Call for papers – project fringe at IMC 2022

Fringe Expertise? Cross-Cultural Readings of Occult Practices in Premodern Eurasia

International Medieval Congress, Leeds, 4-7 July 2022

Sponsored by The Sorcerer’s Handbook: Medieval Arabic Magic in Context Project

Organisers: Dr Sarah Ortega, Dr Geoff Humble (University of Leeds)

This session seeks to bring together a cross-cultural comparative reading of occult practices and practitioners. The term ‘Occult’ encompasses a wide range of intellectual, religious, and scientific practices. In addition to the manuals that explain how to undertake these, their purpose and status are navigated through a diverse array of perspectives that includes narrative historiographies, folk tales, miracle stories, and artworks. Such sources may extol the benefits of useful technologies and syncretic or folk wisdom, or they may formulate allegations of deceitful charlatanry and dangerous meddling. Likewise, practitioners were subject to an extremely wide range of patronage, control, and proscription. By tracing the shifting borders of orthodoxy and acceptability across medieval Eurasia and beyond, it is possible to investigate a broad spectrum of experiences running from the quotidian to the extraordinary across diverse social strata. We would like to invite papers that explore how legacies of occult practices were shaped by such influences as gendered ideas, political conflict, social upheaval, and debates in philosophy and religion.

Occult practices most broadly defined, including (but not limited to):

·       Divination

·       Exorcism

·       Astrology

·       Production of talismans

·       Magic

·       Miracle cures and medical magic

·       Shamanic activity

·       Dowsing

·       Alchemy

·       Charlatans

If you are interested, please email Geoff Humble  or Sarah Ortega  with an abstract of no more than 100 words by Monday 23rd August 2021.

The IMC call for sessions and papers can be found at

For the IMC’s Proposal Guidelines see:

The Sorcerer’s Handbook Workshop, 2021

Monday the 12th

2:30- 2:40 pm: Welcome

2:40-3:10: Emily Selove: The Book of the Complete as a Complete Book: Sirāj al-Dīn al-Sakkākī’s grimoire taken as a whole

3:10-3:40: Michael Noble: From the diabolical to the celestial: Sakkaki’s planetary prayers in their Ishraqi context

3:40-3:50: Break

3:50-4:20: Travis Zadeh: Sakkākī in Persian: Early Persian Handbooks of Practical Magic

4:20-4:30: Supriya Gandhi: Brief comments on the India chapter

4:30-5:00: Chiara Fontana: The Name of the Key: Al-Sakkākī’s Literary Craftsmanship and Pragmatic Poetics in Miftāḥ al-ʽUlūm


Tuesday the 13th

2:30-3:00: Taro Mimura: Evolution of the Kitab al-Ustutas Tradition in Sakkaki’s Magical Book

3:00-3:30: Sarah Ortega: Al-Sakkākī and the Legacies of Magic and Charlatanism

3:30-3:40: Break

3:40-4:10: Siam Bhayro: The Use of Hebrew Liturgical Fragments in the Book of the Complete

4:10-4:40: Giovanni Martini: Khawāṣṣ al-Qurʾān and Qurʾānic Elements in Sakkākī’s al-Shāmil wa-baḥr al-kāmil: Preliminary Observations

4:40-4:50:: Break

4:50-5:20: Luca Patrizi: Between Magic and Sufism: The 40 Names of God Transmitted by the Prophet Idrīs (al-asmāʾ al-idrīsiyya)

5:20-5:30: discussion



Wednesday the 14th

2:30-3:00: Geoffrey Humble:  A Two-Khan Charlatan? Eastern Eurasian Perspectives on Sakkakī and Mongol-Era Court Magic

3:00-3:30: Bryan Brown: The Question of the Empty House

3:30-3:40: Break

3:40-4:10: Stephen Gordon: The Shamil and Medieval European Books of Ritual Magic

4:10-4:40: Catherine Rider: Al-Sakkaki’s Magic for Impotence: A Shared Tradition between East and West?

4:40-4:50: Break

4:50-5:20: Amy Richlin: Altarboys, or, the Uses of Children in Roman Ritual.

5:20-5:30: Closing remarks


Emily Selove

Sakkaki’s grimoire, with its resemblance to a recipe or scrap book, seems to invite the reader to pick and choose the invocations and rituals that suit their current needs. But unlike an encyclopaedia or a cookbook, the Book of the Complete does offer a more complete picture if read from beginning to end. This presentation will illuminate some of the overarching structures and ideas that come into view if the Kitab al-Shamil is read as a complete book. It will also highlight some inconsistencies that are more difficult to explain within this framework.

Travis Zadeh

In addition to overlapping in selection of materials and bodies of practices, the individual Arabic collections of talismanic and astral magic by Ṭabasī, Rāzī, and Sakkakī each enjoyed Persian translations, adaptations, and abridgements. This paper discusses the emergence, circulation, and cultivation of Persian manuals of practical magic, while also providing some general background to earlier Middle Persian connections with the corpus of Arabic Hermetica and astral magic. Also explored are the motivations behind the translation of these materials into Persian, the contexts in which they circulated, and the challenges and opportunities they present for the study of the occult sciences in general and Sakkākī in particular.

Chiara Fontana

Conceiving al-Sakkākī’s systematic detection of causes and effects as the attempt to frame them in a coherent divine and cultural project, I argue that his use of logic and wonder might be conceived as the key to trace a cardiogram of emotions accessible to human rationality. Thus, my inquiries on key symbology aim to sketch his arguably craftsman modus operandi found in the Miftāḥ as the frame where language control in communicative performances does not vault over the power of silence, the mystery of human art. On the contrary, according to this view, I look at the Miftāḥ’s “dryness” and prescriptivism as the logical output of a project that wants to explore the craft, not the beauty of the handicraft itself, like the spell that simultaneously performs the prodigy without unveiling its mystery.

Taro Mimura

Sakkaki’s Magical Book contains quite a few excerptions from magical texts popular in the Islamicate world, one of which is Kitab al-Ustutas, a principal text of Pseudo-Aristotlelian Hermetica. The Kitab al-Ustutas is a book on talismans concerning the lunar mansions. This work became popular, so that important Arabic magical texts, such as Ikhwan Safa’s Epistle and the Ghayat al-Hakim, contained a part of the contents of this Kitab, and several summaries were derived from it. In this talk, I will compare the excerption of the Kitab al-Ustutas in Sakkaki’s Book, and will put Sakkaki’s excerption in the tradition of the Arabic lunar mansion talismans.

Stephen Gordon

The form and function of western books of ritual magic owe a huge debt to the intellectual frameworks developed in the Greek, Jewish and Islamic worlds. This paper will review the ways in which western grimoires such as the Clavicula Salamonis and Thesaurus Spirituum drew upon – and built upon – the same procedures and rationale for conducting magical ‘experiments’ as the spells included in Sakkaki’s own text. Specific attention will be given the preparatory rites, use of ritual paraphernalia, and the construction of magic circles.

Catherine Rider

Al-Sakkaki’s text includes several rituals to cause sexual impotence or impede intercourse, among a variety of other rituals relating to love and sex. The belief that magic could cause impotence is a widespread one, found in many cultures and historical periods. It was discussed in detail in medieval Western Europe, because impotence (including impotence caused by magic) was recognised in canon law as one of a limited number of grounds for annulling a marriage.  This paper will compare al-Sakkaki’s impotence rituals to what we find in the Latin West in the same period, and ask how far we can see similar traditions and beliefs at work.

Sarah Ortega

Little is certain about al-Sakkākī’s life, but Khwāndamīr’s Ḥabib al-siyar is the major source for details about his career as a magician. This paper will examine how this brief biographical notice, written some three hundred years after al-Sakkākī’s death, engages with an established tradition of literature that exposes the tricks of charlatans. Broader questions about the distinctions between charlatanism and ‘real’ magic offer new pathways for exploring al-Sakkākī’s own understanding of magic in his Kitāb al-shamīl wa-baḥr al-kāmil.

Giovanni Martini

This presentation explores the presence of Qurʾānic elements in Sakkākī’s grimoire, questioning in particular where and how the Qurʾān is used within the text. The strong presence of segments of Qurʾānic text in certain sections of the book, or, on the contrary, their almost complete absence in others, appear to be useful indicators to confirm the stratified nature of the treatise and the heterogeneous origin of the materials included in it. Also interesting is an examination of the ways and contexts, sometimes very different from one another, in which the Qurʾān is used in the sections in which it appears.

Luca Patrizi

In the Kitāb al-shāmil, Sakkākī transmits a seal (khātim) that he describes as very powerful and able to make the person who recites it obtain everything he desires. He inserts this seal in the chapter on the seals that can exert a power over the jinn. The seal is to be engraved on a silver plate at a precise time of day and according to precise rules of purity. The plate is then worn on the chest before the recitation of the 40 names of God. Sakkākī maintains that these names were revealed to the prophet Idrīs and transmitted to the prophet Muḥammad during his Ascension. In this talk, I will show that this narrative is widespread in the context of Islamic esotericism, where these names are known as al-asmāʾ al-arbaʿūn, the 40 names, but especially as al-asmāʾ al-idrīsiyya, “The Names of Idris”.  The recitation of these names is common both in the magical milieu and in Sufism, where they are usually known as al-asmāʾ al-suhrawardiyya, since, depending on the source, they would have been rediscovered and retransmitted either by Shahāb al-Dīn Yaḥyā Suhrawardī (1154-1191) or by Shahāb al-Dīn ʿUmar Suhrawardī (c. 1145 – 1234). Numerous commentaries on these names are available in manuscript or edited form. Among them, we can cite for importance the commentary of Aḥmad Zarrūq (d. 1493), who also incorporates these names in his commentary on the 99 names of God.

Geoffrey Humble

This paper seeks to place the narratives of Sakkakī’s ‘court sorcerer’ activity within partially overlapping spheres of imperial Mongol narrative historiography and Chinese-language anomaly accounts. Both sets of texts display tension between pragmatic willingness to employ all effective technologies (often seen as a typical Mongol trait), and concerns with maintaining the pure primacy of the Emperor or Qaġan’s position as a thearch endowed by, and directly responsible to, the Heavens. Readings of Sakkakī’s presence as a source of both great prestige and risky decline seem to fit a discernible pattern in both traditions where effective occult techniques are kept at a very careful arm’s length from ‘respectable’ rulership.

Bryan Brown

Performance Scholar and theatre director, Richard Schechner defines performance as “any action that is framed, presented, highlighted or displayed” (Performance Studies: an introduction, 2002). But if a performance is done for no one, alone in an empty house, is it still a performance? Arguably Sakkaki’s imperative that the magico-ritual act be done in such a way is itself a framing or highlighting of the action and thus makes it ‘performance’ or at the very least ‘performative’. By performative I might here mean that it is extradaily. The doer (of the action) is performing for the unseen, the ghosts, the ancestors, the supernatural beings (angels, demons, jinn) or even simply in the quantum mechanistic view for the slow-observer that is the empty house itself.

Amy Richlin

What kind of child do you need to see visions in a cup?  Is this use or abuse? The answer to these questions will take us from al-Sakkaki’s native Khwarezm east to Gorny Altai, west to Gaul, and south to Egypt.  Wherever private magic was practiced, wherever the trade routes reached, children were, as Sarah Iles Johnston puts it, “readily available.” Even the Romans, whose state religion required the participation of certain freeborn children, at least knew about the use of (probably slave) children in scrying, and commonly connected the practice with Babylon or Persia. The Greek magical papyri, as well as Byzantine and Jewish spells, recommend the use of child mediums; their insistence on the child’s purity reminds us that there was no lower age limit on the sexual use of child slaves. Yet slaves themselves used magic, and slave children served in some semi-public cults: voluntarily? Following Bryan Brown’s comments on performance, we should bear in mind that a lot depends on who you’re performing for.

Bringing the Complete Book off the Page

This is a love talisman from a book of lunar mansions, widely circulated in the medieval world. It is meant to be carved out of ebony, which is way beyond my skill, so I stained it ebony instead. I also did not inscribe it with the correct names, address it with the prescribed incantation, perfume it with the appropriate incense, or observe the position of the moon during its creation. So it is only a model for research purposes, and not a talisman… though if it ends up earning me the love of mankind anyway, I won’t complain!

The pictured manuscript is a Persian translation of this Arabic work of talismanic hermetica, which was also translated into Latin. Here is my translation of the spell:

A Nīranj for love in the hearts of men: Take a piece of ebony wood without any whiteness in it when the moon is in the eighth degree of this mansion and make an idol out of it with the face of a bird, with its right hand on his chest, and his left hand hanging on his hips. Then on his back, inscribe these shapes: [symbols], on his chest, inscribe these letters [a string of letters], then inscribe on his right and left thigh the names of the six angels of this mansion. Inscribe only when the moon is in the mansion and conjoined felicitously. When you have finished the inscription, suffumigate it with the incense and recite the names of the angels, and say (but do not inscribe) the following: Spirits of love, affection, togetherness, and harmony among all of creation, you have intermingled in it, spirits of love, in the hearts of the sons of Adam and the daugthers of Eve, slave and free, and all the rest of creation!

Read these words a hundred times and pick it up and carry it with you in a cloth of yellow silk brocade. This is one of the special secrets, so understand it well, O children of wisdom.



Music by Pulp (“This House is Condemned”)

Manuscript image from Royal Asiatic Society Persian MS 11

Translation based on an Arabic text of Siraj al-Din al-Sakkaki’s Kitab al-Shamil (British Library, Delhi Arabic 1915b).

The Sorcerer’s Handbook research project is funded by the Leverhulme Trust