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For the first time, an exquisitely bizarre 18th-century manuscript of the black magical arts is available in a full-color facsimile. Touch Me Not, edited by Hereward Tilton and Merlin Cox, is out now from Fulgur Limited. It features new translations from Tilton and Cox of the German and Latin texts in the 1795 Austrian manuscript, which is in the collections of the Wellcome Library in London. The Fulgur publication is an alluringly designed hardback, with a black cloth cover embossed with its title in foreboding red letters, endpapers of a sigil-covered hand, and lush color plates. However, as Touch Me Not vividly warns in its illustrations of ecstatically monstrous demons and magicians conjuring these dark spirits, those who meddle with such magic unprepared will face horrifying consequences.
One of the 35 watercolor and ink illustrations depicts a man carrying out necromantic arts, with a hanged and quite dead corpse nearby, totally protected from a demon by his magic circle and grimoire while a ritually nude man digs in the earth beside him. In a following illustration, two would-be magicians are startled from their own exhumation by a rooster-headed demon that is urinating on their lantern, and grasping one hapless human by the hair for a likely dismembering. But what were these people digging for in the first place? As Tilton explains in an introduction, “magical treasure-hunting was a ‘fashionable crime’ running at epidemic levels in eighteenth-century Austria.” And for such hunting, you had to take the treasures from guardian spirits.
“The borderline between good and evil magic is as fine as spider’s silk,” Touch Me Not cautions. “For this reason it is extremely dangerous even to engage in the science of good magic without having throughly learned the necessary preparations and theory form a wise magician.”
Nevertheless, Touch Me Not was probably not meant as a magician’s grimoire, or how-to manual. Its full Latin title translates to A most rare compendium of the whole magical art, systematized by the most famous masters of this art in the year 1057. Touch me not. Yet the “whole magical art” is definitely lopsided into the darkest of arts, from sigillary nude body art to necromancy of gallows corpses to Devil pacts, and its content seems intended to thrill the reader with its transgressive themes.
Tilton contrasts Touch Me Not to the Höllenzwang books that compiled directive magic. “Although it has undoubtedly inspired readers down through the years to experiment with the archaic techniques it describes, A Most Rare Compendium is not a practical Höllenzwang manuscript of the sort one might pore over with farmers in the local tavern or furtively transport to a lonely vineyard hut, flowerpot and entheogens in hand,” Tilton writes. “If it can indeed be considered a grimoire in the Höllenzwang tradition, then it is also a work of supernatural horror composed in the form of a Höllenzwang grimoire, and its decidedly Gothic aesthetic confirms a date of composition in the dying years of the eighteenth century.”
Those entheogens — psychoactive substances — may have had some influence on the grotesque imagery (such as the boar-faced monster with a lion’s tail wearing a shell as armor and red spectacles on its nose, or a drum-playing demon with butterfly wings). The text mentions psychoactive nightshades like hemlock and mandrake, as well as the only recently discovered use of the root or rhizome of the common reed (Phragmites australis) as a European source of the psychedelic dimethyltryptamine (DMT). Tilton acknowledges that given “the prominence of the manuscript’s passage on entheogens, the suspicion naturally arises that the artist was psychedelically inspired.” Still he points out that the illustrations “incorporate standard motifs from the medieval and Reformation representation of the diabolical realms.”
Little is known about the creation of Touch Me Not. It was acquired by the Wellcome Library in 1928 from an antiquarian bookseller named V. A. Heck; its previous owner is obscure. Now with the new publication from Fulgur Limited, anyone can investigate its phantasmagoric contents. But as the manuscript itself counsels, “Meddling in this art never goes unpunished.”