Arbatel § 30: myth and history of Parthenope

I have just finished reading…no actually I haven’t, I’ve just got to the point I’m going to write about here and started scribbling frantically on a notapad.

Ok, what I was reading is the Arbatel/Planetary magic lesson from the Quareia website.

I first encountered mention of this grimoire on a blog listing medieval magical texts last week. That’s when I remembered I saw mention of it on the Quareia website and chose randomly on lesson 4 from this adept module.

These lessons are way interesting and this one in particular had me well and proper engrossed but I don’t recommend that you do what I did if you are studying the Quareia course. In this case I was simply fielding to find out more about this grimoire for personal research.

Aphorism 30 is what really grabbed my attention and that’s where I stopped to think. I moved on to Josephine McCarthy’s comment immediately after.

“There is also a tale hidden in this aphorism”.

Indeed there is. It is a tale that goes back  13th century Melusine and will elaborate on that. Or, we could say there is a different slant to the interpretation this aphorism, and to get at the bottom of it I’ll have to take it apart.

So, this is my starting point and hope the Quareia’s authors won’t take offence at what I’m going to present but hope that anyone with interest in this grimoire may find something useful for their own reflection.

It’s going to be a mish mash of myth, folklore and historical facts with a splash of personal knowledge about my land of origin thrown in for good measure.

The Melusine of the Arbatel

“…as the history of Melesine witnesseth…”

We all know that myths of mermaids (aka sirens) are old as man itself. By medieval time, the figure of the mermaid had somehow evolved from a bird with the head of a woman to the mythical half fish/half woman creature we see represented in Andersen’s fairytales and Starbucks’ insignia.

In the Middle Ages, Melusine  became also an idiosyncratic term, perhaps poetic, to identify these beings in the same way we would say mermaid today.

The Melusine who witnesses the history of Naples is the siren Parthenope, of that I’m fairly certain, as it’s a popular dialectical expression to say the city has gone through all sorts of trouble, which can also be found in popular song and literature dating back to the time the Arbatel was written.

In Hymn 12 of the Odyssey, we read how Ulysses asks his crew to tie him to the mast so that he can hear the song of the sirens but not fall under their spell. Failure to stop Ulysses sends the sirens mad who then commit suicide by throwing themselves against the rocks. Later sources (Lycophrun and Stephanus of Byzantium) identify these three sirens as Leucosia (the white), Ligeia (bright voice) and Parthenope (the virgin).  Leucosia and Ligeia turn into the rocks today known as Li Galli, which in antiquity were known as the Sirenuse. Parthenope’s body is washed ashore on the island of Megaride, which today is connected to the mainland by an artificial strip of land. It is upon her dead body that the city of Naples is born and acquires the gift of song (more about that later).

The cult of Parthenope was so deeply rooted to take precedence over the religion of Magna Grecia and remained strongly embedded in the consciousness of its citizens even after the advent of Christianity. Though portrayed with wings, she was not one of those ugly birds with human head which in popular belief (as depicted on countless vases) were the embodiment of departed souls. She was neither on the other hand prominently the seductive nymphs of the Homeric poems but rather had a role as a Muse inspiring song and poetry which is heartfelt to this day – although the notion of her chagrin at the final failure of her musical powers was interwoven into the legend of her death.


Spinacorona fountain (aka “delle zizze” …”of the tits” ) in Naples. Takes its name from the church of Santa Caterina della Spina Corona, by which it stands. It was commissioned by don Pedro Álvarez de Toledo 16th century – around the same time the Arbatel is believed to be written. It shows Parthenope, protector of Naples as she douses the flames of Mt.Vesuvius with the water springing from her breasts (all explained on an epitaph at the statue’s feet saying Dum Vesevi Syrena Incendia Mulcet).

As one who had met death among the waves, her spirit was regarded as haunting the shore of Megaride, powerful to wreak vengeance unless it were duly appeased with the tribute proper for a chthonic deity. But at the same time a tradition developed that Parthenope was good. This image was probably influenced by the characteristics of the Sirens in Sicily, who are represented as the faithful friends of Demeter in her affliction. The main fact in this cult is the grave, which the people of Naples were able to show as the proof of their special relations with the siren. Here the body had been washed ashore and piously interred by the inhabitants, and here the rites of libation and sacrifice of oxen were performed in her honour as to a hero as well as Lampadedromie (torch races). In the British Museum there is a sardonyx cameo which portrays Parthenope holding a torch and a wreath in her right hand, while raised on her left shoulder is an amphora.  At the tomb was erected a shrine, utilised perhaps as an oracle, within which was an image of her, that was probably represented in the guise of a young woman with wings, similar to the fountain of Spinacorona. Although the exact site of the grave has never been found, archaeologists have pinpointed as possible sites the hill Sant’ Aniello a Caponapoli, beneath the Church of St. Lucia on the Megaride island which was built upon the temple dedicated to Parthenope or in the crypts of Castel Dell’ Ovo.  (Roy Merle Peterson, 1919, The Cults of Campania)

Another popular tale says that Parthenope existed in human form and was in fact the beautiful daughter of captain Cumean captain who died during a shipwreck on the way there.

Like Parthenope and the captain’s daughter, Santa Patrizia of Constantinople dies shipwrecked on the shores of Megaride, and according to an university erudite and priest of the 17th century – Carlo Celano – she buried on the highest part of the hill, not far Parthenope’s resting place. Adding, in reference to a bust in the old part  (C. (Celano, 1692, “Notizie del bello, dell’antico e del curioso della citta’ di Napoli”)

To this day Parthenope remains the city’s genius loci of equal importance to Catholic patron saints: St. Gennaro, Santa Patrizia of Costantinople, Santa Lucia, Santa Chiara – a possible hint that we are looking at an example of a land sleepers often discussed by Josephine McCarthy in her books.

“…and the Magicians thereof, who ordained, that none of the Italian nation should forever obtain the Rule of the Kingdom of Naples….”

There is a magician who is iconic to Naples and whose life was closely intertwined with the myth of Parthenope and the fate of the city: Publius Virgilio Marone (70 BC – 19 BC). He was a thaumaturgist, a magus, a necromancer and he is better known as the author of the Aeneid and for appearing in the Divine Comedy as Dante’s guide in the Purgatory and the Underworld. After his death he was elevated to divine status and was venerated as patron and protector of the city, second only to Parthenope. There was a reason for it: a magical egg. During his lifetime a fortress was built upon Parthenope’s burial ground on Megareide. To protect the city from invasions and other misfortunes Virgilio placed a philosopher egg protected by an iron cage, in the subterranean foundations of the fortress admonishing that so long as the egg remained intact the city would prosper. However, should the egg break Naples would have been doomed by a series of disasters. In the course of time the original fortress underwent various transformations and becomes what today we know as the Castel dell’Ovo (Castle of the egg) – incidentially designed in the shape of a ship. (Anonymous, 1526, “La Cronaca di Partenope”; Gianni Iacovelli,”Alchemy, Magic and Miracles in the Napolitan Medical Culture 1442-1502 )

During the reign of Giovanna I D’Anjou, the natural vault which connects the castle to the rock on which it’s built broke away causing a partial collapse of the structure. Believing that it was a sign the egg had broken, the inhabitants of the city were taken by panic and began a revolt. To placate her subjects, the queen made a public oath to replace it and a golden replica was said to have been placed in the crypts of the castle. She died assassinated at the tender age of 21 after losing three husbands and having her only legitimate heir to the throne taken away from her.

“…and brought it to pass, that he who reigned in his age, to be thrown down from his seat: so great is the power of the guardian or tutelary Angels of Kingdoms of the world”.

From then on the Neapolitan monarchy proves to be one disaster after the other, until the deposition of Frederik IV when the Kingdom of Naples loses its sovereignty and is annexed to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. But what it is notable here is that the aphorism talks of the power of the guardian – which as we have seen is identified with Parthenope, or tutelary Angels of Kingdoms – which would merit further research as Virgilio abided by the Neopytagorean  school and used its mathematical patterns to construct many of the talismans for the city’s protection – as well as his tomb – believing that numbers and letters were divine beings in themselves. Bearing this in mind, Aphorism 27 could also be explored in this light.

Castel dell’Ovo is one of those esoteric sites where magic is hidden in plain sight. In the course of time it has been a villa for a Roman Emperor, a fortress, a monastery and even a prison. Now it hosts the offices of the Department of Culture and Heritage of the city. And yet both myth and historical folklore signpost it an ancient spot of power connected to the Underworld and a land (and sea) sleeper, relevant to pagans and Christians alike. The egg – another key esoteric symbol – is the obvious foundation stone (or philosopher stone?) is an interesting parallel to the one in the crypt of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

Politics in a grimoire

Before going any further, I just wanted to make a quick observation. As I read and re-read aphorism 30, I couldn’t help but find it loaded with political undertones ever so subtly directing condemnation – drawing from the overall context, to the Papal State perhaps? In brief it reads like a cleverly worded prophetic curse. Further research I carried out this afternoon brought to light some info which might support this hypothesis. The Arbatel was first put into print by Pietro Perna of Basel in 1575. Studies on Perna describe his reasons for printing this manuscript along with various volumes from Paracelsus as being convergent with two polemics of his time: the first against the Church’s pretension to be the one and only depository and administrator of the righteous knowledge of God, the other as vindication for free research on experiential basis which went against the authority of Aristotle and Galeno, traditionally recognised and accepted by universities – of the time- as undisputed interpreters of Nature. (Carlos Gilly, 2013, p.262).

I could not quite work out if the author of the Arbatel wrote it before or after the Martyrs of Otranto, however it is likely he would have lived around or just after an historical period known as the Ottoman Wars (1480 – 1535) and would have been adequately acquainted with the political situation on the Italian peninsula, as to pass comment and have strong opinions in regard.  There is a Neapolitan magician of the time which stands out as a speculative author of the Arbatel: Giambattista della Porta. Clearly, it is just a personal speculative theory based on accounts about his life background and character;  he was a prolific writer on natural magic of an intellectually distinct noble family, an opposer of Aristotelean teachings and a lay Jesuit who had on several occasions collided with the Inquisition and was stopped from publishing.

“Since the Inquisitional order in 1592 Della Porta had published nothing new about the “illicit arts,” but he was still actively investigating them and could not keep silence forever.  In 1601 he published Coelestis physiognomoniae, which aimed at reconciling the art of prophecy based on a mysterious connection between earth and the stars with the orthodox church doctrine of free will and condemnation of judiciary astrology.  It was a difficult feat of juggling, one he would never have attempted had he not been moved to it by the Inquisitions’s constant suspicion…Recanting his former belief in judiciary astrology and emphasizing the natural basis of his prophetic art, Della Porta sought to remove dangerous interpretations from the title of Mago which he proudly claimed in Magiae and provided with an elaborately and apologetically innocent definition in Magiae”.

The full essay can be read here.

There is no conclusive proof that Gianbattista della Porta is the author of the Arbatel, however I’m inclined to believe the author this grimoire would have been enflamed with apocalyptic outrage in a way not dissimilar to they way many in powerful nations like UK and US may feel today about politics, academia and the occult state of affairs, and so opening aphorism 30 with the line:

“ They which desire riches, glory of this world, Magistracy, honours, dignities, tyrannies, if they endeavour diligently after them, they shall obtain them, everyone according to his destiny, industry, and magical Sciences, as the History of Melesina witnesseth…”.