Bedeviled by the Devil’s Bible

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Eight centuries after its creation in a medieval Bohemian monastery, the Codex Gigas–also known as “The Devil’s Bible”–still confounds scholars and fascinates occult aficionados and paranormal conspiracy theorists. It is the most massive illuminated manuscript of the medieval age, three feet long and weighing in at 165 pounds, and it contains a bizarre collection of content–the complete Bible, plus an encyclopedia, medical texts, histories of ancient Israel and the Czech people, and instructions on how to perform rituals, or conjurations, that would give a person power over supernatural beings and forces. It has passed through many hands, from a mad Holy Roman Emperor to Swedish soldiers who seized it as war booty, to scientists who’ve used modern analytical technology to try to unravel its secrets.

How and why was the Codex Gigas created? And what is its true significance? Those mysteries still remain unresolved.

“It is absolutely enormous,” says Cambridge University medieval scholar Christopher de Hamel. “It is absolutely mad. It is loony. There are no other manuscripts like it. It contains a combination of texts that exists nowhere else.”

Medieval manuscript expert Michael Gullick’s analysis of the ink used in the manuscript, and a notation discovered recently in it, points to a cryptic figure known only as “Herman the Recluse” as the person who in 1229, apparently without help from his fellow monks, laboriously inscribed the Codex’s 640 pages of elaborate calligraphy and illustrations on parchment. (Traditionally, the material has been described as the skins of donkeys, but according to the National Library of Sweden’s web site, it actually appears to be calfskin.) Gullick has estimated that it might have taken at least 30 years of work to complete the massive project. In legend, however, the monk accomplished it in a single night, in an attempt to atone for some grievous sins. To do that, he is said to have required the assistance of a supernatural artistan–Satan. In recognition of that contribution, Herman supposedly included the large, startlingly vivid drawing of the devil that gives the manuscript its nickname.

No other illuminated manuscript of the time contains such a depiction of Satan. As the National Library of Sweden’s web site describes:

The Devil is shown alone, in an empty landscape, within a frame formed by two large towers. He is crouching with his arms held up (he has only four fingers and toes) and wears an ermine loin cloth. Ermine is usually associated with royalty, and its use here is to emphasise the position of the Devil as the prince of darkness. The portrait was intended to remind the viewer of sin and evil. It is opposite a page with a representation of the Heavenly City and the two pages were deliberately planned to show the advantages of a good life and the disadvantages of a bad one.

But the Satan portrait is just one of the manuscript’s odd and fascinating features. The mix of Biblical, historical, scientific, medical and occult content leads some to believe that the Codex Gigas was intended as a comprehensive compilation of human knowledge at the time. Perhaps its most attention-getting texts are the conjurations, which explain how to use incantations to cure illnesses by and banish demonic spirits. This conjuration, for example, gives the user power over an ethereal beast, Dino, which has 150 talons:

Dino, savage thou art in truth and savage through and through. For extended thou art through all human limbs like a yearling lamb in the home. Dino, thou hast sworn and sworn falsely 100 times over. 100 times more insanely permitted, entered through all human limbs. Thou shalt not have power from thy place but shall sleep as a yearling lamb in the man, for thou has sworn on oath and sworn falsely in man by the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. I adjure thee by the Word of God and the Holy Apostles, and I adjure you by Mary the Holy Mother of God that she force thee into the place accorded thee by God. Amen.

The Codex Giga’s provenance, or the history of its possession, is as offbeat as its contents. After its completion, the monastery where it was created apparently fell into dire financial straits, and for a time pawned it to another group of monks. In the late 16th century, it was acquired by Rudolf II, the king of Hungary and Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor, who was fascinated with the occult and prophecy. As a prince, he had a horoscope dedicated to him by the famous seer Nostradamus). Rudolf supposedly became obsessed with the book, staring for long stretches at the devil’s portrait. Eventually, he developed what seems have been signs of severe mental illness, and became a recluse, unable to rule. After his death, his realm fell into disarray, and the Codex Giga was seized by invading Swedish troops. It became the most prized item in the antiquarian library of Sweden’s monarch,Christina, another unstable royal who suffered a nervous breakdown, traveled Europe for a time dressed as a man, and eventually left her throne and moved to Rome, where she helped open the first opera house. Christina left behind the Codex Gigas in Sweden. A half-century later, in 1697, the book was nearly destroyed in a fire, and was saved only because servant tossed it through a window.

Don’t miss “The Truth Behind The Devil’s Bible” airing July 30th at 10P et/pt.