Pages from a Breton Spell Book

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.

Azoth
.

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”.

Mercury in Virgo and Gemini
.

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.

A spell caster
.

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.

Witches brew
.

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.

Uriel
.

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.

Death of Ego
.

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.

A Breton Sorcerer
Breton Sorcerer

Published by Bon Repos Gites

Enjoying life in Kalon Breizh - the Heart of Brittany.

179 thoughts on “Pages from a Breton Spell Book

  1. Thank you again and again !!!! – In Gypsy witchcraft – that of my corner of France – I learned incredible spells concerning “love spells” … they are not the same origins, they draw more, it seems to me, from the traditions coming from Eastern countries.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. You are so very welcome! I am glad that you liked it!
      There are some quite bizarre love spells and potions around aren’t there and some differ quite markedly from region to region. It makes sense that the older ones in your area have more in common with Romany rather thank Frankish tradition. Stay safe! 🙂

      Liked by 4 people

      1. For sure and this knowledge on druids is growing due to the cull on all welsh literature all those centuries ago
        Illegal to speak welsh and killed
        Druid females deemed witches not druids and their children burned at the stake it’s amazing how this has survived and is ever growing !! Beautiful !! Druidry I was led to be allegorical at one stage too.

        Your writing and works always resonate

        Amazing 😉

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Yet another fascinating and informative article! Good and evil spells are still alive and well in the Caribbean Region. With our ubiquitous Smartphones, we now have access to a vast array of spells that control our behavior in all kinds of destructive ways.

    Liked by 5 people

  3. Hahaha oh wow ❤️ I love this one…

    Do you know a show called Charmed ?? ❤️ it’s American but maybe you have it there? I loved that show – it has a book of spells similar ❤️ – it reminded me of that

    I am so very thankful dating rituals are different now lol little bit better – thank you for showing me the bright side 😘

    And I have always wanted invisibility but nope, no way! You just gonna have to see me lol no way I follow that ritual … ewwwww – how they even come up with these weird things lol

    Fear and desire are two very intense emotions and even in today’s world there is still superstition- just mostly maybe in a milder form lol

    And we also have people with these old fashioned family remedies for things

    And even with death… the rituals that go on.

    Over here in my country… when we were new…witchcraft was feared.

    It was thought to be work of the devil and it was feared. At the time, in New England was Puritans – god fearing people so …

    We have that Salem Witch Hunt 1692 History – dark time in the history of America

    The mystery of the unknown always gives a feeling of fear. Until you get over that fear and can take for what it is. ✌️ (yes I know I follow own advice too – I am working on it lol )

    But it totally reminded me of Charmed. I think you would love Charmed if you don’t know it yet? It is one of my favorites ❤️

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Haha, I am happy you enjoyed it and it raised a smile! 🙂 Yes, thankfully much has changed since those days. A lot of the same concerns remain haha. And yes, fear of the unknown can often lead to a rabbit warren of trouble 😦
      I do know Charmed 🙂 My wife and daughter were big fans of the show. I seem to recall that there were a raft of such shows at the time too. A long way from I Dream of Jeannie 😉

      Liked by 4 people

      1. Yes enjoyed very much ❤️

        Lol and yes… a very long way from I Dream of Jeannie, which I also loved once upon a time lol (the reruns) I always wanted to be Jeannie ❤️… she had the coolest house, she could grant wishes/do magic lol, and she was always so pretty ❤️

        How funny

        Also loved Bewitched lol

        Liked by 3 people

  4. Why am I not surprised there is a book of spells in Brittany! Funny that it was written for educated/elite in French and latin. And yet another set if spells involving cute black cats. The poor things. Great post Colin! Maggie

    Liked by 6 people

    1. Haha, well, I am happy not to disappoint ;-p I suppose incantations in exotic tongues add to the mystery and few would have been able to read them. Even after the Revolution, so many mayors here were illiterate let alone farm labourers.

      Liked by 3 people

    1. Yes, some are incredibly intricate and imaginative, aren’t they? I suppose the complicated ones offered many potential reasons to explain why a particular spell might not work? 😉
      I am glad that you enjoyed the read! 🙂

      Liked by 3 people

  5. What people desire is almost as interesting as the spells themselves. I mean to say the spells wouldn’t exist without a need for a particular thing and it is interesting what people want. I think that sounds better in my head, not sure it makes sense out of it 😁 I also feel sorry for the man that goes to such a lot of trouble to become invisible and then it doesn’t work …but then, maybe it does. Great research and post once again Colin.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thank you!!! 🙂 I totally agree, the popular spells and superstitions of a time really provide an insight into the desires and fears of the people. I wonder what future generations will think about us?
      Again, many thanks and stay safe!! 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Interesting that the spells were in French and Latin and not Breton. But it gives the sorcerer even greater power since only he/she can interpret the true meaning or each spell . Love the photo at the end. Looks like a pretty convincing warlock to me. Thanks for your post.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Agreed, that is noteworthy and given the importance of the words, they would add an aura of mystery and, as you say, further increase the standing of the sorcerer.
      Ha, yes, he certainly has a face full of character doesn’t he? 😉

      Liked by 2 people

  7. I’m always amazed by the quality and seriousness of your posts! What a job!!
    The sentence “The desire to become invisible was clearly a power popularly sought” made me smile… It seems people in my area are still trying to be invisible!!!

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Thank you very much!! 🙂
      Ha, yes, it feels like that around here too sometimes 😉 It is surprising how many spells and superstitions surrounded invisibility. I wonder why? Need for some alone time in the crowded houses back then or to miss a day of work or simply just plain fun? 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Ha, I have to admit that I was surprised at how many there are here! I have not consulted one but I know people who have and they swear by them! I doesn’t seem a generational thing either. There must be ‘something’ in it all, else would they survive in such numbers today?

        Liked by 1 person

  8. I am always spellbound (😉) by your wide range of knowledge on so many topics, this one is no different. Ahh the allure of magic, what a conflict it must have been for people…between fulling their desires or the
    possibility of going to hell to acquire them.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thank you so very much!! I think they really did see the world quite differently here in times past. We have moved on so much that it’s hard to really see the world as they did. And I am not totally convinced that our way is any better than theirs 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  9. You write such comprehensive posts! I remember reading a couple books by Nora Chadwick and learned that when the Catholic church began converting Brittany, they literally began changing Breton perception of reality. Sacred pagan sites were likewise converted. What surprises me with what you write here is how long the old perceptions persisted! History is about gradual changes more often than not.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Thank you! It is a struggle sometimes knowing what to include and what to leave out haha.
      I have read her book The Celts but did not know she wrote more specifically on Brittany. I shall have to track down a copy!
      Yes, the church took a slow and steady approach here; the old deities supplanted as supernatural evil beings, sacred stones and springs were ‘adopted’ by a Christian saint but others were landscaped away, Midsummer fires Christianised etc. The veneer was relatively thin though – the Church was so appalled at prayers to the moon, misinterpretation of the Trinity and confusion over how many Virgins etc that the Jesuits made the area a focus for a 70 year mission in the 17thC.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ah, I see, yes, you are probably right. Indeed, I get email spam from people offering to cast a spell for $30 a time! In some places and people, I guess the “easy fix” of magic still has an attraction.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Wow! I was going to joke about having a spell put on me just by reading this post – except then I read about what gets buried at midnight and thought better of it! Fascinating stuff, extremely well written!

    Liked by 4 people

      1. Thank you!! I agree, it is too easy to dismiss what our ancestors held as important as mere mumbo jumbo but they were not total fools. Yes, they saw things differently to us but there must have been some tiny kernel there that kept their beliefs alive for so long. We just may never know what that was! 😉

        Like

  11. “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. 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.”

    I assume it meant cutting yourself again. If it didn’t soon work one would need more blood and more money. 😀

    The guy in the wine purple robe seems to be pointing at the fiery sun thingy saying, “Look at these two jokers. What do they think they are doing?”

    Liked by 5 people

  12. “…but the incantation to make a women wet the bed cannot be anything but malicious.”

    That was unexpected. Assuming a mean girl witch came up with that one. It feels so petty and childish to make someone wet the bed. I kind of love it.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Many thanks!! I am glad that you liked it! Yes, I was struck by that fact too. The book was said to have been written by a man but clearly he had a male audience in mind too. I wonder why and if men went to sorcerers and women to witches? I have yet to find out but will keep looking. Perhaps there were more eligible men than women? 😉

      Liked by 3 people

  13. More fabulous to read about – more to understand how terrifying it must have been to live in
    those times. Sorcerers to the left of us – witches to the right! Great post. Thanks.
    Gwen.

    Liked by 4 people

  14. Fascinating stuff. I’ve always thought if I were a witch or knew spells, I’d use them for wealth or power. Many of these spells remind me of stories of witches from Spain. The similarities we find between cultures is always so interesting to me. Thank you for another wonderful post.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I am glad that you thought so!! Thank you! 🙂
      Yes, I think it interesting that some customs are very localised and yet others existed over large areas of land and even countries. Makes you wonder whether there was initially a single source or whether, over time, people arrived at the same viewpoint?
      Stay safe!

      Liked by 1 person

  15. I guess the more educated Bretons would have been taught to write in Latin, particularly if they were a priest. Perhaps it was a disaffected priest who went to the dark side??? I love the word grimoire – it embodies sinister (or left in Latin). Maybe my spell to get rid of Trump worked?

    Liked by 4 people

  16. Hello there
    Its Gunjan Rathor this side.
    Author of ‘The First Steps’ book and co-author of two more books. Presently in 12th standard PCB student. From Raipur, CG India
    Right now we are preparing for an anthology and came to Know that you are a good writer. It will be great to see you joining us 😊
    If you want I can send you more details 😊

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Ha, indeed 🙂 Some of the incantations are versions of Kabbalistic ones known at the time or adaptations of spells in contemporaneously published grimoires but some are unique and its interesting the power ascribed to cats and horses as they feature in a lot of old rituals here.

        Liked by 1 person

  17. Wow….I’m learning so many things from your posts Collin. Firstly I had to look up the word grimoire…..I find this post exceptionally fascinating because I love reading about Angel’s and demons and the dark world….
    Quote some spells that I could definitely use in here….but I’ll refrain for now…..
    For now😉😅😂🤩

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Many thanks, as ever, for your kind words!! Much appreciated! I am happy that you enjoyed the read! Yes, we might be surprised to see angels associated with a book of spells these days but in times past folk would see nothing untoward in calling upon the power of the angels. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yes absolutely….some things are so hazy…..its great to delve into the history and science of it to really understand it better …….🤩🤩🤩

        Liked by 1 person

  18. The more I read the worst the potions became.
    First thought…. okay fox skin that’s gross
    Then….. drinking fingernails. That doesn’t sound to effective
    Finally cutting off the head of a male black cat.

    Animals please run for your life!!
    Another great post!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Haha, yes, some are weird but quaint and others simply bizarre. I think drinking the fluids of a horse was a particular low .. ewwh 😦 I am glad that you enjoyed the read!! No animals were hurt in the drafting haha!
      Stay well! 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  19. I minored in art history in school and one of my favorite studies were books and illuminated manuscripts. I unfortunately never got to delve much beyond religious texts, so this is absolutely fascinating to read. Thank you for the write up!

    Liked by 3 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create your website with WordPress.com
Get started
<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: