Theophilus Presbyter was the pen name of a Germanic polymath, active during the early 12th century. Sometime around 1120 Presbyter published a Latin volume entitled De Diversis Artibus (‘The Diverse Arts’), in which he shared his knowledge of science, metalworking and alchemy. In this extract, contemporarised but otherwise unchanged, Theophilus takes us through some comprehensive instructions for making gold:
1. Locate or prepare an underground house, with “all sides of stone” and “two openings so small that scarcely any [sunlight] is visible”.
2. Into this house place “two cocks of 12 to 15 years old and give them sufficient food”. When the cocks have “become fatted”, allow them to mate with hens until the hens lay eggs.
3. Expel the chickens and replace them with large toads, which are to “keep the eggs warm”.
4. “From the hatched eggs there [shall hatch] male chickens, like hen’s chickens, which after seven days [will] grow serpents’ tails.” These must be kept in a room or cellar lined with stone or they will burrow into the earth.
5. After six months, burn these creatures alive until they are “completely consumed” and burnt to ashes.
6. Gather up the ashes and “pulverise them, adding a third part of the blood of a red-haired man”, mixed with some “sharp vinegar”.
7. Spread this mixture over “the thinnest plates of purest red copper… and place them in the fire”. When they become red hot, take from the fire and cool, then repeat this step until “the preparation penetrates through the copper and takes on the weight and colour of gold.”
Charles Godfrey Leland (1824-1903) was an American journalist and folklorist who spent much of his life travelling and investigating different cultures, both ancient and modern. In the early 1890s Leland spent time in Italy, where he visited Roman and Etruscan ruins and researched remnant cultural practices. While in Tuscany Leland uncovered a spell for marital fidelity, apparently recorded by Marcellus Burdigalensis, a physician to the Emperor Honorius:
“When a man wishes his wife to be faithful, he should take his sperm, sprinkled, and put it in a bottle… then catch a lizard with the left hand and put it in the same bottle. Cork them up very tightly and say:
Qui racchiudo la fedelta di mia moglie che non possa mai sfugirmi!
(Here I put the fidelity of my wife, that she may be ever and ever true to me.)
Be careful not to lose the bottle; you should always keep it in the house.”
In 1582 residents in a village in Silesia complained of visitations from a bad-breathed vampire named Cuntius. Before joining the ranks of the undead, Johannes Cuntius had been a respected citizen and aldermen in Pentsch. In February 1582 Cuntius was fatally injured after being kicked by one of his “lusty geldings”. Before expiring Cuntius lingered for several days, complaining of ghostly visions and feeling like he was on fire. According to one witness, at the moment of his death a black cat entered the room and jumped onto his bed. As befitted his civic status, Cuntius was entombed near the altar of his local church. But within a few days several townspeople reported receiving visits from the dead man. All described a “most grievous stink” and “an exceedingly cold breath of so intolerable stinking and malignant a scent as is beyond all imagination and expression”. A whole litany of annoyances and harassments was attributed to the vampire, including accusations of:
“…Galloping up and down like a wanton horse in the court of his house… Miserably tugging all night with a Jew [and] tossing him up and down in his lodgings… dreadfully accosting a wagoner, an old acquaintance of his, while he was busy in the stable [and] biting him so cruelly in the foot that he made him lame… [Entering a] master’s chamber, making a noise like a hog that eats grains, smacking and grunting very sonorously…”
The people of Pentsch tolerated these nocturnal visits until late July, when they resolved to exhume Cuntius’ coffin and deal with his wandering corpse. They found that his:
“…skin was tender and florid, his joints not at all stiff but limber and moveable… a staff being put into his hand, he grasped with his fingers… they opened a vein in his leg and the blood sprang out fresh as in the living.”
After a brief judicial hearing Cuntius’ body was thrown onto a bonfire and burned, then hacked to pieces and crushed to ashes. As might be expected, the spirit of Cuntius ceased its nocturnal visits. By coincidence, the village of Pentsch became the town of Horni Benesov – the ancestral home of US Secretary of State John Kerry.
Fabiano Kinene, Seperiano Kiwanuka and Albert Iseja all appeared before a Ugandan court in 1941, charged with murdering an old man in their village. According to the defendants, the victim was practising witchcraft and they were acting to defend the village. Kinene claimed the victim was discovered in the middle of the night, “naked, with strange objects and acting surreptitiously”:
“They caught him performing an act which they genuinely believed to be an act of witchcraft… they killed him in the way which, in the olden times, was considered proper for the killing of a wizard… Death was caused by the forcible insertion of unripe bananas into the deceased’s bowel, through the anus…”
The court lowered the charge from murder to manslaughter, ruling that acts of attempted witchcraft might constitute a “grave and sudden provocation”.