts' (Das Buch der Verbotenen Künste) from 1456. Here we encounter an echo of the still living tradition of skull magic (kephalomancy). While this echo not at all doubts the efficacy of such practice, it entirely lacks the spirit of freedom and shamanic dialogue which so aptly distinguishes the Ars Phytonica.
'Von dem Totenschädel der Rede und Antwort gibt
Es gibt eine weitere böse, verwerfliche Praktik in der Kunst Nigromantie, die mit einem Totenschädel vollführt wird. Diesen beschwört man, dazu macht man eine vortreffliche, wohlriechende Räucherung, auch (entzündet man) Kerzen; sodann gibt der Schädel Auskunft. O Meister, (wie) arm (bist du) an Verstand und Sinnen! Wenn du auch meinst, das Haupt antworte dir, so ist es doch nur der böse Teufel, der dies tut. Er wahrsagt dir oft, bis er dich verführt hat und auf Abwege bringen kann.' (Hartlieb, p.89/91)
'Of the skull that provides answers
There is another evil, reprehensible practice in the Art Nigromancy, which is performed with a skull. This one is conjured, in addition one makes an admirable, fragrant incense, also (one lights) candles; then the skull gives answers. O master, (how) poor (you are) in reason and senses! If you think the head is answering you, it's just the evil devil doing it. He will often answer you until he seduces you and can lead you astray.' (Hartlieb, p.89/91, trans. Frater Acher)