Books of magical spells and incantations have existed for as long as the written word; some well-known examples, known as grimoires in France, contain fairly benign formulas for finding love while others feature deadly curses and charms for summoning demons. Some books are reportedly so cursed that they reap catastrophe upon any who possess them and it was once believed that a grimoire had to be burned after the death of the witch or sorcerer who wrote it.
Filed away in the Departmental archives of Finistère in western Brittany lies a small, slim volume containing seventy six handwritten charms, conjurations and formulas. A practical handbook of witchcraft set down sometime in the 18th century representing a varied collection of spells and enchantments to be used in order to gain good fortune, riches or love. These spells provide a fascinating insight into the popular mentality of the rural population of Brittany before the French Revolution.
At a time when very few Bretons understood French, it is perhaps surprising that the grimoire was not written in Breton, suggesting that the work was intended for a certain strata of society that could read French or for some literate village witch or sorcerer. The work contains a mixture of French and Latin; the former used as the operational language for functional spells, while Latin, the liturgical language, was devoted to the more incantatory, mystical formulas. Mysterious runes and strange characters are also scattered throughout the text.
Much of the book contains variations of spells and conjurations found in some of the more popular grimoires published in France in the 18th century, such as Le Dragon Rouge and the Grimoire of Pope Honorius, and interspersed with charms once commonly found in witchcraft rituals across Brittany.
A significant proportion of the book focuses on spells that allow the caster to gain possession of something or even someone. To win at games, the book recommends writing a certain formula on a previously unused parchment of sheep skin at noon on the day of Jupiter (Thursday) during a waxing moon.
In order to acquire a certain memory, one is required to draw two crossed circles on a new parchment made from the skin of a fox, killed when the sun is in the houses of Mercury which are Gemini or Virgo. More often than not, in witchcraft, the act is the verb; the right magic word or symbol being the source of enchantment. To bewitch a sword or dagger, it was necessary to recite: “I command you to remain in the scabbard of Agrippa; Obo, obe, ober puero”. To enchant a firearm, one proclaimed: “I charm you with stone, powder and lead in the name of Beelzebub, Satan and Lucifer; Pala, Zela, funa, diabolis”.
In Brittany, as elsewhere in France, commoners were prohibited from hunting game under the laws of the Ancien Régime. Penalties for those caught poaching were often severe, so, we should not be too surprised to find a spell that allows one to escape the rigors of the law and obtain game without hunting. To achieve this marvel, the grimoire proposes an incantatory formula: “I beseech you Leonis, by your master and mine, to expose and muster all kinds of game, furred and feathered, all good to eat. Bring me game that can be caught by hand before the sun has risen”.
In a time when incessant hard work did not always offer the reward of a full table, some people might well have been tempted by the allure of easy money. The book tells us that to receive one hundred crowns (high value pre-Revolutionary coins) a week, it was necessary to walk between four paths while holding a coin between the thumb and second finger of the left hand, reciting, in a robust tone, the charm: “Beelzebub, ego me nobis trado”. In casting this spell, which was sealed by drawing a magical rune with one’s own blood, it was crucial that one was not in possession of anything holy or that had ever been blessed. This done, one needed to throw their coin onto the ground before them. Returning to that spot on the following day, one could expect to discover one hundred crowns; if not, it was necessary to re-cast the spell three times.
Almost a quarter of all the spells in this grimoire are devoted to what can loosely be called love; formulas talk of winning, catching or gaining the affection or love of a girl or woman. Magic could be called upon to break through the societal barriers caused by rank and riches but such spells were not for the fainthearted. To gain the friendship of a girl of any quality, one needed to note when a mare was born of a foal and immediately cut a piece of flesh straight from its forehead and dry it, from noon precisely, in the sun on Jupiter’s day. After collecting the dried flesh at the death of the sun, one needed to grind it to a powder and feed it to the object of one’s affections.
For those anxiously seeking a woman’s love, a more wholesome recommendation contained in the grimoire advised visiting the lady for three days in a row, taking her hand while solemnly declaring: “I beg you X to love me and no other, and to grant me the same friendship that the Virgin Mary bore to Our Lord Jesus Christ”. Another, seemingly innocent sounding, spell involved taking a hair from the front of a lady’s head and knotting it with one’s own hair between the two elevations during a Friday mass while invoking the charm: “Deus dixit quae ligatum”.
Another spell to win the love of a girl or woman required one to collect the intimate secretions of a mare on heat and somehow convince the lady to drink these fluids – the grimoire is silent on whether the liquid can be diluted or whether subterfuge can be used to encourage the lady to drink. Having swallowed the drink, the lady was said to immediately want to join the spell caster. The charm was said to be effective on any day of the week, save Friday.
Many of Brittany’s traditional folk remedies and old spells ascribe a mysterious, magical power to knots of hair and finger nail cuttings; in the Côtes d’Armor region, nail cuttings absorbed in water were once believed to cure a fever. Our grimoire attributes another power to such a potion; a lady will return your affections if she consumes a drink containing the cuttings of your finger nails. Such examples of the power of contact form, alongside those of similarity and contrast, the key foundations of many concepts of practical witchcraft.
The desire to become invisible at will was clearly a power popularly sought in the Brittany of yesteryear as witnessed by the gift said to have been provided by the regions many magical grasses. The grimoire does not fail to provide several spells said to grant the caster the ability to make themselves invisible. In one, it is necessary to cut off the head of a male black cat and remove its eyes. A bean must then be inserted within each socket with further beans placed inside each ear and in the cat’s mouth. At midnight, the head should be buried in a dung heap and not retrieved until midnight on the following day. It is then that you will encounter a man who will ask what you are looking for. You must answer by telling him that you are seeking what you have hidden and he will tell you to take it.
However, before you bow to take it, you must ask the stranger whether it is safe for you to do so. If he answers that all is well and again tells you to take it, you must do so immediately and take it straight home. Having regained possession of the head, you then need to buy, without any haggling, a new mirror. Once home, remove the beans from the cat’s head and, facing the mirror, place them, one after the other, under your tongue until you can no longer see your reflection.
A slight variation to this ritual is offered in another invisibility spell found in the grimoire. This calls, once again, for the head of a black cat whose eyes must be removed and replaced with two beans and buried. When the beans are ripe, one amongst them will differ to the others; this bean, when placed under your tongue, will grant you the elusive power of invisibility.
Finding something hidden or lost was another popular concern addressed by the folk magic of old Brittany but the rituals contained in this grimoire call upon the divinatory power of angels. That which was lost would be uncovered if a virgin child, whose palm was greased with a mixture of walnut oil and soot, faced west and recited certain formulas invoking the fallen angel Assyriel. To identify someone who was guilty of murder, the child had to face north and call upon the angel Gediel; to know who had wronged you, the child needed to face south and invoke the angel Uriel. Similar rituals are found in Agrippa’s De Occulta Philosophia and in the anonymous 17th century grimoire known as The Lesser Key of Solomon.
The formula to predict the future blurs the opaque distinction between superstition and traditional witchcraft quite nicely. For instance, in order to know if one will have a good trip, the grimoire recommends that the traveller asks the name of the first person sighted on the day of the voyage. A good trip was assured if the name did not begin with a vowel but danger lay ahead if the name began with a C, D or F. One’s undertaking would be difficult or time-consuming if a person whose name started with N, R or S was met; if an F or G were encountered, you could expect to receive a judgement against you.
The grimoire does not contain any spells to bring about death; perhaps the author did not wish to divulge curses likely to involve death and for which he refused to take responsibility? However, there are a number of spells whose evil nature are explicitly noted by the author and while spells intended to prevent a woman from conceiving or to bring on uterine pain might have been called upon by people anxious not to have any more children, they could equally be used out of malevolent intent. Other spells are clearly intended to do no harm, such as extinguishing a house fire or relieving toothache but the incantation to make a woman wet the bed is unlikely to be anything but malicious.
Such ambivalence was at the heart of traditional witchcraft; benign or malign spells inhabited the same space, a duality recognised by the sorcerer or witch and their wider community. Belief in the effectiveness of these spells as recently as a few centuries ago may surprise us today but might seem less improbable if we consider the mentality of a largely uneducated rural population living in a land of legends and superstitions and little inclined to distinguish the natural from the supernatural. Spell books, such as this one, generally reflect the desires and fears of the people of the time or perhaps just offer us an insight into the obsessions of the author.