Thursday, September 22, 2011


I once had a simple little book in my drawer at the office. We girls used it when we wanted to interpret a dream. It was very entertaining. The title of the book was Cyprianus. I had inherited it from my aunt, and I don't remember a word from it now, but the book disappeared from my drawer one day. When I read about the dangerous book now, I'm sure it would not be a good idea to steal it, if you believe in magic! So where is it? ´)

Cyprianus is the common name in Denmark of a witch- or witchcraft book. Books like these were spread among people for centuries, either handwritten or printed. The name came from a bishop Cyprianus of Antioch, who suffered martyrdom in emperor Diocletians's rule. He had before his conversion to Christianity been a famous magician. There is no other connection between the book and the bishop than the name.

The Danish Cyprianus has a very mixed content, like magic formulas, magic healing, medical prescriptions and some conjuring tricks for entertainment. And about interpreting dreams of course! But the book was not just an instruction in magic -  it had in itself a strange and dangerous power, and it played a considerable role in the national mind. People also called it den sjette Mosebog (the sixth Pentateuch). The legend says that Moses, after having written the five Pentateuchs, was tempted by the devil to write number six, which was later used for witchcraft.

People said that when you read the Cyprianus, you were able to see the devil himself - or you saw a devil peeping out from each corner of the room. Ignorant people should keep away from the dangerous book. Once, when the owner of a Cyprianus went out, his farmhand took a look in it. When he later was graining corn in the mill, it was suddenly filled with fluttering birds, so he had to take flight. The reason why the book possessed such a power was that it was written in human blood.

It was a common "fact" that people, "who knew more than their Fadervor" (Lord's Prayer), differed from other people. They were suspicious. They went out in the middle of the night when Christian people had to sleep. They went across the field without any reason, and after their walk the corn would not grow. They simply took people's luck. And if they wanted to go into the stable, the farmer had to be very watchful, for they might look at the cattle with an evil eye, and the animals would be sick and die. It was easy to achieve  the title of witch or wizard among people. And if the suspects liked to show their magic power, he or she could strengthen people's suppositions by "demonstrating" their hidden magic talents. This would give them power over people.

 There was a man on the island Læsø in the seas of Kattegat. Per Ajsen was his name. He was a fisherman, a blacksmith and a carpenter. He made coffins. His income was modest and most of the profit was used for snaps and rum. A girl named Tine was a servant in his house. She didn't like to be there. She said that he was a "ræderlig troldkarl" ( a terrible wizard). People, who passed Per Ajsen's house at night, while he was asleep, noticed light in the smitty. Tine was sure that it was the devil himself who was bustling about there. Tine told people that Per Ajsen knew when someone had to die, because his tools began working by themselves. If something was stolen he could tell, what had happened by the help of sieve and scissors. And he was the owner of the sixth Pentateuch! Tine had seen it herself on several occassions, but she had never touched it. Once when Per Ajsen wanted to show the book to a neighbour's wife, Tine saw the red signs and lots of criss-cross squiggles in the book. The neighbour's wife protested wildly. "You must not show me this book! It would not be good for me!" she said.

After Per Ajsen's death Tine was asked about the whereabouts of  the Cyprianus. She did not know. She knew that it was impossible to burn it. Maybe it was hidden down in the earth? The owner had to get rid of the book before his death, and some people were sure that Per Ajsen had hidden it under a three-man's boundary, a place where three boundaries meet. An expert from the National Museum in Copenhagen decided to track down the Cyprianus. He found that one of Per Ajsens' neighbours had got it. His widow still lived there, she said that her children had played with the book. She was not very impressed by the notorious Cyprianus: " It was nothing else but a tiny miserable dream-book, which can be bought in every shop for a penny," she said.

But in people's imagination the little book had grown and was equipped with the original marks of the real Cyprianus. Per Ajsen had done something himself to help loosening the imagination of people. Upon the title page the word Cyprianus was printed in capital letters, and he had painted the letters red with beetroot-juice. It looked like it was written in human blood. These were the red signs Tine had seen. 

Asger Jorn detail from painting
Per Ajsen's Cyprianus is now in the archive of the National Museum. It is not a bibliophile rarity, it is just a simple, cheap leaflet of 50 pages from the 19th century. But it has however a cultural historical value as an evidence of, how a man with small modest means could convince credulous people about his magical power and his abilities as a terrible wizard.   

Source: Skalk, Archaeological Magazine, nr. 2, 1958, Bjarne Stoklund: "Per Ajsens Cyprianus".

 photo: cattle, dark landscape, photo of painting: grethe bachmann


Teresa Evangeline said...

The power people assign to books is very interesting.

Many people, especially women, were killed because they were believed to be witches, just by walking after dark in a field or down a road.

I wouldn't have had a prayer. :)

Wanda..... said...

My habit of collecting leaves, moss, fungus, feathers, sticks, and stones, while walking alone in the woods, might have cast a suspicious eye my way back then too! Enjoyed the post Grethe. I have a book titled...10,000 Dreams Interpreted.

Thyra said...

No, I wouldn't either! `) It's a good thing that we were born in this century! We would be in danger if we lived in the old days. This story is not so long ago. It was after the witch hunts, for it was in the 1900th century he lived, this Per Ajsen. But people were still considered suspicious.
In a forest in North Jutland lives a woman, who calls herself a witch, she gathers herbs etc. and writes about them, so she calls herself an author and she's also a lecturer. A modern witch! Her name is Dannie Druehyld, a very special type. I think you can find her on the net, maybe there is a picture of her with a pointed hat!
Grethe ´)

Thyra said...

Yes, Wanda and you collect hear-shaped stones!! You're very suspicious! Many women here in blogville would be considered witches in the Middle Ages. We've got all those interests around herbs and many other things they might think odd back then. I'm just writing notes about herbs and snaps and this was also something they did the witches! and the wizards. But there are not so many men here in blog-ville. They are mostly keeping a low profile.
Try to see what I told Teresa about the modern witch in Rold forest, Dannie Druehyld. Her name Druehyld is red-berried elder.
Grethe ´)

Thyra said...

Wanda! I meant heart-shaped stones of course. It was the misprint gremlin's fault!