✶ The Powder of Pelagius
The Powder of Pelagius Eremita
(pulver Pelagii eremitæ)
The Powder of Pelagius Eremita is mentioned several times in Johann Trithemius 'Antipalus Maleficiorum' (written in 1508, published in print in 1605). Specifically, the Powder itself or key ingredients thereof are mentioned in the following three sections:
- Book II, Chapter V, pages 326/327
- Book III, page 333
- Book III, page 389
The goal of its preparation is to create a 'talismanic concoction' (Brann, p.111) that can be used as a protective means against all evil spirits, as well as a powerful agent during exorcistic rites.
The recipe is of interest to our current study especially in so far as it contains many ingredients that require blessing as part of the official Catholic liturgy, such as pulverised blessed candles from the Easter Mass. This is surprising at least for two reasons.
Trithemius' mission had been to establish a 'theologica magica', a form of magic that was purified of its heretic adornments and could positively co-exist alongside orthodox liturgy in the Catholic Church. Thus to provide a detailed exorcist's concoction recipe - meant not exclusively for representatives of the Church, but for laymen just as much - which involves pulverised cemetery earth is unusual, to say the least. Here we find a wonderful example of the paradox Trithemius wrestled with all of his life: while wanting to establish a purified magical program within the Catholic Church, he constantly put himself under suspicion of being a magician himself.
Secondly, the Antipalus Maleficiorum was intended as a decidedly anti-magical piece of writing, much in the same spirit as the recently published Witch-Hammer, the Malleus maleficarum (Speyer, 1486). Yet, as Joseph H. Peterson mentions, to this day it remains 'one of the best resources on the subject of Renaissance magic'. Not only contains the Antipalus a wonderful bibliography of grimoires and magical hand-books but because of its specific and practical nature it was risk of being turned into a hand-book for heretic practitioners itself.
' (...) the abbot's Antipalus (...) in effect placed in the hands of the laity techniques of demon expulsion that might otherwise be considered to be in the exclusive province of clerical exorcists.' (Brann, p.75)
An Will-Erich Peuckert in his liminal 1956 Pansophia, after going through detailed description of several of the recipes contained in Trithemius' Antipalus, concludes:
'As strange as this all is, it seemed necessary to be mentioned here. Not only to depict Trithemius position against the black magic; not only to highlight again the proximity between Magia naturalis and black magic, and that magic and counter-magic are the very same and only different in their direction - which our farmers still know; in the man who knows to perform magic they also see the man who knows the counter-magic. I am also laying all of this out here, because these things have remained alive, and they still exist today.' (Peuckert, Pansophia, p.75)
Step 1: The herbal body
Trithemius specifies the exact herbal ingredients of the powder in the third book of his Antipalus on page 333. Here we read the full list of nine or 10 ingredients respectively. The difference depends on whether we like to read 'Solsequium' as an old term for chicory alone, or a 50/50 mixture of the latter as well as common heliotrope.
'Arthimesia rubea, barba Iouis, Solsequium, Lenisticus, Hysopus, saluia, pulegium, folia sambuci cum floribus si possunt haberi et herba qua dicitur sanctae Mariae vulgariter wolgemut vel tosten (...)' (Antipalus, p.333)
'Red mugwort, hen-and-chicks, Solsequium, mastic gum (?), hyssop, sage, pennyroyal, elderflower leaves and flowers, and if you can acquire it also of the herb which is called Holy Maria or in the vernacular wolgemut or tosten (...).'
Trithemius had been an avid reader of the works of Hildegard of Bingen. While we leave it to the reader, to delve deeper into the magical herbal lore related to each of these potent plants, the many medicinal benefits of the powder are immediately obvious. It is also clear that it was possible to use the mixture of all these pulverised herbs both inwardly as well as outwardly - as no indigestible or poisonous substances are part of the formula.
Powder of Pelagius -
deciphered herbal ingredients
Step 2: The completed body
'Obtain as much as you might wish of the substances from the candles blessed at Candlemas, from Easter wax and incense, from herbs ground into powder on the feast of the Assumption, from pulverised Offertory bread blessed in the Lord's Supper, and from the powdered soil of cemetery, adding to these holy water and salt! Put the powdery substances through a sieve until they finely ground! Then place the mixture made from these powders and from the wax into warm water which has been blessed until all the constituents are combined as thoroughly as possible into a single mass! After this, standing above the result, proceed to utter the Lord's Prayer, the Ave Maria, and the Apostle's Creed.' (Antipalus, p.326/327, also Brann, p.76)
To complete the body of the Powder of Pelagius Eremita, Trithemius provides instructions to add traditional substances charged with apotropaic powers according to ancient folk-magical belief: salt, blessed pulverised offertory bread, soil taken from a cemetery, and a few drops of holy water. Note that the wax is only added at a later stage to the powder, and acts as the carrier substance.
Now, all of these original ingredients - herbal and apotropaic - could be acquired without trespassing into magical waters too deep; with one possible exception. Many European churches, especially the ones close to sacred springs or the ones that had become dedicated centres of pilgrimage, offered holy water to their visitors. Such blessed water was intended to be taken home and used as spiritual medicine or as a generally apotropaic substance. Blessed hosts, however, were an entirely different deal. They were meant to stay in a dedicated shrine in the church, to be touched by the priest alone and to be exclusively used during the Eucharist. At first glance, Trithemius' text is not clear if he refers to blessed hosts or to a layman's kind of offertory bread which had been blessed during the Eucharist at Easter.
Scenario 1 - The Exorcist's Crosses
According to Trithemius, as a result of the above operation one was supposed to receive 'tiny crosses' (cruces parvulas). As we will see later on, in another part of the Antipalus the abbot specified these tiny crosses were meant to be manually formed from the substance while it was still warm. As a way of protection against evil angels and demons these crosses, together with blessed water, would then need to be scattered around one's house, yard and stables (Antipalus, p.327 / see also Peuckert, Pansophia, p.74).
As mentioned above, for clarity we want to highlight that the actual Powder of Pelagius Eremita consists of all the ingredients, except for the blessed wax taken from the candles of Candlemas and Easter. That means the essential ingredients are salt, soil from a cemetery, 10 pulverised herbs, pulverised Offertory bread and a few drops of holy water. The blessed wax is the carrier substance required to give the powder the required solidness and shape.
Scenario 2 - The Witch's Bath:
Alternatively to the proactive, talismanic application presented in Scenario 1, Trithemius also gave instruction for a so called witch's bath. Such bath should be leveraged in situations when more immediate spiritual purification was required (Antipalus, Book III, pp.333 or Schneegans, pp.232).
The related instructions in the Antipalus - including all its prayers and blessings - cover more than sixty pages. For Trithemius such exorcising baths were essential ingredients of a healthy folk-magical culture that already had been lost at his time. In his correspondence with the Margrave Joachim of Brandenburg Trithemius explains that it was precisely such baths that not only took effect against illnesses and bedevilments, but were a blessing and boon for all things that man needed. They offered purification of one's body and soul.
It is during these detailed instructions for the witch's bath that we also come across the specifics of the herbals mixture of the Powder of Pelagius (see above). The efficacy that Trithemius ascribed to this magical substance is evident, when we read that it is applied as a stock in the bath-water itself, prescribed to be swallowed in parallel to the recurring baths as well as, and only if necessary, leveraged to exorcise the house of the afflicted individual.
However, despite its superior effect, the abbot did not provide the complete instructions on how to assemble this powder in a single place. In his second book, as quoted above, we find guidance on the required apotropaic substances; yet the herbal ingredients are not given. In his third book, as part of the witch's bath now, we find the details on the required herbs. Still, the text remains ambiguous and possibly intentionally so. If indeed this powder held the superior exorcising qualities the abbot ascribed to it, he might have wanted to not share its recipe openly. But instead scatter the elements of the full recipe across multiple sections of his Antipalus, thus ensuring only the truthful student who had read his book in full would be able to assemble this occult substance. (Note: we provide a fully reconstructed version at the end of this page.)
Now, returning to the procedure of the witch's bath, and leaving out all the related oratories, blessings and prayers, the general instructions are as follows: The practitioner is guided to find a safe and closed space for their operation and to use fresh and clean water from a river. Once ready for the bath, the practitioner is required to hold a large array of ingredients readily available, among them the ten herbs of the Powder of Pelagius, yet in this case no longer dried, but in 'good quality and slightly cooked' (Schneegans, p.233). The text also is written for a scenario where a priest is present to perform the necessary rites on behalf of the afflicted person who is sitting in the bath-tub. However, the ritual can easily be customised to be practiced all by oneself.
In the following we provide an abbreviated version of the ritual procedure - in its first ever English translation - as given in W.Schneegans' biographical study 'The Abbot Johann Trithemius and the Cloister Sponheim' (Der Abt Johannes Trithemius und Kloster Sponheim, Kreuznach, 1882).
'Before the rite the bewitched has to give a general confession, receive the sacrament from the altar and listen to a mass on the holy trinity and give special offertory.
The place where the bath will be prepared has to be properly closed off so that the witch who caused the damage will not sneak into it. The bathtub has to be new and unused.
The bath itself has to be made from fresh, pure river water. The required ingredients are: a pouch full of cemetery soil, blessed ashes and sanctified palms, holy water and blessed wax and salt, furthermore nine herbs, which are called out by name, in good quality and cooked lightly, which, after they have been exorcised and sanctified, are mixed into the bath under proverbs and prayers.
After everything has been arranged according to the instructions, the ill person undresses and steps into the bath; men naked, woman in a shirt. Then the priest sticks a Candlemas candle onto the top, bottom and side of the bathtub, and prepares a dough from the blessed earth, of which he has held back a little for this purpose, together with the blessed salt and holy water, which he then places onto the sick body part and fixes it with a linen strip - all while uttering certain proverbs and prayers. After the patient has been inquired about the purity of their faith and sufficiently replied back, the priest washes the sick body part, and in case it cannot be touched, he washes the patient's back.
While the poor bewitched, constantly calling for divine help, is sitting in the bath, the actual exorcism takes place. The priest, facing towards the bathtub and looking East, courageously addresses the evil demon and by means of a long and powerful conjuration coerces it to stay away from the servant of God N.N., as well as to take away all afflictions caused by the witch's malice, otherwise it is threatened with punishment of eternal damnation and exile of all places accessible and hospitable to men. The priest then does the same, standing at the opposite side of the bathtub, looking West, then facing North and finally turned towards South. In the manner, according to the four directions of the world, he walks around the tub in the form of a cross, yet now facing away from it. Once he has done all of this and read out a long conjuration, he sprinkles holy water onto the sick, using a sprinkler made from hyssop, and then washes the sick body part one more time.
Now the priest blesses a wine, which the sick person has to drink for nine days, and then prepares from the mentioned sanctified things thirty-eight [small piles of] powders, next to thirty-eight [small piles of pulverised] red coral under admixture of wax and warm holy water. From this he prepares a substance called the blessed, perfected wax. Once all of this is completed, the patient leaves the bath once he can endure it no longer.
The priest now forms a small cross from the aforementioned wax, places it into a walnut shell, and, after sealing it off carefully with more of the wax from the outside and sewing it into a cloth, he hangs it around the patient's neck. The remaining small crosses formed from the wax are hung upon the doors, bed, table and other places.
The bewitched has to this bath, including all of its appropriate rites, on nine consecutive days, only drinks during this time of the blessed wine and each morning or night takes of the blessed Powder of the Eremite Pelagius in wine or broth. In case the bewitchment is powerful, or the patient a person of respect, the priest shall celebrate the mass for them on each of the nine days.
In case the use of the bath has not improved the condition of the sick, so the apartment has to be changed or disenchanted by use of the holy composition of the Eremite Pelagius; furthermore lent and prayers shall be increased, vows be taken, offertories be done, and pilgrimages be made to confirmed holy places. Thereafter the bath shall be repeated but with exacerbated exorcisms and conjurations. (Schneegans, p.233-235)