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Abraham The Jew's Biography

Abraham The Jew (ca. 1362-ca. 1460)

Little biographical information exists concerning this German Jew, who was an alchemist, magician, and philosopher, ca. 1400. What is known is mostly derived from a manuscript in the Archives of the Bibliotheque de l'Arsenal, Paris, an institution rich in occult documents. Written entirely in French, the manuscript purports to be translated from the Hebrew, and the handwriting style indicates that the scribe lived at the beginning of the eighteenth century or possibly somewhat earlier. A distinct illiteracy characterizes the French script, with the punctuation being either inaccurate or conspicuously absent.

Abraham was probably a native of Mayence, and appears to have been born in 1362. His father, Simon, was something of a seer and magician, and the boy took up his occult studies initially under parental guidance, then later under another teacher, Moses, whom Abraham describes as "indeed a good man, but entirely ignorant of The True Mystery, and of The Veritable Magic."

Abraham thereafter decided to continue his education by traveling. With his friend Samuel, a Bohemian by birth, he wandered through Austria and Hungary into Greece, and next into Constantinople (now Istanbul), where he remained two years. Abraham then traveled to Arabia, in those days a renowned center of mystic learning, and afterward to Palestine and Egypt.

In Egypt he became acquainted with Abra-Melin, a famous Egyptian philosopher, who entrusted certain documents to him and confided to him a number of invaluable secrets. Abraham then left Egypt for Europe, where he settled eventually at Wurzburg in Germany, became deeply involved in research on alchemy. He married a woman who appears to have been his cousin, and had three daughters and two sons, the elder named Joseph and the younger, Lamech.

He instructed both sons in occult affairs, while on each of his three daughters, he settled a dowry of 100,000 golden florins. This considerable sum, together with other vast wealth, Abraham claimed to have earned by traveling as an alchemist. He was well known and was summoned to perform acts of magic before many rich and influential people, notably Emperor Sigismund of Germany, the bishop of Wurzburg, King Henry VI of England, the duke of Bavaria, and Pope John XXII. No details exist about the rest of Abraham's career, and the date of his death is uncertain, but it is commonly supposed to have occurred about 1460.

The previously mentioned manuscript which yielded this biographical information is entitled The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abra-Melin, as delivered by Abraham the Jew unto his son Lamech. This title is rather misleading and not strictly accurate, for Abra-Melin had absolutely no hand in the opening part of the work, which consists of an account of Abraham's own youth and early travels in search of wisdom, along with advice to the young man aspiring to become skilled in occult arts. The second part, on the other hand, is either based on the documents that Abra-Melin handed to Abraham or on the confidences the Egyptian sage disclosed to Abraham. This part of the manuscript deals with the first principles of magic in general, and includes such chapters as "How Many, and what are the Classes of Veritable Magic? What we Ought to Take into Consideration before the Undertaking of the Operation, Concerning the Convocation of the Spirits," and "In what Manner we ought to Carry out the Operations."

The third and last part of the document is mostly derived straight from Abra-Melin, and the author, ignoring theoretical matter as far as possible, gives information about the actual practice of magic. In the first place he tells how "To procure divers Visions, How one may retain the Familiar Spirits, bound or free, in whatsoever form," and how "To excite Tempests." In other chapters he discusses raising the dead, transforming oneself into "divers shapes and forms," flying in the air, demolishing buildings, discovering thefts, and walking underwater. The author writes about the thaumaturgic healing of leprosy, dropsy, paralysis, and various common ailments such as fever and seasickness. He also offers advice on "How to be beloved by a Woman" and how to command the favor of popes, emperors, and other influential people. He addresses the question of summoning visions in "How to cause Armed Men to Appear," and he tells how to evoke "Comedies, Operas, and all kinds of Music and Dances." Many of these feats are achieved by employing Kabalistic squares of letters. The manuscript details many different signs of this sort.

Abraham's personality and temperament as revealed in this work indicate a man heaping scorn on most other magicians and speaking with great derision of nearly all mystical writings other than his own and those of his hero, Abra-Melin. Abraham fiercely criticizes all those who recant the religion in which they were raised and contends that no one guilty of this will ever attain skill in magic. Nevertheless, throughout the manuscripts, Abraham manifests little selfishness and seems to have worked toward success in his craft with a view to using it for the benefit of mankind in general. His writings also reflect a firm belief in a higher self existing in every man, and a keen desire to develop it.