19.09.12 Attrell/Porreca (eds.), Picatrix: A Medieval Treatise on Astral Magic

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Michael D. Bailey

The Medieval Review 19.09.12

Attrell, Dan, and David Porreca, trans. Picatrix: A Medieval Treatise on Astral Magic. Magic in History. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2019. pp. xii, 372. ISBN: 978-0-271-08212-7 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Michael Bailey
Iowa State University
mdbailey@iastate.edu

"In the name of our Lord, amen. Here begins the book that this most wise philosopher Picatrix composed about the magical arts" (37). To whom exactly this attribution is meant to refer is inscrutable, but the "least implausible" (4) explanation may be that it is a corrupt translation of a part of the name of the author of the original Arabic Ghāyat al-Ḥakīm (The Goal of the Sage), from which the Latin Picatrix ultimately derived. That text was written in Moorish Andalusia in the mid-tenth century. It was translated into Castilian Spanish in the mid-thirteenth century, at the order of King Alfonso the Wise. Soon thereafter, within a few decades at most, the Spanish text was translated into Latin, and that is the text rendered into English here. The Latin version seems to be a fairly literal translation of the Spanish (of which only a fragment survives). The Spanish text, however, appears to have altered the Arabic considerably. Aside from possible mistranslations, whole sections were omitted, perhaps because they were too difficult to translate, or because they offended Christian sensibilities. While the Latin Picatrix made some additions, it remains shorter than the Arabic Ghāyat.

The early impact of the Latin text is unclear, but its circulation and influence expanded dramatically in the mid-fifteenth century. The first known reference to Picatrixis from Johannes Hartlieb's Buch aller verbotenen Künste in 1456, and the oldest dated Latin manuscript was copied in 1458-59. Thereafter, manuscripts flourished across Europe, from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century. The work was never printed, no doubt owing to its illicit character, but that did not impede its influence, especially in esoteric circles. Picatrix was read by Marsilio Ficino, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, and Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, among others. Thus the text clearly demonstrates the medieval roots of much "Renaissance" magic.

As for what kind of magic Picatrix contained, the term most often used in the text itself is "nigromancia," as a rendering of the Arabic siḥr. It is clear, therefore, that nigromancia in this context should not be translated into English as "black magic," even though a good number of fairly dark rites are described. It is also clear that nigromancia should not be taken to mean "demonic magic," although spirits of various kinds are conjured and constrained throughout the work. Attrell and Porreca initially describe the kind of rites most often treated here as "ceremonial magic" (11), but in the text itself they translate the term simply as "magic."

The reference to astral magic in the title is certainly also justified. The spirits invoked in Picatrix are mostly associated with heavenly bodies, or they are identified as heavenly bodies themselves, and many of the rites involve the practitioner speaking to and calling on the Moon, Sun, Jupiter, etc., as if they were sentient beings that would respond to direct address. Yet there is also an enormous, indeed predominant, amount of what could be termed natural magic in the text. The heavenly bodies, along with other natural materials and substances, are thought to emanate powerful energies in the form of rays. These can be attracted and focused by the use of materials that have natural sympathy with them, or through specially crafted talismans. They can also, as indicated above, be manipulated through incantations, and by burning or suffumigating various natural materials or mixtures of natural materials. There is also a place for animal sacrifice in this system, as some of the materials used include animal blood, organs, or body-parts. The ceremonial force of the sacrifice itself is also presented as having some effect.

Some of the instructions in Picatrix describe very long and complicated rites. Practitioners must wait for an astrally propitious time to act, gather a number of rare and extraordinary ingredients, sometimes fashion talismans, and then perform elaborate conjurations. Other sets of instructions, however, can be quite brief. For example, one can destroy an entire city simply by crafting a talisman under the proper astral conditions and burying it in the city-center (59). Other passages are not so much instructions for magical rites as descriptions of the wondrous properties of natural items. The bough of the peony plant, for example, emits an odor hateful to demons, so one can cure a possessed person by placing the bough on them (264). Some of the wisdom imparted in such passages hardly seems magical or wondrous at all. For example, "if a ram encounters a lion, it will at once die a natural death" (266). One can scarcely tell if there is anything marvelous going on here, or if a hungry lion is simply expected to eat a tasty ram.

Although some of the rites or descriptions of wondrous properties are relatively straightforward, this is most definitely a work of highly learned magic. Practitioners are expected to be well versed in cosmology grounded in Aristotle and Ptolemy, and in notions of the relation of microcosm to macrocosm derived from Plato, and more so from Neoplatonism. The theory of rays is drawn mainly from the Muslim philosopher al-Kindī. There will be much here of interest to students of medieval and early modern science, medicine, and philosophy, as well as those interested more directly in the history of magic or Western esotericism.

Attrell and Porreca have performed a great service by giving us a carefully considered and scholarly English translation of this wide-ranging work, based on the authoritative edition established by David Pingree in 1986. Their goal was "to combine the two seemingly contradictory concepts of scholarly rigor and ease of accessibility" (31). To that end they have endeavored to render sometimes abstruse Latin into readable English, and in this they have succeeded. This is not to say that Picatrix is an easy read. The sections that deal with the philosophical or cosmological background of certain rites have some narrative qualities to them, but long stretches of the work are just lists of one thing after another. Many readers will no doubt want to dip into this long treatise, looking for points that interest them. In this, they will be enormously aided by Attrell and Porreca's several excellent and detailed indices, the longest of which, on "Subjects and Materials," runs to over fifty pages. An index is such an easy target for a press looking for some cost-saving concision that Penn State deserves praise for giving Attrell and Porreca the necessary space.

The introduction, on the other hand, is just thirty pages, and I wish it had been longer. A good deal of scholarship has been done on Picatrix, at least as compared to other texts of medieval ritual magic, and Attrell and Porreca obviously did not want to reproduce it unnecessarily. Yet for readers without that other scholarship at their fingertips, to find an interesting or perhaps slightly confusing point raised in the introduction but clarified only by a citation pointing to another work of scholarship can be frustrating. It is hardly fair for reviewers to grouse about endnotes rather than footnotes, as this is never a matter of the authorial choice. Here, though, since any number of notes in both the introduction and the text itself might contain explanatory information helpful while reading, but often end up being just a citation, placement at the bottom of the page would have been particularly beneficial.

Aside from the usual dating, context, and publication history of the work being translated, the main task Attrell and Porreca undertake in their introduction is to mine Picatrix for all the intended outcomes of its many rites and procedures. For example, after an enormously broad category of rites aimed at effecting "interpersonal relationships," the most common outcomes involve "healing/health." About two thirds of these, in turn, are positive in desired consequence (i.e. to heal or ward off injury or disease) while one third aim to inflict harm. The next most common category involves trying to gain any kind of knowledge or skill. Of these procedures, the vast majority involve academic forms of knowledge -- natural philosophy and so forth -- while a much smaller group focuses on applied skills, such as painting, metal-working, or minting. By working out such proportions, Attrell and Porreca feel they can discern the typical reader of Picatrix. Not surprisingly, given the level of education needed to grasp any part of the work, beginning with basic Latin literacy, readership was probably restricted to clergymen of some kind, most likely someone at "the middle rungs of the medieval academic or clerical ladder, desirous of both material and social elevation" (25). This is fascinating, and again I wish there had been more of it.

There are also, of course, criticisms that can be made of any kind of breakdown like the one attempted here. Within the enormous category of "interpersonal relations," for example, the two largest sub-groupings are rites designed to win the favor of some social superior, such as might be very attractive to a mid-level clergyman or court operative looking for advancement, and then love-magic, most often intended to compel affection or at least sexual submission from some woman. These are both kinds of "interpersonal relationships," to be sure, but they are quite different in nature, and love-magic (as Attrell and Porreca acknowledge) is often designated as a category unto itself in other taxonomies. This matters because if such groupings were disaggregated, they would be less numerous than the categories of "healing" or "gaining knowledge," and this could convey a different impression of Picatrix's overall goals.

Moreover, there is an inherent problem with equating the proportion of different rites in a work like Picatrix too directly with the make-up of its readership. Albeit that the text appears to have been re-worked somewhat when it passed from Arabic into Spanish, but thereafter it was fixed. And in any event, magical texts always purport to be grounded in deep traditions and to relate ancient wisdom, not to respond to the demands of a particular readership. I am not saying that Attrell and Porreca's methods or conclusions are wrong -- I suspect they are absolutely correct in many ways. I hope they will pursue this approach at greater length in other publications, exploring these complexities and difficulties more fully.

As Picatrix was no doubt of interest to variety of medieval and early modern readers for an array of reasons, so too it should attract a broad readership now, from scholars of medieval magic to those more directly interested in philosophy, science, and medicine. There is also the possibility of exploring a certain kind of Christian-Muslim interaction in the Middle Ages through this fascinating text.

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