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Blogging Kalamazoo 2021: Session 181 - Revealing the Unknown I: Scryers and Scrying in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period

Wednesday, May 12, 2021 - 09:19

Another history of magic session, and one that isn’t being recorded so it got precedence for watching above the other three things I wanted to attend. (The recorded sessions will be available for watching starting next Monday, so the ‘zoo blogging will extend into a second week.) I got to sleep in today, since none of the 6am sessions (9am by conference time) appealed to me. So I was able to set up a leisurely birthday breakfast with sourdough smoked salmon pancakes.

Aliud Experimentum Cristalli pro Puero: Scrying in a Fifteenth-Century Nigromantic Manuscript - Hélène Colleu, POLEN, Université d'Orléans

One common motif in scrying manuscripts is showing the practitioner using a mirror and a child. But few manuscripts include actual recipes for crying. This paper explores one specific manuscript that does so, along with other instructions for divination. The recipes are for the purpose of finding hidden objects, identifying a thief, or seeking information from benevolent spirits, etc. Scrying implements include crystals and mirrors, or—somewhat peculiarly—the polished fingernail of a child. But the specific device is treated as interchangeable. But medieval lapidaries specify certain stones as having divinatory properties when placed under the tongue, such as the emerald, hyenite, heliotrope. But in the present manuscript, the focus is not on objects with a natural magic, but imbuing them with power by blessing and purifying.

Several of the experiments require the presence of a child, who must be pure and virgin (boy or girl), under ten years old, and of legitimate birth. The child has several roles: the source of knowledge due to having the purity to perceive it, as an intermediary with the spirits, as someone who can bind the spirits, as a scrying device (e.g., the fingernail as a reflective surface), and as a catalyst to amplify the effects. The recipes call on the Virgin and on virgin saints, invoking their purity as an essential element.

Why is scrying used? Scrying often has the purpose of invoking and binding spirits without necessarily having a specific stated goal. Certain sets of named spirits are invoked who together hold all knowledge. The spirits may be associated with a specialty. Other texts may invoke angels for a similar purpose, but with the wording being more of an invitation, without the threats sometimes used against spirits. The spirits may be ordered to appear in a specific form, perhaps a specific physical shape or wearing certain clothes. The spirits are conjured into the scrying device and then banished after the ritual. (In contrast to spirits that may be conjured into an object like a ring for an indefinite period.)

The information sought may be general information, but scrying was also used specifically to identify a thief, including showing where the stolen goods are. It isn’t always clear how the answer appears: in a vision, or by speech or written sign.

Scrying with the Saints: Holy Personalities and Their Marginality in Early Modern Magic - Daniel M. Harms, SUNY Cortland

Saints are often mentioned in the context of ritual magic as powerful individuals invoked when a magician is conjuring a sprit. These rituals may include references to non-cannonical texts and events and show a certain ambivalence toward the role of the saints.

Example: invocation of Saint Helen (mother of Constantine) in a 16th c ms. asking her to help with finding a thief. This specific invocation can be traced through several sources from Italy mid-16th c, to English demonology mss of the later 16th c, then back to a magical text (removing the disapproval of magical practices) ca. 1700. Although the saint is invoked, the response (seen by the child-assistant) takes the form of an angel.

Example: thumbnail scrying invoking S. George. Earliest example in late 15th c. But S. George has no traditional relationship to divination. The connection may come from his general role as a protector of the Virgin as shown in art.

Why these two saints in English scrying recipes? In pre-reformation England, Helena and George were among the top 20 popular saints in England, while also having specific connections with Britain. In other countries, different saints may fill this role, e.g., S. Christopher in a German ms.

Why aren’t saints more commonly invoked in scrying recipes? Conjurations are often modular, with equivalent entities swapped in and out regularly to tailor the recipe for a particular purpose. Conjuring a demon can use approved ecclesiastical models intended for exorcism. But Conjuring saints have no similar approved textual model. This might explain why S. Helena seems to alternate with an angel in the text, perhaps using a model text that specified an angel.

Seeing the Whole Picture: Scryers and Their Further Careers in Early Modern England - Ms. Sanne de Laat, MA, Radboud University Nijmegen

The paper looks at scrying as a stepping stone for later career moves due to its high-risk/high-gain nature. (There is a brief summary of her thesis on scryers in England in the 16-17th c. Far too many details on types of purposes and careers to be able to take notes. I may need to track this down.)

Scrying is a “gift” not an acquired skill. It’s technically forbidden (high risk) but can potentially result in wealth (high gain) either from finding treasure or by satisfying a wealthy client. Examples for this paper: John Davis, Stephen Mitchell, Edward Kelley. Davis was son of a small freeholder, perhaps with a classical education, and after gaining some reputation for scrying he became a sailor via connections with Walter Raleigh where he was seeking the Northwest Passage. Stephen Mitchell has an unclear background. Around 1589 we have records of him scrying for two employers, though he wasn’t very successful. One of him employers brought him into a career as a privateer, where he was more successful until he was tried for theft in relation to one of his ventures. Edward Kelley may have begun as an apothecary, did scrying for John Dee, and ended up as the royal court alchemist in Bohemia. Major payoff for the risks of his career. All three have career parallels in using one of their employers (for scrying) as a stepping stone to gain a non-scrying-related career with high success potential.

(The speaker concludes with a humorous connection between scrying and communicating with distant entities through a magical screen…)

Gender and Scrying in Sixteenth-Century Ottoman Kabbalah - Marla Segol, University at Buffalo

[Speaker is not able to appear, but presider reads the abstract.]

Kabbalists of Safed & Damascus reimagined the myth and ritual of 13th c. Iberian kabbalists and developed new interpretations and rituals, using scrying as one of the methods for doing so. Scrying methods included oil drop divination, geomancy, using mirrors to conjur angels and demons, answering questions through sleep, and other techniques. In addition to the well-known male kabbalists, a number of powerful women participated as patrons and advisors, but also by practicing scrying rituals for the purposes of developing rituals but also to authenticate and establish the authority of the myths and rituals. Scrying might be used to answer the Kabbalists’s question, but sometimes direct divine insight is claimed, reflecting social authority. The relative weight given to ritual versus direct knowledge is variable. The paper was to explore the scrying techniques used by men and women and their association with gender and social position.

[Really wish I could have heard this paper!]

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