Daily Ancient Magic #9: Code names for ritual ingredients

In ancient spell instructions, individual ritual ingredients were coded in order to make the effectiveness of a ritual accessible only to the initiated. One possibility was the use of secret alphabets. Another – less known – was the use of code names. Examples of this are preserved in a magic papyrus from the 4th century (PGM XII, 409 pp.), in which the author breaks down some of these codings:

  • „Blood of a snake“ means bloodstone.
  • „Bone of an Ibis“ is buckthorn,
  • „Semen of Hermes“ is dill,
  • „Semen of Heracles“ is mustard-rocket,
  • „Blood of a goose“ is a mulberry tree’s „milk.“
  • „A hawk’s heart“ is heart of worm\vood.

It is noticeable that plants and valuable stones were coded with animal components.

The consequences of this encoding method are far-reaching: Everyone who is not aware that it was applied in the original ritual instruction will use the wrong ingredients without being aware of it. I wonder how many ritual copies contain animal ingredients that actually denote a plant or mineral ingredient.


PGM XII, inventory number AMS 75. (C) Rijksmuseum van Oudheden

Link to papyrus: https://www.rmo.nl/collectie/collectiezoeker/collectiestuk/?object=172318