Tag Archives: Magic

The Hanged Man

Is it just me (here in Salem) or is Tarot experiencing a major resurgence? If so, I would point to our own anxieties and its flexibility, which encourages and drives myriad interpretations and paths: the Economist kicked off the year with its annual predictions issue featuring a spread of Tarot cards suggesting a dystopian future for “Planet Trump”. Regardless of their meaning, I love visual metaphors that are enduring and flexible, or so flexible that they are enduring: reflective of a particular era’s beliefs and values time and time again. One Tarot card that seems to represent this genre well is trump XII, The Hanged Man, which can represent a state of suspension, punishment, suffering, self-sacrifice, and also a critical crossroads at which one has the opportunity to change course. In the first Tarot decks, produced in fifteenth-century Italy and France, he was simply the traitor, perhaps reflecting contemporary “shame paintings” of conspirators and criminals, who were hanged by one leg for all to see.

Hanged Man collage

Shame Paintings collageHanged Men from the Visconti-Sforza deck, c. 1428-50, Cary Collection of Playing Cards, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University and Morgan Library & Museum ; Samuel Y. Edgerton’s CLASSIC book on pittura infamante, with one of  Andrea del Sarto’s drawings (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence) on the cover and inside.

The hanged man crosses the alps and is presented as Le Pendu in Tarot decks produced in early modern France and Flanders in the characteristic hanging-by-one-leg pose, (sometimes with bags of coins weighing him down in reference to the ultimate traitor, Judas). It’s important to note that before the end of the eighteenth century and the publication of French occultist Antoine Court de Gébelin’s The Primitive World Analyzed and Compared with the Modern World (1773-1782), Tarot cards were merely for play. The Primitive World asserted an ancient Egyptian lineage and ascribed much more power to all of the cards, and replaced the Hanged Man dangling from a rope to Prudence in the presence of a snake. A few years after the publication of de Gébelin’s tome, Jean-Baptiste Alliette reinforced and popularized his claims and offered up a more practical approach to Tarot practice in How to Entertain Yourself with the Deck of Cards called Tarot (1785), completing its transition to an occult art. The Hanged Man reappears in the nineteenth century, looking much the same as his pre-modern form but with enhanced powers and meaning.

Tarot Pack BM

Tarot Worth BMThe Hanged Man in a Flemish Tarot deck from the eighteenth century, and Oscar Wirth’s 1889 deck, British Museum.

The troubled twentieth century was a golden age for Tarot, beginning with the deck that popularized and standardized its “divinatory meanings”: the Rider-Waite Deck, with illustrations by Pamela Coleman Smith, which was first published in 1909 and reissued in a major way in 1970. In A.E. Waite’s accompanying Pictorial Key to the Tarot, the Hanged Man is described as “a card of profound significance, but all the significance is veiled…..the face expresses deep entrancement (represented by the saintly halo), not suffering…the figure, as a whole, suggests life in suspension, but life and not death”. While Tarot meanings were widely disseminated and standardized by Rider-Waite, the archetypal images were subjected to a range of modern interpretations over the next century. Perhaps the second most influential deck of the twentieth century was the “Thoth Tarot”, a collaboration between Aleister Crowley and Lady Frieda Harris which was published in 1969, well after both artists’ deaths. Much more multidisciplinary, the Thoth Deck broke the mold and inspired decades of creative interpretations–“traditional” (whatever that means when referencing Tarot), commercial, allegorical and abstract. Several Crowley-Harris paintings, the Hanged Men among them, were exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 2013, which I think began this current preoccupation with Tarot. There have been several Tarot exhibitions over the past few years, encompassing everything from emblematic installations to hooked rugs, as the Tarot cards are “reimagined” over and over again. Right here in Salem, photographs from Jim Bostick’s  “Salem Arcanum” Tarot series, featuring a Hanged Man who seems both traditional and modern and definitely illustrates “life in suspension”, are currently on view in the October exhibition at the Mercy Tavern.

Hanged Man 1909

Hanged Man Crowley-Harris

Hanged Men collage2

HWT collage

Hanged Man Woodcut

Minimalist Tarot

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A century of Hanged Men: Pamela Coleman Smith, from the Rider-Waite deck, 1909; Aleister Crowley and Lady Frieda Harris, 1969; Dürer & Bruegel Hanged Men by Giocinto Gaudenzi, 1989, and Pietro Alligo & Guido Zibordi Marchesi, 2003 accessed from this amazing site which showcases Tarot through the ages; the Housewives Tarot by Jude Buffum and Paul Kepple for Quirk Books, 2003; Woodcut @ HorseAndHair, 2013; photographs by Ayla El-Moussa for 25th Century, 2016; and Jim Bostick of Salem, 2017.


John Dee, Renaissance Man

The first ten or so years of my teaching career I would bring up John Dee (1527-1609) in one of my classes–he’s relevant to most of them really, whether it’s English history, or Atlantic history, or my courses on the early modern witch trials or the Scientific Revolution–and my students would look perplexed:  who? Once I told them a bit about the “Arch-Conjurer of England” they definitely wanted to know more, but they had no prior knowledge. That all changed about a decade ago when the first book in Michael Scott’s adolescent novel series The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel was published, which features John Dee as a central character (Joan of Arc, Machiavelli and Shakespeare also show up as the series unfolds): now I’ve got a generation of students who know all about John Dee, or at least they think they do: in any case, the stage has been set.

(c) Wellcome Library; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Anonymous English Artist, John Dee, c. 1594. Wellcome Library; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

For me, Dee represents one of the last generations of men who could pursue “magic” and “science” at the same time: his life’s work represents just how blurry the line was between these two endeavors in the sixteenth century. He’s also a great example of the multi-faceted Renaissance Man, or at least an English example thereof. It’s really difficult to confine Dee’s interests and activities to a short blog post, but I’ll try: he was first and foremost a mathematician, but this foundational field drew him into so many others: astrology, astronomy, alchemy, geography, cartography, linguistics, cryptography, optics. He started out his professional life, while still in his teens, as an academic, but clearly sought to be a courtier, and enjoyed a close relationship with Elizabeth I, who at one point called him “hyr philosopher”. This connection gave him security, prestige, and influence, which he used to advocate for a stronger imperial policy for England; indeed he is generally credited with coining the term “British Empire”. It must have enriched him too, as he spent considerable money (and time) amassing a huge library which he installed at his primary residence at Mortlake, just outside London. He was an avid manuscript-hunter, pursuing and collecting all written knowledge on “high” (learned) magic, predominately alchemy and cabalism. But written, human knowledge was never enough for Dee: he came to believe that all of his questions could be answered only by beings of a higher order: angels. His pursuit of communion with the angels ultimately drove him down a path that threatened both his livelihood and his reputation, as a Renaissance magus practicing learned, “white” magic had to be very careful not to cross the line into the “black” arts of divination and necromancy in this age of intensive witch-hunting. Dee died a natural death, but lost his fortune, and his complex character was reduced to that of Prospero and Dr. Faustus by his contemporaries Shakespeare and Marlow.

(c) Wellcome Library; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The Victorian View of Dee as Conjurer: Henry Gillard Glindoni (1852-1913), John Dee Performing an Experiment before Queen Elizabeth, c. 1880,Wellcome Library; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation. Apparently the skulls in the original painting were painted over at some point!

Modern scholars (as well as authors of adolescent fiction) love Dee and have restored much of his complexity, but it is a difficult task to reconcile the scientist and the spirtualist. And now there is a new exhibition of materials (and instruments) from his own library at the Royal College of Physicians Museum in London: Scholar, courtier, magician: the lost library of John Dee. Perhaps this is an opportunity for Dee to “speak for himself”: the RCP website states that: “Our exhibition explores Dee through his personal library. On display for the first time are Dee’s mathematical, astronomical and alchemical texts, many elaborately annotated and illustrated by Dee’s own hand. Now held in the collections of the Royal College of Physicians, they reveal tantalising glimpses into the ‘conjuror’s mind’.” I’m bringing students in my Tudor-Stuart class over to London during spring break this year, and this is on my itinerary–I think we can build on Nicholas Flamel a bit.

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John Dee’s own illustration of a page of the complete works of Cicero. (‘Opera,’ published Paris, 1539–1540) (© Royal College of Physicians / John Chase);  A horoscope chart scribbled in the lower margin of Claudius Ptolemy’s Quadriparti, Venice, 1519 (© Royal College of Physicians / John Chase); another great Dee doodle of three bearded faces in the margin of a treatise on alchemy (Arnaldus de Villanova, ‘Opera,’ published Venice, 1527) (© Royal College of Physicians / Mike Fear). You can see more items from the exhibition here.


Lessons in Legerdemain

A by-product of the scholarly research that I’m doing on wonder and science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries has been my exposure to texts on more practical magic that creates “artificial conclusions”, to use the words of a seventeenth-century scribe. I’m really not sure what to do with these texts–especially the more modern ones that fall well outside my period–but they certainly are interesting, and entirely suitable for a blog post or two! Books on magic tricks, conjuring, sleight of hand, legerdemain, are first published in the mid-seventeenth century (at least in England) right up through the 20th, and the classics are very valuable–deemed so most especially by the magical community. The first English book on practical magic, appropriately authored by Hocus Pocus Junior was The Anatomie of Legerdemain, first published in 1634 and reprinted throughout the seventeenth century: the Library of Congress has the second edition which was bequeathed by Harry Houdini himself in 1927. Both that edition and one from 1638 in the library of St. John’s College at Oxford University have been completely digitized, so you can learn all these tricks for yourself. The 1654 edition below sold at a 2009 Sotheby’s auction for £37, 250, so I suppose we’ll have to make do with the digital editions.

PicMonkey Collage

Legerdemain 1638

Hocus Pocus 1654 ed

This is a charming little book. The anonymous author, “Hocus Pocus Junior”, whom many presume to be one William Vincent, who received a license “to exercise the art of Legerdemaine in any Townes within the Realm of England and Ireland” and was described as “alias Hocus Pocus” on several occasions, begins the preface with the question: Courteous Reader, doe you not wonder? and proceeds to define his art: Legerdomaine is an operation, whereby one may seem to worke wonderfull, impossible, and incredible things by agility, nimblenesse, and slightnesse of hand. The partes of this Arte are principally two. The first is in the conveyance of Balls, Cards, Dice, Money &tc…The Second is Confederacie (tricks performed in partnership, essentially). So we learn all the old (now newly-exposed for the first time!) cup and card tricks, along with special maneuvers like How to seeme to pull a rope through your nose and How to seeme to cut off a mans head..called the decollation of John Baptist, as well as “how to seem to eat a knife” and “breathe fire”. For some reason, the “strangest” trick is how to “seeme to cut a piece of Tape into four partes, and make it whole again with words”–and this takes quite a bit of detailed description. All the tricks do, really: in addition to being quite the magician, Hocus Pocus Junior was an exceptional technical writer.

Hocus Pocus 16353

Hocus Pocus 16354

Hocus Pocus String

Pages from Hocus Pocus Junior. The Anatomie of Legerdemain, Or, The art of jugling set forth in his proper colours, fully, plainly, and exactly, so that an ignorant person may thereby learn the full perfection of the same, after a little practise (1635 edition, Library of Congress).


Beauty Sleep

As it happened I was watching the 1935 film version of Romeo and Juliet (starring Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer) while I was going through seed catalogs and doing some (late) garden planning. Just as Juliet went into her deep sleep, I came to the herbal sections of one catalog, and remembered that I always wanted some belladonna (Atropa Belladonna; Deadly Nightshade) for my garden–just because it’s one of the most storied poisonous plants in history. A decade or so ago, when I had given over most of my garden to herbs which served as either plague cures or poisons (for scholarship!), a student gave me some belladonna seeds–which I thought was very nice/cheeky of him–but the plant lasted only one season. So I’d like to try again. Juliet reminded me:  Shakespeare is not specific, but it must have been belladonna on his mind. His contemporary, John Gerarde, wrote that a small quantity could lead to madness, a moderate amount to a “dead sleep”, and too much to death in his Herball or General Historie of Plantes (1597). As Friar Laurance observes in the play,”within the infant rind of this small flower/poison hath residence and medicine power” and later instructs Juliet: Take thou this vial, being then in bed, / And this distilled liquor drink thou off; / When presently through all thy veins shall run / A cold and drowsy humour, for no pulse… And in this borrow’d likeness of shrunk death / Thou shalt continue two and forty hours.

Belladonna Juliet-001

L0058356 Glass bottle used for tincture of belladonna, England, 1880-

Juliet considering her options and holding a belladonna? tincture in an 1830 print by William Say (British Museum) and an apothecary bottle from 1880 (Wellcome Library Images).

Friar Laurence was right: belladonna has the virtues of both medicine and poison, but throughout history, its emphasized use has been on the latter (poison-tipped arrows, “inheritance powders”, magical ointments which enable witches to fly) with the exception of the cosmetic application which explains its vernacular name, “beautiful lady”. The Renaissance image of beauty encompassed not only a high forehead but also a certain wide-eyed (literally) look, and Atropa Belladonna contains a muscle-relaxant substance (atropine) that dilates the eyes for long periods of time. Presumably the fashionable Renaissance lady had to be quite knowledgeable about how to prepare her tincture, or have a reliable apothecary. I always thought the Raphael’s mistress Margheriti Luti was the perfect belladonna girl, and he certainly admired her. Perhaps the “spring beauty must-have”, Giorgio Armani’s Belladonna palette, can create a similar look (and I wonder if Mr. Armani knows that the name conjures up as many references to death and it does to beauty?)

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Belladonna-Pallette

Belladonna BM-001

Raphael, Woman with a veil (La Donna Velata), 1516, Galleria Palatina, Florence, Italy; Giorgio Armani’s Belladonna palette for Spring 2014; Atropa Belladonna as depicted in one of Mary Delany’s beautiful collages , 1791, British Museum.

 


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