THE BLACK BOOK – Dealing With Demons

The Temptation of St. Anthony by Martin Schöngauer c. 1480-90. Engraving. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

It is known by many names. The ‘Black Book’, ‘Dr. Faust’s Hell-Master’, the ‘Book of Cyprianus’, among others. Whatever it is called and wherever it is said to be, this grimoire is to be handled with extreme care. The book has the ability to summon up demons, vast spells and generally confer upon its user, great magical power. Its misuse can be disastrous. The Russian soldier who conjured up a bevy of menacing demons when he inadvertently began to read his comrade’s copy of the book found this out the hard way. ‘Give us work’, the demons demanded. Apparently familiar with the folk tradition that the only way to be rid of demons is to ask them to perform impossible tasks, the frightened soldier does just that as the demons close in upon him:

‘… The soldier reflected awhile, and then said, “Fill up the cisterns of all the baths in the town with water brought thither in a sieve.” 

The demons flew away. In two minutes they returned and said, “It is done! Give us some more work to do — quick!” 

“Pull the Voivode’s [Governor’s] house down, brick by brick; but take care you do not touch or disturb the inmates; then build it up again as it was before.”

The goblins disappeared, but in two minutes returned. “It is done!” they cried. “Give us more work — quick!”

“Go,” said the soldier, “and count the grains of sand that lie at the bottom of the Volga, the number of drops of water that are in the river, and of the fish that swim in it, from its source to its mouth.”

The spirits flew away; but in another minute they returned, having executed their task. Thus, before the soldier could think of some new labor to be done, the old one was completed, and the demons were again at his side demanding more work. When he began to think what he should give them, they pressed round him, and threatened him with instant death if he did not give them something to do. 

The soldier was becoming exhausted, and there was yet no sign of his comrade’s return. What course should he take? How deliver himself from the evil spirits? 

The soldier thought to himself, “While I was reading the book, not one of the demons came near me. Let me try to read it again; perhaps that will keep them off.”

Again he began to read the book of magic, but he soon observed that as he read the number of phantoms increased, so that soon such a host of the spirit-world surrounded him that the very lamp was scarcely visible. 

When the soldier hesitated at a word, or paused to rest himself, the goblins became more restless and violent, demanding, “Give us work to do! Give us work!”

The soldier was almost worn out, and unhappily knew not how to help himself. Suddenly a thought occurred to him, “The spirits appeared when I read the book from the beginning; let me now read it from the end, perhaps this well send them way.”

He turned the book round and began to read it from the end. After reading for some time he observed that the number of spirits decreased; the lamp began again to burn brightly, and there was an empty space around him. The soldier was delighted, and continued his reading. He read and read until he had read them all away. And thus he saved himself from the demons. 

His comrade came in soon afterwards. The soldier told him what had happened.

“It is fortunate for you,” said his comrade, “that you began to read the book backwards in time. Had you not thus read them away by midnight they would have devoured you.”[i]

Legends of the Black Book were widely collected in Germany and Scandinavia. They highlight the strong and broad folk beliefs about magic and the Devil. The folk Devil, though, is usually unlike the image of His Satanic majesty that is usually presented in more literary treatments, such as Goethe’s Faustus and Marlowe’s Faust. The Devil is definitely satanic and evil but is often portrayed as a bit of a dill, easily outsmarted by clever humans, like the Russian soldier with knowledge of the black arts.

[i] John Naaké, Slavonic Fairy Tales, collected and translated from the Russian, Polish, Servian, and Bohemian (London: Henry S. King and Company, 1874),  pp. 190-93

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