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Daniel J. Wood
"Abramelin’s Necromantic Love Story:   A Polish Solution ?"
first published in Fate Magazine - January/February 2009

This article which first appeared in FATE-Magazine is reprinted here by kind permission of the author Mr. Daniel J. Wood.

Mr. Wood has a degree in European history with a concentration on Poland. He has been writing since the early 1990s, and has published many articles on history, religion, folklore, archaeology, the occult, and music. His study of historic vampirism - "Realms of the Undead: History and Vampirism" - is meant to be published by Galde Press, hopefully some time later this year. This interesting monograph ( of which I have had the pleasure of reading the manuscript ) focuses on East-Central Europe and includes Mr. Wood's explanation for the "epidemic" of the early 18th century.

Daniel J. Wood on the Abramelin case:

Greetings to all those who use Rob Brautigam as their guide when spelunking the cavernous mysteries of vampirism. Legal matters force me to tell you that a lengthier version of this article appeared in FATE Magazine. If you’re interested, you can get it here:

As Rob has pointed out, the Abramelin text is especially provocative in that it features names and dates. Since the Book of the Sacred Magic claims late 15th-Century authorship, we need only find a contemporary emperor Sigismund to learn the identity of his much-beloved lady. Right? Not quite. Those learned in this period of European history have thrust Barbara of Cilli (née Barbara Celjska, Slovenia, ca. 1390/95) as the mysterious lady herself. Her father, Herman II, freed the future Emperor Sigismund (1368-1437, crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1433) at the end of 1401, and, shortly thereafter, a grateful Sigismund pledged his troth to Herman’s young daughter. By all accounts, Barbara grew into a beautiful, capable, and well-educated bride by the time of the couple’s marriage in 1408. But, as Polish historian Pawel Jasienica has observed, already, by the 14th century, the counts of Cilli “were notorious throughout Europe for their crimes” (Jagiellonian Poland, 1978), and rumors soon circulated about young Barbara as well. No less a figure than Aeneas Silvio Piccolomini (1405-64) fanned the flames of devilish intrigue about the Cilli family before going on to become Pope Pius II (1405-64). He labeled then family head Ulrich a ‘demon,’ and charged Barbara and her daughter with drinking actual human blood at Communion as a way of profaning the Sacrament. Sometime around Christmas 1419 Sigismund, himself a notorious philanderer, accused Barbara of adultery, but the couple must have reconciled, since Sigismund had Barbara subsequently crowned as Queen of Bohemia and eventually Holy Roman Empress.

Whether Pius II was the fountainhead of the dark rumors or whether the Cilli family actually busied itself with diabolic enterprises we may never know. In all likelihood, the gossip inspired the great J. Sheridan Le Fanu to set his magnificent vampire novella Carmilla in Upper Styria, the Austrian province once encompassing the Cilli estates. We do know that Barbara of Cilli died a virtual exile in 1451 after outliving the Emperor Sigismund by nearly twenty years, a fact disqualifying her as the resurrected woman he so passionately loved. In the Book of Sacred Magic Abraham stressed that those individuals brought back could only remain with the living for a maximum of seven years, so, if the story had any basis in fact, we’ll have to uncover another royal couple named Barbara and Sigismund. But, fortunately, Barbara had a sister, and we might have better luck sleuthing along this line of the Cilli family.

Most blue blood European nobility have some of the Cilli strain pulsing through their veins, and it is no surprise to learn that Barbara’s cousin and adopted sister, Anne of Cilli (ca.1381-1416) married Ladislaus Jagiello, King of Poland, in 1402 following the death of Jadwiga, one of the most revered figures in Polish history. Unlike her sister Barbara, Anne was no beauty, but she seemed to get along well enough with Ladislaus until her untimely death in 1416. She figures into our story because of what her life reveals about the Poland of her time. Anne’s new husband Ladislaus was born Jagiello in the pagan expansionist state of Lithuania around 1300. In time, his people and the Poles thought it best to combine their resources in a joint effort against the aggressive Teutonic Knights. Jagiello agreed to convert to Christianity and marry the exceptional Polish princess, Jadwiga, and their marriage produced a nascent European superstate which grew and matured into the 16th century, when the Italian Renaissance penetrated northern Europe. It is critical to understand that Poland reached its political and cultural apogee during the Renaissance, when Europeans rediscovered so much ancient wisdom—including occult wisdom. This was the great age of wizards, and the Polish capital of Krakow had the wealth and prestige to attract the crème de la crème. Jadwiga, the first wife of Ladislaus Jagiello, lavished a considerable fortune in jewels to refurbish Krakow’s academy which thereafter became known as the Jagiellonian University, a major center for occult and alchemical learning.

That same year, 1400, a delegation of Polish nobles arrived in Styria to see Count Herman and ask for the hand of his niece and adopted daughter, Anne. In a 1410 letter to the Pope Anne mentions Nicolaus Hinczonis, a known necromancer and associate of Henry of Bohemia, a professor at the Jagiellonian University. Hinczonis had been implicated with Henry in a scheme to unearth treasure with the aid of spirits—some said angelic spirits, others demonic. At this time, it isn’t possible to know how much the activities of Nicolaus Hinczonis and Henry resembled those outlined in the Book of Sacred Magic to ‘find and take possession of all kinds of Treasures,’ but this might provide a significant area for future research.

We do know that Henry’s influence at the king’s household grew under Ladislaus’ third wife, Sophia of Holszany (ca. 1405-1461). Under the heading of ‘1426’ the great chronicler Jan Dlugosz wrote: At this time there was at the University of Cracow a Master Henry, a man of Czech origin, who was unusually expert in astrology. From Anne’s letter, we can surmise that he was probably practicing his curious profession some years earlier. At least for a time Henry enjoyed a privileged status at court, and he actually attended the birth of Sophia’s three sons and cast horoscopes for the newborn princelings. He had previously been accused of necromancy and keeping necromantic books before being jailed again in 1429 for conjuring demons and—you guessed it—necromancy. As a repeat offender Henry could only be saved by royal intervention, and, since we know he once again freely roamed the cobbled streets of Krakow in the 1440s, we can assume that Ladislaus exercised some royal prerogative to save one of Sophia’s favorites. We also know that Henry’s thinking continued along the same lines, thanks to a conversation recorded by Johannes de Dobra, a contemporary medical doctor. According to de Dobra, Henry spoke of an Armenian who lived for four hundred years with the aid of a special ‘medicine.’

Several scholars of this period, including Benedek Láng of Budapest University, believe Henry authored a fascinating text known as the Prayer Book of King Ladislaus, now at the Bodleian Library. Textual analysis suggests that the book, a blending of traditional Christian prayers with crystal magic, was originally created in the 1430s or 1440s and then embellished sometime in the 1490s. Láng thinks that Henry the Bohemian compiled the book from a variety of earlier sources like John of Morigny’s Liber visionum and the Ars notoria for the Silesian warlord Ladislaus of Opole (1356-1401). How the book passed into the hands of the Polish Jagiellonian Dynasty is not known, but perhaps Ladislaus of Opole presented the tome as a fitting gift for Jagiello at his baptism in 1386, where Ladislaus stood as Jagiello’s godfather. In keeping with tradition, Jagiello thereafter took the name of his godfather as his own, Ladislaus.

However they came by it, textual scholars tell us that members of Poland’s ruling house actually employed the magical formulae contained in the prayer book, but who? and how does this help us track down the identity of the woman so passionately loved by the Emperor Sigismund? It is doubtful that Ladislaus Jagiello referred to the book. Though he proved an able and conscientious ruler, Ladislaus Jagiello was a warlord from pagan Lithuania, and his level of literacy was functional at best. His son, Ladislaus of Varna won international renown as a warrior after winning significant victories over the Turks, but it is doubtful if he had much time to develop an interest in the esoteric during his short life of twenty years. Similarly, his younger brother, Casmir, was said to be barely literate, but he placed Jan Dlugosz in charge of his children’s education, which proved effective. Casmir’s third son, Jan Olbracht was well educated with a keen interest in history and a knack for languages, including Latin, German, and Italian. The Italian Renaissance came to Poland in a big way with the reign of Sigismund the Old (1467-1548) and in the person of his Italian queen, Bona Sforza (1494-1557), a strong-willed and highly-educated woman with a taste for political machination and a knowledge of poison. A true woman of the Renaissance, Bona Sforza proved knowledgeable in a variety of fields from mathematics to equestrian sport. All areas of inquiry flourished in 16th-Century Poland, and here we just might uncover the details of our necromantic love story.

Sigismund I and Bona Sforza had a son, Sigismund II Augustus, a man whose status, intellect, and inclination thrust him to the forefront of our investigation. Crowned king in 1526, during his father’s lifetime, Sigismund II presided over the absolute zenith of Polish might and influence. While other kingdom’s convulsed in wars of religion, Sigismund famously quipped I am not the ruler of your consciences, and Poland became known as the ‘state with no stakes.’ A learned man, Sigismund II possessed the wherewithal to dispute with scholars and he shared the Renaissance man’s love of beauty in all things. He collected books, artwork, and amassed twenty full suits of armor, fashioned and chased by the finest Italian hands. Contemporaries estimated the value of his jewelry at one million gold ducats, but perhaps the most beautiful thing he saw and had to possess was Barbara Radziwill (1520-1551), a flower which sprang from one of Lithuania’s greatest families.

Period sources unanimously praise Barbara as a strikingly beautiful woman. She was tall for the age with an attractive figure crowned with a head of blonde hair. She even had straight, white teeth! Barbara learned to accentuate her natural beauty with fashionable clothing, perfume, and cosmetics. She also had a mind of her own and could converse in several languages. Upon seeing her, Sigismund was thunderstruck, and Barbara responded with equal passion and enthusiasm. There’s no doubt that the two shared a profound mutual love, a fact which prompted Pawel Jasienica to label them “the most romantic couple in the history of the royal houses of Poland.” Nevertheless, a host of barriers blocked the royal romance, not the least of which was the fact that Sigismund was already married to Elizabeth of Habsburg. For her part, Barbara, though just in her early twenties, was twice a widow.

When Elizabeth conveniently died (some claimed from the poisonous hand of Bona Sforza) Sigismund seized on the moment and eloped with the love of his life in 1547. By violating the laws governing royal marriage, Sigismund engendered considerable opposition from the Polish nobility who called for an annulment. His mother complained that the elopement drove the poor old king into terminal decline, and, sure enough, the elder Sigismund died soon after. The younger Sigismund stood his ground, and a two-year stalemate ensued until parliament caved in and allowed Barbara to be crowned queen in 1550. All the while, Bona Sforza behaved as the ultimate mother-in-law from hell, and, when Barbara tragically and mysteriously died five months later, many pointed once more to the Italian queen mother.

Legend and history intermingle with the tears of Sigismund’s sorrow. Although he went on to accomplish several great acts for his country, including the permanent union of Poland and Lithuania in 1569, he was never the same man. He increasingly sought solace in the occult, and he used a scrying mirror to receive strength and encouragement from his lost love. He once again married, as was expected of a king, but Sigismund refused to have anything to do with his new bride, another Habsburg named Catherine, sister of Elizabeth. Neglect of the royal bedroom became so notorious that the Primate of Poland fell to his knees before Sigismund during a session of parliament, weeping and imploring him to produce an heir. Sigismund failed to comply with the bishop’s request, and the rejected Catherine returned home to her native Austria where she retired to a monastery.

As Sigismund’s health began to fail in the late 1560s the occultists and charlatans surrounding him became less and less savory. He also began to work his way through a series of mistresses. One, yet another Barbara, gave birth to a daughter in 1571. When Catherine died in 1572, rumors spread to the effect that Sigismund planned to elope once again—this time with his new Barbara. A group of Polish and Lithuanian nobles met at the palace of the Bishop of Karnkowski to form a plan of action, but Sigismund, apprised of the conspiracy, fled Warsaw, a city then falling under the scythe of the plague. Sigismund intended to return to his favorite retreat, Knyszyn, where he maintained a room draped entirely in black in honor of Barbara Radziwill. The plague followed the royal progress, and Sigismund reached Knyszyn surrounded by his witches and sorcerers only to die shortly thereafter—five months after Catherine and nine months after the birth of his daughter. His entourage stripped him of his possessions as expired on his deathbed.

Stories persist even today that tell how a sorcerer named Pan Twardowski summoned the shade of Queen Barbara to comfort the distraught Sigismund shortly after her death. A whole body of folkloric literature orbits the figure of the legendary Twardowski, who seems to be tied to the more famous Faust, so we should not take the name seriously as a clue; nevertheless, the possibility that Sigismund resorted to necromancy in an attempt to assuage his grief seems probable if not indeed factual. A village church in Wegrow, Poland says they possess the mirror used to conjure Queen Barbara, but a more likely magical implement is the now lost Crystal of the Jagiellons, a quadrangular piece mounted on a metal stand similar to one featured in the Prayer Book of King Ladislaus. Recitation of the names of God switched ‘on’ or activated the crystal, and the divine names may have been etched into the metal base as well.

The reader may object to the Polish solution to the Abramelin riddle, but an examination of how texts like Abramelin riddle are transmitted will help explain discrepancies. Copyists frequently alter the texts they’re transmitting by incorporating marginal notations contained in the exemplar or by adding additional material of their own. After his study of English magical manuscripts, Frank Klaassen concluded that texts involving ritual magic were more prone to continual alteration than texts of image magic. This shouldn’t shock or offend the reader, since these documents transmit living traditions. If something worked, then they put it down on paper. It is also important to place existing texts of Abramelin in a contemporary European context.

The Renaissance mind was profoundly affected by what UCLA’s Teofilo Ruiz termed ‘deep time.’ The further back in time one could go in one’s search for the esoteric, the more accurate the knowledge and the more powerful the magic. Authors of the period frequently grafted their initiated knowledge onto Hebrew or Egyptian roots. Both the Grimoire verum (early 16th century) and the earlier Clavicula Salomonis claim to be vestiges of ancient Hebrew wisdom. Despite the academic consensus on the transmission of magical texts, German researcher Georg Dehn has recently argued that Rabbi Jacob ben Möllin (ca. 1365-1427) wrote Abramelin in German just like he said he did (The Book of Abramelin: A New Translation, Ibis Press, 2006). To his credit, Dehn took the time to track down several neglected manuscripts, some of which he claims date to the early 17th century—a century earlier than the French manuscript used by Mathers.

Still, Early New High German gradually emerged as a normative written language from 1350 to 1650. The first German dictionaries were published in the late 15th century followed by the first grammars in the 16th. Latin continued to function as the preferred language of correspondence well into the 17th century, and it wasn’t until 1781 that German publications finally outpaced those in Latin. A 15th-Century Abramelin in German would be of enormous scholarly interest, and, so far, the philologists haven’t come knocking. Until we hear from specialists in the field we should run with the accepted tradition that Abramelin dates to the late 16th or early 17th centuries, that it incorporated and altered earlier magical texts, and that its chief compilers were most likely from a Christian background.

For those who are interested in reading more about the text, I found Aaron Leitch, “The Holy Guardian Angel: Exploring the Sacred Magick of Abramelin the Mage.” (© 2004) at kheph777.tripod.com/art_HGA.html to be most helpful. To his analysis, I would add yet another piece of evidence to the argument that the text came from someone with a Christian background. Dehn’s edition of Abramelin awards Daniel with the title of ‘prophet,’ a typically Christian title which began after Christ called Daniel a ‘prophet’ (Matt. 24:15). In the Hebrew Canon the Book of Daniel is lumped together with other books in a section known as ‘Writings’ (Kethuvim).

None of these textual matters should detract from our enjoyment of the colorful personalities connected to Abramelin; rather they should surcharge the mystery engulfing Sigismund and the woman he loved so passionately. Did a practitioner of ritual magic incorporate the Polish story into an existing manuscript, or did events unfold centuries earlier with Barbara of Cilli? Internal contradictions exist within the Book of Sacred Magic as well, so it’s no surprise that neither account perfectly fits the known facts. Did anything happen at all? Or is it all fairy tales and hokum used to dress up a nice love story? Let the reader judge.

Article © 2009 by Daniel J. Wood (all rights reserved) - Photo © 2008 by Daniel J Wood
Comments and page © 2009 by Rob Brautigam - NL - Last changes 03 July 2009
Photo "Kensal Green Cemetery - London" © 1979 by Rob Brautigam

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