Exquisite Watercolors of Demons, Magic & Signs: Behold the Compendium Of Demonology and Magic from 1775

Noli me tan­gere, says the title page of the Com­pendi­um of Demonolo­gy and Mag­ic: “Do not touch me.” For the book’s tar­get audi­ence, one sus­pects, this was more entice­ment than warn­ing. Writ­ten in Latin (its full title is Com­pendi­um raris­si­mum totius Artis Mag­i­cae sis­tem­a­ti­sa­tae per cele­ber­ri­mos Artis hujus Mag­istros) and Ger­man, the book pur­ports to come from the year 1057. In fact it’s been dat­ed as more than 700 years younger, though to most 21st-cen­tu­ry behold­ers a book from around 1775 car­ries enough his­tor­i­cal weight to be intrigu­ing — espe­cial­ly if, as the Pub­lic Domain Review puts it, it depicts “a var­ied bes­tiary of grotesque demon­ic crea­tures.”

The spec­i­mens cat­a­logued in the Com­pendi­um of Demonolo­gy and Mag­ic are “up to all sorts of appro­pri­ate­ly demon­ic activ­i­ties, such as chew­ing down on sev­ered legs, spit­ting fire and snakes from gen­i­talia, and parad­ing around decap­i­tat­ed heads on sticks.”

Grotesque­ly com­bin­ing fea­tures of man and beast, these hideous chimeras are ren­dered in “more than thir­ty exquis­ite water­col­ors” that still look vivid today. In fact, with their punk­ish cos­tumes, insou­ciant expres­sions, and often inde­cent­ly exposed nether regions, these demons look ready and will­ing to cause a scan­dal even in our jad­ed time.

Near­ly two and a half cen­turies ago, we might fair­ly assume, a greater pro­por­tion of the pub­lic believed in the exis­tence of demons — if not these spe­cif­ic mon­strosi­ties, then at least the con­cept of the demon­ic in gen­er­al. But we’re sure­ly lying to our­selves if we believed that nobody in the 16th cen­tu­ry had a sense of humor about it. Even the work of this book’s unknown illus­tra­tor evi­dences, beyond for­mi­da­ble artis­tic skill and wild imag­i­na­tion, a cer­tain comedic instinct, seri­ous busi­ness though demon­ic inten­tions toward human­i­ty may be.

With its less humor­ous con­tent includ­ing exe­cu­tion scenes and instruc­tions for the pro­ce­dures of witch­craft from div­ina­tion to necro­man­cy, the Com­pendi­um of Demonolo­gy and Mag­ic belongs to a deep­er tra­di­tion of books that elab­o­rate­ly cat­a­log and depict the vari­eties of super­nat­ur­al evil. (A much old­er exam­ple is the Codex Gigas, pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture, a “Dev­il’s Bible” that also hap­pens to be the largest medieval man­u­script in the word.)

You can behold more of these delight­ful­ly hell­ish illus­tra­tions at the Pub­lic Domain Review and even down­load the whole book free from the Well­come Col­lec­tion. (See a PDF of the entire book here.) And no mat­ter how close­ly you scru­ti­nize your dig­i­tal copy, you won’t run the risk of touch­ing it.

The Com­pendi­um of Demonolo­gy and Mag­ic is one of the many texts fea­tured in The Madman’s Library: The Strangest Books, Man­u­scripts and Oth­er Lit­er­ary Curiosi­ties from His­to­ry, a new book fea­tured on our site ear­li­er this week.

via Pub­lic Domain Review

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Foot-Lick­ing Demons & Oth­er Strange Things in a 1921 Illus­trat­ed Man­u­script from Iran

1,600 Occult Books Now Dig­i­tized & Put Online, Thanks to the Rit­man Library and Da Vin­ci Code Author Dan Brown

Help a Library Tran­scribe Mag­i­cal Man­u­scripts & Recov­er the Charms, Potions & Witch­craft That Flour­ished in Ear­ly Mod­ern Europe and Amer­i­ca

Behold the Codex Gigas (aka “Devil’s Bible”), the Largest Medieval Man­u­script in the World

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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