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Reviewed by:
  • Picatrix: A Medieval Treatise on Astral Magic by Dan Attrell, David Porreca
  • Julie Fox-Horton

Picatrix, Ghāyat al-Ḥakīm, astral magic, manuscript studies, textual studies, history of science, history of magic, philology, magical rituals, western esotericism

dan attrell, david porreca, trans. Picatrix: A Medieval Treatise on Astral Magic. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2019. Pp. xii + 372.

Working from David Pingree's Picatrix: The Latin Version of the Ghāyat al-Ḥakīm, published in 1986 by the Warburg Institute, Dan Attrell and David Porreca have produced an English translation of this medieval manual of astral [End Page 288] magic that does not disappoint. From the outset, readers will appreciate the erudite, informative, and highly digestible introduction. Attrell and Porreca deliberately focus on "the spirit of the text's reception in Europe, rather than in the Arabic world" (5), and accordingly readers are offered a vivid account of the history of the Latin text and its tumultuous journey to the present English edition. This scholarly translation complements earlier work by modern scholars, from the first modern edition of the Arabic text by Helmut Ritter in 1933 to the German translation in 1962 by Martin Plessner, followed by the Latin translation by Pingree in 1986. In the introduction to the text, Attrell and Porreca capture the arduous and time-consuming, perhaps even life-consuming, process of translating such a substantial medieval Latin text into a modern language. Although they state that their edition is "specifically intended for students and scholars of the history of science and magic" (2), I would add that students and scholars of book history, manuscript studies, philology, and textual studies will find the translator's introduction, as well as this English translation of the Latin version of this medieval text, both interesting and reader friendly.

Composed in Arabic sometime between 954–959 as the Ghāyat al-Ḥakīm (The Goal of the Sage), and compiled from over two hundred sources, the text emerged into Latin translation some time near the end of the thirteenth century, according to Attrell and Porreca. They note that it was the Latin version that was "widely circulated throughout Europe from the mid-fifteenth century onward" (5), with Italians such as Galeotto Marizio, Marsilio Ficino, and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, among others, making noticeable use of the text in the fifteenth century. The circulation of the text only increased in western Europe after that, despite its "illicit reputation in Europe" (6). While acknowledging these well-known intellectuals from the Renaissance making obvious use of the manual, Attrell and Porreca carefully consider the common characteristics of the average reader of Picatrix as it was disseminated throughout Europe. The typical reader, in order to fully understand the contents of the manual, would have needed "a thorough knowledge of Pythagorean, Platonic, and Aristotelian philosophy" (8), "a high degree of knowledge in the sciences of the time" (12), and would probably have "occupied the middle rungs of the medieval academic or clerical ladder, desirous of both material and social elevation" (25).

One of the most useful components of this version of Picatrix, aside from the detailed discussion of etymology and the influence of ancient philosophical traditions throughout the text, is the series of tables included in the introduction. Attrell and Porreca, building upon the work of Jean-Patrice Boudet, [End Page 289] organize all of the 2,323 rituals contained within Picatrix into fourteen categories, including interpersonal relations, healing/health, knowledge/skills, apotropaic magic, commerce and wealth, occult sciences, elements/properties of matter, agriculture, military, travel, infrastructure, foraging, illusion/sense perception, and outliers/others (17). Their brief yet intelligible overview of these categories, and their clearly organized tables make clear some of the defining characteristics of what the reader will encounter throughout the Picatrix, while also offering a comprehensive framework for understanding the various types of magical practice being disseminated throughout Europe at the same time when the manual was actively being used. Scholars interested in working with data sets may find these charts useful for generating statistical and visual data related to the study of magic throughout the medieval period.

In addition to contributing a highly accessible English translation of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1940-5111
Print ISSN
1556-8547
Pages
pp. 288-290
Launched on MUSE
2020-12-10
Open Access
No
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