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Worst Kept Secrets › Secrets of Secret of Secrets at Worst Kept Secrets
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Secrets of Secret of Secrets at Worst Kept Secrets

Well, I have now spent the majority of my day obsessively googling what turns out to be a perennial occult favorite - Secretum Secretorum, Secret of Secrets, or Kitab sirr al-asrar. I mentioned this in my last post, but let me go into a little more detail as to what this is (with the caveat that this post is going to be incredibly obnoxious if you happen to be a Medieval studies scholar, which I am emphatically not – I tried to do a little real homework on JSTOR, but do your own to be safe, if you’re really interested).

The Secret of Secrets is a letter from Aristotle to Alexander the Great detailing how a great leader should conduct oneself, with loads of medical, spiritual, and political advice with a weird little coda full of physiognomy, talismans, astrology, and alchemy, and it’s fun as hell. Some of the advice is fairly sound (eat lots of veggies), even if the reasoning behind them is a little, well, fun (veggies are the distilled primal essence of the universal soul!). You can take a look at a free PDF from the University of Stanford - it’s got Latin, English, and Old French, so choose your pleasure.

Aristotle, however, most definitely did not write this - it contains fairly easy-to-follow recipes for miracle elixirs, magical charms that will debilitate an enemy, and some really harsh opinions about people with blue eyes (”and the worst of all eyes are blue ones of a turquoise colour, and if there happen to be white, black, or red spots around them, their owner must be the worst and most pernicious of all mankind”). The miracle elixirs particularly excited me – they all start with a magical honey base that’s basically pomegranates, apples, grapes, and sugar boiled to a honey-like consistency that sounds like it would be great on toast:

Take (with the help of God) 25 ratls of the juice of sweet pomegranates and 10 ratls of the juice of sour pomegranates, 10 ratls of the juice of sour apples and one kust2 of pure rubb (syrup) of sweet grapes3 and 10 ratls of sugar-candy. Put all the above in a clean stone kettle, and cook on a gentle steady fire without smoke, and keep removing the froth from time to time. Boil it thus until the mixture turns into the form of honey.

The enemy-crushing talisman is a little more complicated, since you need “the substance of Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus, Mercury, and the moon in equal parts” to get started, and there’s some fairly complicated astrological timing involved. After that, the text goes into a laundry list of amazing talismans, and concludes with what sounds like a description of the Emerald Tablet (that links to the Wikipedia article and hint: for a huge dose of Internet Crazy, start playing around with that as a search term):

Some historians say that there was found in this treasure, on which there was a Talisman, a tomb made of gold, whose length was 10 yards, height 2 yards, and breadth (on the top) a span. Inside the tomb there was found a coffin in which there was a corpse perfectly preserved in body, hair, and eyes. On its head there was a crown weighing 10 ratls, made of a single piece of red ruby. And under the corpse there were spread large pearls of great value. On the chest of the corpse there was a tablet of emerald, 3 yards long and 1 yard wide.

The Emerald Tablet is a bit of an alchemy superstar, and keep it in mind, because it’s going to be relevant and hilarious in a minute. Don’t worry if you’re having a little trouble comprehending it, as there is a helpful eHow guide to understanding it.

Gaster (1908) hypothesized that it was actually the popularity of the Secretum Secretorum, which was widely believed to have been actually written by Aristotle and regarded as his finest achievement, that put Aristotle’s actual work in the spotlight (but be aware that I’m citing something from 1908 here):

[The Secretum Secretorum] contributed much more to the reputation of Aristotle than any other of his writings, and enjoyed a far greater popularity than any popular book of the Middle Ages. It claimed to be the quintessence of wisdom and statecraft : the last word on the rule of body and mind, the treasure-house of occult knowledge, the deepest mystery in the conduct of man. (Gaster p. 1065)

Gaster went on to explain why this kind of a book was attractive to a population that generally thought Alexander the Great was the bee’s knees - if Aristotle was able to teach Alexander to be Great, surely his writings could teach others as well. In other words, an average joe could read this book and become a hero.

It was important to Mr. Monastic Science himself, Roger Bacon, and sent him off on an alchemy goose chase (Bacon edited the version I’m linking to). For more on that, see the 1995 Williams article (that article references Robert Steele’s comments, which are also in the version of the Secretum Secretorum I linked). In terms of its popular appeal, it (maybe) got a shout out from Chaucer (Young 1943), and Steven J. Williams, whose book about the Secretum Secretorum is mostly available in Google Books, wrote that “some verses occasionally prefacing [the Secretum Secretorum] inform the reader that the possession of ‘this little work’ effectively obviates the need to have recourse to doctors” (Williams 2003, p. 189). Does this sound familiar yet?

Who doesn’t like the idea of a book that will fix everything? That will make you, yes, YOU, as awesome as Alexander the Great? I wonder if there’s anything like that out today for modern audiences? Ok, now, remember that Emerald Tablet? Here’s where it all comes together (green magical tablet content around 1:20):

When I managed to get from the Secretum Secretorum to the Emerald Tablet to The Secret completely by accident, I was really, really, really amused.

I’ll finish this up with some more helpful advice from my new favorite ancient text.

How to get out of the tub:

“He should sit down … until his body be dried with towels perfumed with rose water and ambergris. In summer he should wipe his body with soft linen towels, and in winter with those of cotton and silk. If he feels thirsty he should drink about half a ratl of the wine of roses and apples mixed with cold water. Then he should stretch himself a little while looking at some beautiful picture, well fashioned, or, if possible, at some beautiful human being,which is better still. Then he should apply sweet scents to his face and clothes. After this he should take his meal, and drink the usual amount of mixed wine, but not so much as to cause inebriety. Then he should smell sweet scents according to the time of the year. Then he should go to a soft bed and invoke sleep.”

How to cure a hangover:

“And for one who happens to have indulged excessively in drinking it is advisable to bathe with warm water, then he should go to a running stream, and sit down under an awning of willow and myrtle on the bank of the stream or clear lake. Then he should sprinkle rose-water1 on that awning, and rub on his body pounded sandal-wood. Then he should be fanned with fans made of cooling branches. This will cure him of the effects of excessive drinking.”

How to choose your friends:

“Soft hair denotes timidity, coldness of the brain, and scarcity of understanding. Coarse hair denotes courage and soundness of the brain. Excess of hair on the shoulders and the neck denotes stupidity and rashness. And much hair on the chest and the belly denotes wildness of nature, scarcity of understanding, and excess of tyranny. Red hair is a sign of stupidity and love of power. And black hair is a sign of mildness of nature and love of justice. The man whose eyes are large and protruding is envious, shameless, and lazy, and is unworthy of being trusted, especially if his eyes are blue. But one whose eyes are moderate in size inclined to deepness and darkness, he should be intelligent and  quick witted. But he whose eyes are slanting is wicked. He whose eyes are motionless, like those of animals, is rough natured and ignorant. And he whose eyes are constantly moving and revolving is cunning and of treacherous and thieving propensities. He whose eyes are red is bold and reckless. And the worst of all eyes are blue ones of a turquoise colour, and if there happen to be white, black, or red spots around them, their owner must be the worst and most pernicious of all mankind.”

How to live well:

“A man will derive assistance and increased benefit from joy, wealth, honour, victory over enemies, realization of hopes, amusements, seeing beautiful faces, reading interesting books, listening to pleasant songs, the joking of friends, the stories told by agreeable companions, listening to interesting discourses and amusing tales, wearing coloured garments of silk and linen, habitual use of tooth-brushes, and scented oils according to the time of the year. All these things are especially befitting for kings, because they are easily procurable by them.”

Further Reading

Gaster, M. (1908). The Hebrew Version of the “Secretum Secretorum,” a Mediæval Treatise Ascribed to Aristotle. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, (Oct., 1908), pp.1065-1084

Williams, Steven J. (1995). Defining the Corpus Aristotelicum: Scholastic Awareness of Aristotelian Spuria in the High
Middle Ages. Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 58 (1995), pp. 29-51.

Williams, Steven J. (1994). Roger Bacon and His Edition of the Pseudo-Aristotelian Secretum secretorum. Speculum, Vol. 69, No. 1 (Jan., 1994), pp. 57-73.

Williams, Steven J. (2003). The secret of secrets:the scholarly career of a pseudo-Aristotelian text in the Latin Middle Ages. University of Michigan Press.Partially available at Google Books

Young, Karl (1943). The “Secree of Secrees” of Chaucer’s Canon’s Yeoman. Modern Language Notes, Vol. 58, No. 2 (Feb., 1943), pp. 98-105.

4 Comments

  1. chris wrote:

    great post. What a weird history. I wonder when it fell out of fashion– or as you point out, if it just evolved into new forms– like The Secret, or really any sort of self help, life coaching program.

    Also, that is exactly how I get out of the tub, so I guess I’m doing well! I feel Great!

    Friday, August 20, 2010 at 10:12 am | Permalink
  2. anne wrote:

    16th century - people eventually figured out that Aristotle didn’t write it (according to the Google Books dude).

    Thanks for commenting on my dead website…

    Friday, August 20, 2010 at 11:13 am | Permalink
  3. Mark wrote:

    It’s impressive to me that it fooled anyone - the excerpts you posted sound in no way like Aristotle. I mean, it should have taken people about five minutes to compare that to anything else he wrote and realize that something was a bit off.

    Then again, there were an awful lot of books “written by Aristotle” in the middle ages. (The complete Oxford edition of Aristotle’s works even includes a volume composed mostly of books not written by Aristotle but which some people thought were written by him, which is hilarious.)

    Friday, August 20, 2010 at 11:17 pm | Permalink
  4. anne wrote:

    And thank YOU for commenting on my dead website! I think that this entire set of PDFs I’m trying to catalog consists of Pseudo-Aristotle stuff. Apparently it was just sort of what you did if you wanted people to pay attention to your work in the 12-13th century?

    You should DEFINITELY sign your dissertation as Aristotle, just to be on the safe side.

    Friday, August 20, 2010 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

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