by Paul Hunter, UNC Charlotte
Donald Trump believes he is the target of a figurative witch hunt. But witches are literally hunting Trump or, at least, attempting to ‘bind’ him. Since February 2017, pagans across the United States of America have joined together regularly to ‘bind’ Donald Trump with magic to prevent him from harming the country (Burton; “Witches”). The Sun’s Tom Michael claims that the 2017 Trump Tower fire was potentially a result of these witchy rituals, and at least one pastor in Alabama is attempting to use prayer to protect Trump from witchcraft (Garrison). Regardless of the veracity of Michael’s claims or the success of the pastor’s prayers, this cultural moment highlights the existence of a living magical tradition in the United States of America.
In the spirit of both this living tradition and Spooktober, let’s consider a relatively underrepresented genre of Early Modern writing: the magical grimoires─the books of rituals and rites that offer a window to Early Modern magical practice. In an effort to spook and inform, I have selected an invisibility spell from the Grimoire Verum. This text purports to be from the 16th century but is most likely an 18th century work informed by early grimoires, such as the Picatrix and The Key of Solomon. This selection from the Grimoire Verum provides an avenue for discussion of the agency of the dead and the relationship between the supernatural and natural worlds. The text also begs the question: where would one find “a dead man’s head”?
To Make Oneself Invisible
Collect seven black beans… Then take the head of a dead man, and put one of the black beans in his mouth, two in his nostrils, two in his eyes and two in his ears. Then make upon his head the character of Morail.
When you have done this, bury the head, with the face upwards, and for nine days, before sunrise, water it each morning with excellent brandy. On the eighth day you will find the spirit mentioned, who will say to you: What wilt thou? You will reply: I am watering my plant.
Then the Spirit will say: Give me the bottle, I desire to water it myself.
In answer, refuse him this, even though he will ask you again.
Then he will reach out with his hand and will display to you that same figure which you have drawn upon the head. Now you can be sure that it is the right spirit, the spirit of the head. There is a danger that another one might want to trick you which would have evil consequences…
Then you may give him the bottle, and he will water the head and leave. On the next day, which is the ninth, when you return you will find that the beans are germinating. Take them and put them in your mouth, and look at yourself in a mirror. If you can see nothing it is well….
We require a working definition of agency before attempting to locate it in the text. Agency is defined by Jane Bennett in terms of a distributive agency, where agents are “actants” that contain “a simultaneous variety of virtual modes of expression, and which subset will be actualized at any given moment is not predictable with confidence” (457). For Bennett, this notion of agency as actancy emphasizes “the cascade of becomings,” and Bennett argues that she does not “deny intentionality or its force” but views it “as less definitive of outcomes” (457). Actancy in this model is not the sole privilege of rational humans as it would be under a strict subject/object binary; actancy is instead “the power to make a difference” for both human and nonhuman beings (Bennett 457). So where are sites of actancy in this text?
The magician, the dead man, the spirit, and the beans can all be considered actants within a framework of distributive agency. The magician initiates the operation and carries out most of its actions. The dead man’s spirit imbues the beans with their magical powers, and the dead man’s head provides a fertile location for the beans, which grow and germinate. All function as parts of this operation, and all “make a difference.”
In the penultimate paragraph of the text, the writer warns the magician that certain spirits may seek to “trick” him. The capacity for trickery is clearly the capacity to “make a difference,” thus satisfying our requirements for actancy in terms of a distributed agency. Additionally, this capacity also seems to indicate more conservative definitions of agency, as trickery hinges on intentionality and reasoned decisions. If we take the spirit that “water[s] the head and leave[s]” as the same as the spirit of the dead man, the dead demonstrate agency in Early Modern magical thought. They are capable of exerting force in the world and generating change.
So why is this text spooky? I believe that we find this text unsettling because it involves a person (the magician) exerting agency over the material body of another person (the dead man). To have someone else’s agency supercede our own with regard to our body after death feels like a violation of our willful intentions. Likewise, having another person compel our spirit for his or her own purposes is unnerving and agency-violating.
Hopefully, this post has demonstrated that the Early Modern magical grimoires provide fertile ground for future research.
Have a haunted Halloween!
Bennett, Jane. “The Agency of Assemblages and the North American Blackout.” Public-Culture, vol. 17,
no. 3, 2005, pp. 445-65.
Burton, Terra Isabella. “Each Month, Thousands of Witches Cast a Spell Against Donald Trump.” Vox, 30
Oct. 2017, https://www.vox.com/2017/6/20/15830312
/magicresistance-restance-witches-magic-spell-to-bind-donald-trump-mememagic. Accessed 10 Oct. 2018.
Garrison, Greg. “Alabama Pastor Asks Church to Pray for Trump, Against Witchcraft Attacking Him.”
Advance Local Alabama, 23 Aug. 2018, https://www.al.com/living/index.ssf/
2018/08/alabama_pastor_asks_church_to.html. Accessed 10 Oct. 2018.
Michael, Tom. “Disaster on the Cards: Was Donald Trump Cursed by WITCHES who Used Tarot Cards
with a Picture of Flaming Tower Exactly a Week Before Mystery Trump Tower Blaze?” The Sun,
3 Mar. 2017, https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/3002581
/trump-international-hotel-tower-new-york-fire-tarot-card-witches-curse/. Accessed 10 Oct. 2018.
Stratton-Kent, Jake. The True Grimoire. Scarlet Imprint, 2010.
“Witches Cast ‘Mass Spell’ Against Donald Trump.” BBC News, 25 Feb. 2017, https://www.bbc.com/
news/world-us-canada-39090334. Accessed 10 Oct. 2018.