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The Picatrix – Ancient Sorcery of Harran

There will be a new translation and scholarly annotated edition of the Picatrix which is keenly anticipated: The Picatrix is a 13th century Spanish-to-Latin translation of the earlier Arabic Ghāyat al-Ḥakīm (‘goal of the wise’) grimoire on magic and astrology. It is acknowledged that much has been lost from the original in its translation into Latin, how much is not known, although the translators will likely discuss this question along with others. Of interest here is the bizarre oracle rite, recorded in the Arabic version, which took place in Harran, a major centre of Hermetic and Sabaean learning over the mediaeval period. The vista of Harran as a cult centre before the end of Babylon is reimagined by Tom Holland, In the Shadow of the Sword:

… for in Harran, they still worshipped the ancient gods. The landscape beyond its walls was filled with idols: strangely preserved, withered corpses, both animal and human, were wedged into fissures above mountain roads; eerie figures framed by peacock feathers and crescent moons stood guard over desert lakes. The mightiest idol of all, however, and the glory of Harran itself, was a colossal statue of the city’s patron, Sin – the ‘Lord of the Moon’ (2012: 107-8).

Harran (picture, author)

The “devil-worshipers” of old Harran, located in present-day Southeast Turkey, allegedly kept a head that gave out prophecies. The acquisition of this head was remarkable. When they wished to forecast the future, the devil-worshipers sought out a blond, blue-eyed man with eyebrows that joined in the middle and lured him to their temple with tales of its mysteries. The man was then overpowered, stripped and placed in a barrel of sesame oil with his head remaining above the surface. For forty days the man was fed a diet of dried figs and his face fumigated in clouds of drugs and incense. When his body was marinated and his joints soft enough, they pulled the head from the body. Placing the head, whose eyes remained open but no longer blinked, in a wall niche upon a bed of olive ashes covered with cotton it became prophetic. The mediaeval historian Ibn Khaldun remarked on this infamous Harranian necromancy:

This is a detestable sorcery. However, it shows what remarkable things exist in the world of man.

I mentioned the Picatrix and brazen head of Harran, not at length, in an article for Paranthropology in 2016 and a more open-ended, cross-cultural version for New Dawn the same year, to suggest this specific ritual aspect is a holdover from earlier, possibly Neolithic, times. Indeed, since it concerns the mediation of the dead and transactions with netherworlds, the practice has a timeless element which might have even deeper roots, such as the post-mortem treatment and strange arrangement in cave chambers of Palaeolithic bear skulls.

The astrology in which the Picatrix is steeped is also notable given Harran’s geographical proximity to prehistoric sites of the region. In fact, another title to look out for in 2019 which investigates these more archaic astronomical traditions is:

– a review of which will be forthcoming.