Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Review of Roos 'Magic Coins' and 'Magic Squares'

Review of ‘MAGIC COINS’AND‘MAGIC SQUARES’:The Discovery of Astrological Sigils in the Oldenburg Letters, ANNA MARIE ROOS, Notes Rec. R. Soc. 20 September 2008 vol. 62 no. 3 271-288

Roos Article in pdf

Dr Roos is a scholar specializing in English astrological magic and talismans in their terminal phase, the late 17th century. Her article, "Magic Coins and Magic Squares" contains an interesting series of drawings of astrological talismans from a late 17th century letter. It is always useful to see actual examples of talismanic design.

The result of this ultra-specialization in such a late period of astrological magic and a focus on printed works, clear from the article's footnotes, are some significant errors. Firstly most works on astrological magic circulated only in manuscript. Frank Klassen lists several hundred manuscripts of astrological magic, while only a few books on astrological magic were ever printed before the modern era. A focus on printed material misses most of the extant corpus on astrological magic.

Secondly, errors detectable by a careful perusal of even printed sources have crept into the article. For example on page 276 figure 3(b) Roos states, "On the reverse we see the Verchiel angelic symbol, followed by the sign for Regulus,and the cabala symbol for Leo."

In fact, what Roos describes as the sign of Regulus is the standard symbol for Leo, a fact which is made obvious by examining figure 5, also described as the sign of Regulus, again clearly the standard Leo symbol. What Roos describes as the "cabala symbol of Leo" is, in fact, the standard symbol of Regulus. See Agrippa, Three Books of Occult Philosophy, Bk II, ch 52.

The symbol of Regulus is also not a symbol derived from cabala or planetary squares. Agrippa's source was the manuscript Hermes on the 15 Fixed Stars which circulated widely in the Middle Ages and Renaissance and thus is Hermetic, not Cabbalistic in origin. See the Latin critical edition of Agrippa's Three Books of Occult Philosophy (Brill, 1992) at 377 for Agrippa's source and on my website for a translation of Hermes on the 15 Fixed Stars.

In fact the origin of the fixed star symbols is most likely in Greek and Latin charakteres used on defixiones, standard classical magical objects consisting of writing on lead tablets. See eg, Gager, Curse Tablets and Binding Spells, (Oxford, 1992) at 8, specifically citing Picatrix.

But the most egregious error is the statement that, "the concept of having astrological images on sigils is exclusive to the Christian Latin West." Roos at 274. This is simply wrong. Roos even cites Picatrix, the leading astrological text in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, see footnote 29, but apparently has little idea of its significance or provenance. Picatrix, known in Arabic as the Ghayat al Hikam, the Goal of the Wise, was composed in Arabic circa AD 1000 and represents one of many scientific, philosophical, astrological and magical works translated into Latin so that the developing European civilization of the Middle Ages could learn from the advanced Islamic civilization of the Middle East.

The Islamic civilization in turn drew on many sources for astrological magic in particular from the Sabians of Harran, who were renowned as scientists, astrologers, magicians, mathematicians and makers of precision instruments. The most famous work of astrological magic of the Harranian Sabians was De Imaginibus "On Images" written by Thabit Ibn Qurra. Both Picatrix and De Imaginibus while widely circulated in Europe were never published. It is clear from a careful review of all sources that European astrological magic and astrology was almost exclusively externally derived.

No comments: