Recipes for Magic

By Frank Klassen

My house was remarkably crowded and had a bit of a holiday feel about it. It was mid-winter and twenty or so students from the University of Saskatchewan had taken up my invitation to try out a procedure and a device described in pre-modern magic manuscripts: molybdomancy and the Holy Almandal.

Chicago, Newberry Library, MS 5017, fol. 16v. Thanks to the Newberry Library for permission to use this image.

Reading a recipe or set of instructions is not the same thing as physically putting it all together and then trying it out. Anyone who loves to cook or sew or knit or build with wood knows this. But academics tend to shy away from doing this kind of thing, particularly historians of magic who generally don’t want to give the impression that they are in the business for practical reasons. Mercifully, the exercise was well worth my time and energy.

The description of molybdomancy in Thomas Aquinas and the seventeenth-century manuscript where I first encountered the technique disclose nothing about what it is like to actually do it. For a start, melting lead (or in our case lead-free solder) and pouring it into water or snow to divine the future was a huge amount of fun. For those familiar with the modern German New Year’s tradition of Bleigiessen this will not be a surprise, and the fun is certainly one of the reasons it continues to be employed today.

I was also surprised to find that we felt an instant sense of connection with the strange little lump of metal we extracted from the water after some hissing and sometimes a loud snap. One felt disappointed if it was boring and jealous of others whose lumps seemed more interesting. Those who got “a good one” often felt like they needed to keep it.

We also found by trying out some lead later in the evening that the different melting points of different metals produce slightly different results. The lead had a higher temperature an more thermal mass and tended to fracture less often.

What was most interesting to me as a historian of magic was discovering how crucial it was to have some kind of interpretive key (or expert interpreter). The lumps were evocative and often beautiful but generally very ambiguous if you were trying to discern a message in them. We used a modern list, which connected a wide variety of shapes with particular outcomes. Even then it took some work to decide if a lump was, say, a sword, flower, or shovel.

In light of this, the simplicity of the seventeenth-century text I knew made a good deal of sense. It says only that you will know you are bewitched if you find a face in the metal. We certainly got some faces so we may have some ill-intentioned witches in Saskatoon.

The centrepiece of the evening was the Holy Almandal, which is a curious intellectual artefact. It derives from a Sanskrit original and has significant similarities to modern Buddhist yantras (sometimes also used for magic), suggesting common ancestry. The Sanskrit word “mandala” was preserved in the name when it was translated into Arabic probably in ninth-century Baghdad. The Latin version translated in the twelfth century in turn preserved the Arabic article “al”.

Whatever the earlier texts might have been used for, the Latin version seeks to communicate and develop a close relationship with an angel. The Almandal itself, a magic tablet 4 inches square with holes in each corner, made from wax, and engraved with a quartile figure including angelic and divine names. The version we used required this square tablet to be supported by the rims of four candle stands. The candles were then lit and incense placed under the table. Earlier versions supported the table by putting tapering candles through the holes.

Again, the results were not only fun but also useful and practical. We had 3D printed the Almandal and the candle stands without thinking that the substance we used (PLA) melts at 180 C. The hot censor containing incense atop burning charcoal underneath it threatened to melt it. This led us to wonder if the older version in which the wax tablet was supported only by candles was simply too susceptible to melting or damage by dripping candles. The later version, which we used, protected the candles from the heat of the censor by having them on stands and the tablet from the candle drips by having a stand catch them.

More crucially, we got a strong sense of how evocative this little bit of skrying technology really was. The candles produced a strong updraft, drawing the smoke from the incense through the holes and around the sides of the table into the space between them and above the table where the angel was supposed to appear. This, together with flickering light, made for a pretty powerful effect. It was easy to see how one might see angels in such a device.

So what prompted all this activity?

These and other items built from ancient and medieval magic manuals form part of an exhibit assembled by David Porreca (University of Waterloo), Tracene Harvey (University of Saskatchewan), and me called “Materials and Imagination in Ancient and Modern Magic” It is currently running at the Museum of Antiquities at the University of Saskatchewan. Subsequent exhibitions will take place at the University of Waterloo and the International Medieval Congress at Western Michigan University (May 2017).


Frank Klaassen is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Saskatchewan and author of the Transformations of Magic (Penn State University Press) and Making Magic in Elizabethan England (forthcoming with Penn State University Press).


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