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My Thoughts on The Picatrix

We Need to Talk About The Picatrix

If you are a Lovecraft fan, you know what a grimoire is. It’s the Necronomicon. But, possibly apart from the Simon Necronomicon (depending on how you view it) they’re not real. Right? Certainly, everything about them was pulled directly from Lovecraft’s alien-haunted nether regions.

Surprise! Grimoires are real.

The earliest grimoires in Western Europe were Latin translations of Arab spell books that often came from the area’s pre-Islamic Gnosticism. The originals traveled to Constantinople and then monks, holed up in their writing cells, translated and copied them. In an era when books were expensive handcrafted items, any fancy lord or lady had to have a couple grimoires in their library.

And that is the situation out of which the most popular grimoire, the Picatrix, emerged.

The History

The Picatrix, originally titled Ghayat al-Hakim, was written 954 to 959 CE.

Who wrote it is up to debate. Traditionally, it was attributed to a guy named Maslama ibn Ahmed al-Fahrid, but a 2019 English translation attributes it to Maslama ibn al-Qasim. The writer himself claimed to be named Picatrix, but then refers to someone else as Picatrix in the text. This name could have been anything from a mistranslation of Hippocrates to a play on the Spanish verb ‘picar.’

It arrived in Spain in the 1230s, and some intrepid soul translated it into Castilian Spanish. It bounced around Europe for a bit in that form until it was translated into Latin, possibly in 1300 in France. Plenty of Latin translations, all differing a little bit from each other, shorter than the Spanish and Arab original, and full of interpolations, circulated in Europe for centuries.

The Latin version got translated into modern languages in the 1900’s until the 2019 English translation landed on Walmart Online, where I got my hot paws on a copy.

But What Is It?

Oh, where to start? It’s a dense book, intended for the aspiring magic-worker. It recommends that the aspiring wizard know geometry, medicine, arithmetic, music and other fields- I guess Harry Potter would make a lame wizard, given the curriculum of Hogwarts. It even includes a warning that you must be pure in order to work this magic.

I thought it was hilarious how often the author went out of his way to declare that only the wisest could work these spells. Sure, Bud. Lay on the flattery.

It’s broken into 4 books which are subdivided into chapters, and the books can be summarized like this:

Book 1: Magical theory with lots of astrology and image working. The basic framework of the magical system is that God is on top of hierarchy of various entities, and He sends some power down through the planets.

Once it reaches the planets, it starts to smell of humoral theory. Lots of ‘correspondences’ and dualistic natures. It takes a break at the third chapter to give some thirty ‘examples’ of how images to direct the power of the planets. Readers of the ‘Magic Bough’ will recognize sympathetic magic at work.

Book 2: Even more astrology and the importance of imagery in your work.

Book 3: Yet more astrology, only color-coded.

In all seriousness, this where the writer starts listing rituals to speak to the planets. These are all elaborate and require that the practitioner wait until a propitious astrological moment, dress in the color that the planet governs, and burn stuff associated with the planet. There are many animal sacrifices involved. Cat heads and dog livers are favorites for burning with the wormwood, cinnabar, and juniper.

Book 4: The magical theory involving spheres and hierarchies, and then ending with various spells.

Some golden observations from this part: “If you burn a stag’s horn in front of snakes, they will die of the odor.”

“If it hails, a menstruating woman should lie naked in the field with her legs up.”

“The elemental world exists through the elements; the elements exist through nature…and mind exists through God Himself upon whom all heaven and nature depend.”


It is a little too easy to laugh at the people working with the Picatrix or to think it is all ancient wisdom. It’s fun, of course, but you miss what this book can illuminate.

It is a fascinating look into the head space of a culture. What did people think a wizard was? What sort of concerns did people have? Who was the intended audience of this book?

The introduction of my copy remarks that the user seems like a jealous man of the middle nobility, or at least a wizard’s clientele is made up of jealous mid-level nobles.

I sure hope so. Otherwise, someone is spending a lot of money that should be going to food or rent. Clothing cost a fortune at the time, and you apparently needed a whole new one for every ritual. Plus, where were people getting all this wormwood and opium?

Either the wizard needs to charge a whole lot to their customers or be independently wealthy.

The user also must be upper-crust because using the spells absolutely requires knowledge of astronomy. You supposedly can only make the spells work if you do them when the planets are aligned correctly for a particular spell. In fact, the book specifically recommends a classical education that at the time would be available at the time mostly to wealthy men. Basically, few women, no peasantry, or people in (shudder) trade are going to be able to take up the pastime.

It also sheds light on how people viewed magic. This book is a mishmash of the science of the time, magic, and religious piety. No one is drawing a pentagram and hailing Satan, but then that is a relatively recent invention in occult circles. The writer goes out of his way to say that only the Godly can use this book and that it is utilizing the natural rules as God set them out. No demonic forces or Earth deities need apply.

So, some things have changed dramatically. Today’s stereotypical magic worker is often a middle-aged woman with a crystal shop calling spirits of the four corners and such. Also, teenaged goth girls in the suburbs spending their allowances on glitter. The crystal shop owner would probably be able to manage these spells if she put her mind to it (and undoubtedly become as pure of soul and intention as the writer demands,) but she might be put off by the constant talk of God and only ‘wise men’ being able to work spells.

Also, Lovecraft was only partially right- the Necronomicon probably would have come from the ‘mad Arab.’ However, it probably won’t involve summoning Cthulhu.

Seriously, the biggest difference in today’s magic book is that it’s available online for only $35.


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