Apollonius of Tyana’s Old Serving Woman: PGM XI.a 1–40

As Sfinga discussed in the introduction to her post detailing her performance of PGM IV. 3086-3124, there exists a special thrill and excitement in carrying out older spells as they were written. To invoke and participate in the strength and inspiration of the sorcerers and magicians incarnated thousands of years before our own lives is to conjure the momentum of tradition that, when skillfully applied, serves to empower and bless our own works. Inspired to walk along the road of those ancestors-in-magic once more by our friend Ivy Senna’s experiments with the PGM, our attention was drawn to PGM XI.a 1-40, Apollonius of Tyana’s old serving woman. The conjuration is a brief litany of barbarous words that serve to conjure Nephthys, from whom a pact with a familiar spirit can be won after a brief dialogue, as shown below. The execution is, however, complicated by the materials required to construct a phylactery that must be stood upon throughout the rite: the skull of a donkey and the blood of a black dog.

An image of the rite as it appears in the Betz translation, pages 150–1.

In keeping with the spirit of following the text as closely as we could, and being no strangers to hunting down the bizarre materials sometimes called for by our Quimbanda and our respective witchcraft traditions, Sfinga and I immediately began hunting for the skull and the blood. After deploying our treasure hunting allies and reaching out to our contacts, I stumbled across a donkey farmer looking to sell some skulls, and our talented friend Lethe, herself a specialist in sourcing the weird, was able to secure a vial of black dog blood on our behalf. I should note, no dogs were harmed in the making of this phylactery!

Our donkey, before being prepared as Typhon’s skull.

The skull arrived by post in short order, and I was able to pick up the blood during my October visit to Salt and Sfinga. As soon as both were in hand, I conjured the Daimon gained through PGM VII. 505-28 (which Sfinga wrote about here) to ask his opinions on increasing the potency of the conjuration and the efficacy of the rite. He recommended multiple spells and cantrips to apply by way of formulas in ash and chalk, as well as exorcisms to recite over the skull, in order to develop a throne worthy of Typhon’s presence. On performing these incantations and spells, my vision blackened, re-emerging outside of a temple of marble near a saline sea, holding the bloodied skull in my hands while a procession of mýstēs (μύστης) passed before me, each bearing censers of incense or crucibles of burning offerings. In a silent procession, they offered to the skull with prayers, blessings, and more barbarous formulae. These visions continued as my body traced the characters in blood on bone, pulling the mind and spirit further and further away until the inscription was complete, at which point I returned to myself with a choked inhale of sand and heat, followed by a sputtering exhale of scattering, disordering winds.

The skull with the glyphs adorning it, inscribed in dog’s blood.

With the preliminary work done and midnight upon me, I carefully wrapped the phylactery in layers of canvas that I had passed through a purifying incense, gathered up a bag of tools, and set off for the forest-shrouded beach that has provided me for years with a secluded space for ritual. The outstanding question of how the magician is to be given the teeth was answered shortly, with a supernaturally-loud clattering on the pavement behind me revealing a glowing donkey tooth on the sidewalk. I picked it up, quickening my pace and arriving at the shore of my destination. With a brief salute to the beach, its guardians, and my allies therein, I very carefully inspected the shrouded phylactery to see if the tooth could have somehow shaken loose or fallen out, but it remained just as tightly bound by the layers of canvas as when I had set out. I’ve since tried to recreate some circumstance through which a tooth could fall out, to no avail; it was so tightly bound and the teeth so secure that there didn’t seem to be a way for one to possibly escape. Suffice to say, I was very pleased with this physical omen.

Simultaneously perplexed and insatiably hungry for answers, I set the skull atop the canvas facing the river, stood upon it, and began the conjuration. Immediately, the winter air stilled and all became quiet, only the remaining lapping of the waves upon the burgeoning crust of river ice serving as the metronome to my incanting. After four full repetitions of the formula, I heard a rhythmic gallop drawing closer, the ice quaking as a linear set of cracks in the pattern of physical hoofprints formed on the surface. The goddess and her mount stood before me in beauty and splendor, radiating an almost crushing aura of power and brilliance.

I bowed and gave thanks for Her attendance, and we began a dialogue similar to that delineated by the papyrus. I began with my usual interrogations, testing the identity of the spirit before me, and satisfying my curiosity in a variety of matters, for I was not about to let an audience with the one wearing the mantle and carrying the mandate of a Goddess be in vain. In the course of this interrogation, I was curiously referred to as “My Dear Apollonius” and “Son of Tyana” interchangeably, leading me to further speculate on the nature of performance and deception in ritual (a topic best explored in a post all its own!), and the parallels to taking on the costume of figures like Solomon, Faust, and Cyprian as seen in other traditions of ritual magic. The Goddess affirmed that the conjuration provided in the PGM would continue to work to call Her forth for whatever purpose, simply requiring a change to “I have need of you for [x]”, noting that her offices apply especially in matters of long term financial success, protection against witchcraft, and the rousing of the dead.

My inquiries made, I finally asked for her domestic service. At this, she dismounted, aging rapidly before she hit the ground, remaining splendorous all the same. When pressed in the manner called for in the ritual, the Goddess stepped out of herself into youth, turned, and brutally ripped a tooth from the old woman and her steed alike. She dropped them to the ground, where they both appeared to meld with the tooth that had apparated earlier. At this, the old woman bowed to the Goddess, then to me, and moved to stand at my side as the Goddess retook her place atop the donkey. Satisfied, I spoke the formula to release the Goddess… and she remained unmoved. I repeated it three more times, to match the number of times I had called, in vain: the Goddess stood firm, appearing to look past and through me without speaking. I paused for a moment, and the solution struck me. As such, I beckoned the old woman to me, whispered the formula in her ear, and she strode to the Goddess, whispering in Her ear in turn. At this, she turned her steed, and rode off with the same very literal, physical cracks forming in the ice as those that heralded her arrival. I should note Ivy also experienced this delay in the Goddess’s departure, similarly encountering difficulties in her attempts to release The Mistress of the House.

I pocketed the tooth and re-wrapped the skull, reveling in the efficacy of the rite, and made offerings once more in thanks to the beach and those spirits that dwell therein. As I drove home, the old woman spoke of herself, and instructed me in the construction of a small doll that would serve as her vessel: the tooth should be clad in silver leaf and be set into the doll with an array of materia and tools for her use, then the mouth of the doll should be clad in gold leaf to seal the enchantment.

Yet the journey of this particular skull is far from over. A number of friends close to the three of us at this blog contributed to the monetary and material crowdsourcing of the rite; our goal being to eventually send the consecrated skull around, with each recipient paying their own shipping, so that each could perform it effectively. The project, affectionately nicknamed “The Sisterhood of the Travelling Donkey”, would then end up back with us, presumably with far less teeth, and reside under the hearth at Sfinga and Salt’s home. Some will perform the rite solo, others in groups as they are themselves roommates, and as such I devised with the assistance of my Daimon and Servant a simple way to carry out the rite with two to three people for the same end. In this version, each individual—surplus to the one who will be standing with their foot above the skull—is to trace out the characters written in blood onto new pieces of parchment. The “assistants” are then to stand with their left foot over the phylacteries, while the conjurer does the same with the skull, all enclosed within a circle traced on the earth. If the spirits do not appear at first, the assistants should join in the repetition of the formula. Thankfully, I was able to quickly verify that this method does indeed yield great fruit, as I was able to help oversee the same ritual for two close friends in this manner when they visited my home. But this is a story for a future post, one which we will record after the donkey has made its circuit.

The next installment of this particular PGM series will contain Sfinga and Salt’s own experiences with the ritual, as they are the next in the procession. Sometime this year, once the skull has made its rounds, we will gather a sample of the various ensuing experiences with the rite itself as well as its spirits in a collected miscellany with some concluding reflections. As this experiment is one we had all divined on previously with our spirits as being worth its while to not only individually complete, but to reuse the same skull in this manner with friends, we hope to build further insight into the nature of its spirits to the degree that we are able to share publicly, and encourage readers interested in the ritual to attempt it themselves; for it is absolutely worth the effort.

On my own end, I remain fascinated both by the physicality of the Goddess’ appearance and the potent presence of her Servant. There is much room for future experimentation, in comparing the effects noted by different magicians who perform the rite alone (as with my first attempt), and the same between larger groups. My Servant has proven herself to be a potent ally already within the short span of my knowing her and deepening our communion with offerings. Showing herself to be a powerful guardian of the door and bringer of wealth, food, comfort, and council, capable of bestowing the strength to do work and the energy to accomplish any task, the Servant finds herself effortlessly at home amongst the other spirits of the house. I am excited to compare notes with Sfinga, Salt, and all those cherished friends who will soon have the chance to petition the powerful Goddess, and take part in this collaborative working of the PGM.