Dr Hereward Tilton has taught on Rosicrucianism, magic and alchemy in Renaissance and early modern Europe at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich, the department for the History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents at the University of Amsterdam, and the Exeter Centre for the Study of Esotericism at the University of Exeter. Here he provides us with a brief introduction to his discoveries while translating the text of Touch Me Not.
Like a Bosch painting, the pages of Touch Me Not – an Austrian manuscript compendium of the black magical arts – teem with a bizarre host of threatening, misshapen demons. Clad with feathers, scales and butterfly wings, they beat drums, spew fire and assault our sensibilities with their pendulous breasts and engorged genitalia, urinating, defecating and spawning yet more demons to devour any wretched soul unable to resist the temptation of the forbidden arts.
Thirty-five watercolour and ink images of demons, their sigils and the magicians who summon them illustrate the German and Latin text of the Wellcome Library’s Touch Me Not. A Most Rare Compendium of the Whole Magical Art. The manuscript was created circa 1795, and appears at first sight to be a ‘grimoire’ or magician’s manual intended for noviciates of black magic. Psychedelic drug use, animal sacrifice, sigillary body art, masturbation fantasy and the necromantic manipulation of gallows-corpses count among the transgressive procedures it depicts. With their aid hidden treasures are wrested from guardian spirits, and the black magician’s highest ambition – an infernal transfiguration and union with the Devil – can be fulfilled. But for those dilettantes who fail to follow the procedures to the letter, or succumb to their fears at lonely, Godforsaken sites in the dead of night, the consequences are dire.
Although it has been described as a Höllenzwang (‘coercion of hell’) manuscript, Touch Me Not is only tangentially related to that early modern family of Clavicula Salomonis-derived treasure-hunting texts (Doctor Fausts großer und gewaltiger Höllenzwang, Das sechste und siebente Buch Mosis, etc.). For the historian pondering why and for whom it has been created, Touch Me Not is not comparable to the kind of operative text one might find in the hands of a literate practitioner at a rustic treasure-hunting circle; rather, it resembles certain ornate derivatives of those earlier operative Höllenzwang manuscripts – elaborate works of artifice which are destined for the library shelves of rich gentlemen, and which employ beguiling artwork or an intentional antiquation of style and framing narrative in order to increase their market value.
With its Gothic aesthetic, Touch Me Not is a work of supernatural horror resembling a practical manual yet designed – first and foremost – to titillate. Unlike most grimoires, the manuscript is a unicum with no close stemmatic relatives; its artificial nature contributes significantly to its historical value, as the act of selecting and compiling diverse textual fragments has created a unique portrait of the late eighteenth-century cultural memory of magic. And while much of the text is derived from print sources (von Eckartshausen, del Río, Agrippa) or well-known grimoires (Abramelin, Clavicula Salomonis), the origin of other passages remains obscure – witness the detailed instructions for the creation of a black magical mirror, for example, which appears to be a descendant of the medieval ‘mirror of Lilith’.
Beyond its purely historical value, there is much in this curious manuscript to entice and inspire the contemporary practitioner of magic. No doubt each reader will find an intriguing reflection of their experiences or interests therein; I discovered my own among its list of psychoactive fumigants, which includes an entry testifying to the magical employment of an indigenous European source of the hallucinogenic compound dimethyltryptamine (DMT) – the rhizome of the ubiquitous common reed (Phragmites australis). Following the advice of Herpentil, I made my way to a remote cave, reed rhizome and Syrian rue potions in hand, to explore the infernal realms and contemplate the distinction between white and black magic. This seems to be as fine as a spider’s silk, as our manuscript asserts. Anyone minded to attempt such perilous operations would do well to heed the salutary tale of the ‘Jena Christmas Eve tragedy’ of 1715: the horrific, hallucination-plagued deaths of magical treasure-hunters overcome by their own entheogenic fumigations, an event whose echoes still reverberate in the macabre illustrations of Touch Me Not.