The Book of Saint Cyprian and the Quimbanda

The Book of Saint Cyprian and the Quimbanda.

(an excerpt from a forthcoming work on Quimbanda)

Published with the author’s approval


Athenodorus and the Ghost, by Henry Justice Ford, c.1900


The earliest records of necromancy in a Western language come from the verses of Homer. The Iliad and the Odyssey give us information on three categories of the dead and how they can interact with the living.

First we have the restless, spirits that could not integrate themselves in the underground realm of Hades and had some power to affect the living. The Iliad give us the psyche of Patroclus who returns to beg Achilles for his burial, and in the Odyssey the psyche of Elpenor does the same, but this time with threats:

There, then, O prince, I bid thee remember me. Leave me not behind thee unwept and unburied as thou goest thence, and turn not away from me, lest haply I bring the wrath of the gods upon thee.[1]

Patroclus and Elpenor were restless because they were ataphoi (from αταφος, unburied); the crowd of ghosts that surrounded Odysseus at the beginning of his necromancy also seems to be made of diverse categories of restless dead, as we can distinguish between them the aoroi (from αωροσ, untimely) who died before the proper time, the biothanatoi (from βιαιος and θανατος, violent and death) who died violently and the agamoi (from αγαμος, unmarried).

Then there gathered from out of Erebus the spirits of those that are dead, brides, and unwedded youths, and toil-worn old men, and tender maidens with hearts yet new to sorrow, and many, too, that had been wounded with bronze-tipped spears, men slain in fight, wearing their blood-stained armour. These came thronging in crowds about the pit from every side, with a wondrous cry; and pale fear seized me.[2]

Christianity with its cult of martyrs and saints brought a completely reversal in these beliefs, seen the violent death of young virgins not just as a direct ticket to heaven but also as granting them power to intercede for the still living.

The second category of dead were the ones accepted in Hades who “flit about as shadows”[3]; Hades was as gloomy as the Jewish original Sheol and its shades just could recognize Odysseus after drinking the blood of his sacrifice. The mancia that these nekroy could provide was limited to the knowledge they had before dying.

There was, however, one exception, the sole individual of the third category who prefigured the future initiates of the mystery cults: “the spirit of Theban Teiresias, the blind seer”[4]; to him “even in death Persephone has granted reason, that he alone should have understanding”[5]. Tiresias, like his counterpart in the Old Testament, the dead prophet Samuel invoked by Saul with the craft of the Witch of Endor, could still give mancia about the future.

Although Odysseus referred to the inhabitants of Hades as the “powerless heads of the dead”[6] the Greek view about the restless dead changes after Homer and the Greeks began to attribute to them more power to interfere in the lives of the living; that power began to be harnessed by magicians and there are several formulas and recipes about how to do this in the Greek Magical Papyri and in the curse tablets. Here Christian ideas also interfered, as Christian eschatology denied the possibility that the souls of the dead could escape their post mortem status to medley in the affairs of the living: what “the Greeks call νεκρομαντείαν” Saint Augustine reinterpret as “appearances whereby the demons made sport” of the practitioner who believes to be invoking the gods or “the inhabitants of the nether world”[7].

After Homer we also see the rise of the Greek cult of heroes, the heroes being now a special forth category of the dead that are powerful to help their devotees, and their cults usually were administered at their tombs. The Christian cult of saints was essentially an adaptation necessary to fill the gap left by the abandonment of this Pagan practice.

To talk about the Iberian necromancy that helped shape the Quimbanda we are going to use the Portuguese Book of Saint Cyprian, and that for two reasons. First, the Book of Saint Cyprian collected a large amount of folk magic recipes where we can discern many of the necromantic concepts that were brought to Brazil; second, as João do Rio attested in 1904, the Book of Saint Cyprian was widely used by the practitioners of the diverse European-African syncretisms that would help create the Quimbanda:

But what is ignored by the people who sustain the sorcerers, is that the base of their entire science is the Book of S. Cyprian. The greatest alufás, the more complicated fathers-of-saint, have hidden between the stripes and the animals one nothing fantastic edition of S. Cyprian. Whilst that crying creatures await for the bewitchings and the fatal mixtures the blacks spell the S. Cyprian, by the light of the lamps…[8]

The influence of the Book of Saint Cyprian remains strong as we can see nowadays several different versions and editions for sale in the same stores where we find the implements for Quimbanda practices; in fact, the last decades saw a rise in its prestige thanks to the work of researchers like Felix Castro Vicente, Jake Stratton-Kent, José Leitão and myself.

The necromantic concepts we find in the Portuguese Book of Saint Cyprian are fundamentally Catholic, but they also deviate from orthodoxy in three important points. First, souls in Purgatory are not limited in their actions and can be invoked for practical purposes; second, a few special souls of the damned are not confined in Hell but can also be invoked, like Maria de Padilha who appears in five spells of the book; and in third place we have a few mentions to “baptized evil spirits” that may be interpreted as referring to lesser human damned spirits and ghosts that can harm people together with the “excommunicated demons”[9] with whom they are in league:

[…] by these most joyous names of Our Lord Jesus Christ let all demons, ghosts, and all malign spirits in the company of Satanás and his companions flee to their abodes that are in hell, where they will be perpetually in the company of all the sorcerers who made sorcery against this creature (so and so) or in this house.[10]

The allegiance of the dead with the devils and their ability to leave Hell and affect the living, the idea that some of the damned dead are in prominent positions in the infernal hierarchy and the concept that the Purgatorial souls can be used for sorcery were key elements in the development of the Quimbanda, and we can suspect direct influence from the Book of Saint Cyprian in some practices as well, like the way the balé is used by some people today (more on that ahead). The necromancy of the book, for instance, attest that spirits can be coopted from the cemetery to aid the sorcerer, as we see in the following recipe:

Recipe to be happy in the things that are undertaken

Take a living toad and cut off its head and its feet on a Friday, soon after the Full Moon of the month of September. Put these pieces in the sap of the elder tree for twenty-one days, retrieving them after this time as the church bells begin to toll at midnight. Then, exposing them to the beams of the moon for three consecutive nights, calcinate them in a clay pot that has never been used before. Mix it later with an equal amount of soil from a cemetery, but specifically from the grave belonging to someone related to the person for whom the recipe is made. The person that possesses this can be assured that the spirit of the deceased will watch over them and over all things they undertake, because the toad will not lose sight of the interests of the person.[11]

The idea that spirits could stay at cemeteries or around their places of burial (like the dead buried in churches and churchyards exploited in other spells in the Book of Saint Cyprian) was not so far away from Catholic orthodoxy or acceptance as we may think; the idea that tombs and relics of saints are locals of power, for instance, and the practices of indulgences in cemeteries as we saw before could led people to believe that the grave can keep some kind of liaison with the spirit of the deceased. A few striking examples can be taken from the revelations of the polemical Spanish Franciscan nun Magdalena de la Cruz (1487–1560), who from her childhood until 1546 was respected as a living saint, but then confessed to be under the thrall of the devil during her whole life. During her golden years she repeatedly affirmed that sinful souls could suffer in their graves and come to ask for prayers and forgiveness; the fact that the concept behind these revelations was not challenged before or after her fall from grace is an indication that the idea was found to be acceptable.

And one day she said that from a grave that she pointed out, a Nun would raise to speak to her and she told certain people that the souls of the deceased come to ask her for forgiveness.

And once she being enraptured it seemed to her that the soul of  certain person whom she named, was eight days suffering in the grave together with his Body, and that from there it had gone to Rejoice in  Christ, which she told to certain person that this was the greatest punishment that the souls have in the other world.[12]

These ideas blur the frontier between the grave and the Purgatory, and in fact they make the grave a gateway to the place where souls are purified through suffering. In the example above, suffering in the grave (“the greatest punishment”) was enough for grant access to Heaven. From the perspective of the “suffering in the grave” then we can infer that to be raised by the sorcerer to work for him as in the Recipe to be happy could mean a betterment in the situation of the spirit, an idea also to be found in the Umbanda and the Quimbanda.

[1] Odyssey 11.71-75. In The Odyssey with an English Translation, A.T. Murray, PH.D.

[2] Odyssey 11.40-45. In The Odyssey with an English Translation, A.T. Murray, PH.D.

[3] Odyssey 10.496. In The Odyssey with an English Translation, A.T. Murray, PH.D.

[4] Odyssey 10.496. In The Odyssey with an English Translation, A.T. Murray, PH.D.

[5] Odyssey 10.494. In The Odyssey with an English Translation, A.T. Murray, PH.D.

[6] Odyssey 11.9. In The Odyssey with an English Translation, A.T. Murray, PH.D.

[7] The City of God, Book VII, Chapter 35.

[8] As Religiões do Rio, João do Rio.

[9] The Book of Saint Cyprian, Humberto Maggi. Nephilim Press.

[10] The Book of Saint Cyprian, Humberto Maggi. Nephilim Press.

[11] The Book of Saint Cyprian, Humberto Maggi. Nephilim Press.

[12] Judgement of Madalena de la Cruz, professed nun from the Monastery of St. Isabel of the Angels, belonging to the Order of St. Claire. Translated to English by Verónica Rivas for the forthcoming The Devils Abbess: The diabolical revelations of Sister Magdalena de la Cruz, by Madeleine LeDespencer, Hadean Press.

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Position: Collaborator City: -Itacaré, Brazil Age: 48 Beliefs/System: Scientific minded magical practices Domains of interest: Solomonic traditions, Shamanism, Neoplatonism, Hermetism, Alchemy, Traditional Wicca, Neopaganism, Thelema, Angelology, Qabalah, Enochian, Hoodoo Website: Read more>