Allegories of Hell


L0036623 Maymon and Egyn, from Cyprianus, 18th C

The following article I had started to draft months ago for a particular project that was abandoned. However, I had some recent notions about the subject that I wanted to explore.

Dating most likely to the early eighteenth century, the Clavis Inferni identifies the demonic, directional Four Kings of the spirits as Uricus, Maymon, Paymon, and Egyn, and the text associates the Kings’ Agrippan directional associations with them, with Uricus serving the eastern, “Oriens” directional assignation. Clavis Inferni stands out amongst texts concerning the Kings in that this grimoire includes images of the Kings (you can find them all near the end of this post) rather than offering a textual description of them. However, these images diverge radically from typical depictions of the Kings. For example, Paymon in The Book of Oberon’s “Book of Offices of the Spirits” appears

in the likeness of a soldier….[and] He rideth upon a dromedary or a camel, and is crowned with a bright crown, and hath the countenance of a woman, and before him goeth a band of men, and that with trumpets and all kinds of instruments.

Clavis Inferni instead depicts Paymon as a horned creature of uncertain assignation.[1] With these chimerical bestial depictions, the grimoire includes a seal for each regent and the figure of a dark-skinned human(oid) in various modes of royal dress bearing scepters. Stephen Skinner and David Rankine and descriptive bibliographies for Clavis Inferni have associated these humanoid figures with the Kings themselves, and I proceed under this assumption.

The grimoire poses several problem in considering portrayals of the Four Kings, and I want to contextualize how this grimoire does so. Humans have made depictions of wondrous beasts for millennia, with depictions of serpents having been discovered in Africa dating back perhaps 70 thousand years. That said, early modern Europe conceived of human relations to animals in very particular ways, ways grounded in the Renaissance’s classical inheritance and in the stories of exotic animals that circulated through the culture of the West. In a similar manner, the dark-skinned figures in these images of the Kings suggests a seemingly racially inflected understanding of the Kings in Clavis Inferni, if not suggesting something about the identity of the text’s scribe.

The grimoire remains ambiguous in identifying the beasts it depicts as the Kings, so readers must defer any definitive understanding of the Kings-as-beasts barring what may emerge through personal experience (UPG). The scribe relies on a stylized mode of art, and they are likely not a professional artist, relying on their own amateur skill. In considering this seeming lack of skill compared to the potential demonstrated by eighteenth and nineteenth century professional artists, modern scholars of the grimoires may be able to explain the almost medieval depictions of the Kings in this manuscript as affectation or amateur ability.

Nonetheless, I cannot hope to provide a full accounting of early modern attitudes towards animals, magic, and race that this topic would demand in its fullest scope. Accordingly, I choose to provide an overview on this subject and to outline some primary contexts in which I want to situate this grimoire’s depiction of the Four Kings as beasts and as dark-skinned mostly-human men.

Considering Race in Early Modern Europe

Before focusing on Clavis Inferni and its demonic, dark-skinned Kings, I feel it important to consider constructions of race in the early modern period in Europe. Over the last several years, many historians have worked to repudiate the myth of a mostly-white medieval and early modern Europe, but popular media have typically embraced and promulgated that myth. In terms of how most twenty-first century persons would define race, diverse populations have inhabited Western Europe for millennia, going back at least to the Roman Empire as a cosmopolitan phenomena that stretched from Britain to Northern Africa to the Middle East with trade routes bringing persons and goods from further afield.

We know that Elizabethan England had sufficient persons of African descent for Elizabeth I to attempt to scapegoat them, unsuccessfully calling on two occasions to rid England of the “Blackmoores” who were allegedly taking jobs from, well, white people:

there are of late divers Blackmoores brought into the Realme, of which kinde of people there are all ready here to manie, consideringe howe God hath blessed this land w[i]th great increase of people of our owne Nation as anie Countrie in the world, wherof manie for want of Service and meanes to sett them on worck fall to Idlenesse and to great extremytie; Her Ma[jesty’]s pleasure therefore ys, that those kinde of people should be sent forthe of the lande

Now, many of my academic colleagues have tried to argue that early modern constructions of race are radically different from our own, and they have tried to argue that for early moderns, “race” was less a matter than “religion.” I have to say that I find this argument disingenuous and, in many ways, an attempt to avoid wrestling with the threads of (proto-)racism in the history of western culture. While modern racial attitudes may be very much our own, we can find attempts to define the qualities of persons along racially-analogous lines easily going back to Aristotle who defined “races” and their qualities (including how “free” they are innately capable of being) in terms of climate and geography:

Having spoken of the number of the citizens, we will proceed to speak of what should be their character. This is a subject which can be easily understood by any one who casts his eye on the more celebrated states of Hellas, and generally on the distribution of races in the habitable world. Those who live in a cold climate and in Europe are full of spirit, but wanting in intelligence and skill; and therefore they retain comparative freedom, but have no political organization, and are incapable of ruling over others. Whereas the natives of Asia are intelligent and inventive, but they are wanting in spirit, and therefore they are always in a state of subjection and slavery. But the Hellenic race, which is situated between them, is likewise intermediate in character, being high-spirited and also intelligent. Hence it continues free, and is the best-governed of any nation, and, if it could be formed into one state, would be able to rule the world. There are also similar differences in the different tribes of Hellas; for some of them are of a one-sided nature, and are intelligent or courageous only, while in others there is a happy combination of both qualities. And clearly those whom the legislator will most easily lead to virtue may be expected to be both intelligent and courageous. (Politics, book VII, part 7)

Meanwhile, in Aristotle’s thinking, Africans’ dark skin tones were the result of climate and geography, too:

Ethiopians were perceived to have been burnt by the heat of the sun and to have been born with scorched complexions and frizzy hair because they were thought to be too near the sun…The conditions that were presumed to account for the supposed “black” colour of Ethiopians were also taken to be responsible for their having various characteristics such as savagery, a natural tendency to evil and being harbingers of bad luck and disaster…Aristotle…argued that there was a direct connection between bodily and mental characteristics.[2]

For later eras, I have found Herman L. Bennett’s work especially helpful in understanding the ways in which the supposed entangling of race and religion emerged out of early modern Europe’s nascent colonial enterprise. According to Bennett, the representation of Africans’ status as slaves in early modern European discourse has its commercial and statist dimensions, but the Church also exerted influence over slave statuses as they were potentially convertible, or converted, Christians. The Church and the slaves’ masters participated in defining the experiences of African and creole persons. Canon law “[wielded] a hegemonic influence over Christian intercourse with the extra ecclesiam,” a designation “applicable to all persons who did not profess Christianity,” and this status limited “wanton slave raids” so long as the extra ecclesiam avoided violating natural law. This influence afforded at least “some of Guinea’s inhabitants…the status of sovereign subjects” in the fifteenth century.[3]

This protection faded, though, especially in Iberia as the reconquista concluded. In terms of other discourses in the period, Portuguese and Castilian authorities would also reframe the context of the reconquista of Iberia into conquista, moving from the securing of territory to “commerce and the possession of bodies,” denoting these enterprises as “notable deeds,” providing rationales to render European slave raids in the image of the nominally chivalric “Christian Crusades, ‘just wars,’ and the conversion of infidels.” Iberian princes would embrace a “Christian zeal” that supplemented (or justified) their “profitseeking and…commercial opportunities” in the commodification of African bodies in order to acquire lifelong slaves. Portuguese rhetoric framed the victories of the reconquista often “in commercial terms” and as fostering opportunities for “nations…to exchange their riches,” and Portuguese motives “represented commerce, not conversion,” with Infante Henrique desiring to exploit “the land” in order to bring “merchandise…to this realm.” The Church would also see the military benefit to Portugal’s activities in undercutting the Islamic “military presence in the Mediterranean.” They secured Church approval and license, granting Portugal explicit permission to pursue its “just war” where other European states would not be able to do so. Christian sovereigns wanted to avoid foregrounding their profit motives, and they wanted to avoid eroding how Christianity and the Church legitimized their political authority. While the Church for a time upheld the sovereign rights of infidels and pagans so long as they avoided violating natural law, ambitious princes increasingly sought juridical, theological, and philosophical support that would deny non-Christians rights over their persons, bodies, properties, and lands, including ecclesiastical commentators who would support their expansionist, colonial aspirations. Political institutions would also take advantage of those precedents, and they adopted forms of acceptable systemic discrimination that were legal at home so to erode the protections the Church had afforded the extra ecclesiam, beginning with Moorish and Jewish populations in Europe. Prior to the thirteenth century in Iberia, “victorious Christians and Moors often allowed their adversaries who remained under their territorial jurisdiction to adhere to their own beliefs and traditions,” but as Christians began to dominate the peninsula, they demonstrated less tolerance for “Moorish and Jewish corporate institutions and practices…restricting the judicial autonomy of their Jewish and Moorish populations,” ultimately forbidding them from having “their own judges” in 1412. Christian rulers saw these kinds of privileges as a danger “to their centralizing aspirations” even as, in eliminating these courts, these Christian princes “actually reconstituted the meaning of being a Jew or a Moor.” For enslaved Guineans, who did not belong to Christian, Moorish, or Jewish populations in Iberia, they stood as isolated individuals lacking any political, institutional protection.[4]

The Portuguese also interpellated and taxonomized Africans so that “blacks” became distinguished from “Africans,” and nominally “infidels from pagans,” using blackness as a way to skirt ecclesiastical law to reframe black Africans as persons “who could be [more] legitimately enslaved.” The Portuguese also learned how to take advantage of “cultural differences and status among Africans,” especially as, in some cases, Moors would occupy superior status and buy their freedom with black persons. At the same time, Portuguese aesthetic sensibilities—in line with European associations of whiteness with beauty and purity while associating blackness with ugliness—provided them with a way to further taxonomize Africans, with the “dark and unsightly captives” being characterized as being almost “bestial” and “embod[ying] their own difference.” The Portuguese slave traders would develop their own “imagined taxonomy, which linked phenotype, the corporeal, and geography.” That geographic taxonomy also framed Guinea—a fertile land beyond “the Moor’s barren desert”—as an “Eden waiting to be harvested ‘for the sole end of their delight.'” This commodification of the land and its peoples included “the Portuguese bestow[ing] commercialized toponyms on Guinea including [River of Gold]…and [the Mine, or the Gold Coast in English].” Guinea became the “Land of the Negroes,” and thus even further distinguished from Moorish territories.[5]

Portugal would also engage in a program of historiography that sought to reframe themselves as the inheritors of classical Rome and Greece while trying to erase “Islam’s five centuries of dominion” in Iberia and over its Christian subjects.[6]

The example of Portugal and the Church should show that the modern, scholarly arguments that “race” did not exist, that early moderns saw distinctions of “religion” rather than “race,” are themselves an arguable erasure of the political and economic ambitions of empire to use whatever means it could to colonize and exploit Africa.

Considering the Humanoid Figures of the Clavis

I have two immediate contexts I want to begin weaving together regarding the Kings’ forms, and indeed of their images in Clavis Inferni more broadly: climate and dress. From there, I will move on to consider the beasts before then considering the genre of the art itself.

In terms of climate, if early modern Europeans and their forebears had believed that Africans were dark skinned because the sun had burnt their complexions black, then for four demon kings of Hell—well, it makes sense within this logic for them to be black themselves. Hell is, quite literally in the European imaginary, hot.


Herrad von Landberg, Hortus deliciarum, 1180, Nuremberg. Illustration of Hell. Detail: Lucifer chained to the throne with Judas on his lap

I have been able to make associations between the Kings’ modes of dress and specific cultural associations, as well. My source in this regard is primarily Margaret F. Rosenthal and Ann Rosalind Jones’s translation of Cesare Vecellio’s Habiti Antichi et Moderni from 1590 and 1598. Uricus’s crown, sash, and scepter are comparable to Vecellio’s depiction of those worn by Florida’s king. Egyn’s crown is similar to that of a Turkish/Ottoman crown, though more understated, but it also has elements similar to a Persian crown. The rest of Egyn’s dress is akin to that of a Sultan and is far more Turkish than Ethiopian, though there are similarities.[7] I have had less success with Maymon’s and Paymon’s dress, primarily owing to the vaguer quality of how the grimoire’s artist depicts them.

Considering the Beasts in Clavis Inferni

What animals does the manuscript use to represent the Four Kings? Skinner and Rankine and the Wellcome Library descriptive bibliography describe the bestial forms as follows:

  • Urieus: “red winged Ouroboros” (44); “a red-crowned and winged serpent”
  • Paymon: undescribed (44); “a black cat-like animal with horns, long whiskers and tail”
  • Maymon: “a bird” (45); “a black bird”
  • Egyn: “a bear-like creature” (45); “a black bear-like animal with a short tail”

The manuscript depicts each of the humanoid forms of the Kings as bearing crowns and scepters (44-5). Skinner and Rankine identify Urieus’s bestial form with depictions of Ouroboros and winged dragons extant in the alchemical and Faust literature of the period (23-4). They also agree with the Wellcome Library in associating Egyn with a bear. Paymon remains problematic, and Maymon’s black “bird” with a red crest also remains indeterminate.

Bear Heraldry

Coat of arms of the Swiss canton and the town of Appence, via H. G. Ströhl, Heraldischer Atlas: Eine Sammlung von heraldischen Musterblättern für Künstler, Gewerbetreibende, sowie für Freunde der Wappenkunde (Stuttgart: Julius Hoffmann, 1899), Tafel V: Schildformen und Schildbilder (Fig. 3).

Heraldry is one potential source to consider. Egyn’s form is generally in keeping with heraldic and bestiary depictions of bears. I find Maymon to be quite reminiscent of basilisks and cockatrices—hellish creatures by most persons’ estimations—with similar forms depicted in heraldry. However, bestiary depictions of cocks are not necessarily irrelevant either. In terms of body shape, though, Maymon’s form reminds me of a woodpecker.


Coat of arms for Swiss city of Basel featuring basilisk (Figure 4, Tafel XIV), via H. G. Ströhl, Heraldischer Atlas: Eine Sammlung von heraldischen Musterblättern für Künstler, Gewerbetreibende, sowie für Freunde der Wappenkunde (Stuttgart: Julius Hoffmann, 1899).

The Faustian blue grimoires are also a source for comparison. Egyn’s form is quite similar to depictions of Mephistophiels while the design of Maymon’s bird is similar to the black bird at the beginning of many Faustian blue grimoires. Paymon’s form is interesting to compare with Aciel’s, as well.

I would also point to potential celestial associations. Egyn’s seal in Clavis Inferni suggests to me the imperishable stars, with the bear form perhaps pointing to Ursa Major or Minor. Urieus’s and Paymon’s seals point to solar and lunar (and setting celestial bodies) associations. I wonder also about possible associations for Maymon to specific avian asterisms along the southern skies, such as Corvus.

Allegories of Empire

Ultimately, I suspect that precise delineations are fleeting for these animals, though certain significations are apparent for them. We are dealing with chimerical beasts—we certainly are with Urieus. Yet, I suspect we are also dealing with chimerical figures with the Kings’ humanoid figures. Maymon’s one hooved leg marks him as not entirely human, and early modern European ideas of the exotic embraced a certain chimerical, protean quality, even as representational art of African and African-descended bodies could indeed be quite positive and quite “realistic” by our standards.

Early modern artistic representations of blacks evince as rich a variety of depictions as they do with white subjects. For example, Peter Paul Rubens Four Studies of a Black Man (ca. 1613-15) shows the same subject evincing a variety of moods and treated with the same aesthetic curiosity and dignity conveyed through white subjects. Of course, depictions of race could vary widely, especially on maps. According to Jean Michel Massing,

On [one map], the man leading the elephant in southern Africa was not shown as black, while the Atlas Miller…represented American Indians as black. Africans in fact are often shown on maps as white in complexion, a legacy of the confusion in terminology regarding Moors and the inhabitants of Africa. This reflects European vagueness about distant countries, in periods when terms like Calicut were used to define all the newly discovered lands outside Islam. On some maps white African kings are surrounded by black natives. On a richly illustrated anonymous Luso-French atlas of about 1538, classical-looking enthroned monarchs—similar to those who cover the European continent—are shown among the black inhabitants and the fauna of Africa. In another richly illuminated Luso-French manuscript, the Vallard Atlas (1547), one of the maps represents West Africa north of the equator and the Atlantic archipelagos. Its imagery includes gesturing black rulers with their subjects in submissive poses—imagery common on European maps.[8]

The most famous African king in early modern Europe is probably Balthazar, one of the Three Kings or Magi associated with the story of Christ’s birth. The Three Kings traditionally represent rulers from Europe, Asia, and Africa, with Balthazar the African King. Early sixteenth century depictions of Balthazar depict him wearing little more than a covering for his groin, such as António de Holanda’s Adoration of the Magi from Dom Manuel’s Book of Hours (ca. 1538) or Geoffroy Tory’s Adoration of the Magi from Horae in laudem beatissime Virginis Marie (ca. 1527). However, other depictions tend to be far more in line with European concepts of royalty, such as Joos van Cleve’s Adoration of the Magi (ca. 1520) triptych, Maerten van Heemskerck’s Adoration of the Magi (1546-7), Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s Adoration of the Magi (1564), or Peter Paul Rubens’ Adoration of the Magi (1609). Traditionally, the Magi/Kings all kneel before the infant Christ, but Balthazar typically kneels least.

I point to Balthazar and the Three Kings because they were commonly imagined as being representative of three continents in the European imagination, and they were holy, yet human, monarchs. I argue that the allegorical associations for the earthly continents are important for considering the Clavis Inferni’s depictions of the Four Kings.

Let me lean again on Massing. The Caprarola estate of Alessandro Farnese (1520-89), grandson of Pope Paul III, includes a map room designed by Giovanni de’ Vecchi. The ceiling depicts

the celestial vault with, in the four corners, Farnese family emblems. Below the sky map, at the top of the walls, are painted twelve astromythological scenes, and below, seven large terrestrial maps with portrait busts of five famous explorers.

The chamber includes a world map including allegories for the four continents of America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. America has a “dusky complexion,” darker than Africa’s “tawny complexion…[which is] much lighter than America.” The depictions emphasize America’s exotic fauna where Africa’s “fertility of the land” is the focus. Massing goes on to note that

As Dea Patria, Africa had both public and private cults in the Roman world, especially in the second and third centuries A.D. Her main attribute, the elephant-head hat, may have been borrowed from the personification of the city of Alexandria, which adopted it in deference to its founder, Alexander the Great.

Such depictions—in Caprarola and elsewhere—often had the intention of bringing the world perhaps more than figuratively to your home, with images of scenes of distant lands—a kind of microcosm of the continents—providing audiences the opportunity to

gaze in these [images] at the universal form of the earth…adorned with the splendor of cities and fortresses and, by looking at the pictures and reading the texts accompanying them, to acquire knowledge which could scarcely be had but by long and difficult journeys.

Even as map rooms served “didactic” purposes, they also provided implicitly magical functions, framing,

in geographical and diagrammatic ways, the immensity and the variety of the world around the person of the ruler, stressing a globalism in which the individual parts and the rule of the princes were seen as immutable but also contained the potential for Christian expansion.

These rooms provided these princes (including church officials) a microcosmic chamber from which to orient themselves to their own axis mundi, gazing out at images of the world in order to lay claim to it represented in miniature. Atlases could serve similar roles, albeit without the “monumental or focused character” of these map rooms.[9]

Let me offer a series of examples of allegories of the continents, albeit not the best ones in my opinion. These four are from a series by Jean Jacques Francois Le Barbier (1786-91):

Now, let me ask you to (finally) take a look at the Clavis Inferni’s depictions of the Four Kings.

L0036624 Uricus and Paymon, from Cyprianus, 18th C

Urieus/Uricus and Paymon via Wellcome MS 2000 (Clavis Inferni)

L0036623 Maymon and Egyn, from Cyprianus, 18th C

Maymon and Egyn via Wellcome MS 2000 (Clavis Inferni)

I would hazard that, in part, the scribe and artist of the Clavis Inferni has fashioned four allegories of Hell, including landscape, allegorical monarchs and animals, and even potentially cartographically-inspired seals. (Urieus’s is much in keeping with compass roses from the period.) Just as Massing points to map rooms serving as something like scrying chambers onto the terrestrial world for its conquest and colonization, Clavis Inferni may very well be a similar tool for doing much the same to Hell and its rulers. The “evocative” quality of the grimoire’s art may indeed provide a magical image as accompaniment to the conjurations contained therein. In this sense, the grimoire’s racially (and religiously?) charged depictions of the Kings may emerge out of Europe’s colonial enterprise and imaginary.

Featured Image: first page of the Clavis Inferni (Wellcome MS 2000), via the Wellcome Library

[1] Stephen Skinner and David Rankine, translators and editors, The Grimoire of St. Cyprian: Clavis Inferni, 2nd edition (Singapore: Golden Hoard, 2017), 44. All page references to the grimoire use this edition.

[2] Kwesi Tsri, Africans Are Not Black: The Case for Conceptual Liberation (London: Routledge, 2016), 31.

[3] Herman L. Bennett, “‘Sons of Adam’: Text, Context, and the Early Modern African Subject,” Representations 92, no. 1 (Fall 2005): 16-7.

[4] Ibid, 19-27.

[5] Ibid, 20-9.

[6] Ibid, 32.

[7] Margaret F. Rosenthal and Ann Rosalind Jones, editors and translators, The Clothing of the Renaissance World: Europe, Asia, Africa, the Americas: Cesare Vecellio’s Habiti Antichi et Moderni (London: Thames and Hudson, 2008). For Uricus, see page 563. For Egyn, see pages 414, 416-7, 428-31, 490, 501, and 522.

[8] Jean Michel Massing, The Image of the Black in Western Art: From the ‘Age of Discovery’ to the Age of Abolition: Europe and the World Beyond, Vol. III, part 2, edited by David Bindman and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap-Cambridge UP, 2011), 64. I am very much indebted to this series of books, and my art references I mention in this section I generally found in this specific volume.

[9] Massing, 330-1.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s