Attrell (2018 Congress)

Daniel Attrell
(University of Waterloo)

“Reaching the Goal of the Sage:
What’s It Take?”

Abstract of Paper
To be presented at the 53rd International Congress on Medieval Studies
(Kalamazoo, 2018)

Session 1 of 2 on
“Occult Blockbusters of the Islamicate World, I:  The Picatrix (A Medieval Bestseller)”

Co-Sponsored by the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence and the Societas Magica
Organized by David Porreca (University of Waterloo)

2018 Congress Program

[Published on 23 April 2018]

The Picatrix, or the Latin version of the Arabic Gayat Al-Hakim (“The Goal of the Sage”), is a medieval text of astral magic which was cobbled together from numerous aphorisms and fragments drawn from ancient metaphysical, natural-philosophical, astrological, magical, and alchemical sources.  Some of them are traceable to their original authors (Plato, Aristotle, Empedocles, et alia), whilst others were entirely pseudepigraphically attributed to such famous minds.

The Picatrix is a compendious work, itself assembled by “a wise philosopher, the noble and honored Picatrix, [who] compiled this tome from over two hundred books of philosophy, which he then named after himself,” according to the text’s prologue. It puts in the mouths of such ancient philosophers (or “Sages”) a great quantity of instructions for magical operations replete with detailed astrological hours, guidelines for the creation of talismans, and lists of magical recipes — which doubtless the likes of Plato and Pythagoras never discussed. Nevertheless, the thread which binds all these disparate and mysterious fragments is the author’s insistence that the ultimate “goal of the sage” is the ability to use magic.

The goal of this presentation will be to determine, according to our author, what it takes to be a sage? What is the underlying philosophical worldview which determines what constitutes ‘wisdom’? Who are all the philosophers mentioned by the Picatrix, where do they come from, and what distinguishes them as “sages” from the base individuals around them? And lastly, to what extent does our compiler understand the historical nature of those sages he venerates so deeply – in other words, how does he imagine them? What we will find is that the Picatrix and its comprising sources fit squarely within the tradition of “Platonic Orientalism,” a nebulous philosophical school of mystical idealism or “ancient wisdom” which was believed to have come to ancient Greece via “the Orient”, before it was re-exported into the lands conquered by Alexander the Great, and reinterpreted through a variety of local cultural lenses.


Note: See also the Abstract for the Paper in this same Session by Daniel Attrell’s Co-Editor for the new translation: Porreca (2018 Congress) .


Also, you know, both these Authors spoke about aspects of their study of the subject, in the making, at our co-sponsored Session at the 2013 Congress. As described in our announcement for the 2013 International Congress on Medieval Studies.

Then, Dan spoke about “High Times: Astral Magic and the Curious World of Psychoactive Substances in the Picatrix“, whilst David opined on the subject of “What Motivated Magic? The Picatrix as a Sample of Social History”.

Poster for "Astrology and Magic" Congress Session (7 May 2013)

We celebrate their accomplishments, and thank our lucky stars that we could witness stages along the way! Looking forward to the book.


Sarah Layman, David Porreca, and Dan Attrell at the 2017 Reception of the Societas Magica. Photography © Mildred Budny.

“Listening to Dan”. Sarah Layman, David Porreca, and Dan Attrell at the 2017 Reception of the Societas Magica. Photography © Mildred Budny.