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HIGH TIMES: ASTRAL MAGIC AND PSYCHOACTIVE SUBSTANCES IN THE PICATRIX

by

Dan Attrell

A paper presented to the 48th International Congress of Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, Michigan

Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, 2013

Daniel Attrell 2013

The astro-magical grimoire of Gayat al-Hakim, the Picatrix (or the Goal of the Sage), was brought into the Latin world sometime during the 13th century as a revitalizing gift to the occult traditions of the West. The magical operations and their alleged effects written therein are deeply rooted in a universe grounded upon an ancient cosmology which operates according the principles of a fractal reality. The microcosm or inferior world of the human body is viewed as merely a reflection of the macrocosm or higher world. The powers dormant within the magical adept, therefore, are none other than the powers of the heavens above which come together in the vessel of the human body and manifest themselves to the sense-perception of the practitioner. The Picatrix presents us with an unseen world of vast energy flows which, radiating down from the planets and passing through the spheres of heaven, are augmented and diminished in force before being poured into the people, places, or things disposed to those energies. Behind these forces are spiritual entities, which could be communicated with given the fulfillment of complex ritual conditions. Unique in his ability to harness these energies was the

philosopher or sage who, by virtue of his understanding that all bodies above and below are connected, could channel the energies of the planets and stars into images or talismans sympathetic to the desired outcome, thus producing many wondrous effects. The astral magic of the Picatrix is neither white nor black, for like the old gods of antiquity the stars and planets are indifferent to the trivial affairs of men and exist as an unstoppable force of nature, like the flooding of plains which bring fertility to a land, or the droughts which just as soon take that fertility away. For as surely as Fortune herself waxes and wanes, it was the part of the wise to discern how circumstances might be channelled in order to guide the powers of nature to work toward ones own personal ends. The Picatrix, therefore, is neither moral nor politically correct in its operations and effects, especially not to the modern reader. Spells demanding cannibalism, coprophagy, and genital mutilation appear as commonplace in the work as spells for love and friendship. Its pages abound with the realities of magic being used as a weapon in power politics, war, patriarchal dominance, mind control, human and animal rights violations, and much more. Today, however, we turn to a topic which has only been called to attention within the past century: consciousness alteration by means of hallucinogens, narcotics, barbiturates, deliriants, or combinations thereof. Homemade concoctions, suffumigations, pills, ointments, potions and incenses abound in the Picatrix, particularly in Books III and IV, and have hitherto received little attention from the scholars of medieval magic. Many recipes contained within the Picatrix contain ingredients which are deadly poisons, and the risk of compiling a mixture grows with every drug added. Since most modern scholars of magic and the occult are typically not trained in the pharmacology of exotic drug compounds, it is urged that one not try to recreate the following operations at home.

According to the operations of the Picatrix, the mind and body of the sage himself is to become an magical vessel, taking in and synthesizing the various powers and materials of this universe (plants, animals, metals, etc.) in order to produce a profound sensory experience and subsequently, a deep psychological transmutation. If the complexity of a ritual is indicative of the level of its practitioners intent, the diligent user of the Picatrixs magic necessitated what William Blake famously called a perswasion to remove mountains. Like an initiate of shamanic rites, the sage who spends months planning his work, collecting ingredients, and charting out the right astrological hours to perform his work, would doubtless be assisted in achieving what he desired through the help of psychoactive substances. The drugs listed in the Picatrix which are to be consumed by the sage, to which we shall soon return in fuller detail, are present in such quantities that an out-of-body experience was inevitable for the practitioner. In this dream-world through which planetary spirits or universal gnosis cascade down into the mind of the adept, the practitioner straddles the realm of common experience and the abstract realm of forms hidden within the subconscious, which is clearly elucidated by the author:
Dreams [or visions] are truly demonstrations of simple things, separate and different from material bodies. This occurs when the soul abandons the feelings arising from the sensory powers and receives no support from them. Indeed, they are formed according to the cognition of the mind and the powers of instructive entities those which hold the powers over perceivable things; they also have a third property, it is like a reminiscence of things after they occurred: when the rational spirit exists perfected as it ought to, it envisions entities which the man himself has seen. 1

It is in this dream-world alone, brought on by the perturbation of regular consciousness, that the sage falls not into a state of madness or delirium, but into a perfected rationality which grants access to the otherworldly spirits. This world is opened to the adept alone who refined by fasting, ritual and intention has studied the ways of the wise and can harness the effects of these mind-altering experiences without being overwhelmed. Suffumigation is the chief method of ingestion for most psychoactive substances in The Picatrix. Ointments, confections, and pills made of strange mixtures are not so rare either, but their use is more generally relegated to medicinal mixtures (ie. for healing the stings of scorpions or the bites of vipers) or as composite poisons (ie. for causing sleep, or spiritually ruining someone). From a list of aphorisms handed down by Hermes Trismegistus contained in the work, the 27th states simply: works done with suffumigations and prayers are better than those in which suffumigations are lacking and the will is divided.2 Among those practising this science of suffumigation, the Indians and the Nabataeans (Naptini) from Egypt are said to be the most proficient.3 Ritual suffumigation with the right substances
1 2

Picatrix, 2.5.4 (Pingree, 48) Picatrix, 4.4.28 (Pingree, 192) 3 Picatrix, 2.5.1 (Pingree, 46)

becomes an act of intoxication which necessitates explicit intent, for it requires an individual to willfully remain standing over a burning mixture in an enclosed area as the world around him becomes progressively hazier and more bizarre. The effect is perhaps not as potent or economical as direct consumption via a pipe, but it appears that the quantities given in the recipes are more than ample to produce visionary experiences in a confined space. Beware: throughout the Picatrix there appear a number of toxic ingredients meant to test the subtlety of the adepts intellect in properly preparing the magical recipes. The work is often clear on its intent to remain accessible to the wise alone. Many plants that are listed among spell ingredients are only psychoactive in certain parts and deadly in others, yet these details are rarely laid out in the ingredient lists. Other ingredients ought not to be consumed by humans at all. In one magical operation for Saturn drawn from the works of Pseudo-Aristotle, the adept is told to use a suffumigation made from the brain of a black cat, tarragon, hemlock, myrrh, and St. Johns Wort. Although the quantities are here unspecified, inhaling the fumes of hemlock (cicuta) would be at worst lethal or at best highly injurious.4 This toxic herb, infamous for ending the life of Socrates, appears numerous times in the planetary suffumigations. It is possible that recipes such as this one, among others, were inserted by the author as a ploy to weed out the unwise readers of his cherished secrets. Such ploys would have certainly reinforced the notoriety concerning the use of magical

grimoires like the Pictarix. The purpose of most suffumigation magic in the Picatrix is for the sake of contacting the planetary spirits. When the adept wished to speak with a planet, he dressed himself in robes dyed with the colours of his chosen planet, he chose its hours, he prayed its prayers, and he suffumigated with its ingredients.5 Throughout the works many and variegated sequences of magical formulae, concoctions are fashioned according to combinations of entirely inert materials (ranging from animal parts and human excrement to pine resin and tarragon) with explicitly psychoactive ones (ranging from opium and mandrake to cannabis and hellebore). At times the suffumigations appear to contain no known

psychoactive ingredients at all, while others are veritable cocktails of drugs bound with binding agents for enhancing the products combustibility (frankincense, mastic gum, sandalwood, and so forth) or with monoamine oxidase inhibitor (St. Johns Wort, Syrian Rue, etc.) to enhance and prolong the duration of

Barry S. Frank et al. Ingestion of Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum). West J Med 163 (1995): 573-574; W. C. Bowman and I. S. Sanghvi, Pharmacological actions of hemlock (Conium maculatum) alkaloids. Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology 15 (1963). The alkaloids in poison hemlock affect the neuromuscular junction where they act as nondepolarizing blockers and paralyze vital functions in the body. When death occurs from ingestion it is usually caused by respiratory failure. It must be added that the drying process greatly reduces the toxicity of hemlock, though not altogether. Unfortunately, no studies currently exist on the effects of smoked hemlock and humans, but we can assume the predominant toxins Coniine and -Coniceine would retain their harmful qualities after combustion. 5 Picatrix, 3.7.1 (Pingree, 112).

certain serotonergic tryptamines (acacia, psychoactive toad, psilocybe mushrooms, etc.). Each of the ingredients, psychoactive or not, are found in magical recipes according to their sympathetic nature with the particular planet governing the operation at hand. Every magical recipe in The Picatrix has an intended effect for its concoctions. The author is clear that according to the masters of this art, the Indians, the suffumigations ought to be made according to the nature of the planet to which it corresponds.6 This of course is true of every object to be used in the magical operations.7 For example, if you should desire to contact the planetary spirit of the Moon while she is in Pisces, make a suffumigation consisting of:
One and a fifth pounds of cannabis (canabeto) sap and the same amount of the sap from the plane tree, then mix them together. Extract these saps from the aforementioned things while the Sun is in Virgo and Mercury is luminous and direct in his advance; grind them up in a marble mortar. When this is done, add 4oz of mastic gum, 2oz each of amber and camphor, 1oz of alkali [potassium hydroxide] and 10oz of sarcocolla gum. All these things should be very well blended together, to which you should add a half pound of blood from a stag decapitated with a bronze knife. 8

Here we see the inert materials, which have their place in the recipe according to magical requirements, interacting with the explicitly psychoactive substances. The blood of a stag, an animal governed by the Moon since antiquity, is ground together in a marble mortar with over a pound of hashish (which today might be valued on the streets at around $5,000). The user of this particular suffumigation is instructed to put the mixture into a censer, set it alight, then stand above it whilst making prayers and sacrifices to the Moon, and only then would the servant of the Moon (Lune servus) appear. I cannot comment on the effects which over a pound of suffumigated hashish might produce, but if we turn to the works of Herodotus, we can see a similar suffumigation methods being used in Scythian funerary rites in which those mourners in the vapours howled with joy.9 A similar stove-top practice, called hot-knives, is in common use today to produce a similar effect, albeit with far smaller quantities of cannabis resin. There are many more examples of such visionary magical recipes, and I would like to examine a few examples that differ significantly from one recipe to another. One suffumigation, entitled the suffumigation of hermits which is created for the purpose of conjuring the Sun, contains 31 ingredients from which I have isolated at least two substances to be highly psychoactive: 7oz opium (ana vii laudani), 5oz nutmeg (ana v cortices nucis muscate); and at least
6 7

Picatrix, 4.2.18 (Pingree, 187). Picatrix, 1.5.48 (Pingree, 25): I myself hereafter intend to relate those things governed by each of the planets, from metals, to animals, trees, colours, suffumigations and sacrifices of every kind. In all your works you will benefit from any of them just as the physician works with many medicines and notions; by the obedience of the sick man in observing diets and taking medicines through this method, the physician reaches his intent. 8 Picatrix, 4.2.17 (Pingree 186). 9 Herodotus, Histories, 4.73

a half-dozen incenses which are known to have mild psychoactive properties.10 Before it was declared illegal in the western world, opium was understood far more as blessing than curse. The ritual suffumigation of opium in braziers stretches back to the Neolithic.11 Its addictive properties were not even recognized until an epidemic of laudanum addiction swept over Europe during the 19th century. During this time, romantic poets like Thomas De Quincy wrote about their profound experiences with the drug, sensing within it a strong association with the far-off and mysterious orient. His Confessions of an English Opium-Eater claimed that every night he was transported to Asiatic scenes:
I was stared at, hooted at, grinned at, chattered at, by monkeys, by parroquets, by cockatoos. I ran into pagodas, and was fixed for centuries at the summit or in secret rooms: I was the idol; I was the priest; I was worshipped; I was sacrificed. I fled from the wrath of Brama through all the forests of Asia: Vishnu hated me: Seeva laid wait for me. I came suddenly upon Isis and Osiris: I had done a deed, they said, which the ibis and the crocodile trembled at. I was buried for a thousand years in stone coffins, with mummies and Sphynxes, in narrow chambers at the heart of eternal pyramids. I was kissed, with cancerous kisses, by crocodiles; and laid, confounded with all unutterable slimy things, amongst reeds and Nilotic mud.12

What is clear from an account such as this, is that opium alone is a potentially entheogenic substance, capable of eliciting profound visionary and spiritual experiences given a proper mindset and external setting. Smoked opium most notably produces a relaxation to the point of disassociation wherein one falls in and out of dreams. The subtleties of colour, smell, sound, taste, and touch become immediately apparent.13 This world of waking dreams, as already discussed, was the realm in which the planetary spirit came to the adept. Moreover, with the addition of other known psychotropics, such as five ounces of nutmeg and various incenses, the suffumigation of the hermit would undoubtedly produce profound otherworldly effects. Intoxication from the essential oil of nutmeg called Myristicin, aptly named for its production by the Myristica fragrans tree, has a long history in India and Indonesia. It was traditionally used as a sedative, an aphrodisiac, and a remedy for asthma symptoms or digestive problems. Its psychoactive effects are manifest after eating as little as 5-10 grams and it has been likened in its effects to a deliriant
10

Picatrix, 3.3.27 (Pingree, 128); for the lesser ingredients see Arieh Moussaieff et al., Incensol Acetate, an Incense Component, Elicits Psychoactivity by Activating TRPV3 Channels in the Brain The FASEB Journal 22 (2008): 3024ff; and Gordon Bendersky and Susan C. Ferrence, Therapy with Saffron and the Goddess at Thera. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 42, 2 (2004): 199ff. See also in Picatrix, 3.3.30 (Pingree, 131) for suffumigation to Venus, another example of an opium suffumigation made of aloe wood, gall, costus, saffron, opium, mastic gum, poppy husks, willow leaves, and lily root. 11 Andrew Sherratt, Sacred and Profane Substances: the Ritual Use of Narcotics in Later Neolithic Europe. In Sacred and Profane, by P. Garwood and et al., 52. Oxford: Oxford University Committee for Archaeology, 1991; M. D. Merlin, Archaeological Evidence for the Tradition of Psychoactive Plant Use in the Old World Economic Botany 57, 3 (2003): 295ff. 12 Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, May 1818 Entry. 13 See Picatrix, 3.11.54 (Pingree, 160) for an oil to be suffumigated, eaten or used as an unguent made of 8oz each of fresh opium, human blood, and sesame oil. After it is heated inside a decapitated human head for 24 hours, it is used ad videndum ea que videre voluis.

mix of alcohol and cannabis in early stages, and in later stages, to a nauseating combination of LSD and tropane alkaloids (to which we shall return).14 In his autobiography, Malcolm X famously reported that nutmeg use was a popular method of intoxication amongst prisoners:
My cellmate was among at least a hundred nutmeg men who, for money or cigarettes, bought from kitchen worker inmates penny matchboxes full of stolen nutmeg. I grabbed a box as though it were a pound of heavy drugs. Stirred into a glass of cold water, a penny matchbox full of nutmeg had the kick of three or four reefers. 15

In one account recorded by the British Medical Journal, a 19-year-old girl reported her experience with nutmeg in some detail: after a few hours she felt cold and nauseous; she saw faces and the room appeared distorted with flashing lights and loud music; she felt a different person and everything seemed unreal; time appeared to stand still; and when she shut her eyes she saw lights, black creatures, and red eyes.16 Effects like these would be most desirable in the pursuit of communicating with spirits, which I hold to be poetic personas for altered states of consciousness themselves. As I have discussed, the operations with planetary spirits presume no dichotomy between good and evil. As there are dream-worlds open to the adept, so too are there nightmares awaiting him. The most highly active and dangerous substances used in the Picatrix come from the family of solanaceous plants, such as Mandragora officinarum and Hyoscyamus niger which are infamous for their uses in European witchcraft.17 These, and a handful of other plants appearing throughout the work, contain tropane alkaloids such as scopolamine, hyoscyamine, and atropine which are powerful deliriants in even very small doses. Mandrake and Henbane, like Datura Stramonium (jimsonweed, devils trumpet, or thorn-apple) or Atropa Belladonna (Deadly Nightshade), are known to provoke bizarre delirium, nightmarish hallucinations, out-of-body experiences and flights. In some recipes containing solanaceous plants to be eaten or drunk, warnings are given to the adept of the mixtures lethal potency so that he might utilize them as poisons against his enemies.18 These substances can be lethal in low doses and must be prepared with extreme care. For this reason they have not gained any popularity as recreational drugs despite their widespread availability. Modern connoisseurs of these plants tend to come from the ranks of Wiccan and Neo-Pagan reconstructionists looking to risk their sanity recreating

14

D.J. Panayotopoulos and D. D. Chisholm Hallucinogenic Effect of Nutmeg British Medical Journal (1970): 754; Shulgin, A. T. Possible Implication of Myristicin as a Psychotropic Substance. Nature 210, 5034 (1966): 380-384. 15 H. Bruce Franklin, Prison Writing in 20th-Century America (New York: Penguin Books, 1998). 16 Panayotopoulos, Hallucinogenic Effect of Nutmeg, 754. 17 Edward Bever. The Realities of Witchcraft and Popular Magic in Early Modern Europe. (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008). For an example of a suffumigation of mandrake seeds, see Picatrix, 3.11.4 (Pingree, 156). 18 Pictarix, 3.11.32ff. (Pingree, 159). This section contains ingredients (generally mandrake seeds mixed with animal brains) which are indicated as lethal in the sections heading (creditur quod interficiunt). See also Picatrix, 3.11.56 (Pingree, 161) for an example of a poison containing henbane (iusquiami) which serves ad senus et cogitaciones perdendum.

the rituals of medieval witches, whereas the average psychonaut shies away, preferring to stick to the safer, more predictable illegal drugs. In conclusion, we have taken a very brief look into the world of the Picatrix with its fractal micro/macrocosmic nature, its celestial spheres, and planetary spirits. We have seen how the intent (or perswasion) of the adept, as manifest by ritual preparations, is vital to the perceived effect in conjuring certain planetary spirits. Weve seen that by building the right atmosphere with the times, costumes, colours, images, plants, animals, minerals, prayers and suffumigations suited to ones chosen planet, one increases his chances of contacting these otherworldly entities, and how the world of dreams is most aptly suited to their reception. Therefore, we have chiefly discussed the dream (or nightmare) inducing effects of a number of important substances often used in the Picatrix: cannabis, opium, nutmeg, mandrake and henbane. We approach these not as gods in pills, but rather as magical aids which draw out the hidden subconscious makeup of the ecstatic adept.

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