The Testament of

by M.R. James

(from Ghosts & Scholars 28)
Reprinted from the Guardian Church Newspaper, March 15, 1899, p.367, by kind permission of N.J.R. James. The following is the complete text of the article, and not the slightly edited version which appeared in G&S.

Among many attractive features in the two anti-Jewish dialogues which Mr F.C. Conybeare has lately edited in the Anecdota Oxoniensia there is one that specially appeals to myself. It is in the Dialogue of Timothy and Aquila (p.70) - "Know thou, O Jew," says Timothy, who is speaking of Solomon's apostasy, "that he worshipped and sacrificed a locust to graven images:-

"The Jew said - He did not sacrifice it (esphadzen), but crushed it in his hand without meaning to do so. Yet this is not contained in the Book of Kings, but is written in his Testament.
"The Christian said - That is just what confirms it [I suggest isti to pistotoioun for isten pistopoion], that it was not made known by means of an historian, but is ascertained from the mouth of Solomon himself."

The interesting point is that here we have for the first and only time (so far as I know) a quotation from the Testament of Solomon. The book in which it occurs is a late composition with an early basis - which basis is very probably the lost Dialogue of Jason and Papiscus, as the editor shows at length. But I do not wish now to dwell upon the dialogue as a whole. I merely use it as a text for a disquisition upon the Testament of Solomon.

No one has ever paid very much attention to this futile, but exceedingly curious, work. There is but one form of the Greek text in print, and that is a very bad one. Ferdinand F. Fleck edited it in his Wissenschaftliche Reise (1837) from a late MS. at Paris; and it is also to be found - reprinted from Fleck - in Vol.CXXII of Migne's Greek Patrology, appended to the works of Michael Psellus. In two German periodicals (the Zeitschrift f. Histor. Theol., 1844, and Furst's Orient, v. and vii.) texts or translations of it have appeared; and in another (Biblische Studien, von Geistlichen d. Konigr. Sachsen, 1843 and 1846), which I have not seen, some of Fleck's grosser blunders in the Greek were corrected by Bornemann. That is all the literature that I have encountered on the subject, save that Gilbert Gaumyn quoted a few sentences from a Paris MS. in his notes on Michael Psellus Of the Operation of Demons. They are reproduced by Fabricius: Ducange had also seen a copy. Nor do I know of any MS. which contains the text, save three at Paris. One is the great magical volume, No. 2,419, of the fifteenth century. It was the one quoted by Gaumyn, but Fleck did not use it. The text is a different and possibly a better one. There is, further, No. 38, of the sixteenth century, which is Fleck's authority, and also No. 500 of the Supplement Gree, likewise of the sixteenth century, which contains either the Testament or a work of the same kind. There must, I suppose, be other copies of the book, but I do not happen to know of them. It would be no bad thing if some leisured person would be good enough to present us with a reasonable text of this Testament, for several columns of this journal might readily be filled with obvious corrections of what Fleck has printed. The editor, if one can be found, ought to make himself acquainted with the contents of the magical papyri and the various journals which deal with folk-lore. He will find that his task brings him into contact with a great deal of obscure but interesting literature. In the meantime it seems worth while to attempt some account of this strange book. It lies before us not only in a bad text, but in a late form. Yet it is impossible to doubt that a good deal of the matter is very old. And it is a writing which ought to be known, and is at present not at all known, to the students of comparative mythology.

In the first place, there is a good deal of it. It takes up just about twenty-one full columns in Migne's large octavo. A large proportion of this space is devoted to the very monotonous descriptions of the demons, whom Solomon summoned before him; so that the actual "plot" of the piece, so far as it has one, can perhaps be set forth within the compass of an article. In the second place, I would remark (as one often must when this literature is in question) that the book is without any doubt very foolish, and superstitious, and corrupt, and bad; but that, at the same time, it is extremely interesting and amusing, and sometimes picturesque. All sorts of perfectly reasonable strictures might be passed upon me for "wasting time" upon it. I will accept them in advance, and proceed to set forth what I have called the plot of the Testament.

Solomon, who speaks throughout in the first person, tells us that while the Temple was being built, the demon Ornias [footnote: Ornias, the demon, is named in a curious Latin document printed from a ninth-century MS. at St Gall: Anonymi Inventiones nominum in Miscellanea Cassinese, 1897, Patristias, p.11] came every evening to the son of the clerk of the works (protomagister, he is called) and took from him half his wages and half his rations, and sucked his right thumb (a trait which appears in quite late witch trials), so that the youth, of whom Solomon was fond, grew daily thinner. The King found out what was going on, and prayed for guidance and help, whereupon the archangel Michael brought him a ring engraved with the pentalpha ("Solomon's seal" we call it now), together with instructions for its use. It was given to the youth, and when Ornias next came, his victim pressed the signet on his breast and bade him come to Solomon. The demon came with cries and remonstrances, promising all the treasures of the earth to the boy if he would take the seal away, and stood before the palace gates, yelling and trembling. Solomon came forth and questioned him about his name and his habits, and thereafter sent him to fetch Beelzebub, the prince of the devils. So Ornias went and said to Beelzebub, "Come, Solomon calleth thee." And Beelzebub said, "Tell me, who is this Solomon of whom you speak." And Ornias cast the ring upon the breast of Beelzebub, saying, "Solomon the King calleth thee." And Beelzebub cried out with a loud voice, and cast forth a great flame of fire, and rose up and followed Ornias. And when they were come before Solomon, the king of the demons promised that he would bring any or all of his subjects into Solomon's presence, bound.

This is the introduction to a series of dialogues with demons, each of which is conceived in very much the same shape. A few questions are asked about the creature's habits, what class of man he specially infests, and to what constellation or angel he is subject; and then he is set to work at some menial business, or has to help in building the Temple. Fifty-six demons are thus dealt with beside Ornias and Beelzebub. Many of their answers to Solomon are in our present text quite unintelligible, but many of them afford us extremely curious pieces of information.

The first question which Solomon asked Beelzebub was the very natural one whether there were any female demons. And, by way of answer, one was brought before him, whom we recognise as the Greek Empusa, and have met in the Frogs of Aristophanes. She is here called Onoskelis; and it may be remembered that Empusa had the leg of an ass or mule. In the long account of herself which she gives to Solomon we see a good many traits which connect her with the Lilith of Jewish mythology. The end of it was that Solomon sent her to spin hemp for the Temple works.

Next entered Asmodeus. At first he was contumacious, and had to be beaten. He naturally dwelt at some length on the angel Raphael, and the "fishy fume" which has power to avert his attacks. The name of the fish in question is here given as glanos (silurus), not, as it probably ought to be, the crocodile. He also stated that the constellation of the Wain was his, which, I believe, is a statement not elsewhere found.

In the interval before the appearance of another spirit Solomon questioned Beelzebub on his position and functions, and learnt from him a receipt which will enable men to see the dragons which draw the sun's car in heaven. Jewish writings which mention the matter speak of angels as performing this function.

It is curious to find the Pleiades figuring as seven female demons, personifications of Discord, Deceit, Tumult, and the like. But it is quite certain that the Pleiades must be the speakers in the following sentence:-

"Our stars are in heaven, seven small ones all together, and we are called goddesses; we go through our changes together, and dwell together - sometimes in Lydia, sometimes on Olympus, and sometimes on the great mountain."

The sixth Pleiad, Deceit (Plane), is the patroness of treasure-seekers and burglars. The Pleiades having been turned on to dig the foundation of the Temple (at which they grumbled a good deal), a demon appeared in the form of a man without a head. A flame of fire proceeded out of his neck, which ultimately served (like a gas-jet) to light the workmen and builders of the Temple at night. This spirit was Envy, and, according to his account of himself, he is addicted to eating other people's heads in the hope of acquiring one of his own. He also causes deafness and dumbness; but the state of the Greek text at this point makes it very difficult to see how he does so.

After this there are visits from a dog, a lion, a dragon (who, like the dragons of northern mythology, has special knowledge of hidden treasure and directs Solomon how to find it); also from Hecate, or, at least, a three-headed female who has to do with the moon. And finally there enters a band of thirty-six spirits with heads like various animals, who explain that they are the thirty-six elements (stoikheia), the rulers of this darkness - hoi kosmokratores tou skotous toutou. Here is, of course, a Pauline expression; and, no doubt, the writer of our text was aware of that; for, though I have not hitherto mentioned the fact, there are plenty of Christian patches in the utterances of the demons - prophecies of the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and so forth. Still, though we cannot pretend to regard this book as a source whence Paul drew his angelology and demonology, we may very usefully cite illustrations from it of the ideas which the vulgar of his age and nation entertained. As soon as the thirty-six spirits have all explained what they do, and what angel's name they particularly fear, a short rest is allowed to us, but not to them - for they are compelled either to draw water for the Temple works, or else to take up their abode in some of those jars sealed with lead, of which the fisherman in the Arabian Nights was so fortunate as to find one.

The Temple is finished, and the Queen of Sheba has arrived to see Solomon, when the next interesting incident occurs. An old man, one of the King's labourers, came to complain of the constant ill treatment in the way of beatings, abuse, and beard-pullings that he received from his son. The son denied the accusation; the old man persisted in it. Solomon was just going to sentence the young man to some heavy punishment, when he happened to notice that the demon Ornias was laughing:-

"Accursed one," said Solomon, "why do you laugh at me?" "I ask your pardon," said Ornias, "I was not laughing at you, but at these foolish men. In three days that youth will be dead, and here is his old father trying to get him killed by you."

Eventually the King ordered the old man to go away, and bring his son again before him in three days. The demon was right: when the old man reappeared he came from the grave of his only son. This story forms the text of a conversation between Solomon and Ornias, in which the demon tells how he and his kind fly up into the firmament, and there listen to the sentences that go forth against the sons of men. But they cannot stop there long. They fall like lightning, and "when men see us they think that stars are falling from heaven." Apparently this is still true; at least I remember hearing a Greek in Cyprus say, when he saw a shooting star, "There is the devil running" - trekhei to daimon. This same story of the old man and his son appears among the fragments of the Syriac Obsequies of the Virgin (Wright: Contributions to the Apocryphal Literature of the New Testament, p.42). Its setting is gone; we cannot tell exactly how or why it was introduced in so odd a connection.

A longer story follows, of a demon which caused a wind fatal to life to blow in Arabia, how Solomon caught it in a skin bottle, and how while still in the bottle it carried up and set in its place the corner-stone which the builders had rejected because of its huge size and weight. This demon, whose name was Ephippas, then brought another mighty spirit, imprisoned in the Red Sea, and with him a mysterious column which is often mentioned in the Testament. This column the two demons were condemned to support in the air until the final judgment. There it may be seen to this day hanging obliquely in the air. Clearly some constellation is meant - perhaps the Milky Way.

The book ends with the falling away of Solomon. He had taken to himself wives without number; and he went one day to a person described as "the Jebusite," and fell in love with his daughter, who is called the Shulamite (Soumanitis). The priests of Moloch, however, said:-

"Thou canst not have her to wife except thou worship the great gods Remphan and Moloch."

He refused; but at last they brought him five locusts, and said:-

"'Crush these upon the altar of Moloch, and it will suffice.' And so I did, and immediately the Spirit of God departed from me, ...and I became a laughing-stock unto the idols and to the demons. Therefore have I written this my Testament that ye which come on it may pray and take heed to your latter end and not to your beginning, that ye may find grace perfectly for ever."

The last incident is, it will be seen, the one referred to in the passage which heads this article. The writer of that passage, who may be either using a document of the second century (the dialogue of Jason and Papiscus), or amplifying it several centuries later, does not help us towards dating the Testament of Solomon. Probably Mr Conybeare is right in the main when he says that the Testament is an originally Jewish work interpolated (I would say re-edited) by a Christian. Such books are nowadays generally allowed to be worthy of our attention; but this one still cries in vain for an editor. Will not that leisured person to whom I have already appealed turn a favourable eye upon it, ascertain the whereabouts of the other MSS. that must exist, and present us with an improved text, and a full commentary, drawn from the Greek magical papyri and from the fairy and demon stories of East and West?

Copyright © 1899 N.J.R. James

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