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Using Gems in Medieval Spells

One of the most important texts on magic and astrology in the Middle Ages was the Picatrix. Originally penned in Arabic in the 11th century and known as Ġāyat al-Ḥakīm or The Goal of The Wise, it was translated into Spanish and Latin in the 13th century. In a fascinating paper given today at the Canadian Society of Medievalists conference, David Porreca examines how the magical spells found in the Picatrix made use of precious gems.

Using Gems in Medieval Spells

The paper, ‘Lapides rari et pretiosi: The Use of Gems in the Spells of the Picatrix‘, is part of Porreca’s research on the text, which remained influential until the 15th century. The Picatrix is quite large – 160,000 words in English translation – with the Arabic and Hebrew versions containing much more theory than the Spanish and Latin editions. It is a compilation of a wide number of sources that reflect cultural knowledge as far away as Afghanistan.

The text contains a wide variety of magical spells that involve various ingredients as well as an understanding of astrology. Some of these spells would be very complex, requiring many different items. Porreca focuses his paper on those spells that needed some kind of precious stone.

The Picatrix found that stones were often better to use than trees or animals, noting that “the former burn easily and the latter rot.” Furthermore, it also adds that “precious stones are more excellent than the others”. Stones such as rubies and diamonds had a long-standing tradition of magical potency in medieval texts and the Picatrix continues with this tradition.

Porreca’s paper looks at 19 particular precious stones, including ruby, crystal and emerald. There are 121 references to these stones being used in text – in some cases they might be ground up to use an ingredient for a magical spell, while in other cases they would be used to inscribe a message into another item, such as chalk.

The following list offers some information about a few of the precious stones dealt with in the Picatrix, detailing some of the ways it could be used.

Besides offering details about which planet or zodiac sign the gem was associated with, in some instances the Picatrix would also offer advice on where you find these stones. For example, marcasite could be found in the mountains of Ubeda, while pearls could be acquired around Barcelona.

Some of Porreca’s conclusions include that stones and astrology were inextricably linked in this text, and that the Picatrix does have a system of sorts to detail what they could be used for, depending on the stone, its colour and its planetary association. He also notes how useful this source is in examining the social concerns of its readers (and potential users), who were seeking magical means to achieve their desires.

David Porreca is currently Co-Director of the Undergraduate program in Medieval Studies at the University of Waterloo. He is also the Vice-President of Societas Magica, an academic association that promotes research into magic in the Middle Ages.  He is currently working on an English translation of the Picatrix.

Click here to read the Latin version of the Picatrix, from the Warburg Institute

Click here to learn more about the Canadian Society of Medievalists

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