Humankind has long dabbled in the supernatural, lured by the promise of obtaining power and enlightenment. Several texts have been devoted to this practice, outlining complicated and mysterious rituals that were presented as the key to achieving communion with otherworldly spirits.
The history of curses varies between cultures, locations, religions or beliefs, and times. However, the intention of the curse has consistently been to conjure a supernatural power to inflict misfortune or punishment on a target. A curse, sometimes called jinx, hex, or dark spell, can be verbalized, written, or sometimes cast through elaborate ritual. The aim is to see harm befall the recipient – bad luck may dog them, death may take them, or any number of dire (or annoying) fates may plague them. In antiquity a curse was a powerful phenomenon, often viewed as the summoned wrath of gods, or the presence of evil forces.
The purpose of spells and curses were, and remain today, aimed at punishing or changing behavior, warding off disaster, and controlling the actions of other people.
“Grimoires are books that contain a mix of spells, conjurations, natural secrets and ancient wisdom. Their origins date back to the dawn of writing and their subsequent history is entwined with that of the religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the development of science, the cultural influence of print, and the social impact of European colonialism.”
The Greek magical papyri
The Greek magical papyri from the second century B.C. listed spells, rituals, and divinations. These included instructions for how to summon a headless demon, open doors to the underworld, and protect yourself from wild beasts. Perhaps most tantalizing of all, they describe how to gain a supernatural assistant, an otherworldly entity who does your bidding.
The most commonly found spells in the Papyri are divination spells—ceremonies that offer you visions of the future. One of its most well-known passages provides instructions for how to forecast upcoming events using an “iron lampstead,” “an offering of frankincense,” and an “uncorrupted and pure” child. After being placed into a deep trance, the child sees images flickering in the flame.
Among the Papyri’s most famous components is the Mithras Liturgy. This ceremony describes how to ascend through seven higher planes of existence and communicate with the deity Mithras.
The Ars Almadel is Book Four of the Lesser Key of Solomon, also known as the Lemegeton, a significant grimoire of demonology compiled in the 17th century by an unknown author. This particular book of the Legemeton provides a blueprint for constructing an Almadel—a magical wax altar, somewhat like a ouija board, that allows you to communicate with angels.
The Almadel is composed of four Altitudes, or “Choras,” each of which corresponds with a unique set of angels with different domains. The text provides the names of the angels of each Chora (Gelomiros and Aphiriza, for example), the proper way to direct your requests to them (ask only what is “just and lawful”), and the best calendar dates for invoking them. It also includes brief physical descriptions of these angelic manifestations. The Angels of the Third Chora, for example, come in the form of “little women dressed in green and silver” wearing crowns made of bay leaves.
The Voynich Manuscript
This is the granddaddy of them all. Nicknamed “the most mysterious manuscript” this collection of nearly 250 pages of ciphered writing has been capturing people’s imaginations for 500 years. The text is written in an unknown alphabet that (at least superficially) seems to follow the patterns of a real language. Throughout the text are illustrations of strange plants, zodiac-like astronomical charts, and tiny naked people in interconnected bathtubs (You know, the usual.) The book seems to have passed through the hands of alchemists, botanists, nobles, and priests before ending up in the rare books collection of Yale University, where it lives today.
The Rohonc Codex
This text from Hungary dates back at least 200 years and perhaps as much as 500. Like the Voynich Manuscript, the text is written in an unknown alphabet which is stubbornly resistant to translation. There is even quite a bit of debate about what direction the words and pages should be read. Most scholars agree that, based on the pictures included, the text is a religious one, specifically Christian. There’s some thought that the final, nail-in-the-coffin translation of this text will be published in the next year or two (but honestly, no amount of “definitive” translation seems to be able to put a mysterious text to bed.)
The Book of Soyga
The Book of Soyga is a refreshing change of pace. It is not untranslated and its age is not in dispute. In fact, there were several centuries when scholars knew about the book, but couldn’t find a copy; now they’ve found two! In fact, these two copies were both hiding in plain sight in cataloged library collections—they had just been recorded under a different name than the one that everybody had been searching under. The Book of Soyga is a 16th century tome of magic that once belonged to John Dee, probably European history’s most famous magician. Have no fear, the book does have a section of ciphers, but they are only one part of the Latin-langage text that covers such metal subjects as spells, angels, and demonology.
The Picatrix is an ancient grimoire of astrological magic. Originally written in Arabic and titled the Ghayat Al-Hakim, it dates back to the 11th century and spans a mammoth 400 pages of astrological theory. Alongside are spells and incantations to channel the occult energies of planets and stars to achieve power and enlightenment.
The Picatrix is perhaps most notorious for the obscenity of its magic recipes. These gruesome and potentially deadly concoctions are designed to induce altered states of consciousness and out-of-body experiences. Not for the faint of the heart, their ingredients include blood, bodily excretions, and brain matter mixed with copious amounts of hashish, opium, and psychoactive plants. To construct a mirror that gives you power over the dead, for example, you must use noxious fumes of “blood, sperm, spit, ear wax, tears from the eyes, feces, and urine.”
Composed late in the 16th century by an unknown author, the Arbatel de magia veterum is a comprehensive handbook of spiritual advice and aphorisms. The Arbatel reads much like a mystical self-help book, stressing the importance of Christian godliness, productivity, positive thinking, and using magic to help instead of harm. Its kernels of wisdom include “live for yourself and the Muses; avoid the friendship of the multitude” and “flee the mundane; seek heavenly things.”
The Arbatel reveals a series of rituals to invoke the seven heavenly governors and their legions, who rule over the provinces of the universe. The governors include Bethel, who brings miraculous medicines, Phalec, who brings honor in war, and Aratron, who “maketh hairy men.” However, the ability to perform these rituals is only for a person who is “born to magic from his mother’s womb.” All others, the Arbatel warns, are powerless imitators.
In addition to angels and archangels, the Arbatel mentions a coterie of other helpful elemental spirits that exist beyond the veil of the physical world, including pygmies, nymphs, dryads, sylphs (tiny forest people), and sagani (magical mortal spirits that inhabit the elements).