via The Appendix
Cyprianus was, by all accounts, a shady character. In her book Remedies and Rituals: Folk Medicine in Norway and the New Land, Kathleen Stokker writes that medieval Scandinavians spun tales of a Dane named Cyprianus who was so evil that Satan cast him out of hell: “This act so enraged Cyprianus that he dedicated himself to writing the nine Books of the Black Arts that underlie all subsequent Scandinavian black books.”
Bizarrely, another tradition maintained that the true Cyprianus was “a ravishingly beautiful, irrestistibly seductive, prodigiously knowledgeable, pious Mexican nun.” And yet another tradition traces the name back to St. Cyprian of Antioch, a powerful Greek wizard who was famed as a demon-summoner before converting to Christianity. Despite Cyprian’s saintly later life, medieval authors appear to have been more interested in the demon part—here’s a 15th century French paintingof Cyprian striking up a bargain with two devilish characters, for instance.
What we know for sure is that “Cyprian” became a common pseudonym for people at the edges of society who were trying to do real black magic. And thus we find “Pseudo-Cyprianus” listed as the author of this jaw-dropping book of magical spells from the late 18th century, which the Wellcome Trust has just made public domain. The title is Clavis Inferni (The Key of Hell) and the images are magnificent and thrillingly mysterious:
“Maymon – a black bird – as King of the South.” Cyprianus, Clavis Inferni, late 18th century.
“Ink and watercolour showing a red-winged dragon wearing a gold crown and devouring a lizard.” Cyprianus, Clavis Inferni, late 18th century.
The sword and branch in that last image (my favorite of the bunch) probably refer to the common iconography of God’s twinned powers to create destruction or peace. The Latin text reads Qui facis mirabilia magna solus finis coronat opus. I translate this to something like “You who act alone with great miracles [or miraculous things]: the end shall crown the work.”
Beyond this type of basic iconographic reading, those looking for reliable answers about the origin or meaning of these images will be disappointed. The Wellcome Trust itself gives a description of the book that sounds like it’s lifted verbatim from Harry Potter:
Cyprianus is also known as the Black Book, and is the textbook of the Black School at Wittenburg, the book from which a witch or sorceror gets his spells. The Black School at Wittenburg was purportedly a place in Germany where one went to learn the black arts.
Hoping to find out more, I posted about this bizarre text on my blog Res Obscura three years ago, and some knowledgeable fans of early modern magic came out of the woodwork to help me with translations. One pointed out to me that the cipher alphabet being used here is Cornelius Agrippa’s Transitus Fluvii “Passing through the River” script, adapted from Hebrew by the famed occultist in 1510 (fun fact: it was also used in the Blair Witch Project):
Full Feature HERE!
The book also uses actual Hebrew, such as in this gold-leaf sigil. (A challenge to readers: can anyone translate this?)
Cyprianus, Clavis Inferni, late 18th century.