The Day's Consecration: A painting by Richard Moult

Telesmata In The Picatrix

Telesmata is from Greek τέλεσμα via the post-classic Latin telesma and is possibly the origin of the English word talisman, dating as that English word does from 1638.

τέλεσμα in Ancient Greek meant a payment, or an offering to offset a debt or for services rendered. According to my fallible understanding, in Hellenistic times it acquired the sense of an object intended as an offering to the gods, and to lesser divinities such as daemons, as a mark of respect or in order to seek their favour or ward off their wroth. Thus if a person had toiled to make the offering, the telesma, or had at the very least exchanged goods or money for it, it was believed that such labour or such an exchange revealed that one had earned their protection or their help. The more valuable the object, the more help or protection they might expect.

This belief in such offerings and their efficacy was an integral part of not only the diverse Greco-Roman paganus weltanschauungen but also of many other paganus weltanschauungen around the world, past and present, founded as such weltanschauungen are on the understanding, on the ancestral wisdom, or on the intuition that we mortals are part of a living cosmos with the gods (the divinities) and Nature considered as living beings (or as archetypes, manifestations of cosmic forces) who and which can affect us and who have affected us – as individuals, and as communities – in terms of good fortune and misfortune.

For such understanding, such ancestral wisdom, or such intuition included the insight that some mortal deeds were wise and some mortal deeds were unwise because wise deeds were those which aided or did not upset the natural cosmic balance and because unwise deeds – acts of hubris – did upset the natural cosmic balance and invited, sooner or later, retribution by the divinities, be such retribution personal (against the hubriatic individual) or against the family and descendants of that individual or against the community that the hubriatic individual was a part of. A pattern of hubriatic deeds which both Aeschylus and Sophocles so well described: Aeschylus in the Oresteia, and Sophocles in his Antigone and his Oedipus Tyrannus.

In respect of the Greek belief in such divinities and asking for their help there is of course that beautiful poem by Sappho [1]

ποικιλόθρον’ ἀθανάτ Ἀφρόδιτα,
παῖ Δίος δολόπλοκε, λίσσομαί σε,
μή μ’ ἄσαισι μηδ’ ὀνίαισι δάμνα,
πότνια, θῦμον,

ἀλλὰ τυίδ’ ἔλθ’, αἴ ποτα κἀτέρωτα
τὰς ἔμας αὔδας ἀίοισα πήλοι
ἔκλυες, πάτρος δὲ δόμον λίποισα
χρύσιον ἦλθες

ἄρμ’ ὐπασδεύξαισα· κάλοι δέ σ’ ἆγον
ὤκεες στροῦθοι περὶ γᾶς μελαίνας
πύκνα δίννεντες πτέρ’ ἀπ’ ὠράνωἴθε-
ρος διὰ μέσσω·

αἶψα δ’ ἐξίκοντο· σὺ δ’, ὦ μάκαιρα,
μειδιαίσαισ’ ἀθανάτωι προσώπωι
ἤρε’ ὄττι δηὖτε πέπονθα κὤττι
δηὖτε κάλημμι

κὤττι μοι μάλιστα θέλω γένεσθαι
μαινόλαι θύμωι· τίνα δηὖτε πείθω
μαισ’ ἄγην ἐς σὰν φιλότατα; τίς σ’, ὦ
Ψά]πφ’, ἀδικήει;

καὶ γὰρ αἰ φεύγει, ταχέως διώξει,
αἰ δὲ δῶρα μὴ δέκετ’, ἀλλὰ δώσει,
αἰ δὲ μὴ φίλει, ταχέως φιλήσει
κωὐκ ἐθέλοισα.

ἔλθε μοι καὶ νῦν, χαλέπαν δὲ λῦσον
ἐκ μερίμναν, ὄσσα δέ μοι τέλεσσαι
θῦμος ἰμέρρει, τέλεσον, σὺ δ’ αὔτα
σύμμαχος ἔσσο.

Deathless Aphrodite – Daughter of Zeus and maker of snares –
On your florid throne, hear me!
My lady, do not subdue my heart by anguish and pain
But come to me as when before
You heard my distant cry, and listened:
Leaving, with your golden chariot yoked, your father’s house
To move beautiful sparrows swift with a whirling of wings
As from heaven you came to this dark earth through middle air
And so swiftly arrived.

Then you my goddess with your immortal lips smiling
Would ask what now afflicts me, why again
I am calling and what now I with my restive heart
Desired:

Whom now shall I beguile
To bring you to her love?
Who now injures you, Sappho?
For if she flees, soon shall she chase
And, rejecting gifts, soon shall she give.
If she does not love you, she shall do so soon
Whatsoever is her will.

Come to me now to end this consuming pain
Bringing what my heart desires to be brought:
Be yourself my ally in this fight.

By the time the manuscripts of the Picatrix were written, as translations of a translation of an Arabic manuscript dating from some three or more centuries earlier, the concept of telesmata seems to have become somewhat divorced from its paganus origins since the Picatrix begins with a doxology to a singular God – Ad laudem et gloriam altissimi et omnipotentis Dei cuius est revelare suis predestinatis secreta scienciarum – echoing as it does the doxology to Allah, Al-Ahad, in that earlier Arabic manuscript and containing as that Arabic manuscript does several quotations from the Quran.

Thus, and again according to my fallible understanding, it seems to me that, given the importance attached in both the Latin and the Arabic text to telesmata – the locus has, despite such doxologies, moved away from the paganus understanding of mortals as an integral (Ciceronian) balancing part of the cosmos, as part of Nature and of their community and personally aware of the consequences of hubris, toward the εἶδος – the abstraction – of mortals as individuals who can by telesmata and other means achieve certain personal desires or bring about certain changes beneficial to themselves. Almost as if telesmata and other similar means have replaced the numinous, the paganus, awareness of our status as mortals who depend on the harmony that the older divinities represented, manifest as this awareness is in the phrase memento homo [2]. A phrase adopted by the Roman Catholic church in the form “memento homo quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris,” [3] and which church, despite its faults, perhaps for centuries kept alive at least something of the paganus understanding of the error of hubris, its awareness of our temporary mortal life and of our fallible mortal nature.

DW Myatt
2017

Note: This text is an edited version of a communication sent this year to someone who had enquired about the relation, if any, between the talismans described in the Latin text entitled Picatrix and Greco-Roman pagan beliefs.

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[1] My translation. The Greek text is that of Lobel and Page, Poetarum Lesbiorum Fragmenta, Oxford 1955.
[2] Although the use of a similar phrase about mortality in the Triumphus is disputed, there is evidence to suggest that during those victory processions in Rome the triumphant General was reminded by someone of his mortality, qv. M. Beard, The Roman Triumph, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007. p. 272f.
[3] “Recall, mortal, you are dust and you will revert to being dust.”

°°°

Related:

That Heavy Dust


Image credit:
The Day’s Consecration – from a painting by Richard Moult


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