Editorial Feature

Ten Strange Things You Didn’t Know About the History of Magic

Julian Harrison, curator at the British Library explores the weird and the wonderful

When researching the stories, choosing the objects and creating the narrative for Harry Potter: A History of Magic, we have encountered magic round every corner.

Here we explore 10 strange things you might not know about magic, unravelling strange myths and weird traditions, and being charmed by the mysterious world of witchcraft and wizardry.


1. Making yourself invisible is easy… provided you know the right words

Forget the fact you don’t have an invisibility cloak to hand, according to one 17th-century manuscript, known as The Book of King Solomon called The Key of Knowledge, you could make yourself invisible simply by reciting the following words:

“Stabbon, Asen, Gabellum, Saneney, Noty, Enobal, Labonerem, Balametem, Balnon, Tygumel, Millegaly, Juneneis, Hearma, Hamorache, Yesa, Seya, Senoy, Henen, Barucatha, Acararas, Taracub, Bucarat, Caramy, by the mercy whitch you beare towardes mann kynde, make me to be invysible.”

These instructions are found in a chapter headed ‘Howe experyments to be invysible must bee preparedd’. The writer and scholar, Gabriel Harvey, owned this manuscript, and one account of his life states that he largely disappeared from view in the final decades of his life: maybe the invisibility charm worked for him!

The Book of King Solomon called The Key of Knowledge, 17th century (From the collection of The British Library) 

2. A phoenix takes 9 days to rise from the ashes

Phoenixes are one of the most famous mythological birds and Dumbledore’s feathered friend Fawkes was a much-loved character in the books. Their behavior and life cycle was often described in medieval bestiaries (encyclopedias about animals real and imagined). In one tradition, it was said that the phoenix was native to Arabia, lived for 500 years, and in its old age would create its own funeral pyre from branches and plants. It would then fan the flames with its own wings, in order to be consumed by the fire, before rising again from the ashes after 9 days. This legendary ability has often been compared to the Resurrection of Christ.

A phoenix rising from the ashes, in a bestiary, 13th century (From the collection of the British Library)

3. Moles on the buttocks are especially auspicious

The Old Egyptian Fortune-Teller’s Last Legacy, published in London in 1775, contains lots of dubious advice on how to predict your future. We’re used to tea leaves in cups, but one other way to tell the future was by interpreting the moles on your face and body. For example, did you know that “a mole on the buttock denotes honor to a man and riches to a woman”? On another page, headed: "The signification of lines and other marks in the hands", we receive the news that certain lines denote “a trusty and faithful person”, while others indicate, “Let the party take care to avoid deep water”!

'The signification of lines and other marks in the hands', in Old Egyptian Fortune-Teller's Last Legacy (From the collection of The British Library)

4. Nicholas Culpeper was a witch

Nicholas Culpeper’s Herbal, first published in 1652, is one of the most influential books to identify the medical uses of different plants. But Culpeper was frowned upon by the medical establishment. He was an unlicensed apothecary, and he came into frequent conflict with the College of Physicians, not least because he wrote in English (for the benefit of the masses) rather than the more traditional Latin. In 1642, Culpeper was apparently tried, but acquitted, for practising witchcraft, the penalty for which was death. Today, we would describe him as a ‘hedge witch’, a wise man or woman adept at providing remedies for illnesses and ailments.

Culpeper's English Physician and Complete Herbal, 1789 (From the collection of The British Library)

5. Need to harvest a mandrake? Then find yourself a dog

A lesson in Herbology now – in the Middle Ages, it was believed that mandrakes could cure headaches, earache and gout. At the same time, it was supposed that this plant was hazardous to harvest, because its roots resembled the human form; when pulled from the ground, its shrieks could cause madness. This is why medieval plant-collectors devised an elaborate method to harvest mandrakes. The best way to obtain one safely was to unearth its roots with an ivory stake, attaching the plant to a dog with a cord. A horn should then be sounded, drowning out the shrieking while at the same time startling the dog, causing it to drag out the mandrake. Another piece of advice was to stuff your ears with clods of earth before attempting to pull the mandrake from the ground!

Kitāb mawādd al-‘ilāj (Arabic version of Dioscorides, Materia medica),14th century (From the collection of The British Library)

6. Some of the best bezoar stones are found in the stomachs of goats

We all remember the bezoar Harry used to save Ron’s life after he sipped the poisoned mead in Professor Slughorn’s office, but what actually are they? Bezoars are a mass of undigested fibre formed in the stomach of certain animals, and are believed to be an antidote to poison. They were first introduced into medieval Europe by Arabic physicians. Wealthy collectors (including kings and popes) were willing to spend considerable sums to acquire the best ‘stones’. In A Compleat History of Druggs (first published in French in 1694), it was reported that the medicinal strength of a bezoar depended on the animal that produced it. For instance, those found in the guts of cows were nowhere near as good as those which came from the so-called ‘bezoar goat’. One of our colleagues recently acquired a bezoar stone from a llama, sourced from Bolivia. We hope we never need to try it out.

Pierre Pomet, A Compleat History of Druggs, 1748 (From the collection of The British Library)

7. This early alchemical illustration is in fact… a record of an ancient Egyptian monument

The Book of the Seven Climes, written in the 13th century by Abū al-Qāsim Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-‘Irāqī, focuses on alchemical illustrations. This picture was supposedly taken from a ‘Hidden Book’ attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, a legendary sage-king of ancient Egypt. He was believed to have mastered the secrets of alchemy and recorded them in hieroglyphs on the walls of tombs. Unbeknown to Al-‘Irāqī, this image actually reproduces an ancient monument erected in memory of King Amenemhat II, who ruled Egypt around 1922–1878 BC.

Abū al-Qāsim al-‘Irāqī, Kitāb al-aqālīm al-ab‘ah (Book of the Seven Climes), 18th century (From the collection of The British Library)

8. A unicorn can have two horns

In recent years unicorns have appeared in our hair, on our toast and on our clothes, but our fascination for the horned horse goes back centuries. In 1694, Pierre Pomet, a French pharmacist, published his Histoire générale des Drogues. One of its illustrations shows five different species of unicorn, among them the camphor (a horned ass from Arabia) and the pirassoipi. The pirassoipi’s most distinctive feature is its twin horns (surely this is cheating), as seen in the lower left-hand corner of this image. Pomet reported that this two-horned unicorn was as large as a mule and as hairy as a bear. He also noted that unicorn horn was “well used, on account of the great properties attributed to it, principally against poisons”.

Unicorns, in Pierre Pomet, Histoire générale des Drogues, traitant des plantes, des animaux et des mineraux, 1694 (From the collection of The British Library)

9. The oldest datable object at the British Library was pinpointed with the aid of NASA

The British Library’s collections number in the range of 200 million books, manuscripts, newspapers and so much more. The oldest to be precisely datable is a Chinese oracle bone (also known as a ‘dragon bone’). On one side it records a prediction made at the court of the ruler, while on the reverse is a written account of a lunar eclipse. The eclipse is described in such detail that, with the assistance of NASA, we can determine that it was observed at Anyang in China on 27 December 1192 BC, between the hours of 21:48 and 23:30 (give or take 17 minutes).

Chinese oracle bones, c.1600–1050 BC (From the collection of The British Library)

10. Always carry a weasel in your pocket

You never know when you’re going to encounter a basilisk, which can kill you with its fatal stare, and so if you don’t have Godric Gryffindor’s sword to hand like Harry did, it’s always best to keep a weasel to hand. That, at least, was the advice given by Pliny the Elder (d. AD 79), the Roman natural historian. According to Pliny, if a weasel was dropped into the basilisk’s burrow, that creature would be succumbed with its odor. Somewhat sadly for the weasel, it would also die in the ensuing struggle.

A basilisk, in Historia animalium, 1595 (From the collection of The British Library)
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