Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, Books for the News, History and Philosophy of Science

Excerpt: Invisible by Philip Ball

Recipes for Invisibility, an excerpt
by Philip Ball

 “Occult Forces”

Around 1680 the English writer John Aubrey recorded a spell of invisibility that seems plucked from a (particularly grim) fairy tale. On a Wednesday morning before sunrise, one must bury the severed head of a man who has committed suicide, along with seven black beans. Water the beans for seven days with good brandy, after which a spirit will appear to tend the beans and the buried head. The next day the beans will sprout, and you must persuade a small g irl to pick and shell them. One of these beans, placed in the mouth, will make you invisible.

This was tried, Aubrey says, by two Jewish merchants in London, who could’t acquire the head of a suicide victim and so used instead that of a poor cat killed ritualistically. They planted it with the beans in the garden of a gentleman named Wyld Clark, with his permission. Aubrey’s deadpan relish at the bathetic outcome suggests he was sceptical all along– for he explains that Clark’s rooster dug up the beans and ate them without consequence.

Despite the risk of such prosaic setbacks, the magical texts of the Middle Ages and the early Enlightenment exude confidence in their prescriptions, however bizarre they might be. Of course the magic will work, if you are bold enough to take the chance. This was not merely a sales pitch. The efficacy of magic was universally believed in those days. The common folk feared it and yearned for it, the clergy condemned it, and the intellectuals and philosophers, and a good many charlatans and tricksters, hinted that they knew how to do it.

It is among these fanciful recipes that the quest begins for the origins of invisibility as both a theoretical possibility and a practical technology in the real world. Making things invisible was a kind of magic–but what exactly did that mean?

Historians are confronted with the puzzle of why the tradition of magic lasted so long and laid roots so deep, when it is manifestly impotent. Some of that tenacity is understandable enough. The persistence of magical medicines, for example, isn’t so much of a mystery given that in earlier ages there were no more effective alternatives and that medical cause and effect has always been difficult to establish – people do sometimes get better, and who is to say why? Alchemy, meanwhile, could be sustained by trickery, although that does not solely or even primarily account for its longevity as a practical art: alchemists made much else besides gold and even their gold-making recipes could sometimes change the appearance of metals in ways that might have suggested they were on the right track. As for astrology, it’s persistence even today testifies in part to how readily it can be placed beyond the reach of any attempts at falsification.

But how do you fake invisibility? Either you can see something or someone, or you can’t.

Well, one might think so. But that isn’t the case at all. Magicians have always possessed the power of invisibility. What has changed is the story they tell about how it is done. What has changed far less, however, is our reasons for wishing it to be done and our willingness to believe that it can be. In this respect, invisibility supplies one of the most eloquent testimonies to our changing view of magic – not, as some rationalists might insist, a change from credulous acceptance to hard-headed dismissal, but something far more interesting.

Let’s begin with some recipes. Here is a small selection from what was doubtless once a much more diverse set of options, many of which are now lost. It should give you some intimation of what was required.

John Aubrey provides another prescription, somewhat tamer than the previous one and allegedly from a Rosicrucian source (we’ll see why later):

Take on Midsummer night, at xii [midnight], Astrologically, when all the Planets are above the earth, a Serpent, and kill him, and skinne him: and dry it in the shade, and bring it to a powder. Hold it in your hand and you will be invisible.

If it is black cats you want, look to the notorious Grand Grimoire. Like many magical books, this is a fabrication of the eighteenth century (or perhaps even later), validated by an ostentatious pseudo-history. The author is said to be one‘Alibeck the Egyptian’, who allegedly wrote the following recipe in 1522:

Take a black cat, and a new pot, a mirror, a lighter, coal and tinder. Gather water from a fountain at the strike of midnight. Then you light your fire, and put the cat in the pot. Hold the cover with your left hand without moving or looking behind you, no matter what noises you may hear. After having made it boil 24 hours, put the boiled cat on a new dish. Take the meat and throw it over your left shoulder, saying these words:“accipe quod tibi do, et nihil ampliùs.” [Accept my offering, and don’t delay.] Then put the bones one by one under the teeth on the left side, while looking at yourself in the mirror; and if they do not work, throw them away, repeating the same words each time until you find the right bone; and as soon you cannot see yourself any more in the mirror, withdraw, moving backwards, while saying: “Pater, in manus tuas commendo spiritum meum.” [Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.] This bone you must keep.

Sometimes it was necessary to summon the help of demons, which was always a matter fraught with danger. A medieval manual of demonic magic tells the magician to go to a field and inscribe a circle on the ground, fumigate it and sprink le it, and himself, with holy water while reciting Psalm 51:7 (‘Cleanse me with hyssop, and I shall be clean . . .’). He then conjures several demons and commands them in God’s name to do his bidding by bringing him a cap of invisibility. One of them will fetch this item and exchange it for a white robe. If the magician does not return to the same place in three days, retrieve his robe and burn it, he will drop dead within a week. In other words, this sort of invisibility was both heretical and hazardous. That is perhaps why instructions for invisibility in an otherwise somewhat quotidian fifteenth-century book of household management from Wolfsthurn Castle in the Tyrol have been mutilated by a censorious reader.

Demons are, after all, what you might expect to find in a magical grimoire. TheGrimorium Verum (True Grimoire) is another eighteenth-century fake attributed to Alibeck the Eg yptian; it was alternatively called the Secret of Secrets, an all-purpose title alluding to an encyclopaedic Arabic treatise popular in the Middle Ages. ‘Secrets’ of course hints alluringly at forbidden lore, although in fact the word was often also used simply to refer to any specialized knowledge or skill, not necessarily something intended to be kept hidden. This grimoire says that invisibility can be achieved simply by reciting a Latin prayer – largely just a list of the names of demons whose help is being invoked, and a good indication as to why magic spells came to be regarded as a string of nonsense words:

Athal, Bathel, Nothe, Jhoram, Asey, Cleyungit, Gabellin, Semeney, Mencheno, Bal, Labenenten, Nero, Meclap, Helateroy, Palcin, Timgimiel, Plegas, Peneme, Fruora, Hean, Ha, Ararna, Avira, Ayla, Seye, Peremies, Seney, Levesso, Huay, Baruchalù, Acuth, Tural, Buchard, Caratim, per misericordiam abibit ergo mortale perficiat qua hoc opus ut invisibiliter ire possim . . .

. . . and so on. The prescription continues in a rather freewheeling?tion using characters written in bat’s blood, before calling on yet more demonic ‘masters of invisibility’ to ‘perform this work as you all know how, that this experiment may make me invisible in such wise that no one may see me’.

A magic book was scarcely complete without a spell of invisibility. One of the most notorious grimoires of the Middle Ages, called the Picatrix and based on a tenth-century Arabic work, gives the following recipe.* You take a rabbit on the ‘24th night of the Arabian month’, behead it facing the moon, call upon the ‘angelic spirit’ Salmaquil, and then mix the blood of the rabbit with its bile. (Bury the body well – if it is exposed to sunlight, the spirit of the Moon will kill you.) To make yourself invisible, anoint your face with this blood and bile at nighttime, and ‘you will make yourself totally hidden from the sight of others, and in this way you will be able to achieve whatever you desire’.

‘Whatever you desire’ was probably something bad, because that was usually the way with invisibility. A popular trick in the eighteenth century, known as the Hand of Glory, involved obtaining (don’t ask how) the hand of an executed criminal and preserving it chemically, then setting light to a finger or inserting a burning candle between the fingers. With this talisman you could enter a building unseen and take what you liked, either because you are invisible or because everyone inside is put to sleep.

These recipes seem to demand a tiresome attention to materials and details. But really, as attested in The Book of Abramelin (said to be a system of magic that the Eg yptian mage Abramelin taught to a German Jew in the fifteenth century), it was quite simple to make yourself invisible. You need only write down a‘magic square’ – a small grid in which numbers (or in Abramelin’s case, twelve symbols representing demons) form particular patterns – and place it under your cap. Other grimoires made the trick sound equally straightforward, albeit messy: one should carry the heart of a bat, a black hen, or a frog under the right arm.

Perhaps most evocative of all were accounts of how to make a ring of invisibility, popularly called a Ring of Gyges. The twentieth-century French historian Emile Grillot de Givry explained in his anthology of occult lore how this might be accomplished:

The ring must be made of fixed mercury; it must be set with a little stone to be found in a lapwing’s nest, and round the stone must be engraved the words,“Jésus passant ✠ par le milieu d’eux ✠ s’en allait.” You must put the ring on your finger, and if you look at yourself in a mirror and cannot see the ring it is a sure sign that it has been successfully manufactured.

Fixed mercury is an ill-defined alchemical material in which the liquid metal is rendered solid by mixing it with other substances. It might refer to the chemical reaction of mercury with sulphur to make the blackish-red sulphide, for example, or the formation of an amalgam of mercury with gold. The biblical reference is to the alleged invisibility of Christ mentioned in Luke 4:30 (‘Jesus passed through the midst of them’) and John 8:59 (see page 155). And the lapwing’s stone is a kind of mineral – of which, more below. Invisibility is switched on or off at will by rotating the ring so that this stone sits facing outward or inward (towards the palm), just as Gyges rotated the collet.

Several other recipes in magical texts repeat the advice to check in a mirror that the magic has worked. That way, one could avoid embarrassment of the k ind suffered by a Spaniard who, in 1582, decided to use invisibility magic in his attempt to assassinate the Prince of Orange. Since his spells could not make clothes invisible, he had to strip naked, in which state he arrived at the palace and strolled casually through the gates, unaware that he was perfectly visible to the guards. They followed the outlandish intruder until the purpose of his mission became plain, whereupon they seized him and flogged him.

Some prescriptions combined the alchemical preparation of rings with a necromantic invocation of spirits. One, appearing in an eighteenth-century French manuscript, explains how, if the name of the demon Tonucho is written on parchment and placed beneath a yellow stone set into a gold band while reciting an appropriate incantation, the demon is trapped in the ring and can be impelled to do one’s bidding.

Other recipes seem to refer to different qualities of invisibility. One might be unable to see an object not because it has vanished as though perfectly transparent, but because it lies hidden by darkness or mist, so that the‘cloaking’ is apparent but what it cloaks is obscured. Or one might be dazzled by a play of light (see page 25), or experience some other confusion of the senses. There is no single view of what invisibility consists of, or where it resides. These ambiguities recur throughout the history of the invisible.

Partly for this reason, it might seem hard to discern any pattern in these prescriptions– any common themes or ingredients that might provide a clue to their real meaning. Some of them sound like the cartoon sorcery of wizards stirring bubbling cauldrons. Others are satanic, or else high-minded and allegorical, or merely deluded or fraudulent. They mix pious dedications to God with blasphemous entreaties to uncouthly named demons. That diversity is precisely what makes the tradition of magic so difficult to grasp: one is constantly wondering if it is a serious intellectual enterprise, a smokescreen for charlatans, or the credulous superstition of folk belief. The truth is that magic in the Western world was all of these things and for that very reason has been able to permeate culture at so many different levels and to leave traces in the most unlikely of places: in theoretical physics and pulp novels, the cults of modern mystics and the glamorous veils of cinema. The ever-present theme of invisibility allows us to follow these currents from their source.

*Appearing hard on the heels of an unrelated discussion of the Chaldean city of Adocentyn, it betrays the cut-and-paste nature of many such compendia.

“Making Magic”

Many of the recipes for invisibility from the early Renaissance onward therefore betray an ambiguous credo. They are often odd, sometimes ridiculous, and yet there are indications that they are not mere mumbo-jumbo dreamed up by lunatics or charlatans, but hint at a possible rationale within the system of natural magic.

It’s no surprise, for example, that eyes feature prominently among the ingredients. From a modern perspective the association might seem facile: you grind up an eyeball and therefore people can’t see you. But to an adept of natural magic there would have been a sound causative principle at work, operating through the occult network of correspondences: an eye for an eye, you might say. A medieval collec?tion of Greek magical works from the fourth century AD known as the Cyranides contains some particularly grotesque recipes of this sort for ointments of invisibility. One involves grinding together the fat or eye of an owl, a ball of beetle dung and perfumed olive oil, and then anointing the entire body while reciting a selection of unlikely names. Another uses instead ‘the eye of an ape or of a man who had a violent death’, along with roses and sesame oil. An eighteenth-century text spuriously associated with Albertus Magnus (he was a favourite source of magical lore even in his own times) instructs the magician to‘pierce the right eye of a bat, and carry it with you and you will be invisible’. One of the cruellest prescriptions instructs the magician to cut out the eyes of a live owl and bury them in a secret place.

A fifteenth-century Greek manuscript offers a more explicitly optical theme than Aubrey’s head-grown beans, stipulating that fava beans are imbued with invisibility magic when placed in the eye sockets of a human skull. Even though one must again call upon a pantheon of fantastically named demons, the principle attested here has a more naturalistic flavour: ‘As the eyes of the dead do not see the living, so these beans may also have the power of invisibility.’

Within the magic tradition of correspondences, certain plants and minerals were associated with invisibility. For example, the dust on brown patches of mature fern leaves was said to be a charm of invisibility: unlike other plants, they appeared to possess neither flowers nor seeds, but could nevertheless be found surrounded by their progeny.

The classical stone of invisibility was the heliotrope (sun-turner), also called bloodstone: a form of green or yellow quartz (chalcedony) flecked with streaks of a red mineral that is either iron oxide or red jasper. The name alludes to the ston’s tendency to reflect and disperse light, itself a sign of special optical powers. In his Natural History, Pliny says that magicians assert that the heliotrope can make a person invisible, although he scoffs at the suggestion:

In the use of this stone, also, we have a most glaring illustration of the impudent effrontery of the adepts in magic, for they say that, if it is combined with the plant heliotropium, and certain incantations are then repeated over it, it will render the person invisible who carries it about him.

The plant mentioned here, bearing the same name as the mineral, is a genus of the borage family, the flowers of which were thought to turn to face the sun. How a mineral is‘combined’ with a plant isn’t clear, but the real point is that the two substances are again bound by a system of occult correspondence.

Agrippa repeated Pliny’s claim in the sixteenth century, minus the scepticism:

There is also another vertue of it [the bloodstone] more wonderfull, and that is upon the eyes of men, whose sight it doth so dim, and dazel, that it doth not suffer him that carries it to see it, & this it doth not do without the help of the Hearb of the same name, which also is called Heliotropium.

It is more explicit here that the magic works by dazzlement: the person wearing a heliotrope is ‘invisible’ because the light it reflects befuddles the senses. That is why kings wear bright jewels, explained Anselm Boetius, physician to the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II in 1609: they wish to mask their features in brilliance. This use of gems that spark le, reflect and disperse light to confuse and blind the onlooker is attributed by Ben Jonson to the Rosicrucians, who were often popu?larly associated with magical powers of invisibility (see pages 32–3). In his poem The Underwood, Jonson writes of

The Chimera of the Rosie-Crosse,
Their signs, their seales, their hermetique rings;
Their jemme of riches, and bright stone that brings
Invisibilitie, and strength, and tongues.

The bishop Francis Godwin indicates in his fantastical fiction The Man in the Moone(1634), an early vision of space travel, that invisibility jewels were commonly deemed to exist, while implying that their corrupting temptations made them subject to divine prohibition. Godwin’s space-voyaging hero Domingo Gonsales asks the inhabitants of the Moon

whether they had not any kind of Jewell or other means to make a man invisible, which mee thought had beene a thing of great and extraordinary use . . . They answered that if it were a thing faisible, yet they assured themselves that God would not suffer it to be revealed to us creatures subject to so many imperfections, being a thing so apt to be abused to ill purposes.

Other dazzling gemstones were awarded the same‘virtue’, chief among them the opal. This is a form of silica that refracts and reflects light to produce rainbow iridescence, indeed called opalescence.

Whether opal derives from the Greek opollos,‘seeing’ – the root of ‘optical’ – is disputed, but opal’s streaked appearance certainly resem?bles the iris of the eye, and it has long been associated with the evil eye. In the thirteenth-century Book of Secrets, yet again falsely attributed to Albertus Magnus, the mineral is g iven the Greek name for eye (ophthalmos) and is said to cause invisibility by bedazzlement:

Take the stone Ophthalmus, and wrap it in the leaf of the Laurel, or Bay tree; and it is called Lapis Obtalmicus, whose colour is not named, for it is of many colours. And it is of such virtue, that it blindeth the sights of them that stand about. Constantius [probably Constantine the Great] carrying this in his hand, was made invisible by it.

It is’t hard to recognize this as a variant of Pliny’s recipe, complete with cognate herb. In fact it isn’t entirely clear that this Ophthalmus really is opal, since elsewhere in theBook of Secrets that mineral is called Quiritia and isn’t associated with invisibility. This reflects the way that the book was, like so many medieval handbooks and encyoclopedias, patched together from a variety of sources.

Remember the‘stone from the lapwing’s nest’ mentioned by Grillot de Givry? His source was probably an eighteenth-century text called the Petit Albert – a fabrication, with the grand full title of Marvelous Secrets of Natural and Qabalistic Magic, attributed to a ‘Little Albert’ and obviously trading once more on the authority of the ‘Great Albert’ (Magnus). The occult revivalist Arthur Waite gave the full account of this recipe from the Petit Albert in his Book of Ceremonial Magic (1913), which asserts that the bird plays a further role in the affair:

Having placed the ring on a palette-shaped plate of fixed mercury, compose the perfume of mercury, and thrice expose the ring to the odour thereof; wrap it in a small piece of taffeta corresponding to the colour of the planet, carry it to the peewit’s [lapwing’s] nest from which the stone was obtained, let it remain there for nine days, and when removed, fumigate it precisely as before. Then preserve it most carefully in a small box, made also of fixed mercury, and use it when required.

Now we can get some notion of what natural magic had become by the time the Petit Albert was cobbled together. It sounds straightforward enough, but who is going to do all this? Where will you find the lapwin’s nest with a stone in it in the first place? What is this mysterious ‘perfume of mercury’? Will you take the ring back and put it in the nest for nine days and will it still be there later if you do? The spell has become so intricate, so obscure and vexing, that no one will try it. The same character is evident in a nineteenth-century Greek manuscript called the Bernardakean Magical Codex, in which Aubrey’s instructions for growing beans with a severed head are elaborated beyond all hope of success: you need to bury a black cat’s head under an ant hill, water it with human blood brought every day for forty days from a barber (those were the days when barbers still doubled as blood-letters), and check to see if one of the beans has the power of invisibility by looking into a new mirror in which no one has previously looked. If the spell doesn’t work (and the need to check each bean shows that this is always a possibility), it isn’t because the magic is ineffectual but because you must have done something wrong somewhere along the way. In which case, will you find another black cat and begin over? Unlikely; instead, aspiring magicians would buy these books of ‘secrets’, study their prescriptions and incantations and thereby become an adept in a magical circle: someone who possesses powerful secrets, but does not, perhaps, place much store in actually putting them to use. Magical books thus acquired the same talismanic function as a great deal of the academic literature today: to be read, learnt, cited, but never used.

To read more about Invisible, click here.