“I will not give you oil”
(Previously published in Occult Traditions)
“Bright oil, pure oil, shining oil,
the purifying oil of the gods,
oil which softens the sinews of man.
With the oil of the incantation of Ea, with the oil of the incantation of Marduk
I have made thee drip; with the oil of softening
which Ea has given for soothing
I have anointed thee; oil of life
I have put on thee.”
This quote from the Babylonian Maqlu text, for eliminating hostile magicians, emphasises the importance of oil in ancient magic. The use of oil in magic has a long and venerable history, from ancient Babylon to Egypt and Greece, and through to Jewish magic and beyond; and to do this subject justice would require several tomes. Nevertheless, I hope by focusing on certain texts to draw attention to the particular importance of oil in rites for dealing with spiritual creatures. Noticeable amongst such spells and practices are the use of olive oil and rose oil.
A fine example is seen in The Spell of Pnouthis in the Greek Magical Papyri (which contains more than eight references to the use of oil) for acquiring an assistant, specifically an aerial assistant, who is also described as an angel and a god. The link between angels and the element of air is seen in later grimoires such as the seventeenth century Janua Magica Reserata, which describes their bodies as being made of rarefied air (except for certain fiery archangels from the order of the Seraphim, or fiery serpents). Thus in the spell of Pnouthis the magician is instructed to “recite this sacred spell as you burn uncut frankincense and pour rose oil” (PGM I.42-195).
In the Greek Magical Papyri it is notable that bronze tools, particularly bowls or plates, are commonly used with oil for gaining supernatural aid, particularly for divination. Another common feature is the use of a young and pure (i.e. virgin) boy as the medium for speaking to the supernatural creatures. In some instances these are combined, such as when you “take a bowl of bronze, you engrave a figure of Anubis in it, you fill it with water … you finish its surface with fine oil … you make him [the young child] look into the oil …” (PDM XIV.412-415)
This combination would subsequently be seen in the conjuration of an angel, the Prince of the Thumb, onto the olive oil-anointed thumbnail of a virgin child (or pregnant woman, who carried a virgin child and hence partook of its purity) in Jewish magic. Reference is made by the Jewish scholar Rashi in his commentaries on Sanhedrin 101 in the eleventh century CE. Jewish manuscripts from the sixteenth-eighteenth centuries such as Codex Gaster 315 and Codex Gaster 443, also contain this practice, which would make its way into the French realms of practical (and often demonic) magic. Thus in the instructions to receive a reply from a spirit, the magician is told to:
“Take a virgin boy or a virgin girl or a seven or eight month pregnant woman and make her graze her right hand thumb nail and then rub olive oil into this nail, making the nail face the sun and while holding the hand of that person in your hand in, say these words in a very low voice:
‘Huriel, Seraphim, Potestates, Anglata, Calim Cala. Be thou welcome, be thou welcome, be thou welcome. Take the stool and place it on the floor. Take the Book, which God gave to Moses, open it and place thy hand upon it and swear an oath that thou wilt tell me the truth of anything that I ask of thee,’”
It is significant that the person acting as a vessel is made to swear on the Bible, as this is acting as the binding of the angel (or demon in some versions) to tell the truth and not act maliciously. The same binding purpose was achieved in the charms in the Greek Magical Papyri through the use of items like the bronze bowl of water. Not only was bronze a particularly chthonian metal associated with the goddess Hekate and the underworld, but bowls of water were traditionally used to contain spirits. This was described by Flavius Josephus (37-100 CE) in his work Antiquities of the Jews, when he discussed the use of Solomon’s name as a word of power in exorcism.
Both the Jewish magician calling the Prince of the Thumb and the Greek sorceror summoning the restless dead would make use of a sword to create a circle on the ground around them. And both were likely to use oil in their practices, either as a medium for vision or as an offering to the summoned beings. The cross-fertilisation of Hellenic and Jewish magic is something which has yet to be fully explored, and no doubt much will be learned as this field opens up.
The magic of the Psalms was also heavily connected with oil, though more often for encouraging the favour of judges and nobles, or gaining love. Olive and rose oils are used repeatedly in Sepher Shimmush Tehillim (The Magical Use of the Psalms), the eighteenth century Jewish text with roots dating back to the eighth century CE. Other works from this period also emphasise the use of oil, an ideal medium for the purposes of transport, availability and discretion. Thus we see more than twenty uses of olive oil and rose oil in Le Livre d’Or (The Book of Gold), a late eighteenth century French manuscript detailing the use of the Psalms as magical charms.
Saucer divination with oil and water as a means of contacting gods and daimons was popular in the ancient world and this continued through into the grimoires and books of secrets of the Renaissance. In the Saucer Divination of Aphrodite (PGM IV.3209-54), the magician was instructed to “take a white saucer, fill it with water and olive oil,” and then see Aphrodite in the olive oil on the water. How she moved would determine her answer.
There was a sense of the power in the oil itself, and it was often ascribed divine origins. Thus in one spell we see Isis praising the oil saying, “I am going to praise you, O oil; I am going to praise you. By the Agathodaimon you are praised. By me myself you are honoured. I am going to prise you forever, O oil, O true oil.” (PDM XIV.611-614) This then gives more context to the threat made by the magician which I chose as a title for this essay – “I will not give you oil,” insists the magician when he threatens the lamp which acts as a vessel for divine revelation . (PDM XIV.186). Oil can burn, it can purify and sanctify, and when used appropriately it will always be seen as holy!
Betz, Hans Dieter. The Greek Magical Papyri In Translation. 1992, Chicago University Press
Daiches, Samuel. Babylonian Oil Magic in the Talmud and in the Later Jewish Literature. 1913, London
Josephus, Flavius & Whiston, William (trans). Antiquities of the Jews. 1987, Hendrickson Publishers
Peterson, Joseph (ed). The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses. 2008, Ibis Press
Skinner, Stephen, & Rankine, David. The Keys to the Gateway of Magic. 2005, Golden Hoard Press
Skinner, Stephen, & Rankine, David. A Collection of Magical Secrets. 2009, Avalonia