Episode 151: By the BookLore
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- 14 Sep 2020
For a very long time, people have believed that our world is filled with magic. Secret knowledge and hidden truths that we can use to unlock power and privilege. It’s a belief that’s taken all shapes and forms, but there’s one common thread tying it all together: books.
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The killer had been waiting for the man to arrive. Abraham was a German immigrant in his mid 50s who tended to sleep wherever he found work. He was also a trained blacksmith and had been helping out in the shop owned by Peter Leia's Jr. in the small town of Hyde Park, just north of Redding, Pennsylvania. On the night of June 8th of 1916, Abraham Fiqh returned home around nine p.m. after seeing some friends and walk through the shadows outside the blacksmith's shop on his way to the barn where he slept.
And that's when a figure stepped out of the darkness and brought the handle of an axe down hard upon his head. Abraham instantly collapsed. With his victim on the ground, the killer then turned his axe around and proceeded to bring the sharp blade down upon Abraham's neck. Over and over, the axe cut into his flesh and bone until the only thing keeping the head attached were a few strands of skin at the killer, then buried the body he might have gotten away with it to.
But he didn't, so when the woman who lived across the street woke up the following morning and looked out the window, Abraham Fixx body was easy to spot. The police were called. And moments after arriving to investigate, they found the killer sitting calmly inside the blacksmith shop and mumbling to himself about what he had done. It was the shop owner himself, Peter Leia's. But the most terrifying aspect of his story isn't what he did or how he did it, it's why, according to newspaper accounts from that week, Peter had recently suffered a nervous breakdown and sought out the advice of a local man he referred to only as a charcoal burner.
Today, we would know that man as a practitioner of Pauline, the type of folk magic common among German immigrants and Pennsylvania at the time. Apparently, this healer told Peter that Abraham Fiqh had been plotting to murder him and then gave him a book to help guide his decisions and keep him safe. In the end, though, it seems that Peter found a solution on his own to kill before he himself could be killed. When he was arrested, though, that book was found in his pocket and in the coming weeks, it would feature heavily in the news.
Eventually, Peter would avoid prison altogether, instead being sent to a local asylum because of insanity, they claimed, caused by obsessively reading that book. And while it's hard to imagine one small objects having that much of an impact on the mental state of a person, the story of Peter Leia's highlights a belief that was all too common. For centuries, some books were more powerful than others. And when taken too far, the results could be deadly. I'm Aaron Manque, and this is Laura.
It all started with writing today, most of us probably take it for granted, but thousands of years ago the act of writing things down was revolutionary. Before our cultures had to pass their knowledge on through song and story, memorizing what they could and hoping that nothing would be forgotten. But writing changed all of that, it allowed one generation to pass its collective knowledge onto the next, all of a sudden humans went from guarding what little they knew to using the writings of the past to learn and then grow beyond.
Yes, they are just little characters on the page. The writing is so much more than that. It was our roadmap out of the past. But almost as soon as knowledge began to be compiled and saved, some people began to use that method for documenting something less mainstream than philosophy, theology or history. They began to write about magic. In fact, according to Pliny the Elder, who wrote during the middle of the first century, the first person to have written down magic was a Persian astrologer named Austins.
And Austins was special for a big reason. He accompanied the Persian king Xerxes, the Great, on his mission to conquer the Greek world. And while Persia lost that war, something that you can see fictional glimpses of in the hit film 300. The trip allowed Austin to spread his magical writings to a whole new region of the world.
For many cultures, the very act of writing was considered magic among the Toba Bartok people of northern Indonesia. Their books of magic are known as Pusztai. They are these amazing documents that can sometimes be up to 50 feet long before being folded, accordion style and bound inside a cover. And they were only created by priests using sacred ink because it was the act of making them that made them powerful. On the other end of the spectrum, though, many books have been considered magical not for their contents, but for their appearance, despite everyone being taught not to judge a book by its cover, countless books through history have been considered powerful because they are large or bound in leather or have gilded edges.
All of these books, though, fall into a category that most people have heard of, but very few understand they are grimoire books of knowledge and instruction centered around the magical arts grimoire aren't magical in and of themselves, but they are said to contain Charm's instructions and recipes for making things that provide supernatural help to desperate people. And it's also important to point out that while we don't exactly know where the term Grimoire comes from, most scholars believe it's related to a French word for books written in Latin.
And that's a big clue about the perception around these books. In a world where most people couldn't understand a single bit of Latin writing, flipping through them must have felt like exploring the notebook of a magician. Most memoirs contain the same sort of information, too. They were a how to guide for crafting charms that could protect the user or help them achieve some of their more basic cravings, like sex, money, power and finding objects they had lost but wanted back.
They weren't books of spells in the Harry Potter sense, but more of a household reference guide for When Life Got Difficult, which was just about every day for most people back then. It's also worth mentioning that during the century spanning the Middle Ages and the early modern period, most people couldn't even read these books and the few who could were often clergy, thanks to the Catholic Church's reliance on Latin. So in the hands of the uneducated, a grimoire was more of a talisman.
It represented magic simply by existing. Historian Owen Davies hands down one of the world's leading experts on the history of Gregoire's illustrates this with a small but powerful anecdote. For roughly a thousand years, an illuminated copy of the Christian gospels was kept safely inside an abbey in Durrow, a town in central Ireland. But in the 17th century, the abbey was shut down and the manuscripts known today as the Book of Durrow fell into private hands. And it was sometime after that when the book was taken out of storage and literally dunked in water.
Why? Because local farmers were desperate to secure their sick cows and they believe that the water would gain magical powers from contact with the Holy Book. As time went on, though, Grimoire became more and more associated with the occult world, so much so that the clergy who owned them found themselves at risk during the various inquisitions of the time, a common charge was possession of books on black magic and untold thousands of Gregoire's were burned or destroyed in the hunt for heresy.
But that association between Gregoire's and clergy had another side effect, thanks to the growing public awareness of these little instructional books, it became more and more important to justify their authority to put a stamp of approval on them so that anyone, even those who couldn't read them, might understand just how significant they were. These books were powerful because of the legendary people. Who wrote them? Like so many things, a lot of this can be traced back to Egypt while magical writings were common all throughout the ancient world.
It was the Hellenistic period when Egypt fell under the rule of the Greeks that those activities really took off because when the Egyptian priests began to speak and write in Greek, that meant a whole new world of magic had just opened up to the rest of the Greek world.
For most Gregoire's, it all came down to packaging and what better way to make one collection of magical writings stand out above all the others than by giving it a false origin story that sampled those ancient roots? If a good percentage of people out there couldn't read what was inside them, why not claim that these books were written by legendary figures from the past? First on that list was Moses, the Jewish prophet who led his people out of Egypt in a lot of minds, Moses was a powerful magician.
Just looking at the details of his story makes it easy to see why splitting the waters of the Red Sea, turning his staff into a snake and communicating with God through a burning bush. All of it smacked of magic. So naturally, a number of Gregoire's took on his name and there were a lot of them to the key of Moses, the Secret Moon Book of Moses, The Ark Angelical Teaching of Moses. You get the idea. But the most common one was called the sixth and Seventh Books of Moses.
Obviously, it wasn't written by him, but that didn't matter to most people. And this book was wildly popular. One group of people that revered its word, the German Hecks doctors of Pennsylvania, remember the story of Peter Leia's from the beginning of this episode? That book that was given to him by the charcoal burner was the sixth and seventh book of Moses and a quick search of newspapers throughout the region in the late eighteen hundreds will net you hundreds of mentions of the book.
People using it, people selling it. Honestly, it was everywhere. What did the book contain that made it so popular? Well, besides the name of Moses on the front, it was viewed by many as a guide for finding lost objects, misplaced money, hidden treasure and precious metals. If you wanted to find it, this grimoire was the most trusted how to guide out there. Those who used it, though, claimed it was filled with power.
Historian Owen Davies tells the story of one Pennsylvanian hex doctor who described reading it out loud for the first time. A man claimed that, as he did so, his home filled with a flood of voices, shouting his name as if a host of people beyond the Veil were calling out to him. When he closed it, though, the voices stopped. But Moses wasn't the only person worthy of having his name on the front of a grimoire for a lot of people over the centuries, if you were to repurpose one figure to represent wisdom and power, it would be the biblical King Solomon.
The irony is that nowhere in the Bible is he portrayed as a magician. But honestly, when has irony ever stopped gullible people from swallowing a lie? What Solomon did have going for him was the rumor that he had written thousands of books. So when Gregoire's began to appear with his name on them, it seemed to many as if those lost books had been found. What they contained, though, were entire fantasies designed to catch the eyes of people hungry for more magic.
The testament of Solomon, for example, was a manuscript that told the story of how demons bothered the workmen building the temple in Jerusalem. In its pages were diagrams and drawings that claimed to show exactly how Solomon defeated those demons to a medieval reader. This book was a powerful tool because now they could control the forces of darkness as well. The most popular book associated with him was known as the Clavicles Solemnis, or the Key of Solomon, it dates to about the 15th century and has more instructional material regarding spirits, how to bind them, how to summon them or even to control them.
It also has a healthy dose of help for those seeking to get rich or expand their love life. Naturally, text like that proved immensely popular. There were others over the centuries as well, a number of books were attributed to a man named Saint Cyprian of Antioch, which detailed his magical education in Egypt before converting to Christianity. To this day, some people in Armenia still where scrolls of Ciprian as charms around their necks, while others still recite prayers in his name.
And then there is the picture Trix, which, despite how it sounds, is not a Pokemon character thought to have originated in Spain in the 11th century. The picture was written by an Arabic scholar after the book was translated into Latin. A century later, its popularity exploded and it's easy to see why the of tricks was essentially a how to guide for making talismans, physical charms that people would wear that were thought to have magical powers. But it also mixed in a healthy dose of astrology, astronomy, mathematics and alchemy, which illustrates something else that's important to point out.
To many people, there was no wall separating magic and science. Yes, clergy were often viewed as possible magicians because of their familiarity with languages like Hebrew, Latin and Greek languages that looked to most people like occult symbols. But during the Middle Ages, those assumptions carried over to scientists as well. Because of that, one man's name has become more connected than most to the world of magical writing. And if the stories are true, there's a good reason why.
His name was Michael Scott. No, I'm not about to pitch you my office reunion script, that was his real name. He was born in Scotland sometime around eleven seventy five and then traveled abroad for work and study. So it makes sense that the world would come to know him as Michael the Scots or just plain old Michael Scott. Scholars have made guesses for years about where Scott was educated, some say Oxford, while others believe it might have been Durham.
But in the end, these are all just theories. All we can say for sure is that he received an education that gave him the skills to read and write Latin, opening up the worlds of philosophy and science to him. And that's about all we know about his roots. The first time he actually shows up in the public record is in Spain in the year 12 17, when he completed his translation of an Arabic book on astronomy known in English as On the Sphere by Al Petronius.
It's also a during his time in Spain that he said to have made a prediction about his own death. Supposedly a tiny stone would fall from the sky and strike him on the head, prompting him to have a metal cap made something he was said to wear every day after that. He then pops up in Italy in 12, 20, going on record of all things, to settle a mathematical dispute between two neighbors and after that, more movements. A few years later, we find him connected to pop on Arias, the third, which eventually led to a few church jobs back in England.
But in 12, 2007, he was back in Italy, and this time his powerful friend would be of the more worldly kind, the holy Roman Emperor Frederick the second. Now, Frederick was an interesting guy, despite the title of Holy Roman Emperor, he was publicly not a Christian. It was a position that earned him a reputation as an evil man and that attracted all sorts of scandal and rumors. And fueling those flames was one clear fact. Frederick was a man of science.
For example, Frederick actually brought Egyptian scholars to Italy to help him develop a way to incubate ostrich eggs using the heat of the sun. And he not only employed Michael Scott as his astrologer, but also Leonardo Fibonacci, the famed mathematician who's responsible for just about every challenging math course you ever took in school. Rodricks court was a court of science, and in a time when science and magic occupied the same mental space for most people, that got the general public whispering.
And it didn't help that Scott had trained in a place that was practically synonymous with magic. The Spanish city of Toledo. Toledo in the 12th century, for lack of a better analogy, was Hogwarts historian Owen Davies says at best, clergymen seeking instruction found the liberal arts in Paris, the law in Bologna, Medicine and Salerno and Demons in Toledo. The city and sorcery were so intertwined in people's minds that for a very long time, a common term for magic itself was scientia, told Etana, the knowledge of Toledo.
And in a lot of ways, this was Michael Scott's alma mater. He might not have begun his formal education there, but it was certainly where he built his reputation. Thanks to the overlap of Arabic and European cultures, he was exposed to all sorts of fields of study that caused rumors. And it's easy to see why. If he had learned about things like astrology and natural philosophy, then surely he had also studied necromancy and demonology, right? The stories we have about Scott from his time in the court of Emperor Frederick the second are dripping with magic.
One tale explains that he had a passion for throwing elaborate dinner parties. It said that he would frequently invite friends over for a meal. But when they arrived, they would discover that no one was busy in the kitchen, leaving them to wonder where their meal would come from.
That's when Scott would lead them into the dining room where exotic dishes would all be waiting for them on the table, one by one, he would point to a dish and explain where it came from. This one was from Paris and this one here was from London, hinting that all of them had somehow been magically transported from those tables to his own. In another story, Scott hosted a large gathering on a hot, humid day, and the emperor himself was there looking for relief.
Frederick was said to have asked Scott if he could do something to cool everyone off. In response, the magician was said to have summoned a fierce rainstorm which blew in, suddenly dropping the temperature, and then vanished almost as quickly as it had arrived. Many of the legends that we have about Scott are centered around a grimoire that he carried with him entitled The Book of MIT. With the incantations it contained, he was able to summon familiars to help him perform tasks.
Once upon being told to go to France and asked them to put an end to French piracy, he was said to have used the book to call up a demonic black horse which carried him off into the sky. In the end, Scott is a frustrating character. He clearly existed, but so much of his life is still a mystery to us today. What we do know, though, is that he lived on that blurry line between science and magic and left a trail of amazing stories in his wake, stories that hinted at the dark reputation and legendary power of Grimshaw's.
We do know one more thing about him, though, when he died, one of the benefits of working in the courts of the Holy Roman emperor meant that there were a lot of other educated people around.
In twelve thirty six, the court poet Henry of Gavroche, recorded in one of his poems that Scott had recently passed away. And he makes sure we know who he's talking about by describing Scott as someone who revealed hidden secrets through the use of numbers and stars. But the most surprising thing about his death isn't that it was recorded, but how it happened in the first place, it said that Scott was a pious man but arrived to church one day just as the bell was being rung.
Maybe he felt guilty for his late arrival, or perhaps it was something he did every time he attended. But he removed his cap as he entered the church. His metal cap, and that's the moment when the rope from the bell ringer brushed against a loose bit of masonry, knocking it free from the tower above, it might have been small, no bigger than a man's fist, but a fall from such a great height gave that tiny stone a chance to attain a lethal velocity.
The stone landed directly on his bare head, killing him instantly. Exactly as he had predicted years before. Knowledge is power. I know it's a phrase we've all heard once or twice in our lives, but it's often more true than we realize. The more we know, the more possibilities open up to us. And everyone wants to grow beyond the life they're living in some way, shape or form. At the heart of the world of Gregoire's is the notion of unattainable knowledge buried within secrecy.
I know it sounds like a convenient argument, but for a really long time, the very fact that people could not understand these books was what convinced them that they were powerful and valuable. Surely something so mysterious and esoteric must be hiding life changing secrets. All you need to do is read The Da Vinci Code to get a crash course in all of that, the written word, some say, can be a hiding place for secret knowledge. And anyone clever enough to tease it out might be able to rise above the rest.
It's an attitude that hints at recognition of our human limitations and our deep desire to gather tools that might ward off the most dangerous types of threats against us. But with secret knowledge also comes fear, people have wondered for centuries exactly what might go wrong if someone played with the Pandora's box of magical writing. Book burnings, inquisitions and social pressure have all been used to suppress interest in these books.
After all, you can't believe something like that is dangerous without also believing it's true. But in doing so, they've missed something important Grimoire is where the sort of books that attracted lovers of learning across all areas of science and philosophy and the sort of mental gymnastics and high level translation work that was required to read them ended up equipping brilliant people with the tools to push society forward. And Michael Scott was one of them. The works of Aristotle are a great example.
His surviving work spanned a wide assortment of topics from politics and philosophy to physics and ethical studies. And if it wasn't for Michael Scott's translation of Aristotle's writings, medieval Europe wouldn't have had one of its cornerstones of knowledge. The irony is, after many long centuries, it was Scott's own writings that were in danger of vanishing forever as recently as the 1930s that had become almost impossible to read all of his work in one place. In fact, it was a common complaint among scholars of medieval history that someone should take the time to gather the few manuscripts that still existed and compile them into a new critical edition.
So a German scholar took up that challenge. His name was Hans Meyer, and he gathered most of the Romanian Scott manuscripts into his workspace to begin building that master addition. The writings of one of the most famous and infamous medieval scientists and magicians would finally have their chance to shine. The trouble was Meyer had left Germany for the safety of London to do his work safety because Germany had fallen under the spell of a Nazi dictator and war had broken out all across Europe.
As far as Meyer was concerned, London was far enough away to stay out of danger, but he couldn't have been more wrong. In 1940, Nazi Germany began the Blitz, a bombing campaign against the United Kingdom. German bombers dropped their deadly cargo on cities and targets all across the country in hopes of destroying key military assets and the British morale. But there was one other casualty in all of that, Michael Scott.
You see, in 1941, a bomb landed on the house that haunts Meyer was living and working in killing the scholar and destroying everything inside every single Scott manuscript that he had with them at the time was lost, including his own translations of those valuable documents. When his house was searched for survivors, all that was found were a couple of torn pages scattered on the floor. Of course, the search and rescue team didn't know what they were. And so they simply walked through the papers, leaving a shoe print on them as if they were nothing more than trash.
In the end, that's the double edged sword of the written word. Yes, it has allowed those who came before us to record all they know and believe, which could be handed down to the next generations. But it also puts that knowledge in a precarious situation. Whether it's recorded on stone paper or the latest in digital technology, nothing is ever permanent and once it's lost. It's gone forever. Michael Scott certainly provides a unique glimpse into the world of Gregoire's, but he's far from the only one.
Throughout the ages, countless colorful figures harnessed the power of those mysterious tomes and in the process left their own indelible mark on the pages of history. And if you stick around after this brief sponsor break, I'll tell you one more tale of magic and mayhem. This episode of law was made possible by the great courses, plus one of the many things I love about the great courses plus streaming service is getting to learn from actual experts who know how to teach the great courses, plus has real professors, people who have spent years studying their field and most importantly, know how to teach and engage with people.
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Squarespace, build something beautiful. She was a gold digger. I mean that in the most literal sense possible, though, she actually led a team of men who dug for gold. But there was so much more to Hannah Heatherly than just that. Hannah lived in the little village of Lititz in central Pennsylvania toward the end of the 19th century. She was known as a healer and a wise woman, and folks traveled from far and wide to seek out her services.
It might be something as frightening as a sick child or as benign as a lost wallet. But no matter what the people needed, they believed that Hannah Heatherly could help them with it. Hannah was a known practitioner of powwow in that old Pennsylvania Dutch mixture of folk, magic, religion and homebrewed medicine. So it made sense for her to treat people with physical ailments. She was known to treat patients with epilepsy, nervousness, depression and even St. Anthony's dance, a type of involuntary movement disorder.
One newspaper article from March of 1979 described the essence of performing like this. It consists of blowing the breath over a wound or sore and repeating a mysteriously worded appeal or prayer. And these prayers were found inside one of the more recent additions to the list of Grimshaw's, a book called The Long Lost Friend for Practitioners of Power, and it was a required tool and they rarely went anywhere without it. It was a small book easily stuffed into a pocket or purse.
And in the world of those who believed in that particular bent of folk magic, it was practically on par with the Bible. Hannah lived about four miles outside the village and a small log cabin just off the muddy road behind the tiny house was a small hill covered in boulders and trees. And off in the side yard was a kennel where she was said to keep a pair of large black dogs and roaming all over the property, of course, where a few black cats.
I guess my point is this. If ever there was someone perfectly set up to look like a witch and Heatherly was it. Sometime in the winter of 1878 to eighteen seventy nine, Hanna claimed to have a number of odd dreams and one of them, she was pulled from her bed by some powerful, invisible force and carried to a nearby mill. Once there, a voice cried out, Dig here and you will find money that was once stolen and then hidden away in secret.
The following night, the dream happened again, Hannah tested the signs by performing rituals that might help her. And each time she claimed that the evidence pointed toward gold. So she told a handful of her regular customers about the dreams and a few of them offered to help. According to her, most of them were sons of wealthy local tobacco farmers, most likely looking for a way to become as rich as their parents without the years of hard work, of course.
So Hannah drew up a list of twenty four locations where she believed Gold had been buried and then went to retrieve a special charm book that she kept hidden away. It was an old book written in German that she had inherited from her grandfather, and to keep it safe, she tended to wrap it in oiled leather and bury it beneath her ash heap. It was described by one witness as filled with text in red and black inks, read for the blood of good spirits and black for those of bad.
And it was filled with all sorts of charms and prescriptions. It was called the Sixth and Seventh Book of Moses. Their expeditions worked at something like this, Hannah would lead a team of diggers to a particular location and the ritual would begin. No one was allowed to utter a word and digging would carry on four hours in utter silence lest the spell be broken. They would dig a hole in the earth, six feet in diameter and six feet deep.
And then Hannah would climb down and sign it. Then she would place a special piece of parchment on the dirt at the bottom, all covered in weird occult symbols and diagrams, and then pull a device out of her back called an Earth Glass. It was supposed to allow her to see the treasure beneath the ground, and as long as they remained silent and did everything right, that treasure would slowly rise up toward them. Once the diggers claim that they all saw exactly that begin to happen, a large iron chest slowly emerged from the ground like a whale surfacing for air.
But the sight of it was almost too amazing to believe. And one of the workers muttered an exclamation out loud. Instantly, the chest began to sink back down, and despite a number of them scrambling to catch it, it slipped away. For weeks upon weeks, Anna led her team of followers all around the region, almost always at night, digging for buried treasure. Countless newspaper articles were published of their adventures, and a handful of reporters even showed up on her doorstep to ask her all about it.
But as far as the historical record tells us, they never found a single thing. Hannah's treasure hunt does teach us something powerful about hidden secrets and forbidden knowledge, though we might not always be able to find what we're looking for, but we'll never know. Unless we dig. This episode of law was written and produced by me, Aaron Manque, with research by Sam Alberti and music by Chad Lawson. From time to time, my researchers will find a book that provides a deep well for a particular topic.
And while an episode like this only tries to scratch the surface, curious listeners might want to learn more. To that end, I want to point you in the direction of a book called Grimoire by Owen Davies. It's thick with scholarly details, but it's well-written and full of texture. I put a link to it in the episode description and on the episode page of the law website. So please, if you want to know more, check it out.
Law is also much more than just a podcast, there's a book series available in bookstores and online and two seasons of the television show on Amazon Prime video. Check them both out if you want more law in your life. I also make two other podcasts. Aaron makes cabinets of curiosities and unobscured, and I think you'd enjoy both. Each one explores areas of our dark history, ranging from bite sized episodes to season long dives into a single topic. And you can learn more about both of those shows and everything else going on over in one central place, grim and mild dotcom.
And you can also follow the show on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Just search for our podcast, all one word and then click that follow button when you do say hi. I like it when people say hi. And as always. Thanks for listening.