The Grimoires and Books of St. Cyprian

(First published in Azoth ezine June 2009. I acknowledge there is much more material  available now which could add to this piece, I present it as an introduction to St Cyprian, whose presence is felt ever more strongly)

When we explore the history of grimoires and magic books of the Renaissance and Middle Ages, the name of Cyprian is second only to that of Solomon as a legendary mage and writer of rare and desirable grimoires.  However we must be clear when talking about St Cyprian that we refer to the right one, for there are two of them!  Both St Cyprians were martyred by the Romans and both have their feast day in September, just to add to the confusion.

The Cyprian referred to with regard to grimoires is St Cyprian of Antioch, who was reputed to be a great magician before his conversion to Christianity and was martyred at Nicomedia on 26th September 304 CE, being beheaded after being tortured.  The other St Cyprian was Thascius Caecilius Cyprianus, the zealous bishop of Carthage who was beheaded on September 14th 258 CE.

The story of St Cyprian the ex-magician, was recorded in the compilation on the lives of Byzantine Saints by Symeon Metaphrastes.  Cyprian was a very skilled pagan magician and demonologist, who tried to seduce a Christian virgin called Justina with demonic assistance.  However Justina foiled the threefold attack of the demons by making the cross, causing Cyprian to despair for the error of his ways.  He then recanted and was received into the Church.  His rise through the Church was rapid, to deacon, then priest and bishop, whilst the virgin Justina became the head of a convent.  This tale has been suggested as the prototype of the Theophilus and Faust tales, of the futility of working with demons and the benefits of the Church, though the similarities are slight.

St Cyprian’s description of his training and initiation is interesting in the details it provides of the religions and magic of that time, though it is unlikely to have been written by him, and certainly the Church would not have made such material available:

“I am that Cyprianus, who, vowed to Apollo from his infancy, was early initiated into all the arts of the dragon. Even before the age of seven I had already been introduced into the temple of Mithra: three years later, my parents taking me to Athens to be received as citizen, I was permitted likewise to penetrate the mysteries of Ceres lamenting her daughter, and I also became the guardian of the Dragon in the Temple of Pallas.

Ascending after that to the summit of Mount Olympus, the Seat of the Gods, as it is called, there too I was initiated into the sense, and the real meaning of their [the Gods’] speeches and their clamorous manifestations (strepituum). It is there that I was made to see in imagination (phantasia) those trees and all those herbs that operate such prodigies with the help of demons; … and I saw their dances, their warfares, their snares, illusions and promiscuities. I heard their singing. I saw finally, for forty consecutive days, the phalanx of the Gods and Goddesses, sending from Olympus, as though they were Kings, spirits to represent them on earth and act in their name among all the nations.

At that time I lived entirely on fruit, eaten only after sunset, the virtues of which were explained to me by the seven priests of the sacrifices.

When I was fifteen, my parents desired that I should be made acquainted, not only with all the natural laws in connection with the generation and corruption of bodies on earth, in the air and in the seas, but also with all the other forces grafted (insitus) on these by the Prince of the World in order to counteract their primal and divine constitution. At twenty, I went to Memphis, where, penetrating into the Sanctuaries, I was taught to discern all that pertains to the communications of demons [Daimônes or Spirits] with terrestrial matters, their aversion for certain places, their sympathy and attraction for others, their expulsion from certain places, certain objects and laws, their persistence in preferring darkness and their resistance to light. There I learned the number of the fallen Princes, and that which takes place in human souls and bodies they enter into communication with.

I learnt the analogy that exists between earthquakes and rains, between the motion of the earth and the motion of the seas; I saw the spirits of the Giants plunged in subterranean darkness and seemingly supporting the earth like a man carrying a burden on his shoulders.

When thirty, I travelled to Chaldaea to study there the true power of the air, placed by some in the fire and by the more learned in light. I was taught to see that the planets were in their variety as dissimilar as the plants on earth, and the stars were like armies ranged in battle order. I knew the Chaldaean division of Ether into 365 parts, and I perceived that every one of the demons who divide it among themselves was endowed with that material force that permitted him to execute the orders of the Prince and guide all the movements therein. They [the Chaldeans] explained to me how those Princes had become participants in the Council of Darkness, ever in opposition to the Council of Light.

I got acquainted with the Mediatores, and upon seeing the covenants they were mutually bound by, I was struck with wonder upon learning the nature of their oaths and observances.

Believe me, I saw the Devil; believe me I have embraced him when I was yet quite young, and he saluted me by the title of the new Jambres,[1] declaring me worthy of my ministry [initiation]. He promised me continual help during life and a principality after death.[2] Having become in great honour [an Adept] under his tuition, he placed under my orders a phalanx of demons, and when I bid him good-bye, “Courage, good success, excellent Cyprian,” he exclaimed, rising up from his seat to see me to the door, plunging thereby those present into a profound admiration.”[3]

Cyprian left his Chaldean initiator to set up as a sorcerer in Antioch where he became an accomplished magician “surrounded by a host of disciples… distributing love-philtres and dealing in deadly charms ‘to rid young wives of old husbands’, and to ruin Christian virgins.” This activity brought him into inevitable conflict with the local Christian community, and after his failure with Justina, he was said to have converted, been baptised, and “laid at the feet of Anthimes, Bishop of Antioch, all his books on Magic, finally becoming a martyr and saint.”

The story then goes that one of his books escaped the flames and became the Cyprianus, giving providence to the many books which claim to have been copied from that survivor. One example of the books which gained notoriety through this claim is The Great Book of Saint Cyprian (or O Antigo Livro de São Cipriano).   This book is full of prayers and spells, and sold widely in the Portuguese and Spanish speaking world, especially in South America. It has subsequently been published in many editions with varying titles.

Although the book refers to Saint Cyprian, it appeared many centuries after his death and could not possibly have been written by him. The first known printed edition came out in 1849, and according to the title page it was:

“the Book of Saint Cyprian, taken from a manuscript. Made by the Saint himself, who teaches how to undo all the spells made by the Moors in this Kingdom of Portugal, and also how to find the places where riches can be found.”

Why St Cyprian, who lived in Antioch in Turkey should be interested in Portuguese Moorish spells is not explained in the book, but it may be the old practice of foreign magic seeming to be more exotic. The book travelled from Portugal to Brazil, and like other works such as the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses (in Voodoo), became widely used in popular sorcery allied with Umbanda and Candomblé. Several editions of the work appear under titles such as The Great and True Book of St. Cyprian; The Only Complete Book of St. Cyprian; The Authentic Book of St. Cyprian, and so on.  All contain instructions on how to cure disease; evil spells and exorcisms, with sections include a list of the 174 magical treasures of Galicia; the Prayer of the Guardian Angel; 50 mysteries of witchcraft from the time of the Moors (including medical spells); the treasures of magic (including a way to capture a devil); black magic to destroy a marriage; the prayer of the Black Goat; the use of a skull lit up with a candle to do evil; an explanation of the hidden powers of hatred and love; and the hidden powers of magnetism. All this is interlaced with pious prayers of popular Catholic religiosity which indicate its Iberian provenance.

Meanwhile, in the more northerly parts of Europe, a very different tradition grew up around Saint Cyprian.  He was the reputed author of a number of seventeenth and eighteenth century manuscript grimoires that circulated in Scandinavia, especially Norway. These grimoires were often referred to as ‘Cyprianus’ or ‘Black Books’ (svarteboka), and Wittenberg was often quoted as the source of their knowledge.  These books, of which somewhere between 150-200 survive, contain a wide range of charms and incantations, with very few actually containing much information on evocation or control of demons, or pacts with the devils.  Interestingly, the Black Books travelled to America with Scandinavian immigrants, and much of their material merged with works such as the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses to be incorporated into the Pennsylvania Dutch tradition of hexenmeisters.

Another manuscript attributed to Cyprian is the one which I have been working on with Stephen Skinner.  This manuscript (Wellcome MS 2000) is attributed to ‘M: L: Cypriani’, which may indicate ‘Magister Ludi Cypriani’.  The title of the manuscript is Clavis Inferni sive magia alba et nigra approbata Metratona, which literally means ‘The Key of Hell with white and black magic proved by Metatron’.  This manuscript deals specifically with the four demon kings of the directions, who are conjured by the magician.  Metatron the supreme archangel, is also invoked as a protection to balance and control the demonic kings, like a lens for their chaotic and otherwise uncontrollable energy.

Cyprian is also mentioned in the Libellus Magicus, or Magical Work of the Jesuits, a nineteenth century work contemporary with the The Great and True Book of St. Cyprian, though much shorter and very different in content.  This work, which focuses on conjurations, includes “Cyprian’s Invocation of Angels And his Conjuration of the Spirits Guarding hidden treasure – together with a form for their dismissal.”  Cyprian is also mentioned in some of the conjurations, side by side with Solomon as an authority, in the old practice of naming various associated magicians to impress spirits with the wisdom, veracity and strength of the conjuration.

There may be other references I have not included here to Cyprian; I hope I have succeeded in my goal, which was to draw attention to one of the great names in the magical/grimoire tradition, who although he has been assimilated into the Church, remains a prominent magical figure alongside Solomon, whose influence may be found in magical books around the world!




This article was drawn from material in The Grimoire of Saint Cyprian – Clavis Inferni” by Stephen Skinner and David Rankine, Volume 5 in the Sourceworks of Ceremonial Magic series published by Golden Hoard.

[1] Jannes and Jambres were two famous Egyptian magicians referred to in 2 Timothy 3:8 as the Egyptian magicians who withstood Moses in front of Pharoah. These magicians were not only mentioned in the Bible, but were also known to Classical writers such as Pliny and Apuleius.

[2] Principality is a high angelic rank.

[3] This version is quoted, and modified, by H P Blavatsky from the French of the Marquis de Mirville, who allegedly translated it from a Latin manuscript in the Vatican. Comments in square brackets are by Blavatsky.