The Shugborough Inscription Part 4 – Colin and Lucy
Welcome to the Poison Room, a podcast about a single word that’s apparently so dangerous that it has to be written in code. Or something.
I’m Silvie Kilgallon, and this episode I promise we’re going to finish with Unveiling the Mystic Ciphers, the book we’ve been critically examining for the past couple of episodes.
So far we’ve discovered that the monument is apparently a funerary monument, based on understanding the ‘D M’ of the second line as meaning ‘dis minibus, a Latin phrase common on funerary monuments. And we then discovered that it’s totally actually definitely a funerary monument to Mary Magdalen. We discovered this by drawing up a list of 52 names of goddesses from a handful of cultures who might belong to a syncretic tradition. And then for no reason at all, we dumped onto the list another 434 names that were ‘common’ women’s names from a 300 year time-range. We then picked two different ciphers – one that was definitely well-known at the time among the kind of people who were into ciphers – the Vigènere cipher – and another that was barely known at the time, because the book it was published it got ignored. That one is now known as the Beaufort cipher, but Ramsden calls it the Sestri cipher for the sake of clarity.
Having selected these ciphers, we compared each name to the “ciphertext” i.e., the remaining eight letters of the inscription, and calculated what the key would have to be to turn that name into O U O S V A V V. The aim was to see if there was a key that stood out as making sense – either because it was a whole word or phrase, or was an acrostic formed from taking the first letter in every word or verse from a poem or something similar. We then just completely forgot about that last possibility, discovered that there was no sensible eight-letter word or phrase, and just started looking for any key that happened to contain a four-letter or longer word. Thankfully, there were some. Unfortunately half of them belonged to names that couldn’t be made to fit the definition of ‘vaguely associated with spirituality’, so we chucked those out. Of the remaining keys, we settled on one of the ones containing the word ‘thou’, which is undeniably a more plausible key than one containing ‘foot’ or ‘Maumau’, but that’s not really saying much. And when I say ‘we’ did all this, I obviously mean, ‘Ramsden’ did this, and we sat around going ‘wait, what?’. And when I say ‘we’ sat around saying ‘wait, what?’ I mean, I sat here saying that, and then y’all had to listen to me. Or read it.
The key Ramsden settles on as somehow plausible is B T H O U O Q M, which he claims stands for some variation on the theme of ‘blessed be Thou oh Queen of Heaven’, which is a reference to the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus. Which totally works because she’s part of a syncretic tradition in which the same goddess is given multiple different names in different cultures, or to represent different aspects – the ‘Queen of Heaven’ proves it, because that’s an epithet used for some of the goddesses in that tradition, as well as the Virgin Mary.
Obviously, though, the Virgin Mary isn’t actually the figure whose name is being revealed. Of course not. The figure whose name is being revealed is a different Mary – Mary Magdalene. And that’s where we left off.
This episode, we’re going to look at what Ramsden does by way of trying to make this proposed solution seem reasonable. I’m not going to address every detail he includes in th rest of the book, because some of it is just vague generalisations about certain topics, and it’s pretty boring, and doesn’t even provide much opportunity to at least talk about interesting ciphers or obscure goddesses that may or may not exist. I honestly don’t think I’m missing out any details that would bolster his argument to such an extent as to make it actually plausible, and hopefully, at the end of this episode, you’ll all agree with me on that point.
Anyway. Let’s go through Ramsden’s attempt to justify what he claims the cipher key is. He concedes that ‘at first glance’ this key seems:
Odd and perhaps contrived. Why would the inventor of this cipher use some individual letters to form the key, but also include an entire four-letter word?
‘Odd and contrived’ is certainly an accurate description of this answer. But he’s got an explanation for it:
Fortunately, there is an explanation for this unique pattern, found in the western esoteric tradition that influenced the design of the monument. Renaissance scholars often sought to identify parallels between the mystical elements of the different esoteric traditions. Many, like Pico della Mirandola and Johannes Reuchlin, lauded the spiritual power of hidden divine names. These names were extracted as acrostics from the Davidic Psalms using Kabbalistic techniques. This practice became a core element of the Christian Kabbalist tradition, further explored and written about by men such as Cornelius Agrippa and the renowned Jesuit, Athanasius Kircher.
Unfortunately, despite invoking them as key sources for the claim he’s making, Ramsden does not provide citations to the works of Pico della Mirandola or Johannes Reuchlin. So it’s not exactly easy to check what these guys actually said, and Ramsden’s wording does not make it clear what exactly he’s not-citing these two for. Do they just laud the power of hidden divine names? ‘Cause, like, that’s a standard Renaissance kabbalah thing. Is he saying they talk about extracting names from the ‘Davidic Psalms’? If so, the lack of citation is crappy academic practice as well as poorly written. Also, I’m preeeeetty sure that’s not a thing they do. Partly because he cites a different guy for the specifics of that idea and partly because, well… let’s look at what Ramsden says, and then I’ll explain what the problems are:
In Kircher’s Oedipus Aegyptiachus, he discussed the accepted invocation formulas for deriving 72 names of God from the Davidic Psalms. These formulas allowed one to extract a divine name from its hiding place within a Davidic Psalm, and in so doing engaged the divine name in a mystical operation. In every example, the divine name was constructed out of two patterns: the four letter Tetragrammaton YHWH, and three additional letters taken from words in the remainder of the Psalm. This is the pattern which the acrostic key for the Shugborough monument used. Our four-letter word, the pronoun “THOU”, directly addresses the lauded figure, and a balance of individual letters account for the rest of the invocation formula.
Okay. Cool. Given that this is kind of a crucial argument for Ramsden in terms of shoring up the plausibility of his preferred cipher key, he’s ludicrously vague about what the actual technique he’s talking about is. Thing is, had he actually been more detailed about it, the… holes in the argument would be really obvious. I don’t know if he just… didn’t understand what he was reading when he was reading… whatever it was he got these ideas from, or whether he did understand and deliberately chose to be super vague on details because he knew his argument wouldn’t fly if he included them. But let’s look at what Kircher actually says, and take it from there.
Ramsden’s claim is that Kircher is saying you can derive 72 names of God from the ‘Davidic Psalms’. Now, firstly, I’m not sure he actually understands what the term ‘Davidic Psalms’ means, because at other points he seems to use that phrase to mean the entire Book of Psalms as found in the bible, and that is not what ‘Davidic Psalms’ means.
The Davidic Psalms are a collection of psalms within the Book of Psalms that are connected with King David. That’s a vague term, but, well… the attributions are kinda’ vague, too. The vast majority of the psalms have some sort of title or superscription that indicate… something to do with authorship or attribution. In the past people believed that those that contained the name of ‘David’ in the title were written by David, but the actual way they’re written can mean things such as ‘dedicated to’, ‘on behalf of’, or ‘belonging to’. So it’s better to understand them as David being the patron of the writer of the psalm (Brueggemann & Bellinger, Jr. 2014: 2).
The problem here is that the psalms Kircher uses aren’t all Davidic Psalms. So either Ramsden has misunderstood what that term means, or he’s misunderstood what Kircher meant. And speaking of misunderstanding Kircher, let’s get back to that. So, the claim that Kircher is making, according to Ramsden is that there are 72 names of God which can be found in the psalms by combining the tetragrammaton with ‘three additional letters’ that are somehow ‘extracted’ from the ‘Davidic psalms’ using a ‘formula’ that allows you to figure out what these final three letters are.
So let’s expand on his explanation a wee bit. The tetragrammaton is easy enough to understand – you’re looking at a verse that contains that four-letter name of God, which today is most frequently pronounced ‘Yahweh’, and in English is written YHWH and in Hebrew is written יהוה (Yod He Waw He). But how are you supposed to come across these ‘three additional letters’ hiding in the verse?
Well. Uhmmm. You don’t. I have spent way too long trying to read what Ramsden has written in a way that would indicated he actually understood what he was talking about, and… I have failed to extract that reading.
The three letters that he’s talking about do not come from the Psalms. They come from Exodus. In Exodus chapter 14, there are three verses in a row that, in Hebrew, each contain exactly 72 letters – verses 19, 20, and 21. The* Zohar*, a key renaissance Kabbalistic text, explains how, if you write the first and third verse out the normal way – i.e., from right to left – and the middle verse out backwards – i.e., from left to right, you can then read off 72 three-letter names of God from the resulting columns. So the first letter of verse 19 is ו (Waw), the final letter of verse 20 is ה (he), and the first letter of verse 21 is ו (Waw), again. So the first three-letter name of God is והו (Waw He Waw). This technique itself is a type of cipher.
In English by, the way, those verses – in the New International Translation – read:
Then the angel of God, who had been traveling in front of Israel’s army, withdrew and went behind them. The pillar of cloud also moved from in front and stood behind them, coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel. Throughout the night the cloud brought darkness to the one side and light to the other side; so neither went near the other all night long. Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land. The waters were divided… (Exodus 14: 19-21)
I won’t go into all the super, super interesting details of why these three verses give 72 names of God, because the Zohar is several future episodes unto itself, but these 72 three-letter combinations are the ‘three additional letters’ that Ramsden is talking about.
In chapter 6 of Kabbalah of the Hebrews, in Vol. 2 of Oedipus Aegyptiacus - the book Ramsden is citing – Kircher explains how you can generate the names of 72 angels from these 72 3-letter groupings by adding an -iel or -iah to the ending. So והו (Waw-He-Waw) gets a ‘yod’ and another ‘he’ added to the end, and becomes והויה, (Waw-He-Waw-Yod-He), or, Latinized, something like Vehuiah (Kircher 1653: 270-74).
Now we can talk about the psalms – the thing Ramsden was talking about. Kircher documents a tradition in which specific verses from the psalms are used to construct amulets that correspond to the 72 angels, which can be used to invoke those angels (Kircher 1653: 274-281; Stolzenberg 2004: 163-4). His source for this is a book he found in the Vatican Library, called the Shimmush Tehillim, or The Uses of the Psalms (Stolzenberg 2004: 163). And yes, the Vatican library and archives is something we’re totally going to look at in a later episode.
The verses from the psalms Kircher highlights are verses which contain both the tetragrammaton and the three letters that make up one of the 72 three-letter names. But those three letters don’t have to appear next to each other. The letters don’t even have to be in the right order; they can just be pulled from anywhere in the text. Or anywhere in the middle of a word – it’s not an acrostic technique. As an example, for the first name, Waw-He-Waw, you need verse four of Psalm 3.
In English, using the New International Version, that verse is ‘But you, Lord, are a shield around me, my glory, the One who lifts my head high.’ But also in the New International Version, that’s labelled as verse 3, because it doesn’t count the title/superscription as the first verse, as others do.
Anyway. ‘Lord’ is the translation of the tetragrammaton, and in the Hebrew there are three other letters, from seemingly random places, that you can pick out from the whole verse to make the three-letter name. Kircher makes those letters bigger in his text so you know which ones they are.
I don’t know what the logic is behind which verse is used for which name – Kircher is recording a tradition, not explaining the logic behind it. He doesn’t tell us how the letters are picked from the verse, because the same letter can appear multiple times. And… the fact that he doesn’t explain it means Ramsden doesn’t know what’s going on here, either.
The point is, the 72 three-letter names of God come from Exodus, if you add suffixes to those names you get the names of 72 angels. And then you use specific verses from the psalms in which the letters of one of the three-letter name occurs, alongside the tetragrammaton, as an invocation to that angel for help. Except for verse 70, where for some reason he uses the first verse of Genesis rather than a psalm. (Kircher 1653: 280).
This is what Ramsden is comparing to his cipher key, which, he is arguing, uses ‘THOU’ in place of the tetragrammaton, and OQM to mean ‘Oh queen of heaven’, which is equivalent to the three-letter name. And this is done to conceal the name ‘Magdalen’. Even though the thing that Kircher’s explaining isn’t about concealing anything, and if you’re trying to compare it to an invocation to Magdalen, then the name in the key should refer to her. Not the Virgin Mary.
To his credit, Ramsden does actually let us know that there was a copy of Kircher’s work in Anson’s library. However. Were I writing this book, I’d feel it important to note that Kircher expresses a decidedly ambivalent attitude towards the things he’s just explained and described. He doesn’t think the 72 names of God idea is harmful – he’s fine with that, and with these names also being the names of 72 angels with the appropriate suffixes. But he thinks a lot of the practices around it – including using the verses he’s just listed to make amulets – is a) just fiction created by Rabbis, and b) worries that, basically, you might accidentally get your soul destroyed by the devil if you mess with this stuff.
Seems kinda’ like those are important details to mention and explain why they’re not a problem, if you’re going to claim that this is the source Anson was using. If your appeal to Kircher is based on the fact that he was considered an authority, as Ramsden is doing, then like… you gotta explain why in this particular instance Anson would ignore his authority that this stuff was nonsense. And potentially dangerous.
Also, a four letter name of God plus a three letter name of God gives you 7 letters, and Ramsden has 8 to try and explain. This pattern doesn’t even fit.
But let’s put aside all those problems for a second, and carry on with Ramsden’s line of argument. He thinks he’s justified his key; the question now is: where did it come from? What text did Anson use to get this key?
He starts by making a reasonable concession that we might never know what it is, but he’s got a couple of possibilities he’s going to throw out there. The first suggestion is… well, to be brutally honest, I’m not at all sure why he bothers with it. He suggests that it’s a ‘valid possibility’ that it’s taken from a verse in the medieval English hymn, ‘Edi beo thu’. The first line of the hymn is ‘Edi beo thu hevene queen’, or ‘blessed be thou heaven’s queen’, or, ‘blessed be thou, queen of heaven’. He doesn’t explain why he thinks this is a valid possibility, and that’s the kind of explanation you have every reason to expect someone to give when they’re trying to propose an argument. If someone just tells you something is a valid possibility, but doesn’t explain why, that’s something that should definitely make you question how much you trust their argument.
But, again, let’s take a sec to discuss this anyway, because the lack of explanation for why this is a valid possibility is not the only problem here. ‘Blessed be thou, O Queen of Heaven’ is not equivalent to ‘Edi beo thu hevene queen’. There are three problems: first, there is no letter to represent the ‘o’ for ‘Oh Queen of Heaven’. Secondly, in this hymn, ‘thou’ is spelled T-H-U, not T-H-O-U, as the Magdalen key requires. Thirdly, the word for ‘blessed’ in this hymn in edi. Which, you might have noticed, begins with an E, not a B. So for this to work at all, Anson would have to be working from a translation of the poem from the Middle English it was written in, to the modern English of Anson’s time.
And on top of that, for this to be in any way a valid possibility, we’d need some sort of explanation as to how Anson might have encountered this hymn. Not a convincing argument, here. And that’s all I have to say about that one. As I said, I’m not sure why Ramsden mentions it at all, since he doesn’t take any steps to defend it or justify it. His money is clearly on his next suggestion:
Another possible source of the key is a Lady Psalter sometimes attributed to Saint Bonaventure, which was often used by Protestant theologians to support accusations of goddess worship within the Catholic Church. The Psalter of the Blessed Virgin Mary is a feminine, Christian mirror of the traditional, Davidic book of Psalms. It accomplishes this reflection in form and content, by consisting of exactly 150 Psalms, like the Biblical book, but these Psalms are dedicated to the female figure of the Virgin Mary, instead of the traditional male God YHWH.
As a sidenote, this is the part that made me think Ramsden has misunderstood what ‘Davidic psalms’ means. He’s clearly referring to the whole Book of Psalms, containing all 150 psalms (assuming you’re following the numbering of the Hebrew Bible. Other editions have slight discrepancies from combining or splitting psalms). Anyway, as we know, only around half of the psalms are grouped as ‘Davidic Psalms’.
So let’s look at this Psalter of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This time Ramsden does actually claim that the psalter was known in Anson’s time, and even offers some explanation of why Anson would have heard of it: he states that it was frequently used by protestants who wanted to accused Catholics of worshipping Mary as a goddess. And like, if you’re determined not to like Catholics, it’s easy to see how you’d build an argument out of that – the psalms are praising God. If you exactly mirror the structure of the Book of Psalms, but make the subject Mary, rather than God, then it’s not hard to interpret that as suggesting God and Mary are equal. And Ramsden actually even offers a couple of examples of why Anson would have known of the psalter:
Bishop Stillingfleet, grandfather of Thomas Anson’s close friend Benjamin Stillingfleet, was one of those who vehemently denounced the practice of Marian devotion, and who specifically referenced Bonaventure’s psalter in his own writings. As did John Foxe, whose Foxe’s Acts and Monuments was at one point a required text in all English churches. Anson would undoubtedly have been aware of the work, and with his interest in both syncretism and the Isis figure, the psalter may have presented a path to find the sacred feminine concept alive in Christianity.
Shout out to John Fooooxe! He of slandering-John-Dee fame. Check out episode 14 if you want to know more about that.
Now. This is certainly an okay argument for Anson being aware of the book, but being aware that a book is controversial, and why it’s controversial doesn’t require you to have actually read it. And given that Ramsden has just explained that Anson would be aware of it because it was used by protestants to accuse Catholics of heresy, then… like, is it not of interest whether Anson was a catholic or a protestant? The Anson family vault is in the grounds of St Michael’s Church, Colwich. It is a Church of England church. Again, this is not proof that Thomas Anson did not harbour a more pro-Marian affinity that one would expect from a protestant, and if you’ve bought into the idea that Anson is super duper dedicated to a syncretic tradition, then this in and of itself isn’t damning evidence against that theory. But it should lead one to look for any evidence that Anson considered the Virgin Mary an important figure.
And to do some work on Ramsden’s behalf, there was a painting of the Immaculate Conception at Shugborough at some point. It was painted in 1731 by Miguel Jacinto Menéndez, but I can’t find any information on when the painting was actually acquired. The Immaculate Conception is a particularly Catholic idea. It frequently gets confused with the virgin birth, but the ‘Immaculate Conception’ refers not to the conception or birth of Jesus, but of Mary herself. The idea is that she was born without the original sin that everyone else was tainted with by dint of descending from Adam and Eve, because you need the woman that’s going to give birth to Jesus to be free from sin. So yeah, if it was acquired by Thomas Anson, that might certainly be an interesting thing to mention, but like I said, can’t find anything about when it was acquired.
But I digress. Ramsden’s suggestion is that the key comes from Psalm 43 in the Psalter of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which reads:
O Lady, we have heard with our ears: and
our fathers have told it unto us.
For thy merits are ineffable: and thy
wonders exceedingly stupendous.
O Lady, innumerable are thy virtues: and
inestimable are thy mercies.
Exult, O my Soul, and rejoice in her: for
many good things
are prepared for those who praise her.
Blessed be thou, O Queen of the Heavens
And the angels: and let those who praise
thy magnificence be blessed by God.
Okay, so firstly, I just want to mention that this verse, ‘Blessed be thou, O Queen of the Heavens’ dot dot dot ( because ‘and the angels’ is on the next line), is a lot different to the psalms of the Hebrew bible. If you remember, the example I gave from the Hebrew bible was verse 4 of Psalm 3: ‘But you, Lord, are a shield around me, my glory, the One who lifts my head high.’ The 72 letter name of God is made from random letters spaced throughout the verse – not the first letter of a certain phrase, not the first letters of an epithet for God, just… random letters anywhere in random words. Ramsden is trying to compare that to a verse that must shorter, and taking the letters only from the start of words, and taking three of them from the start of the words that make up the phrase ‘oh Queen of Heaven’, and, again, also taking a ‘B’ from ‘Blessed’ even though that in no way fits the pattern described by Kircher. This is a bad comparison, but you wouldn’t know exactly how bad until you went and checked what Kircher was saying in more detail, and the clue that you need to do that is how vague Ramsden is in describing what is a crucial part of his argument – without this comparison to Kircher he has no justification for taking ‘thou’ as a full word in his key, and then taking another four letters to be an initialism. The red flag is that he does not explain how the letters in the Hebrew psalm are “extracted” from the psalm. And that he just glosses over the fact that the example he’s citing only involves seven letters, rather than eight. His vagueness is either because he didn’t research it enough himself, or he did, and decided not to include it. There aren’t really any other options there. Either it’s unintentionally bad research, or it’s intentionally bad research.
Let’s get back to the psalm. Here’s what Ramsden says about it:
If this is the source, it would neatly fit into renaissance magus Cornelius Agrippa’s description of the types of hymns used in mystic rites: the first four stanzas are laudatory and descriptive of the characteristics of Mary, but the fifth stanza stands out, as it culminates the verse by actively invoking a blessing upon her. It extols the qualities of the figure, blesses the figure, and asks for a return of the blessing. Moreover, the key to unlocking the sacred name on the monument resides in the Psalm, just as the Kabbalistic names of God are encoded in the acrostics of the traditional Davidic Psalms.
Cool, so. Ramsden, as he should, gives a citation for the Agrippa reference, even if he doesn’t do anywhere near enough to explain who he is or like… anything about him. The reference is to Three Books of Occult Philosophy, which is usually published as one book, whilst the fourth one is published on its own. Ramsden points to Volume 1, chapters LXX (70) and LXXI (71). Now, I kinda’ feel that Ramsden is being disingenuous in his representation of what Agrippa says here. Ramsden has put his footnote after the words ‘it would fit into renaissance magus Cornelius Agrippa’s description of the types of hymns used in mystic rites’. That is not the end of the sentence – there’s a colon after ‘mystic rites’ after which Ramsden starts to list the structure of the stanzas of his psalm. I’m telling you where the footnote is because I don’t want to represent this sentence as being more misleading that it actually is on the page. Technically, the placement of the footnote suggests that only the part of the sentence before the footnote is what he’s citing Agrippa for. Everything else about the sentence, including the use of the colon itself, suggests that all of that sentence is based on what Agrippa says. This is a colon that starts a list. It very much suggests that what he’s about to list is related to what he’s just cited Agrippa for.
So let’s look at the Agrippa. Chapter 70 talks about the importance of proper names, claiming that they are ‘very necessary’ in ‘magical operations’. He gives some explanations that I find pretty interesting, because: nerd, but they’re a bit too tangential to justify talking about here. But the important part, when it comes to magic, is that knowing the name of something gives you a lot of power. For instance, he points to an example of a story of a woman who died on her wedding day being taken to a guy called Apollonius, who, after being told her name, revives her with a spell. But what’s not too tangential is this bit:
It was an observation amongst the Romanes in their holy rites, that when they did besiege any City, they did diligently enquire into the proper, and true name of it, and the name of that God, under whose protection it was, which being known, they did then with some verse call forth the Gods that were protectors of that City, and did curse the inhabitants of that City, so at length their Gods being absent, did overcome them.’ 1, LXX (Agrippa 1651: 154)
Knowing the true name of a city and its gods being used as a tool in war to get said Gods to abandon that city? Wouldn’t that be a compelling reason to keep the true name of your city secret? And like, maybe you could indicated that whatever name you were using wasn’t the real name of the city by having a goddess whose function is related to keeping that name secret? Like, maybe you could represent her with a bandage over her mouth, or a finger pressed to her lips or something like that?
Maybe you could give her offerings on a specified day. Maybe somewhere around, say, December 21st?
Look, guys, I’m not sayin’ that the answer Ramsden should have reached was ‘Angerona’, but… what I am saying, is that if he knew anything more about her beyond the fact that there are eight letters in her name, it would really make sense for him to at least acknowledge this as a possibility, and then explain why she’s not the answer. I mean, maybe he was wrong in seeing the word in the cipher key that would have given her name as ‘Ohio’ Maybe it was actually a three-letter initialism of OHI, standing for ‘Oh Holy Isis’, or ‘Oh Heavenly Isis’. I mean, Thomas Anson had a plaster copy of a fresco that includes Isis installed on the ceiling in his drawing room, after all (Baker 2019: 132). And Isis is the name the goddess claims is her ‘True Name’ in the Golden Ass (11.5).
Because the problem is, if you don’t address this, some pedantic person like me might come along and say ‘okay, but how did you rule out this one?’ Because it turns out it’s pretty easy to make facts fit if you’ve already decided on your answer. Give me five more minutes and I’m sure I could come up with some sort of explanation for the other letters in the Angerona key.
Let’s get back to the Agrippa. Remember, we’re looking for details of what Agrippa says the hymns used in invocations and mystic rites should look like. That is what Ramsden is citing him for.
In chapter LXX (70), Agrippa literally just talks about the importance of names. That’s it. In chapter LXXI (71) he expands the discussion to encompass entire sentences, and even verses. Based on what Ramsden wrote, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Agrippa is supposed to say that the best hymns to use in mystic rites are those that have the structure of a psalm, and that the first four stanzas should be laudatory and descriptive of the deity being invoked, and that the fifth stanza should actively invoke a blessing upon the deity, and then very quickly finish up by asking to be blessed for having praised the deity. You’d be forgiven for thinking that he perhaps points to a psalm as an example of a good hymn. And you’d be forgiven for being surprised when you discovered that that’s… not what Agrippa says.
Here’s part of what he says specifically about how you should compose an invocation:
Therefore in composing verses, and orations, for attracting the vertue of any Star, or Deity, you must diligently consider what vertues any Star contains, as also what efferts, and operations, and to infer them in verses, by praising, extolling, amplifying, and setting for those things which such a kind of Star is wont to cause by way of its influence, and by vilifying, and dispraising those things which it is wont to destroy, and hinder, and by supplicating, and begging for that which we desire to get, and by condemning, and detesting that which we would have destroyed & hindred: and after the same manner to make an elegant oration, and duly distinct by Articles, with competent numbers, and proportions. Moreover magicians command that we call upon, and pray by the names of the same Star, or name, to them to whom such a verse belongs, by their wonderfull things, or miracles, by their courses, and waies in their sphear, by their light, by the dignity of their Kingdome, by the beauty, and brightness that is in it, by their strong, and powerfull vertues, and by such like as these. (Agrippa 1651: 155)
So, let’s just put aside the fact that this is chapter 71 of the first of three volumes, and that there’s a lot of context required to understand fully what Agrippa’s talking about, and let’s just read it on a surface-level: i.e. ignore the stuff about stars – at least until we actually do an episode on Agrippa. What he says is: consider what virtues the deity you’re invoking has. Praise those virtues and the kind of actions the deity is likely to make. Diss the things that whatever deity you’re invoking dislikes. Beg for what you desire, condemn what you want to destroy.
This is actually… fairly non-specific advice. This is a fairly standard structure for a prayer for help. But Agrippa does give a specific example of what a good invocation looks like, and it’s from this text that you just possibly will have heard of before. It’s Apuleius’ The Golden Ass. In this instance, he’s referring to book six of the Golden Ass, which is one of the books relating the story of Cupid and Psyche. At this particular point in the story, Psyche is being chased around the earth by a vindictive Venus. Despite the fact that she’s trying to keep on the move and hide from Venus, when Psyche comes across a temple to Ceres that’s in disarray, she stops to right things. Ceres then appears to her, and Psyche appeals to her for help, saying:
‘I beseech you, by this your right hand that makes the grain grow; by the rites and rituals of harvest after harvest that guarantee their fertility; by the ineffable secrets contained in your baskets at the Thesmophoria; by the wingèd chariots with the snakes that are your attendants; by the furrows and fissures that split the rich soil of Sicily; by Proserpina your daughter—the chariot that stole her, the earth that holds her, the downward path to her pitch-black wedding, the upward path to her bright white revelation—; by everything else that your sanctuary at Eleusis in Attica protects in holy silence: come to the aid of the suppliant soul of your poor, pitiable Psyche. Grant that I may keep myself out of sight here, in among these sheaves of wheat, just a few days and no more, until in the passing of time the sadistic anger of that great goddess may be mollified; or, if not that, then until my own weakness and bone-weariness, brought on by unbroken toil and travail, may be ameliorated by a momentary intermission and rest.’ (6.2)
I’m using the same translation here that Ramsden cites for his work, so we can be sure that we’d be looking at the same words in the same order, had Ramsden read this. This speech starts by making it clear that Psyche is not just naming qualities of Ceres – she’s invoking them for a specific purpose: I beseech you, by v and w and x and y, and z, to come to my aid. She points to the rituals of Ceres that guarantee the harvest. She mentions the festival of the Thesmophoria. She mentions that Ceres’s sanctuary at Eleusis protects things. It’s descriptive, but it’s a flattering description. Ceres makes good things happen, she holds secret and sacred knowledge, and she protects those things within her sanctuary. And it’s by virtue of all these qualities that Psyche then begs her for help. She even throws in a disparaging description of Venus – she’s sadistic.
So you can see why Agrippa is using this as an example. What’s weird to me is that Ramsden doesn’t mention this, given how much weight he’s put on The Golden Ass as a source. It is, after all, as he has pointed out in the past, a text that Anson would be familiar with, and one that the anonymous poem writer – who in Ramsden’s interpretation must know the real meaning of the inscription –also needs to be familiar with. A specific example that you can compare your psalms to is a really good thing to bolster your argument with, and it being from a text you’ve already cited as being highly important in understanding the monument – which you explicitly claim is being referenced – is only going to make that comparison stronger.
So let’s do that comparison now, and see what happens.
Here’s the first stanza of Ramsden’s psalm again:
O Lady, we have heard with our ears: and
our fathers have told it unto us.
Okay, nice intro, but doesn’t actually convey any info and doesn’t fit into anything Agrippa says you should do. Frankly, I’m not sure I’d even go so far as calling it a laudatory verse, as Ramsden does, but whatever. Agree to disagree on that one. But it certainly doesn’t match how Pysche’s prayer begins – she makes it clear right off the bat that she’s going to be asking for something. Next?
For thy merits are ineffable: and thy
wonders exceedingly stupendous.
O Lady, innumerable are thy virtues: and
inestimable are thy mercies.
Okay these two stanzas are literally the opposite of what Agrippa says you should do – you’re supposed to specify. You’re supposed to diligently consider what the deity’s virtues are, and then praise those things and the kind of things the deity is likely to cause. These stanzas do none of that. They’re entirely non-specific. What are her merits? Who knows! They’re not specified because they’re ineffable. They’re literally indescribable. What are her virtues? Who knows! It’s not specified. How many are there? WHO KNOWS. Can’t be counted. What are her mercies? Not sure, they can’t be measured! Everything here is basically about how she’s too awesome to be described, when Agrippa is very much about being able to give detailed descriptions. And what about Psyche? She makes the kind of explicit references you’d expect – Ceres’s ability to make grain grow, her guaranteeing of the harvest, even what her incredibly sick chariot looks like. The only thing that approaches Ramsden’s psalm is Pysche’s reference to the ‘ineffable secrets’ contained in the baskets at the festival of the Thesmaphoria. But even that gives way more detail – we know the event, and the location of these secrets.
Exult, O my Soul, and rejoice in her: for
many good things
are prepared for those who praise her.
Telling yourself to rejoice in her because many good, unspecified things are promised to those who do so is not part of Agrippa’s description, and Psyche doesn’t do anything like this in her prayer, either. NEXT.
Blessed be thou, O Queen of the Heavens
And the angels:
Calling blessings upon the being you’re calling on for help? Not anywhere on Agrippa’s list. Not anywhere in Pysche’s prayer. Next?
and let those who praise
thy magnificence be blessed by God.
Blessed how? In order to achieve what? Also: totally absent in Pysche’s prayer. Nothing about this psalm fits what Agrippa would call a good invocation. And it’s… so unfathomable to me Ramsd that thinks that what Agrippa describes actually matches up with what this psalm is that I just do not understand how he managed to do this.
So… Ramsden has utterly misunderstood the Kircher, and he’s utterly misunderstood the Agrippa.
So where does this leave us? Neither text that Ramsden has cited actually does anything to justify how he wants to “interpret” the key that would give ‘Magdalen’ as the answer.
He hasn’t explained how Thomas Anson might have come across the Sestri cipher, which kinda needs explaining since pretty much everyone else ignored it and it didn’t become popular until after Anson’s death. And we can’t even be sure of what goddess names Ramsden even included in his analysis – he said they were common names, but then manages to include Neverita, a goddess who, as far as evidence is concerned, only exists in one highly allegorical work by Martianus Capella and another goddess, Debranua, who doesn’t exist at all. We have no idea how Ramsden dealt with transliterating names from different alphabets – or if he did it at all.
And we know that, despite explaining that the solution could be purely an initialism of the first words in a line of poetry, he does absolutely nothing to try and rule this out as a possibility.
We’ve done more than enough at this point to show that this book cannot be taken seriously as an attempt to understand what the inscription means, but I’m not done yet with pointing out stupid mistakes and giant gaping holes in this mess. ‘Cause obviously, we still need to relate this more specifically back to the actual sculptured relief on the monument, right? Ramsden’s analysis so far has barely taken account of the details of the rest of the monument, beyond establishing that it looks like a funerary monument.
If you recall last episode, I explained how his first description of the relief copy of the Poussin painting struck me as odd, because he referenced a ‘sepulchre’ and a ‘small pyramid’ as additions made to the relief. The next time Ramsden mentions the relief, it’s to claim that the pyramid, sepulchre, and sarcophagus (the tomb) are ‘funerary elements of different cultures’, thus supporting a syncretic reading of the monument. It’s not a claim he’s made before, and it’s not a claim he justifies at that point in the text. We’re just expected to accept that these elements represent different cultures. You have to wait until later to find out what he’s talking about. When Ramsden next mention the relief, it is to describe these three elements as ‘the Jewish ossuary’, the ‘Egyptian pyramid’ and the ‘Greek Sarcophagus’. The reasonable reaction to hearing, or seeing, those words is to go ‘wait, what? Jewish ossuary? You may have questions like: ‘Where did that come from?’, ‘When did he explain that interpretation?’ and, ‘How does he justify this reading?’.
And the answers are ‘don’t know’, ‘he didn’t’, and ‘he doesn’t.’ It’s just a thing he asserts out of the blue, having previously referred to it only as a ‘sepulcher’. There is absolutely no reason to assert that it is a Jewish ossuary, just as there is no reason to assert that the lid of this supposed Jewish ossuary is a pyramid, which, I remind you, is what the thing Ramsen in calling a ‘pyramid’ is. It’s the lid of the thing which up until this point he’s been calling a sepulchre. The fact that Ramsden has transformed it from ‘sepulchre’ into ‘Jewish ossuary’ without any explanation whatsoever is another one of those things that should tell you there’s something suspect about this claim. Now, once he has suggested the thing is an ossuary, suggesting that it might be specifically a Jewish ossuary is not unreasonable. Several religions and traditions do use ossuaries, but, for example, Catholic ossuaries tend to be like… fairly extra in design and presentation. Like, ‘let’s build an entire room and fill every space on every wall with skulls’ extra, or ‘let’s take a ton of bones and turn them into an actual chandelier’ extra, or ‘hey let’s make a giant model of our coat of arms but out of bones’ extra. I mean… it’s a style of décor that I am here for, but it’s nothing like what we’ve got on our relief. Ancient Jewish ossuaries, however, tended to be boxes. Which is definitely a lot closer to what’s on the relief. But they generally have straight sides and they’re oblong. They’re not square, which is what the thing on the relief is. Well. I say square, its base is square. The actual sides of it have the kind of curves you expect to see on a vase. There’s nothing here that marks it out as ‘Jewish ossuary’ as oppose to, say, a reliquary box, containing a holy relic. OR – and hear me out here, because this theory is pretty wild – given that the rest of the monument is drawing on Graeco-Roman design, it could be a Roman cinerary urn.
Frankly, what I think is most likely is that it’s a generic funerary casket thing added to the relief to make it clear that the thing it’s standing on is a tomb, because the fact that the relief is portrait, rather than landscape, like the original painting, means that you can’t see the edges of the tomb on the relief. For all you can see of it, it’s indistinguishable from a wall. So… if you put something generically funerial-looking on top of it, it helps make clear what it is. And as for interpreting the lid of it as a pyramid… I just… [sigh]. I don’t even know what to do with that. Like, what can you even do with that claim? It’s a lid. It’s. A. Lid. A lid that just happens to be the same shape as a pyramid. It’s not a pyramid.
We’re pretty much done with this book, but I’ve got two final points to make, which I feel are both pretty damning. Firstly: Ramsden has managed to write a whole book about a monument that contains two pieces of text – a ten letter inscription, and the phrase ‘et in Arcadia Ego’. Yeah? Remember that phrase? ‘Cause Ramsden evidently doesn’t. Not once does he even mention it in trying to explain anything about his theory. The idea that you can propose a theory all about discovering meaning in every little detail, and that you can reveal the hidden meaning of the inscription, when you don’t even bother to explain the meaning of the inscription written in actual intelligible words is just… seriously? For real? Seriously???
And if that’s not absurd enough, I have one final point to make that also involves that anonymous 1767 poem, which, I cannot stress enough, was written by someone who Ramsden cannot even claim had ever met Thomas Anson.
Ramsden’s entire analysis has focused on the first thirteen and a bit lines of the section of the poem to do with the Shepherd’s Monument. There are another eight lines he has said absolutely nothing at all about. To remind you, they go like this:
oft when eve
Gives respite from the long days weary task,
And dewy HESPER brightens in the west,
Here shall the constant hind, & plighted maid
Meet, & exchange their tokens, & their vows
Of faith, & love.
Here weeping Spring shall shed
Her first pale snowdrops, bluebells, violets,
And Summer’s earliest roses blossom here.
Ramsden has laboured so much over two verses of this poem – two verses out of the 22 dedicated to the Shepherd’s monument. And yet, he has nothing, and I mean, nothing to say about these remaining verses? He’s positing this poem as the authoritative source for how to interpret the monument, and he doesn’t even mention them? He didn’t look at them and go ‘hey, maybe there are more clues in this poem that would help support my theory’? He didn’t consider that any other verses from this poem were worth that level of consideration? He didn’t look at these lines and think, ‘what’s this “constant hind and plighted maid” stuff about?’?
Because I did.
And I can tell you what they’re about.
It’s a reference to a poem by a man called Thomas Tickell. And I don’t mean ‘reference’ in the sense of ‘these words are similar and if you ignore all surrounding context you can squint your eyes and pretend they mean the same thing’. I mean, ‘these same words literally appear in the poem and the surrounding context of the poems actually supports a link between them’.
Tickell’s poem is called ‘Colin and Lucy, A Ballad’, and it goes like this:
Of Leinster, fam’d for maidens fair,
Bright Lucy was the grace,
Nor e’er did Liffy’s limpid stream
Reflect so sweet a face;
Till luckless love and pining care
Impair’d her rosy hue,
Her coral lips and damask cheeks,
And eyes of glossy blue.
Oh! have you seen a lily pale
When beating rains descend?
So droop’d the slow-consuming maid,
Her life now near its end.
By Lucy warn’d, of flattering swains
Take heed, ye easy fair!
Of vengeance due to broken vows,
Ye perjur’d swains! beware.
Three times, all in the dead of night,
A bell was heard to ring,
And, shrieking at her window thrice,
The raven flapp’d his wing.
Too well the lovelorn maiden knew
The solemn boding sound,
And thus in dying words bespoke
The virgins weeping round;
‘I hear a voice you cannot hear,
Which says, I must not stay;
I see a hand you cannot see,
Which beckons me away.
‘By a false heart and broken vows,
In early youth I die.
Was I to blame, because his bride
Was thrice as rich as I?
‘Ah, Colin! give not her thy vows,
Vows due to me alone;
Nor thou, fond maid! receive his kiss,
Nor think him all thy own.
‘To-morrow in the church to wed
Impatient both prepare;
But know, fond maid! and know, false man!
That Lucy will be there.
‘Then bear my corse, my comrades, bear,
This bridegroom blithe to meet,
He in his wedding-trim so gay,
I in my winding-sheet.’
She spoke; she died. Her corse was borne
The bridegroom blithe to meet,
He in his wedding-trim so gay,
She in her winding-sheet.
Then what were perjur’d Colin’s thoughts?
How were these nuptials kept?
The bridesmen flock’d round Lucy dead,
And all the village wept.
Confusion, shame, remorse, despair,
At once his bosom swell;
The damps of death bedew’d his brow,
He shook, he groan’d, he fell.
From the vain bride, ah! bride no more!
The varying crimson fled,
When stretch’d before her rival’s corse,
She saw her husband dead.
Then to his Lucy’s new-made grave
Convey’d by trembling swains,
One mould with her, beneath one sod,
For ever he remains.
Oft at this grave the constant hind
And plighted maid are seen;
With Garlands gay and truelove-knots
They deck the sacred green.
But swain, forlorn! Whoe’er thou art,
This hallowed spot forbear;
Remember Colin’s dreadful fate,
And fear to meet him there.
Yeah. Turns out the author of the Shugborough poem is referencing a ballad in which a woman dies after being betrayed by a man she thought loved her, and has her friends deliver her corpse to the church on the day he’s supposed to marry the woman he spurned her for, whereupon he drops dead too, and for some reason they decide to bury them together. And after that people have seen the ghosts of the two of them at the tomb, seemingly now in a happier relationship with each other? But also any young suitors should fear to run into Colin, presumably because no young lover wants to bump into the ghost of a man who died from betraying his lover.
So yeah. Doesn’t exactly fit into the syncretic tradition theory. And obviously, since this is the very same poem by the author who knows the true meaning of the monument, we have to assume that this story very clearly and directly relates to the meaning of the monument, right? So should we be looking in Anson’s past for a woman he spurned? Or does it mean that the goddess figure was one who was spurned by someone? Or does it mean that Jesus betrayed Mary Magdalen?
Or does it mean that this poem provides no insight whatsoever into the meaning of the inscription, and that, even if the author – whate’er their country, or however call’d – did know Anson, they didn’t know the meaning of the inscription.
Now, I do want to give some credit to Ramsden, because, despite suggesting the answer is Mary Magdalen, he does not stray into the territory of Holy Blood, Holy Grail Mary-was-the-wife-of-Jesus-and-the-bloodline-is-the-grail thing. So, uh, kudos for that one thing.
And that, dear audience, is the end of that book, and that theory, and this episode.
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You have been listening to The Poison Room, a podcast that actually reads the sources people cite.
The voice of Exodus was: Caleb Moreno.
The voice of Persephone in Apuleius’ The Golden Ass was: Tom Embury.
The voice of Cornelius Agrippa was: Tim Stone.
The voice of the Marian psalm was: Jessica Johnson.
The voice of the anonymous 1767 poem was: Leilah Porter.
The voices of Thomas Tickell’s poem were: Jens Anderesen & Tamara Weber.
The Voice reading extracts from Ramsden’s book was: Inari Porkka.
The voice in your ears has been: digging up Collin and Lucy to make an awesome ossuary.
Apuleius (2007) The Golden Ass, trans. Relihan, J. C., Hackett Publishing.
Agrippa, C. (1651) Three Books of Occult Philosophy, (trans: Freake, F.) Gregory Moule.
Baker, A. (2019) Thomas Anson of Shugborough and the Greek Revival, (unpublished, available online).
Bellinger, W. & Bellinger, Jr., W. H. (2014) Psalms, Cambridge University Press.
Harari, Yuval, et al. (2007) "Magic" in Encyclopaedia Judaica 2nd Edn. Berenbaum, M. & and Skolnik, F. (Eds), vol. 13: 342-52. Macmillan Reference USA.
Kircher, A. (1653) Oedipus Aegyptiacus, Vol. 2. Vitalis Mascardi.
Mayhew, A. L., Skeat, W. W. (1888) A Concise Dictionary of Middle English, Oxford University Press.
Ramsden, D. (2014) Unveiling the Mystic Ciphers, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
Sanford, E. (1819) The Works of the British Poets: With Lives of the Authors, Vol. 17, Mitchell Ames, and White.
Stolzenberg, D. (2004) ‘Four Trees, Some Amulets, and the Seventy-two Names of God’ in Findlen, P. (Ed) Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything, Routledge.
Wilkinson, R. J. (2015) Tetragrammaton: Western Christians and the Hebrew Name of God, Brill.