As millions of readers know, the first book in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series turns on a search for the fabled Philosopher’s Stone. This artifact grants immortality and was created by the alchemist Nicholas Flamel, an old associate of Harry’s wizarding school headmaster, Albus Dumbledore. But unlike Harry, Dumbledore, and the other characters in the novel, Flamel is a real-life figure. He was a fourteenth-century Parisian scribe long associated with kabbalistic secrets and esoteric knowledge—in short, the stuff of the occult.
By occult I refer primarily to a phase of Western esotericism that developed in the nineteenth century. This modern occult drew on or reimagined older traditions of esotericism, such as Renaissance alchemy, hermeticism, and astrology, but also reflected new scientific and archeological developments, a modern fascination with secret societies, and might include such trends as Spiritualism, Theosophy, parapsychology, and neo-Paganism.
In his magisterial 2012 study Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture, Wouter J. Hanegraaff emphasizes that the term has a history with a set of value judgements attached. Along with terms such as “superstition” and “magic,” the meaning of “occult,” which has a much older connection with Western esotericism, was “essentially reinvented during the period of the Enlightenment,” coming to indicate what Hanegraaff calls “the Other of science and rationality.” As a category, the occult was used by scholars to dismiss certain ideas and subjects as not worth serious attention, and certainly not as “real” in a scientific sense.
Most relevant to my discussion, Hanegraaff also observes that this modern construction of the occult was partly carried out in supernatural fiction:
Popular nineteenth-century images of “the occult” – and even, eventually, new forms of occultist practice – have been influenced to a remarkable extent by literary fiction for the general public. Throughout the “age of reason,” as in our own days, there was a flourishing market for pulp fiction and initiatic novels capitalizing on the theme of mysterious secret societies, kabbalists, Templar knights, dark magicians, and alchemical adepts.
Indeed, the massive success of the Harry Potter franchise is a sign of the return of the occult to popular fantasy. Not in the sense meant by those parents worried that the books might introduce their offspring to witchcraft and devil-worship. Rowling’s agenda is hardly satanic, unless a contemporary liberalism, occasionally gesturing toward a vaguely Christian moral framework, is satanic. It is for the most part the trappings of the occult rather than its content that she offers.
But the trappings are important. In the Potterverse, magic is presented as a learned discipline. It involves Latin formulae, dusty tomes, and references to medieval alchemists. This is a shift from the model of fantasy shaped by J. R. R. Tolkien and his use of Celtic, British and Norse mythologies, dominant in much of twentieth-century fantasy literature, and that helped to displace occult fiction from fantasy for much of that period.
The occult brings with it a history of representations of Jews, one example being the sources for Rowling’s Flamel. Records indicate Flamel was a notary living in fourteenth-century Paris, who evidently came into money when he married a well-off widow named Perrenelle. Some scholars have speculated that the couple may have made money benefiting from the expulsions of Jews from France during that period.
Nicolas and Perrenelle commissioned a sculptural frieze, since demolished, at the Holy Innocents Cemetery in Paris. The frieze’s imagery is the subject of a seventeenth-century text attributed to Flamel, and which is the main source of the legend on which Rowling draws: that Flamel was an alchemist who discovered how to create gold, and that he and his wife became immortal. In the first Harry Potter book, Flamel is 665 years old and lives with his wife in Devon.
The most intriguing part of the seventeenth-century text is the portion in which the author (scholars are doubtful it was the historical Flamel) claims to have derived his alchemical secrets from another, earlier book. This other book, he writes, may have (in the words of the 1624 English translation of the French original) “beene stolne or taken from the miserable Jewes; or found hid in some part of the ancient place of their abode.” It was “a guilded Booke, very old and large.” It contained a series of images with text written in a mysterious language which our pseudo-Flamel says he was unable to read, though, he says, “they might well be Greeke Characters, or some such like ancient language.” The author’s name, written in gold on the frontspiece, was one “ABRAHAM THE JEW, PRINCE, PRIEST, LEVITE, ASTROLOGER, AND PHILOSOPHER.”
Flamel then tells us of his determination to unlock the secrets of the book of Abraham the Jew. He says: “no man could ever have beene able to understand it, without being well skilled in their Cabala.” He therefore makes a pilgrimage to Spain in order to find “some Jewish Priest” who would interpret its “hyeroglyphicall figures.” He manages to find a Jewish convert to Christianity, a merchant “who was very skillful in Sublime Sciences,” and who explained the meaning of the images before dying of illness. Flamel returns to his wife and they begin to apply the alchemical procedures depicted in the allegories.
The book of Abraham the Jew, if it existed, was not a Jewish work. For one thing, the content Flamel describes is christological, with a New Testament focus. If that is not enough to raise doubts about its provenance, the author referring to himself as “Abraham the Jew” is a bit of a giveaway that a Jew did not write it. Yet references to Jewish mysteries and kabbalistic secrets were common in esoteric writing in the early modern period—and since.
Not only did the legend of Flamel inspire a flurry of other alchemical works attributed to him, but the seventeenth century also gave rise to manuscripts purporting to be the book of Abraham the Jew. This grimoire, sometimes titled after an Egyptian mage named Abramelin whom the book describes as passing on his magical secrets to Abraham, includes an intriguing account of its author’s travels throughout Europe and the Near East in search of magical instruction. The book contains patterns of Latin letters arranged in squares with instructions on how to use them for divination, reviving the dead, flying, and other purposes.
It is, however, no more Jewish than the description in the Flamel chronicle. Its roster of supernatural entities bears clumsily faux-Hebraic names (e.g., Necramay, Gerevil, Lagasuf), and the author Abraham dedicates the book to his son, Lamech. Although Lamech is a character from the Old Testament and may have sounded “Jewish” to Christian ears, it has never been a normal Jewish name choice, and is even an insult in its Yiddish form, equivalent to “loser.”
Nevertheless, the Abramelin book was taken very seriously by modern occultists such as Aleister Crowley and S. L. MacGregor Mathers. Mathers, crediting the author’s claim to have used his powers to benefit emperors, popes, and kings, informs us that Abraham the Jew possessed great “political influence” and was “a dim and shadowy figure behind the tremendous complication of central European upheaval.” Crowley used the book in his drug-fueled rituals. Even today, New Age afficionados of the occult take the work for authentic Jewish magic.
Naturally, Rowling leaves this background out. Indeed, while the fantasy genre has, since the 1990s, incorporated more and more themes drawn from the modern occult and pre-modern esotericism, the trope of the Occult Jew—the sorcerer whose magical prowess and Jewishness are linked—remains rare. Nevertheless, in the posts that follow I will attempt to trace the history of the Occult Jew to see where and how the trope appears in modern fantasy fiction, and consider the broader relationship between the fantasy genre and the occult as well.
Abraham von Worms. The Book of Abramelin: A New Translation. Ed. and intro. Georg Dehn. Trans. Steven Guth. 2nd ed. Lake Worth, FL: Ibis Press, 2015.
Faivre, Antoine. Western Esotericism: A Concise History. Trans. Christine Rhone. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2010.
Flamel, Nicholas. His Exposition of the Hieroglyphicall Figures (1624). Ed. and intro. Laurinda Dixon. e-book, Routledge, 2018. First publ. Garlard, 1994.
Hanegraaff, Wouter J. Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture. Cambridge University Press, 2012.
Mathers, S. L. MacGregor, ed. and trans. The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage. Garden City, NY: Dover, 1975.
Owen, Alex. The Place of Enchantment: British Occultists and the Culture of the Modern. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2004.
Scholem, Gershom. Alchemy and Kabbalah. Trans. Klaus Ottmann. e-book, Spring Publications, 2015.
 See Owen 2004. Following Faivre 2010, I will in some cases use the term occult to indicate the earlier traditions that flowered most fully and with greatest scholarly and scientific reputation in Europe prior to the Enlightenment.
 Hanegraaff 2012, 157.
 Op. cit., 222.
 My account of the Flamel legend and its history is mostly taken from Laurinda Dixon’s introduction to the 1624 English translation of Flamel’s Le livre des figures hieroglyphiques in Flamel 2018, with additional reference to the discussions in Scholem 2015.
 Flamel 2018, 7-8.
 Op. cit, 8, 11, 12.
 The choice of the name Lamech may be connected with the fact that, by the eighteenth century, two of the biblical Lamech’s sons, Jabal and Tubal-Cain, were associated with alchemy and freemasonry. See Hanegraaff 2012, 209-210.
 Mathers 1975, xx. For Crowley’s use of the Abraham book see Owen 2004, chapter 6. For an example of how the book is still taken to be an authentic Jewish source, see the 2015 volume attributed to Abraham von Worms and its highly imaginative editor’s apparatus.
2 thoughts on “The Occult Jew, pt. 1”
Now I’m wondering if I’m wrong about the extent to which the name “Abraham the Jew” is evidence of a fake. I just thought of Judah Abravanel, who was also known to his readers as Leone Ebreo (Leo the Hebrew). But did Abravanel himself use this name? I’ll have to ask some early modern specialists about this.
I am told by an expert in the subject that Abravanel never referred to himself as “Ebreo.” So my point stands.