I. Introduction: Historical Necromancies and Talking to the Past in Liturgy and Magic
It may be the task of historians to make the dead speak, but their apparent monopoly on conjuring the dead is novel. In the introduction to his study of suicide in the Middle Ages, the medievalist Alexander Murray remarked that, “there was once a discipline, taught in books and assigned to professionals, whose aim was to conjure dead people to life and make them speak.” The function of this discipline, necromancy, he suggested, “has long passed to historians, whose method is now the only one recognised.”Footnote 1 Before historians’ present monopoly on the legitimate conjuring of past voices into present time, other professionals applied the methods of their disciplines to the same end. Among these methods of the past, taught in books and requiring professionals, were a small group of rituals from the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries connected to the Book of Raziel, a collection of learned medieval magic. These rites claimed hyssop could help make the dead talk if one knew how to use it.
The core action of these obscure rituals involved sprinkling specially prepared water over a grave with a sprig of hyssop. The operator then called the dead person to arise and speak, and sometimes performed other actions to allow conversation later, perhaps in a dream. A modern reader may well be curious about the possible meanings a medieval reader or magical practitioner might have attributed to these ritual actions, especially regarding the choice of hyssop.
The larger theological significations and liturgical uses of hyssop in ecclesiastical rituals enabled its magical use to speak with the dead in these texts. Foremost among them was its use as an aspersorium, or tool for the sprinkling of blessed water. Hyssop could not raise the dead in what might, perhaps, be the more familiar and “scientific” terms explored by Pietro Pomponazzi in the sixteenth century.Footnote 2 It does not return the dead to life through its purely natural virtues (even if “occult” or hidden). Instead, hyssop's liturgical prominence gave it power that operators could use for a range of purposes. Together, both the orthodox and unorthodox ritual uses of hyssop illuminate a world of practices and experiences that we have largely forgotten.
What follows is a narrow case study that aims to illuminate much larger cultural dynamics regarding medieval ritual and the experiences of it. It explores the cultural meanings of hyssop in the Latin Middle Ages and its importance in liturgy. Hyssop's liturgical significance was based on its biblical prominence as a means of cleansing and healing. Following these biblical models, hyssop was used liturgically as a tool for aspersion and as a symbol of cleansing and exorcism. The cultural and ritual significance of hyssop helps to explain its use to speak with the dead in the Book of Raziel. A consideration of the text's complex background illustrates how hyssop made cultural sense to the Latin editors and translators of the Book of Raziel, and that its shadowy Greek sources likely did not share this sensibility. The argument ends with a consideration of how one fifteenth-century magical collection adapted the hyssop ritual from the Book of Raziel, combining it with other powerful ritual forms that fit with it culturally and liturgically. Taken together, all these points suggest that hyssop was important in this particular magic because its liturgical and cultural prominence gave it power that could be used for a range of purposes.
One niche method of speaking to the dead illustrates the widespread entanglement of medieval liturgical and magical ritual. Hyssop was an important ritual ingredient in medieval Latin Europe, and, in this role, it was familiar to all levels of the medieval clergy and a vast number of the laity. It was an important part of regular ritual practices, and it was the cultural “capital” of these practices that allowed its use in magical activity. In this sense, magic could be an elaboration upon ubiquitous orthodox ritual, or perhaps more simply a variant understanding of it.Footnote 3 This case study also brings to light a moment of cross-cultural translation. The ritual texts that involve hyssop were part of the movement of texts and ideas between the Arabic, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin worlds in the high Middle Ages. They came from the same contemporary context of translation and adaptation into Latin as famous scientific works, particularly those of Aristotle, illuminating the dynamics of these processes from a less familiar angle.
What might seem to be outlying esoterica from medieval magical and liturgical traditions offer insights relevant to many areas of modern study. As Ronald Grimes has argued, it is when ritual seems to be at its oddest while also being somehow powerful or significant to others that its study is the most profitable.Footnote 4 Specialists have long recognized medieval magic as a “kind of crossroads where different pathways in medieval culture converge.”Footnote 5 One might find in its sources mixtures of religion and science, popular and learned culture, as well as fiction and reality.
Likewise, the study of liturgical ritual might seem to be an especially arid field concerned with textual minutiae of unclear significance, a branch of scholarship so arcane that its practitioners seem more “like the initiates of an ancient mystery cult” than creators of accessible scholarship.Footnote 6 Recent work on liturgical rituals and their sources has demonstrated that this appraisal neither reflects the current reality of liturgical scholarship nor the potential of its sources.Footnote 7 In recent decades, the motives that inspire and color our engagements with the liturgical past have shifted in ways that are reflective of larger changes in historical disciplines and ritual studies. These motives have swung from the search for “authentic” traditional rites and confessional polemic to much wider questions regarding how ritual encodes and conveys the values of a society regarding topics such as human relations, authority, diversity, gender, and time, to name only a few.Footnote 8 In this shift in motives, tone, and the kinds of questions being asked of the past, scholarship on medieval ritual offers a particularly prominent example of how the motives that inspire historical research influence the shape an imagined past assumes through that research.Footnote 9 In conversation with the dead, the spark of life brought by the living questioner is key. For these reasons, a case study of the pathways that come together in the medieval ritual use of hyssop in the church and in the churchyard offers an opportunity to hear many different past voices.
II. Medieval Magic and Speaking to the Dead: A Few Preliminaries
Medieval magic, in general, was not very concerned with speaking to the dead, and the rituals using hyssop examined here are unusual. Why medieval magic generally eschewed contact with the dead is imperfectly understood, but it may have been influenced by a combination of inherited assumptions regarding the impersonation of the dead by demons and a preference for contact with superhuman beings, such as demons and angels.Footnote 10 While modern English calls one of the main types of medieval magical practice “necromancy,” it had a different meaning than it had borne in the classical world. Medieval authors most often spelled it as nigromantia, literally “black divination.”Footnote 11 It primarily referred to a kind of ceremonial magic that conjured and commanded demonic spirits, not the souls of dead people.Footnote 12 It was also often used less technically to translate the Arabic sihr (magic) into Latin.Footnote 13 It is important to remember, however, that while orthodox theologians could easily see demons in most ceremonial magical rites, the spirits actually called upon in many medieval texts were frequently ambiguous, rendering medieval necromancy into “an ambivalent art of control of spirits,” diffused through the middling ranks of educated men.Footnote 14 In this air of ambivalence, many magical practices could functionally straddle the line between “full acceptance and full condemnation” within medieval culture, regardless of what the greatest university theologians pronounced.Footnote 15 Likewise, many magical texts in practice blurred the theoretical division between magic that drew upon the occult properties of nature and magic that called upon the abilities of spirits. While the rituals employing hyssop to enable actual conversation with the departed are outliers, they do embody many of the fundamental ambivalences scholars of medieval magic have identified.
The practitioners of this kind of magic came from the middle ranks of the educated, a group whose representation in historical studies lags far behind their numbers in the Middle Ages. While still members of an “educated elite,” compared to the rest of society, many of these men were marginal members of their elite class. Often, magicians were clearly churchmen, presumably in minor orders, with knowledge of Latin and the liturgy. Richard Kieckhefer has termed these men inhabitants of a “clerical underworld,” who elaborated on the supposed effects of familiar rituals for various purposes.Footnote 16 Most importantly, they built upon widely held understandings regarding Christian clerics’ ability to command spirits (for example, in exorcism and extra-sacramental blessing) in ways orthodox theology did not condone. As Frank Klaassen argues, this clerical underworld “had ragged edges,” incorporating a potentially large range of different types including literate courtiers, grammar teachers, and clerics searching for stable positions. These men described themselves as virtuous Christians and their activities as fundamentally rooted in God's power, despite the sometimes dubious ends they pursued and the forces they wrestled into the service of their wills.Footnote 17 The ritual activities these men undertook in their contact with spirits constitute something like the reverse side of the tapestry of orthodox liturgy and ritual.Footnote 18
III. Hyssop in the Bible, Theology, and Liturgy
The use of hyssop to speak with the dead drew on the herb's cultural power in the Latin world, arising from its significance in classical medicine, biblical history, theological commentary, and the liturgical rituals derived from them. Hyssop's ubiquitous ritual use in Latin Europe centered around its employment as a tool for aspersions, or the ritual sprinkling of blessed water. In these contexts, hyssop came to signal protection and purification, bearing a particular power against demons. It also became liturgically associated with places of burial and the inhumation of the dead.
In the Hebrew Bible, hyssop was frequently used to sprinkle liquid to purify and to protect, and later medieval liturgical ritual elaborated on the biblical symbolism of hyssop. While there is some debate regarding the actual plant(s) indicated in the Bible that are translated as hyssop, by the Latin Middle Ages all of the biblical references explored below were taken to refer to modern hyssop, or hyssopus officinalis. Footnote 19 In Egypt, it was with hyssop that the Israelites sprinkled the transom and posts of their doors with the blood of the lamb so the Lord would pass them over during the plague of the firstborn.Footnote 20 In Leviticus, someone cured of leprosy would be sprinkled or “asperged” seven times with a mixture of blood and water by a curious tool formed with cedar wood, a red cord, a living sparrow, and hyssop. After the rite, the sparrow would be let loose in a field.Footnote 21 Likewise, the same tool and bloody water would be used to asperge a house seven times that had recovered from “the plague of leprosy.”Footnote 22 In Numbers, hyssop again was used to asperge people and belongings defiled by contact with the dead on both the third and the seventh days after their defilement.Footnote 23 This aspersion used a mixture of water and ashes gathered from the holocaust of a red heifer, cedar wood, red cloth, and hyssop.Footnote 24 In the First Book of Kings, “hyssop that comes out of the wall” was one of the topics explained by Solomon in his great wisdom.Footnote 25 Before Solomon, David called for hyssop after his sin with Bathsheba in Psalm 50/51. In confessing his sin and requesting to be made clean by God, David sings, “You will sprinkle me with hyssop, and I will be cleansed: you will wash me, and I will be made whiter than snow.”Footnote 26
References to hyssop in the New Testament built on those in the Old, emphasizing the exorcism of impurity through God's power. In the Gospel of John, Jesus drank from a “sponge full of vinegar placed around hyssop” on the cross before uttering his last words, “it is consummated,” and “giving up the ghost.”Footnote 27 Paul, in his Letter to the Hebrews, cited the long history of sprinkling blood with hyssop. He explained that the first testament between humanity and God was dedicated with blood. Moses, after reading the Law to the people sprinkled them, the book, the tabernacle, and its vessels with the blood of calves, goats, and water, using scarlet wool and hyssop. He did this because “almost all things, according to the Law, are cleansed with blood: and without shedding of blood there is no remission.”Footnote 28 Hyssop's use by Moses to sprinkle blood, Paul argued, foreshadowed Jesus’ shedding of his own blood to secure remission for all.
The classical world found medicinal virtue in hyssop that somewhat mirrored its biblical prominence. As Alfred C. Andrews argues, for the Greeks and Romans hyssop was primarily a medicinal herb rather than a spice.Footnote 29 Unlike biblical hyssop, there is less ambiguity about what actual herb these authors meant. Greek and Roman medicinal engagements with hyssop referred to hyssopus officinalis, or modern hyssop.Footnote 30 Hippocrates maintained that “Hyssop is warming and expels phlegmatic humours.”Footnote 31 Pliny the Elder suggested that hyssop be used to treat bruises, liver troubles, pleurisy, pneumonia, serpent bites, bruised eyes, sore throat, chest congestion, cough, asthma, and epilepsy, among other ailments.Footnote 32 Similar indications were provided by Celsus and Galen.
It appears that medieval Latin writers associated the medicinal hyssop of classical literature with biblical hyssop to create the web of associations and use the herb enjoyed in the Middle Ages. Christian theologians saw hyssop as a “humble herb.” Its humility was purifying, like that exhibited by Christ in taking on humanity and accepting death for the salvation of all people. As Augustine explained in his commentary on John 19:29, the vinegar, sponge, and hyssop were symbolic. The Jews, he said, were vinegar, a degenerate form of the wine of the prophets. Their hearts were like a sponge soaking up the wickedness of the world. Hyssop purified both: “But the hyssop around which they placed the sponge full of vinegar, because it is a humble herb and it purges the chest, we suitably take as the humility of Christ: which they enclosed, and they thought themselves to have surpassed.”Footnote 33 The humble Christ, seemingly enveloped by wicked humanity, made it pure by the shedding of his blood, just as David sang, “You will sprinkle me with hyssop and I will be cleansed.”
Isidore in the Etymologies highlights what most medieval commentary regarded as hyssop's main attributes. “Hyssop,” Isidore writes, “is an herb good for purging the lungs.” Because of its medicinal virtue, the ancient Israelites in the Old Testament used bunches of it to sprinkle lamb's blood on “anyone who wanted to be ritually cleansed.” His final remark found significant elaboration in later commentary: “It grows on crags, clinging to the rock by its roots.”Footnote 34 In his commentary on Numbers, Isidore argued that Old Testament rituals involving the sprinkling of blood with hyssop to cleanse defiled things prefigured Christian baptism.Footnote 35
For Christian theologians and exegetes, hyssop symbolized purification and strength; it was both apotropaic and fortifying. When Rabanus Maurus considered Hebrews 9:18–22, it was easy for him to see the blood sprinkled by Moses from hyssop as the blood of Christ; however, Rabanus asked, “Why hyssop?” The answer drew together the herb's historical associations with ritual purification and medicinal virtue: “Because hyssop is a humble herb growing on stones. The humility of Christ is signified by this herb, and the fortitude by which our innermost being is purged. For illnesses of the lungs are accustomed to be purged by this kind of herb.”Footnote 36
The association of hyssop with baptism and with exorcism would color its liturgical and its extra-liturgical uses in Christian ritual. The connection between baptism and exorcism was a familiar one, long established in Christian liturgy, that saw the blessings and exorcisms around baptism as ritualized combat against demons.Footnote 37 William of Auxerre provides an example of the typical associations enjoyed between aspersions with hyssop and baptism, explaining that the Old Testament sprinkling from hyssop specifically signified the moment of baptism in which the baptized are asked, “Do you reject Satan and all his retinue?” Hyssop signifies faith and the liquid sprinkled signifies the water of baptism. Just as the unclean were made pure by the sprinkling of the waters of cleansing from the Old Testament hyssop, so too are those baptized cleansed through faith.Footnote 38
Importantly, hyssop itself did not have to be present for its associations with purification and exorcism, or the command of spirits, to be utilized, especially through the importance and ubiquity of Psalm 50/51 that mentioned hyssop. This psalm, miserere mei, was one of the penitential psalms, recited constantly across Europe. Among many other occasions, it accompanied processes of penance, consecrations, death, and burial. It was also a regular feature in various magical operations.Footnote 39 At these and other occasions, aspersions of holy water were frequently accompanied by Psalm 50/51:9 (Asperges me) as an antiphon for the singing or recitation of the entirety of the psalm.Footnote 40 This practice created an association with the sprinkling of holy water and hyssop regardless of the actual aspersorium used. The image or idea of hyssop signaled purification, exorcism, or the command of spirits by itself. The Mozarabic Liturgy, for example, employed a version of Psalm 50/51:9 as an antiphon in the rite of exorcism for water and salt: “God sprinkles us with hyssop and we will be cleansed: you will wash us and we will be made whiter than snow.”Footnote 41
The main recorded liturgical uses for hyssop involved its use as a tool, or aspersorium, for sprinkling holy water. As Eric Palazzo has explored, the main occasion in which its use was specified involved the dedication of churches and altars.Footnote 42 In his treatise on the dedication of a church, Remy of Auxere drew on hyssop's association with baptism, suggesting that the holy water asperged on an altar during consecration was like a baptism for a building.Footnote 43 The Romano-Germanic Pontifical provided a similar justification that drew together many of the cultural associations hyssop possessed, explaining that during consecration an altar was sprinkled with holy water seven times and that the
Hyssop with which this water is sprinkled is a humble herb which is said to penetrate the hardness of stones with its roots, and it heals inner ailments of the chest. Also, uncleanliness was removed by its aspersion in the Law, signifying the humility of Christ, which breaks the hardness of our stubbornness and knows how to cure our passions and inner uncleanliness. Therefore, the water is sprinkled with hyssop when baptism, sanctified by the humility of Christ, is given to a church.Footnote 44
After the altar, the rest of the church and all its walls were sprinkled, presumably with the same hyssop.Footnote 45
Hyssop's necessity in the blessing or consecration of churches was frequently repeated. Honorius of Autun, Hugh of St. Victor, and Sicard of Cremona called for hyssop in the consecration of churches and altars.Footnote 46 In both the twelfth- and thirteenth-century Roman pontificals, hyssop is one of the five essential ingredients for the blessing of a church that must be prepared ahead of time.Footnote 47 William Durand, whose thirteenth-century pontifical became the standard for the late medieval Church, requires a slightly different listing of essentials but still places “an aspersorium made of hyssop” among them.Footnote 48 The thirteenth-century Roman Pontifical provided the option of circling and asperging the altar three or seven times with hyssop, while singing Ps. 50/51:9 as an antiphon.Footnote 49 The pontifical also specified that the doors were to be sprinkled with hyssop as well. The number of aspersions (three or seven) enjoyed associations with the sevenfold grace of the Holy Spirit, the seven wounds of Christ, the seven virtues, and the seven journeys of Christ, prefigured by the seven aspersions mentioned in the Old Testament, along with the triple emersions of baptism. William Durand highlighted many of these associations, requiring the exterior walls and the entire interior of a church to be sprinkled with an aspersorium of hyssop three times, signifying the triple immersion of baptism.Footnote 50 The altar was sprinkled seven times.Footnote 51 After these rites of consecration, the halleluiah should be sung, “because with the phantasies of the demons excluded, God will be praised there.”Footnote 52
Durand explained that these aspersions were done with an aspersorium made of hyssop because it was a humble herb, signifying Christ's humility. In his humility, Christ bled seven times, cleansing the world. Hyssop grows from stones, penetrating the hardness of the rock with its roots just as humility breaks open a hardened heart. Likewise, hyssop treats swelling as humility does pride. Its deep roots allow it to return to life after it appears to have been ripped away. In these ways, hyssop can signify the entire multitude of the faithful, especially those “rooted and grounded in the faith of Christ who are not able to be uprooted and separated from his love.” Among the multitude, however, it is most especially associated with the professional religious who use it liturgically: bishops and priests.Footnote 53 In fact, the rituals that called for it beyond the consecrations of churches and altars tended to emphasize the presence and the persons of senior prelates.
Hyssop played the role of an aspersorium in rituals beyond consecrations, and some of these rites involved the dead. Hyssop was used to sprinkle holy water during the visits of important prelates to churches, particularly during the visitations of bishops to subject parishes, and in the processional reception of prelates or legates.Footnote 54 In Durand's Pontifical, an episcopal visitation heavily involved the dead, featuring the aspersion with hyssop of not only people but also “the entire cemetery,” the absolution of the dead, and the recitation by the bishop of the psalm Miserere mei before the confirmation of children.Footnote 55 In these examples, authors specify that the aspersorium should be hyssop; however, it is obvious that hyssop could be used for any aspersions in general, even when it is not specifically required by prescriptive texts. Such flexibility is most important regarding places of burial and burial itself.
Places of burial were sacred places, fortresses against demons, established and maintained by aspersions associated with hyssop. Burial involved the aspersion of both the corpse and the grave, and hyssop was a possible tool for it. Even if another tool was used, the ubiquity of Psalm 50/51:9 ensured hyssop remained in mind. Sicard of Cremona, Jean Beleth, and William Durand refer to this aspersion, suggesting that it inhibited the ability of demons to interfere with and inhabit corpses.Footnote 56 They do not, however, specify the tool that should be used. What written texts do not provide, other kinds of sources suggest. Archaeological evidence testifies to the presence of hyssop at medieval gravesites.Footnote 57 In these contexts, hyssop was a tool for aspersions – not a fragrant herb buried with corpses.Footnote 58 Christopher Daniell cites a glass roundel from Leicester Cathedral created around 1500 that depicts the aspersion with hyssop of a body wrapped in its shroud at the grave.Footnote 59
The consecration of cemetery ground involved significant aspergations of holy water, and many of them were accompanied by the antiphon Asperges me. Footnote 60 Again, the ubiquity of references to hyssop in this antiphon associated it with the ritual sprinkling of holy water, regardless of the actual tool used. One can see the lingering power of the association between aspersion and hyssop in a seventeenth-century treatise on magic that refers to a magician's aspersorium as a “hyssop,” even though hyssop was just one of many herbs used in its construction.Footnote 61 Spirits that spoke from consecrated ground were less likely to be demons, and late medieval sermon collections, such has John Mirk's Festial, associated church consecration and the aspersion of corpses with the appearance of loquacious human spirits.Footnote 62 Of course, the grave of an individual was also a potential site for ongoing liturgical commemorative activities (with hyssop or not) associated with votive masses. Such ritual activity was ubiquitous and familiar to everyone, constituting a major source of employment and income for the clergy of local parishes.Footnote 63
In summary, hyssop's ubiquitous ritual use and cultural significance associated it with purification and exorcism. As a tool of exorcism, hyssop played a role in the command of spirits. The same context connected it to the banishment of demons. In these aspects, hyssop was also a tool to protect and benefit the Christian dead. All these associations might have suggested its potential utility in attempts to speak with the dead and in resolving any ambiguity between human and demonic spirits.
IV. Using Hyssop to Speak with the Dead in the Latin Liber Razielis
The seven-part Latin Liber Razielis, or the Book of Raziel, provides a rare example of a medieval magical text that gave specific instructions for contacting the dead. It survives today in two mostly complete copies.Footnote 64 Its seven books, or “tractati,” are each devoted to a different element of magical practice.Footnote 65 These seven books draw their material from different sources. Its composition was a complex process that is imperfectly understood and the subject of some scholarly disagreement.Footnote 66 Its preface claims that it was produced in medieval Spain as part of the major corpus of magical texts translated under the commission of Alphonso X of Castile (r. 1252–1284), who was interested in Arabic image magic and Jewish angelology.Footnote 67 In the Jewish and Arabic traditions, Raziel was an angel said to have revealed secrets to Adam, and various texts and esoteric secrets were attributed to it.
The book claims to be a translation of a single Jewish work, but in truth it derives from a complicated pool of texts that cannot be clearly dated.Footnote 68 As Damaris Gehr has argued, there is good reason to believe its attribution to Alphonso is fictive and that the text took shape between the middle and the last quarter of the fourteenth century.Footnote 69 It combines material from different languages and cultures, particularly Greek (perhaps sometimes via Arabic) and Hebrew, into a new work that claims a single Hebrew origin. The work, as it exists today, is the result of the choices made by its Latin editors.Footnote 70 While parts of the Liber Razielis represent a very rare demonstrable importation of Hebrew magic into medieval Latin Europe, the section involving hyssop and the dead appears to originate from originally Greek hermetic literature.Footnote 71
The ritual that allows conversation with the dead using hyssop comes from the second book.Footnote 72 This book, the “Book of the Wing” (Liber Alae),Footnote 73 deals with what Page identifies as “natural magic” and is divided into four “wings” dealing with different substances: the virtues of 24 types of stones, 24 herbs, 24 animals, and the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. While the subject may appear to suggest a discussion of the occult powers of nature, as Julien Véronèse and Jean-Patrice Boudet have observed, the content of these passages intertwines natural and ritual elements.Footnote 74
The method of contacting the dead outlined in the “Book of the Wing” comes from its “Second Wing” on herbs. The Liber Razielis explains that its thirteenth herb allows discourse with the dead. This herb is called “holy” (sancta) or the “herb of the prophets.” It should be carried with veneration in holy places such as churches where it defends against evil things. With this herb in the past, “prophets made the dead speak, whether they had been dead for a long or a short time.”Footnote 75 Interestingly, this herb enables the dead but constrains demons. A demon cannot be in the same place as this herb, unless the one who carries it invokes it for a specific purpose. If put in a place where there are demons, “it restricts and binds them so they cannot move.”Footnote 76
The Liber Razielis explains how one can use the herb to speak with the dead, and, in this elaboration, it does name a specific herb: hyssop. The rest of the entry is devoted to an explanation of how it can call up the dead for conversation. It reports that in the Book of Hermes Solomon says that someone who wants to have fellowship with the dead should take water collected on the fourth hour of the night and suffumigate it with costus, musk, and juice/sap (cum costo musco et suc).Footnote 77 He should then take this water “to the grave of a dead person with whose spirit he wants to have fellowship,” throw it upon the tomb “with the herb called hyssop,” and say four times, “rise, rise and come and speak with me.” If you do this for three nights, on the third night the dead person “will come to you and will speak with you regarding whatever you want.”Footnote 78
Some of the later abridgements and translations of the Liber Razielis continued to reproduce this ritual and its employment of hyssop. It occurs, for example, in two English translations from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that attribute the work to Solomon.Footnote 79 The text of this ritual is generally very close to the Alfonsine Latin with one main exception. In both, the Alfonsine reference to potential demon summoning by the operator is not present and is instead replaced with an elaboration on the power of the herb.Footnote 80 Both also continue to specify hyssop.
The divided nature of the entry for the thirteenth herb is curious and raises suspicions regarding the potential difficulties the text's translators may have faced with unfamiliar terms and concepts. The limited modern commentary on it has tended to focus on possibilities for the herb called “sancta” while neglecting the hyssop mentioned shortly thereafter. In some scholarly work on this book and on its many later abridgements and translations, especially into English, the herb called “sancta,” or the “herb of the prophets,” is identified with vettonica or betony.Footnote 81 Likewise, one might explore other texts that elaborated on the virtues or powers of natural things, such as the Book of Hermes on the 15 Stars, Stones, Herbs, and Their Images. Footnote 82 This Hermetic work, sometimes attributed to Enoch, is a Latin translation of an Arabic abridgement of an originally Greek work.Footnote 83 It is found in codices containing variants of the Liber Razielis. Footnote 84 In it, the second star, Pleiades, corresponds to crystal and fennel. Of these, it is crystal that possesses the power “to gather demons and the spirits of the dead and to call winds and to know hidden secrets.”Footnote 85 The powers ascribed to herbs and stones in the Liber Razielis, however, are different. In it, crystal has no such power.Footnote 86 The stone that allows the living to speak with the dead, as well as invoke and speak with demons, is an unnamed powerful stone similar in color to beryl.Footnote 87 While this Hermetic work sheds little light on the thirteenth herb of the Liber Razielis, another Hermetic work associated with it provides a few tantalizing leads.
A better sense of the sort of content the Liber Razielis’ editor(s) may have reshaped into their entry for the thirteenth herb can be found through an examination of the Cyranides and its translations and adaptations. The Cyranides was a Hermetic text translated from Greek into Latin.Footnote 88 As Reimund Leicht has observed, materials linked to the Latin translation of the first book of the Cyranides appear to correspond loosely in theme and contents to this part of the Liber Razielis. Footnote 89 They are not a direct source but rather point toward a genre of linked Hermetic texts, which resembled some of the contents of the Cyranides and shared the number twenty-four (the letters in the Greek alphabet) as their organizing theme.Footnote 90 Leicht cautiously hypothesizes that this part of the Liber Razielis (the Liber alae) might be a partial survival of an otherwise lost hermetic text, linked to the Cyranides, called “Wings,” mentioned in a magical papyrus fragment.Footnote 91 The section on stones found in another work linked to the Cyranides, the Old French Le Livre des Secrez de Nature, offers a very close parallel to the “First Wing” of the Liber Razielis.Footnote 92 This text also claims to have been translated “from Greek into Latin” through King Alphonso's patronage.Footnote 93 For herbs, the correspondences are more difficult and obscure.
While most entries of the herbs listed in Cyranides I do not correspond with those in the Liber Razielis, the thirteenth offers a very suggestive set of virtues that do. Most importantly, the Latin Cyranides informs the reader that the herb takes its name, Nekya, from conversation with the dead.Footnote 94 In Greek, Nekya, Nekyia, or Nekuia at its most literal, refers to the questioning of ghosts, used to describe Odysseus’ descent into the underworld.Footnote 95 This herb is also named “flomus,” which Latin authors identified as mullein.Footnote 96 Medieval texts referring to mullein as flomus frequently regarded it as a Hellenism, and there is some indication that the word caused problems for Latin readers.Footnote 97 Its properties closely parallel those attributed to the thirteenth herb of the Liber Razielis. Its name refers to its use as a tool in necromancy: “Its leaves used as wicks burn well in lamps. For this they use [the leaves] in nekikes manties, that is necromancy, which those who do this sort of thing perform in a shell (concha). Hence, the herb is called nekya because nekys means dead.”Footnote 98 While the original Greek referred to a basin or a bowl, the Latin used concha, a word that, to a Latin reader, could conjure the image of a basin containing holy water.Footnote 99 This small choice may have had significant consequences in later reception and adaptations by suggesting liquid used in aspergation. Other corresponding traits appear in the same entry, attached to the corresponding stone, the nemesitis lapis, or the “stone of Nemesis.” It was a stone taken from the altar of the goddess Nemesis in Athens that could be used to reveal a demoniac and free them of their demon. It could also protect against demonic dreams, the terror of children, and “nocturnal encounters.”Footnote 100 In an atmosphere of frequent adaption and rearrangement, it seems possible that some of these elements could have been attached to the herb rather than the stone in derivative works.
Whatever the truth may be behind the material that influenced the thirteenth herb of the seven-part Liber Razielis, its final form drew upon cultural and ritual associations that were intelligible to Latin Europe, and these revolved around hyssop, an herb with which the Cyranides was unconcerned. Unlike an herb, such as Mullein, suited to ancient modes of divination, hyssop was, in contrast, a good cultural and ritual fit for Latin Europe.
V. Liturgy, Magic, and Hyssop in a Fifteenth-Century Handbook of Necromancy
The theological and liturgical associations of hyssop shed light on the form taken by the Liber Razielis hyssop ritual for speaking to the dead in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Rawlinson D. 252, a fifteenth-century necromantic manuscript compilation. The form it takes in this manuscript reveals a great deal about the liturgical and ritual associations medieval clerics found in the intersection of hyssop and the dead. Most significantly, its form in Rawlinson D. 252 reflects adaptation with other ritual forms that “fit” with it in the world of its compiler. The modern Rawlinson D. 252 consists of two roughly contemporary personal notebooks in two different hands, called by Frank Klaassen Rawlinson A and B.Footnote 101 They reflect the interests and knowledge of their compilers, practitioners of frequently demonic ceremonial magic. The manuscript is one of the oldest practical handbooks of necromancy that have survived in archive collections to the present day, such as the influential “Munich Handbook” of necromancy published by Richard Kieckhefer.Footnote 102
Rawlinson B contains a section on “raising the dead” that is unusual in the context of other medieval texts devoted to the summoning of angels and demons through ceremonial magic.Footnote 103 Its ritual that uses hyssop to speak with the dead has a specific purpose: gathering information regarding a theft.Footnote 104 It instructs the operator to go to the grave of a recently dead person on the tenth day of the moon. The operator should then call the dead person by name, commanding them in Middle English, “make redy in apparence unto me.” He then should conjure the spirit “Asacel,” who is “the guardian (custos) of the bodies of the dead,” to secure permission from God to allow the soul of the dead person to appear “on this night in my dreams in such a way that without tricks or deceit he will tell me so I can have perfect knowledge of this theft.”Footnote 105 A spirit named Asacel, Assasel, Asasell, Azaell or some other close variant, with dominion over the dead or their bodies, is a familiar figure in a number of late medieval and early modern magical rituals.Footnote 106 The text then indicates that the operator should refer to a written list of matters to be addressed that he apparently has with him. The first stage of the rite concludes with the operator declaring, “I bind you so that you will omit nothing in any way from this” (ut hoc nullatenus omittas) through the highest name TetragrammatonFootnote 107 and AGLA,Footnote 108 all the names of God, all the punishments of hell, and “through him who will come to judge the living and the dead and the world through fire. Amen. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
The next stage requires hyssop. The instructions say to take hyssop water gathered by night and put it on the grave for three nights. “Let him sprinkle on the grave from that water with a hyssop branch with costus and musk” (costo musco). Afterwards, “he should say, get up – by saying the name – and come and speak with me on the third night in a beautiful form and you will give me true responses to my questions through this name: Tetragrammaton and AGLA. Amen. Fiat, fiat.”Footnote 109 The rite concludes with instructions in Middle English. The operator should take earth from around the dead man's head and tie it up in cloth along with a written list of the stolen things. The operator should sleep with this bag under his right ear and within ten nights he will achieve his goal. Finally, the rite concludes with the instruction to have a Mass sung for the soul and afterward say the De profundis.
This ritual seems to provide a highly variable set of potential time frames in which the dead person can provide information regarding the theft and its details. As Frank Klaassen has suggested, it is an interesting example of the way medieval magical practices often sought to provoke revelatory dreams.Footnote 110 The operator, in his initial conjuration of Asacel, first calls for an appearance “this night to me in my dreams,” then later, after three nights of hyssop, for the dead man to come “speak with me on the third night,” and finally for a certain revelation after sleeping with the grave soil for ten nights beneath his ear. A reader gains the impression that success at any stage would be possible and welcome. More significantly, however, considering the ritual in the Liber Razielis, the variable times given in the Rawlinson manuscript—to say nothing of the changes in verb persons and from Latin to English—may also represent “seams” marking the compilation of ritual actions and elements from different sources. The Liber Razielis hyssop ritual was just one of them.Footnote 111 As put together in the Rawlinson manuscript, these elements made sense together for speaking to the dead, and they did so because of the larger liturgical and ritual associations the elements possessed.
Why someone would want to contact the dead to uncover the details of a theft the ritual does not explain, and any answer must remain provisional. At first glance, the entire situation is curious, considering the involvement of the superhuman Asacel, who presumably should be capable of uncovering thieves itself. Opinions regarding what knowledge a spirit, human or otherwise, might possess varied widely. While it might make sense, as it had for Augustine, that a human soul would only know those things it had personally experienced or had been told, other authorities argued that the dead acquired perfect knowledge of terrestrial events immediately after their departure from their bodies.Footnote 112 Such knowledge would be like that enjoyed by angelic and demonic spirits. Human souls might also be more approachable or act as mediators with other spirits. Likewise, many contexts could constrain what a spirit knew or was allowed to say. For example, another ritual in Rawlinson B, calling upon the power of Satan to catch a thief, explains that the ritual must be completed within three days of the theft. If the thief has in the meantime confessed his crime or donated with a pious motivation, this magic cannot reveal him.Footnote 113 In fact, the very uncertainty of any spirit's knowledge might have incentivized obtaining the ability to summon diverse kinds.
As Anne Mathieu, who has studied this section of the manuscript, has found, the ritual possesses multiple “intertexts,” combining elements from different traditions and contexts. It utilizes conjurations and evocations (such as the divine names Tetragrammaton and AGLA) commonly found in magical texts, liturgical elements associated with burial and commemoration of the dead, as well as non-liturgical written formulas of command. She notes the formula “ut hoc nullatenus omittas” is regularly found in royal letters.Footnote 114 The binding “though him who will come to judge the living and the dead” is a common ingredient of prayer and exorcism as well as a prominent component of the Office of the Dead.Footnote 115 The De profundis also offers a clear connection to widespread medieval practices of commemoration for the dead. It concluded the Office of the Dead and accompanied Christian funerals.Footnote 116 Mathieu also notes that the aspersion of a grave with holy water from a bunch of hyssop was part of a burial ceremony.Footnote 117 In addition to the connections Mathieu has so perceptively identified, the Rawlinson manuscript also draws on further rituals that accompanied the aspersion of holy water with hyssop in many liturgical contexts, as well as the widely understood significations of the herb.
The ritual for consecrating cemeteries recorded in Durand's Pontifical combines aspersions and verbal formulae that provide a particularly significant intertext for the ritual in the Rawlinson manuscript.Footnote 118 The rite began with a prayer to “the all-powerful, eternal God, you who are the guardian (custos) of the souls and bodies of your faithful.”Footnote 119 It is easy to see a parallel to the Rawlinson invocation of the spirit Asacel, who is “the guardian (custos) of the bodies of the dead.” This prayer is soon followed by the sprinkling of holy water along with the antiphon Asperges me. Footnote 120 The aspersion of holy water, prayers, psalms, and antiphons continue in a circuit around the entire cemetery. In a final collect, God is asked to assign an angel as a guardian for the cemetery.Footnote 121 Again, while hardly an orthodox interpretation, it is not difficult to interpret Asacel as this kind of angel.
Hyssop held a cultural and liturgical power that could be employed by individuals to diverse ends. The seven-part Liber Razielis, likely compiled soon after the mid-fourteenth century, used it as a tool for communication with the dead. Behind this appearance is an imperfectly known and complicated translation and reception history. This history involves negotiations between many languages and cultures (even if only in the realm of fiction), including Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and possibly Arabic. From this mystery brew of Hermetic, Astrological, and other esoteric texts, a particular ritual for speaking to the dead took shape that drew on the power of widely understood liturgical rituals involving hyssop. In the Liber Razielis, the significance of hyssop “native” to Latin Europe encountered literatures concerned with “magic” and “natural philosophy” entering Europe from the outside. These “magical” and “scientific” literatures were interested in the natural virtues or powers of herbs, stones, animals, stars, letters, and special words. The hyssop ritual's later reception and transformation in Rawlinson B, a fifteenth-century handbook of necromancy, provides a particularly compelling example of the syncretism between, and entanglement of, magic and liturgy as common ritual forms in Latin culture. The hyssop ritual is one case of this much more widely found dynamic of importation, reception, and entanglement that makes the history of magic a particularly interesting and compelling window on medieval cultures.
In this case study, I have attempted partially to revive and explore an obscure attempt to raise the dead again to an echo of life. The employment of the cultural power of hyssop to speak with the dead in a small group of texts intersects in theme and function with the ongoing professional work of historians, as well as the less professionalized efforts of amateur historical enthusiasts.Footnote 122 Both groups, in general terms, seek, “to conjure dead people to life and make them speak.” Historians and amateurs often undertake their work because of what has been termed a “desire for the past.”Footnote 123 This is a desire to encounter the past, or some image of it, to connect with it and hear its voice in the present.Footnote 124 In our current sociopolitical moment, these encounters are of great importance, forming an often under-acknowledged cornerstone in our polemical struggles regarding identity and belonging.Footnote 125 In these wars regarding modern culture, the dead are often mobilized and even drafted, and their voices (ventriloquized or not) are major participants. In the rallying of the dead, as Robert Pogue Harrison remarks, “The living do not have a constitutive need to speak as much as hear themselves spoken to.”Footnote 126 It is in the history of ways to act on the desire for the past—to give it a voice so that it may speak to us—that the hyssop ritual has its place.
I would like to thank Frank Klaassen for his guidance and assistance in identifying and obtaining source materials. I would also like to thank Alexandria Eikelboom, Jonathan Zecher, and Miles Pattenden for their help in discussing aspects of this article and the different genres (and languages) of its sources. The anonymous Church History reviewers offered many helpful comments and criticisms.