Discover The Key of Hell, an Illustrated 18th-Century Guide to Black Magic (1775)

Accord­ing to the Book of Rev­e­la­tion, the return­ing Christ arrives sur­round­ed by sev­en can­dle­sticks. In its author’s prophet­ic dream, “his head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire.” From his mouth issues “a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations.” It’s a star­tling image, cre­at­ed for sym­bol­ic pur­pos­es. With­out a key to what those sym­bols mean, the text remains obscure. It is, after all, a vision giv­en to a mys­tic her­mit exiled on an island.

Many a Rev­e­la­tion-inspired mag­i­cal gri­moire from suc­ceed­ing cen­turies also remains near­ly incom­pre­hen­si­ble to non-adepts. Such is the case with the “strange 18th-cen­tu­ry man­u­script called Clavis Infer­ni (key of hell),” as Ben­jamin Breen writes at Slate. “Filled with invo­ca­tions, cryp­tic sig­ils, and paint­ings of super­nat­ur­al beings” — such as the illus­tra­tion from Rev­e­la­tion above — “the book defies inter­pre­ta­tion — as it was meant to do.” Also, like Rev­e­la­tion, the tex­t’s author­ship is mys­te­ri­ous, and yet sig­nif­i­cant to our under­stand­ing of its intent.

The Key of Hell is attrib­uted to a Cypri­anus, a name that “prob­a­bly refers to St. Cypri­an of Anti­och (d. 304 CE),” Breen writes in a post at Atlas Obscu­ra, “a very com­mon apoc­ryphal attri­bu­tion for medieval mag­i­cal texts, since Cypri­an was reput­ed to have been a pow­er­ful magi­cian and demon-sum­mon­er before con­vert­ing to Chris­tian­i­ty.” The use of pseu­doepig­ra­phy — an author assum­ing the name of a long-dead fig­ure — was com­mon prac­tice through­out the his­to­ry of both the­o­log­i­cal and alchem­i­cal writ­ing. Rather than an attempt at decep­tion, it could sig­nal the con­tin­u­a­tion of a tra­di­tion of occult knowl­edge.

The title page of the Key of Hell “seems to date it to 1717,” writes Breen, but a Sothe­by’s cat­a­logue entry claims, “the script seems to be of the late 18th cen­tu­ry” and dates it to 1775. At the Well­come Library — who host the text online in its entire­ty — we find this “Har­ry Pot­ter-esque” ori­gin sto­ry:

Also known as the Black Book, [the Key of Hell] is the text­book of the Black School at Wit­ten­berg, the book from which a witch or sor­cer­er gets his spells. The Black School at Wit­ten­berg was pur­port­ed­ly a place in Ger­many where one went to learn the black arts.

Writ­ten in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and “the Mag­i­cal Alpha­bet devised by occultist Cor­nelius Agrip­pa in his Third Book of Occult Phi­los­o­phy from 1510,” notes Flash­bak, the man­u­script is “filled with invo­ca­tions to spir­its and demons — includ­ing a Hebrew invo­ca­tion for sum­mon­ing God.” (It also includes help­ful instruc­tions for ban­ish­ing sum­moned spir­its.) The man­u­scrip­t’s full Latin title — Clavis Infer­ni sive mag­ic alba et nigra appro­ba­ta Meta­trona — trans­lates to “The Key of Hell with white and black mag­ic approved by Meta­tron,” an archangel in the Tal­mu­dic and Kab­bal­ist tra­di­tions. The use of this name sug­gests the spells with­in come from a high­er author­i­ty.

Breen, how­ev­er, found some unusu­al com­men­tary on the book’s pos­si­ble author, includ­ing the idea in Den­mark that Cypri­anus was “a fel­low Dane so evil dur­ing his life­time that when he died the dev­il threw him out of Hell,” writes pro­fes­sor of Nor­we­gian lit­er­a­ture Kath­leen Stokker. Cypri­anus was so enraged by this treat­ment that “he ded­i­cat­ed him­self to writ­ing the nine Books of Black Arts that under­lie all sub­se­quent Scan­di­na­vian black books.” Anoth­er apoc­ryphal sto­ry iden­ti­fies Cypri­anus as a “rav­ish­ing­ly beau­ti­ful” Mex­i­can nun from 1351 (?!) who met a “gory” end.

Who­ev­er wrote the Key of Hell, and for what­ev­er rea­son, they left behind a fas­ci­nat­ing book of sor­cery full of curi­ous illus­tra­tions and a cryp­tic cos­mol­o­gy. See Breen’s attempts to deci­pher some of its key sym­bols here and make your own with the full text at the Well­come Library.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

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

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

A Big Archive of Occult Record­ings: His­toric Audio Lets You Hear Trances, Para­nor­mal Music, Glos­so­lalia & Oth­er Strange Sounds (1905–2007)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Cal says:

    It refers to the eme­na­tions of the sun and its ongo­ing (re)cycle, Hel only rel­a­tive­ly recent­ly refers to a place of fire, it orig­i­nal­ly meant a place of spir­it, spir­it being vapour; breath.
    The soul for instance (kol) being voice, com­ing from the Sun which is the provider, the waters are the reciev­er and its cymat­ic mag­net­ism (of the Sun’s eme­na­tion) cre­ates into the water the phys­i­cal, the seed of life.

    This is all a recur­ring cycle vis­i­ble in the sea­sons, but there is also a so called reset, when the Sun caus­es a great cat­a­clysm, then moves into its new course (lit­er­al­ly). This event is also called ‘judge­ment day’.

    Kind regards.

  • Zakaria says:

    Iwant daownl­wd this book

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