Friday, September 21, 2012

A Bedside Grimoire

As you've no doubt read, heard or seen by now, a historian of early Christianity at the Harvard Divinity School has gone public with the story of an aged piece of papyrus with Coptic script referencing Jesus and his wife.

It's an interesting item, a good story and, if legitimate, something that might force many Christian churches to rethink some of the tenets they've been following for about 1,500 years.

However we're going to use that tale of a lost text as a launching point to talk about another lost text recently resurfaced, The Long Lost Friend. It's a new translation of John George Hohman's Der lange verborgene Freund ('The Long-Hidden Friend') -- a book of practical magic originally published in 1820.

Hohman was an immigrant and published his book in America, with translations making the rounds quickly, as many in and out of the frontier took quickly to the book's German folk medicine and Native American herbal remedies, as well as the easily recited/copied incantations to keep witchcraft and evil at bay.

Friend is practical magic, don't forget. It's not some spell book with oogy verses in dead languages that will bring monsters forth from the bowels of Hell. The spells all apply directly to the things that any reasonable person in the still-wild United States would want to protect.

Friend was so popular for a time that both the medical establishment and clergy in the United States worked hard to discredit Hohman and his text. A major reason for their disdain was not just the medicinal recipies and magic that cut into their respective businesses, the doctors and preachers were defending themselves, as Hohman often derides both in the book.

Read Stefany Anne Golberg's review of Daniel Harms' translation of The Long Lost Friend. Her take casts Hohman's work as America's first (and finest?) self-help book. She might be right.