The Rain Will Make A Door II: How To See Spirits

The following survey is part of my ongoing series on the history and magic of British fairy traditions, using the events and ideas of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell as mirrors to the King’s Ways that snake and spiral through Faerie and our historical etchings of it.

An integral part of the sorcerous journey which the Second Magician, Strange, undertakes concerns learning how to actually perceive the spirits he wishes to conjure; more specifically, learning magic to create substances that afford him such perception. Such an endeavour is not merely a fictional one. For interested (not to mention interesting) parties, I present this brief collection of various operations for creating magical materials to reveal the presence of spirits – often a salve to smear over or in one’s eyes rather than an elixir. They are taken from formal grimoires (manuals of ritual magic), popular collections of occult ‘experiments’ known as ‘books of secrets’, and the personal notebooks of local wizards, cunning-folk, and astrologer-physicians.

To begin our examination of such visionary substances, we find these texts detail several ‘experiments’ to see into the spirit-world: to witness ‘marvels’, ‘strange sights’, ‘prodigies’, ‘chimeras’, as well as spirits in more humane or at least singular form.

To see strange sights

Make an ointment of the Gall of a Bull and the fat of a Hen And anoint your Eyes.

The Grimoire of Arthur Gauntlet, 
ed. David Rankine, (London: Avalonia, 2011), p. 290

The gall was considered the seat of the fiery choleric humour in mammals, which perhaps if we were speculating might suggest the importance of elemental Fire’s light and motion for spirit-sight. Another operation also employs a chicken, specifying it be white, along with the fat of a more (ahem) familiar animal.

To see marvellous things

Take the fat of a black Cat ungelt and the fat of a white Hen And anoint your Eyes And you shall see marvellous things. If you would have any other to see them let him set his foot upon yours And he shall see it.

Gauntlet, p. 290

There could (indeed, should) be whole books written on feline sorcery, but for now we must confine ourselves to directly relevant details. Cats are considered by early modern humoural theorists naturally melancholic animals, and heavy Saturnine black bile – the humour most associated with sorrow, despair, and deep cogitation – was thought by many to naturally attract spirits: ‘black choler [i.e. melancholia lit. black bile], which is so obstinate, and terrible a thing, that the violence of it is said by physicians, and natural philosophers, besides madness, which it doth induce, also to entice evil spirits to seize upon men’s bodies’; in fact, ‘so great also they say the power of melancholy is of, that by its force, Celestiall spirits also are sometimes drawn into men’s bodies…’ [Agrippa, Three Books, 133] Here, we have a possible underlying mechanic of such a spirit-sight unguent: to attract the swarming of spirits by a certain magnetism – melancholic in this case – until they are more obvious to us.

We can hardly discuss black cats without at least mentioning in passing the infamous bone, sought for invisibility and other sorcerous powers. For more on this, I recommend Ioannis Marathakis’ essay on invisibility magic. Often, the bone is tested in some way – not every bone of a black cat is magically potent. The proviso that the cat be un-neutered suggests it is important the cat is still, in some directly verifiable way, potent. This offers a perspective on ritual virginity – especially of young seers – being less about chaste purity and more about having a store of potential. Alternatively, it perhaps (also) suggests a certain state of frustrated arousal might be magical useful…

The final detail given in this operation – the setting of a companion’s feet on or near the seer to share their vision – is also attested in reports of the visionary magics of scrying with a seeing-stone or crystal ball. Seventeenth-century England’s most famous astrologer William Lilly mentions the technique in an account of the practices of William Hodges, a Staffordshire astrologer-magician who ‘resolved questions astrologically; nativities he meddled not with; in things of other nature, which required more curiosity, he repaired to the crystal: his angels were Raphael, Gabriel, and Uriel’. When John Scott, a physician friend of Lilly’s, was visiting, Scott asked Hodges ‘to shew him the person and feature of the woman he should marry. Hodges carries him into a field not far from his house, pulls out his crystal, bids Scott set his foot to his, and, after a while, wishes him to inspect the crystal, and observe what he saw there.’ [Lilly, History of his Life and Times (London, 1715), p. 117-8] Scott indeed sees a woman - ‘a ruddy complexioned wench in a red waistcoat, drawing a can of beer.’ Unfortunately, he does not recognise this woman as the one he is already set to marry. Yet this prior marriage never comes to pass, and Lilly reports fate eventually proves this a true vision: Scott marries the woman of he sees in the stone, who is wearing that very red waist-coat when they first meet.

For a simpler visionary experimentum, we might look to the sixteenth-century Foreman texts, offering this rather pithy operation:

63. If you want to see wonders

Say these names in the ear of some woman: ‘Malo: Malesi: Offadi: Theolochim’, and you will see wonders.

                                            Cambridge Book of Magic,
ed. Francis Young (Cambridge, 2015), p. 82

 Word magic, such as that spoken in this charm, was also used in written forms of charm-making.

To see Spirits, of which the air is replete

Take the brain of a cockerel, some powder from the grave of a dead man, that is to say, some dust, which is touching the coffin, some nut oil, some virgin wax and make a concoction from it that you wrap in virgin parchment, into which you will have written these two words: Gomert Kailoeth with the following character. Burn it all and you will see some prodigious things. But this should only be done by people, who are fearless.

The Complete Grimoire of Honorious,
ed. David Rankine & Paul Harry Barron (London: Avalonia, 2013), p. 141

 This whole procedure is more of a fumigation or burnt offering than an eye-salve. We can however compare it to an identical operation in the ‘Natural and Supernatural Secrets’ of the True Grimoire, which contains the same ingredients (although there is a specification in TG that the oil be of walnuts) and, crucially, the same magic words. Rankine notes of this Rome 1750 edition of Honorius, ‘there is no “following character” therefore I am assuming that the character is to be found on page 46 of the document.’ By contrast, the character in the TG version of the working is clearly that of Khil, who is elsewhere described as a spirit who ‘causes powerful earthquakes on houses and towns’.

But we are still in the realm of ‘prodigious things’, of sundry wonders which might amount to little more than an astral fireworks display, a gloaming flitter of were-lights and dizzying but ultimately fleeting enchantment. What of summoning a spirit to act as one’s advisor or assistant? What of familiar spirits?

To have familiar Spirits

Take a Fowl called a Lapwing Kill her and save her blood in a Silver or Pewter vessel and Stop it that no Air come into it and in 6ii [8] days it will be turned to worms And in 6ii [8] more it will be but one worm. Then take of walnuts and Almonds and make a paste thereof and with a Stick or your little finger make a hole and put the worm therein and in 6ii [8] days it will be a lapwing again Then take the blood of her Right wing and anoint thy Eyes therewith, Then look forth of thy Chamber window toward the East And thou shalt see all the Spirits of the Air in order. Then call one of them and ask his office and he will tell thee, If he be for thy term If he be not command him to send one that is And he will do it. Then say unto him Vade Christus sit Mater te et me [‘Go, Christ, may the Mother be with you and me.’], In nomine Patris + et Filii + &c.

Gauntlet, p. 289

 Lapwings are perhaps the most commonly used animal in early modern blood magic. Moreover, we have another mention of walnuts for spirit-sight. Walnuts have Airy Jupiterian connections – they are similitudinous for the brain and, by extension, the head as a whole. In European grimoiric traditions, walnuts are offered to the spirit Bechaud, who ‘controls all kinds of weather’. Such meteorological capabilities could reasonably be expected to have direct relevance to operations concerning spirits of ‘the Air.’

The mention of looking forth of one’s chamber window confirms this operation was assumed to be done inside, rather than in the field. It also privileges the Easterly direction, which typically is the first appealed to in magical workings concerning the cardinal directions, and whose principal spirit is frequently said to be the superior of the spirits of other compass points, or at least primus inter pares. This idea of ritual protocol based in understanding and navigating spirit hierarchies is firmly supported by the additional instructive details provided: these Spirits of the Air have an ‘order’ in which they will appear. What this means on a practical basis is that the first spirit you speak with may not be the one you actually ultimately need. One might encounter a spirit only to direct it to bring forth another. Conjuration seems less like submitting a mail order from a catalogue and more like navigating different offices of a bureaucracy.

 As we hone in on faerie specifically we can identify various workings to seek ‘conference’, extending experiments of spirit-sight into territories closer to full operations of conjuration.

To have Conference with the fairies

In the House where those use when you intend to work be the last up. The night before the new or full of the Moon Then sweep the Hearth very clean And set a bucket of fair water on the Hearth so go to bed. And be you the first that shall come down the next Morning And you shall see as it were a fat or Jelly upon the water. Take it forth with a Silver Spoon and put it into A Silver or Tin vessel and so keep it And when you will work the night before the new or full of the Moon, If there be a Table in the Room Set a new Bowl full of new Ale upon the board And iii [3] new white cloths with iii [3] new knives with white hafts. This done make a fair fire of sweet cloven wood Then sit in a Chair with your face towards the fire Then take your foresaid stuff forth and anoint your Eyes therewith And sit silent And see all the house be quiet and at rest And when you have sitten so a while you shall see iii [3] women come in, But say nothing but nod your head at them as you shall see them do to you And they will go to the Table and eat and drink, when they have done let the first pass And the second But the third you may take and ask what you will of her. Probat.

Gauntlet, p. 288-289

There are many obvious lunar themes present in this operation. Silver is the traditional metal of the Moon. The timings are by starts and ends of the lunar cycle. The Moon rules the phlegmatic humour, characterised with the coldness and moisture of elemental Water, which was considered to encourage imaginative reflection, feminine introversion, and both hopeful and fearful fixation upon the past and future. The ‘fat or jelly’ one cultivates and collects is a particularly phlegmatic substance, to be generated atop a ‘bucket of fair water’. This emphasis on fairness and cleanliness is also observable in the prevalence of white objects such as cloths, a colouring both lunar and ‘virginal’. This operation certainly has a very different take from typical ceremonial magic on the uses of white-handled knives! This working also foregrounds the importance of the hearth, the heart of a house; while also emphasising ambient stillness of the ‘quiet and at rest’ of the power of the wee small hours.

The object of this experiment in full is to receive a ring of invisibility from one of the fairy ladies. We find the likely source of Gauntlet’s operation in Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft:

This is the way to go invisible by these three Sisters of Fairies.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. First go to a fair Parlor or Chamber, and an even ground, and in no loft, and from people nine dayes, for it is the better: and let all thy cloathing be clean and sweet. Then make a Candle of Virgin Wax, and light it, and make a fair fire of Charcoles in a fair place, in the middle of the Parlour or Chamber. Then take fair clean water, that runneth against the East, and set it upon the fire: and if thou washest thy self, say these words, going about the fire three times, holding the Candle in thy right hand † Panthon † Craton † Muriton † Bisecognaton † Siston † Diaton † Maton † Tetragrammaton † Agla † Agarion † Tegra † Pentessaron † Tendicata † Then rehearse these names † Sorthie † Sorthia † Sorthios † Milia † Achilia † Sibylia † In Nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti, Amen. I conjure you three sisters of Fairies, Milia, Achilia, Sibylia; by the Father, by the Son, and by the Holy Ghost, and by their vertues and powers, and by the most merciful and living God, that will command his Angel to blow the trump at the day of Judgment; and he shall say, Come, come, come to judgment; and by all Angels, Archangels, Thrones, Dominations, Principates, Potestates, Virtutes, Cherubim and Seraphim, and by their vertues and powers; I conjure you thre sisters, by the vertue of all the royal words aforesaid: I charge you that you do appear before me visibly, in form and shape of fair women, in white vestures, and to bring with you to me, the Ring of Invisibility, by the which I may go invisible at mine own will and pleasure, and that in all hours and minutes: In Nomine Patris, & Filii, & Spiritus Sancti, Amen. Being appeared, say this bond following.

O blessed Virgins † Milia † Achilia † I conjure you in the Name of the Father, in the Name of the Son, and the Name of the Holy Ghost, and by their vertues I charge you to depart from me in peace for a time. And Sibylia I conjure thee, by the vertue of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by the vertue of his flesh and precious blood, that he took of our blessed Lady the Virgin, and by all holy company in Heaven, I charge thee Sibylia, by all the vertues aforesaid, that thou be obedient unto me, in the Name of God; that when, and what time and place I shall call thee by this foresaid Conjuration written in this Book, look thou be ready to come unto me, at all hours and minutes, and to bring unto me the Ring of Invisibility, whereby I may go invisible at my will and pleasure, and that at all hours and minutes; Fiat, fiat, Amen.

And if they come not at the first night, then do the same the second night, and so the third night, until they do come: for doubtless they will come, and lie thou in thy bed, in the same Parlor or Chamber; And lay thy right hand out of the bed, and look thou have a fair silken Kercher bound about thy head, and be not afraid, they will do thee no harm: For there will come before thee three fair women, and all in white cloathing, and one of them will put a Ring upon thy finger, wherewith thou shalt go invisible. Then with speed bind them with the bond aforesaid. When thou hast this Ring on thy finger, look in a Glass, and thou shalt not see thy self. And when thou wilt go invisible, put it on thy finger, the same finger that they did put it on, and every new {Moon} renew it again: For after the first time thou shalt ever have it, and ever begin this work in the new of the {Moon} and in the hour of {Jupiter} and the {Cancer}, {Sagittarius}, and {Pisces}.

Reginald Scot, Discovery of Witchcraft
(London, 1584: 1665), p. 247-48

Finally, these two operations are particularly worthy of comparison with another very similar working from an edition of the Grimoire of Honorius, ‘To make three ladies or three gentlemen come to your room after supper.’ (Honorius, p. 188) Not only is the operation very similar to the working in Gauntlet, it provides key details missing from the former experiment: the visitors eat ‘three loaves of bread made out of wheat’. It also specifies more preparation for the chamber in which the working will be performed: ‘you will clean and prepare your room from the morning, doing everything while fasting. And you will make it so that no one spoil the room for the rest of the day and you will make sure that nothing is hanging or hung up around the bed, such as tapestries, cloths, hats, bird cages, curtains etc, and above all, place white sheets on your bed.’ Once again, the importance of clean white cloth is highlighted. 

There is also a potential for this Honorian operation to have dream incubation dimensions. One is instructed to ‘place a chair or an armchair next to your bed, then go to bed and say the following words’ – one does not sit in the chair, but leaves one by one’s bed before retiring. Moreover, immediately following the specified incantation we jump to ‘when the three persons have come, they will sit near the fire, drinking, eating, and they will thank the person, man or woman, who has received them’. No specifications are made as to whether they arrive while the operator is waking or dreaming.

It is worth noting in passing that the text explicitly mentions men and women performing this working, with the gender of the operator determining the kind of visitors – ‘if it is a lady who did this ceremony, there will come three gentlemen; and if it is a man, there will come three ladies.’

I leave you with a more in-depth working similarly involving retiring to bed; and thus at least potentially employing hypnogogic and/or hypnopompic states. Let us examine the operation to create the oil of De Nigromancia, ‘wherewith you shall anoint your eyes; & all spirits will appear unto you such that you may see them when you please.’

‘First when the Sun is in the same sign, & in the same moment as Mars, take the sting of a serpent which hath killed himself & dry it, and make of it a powder. Then take Balsam – & mix: of the powder, 1 oz.; & of the Oil 2 spoonfulls. Then take a little of the root of Mandrake, in a powder, 4 spoonfulls – & if you will you may press the leaves in the oil - & mix altogether. Then put it in a clean glass with a little clear stopper, & when the Sun is in which degree of Aries that is fitting, make this Circle following in your chamber, & put the glass with the oil in the midst of the Circle, between your legs, with a piece of clean copper, & have your Sword, Sceptre, & Ring in your hand, & the other instruments [i.e. the Plate] towards the East. Bowing your Sceptre, begin to say very devoutly – having fasted the same day, bread & water: & hearing a Mass of the turmoil of St. Mary the Virgin & a Mass of St. Cyprian, & offer in the Mass what you will only so that it be not less in value than a penny – then having all things ready, towards the East [say a series of specific prayers]…

Which done, kiss & put the Sceptre & Ring in the midst of the Circle, laying it against the glass with the oil, & the Sword across it in the manner of a cross. But take heed that the Plate with the Name of God Tetragrammaton touch the Earth, & be rotated; & put the Ring upon thy finger all the night following. You shall lie that night in a clean linen & sweet, in a clean & secret chamber & bed, & so much as you can, abstain from sleep; & without all doubt, before the middle of the night, thou shalt have that which [thou desirest]… By 20 days thou shalt not be tempted to evil… After, eat a little, that thou fast not overlong, & then you shall see a million Angels in the air, which will come & bless the oil which you have made. Not this is a sign, when as about the middle of the night you hear, as it were, a talking very distinctly, but you cannot understand, You shall see the Sceptre lifted up inot the middle of the Circle, & the Sword also, without hands. Take heed you be clean when you touch it least that wonder decay. But it is better that a priest make this oil, & enter the Circle to make it. Always when you make this, you must be alone.

This oil must be kept in a clean glass phial, or in an unguentorium bought clean & wrapped in the stole or garment of a priest. But do not use the oil until thou be re-consecrated to God, & thou shalt see many Angels, & thy Angel presently if thou wilt, & he shall teach thee what he knoweth, & what he knoweth not he will learn, to teach thee. If he be inferior, he will ask of his Emperor, & he himself will teach him; & he will tell thee howsoever is…’

De Nigromancia, ed. Michael Albion MacDonald
(Gillette, NI: Heptangle, 1988), p. 60-64

The Rain Will Make A Door III: Faerie and the Dead